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The Cresaps of Maryland
This is the last in a series on unsung American frontier heroes. The series, which spans 13 years in this magazine, is the heavily researched work of Lt. Col. Goodwin, past president of the NMLRA.
Back 50 years ago I started my research on the Hawken family, which led to the determination that the father of Jack and Sam Hawken, of early St. Louis riflemaking fame, was Golden Age riflemaker Christian Hawken of Hagerstown, Maryland. While doing this research I encountered several early American frontiersmen whose contributions to the settling of America were as important as those of Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, Jim Baker, and Kit Carson, but are unheralded today. As a result of this, in July 1983 I started a series of articles on several of them in Muzzle Blasts. Titled "Frontiersman Odyssey," the series covered the lives of Jim Baker, James Clyman, Uncle Dick Wootton, and Tom Toben. This last one in the series brings us back East to a frontiersmen and his sons the Cresaps of Maryland.
It can truly be said without exaggeration that the Cresaps played an important part in preparing the way for opening the western frontier of early America. Many of the histories of these early frontiersmen have passed out of print, and are not readily available to those who are not intimately knowledgeable on the subject. Such is the case of the Cresaps of Maryland, whose vital records are almost forgotten today.
The Cresap family began in America with Thomas Cresap, who was born at Skipton in Yorkshire, England, and came to the Provence of Maryland about 1715. Thomas Cresap was one of the earliest settlers in western Maryland. Little is known of his early life in Maryland until 1732, when he made a deposition wherein he describes himself as about 30 years of age. There is no other authority known for showing he was 15 years of age at the time of immigration, and little is known about his life until his first marriage about 10 years later to a Miss Johnson who lived in Baltimore County near the location of the Town of Havre de Grace, Maryland.
Shortly after his marriage to Miss Johnson, Thomas became very bad off financially, and to avoid judgment he fled to Virginia. There he rented a farm from a member of the Washington family and was so encouraged by his prospects that he decided to move his entire family to Virginia. However, his wife was with child at the time and would not make the move, so he returned to remain in Maryland.
In 1739 Cresap, who with the secret help of the Maryland government under the condition that he hold it for his Lordship against all comers, and especially against the Pennites, purchased a tract of land called Pleasant Acres in the disputed area on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. This tract was located on the west side of the Susquehanna River near Wrightsville and Columbia, Pennsylvania. It is a matter of record that very soon after Cresap had settled on the most northerly tract under a Maryland patent, he received from Annapolis a commission to act as justice of the peace and captain of the militia. Thus Cresap became a secret agent of the Provence of Maryland.
Despite his dangerous position, Cresap himself was not precisely an angel of peace. It has been said that his hand was fashioned for the cudgel rather than the olive branch. What has since been called the "Conojacular War" revolved about Cresap, who decided nothing more than to secure and hold a bit of land for himself and his family. However, he took an active and dangerous part in defense of Lord Baltimore’s claims on the disputed property.
The Pennites resorted to the most base means to remove Cresap by hiring an Indian to assassinate him; however, the Indian became so impressed by Cresap that he disclosed the plot. Several armed attempts by the Pennites were also made to get rid of Cresap, but all save the last attempt were unsuccessful. The last attempt was a large armed force that attacked Cresap's residence at night and set it on fire. This forced him to surrender and save his wife and family.
He was taken to Philadelphia in chains and was paraded through the streets on a wagon before the assembled citizens. When Cresap was asked by an onlooker how he liked Philadelphia, he stood up and loudly proclaimed, "This is the finest city in the Provence of Maryland." As a result, "the Monster of Maryland," or "Old Devil of Maryland," as the Pennites called him, was jailed and threatened several times with hanging.
After a year's confinement Cresap was released by the King's order. He returned to Maryland where he picked up his family, who had been befriended by Cresap's Indian comrades. Then Cresap moved just northeast of Hagerstown, Maryland, which was on the western frontier and was subject to many Indian attacks. He obtained a loan and purchased a tract of land known as "Long Meadows," where he built a stone house over a spring. It not only served as a residence and trading post, but also as a fort for defense against the many bands of Indians who used the valley as a north-south highway. Here, Cresap went into the fur trading business.
