We have all been taken in by relying on
the experts, and experienced the frustration of failing to adequately
record the source of a particular statement so its validity can be weighed
against conflicting information. It is a given that most of us did not
witness the historical events we write about [except perhaps psychic Edgar
Cayce or actress Shirley MacLaine], so we have to rely on published
When it comes to writing about Canadian history, no one can escape W.
S. Wallace but, being human, even this respected historian made mistakes.
Whether they were his mistakes or originated with previous writers is less
important than ensuring that they are not repeated.
A case in point relates to Donald McKay, father-in-law of fur trader
Simon Fraser of St. Ann’s (c1760-1839). Quebec researcher, Paul Lessard,
in referring to the biographies of Catherine’s brothers, Alexander and
William McKay, questioned the statement by W.S. Wallace, that the father
was a non-commissioned officer in Fraser’s Highlanders, based on Patrick
Campbell’s "Travels," published in Edinburgh in 1793. Paul pointed out
that the list of the 78th Regiment in 1763 included only one
Sgt. Alexander McKay, and two privates named Donald McKay. [W.S. Wallace,
Canadian Historical Review, 1937, vol. 18, p. 133; W.S. Wallace,
Dictionary of Canadian Biography, (Toronto: Macmillan, 1945), vol. 1,
p. 217; vol. 2, p. 406].
The marriage record in Montreal Christ Anglican states that Simon
Fraser, merchant, single man and Catherine Mackay, single woman, both
Majors [21 or over] and both of the City of Montreal, were married by
licence on the eighteenth day of February one thousand eight hundred and
four - by me - J. Mountain. Consenting parties: Simon Fraser & Catherine
M’Kay. Witnesses: Simon M’Tavish, Jo. Frobisher, Alexr. M’Leod [all
Professor Harry Duckworth was interested in the details of the 1804
marriage because Simon McTavish died in early July, after an illness that
was supposed to have started as a cold, when he was supervising the
building of his house on Mount Royal in the early spring. "It’s nice to
see him hale and hearty on February 18, and standing up for the bride and
groom in company with his old fur trade partner, Joseph Frobisher, and one
of the early NWC wintering partners, Alexander McLeod."
He noted "Patrick Campbell had visited ‘one Mackay’ in 1791, between
Trois Rivieres and Montreal - I think probably at or near Berthier.
Campbell states that he believed this man had been a soldier in Fraser’s
Highlanders. He had three sons in the fur trade [H.H. Langton (ed.),
Travels in the Interior Inhabited Parts of North America in the Years 1791
and 1792, by P. Campbell (Toronto, The Champlain Society, 1937), pp.
116-17]. I’ve learned quite a bit about these three sons, who were named
Donald, Neil and Angus; the father’s name, I’m pretty sure, was Alexander
Harry confirmed that Wallace’s biographical note on Donald McKay,
father of William and Alexander, confuses him with another Donald McKay,
known as "Mad Mackay", who traded on his own account in the NW, and then
for the Hudson’s Bay Company, returned to Scotland, and emigrated to Nova
Scotia in the 1820s, in his 70s. Harry wrote an article for The Beaver
about the latter, who is not connected with the other Canadian McKays.
Quoting Robert S. Allen’s biography of William McKay [Dictionary of
Canadian Biography, vol. 6, p. 464]: "his father fought as a
non-commissioned officer at Quebec in 1759 and received a land grant in
the Mohawk valley after the Seven Years’ War. He and his family were
United Empire Loyalists and eventually settled in the area that became
Glengarry County, Upper Canada". Harry notes the lack of specific sources
for DCB articles, but believes that the DCB Editorial Office has all the
details - "though I suspect that these statements came from the William
McKay papers at the McCord Museum."
The number of times a story gets repeated is no guarantee that it is
beyond further investigation, if the original source is wrong, as
evidenced by the following example.
From The British Invasion from the North. The Campaigns of General
Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, 1776-1777, with the Journal of Lieut.
William Digby, of the 53rd, or Shropshire Regiment of Foot,
illustrated with historical notes, by James Phinney Baxter [Albany, NY
Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887, pp.235-7]
The story of Jane McCrea has been often related, sometimes in most
exaggerated forms ; even her life has been elaborately written. The
generally accepted version is that David Jones, a Tory officer in
Burgoyne’s army, sent two Indians, one of whom was called Wyandot Panther,
to conduct her to the British camp, where she was to be married, and that
on the way hither, the Indians disagreeing with respect to a division of
the "barrel of rum" to be paid them for their services, Wyandot Panther
killed her with a tomahawk.
This version is supported by Wilson in his life of Miss McCrea, whom he
says was killed by le Loup, as well as by Neilson, who relates that the
Indians exhibited their scalps at a house which they called at, and said
that they "had killed Jenny." They had with them Mrs. McNeil – who, it
seems, was a cousin of General Fraser – in a state of nudity, and so
delivered her to the general, greatly to his embarrassment as well as that
of Mrs. McNeil, as his wardrobe was not provided with any thing suitable
for a lady to wear. Neilson, commenting upon their treatment of Mrs.
