So many wild tales have been told of the tragical fate of Jane M'Crea, that the reader of different accounts, inconsistent with each other knows not which to receive as truth. That given in the Life of Arnold, by Mr. Sparks, has the authority of an eye witness; the particulars having been related to him by Samuel Standish, who was present at the murder, and confirmed by General Morgan Lewis, one of the party that found Miss M'Crea's body, and superintended her funeral. It is therefore given with entire confidence in its correctness.
The head-quarters of the division of the American army commanded by Arnold were at the time between Moses Creek and Fort Edward. Jane M'Crea was residing with her brother, one of the pioneer settlers, about four miles from Fort Edward, on the western bank of the Hudson. Her father was James M'Crea, an Episcopal clergyman of New Jersey, who died before the Revolution.
In the solitude of those wilds she had formed an intimacy with a young man named David Jones, to whom she was betrothed, and who had taken part with the British. He had gone to Canada after the commencement of the war, had there been made captain of a company, and was now serving among the provincials in Burgoyne's army. The lovers had kept up a correspondence, and Jones was informed that his affianced bride was on a visit to Mrs. M'Niel, a widow lady whose house stood near the foot of the hill, about one-third of a mile northward from the fort. Fort Edward, then in possession of a guard of one hundred Americans, was situated on the eastern margin of the river, very near the water, and surrounded by a cleared and cultivated plain of considerable extent.
It is evident that Miss M'Crea felt no assurance of her own safety, notwithstanding her friendly relations with the English; having been alarmed by the rumors that had reached her of the approach of the Indians, and reminded of her danger by the people at the fort. It is not known why she remained unprotected in so exposed a situation; but it is conjectured that she had been counselled by her lover not to leave her friend's house, till the advance of the British troops should enable her to join him, in company with Mrs. M'Neil. The woods being filled with American scouting parties, it would be dangerous for him to attempt a visit to her, as the tory captain, if taken prisoner, could expect no mercy at the hands of his countrymen.
The anxiety may be conceived with which the timid but confiding girl expected, from hour to hour, intelligence from her betrothed, and awaited the long desired moment when they should meet to part no more. She was young - some authorities say nineteen, some twenty-three - but all agree that she was beautiful, with auburn hair, blue eyes, and a fresh complexion; and endowed with accomplishments and virtues not less attractive than her personal charms. With the trustfulness of youth she yielded her own fears and scruples implicitly to the judgment of him she loved, resolving to be guided by his directions.
The catastrophe took place about the latter part of July or first of August, 1777. It should be borne in mind that the side of the hill, near the foot of which stood Mrs. M'Neil's house, was covered with bushes, while a quarter of a mile above, on the summit of the hill, a huge pine tree shadowed a clear spring. On the hill - a little beyond, within the cover of the woods, was stationed at the time a picket-guard under the command of Lieutenant Van Vechten.
Jane and her friend were at first alarmed by seeing a party of Indians advancing towards the house. The savages had been a terror to all that part of the country; and the tales told of their unsparing cruelty were fresh in the remembrance of the women. Their first impulse was to endeavor to escape; but the Indians made signs of a pacific intent, and one of them held up a letter, intimating that it would explain their business. This removed all apprehensions, and the letter was taken from the messenger. It proved to be from Captain Jones. He entreated Jane and her friend to put themselves under the protection of the Indians, whom he had sent for the purpose of taking charge of them, and who would escort them in safety to the British camp. The story that he sent his horse for the use of Miss M'Crea appears to be unfounded.
The two women, notwithstanding some misgivings, lost no time in preparation, and set off under the guidance of the savages. It happened that two separate parties of Indians, commanded by two independent chiefs, had come forth on this enterprise. They had another object in view - an attack upon the picket stationed in the woods on the hill. This arrangement, it is probable, was not known to Jones, or he would hardly have trusted the safety of Miss M'Crea to the contingencies of such an expedition.
The party attacking the guard rushed upon it through the woods from different points, making the forest resound with their horrible yelling; killing the lieutenant and five others, and wounding four more. One of the guard was Samuel Standish, whose post was near the pine-tree. He discharged his musket at an Indian, and ran down the hill towards the fort; but being intercepted on the plain by three Indians, who rushed from the thicket, fired at and wounded him slightly, and then secured him, he was forced to re-ascend the hill, where he saw several Indians at the spring beneath the pine-tree.
Here he was left alone, bound, and expecting death every moment, to witness, at a short distance, the appalling scene that ensued. Another party of Indians came in a few minutes up the hill, bringing with them Miss M'Crea and her companion. The two parties of savages here met; and it was presently apparent that a violent altercation had arisen between them. The dispute was about the division of the reward they were to receive for the service rendered. The savages to whom the mission had been entrusted, it appears, were not aware of the relation in which the girl stood to their employer, and looked upon her rather as a prisoner, decoyed by a stratagem into their power. This supposition accounts for their conduct, consistently with the usages of the Indians in the case of captives whom they feared to lose. The quarrel became furious; violent words and blows ensued, and in the midst of the fray, one of the chiefs fired at Miss M'Crea. The shot entered her breast; she sank to the ground, and instantly expired. The Indian grasped her long flowing locks, drew his knife, and took off the scalp; then leaping from the ground with a yell of savage exultation, he brandished it in the air, and tossed it in the face of a young warrior who stood near him.
This murder terminated the quarrel, and the Indians, fearful of being pursued by men from the fort, where the alarm had already been given, hurried away with their two prisoners, Standish and Mrs. M'Niel, towards General Frazer's encampment on the road to Fort Anne.
The body of the murdered girl was left under the tree, gashed in several places by a tomahawk or scalping knife, and was found, with the others who had been slain, by the party in pursuit. A messenger was immediately despatched with the dreadful tidings to her brother, who soon after arrived and took charge of his sister's corpse. It was buried on the east side of the river, about three miles below the fort.
Imagination may depict the state of mind of the unfortunate Captain Jones, when the bloody trophy was presented to him, which revealed the horrible truth. To the anguish of his bereavement was added the reflection that the innocent girl had fallen a victim to her confidence in him. Time could not give him strength to bear the burden of his grief; he lived but a few years, and went down heartbroken to the grave.
General Gates reproached Burgoyne for this murder, and the frightful story spread rapidly over the country, the glowing description given of it by Burke in one of his celebrated speeches rendering it familiar throughout Europe. The remembrance of the tragedy, Mr. Sparks says, is yet cherished with sympathy by the people in the village of Fort Edward, who not many years since removed the remains of the hapless girl from their obscure resting place to, the public burial-ground. The little fountain still pours out its clear waters near the brow of the hill; and the venerable pine is yet standing in its ancient majesty, broken at the top, and shorn of its branches by the winds and storms of half a century, but revered as marking the spot where youth and innocence were sacrificed.