He did quite well as a fur trader in collecting furs, and sent his first large shipment to England. At that time, England was at war with France. The ship that carried his furs was captured by the French and Cresap lost all.
For the third time he found himself insolvent and had to turn his Long Meadow property back to the person who loaned him the money originally. He gathered his stock and implements, loaded his family in a wagon, and for the third and last time he headed toward western Maryland. (Incidentally, for years the foundation of his Long Meadow house remained the same, but now the stones have been used as a foundation for a large barn that still exists.)
The Cresaps "disappeared" from record for a couple of years, but apparently during that time they settled at a place called Shawanese Oldtown, an abandoned Indian village on the Potomac River in Allegheny County, Maryland, some 15 miles southeast of Cumberland, Maryland. Shawanese Oldtown was at that time the farthest west of any Maryland settlement. Cresap renamed the place Skipton after his birthplace in England. Here he built a strongly stockaded house wherein he resided the rest of his life. By trading, raising cattle, and farming, Cresap acquired a large land estate, and for the first time became quite prosperous and held on to it.
During his life, Cresap was the chief personage on the western border of Maryland from 1740 until the final capture of Fort Duquesne in 1758 by General Forbes, two years after Braddock's defeat. Cresap was a colonel in the militia from 1730 to 1777, and he retained the title of colonel for the rest of his life. His eminence in the many perplexing affairs of the border can be attributed to his aggressiveness of spirit and efficiency of mind and body. The references regarding his activities are too many to discuss here, but it is well to say that in no way could he be frightened away from his western stronghold by the hostility of the Indians nor by the mandates and threats of the French, who were claiming the western Maryland territory.
Cresap's Fort was on north-south and east-west Indian trails, and it became a stopover for both Indians and surveyors who used this route. Cresap and a Delaware Indian named Nemocolin, who lived within the Cresap Fort, blazed a trail called the Nemocolin Trail that during the French and Indian War was the road Braddock's forces followed and improved on their way to Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh). Cresap's Fort was often a stopping place for young George Washington and his surveying partners. Cresap's house, with its rude comforts, was a welcome rest for both Indians and the travelers headed west.
Cresap became a good friend to the Indians. If they came in small groups, Indians could count on receiving food from the great kettle of the hospitable frontiersman, and on this account they designated his place as the "Big Spoon." In a few instances of friction with the Indians, Governor Sharpe of Maryland sent Colonel Cresap to the Indians as his personal representative, saying that he knew his ambassador would be welcomed because of his known friendship with their nation.
In 1747 as a boy of 15, George Washington made his first journey into Cresap's country to survey Lord Fairfax's western lands. Washington kept a detailed journal of this trip, from which one can get a true picture of the journey and the time. Like many travelers, Washington spent some time (five days) at Cresap's abode.
In 1749 the British government sent a group of men called the Ohio Company to explore and settle a portion of that vast territory known as the Ohio Country. Cresap became a member. The company was given a grant of 200,000 acres that were to be settled immediately. A storehouse, which later became Fort Cumberland, was built and Cresap was ordered to mark and clear a road from this point to a fort called Redstone Oldfort, which was constructed in 1752. This road became the point of a wedge that entered the wilderness and opened it to the rush of immigrants that eventually occurred in the years following the Revolution.
The achievement of Cresap’s life that is mostly remembered by historians is the opening of a road 60 miles in length from the mouth of Wills Creek across the Laurel Mountains to the junction of Redstone Creek with the Monongahela, which became the major passage between the Potomac and the Ohio. To Thomas Cresap and his friend Nemocolin falls the honor of having first blazed this trail and having removed some of its most difficult obstructions. Nemocolin was in charge of the physical labor in the construction of this road, and Cresap acted as surveyor and overseer. This was in 1749.
In that same year, the French prepared to take possession of the empire that lay between their two possessions on the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of Mexico. They claimed as their right of exploration all the country drained by the Mississippi or its tributaries, which led them to claim as far east as the summit of the Allegheny Mountains. The French claim included the territory the English proposed to fill with their settlers. This led to the start of the French and Indian War, and in turn to the appointment of Governor Sharpe of Maryland as commander of all American forces.