McNeil, says: "The inducement to strip and plunder Mrs. McNeil was
sufficient to account for the butchery of Miss McCrea." And so it probably
was, for the Indians were not particular whom they murdered, and killed
Tories as well as Americans ; indeed, the Tories of Argyle flocked to
Burgoyne for protection against his savage allies.
But we have proof that after all, in this case the Indians were
innocent of murder, and that Miss McCrea was killed unintentionally by the
Americans. Let us examine this evidence. Miss McCrea had been invited by
David Jones to visit the British camp and accompany the several ladies
there in an excursion on Lake George. He was troubled about her exposure
to danger from the Indians, and intended to press her to marry him at
once, that he might be better able to afford her protection. Mrs. McNeil
and she were just about to embark under the charge of Lieutenant Palmer
and a few soldiers, when, knowing that the Americans were in the vicinity,
the lieutenant and his men left them for a few minutes to reconnoiter.
While the British soldiers were absent, some of their Indian allies
came up and seized Mrs. McNeil and Miss McCrea, and placing the latter
upon a horse, hurried away, pursued by a party of Americans, who were
close at hand. The Americans fired upon the flying Indians, one of whom,
Wyandot Panther, was leading the horse upon which Miss McCrea sat. Mrs.
McNeil became separated from Miss McCrea, and did not witness her death,
but said afterward that the Americans fired so high as not to injure the
Indians, who were on foot. Wyandot Panther, when examined by Burgoyne,
affirmed that Miss McCrea was killed by the Americans, who were pursuing
him ; and General Fraser, at a post-mortem investigation, gave it as his
opinion that she was thus killed by the Americans "aiming too high, when
the mark was on elevated ground, as had occurred at Bunker’s (Breed’s)
But, in addition to this, we now have more positive proof in the
testimony of General Morgan Lewis, to the effect that she had three
distinct gunshot wounds upon her body, and from the additional fact that
when her body was removed, a few years ago, to a new burial place, no mark
of a tomahawk or injury of any kind was upon the skull. We may, therefore,
look upon the familiar picture of the two savages holding an
unattractive-looking female, who does not appear at all disturbed at the
sight of the tomahawk about to descend upon her head, as fictitious.
[The Life of Jane McCrea (Wilson), New York, 1853 ; Burgoyne’s Campaign
and St. Leger’s Expedition, pp. 302-313; Neilson’s Account of Burgoyne’s
Campaign, pp. 68-79; Burgoyne’s Orderly Book, pp. 187, 189; Pictorial
Field-Book of the Revolution (Lossing), vol. I, pp. 48, 96, 99, et
passim; Memoirs of My Own Times, vol. I, p. 230, et seq.;
Travels in the Interior Parts of America, vol. I, pp. 369-372; Journal of
Occurrences During the Late American War, pp. 155-157.]
Mrs. Sarah McNeil has been variously identified as a kinswoman, cousin
and aunt of Brigadier General Simon Fraser. One biographical account
[Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, p. 319] states: Sarah Fraser was a daughter of
Simon Fraser, of Balrain, Inverness-shire. Her father’s brother, Alexander
Fraser, was the father of General Simon Fraser, who was killed in the
battle of Saratoga in 1777. [Ed: There is no evidence to support
the statement that Alexander Fraser 2nd of Balnain had a
brother Simon.] Nevertheless, the biography goes on to state that this
Sarah Fraser married Alexander Campbell and settled in Argyll, and their
daughter Katherine married Robert Hunter, who died shortly after the birth
of a daughter named Polly. The Campbells, with their widowed daughter
Katherine and granddaughter Polly decided to emigrate to America, but
during the passage to America Mr. Campbell died, and a year later so did
Mrs. Hunter. After a time Mrs. Campbell married a Mr. McNeil and moved to
Queensbury, where Mr. McNeil died. Mrs. McNeil and her granddaughter Polly
Hunter were living in comfort at Fort Edward, and Jane McCrea was
visiting, when they learned of the approach of General Burgoyne’s army and
were advised to go to Albany.
During a recent exchange of emails regarding the Journals of Jeffery
Amherst (1717-97), who was commander-in-chief of America during the Seven
Years War (1757-63), I had inadvertently attached the story of Jane McCrea
to some biographical notes on the principal military figures of the
eighteenth century in North America. Imagine my surprise when I received
the following response:
Thank you for the material you sent… The note about Jane McCrea has a
connection to us. From 1982 to 1986, my wife and I lived in the west wing
of Homewood, the home built by Solomon Jones in 1799-1800 near Maitland,
between Brockville and Prescott. Jane McCrea’s fiance, David Jones, was
Solomon Jones’ brother. David Jones is buried in the churchyard of the
Blue Church. Small world.