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Reliability of Published Resources

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 sources.

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 signed].

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 Mackay."

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) hill."

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:

Dear Marie,

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.

Marie Fraser, Clan Fraser Society of Canada


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