Governor Sharpe started immediately to plan a campaign against Fort Duquesne, which the French had captured the previous spring from the British Ohio Company. Unfortunately, the colonies were slow in providing men and money necessary for the success of the expedition. He therefore had to hold up until arrival of anticipated help from England. He realized the value of Cresap's experience and hired him as a commissary agent and scout. With the arrival of General Braddock and his forces, Cresap became very busy in his capacity as commissary agent. The Braddock forces arrived at Cresap's Fort after following the road along the Potomac from Virginia. From there Braddock followed the Nemocolin Trail, which Washington had spent some time and effort improving before Braddock arrived.
The defeat of General Braddock threw the whole frontier into a state of alarm, which did not subside even with the recapture of Fort Duquesne three years later by the English and colonial force headed by General Forbes. Cresap's Fort became, for some time, a haven of safety for those exposed to the French forces; but the fort was too exposed to attack by the French, so Cresap made a contested retreat to Conococheague Creek, now called Williamsport, Maryland. From there he formed a defense force consisting of him, his sons, and some neighbors. They operated for two or three years against the bands of Indians who made frequent raids into the heart of Maryland.
In one of these encounters between Cresap's company and the Indians, his son Thomas was killed. Later on, a black man in his company met a similar fate near one of the highest mountains in the area, which is still known today as Negro Mountain. (See the article and drawing by Lee Teter in Muzzle Blasts, September 1995, p. 80.) This name had of late been contested until the contestants found out that it was named by Colonel Cresap in honor of an heroic man who lost his life fighting for America.
When Colonel Cresap was 70 years old he made a trip to England and was commissioned by Lord Baltimore to run the western line of Maryland to determine which branch was the Potomac River, and which branch was the headwater. When he returned he surveyed and mapped the area involved. His map was the first one ever made that located the north and south branches of the Potomac River. When he was 80 years old he married his second wife and when he was 100 years old he made a trip to New York and from there went by water to Nova Scotia. When he was 90 years old he conceived a plan to explore the western land all the way to the Pacific Ocean, but his advanced years kept him from attempting this. If he had embarked on it, his expedition would have preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Colonel Cresap had five children. Three were sons Thomas, Daniel, and Michael, born in that order. He also had two daughters Sarah and Elizabeth. His sons also played an important role in the settling of western Maryland.
Daniel Cresap lived near Cresap's Fort with his wife and five children. He was a venturesome sort. He, like his father, was a member of the Ohio Company. He spent most of his time exploring the nearby mountains and was often accompanied by the friendly Indians who frequented the Oldtown Trading Post. Nemocolin was a favorite hunting companion.
One of their exploits achieved legendary status. While they were on the trail of some elusive bear cubs, Daniel Cresap and Nemocolin tracked them to the top of a nearby mountain. Here the two hunters separated after agreeing on a meeting place. Daniel pursued the bear cubs until he treed them. He climbed up the tree behind them until a limb broke and he fell to the rocky ground below a stunt that nearly took his life. He lay motionless and senseless until Nemocolin, who couldn't find him at the agreed meeting place, had the good fortune to find him after a long and diligent search.
Daniel's wounds were such that he could not be moved. Nemocolin rushed back to his home at the fort and informed his wife, and together with the aid of a horse and litter took Daniel home, where he fully recovered. From that time to the present the mountain where Daniel had his fall has been known as Dan's Mountain or Dan's Rock.
Michael, the youngest son, was no less distinguished than his father. He was born on April 17, 1742. At a young age, he was sent to school in Baltimore County. He became homesick and disliked the school atmosphere and discipline. He ran away from school and walked 140 miles back to Oldtown through Indian-infested country. When he arrived home he was severely thrashed and sent back by himself. There he remained until completion of his studies.
By the end of the French and Indian War, Michael had reached maturity and married a Miss Whitehead of Philadelphia. He established himself as a trader and constructed his own home near his father's fort and trading post at Oldtown. It was constructed of fieldstone rearing up two and a half stories and was more a fort than a dwelling. As shown in the accompanying photos, his house still stands. It is located on Main Street in Oldtown and has recently been renovated. George Washington once was entertained here. Also, the basement was once used as a jail as well as a kitchen and is supplied with its own freshwater spring. Even in its better days, the Michael Cresap House was plain and utilitarian. Nevertheless, it was the most elaborate of its time in the region.
