On July 27, 1777, Jane McCrea, a young white woman on the cusp of marriage, was murdered and scalped in Washington County, New York, while traveling to meet her fiancé, a soldier who sided with the British army during the Revolutionary War.
Historical accounts of the incident differ, with some claiming a stray militiaman’s bullet killed McCrea and Native Americans scalped her posthumously. Other accounts put all the blame on Native soldiers fighting alongside the British.
“To the historian, the ‘Story of Jane McCrea’ is at once the most alluring and most provoking of all the episodes connected with the Revolutionary War, fact and fancy being so inextricably interwoven,” James Austin Holding wrote in a 1913 article published by the New York State Historical Association. “No two authorities agree upon the important points, or upon all the facts.”
But in this case, historical accuracy takes a back seat to fable—and to artistic interpretation. The life, death and legacy of Jane McCrea quickly became the stuff of legends, altering the course of the Revolutionary War and forever changing America’s view of Natives.
Her story was retold—and embellished—in poems, paintings and novels, inspiring narratives that are, even today, the bedrock of colonial fiction. With each new interpretation, the story grew more elaborate.
McCrea’s beauty was exaggerated, her suffering intensified, her status elevated to tragic heroine. Her doomed wedding became a tale of star-crossed lovers on competing sides of a brutal war; their fate became a symbol not only of American suffering under British control, but also of the clash between white settlers and Natives—and in many ways solidifying Natives’ role as “evil” or “cruel” in the story of America.
The incident aroused “widespread interest” and “deep emotions,” Samuel Edgerton Jr., wrote in a 1965 article published in The Art Bulletin. “The story of Jane McCrea stirred not only American hearts but French and even British as well in poetry and purple prose, painting, engraving and lithography for a century after the war and longer.”
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, McCrea was born in New Jersey but later moved to New York to live near her brothers along the Hudson River. She came from a family of patriots who sided with the colonies during the Revolutionary War, but was engaged to David Jones, a loyalist fighting under British Gen. John Burgoyne.
During the summer of 1777, Burgoyne dispatched forces from Canada while at the same time sending troops—fortified with various Native allies, including Huron and Wyandotte warriors—across the state from the west. The two armies were supposed to meet near the Hudson River, isolating New York State from New England, cutting off supplies and defeating rebel forces.
In the middle of this military campaign, McCrea and Jones decided to rendezvous and marry. The young lovers planned to meet at the British-occupied Fort Edward, but the wedding never occurred.
“Legend has it that Jane received a note from her fiancé,” said Paul McCarty, town historian for Fort Edward, New York. “What’s suggested is that a group of Natives were hired to bring Jane into the Burgoyne camp, but two groups of Natives argued about who would escort her.”
McCrea was killed before she arrived at the fort, McCarty said. Early accounts of the incident claim the Natives quarreled over her—and maybe a monetary reward for delivering her from a nearby friend’s home to the military camp—and one warrior killed her and took her scalp.
McCarty believes McCrea’s death was an accident. The woman was killed by a stray bullet and her scalp was taken posthumously, he said.
“For most of the 19th and early part of the 20th century, the blame was squarely laid on Natives,” he said. “Who killed Jane McCrea? We don’t really know, but at the time it was known—or maybe just felt—that the Natives were responsible for the whole deal. In fact, they weren’t. If they took the scalp for trade, it came after Jane McCrea’s death.”
News of the murder spread quickly, with details embellished at each retelling. As McCrea grew increasingly beautiful and vulnerable, Native soldiers grew more savage and cruel; in some versions of the story, the Natives raped McCrea before killing her.
In the Annual Register for 1777, the editor wrote of the “outrages of the savages, who, notwithstanding the regulations and endeavors of General Burgoyne, were too prone to the exercise of their usual cruelties” to be restrained. “The friends of the royal cause, as well as its enemies, were equally victims to their indiscriminate rage,” the register states. “Among other instances of this nature, the murder of Miss McCrea … struck every breast with horror.”
McCrea’s death is believed to have changed the course of the Revolution. After the murder, local settlers took up arms against the British in October 1777 and helped defeat Burgoyne in Saratoga. Meanwhile, patriots used the inflated story as propaganda to recruit soldiers and rally forces against the British.
Starting the year after McCrea’s death, exaggerated versions of the murder—captured in poetry, folk songs, pantomimes and paintings—continued to influence America’s view of Natives. In 1804, American neoclassical artist John Vanderlyn painted The Death of Jane McCrea, a portrait of a young white woman struggling against two bloodthirsty and half-naked Native men. The work, which solidified Vanderlyn’s career, became the iconic illustration of both McCrea’s death and the American “captivity narrative,” a literary genre based on stories of white colonists captured by Native Americans.
Vanderlyn’s painted figures are modeled after Greek sculptures, with the Native warriors lean and heavily muscled, but undeniably evil, said David Lubin, professor of art at Wake Forest University. McCrea, by contrast, is innocent, vulnerable and bathed in light—a figure fashioned after the Madonna, her bosom spilling from her bodice.
“If you look at the painting, you see that Vanderlyn is showing Indians as monsters raping and assaulting a white woman,” Lubin said. “It’s used as propaganda against Indians, but he’s also telling an American story.”
The same “demonic, nefarious” Indians—often based on the story of Jane McCrea—appeared widely in other American art forms, including sculpture and literature, Lubin said. Perhaps the most infamous example is James Fenimore Cooper’s historical novel The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826 and made into films at least three times, with the most recent in 1992.
Cooper and others borrowed from McCrea’s story to craft tales about “good Indians and bad Indians and the captivity of innocent white women,” Lubin said. “These stories are based on the Jane McCrea legend, the stories of the noble savages and the ignoble savages. This story is embedded in the American world.”
In each of these portrayals, the Natives, or “truly savage savages” are “emerging from the darkness, from the shadows, like monsters out of their lair,” Lubin said. “The white woman appears in the light, which is symbolic of God, civilization or enlightenment. She is the white consciousness beset by beastly figures.”