Michael only lived in his house a few years. Like his father, the unexplored West called him and also like his father, Michael's occupation as a trader was not successful so early in 1774, leaving his family behind, he led a party of energetic young men out to Ohio near the present sight of Wheeling, West Virginia. There they started a settlement now known as Brownsville. Michael built a cabin and began to clear the lands available, hoping to recoup his earlier losses through land speculations.
His efforts were interrupted by the outbreak of Indian attacks, and the spark that ignited the whole Ohio frontier was the Yellow Creek Massacre on April 30, 1774. In that event a number of Indians were killed, including the mother, sister, and brother of the well-known Mingo chieftain Logan. All this led to what is called Lord Dunmore's War, or by some historians as Cresap's War.
Thomas Jefferson first tried to place the blame for the killing of Logan's family on Michael Cresap, who was nowhere near the area. Jefferson's charge was largely based on Logan's famous speech. Michael Cresap was at his settlement about 25 miles above Yellow Creek at the time of the killings. If Jefferson would have obtained the real facts, instead of the unsupported statement by Logan, the entire innocence of Michael Cresap would have been shown.
In response to inquiries into the subject, George Rogers Clark, who was in one of the scouting parties under Michael Cresap at the time, said "I have a perfect recollection relative to Logan's story. The conduct of Captain Cresap I am perfectly acquainted with. He was not the author of that murder, but a man by the name of Greathouse was."
Some transactions that happened between Captain Cresap and Logan a few days prior to the murder of Logan's family gave Logan grounds to suppose it was Cresap who had done the killing of his family. Many others who were in the vicinity at the time stated that Benjamin Sappington and his party, which was from Washington County, Pennsylvania, and which was headed by Daniel Greathouse, were the ones that killed Logan's family at Yellow Creek.
There are many letters and documents that prove Michael Cresap entirely innocent of any participation in the killing of Logan's family at Yellow Creek. Some Indians may have been killed by the party under Cresap's command, but these were killed after the commission of similar outrages by the Indians themselves and in a fair encounter between men in which there was no surprise or treachery, and for which both sides were prepared.
As a result of the evidence that came forth, Jefferson substituted the following in his original statement and in charges against Cresap. "Captain Michael Cresap and a certain Daniel Greathouse, leading on these parties, surprised at different times traveling and hunting parties of the Indians having their women and children with them and murdered many. Among these were unfortunately the family of Logan, a Chief celebrated in peace and war, and long distinguished as a friend of the whites."
It is historic fact that Logan did not attend the treaty at Camp Charlotte, nor was his speech read or made available at that time, and neither Cresap or any other person were named as perpetrators. It is claimed that two interpreters were sent to Logan requesting his attendance at the treaty, but Logan replied that he was a warrior, not a counselor, and he would not come.
It was many years before the settlements on the western frontiers of the provences were entirely relieved from the "dangers of savage inroads." In 1778 the Indians commenced hostilities on the frontier again, and it became necessary to call in the militia of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
After the end of Dunmore's War and the signing of the Treaty of Chillicothe, the army was disbanded. Captain Michael Cresap returned to his family and spent the latter part of the autumn of 1774 and the winter with them. However, by the early spring of 1775, he again returned to Ohio to finish his work there. He continued that work, descending with some of his group as far as Kentucky, where he made many improvements on his properties.
He became sick and started back home to Oldtown, Maryland, about the time American blood was shed at the battle of Lexington. Congress had met and committees were appointed in all the provences, including one in Frederick, Maryland. Based on Washington's experiences with riflemen during the French and Indian War and the riflemen of western Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, he recommended to Congress that six companies of expert riflemen immediately be raised from those areas. Congress, by an act on June 14, 1775, did this, and the response was so great that Congress on June 22, 1775, raised the authorization to eight companies four from Pennsylvania and two each from Maryland and Virginia.
A letter was addressed by the delegates from Maryland in Congress to the Committee of Frederick asking them to raise two companies of riflemen, all of which should be expert hands and will be more serviceable for defense of America. In consequence of this resolve of Congress, the Committee of Frederick appointed Captain Michael Cresap and Thomas Price of Frederick to command these two companies. As soon as the message was received at Oldtown, a courier was dispatched at all haste to give Michael Cresap notice of his appointment.
As stated earlier, Michael was quite sick and was on his way home when he and the courier met on the road. When Captain Cresap learned of his appointment, instead of becoming elated, he became very depressed. He said he was in bad health, and his affairs were also in bad shape. However, since the committee has selected him and since his father had pledged himself that he would accept the appointment if Michael didn't he accepted the appointment.
Michael then directed the courier to proceed to the west side of the mountain and tell them of his acceptance. The courier did this, and in a very short time 20 of the finest riflemen in the area, completely equipped with rifles, joined his company. Soon after this, Michael Cresap bid a final farewell to his family and started his march to join Washington at Cambridge. On the way his company swelled to 130 and he had to reject many men who wished to join.
Although Morgan's Virginia Rifle Company got the best publicity when it reached Boston, Captain Michael Cresap's First Company of Maryland Rifles marched 550 miles in 22 days to become the first southern unit to join the American Army around Boston. Unfortunately, Michael Cresap's health had markedly deteriorated during the exhausting trip northward to Cambridge, and it continued to decline after his arrival there. After two months of active duty, he was forced to request a leave of absence, and started home to Maryland in an attempt to regain his health. The trip was too much and he died of a fever October 18, 1775, in New York City, thus fulfilling his earlier premonitions.
Michael Cresap was only 33 years old when he died, and he left a widow and four children in nearly destitute circumstances back in Western Maryland. Captain Cresap was buried in the graveyard of Trinity Church in New York City, with full military honors. The New York Gazette for October 23, 1775, printed his obituary, which included the order of the funeral procession:
Led by a Sergeant Major walked the Grenadiers of the First Battalion with their flintlocks reversed. Behind two Lieutenants marched a fife and drum corps. Next came a Captain of Grenadiers flanked by two Sergeants aides. Two Adjutants appointed to conduct the funeral came next and were followed by a military band. Immediately proceeding the casket walked the Clergyman and alongside the caisson bearing the body of Captain Cresap walked eight pallbearers all Captains. The Captain's coffin was followed by the mourners, probably Army friends of the deceased. The rear of the funeral cartage was composed of no less than three infantry battalions, an entire battalion made up of officers and a large assemblage of civilians.
Cresap's sandstone monument can still be seen in Trinity Churchyard. It bears the following inscription: "In Memory of Michael Cresap/First Captain of the Rifle Battalions, and/son of Colonel Thomas Cresap who departed/this life October the 18th 1775".
Michael Cresap has never been forgotten in Allegheny County. His death provided not only an example to his contemporaries during the Revolutionary era, but also it made him a legend to the present-day residents of the region.
This concludes my story of the Cresaps of Maryland as well as my "Journal of Frontiersman Odyssey." I have made many trips to Oldtown, Cumberland, and the surrounding areas to locate and become familiar with the places mentioned, including those in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio where the actions took place. Of primary interest to me are Braddock's Road, Nemocolin's Trail, and Oldtown, where Cresap's Fort was located and Michael Cresap's old stone house still stands. Fortunately, I found an old-timer, Ross Shaw, who is a retired history professor some 90 years old. Mr. Shaw was able to pinpoint where Cresap's Fort, Braddock's Road, Michael Cresap's house, and the Oldtown graveyard are located so that I could photograph them. Unfortunately, nothing is standing where the old fort was, but he was able to point out its location and take me there. The site is about 50 yards below where the canal-lock-keeper's house is still standing.
I would also like to thank those who helped get my histories together. First and foremost, my wife, Helen, and daughter, Diane, whose perseverance, patience, and stenographic capabilities have made my manuscripts possible. Foremost also are Edson E. Myers, Mount Sterling, Ohio; Lew Sowers, Laurelsville, Ohio; and Janet Duvall, Chillicothe, Ohio. Others are Ross Shaw, Oldtown, Maryland; Mrs. Rachael Schwartz, Hagerstown, Maryland; Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland; Maryland State Hall of Records, Annapolis, Maryland; and Phyliss Barr, archivist/recorder, Paris of Trinity Church, New York City, New York. Thanks also goes to Donald Goodwin, my son, who took several photographs for me during his own trip to the Cresap lands.
Readers interested in Lt. Col. Goodwin's research, manuscripts, and sources can write him c/o this magazine, P.O. Box 67, Friendship, IN 47021.