Jane McCrae (sometimes spelled McCrae or MacCrae, 1752-1777) was a young woman who was purportedly slain by Native American allies of the British army’s Lieutenant General John Burgoyne. It was reported that her death at the hands of General Burgoyne’s Native American allies roused support for the patriot cause & contributed to the American victory at Saratoga. She was born near Bedminster (later Lamington), Somerset County, N.J., where her Scotch-Irish father, James McCrea, served for 26 years as a Presbyterian minister.
Jane's brothers included
Samuel McCrea, Soldier American Army
Dr. Stephen McCrea, Surgeon American Army
Creighton McCrea, Captain in the 75th Highlanders, Queens Rangers
Robert McCrea, Captain in Queens Rangers & a Major in the 5th Royal Vet. Battalion
Little is known of Jane’s early life. After her father’s death in 1769, she made her home with her eldest brother, John, a Princeton graduate who had practiced law in Albany, married into the Beekman family, & then settled at Northumberland, N.Y., in the upper Hudson Valley, a few miles below the frontier outpost of Fort Edward. She was at least 25 in 1777, & not the maiden of 17 or 18 depicted in legend.
In New Jersey & later in New York, she had been courted by Loyalist David Jones, whose family had also moved to the Fort Edward area. In the latter part of 1776 Jones departed with his Tory neighbors to join the British army, where he became part of the forces led by Gen. John Burgoyne. When in the summer of 1777, Burgoyne launched his invasion down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River route, most of the patriot troops & nearby residents evacuated Fort Edward. John McCrea, now a colonel, is said to have urged his sister to come with him to Albany. But Jane had received a letter from David Jones informing her that “In a few days we will march to Ft. Edward, ….where I shall have the happiness to meet you.”
Though her story was later embroidered by fancy & subject to controversy, some facts are verified. On the morning of July 27, 1777, Jane McCrea went to the home of her friend Mrs. Sarah McNeil, who was preparing to flee Fort Edward for Albany. There, shortly after noon, the 2 women were discovered & carried off by a band of Native Americans scouting in advance of Burgoyne’s army. Mrs. McNeil was subsequently delivered to the British, but Jane McCrea’s dead body -scalped & bearing bullet wounds- was found the next day near Fort Edward.
Though some historians have contended that she was accidentally shot by a party of American troops pursuing the Native Americans, the best evidence - including the later testimony of a supposed eyewitness, Samuel Standish, an Native American captive being held in the vicinity- suggests that the Native Americans probably killed her.
General Burgoyne could not punish the guilty party for fear of breaking his alliance with them. Burgoyne's inability to punish the alleged killers also undermined British assertions that they were more civilized in their conduct of the war; the dissemination of this propaganda reportedly contributed to the success of Patriot recruiting drives in New York for several years.
The propaganda war certainly received a boost after Burgoyne wrote a letter to the American general Horatio Gates, complaining about American treatment of prisoners taken in the August 17 Battle of Bennington. Gates' response to Burgoyne was widely reprinted: “That the savages of America should in their warfare mangle and scalp the unhappy prisoners who fall into their hands is neither new nor extraordinary; but that the famous Lieutenant General Burgoyne, in whom the fine gentleman is united with the soldier and the scholar, should hire the savages of America to scalp europeans and the descendants of europeans, nay more, that he should pay a price for each scalp so barbarously taken, is more than will be believed in England…Miss McCrae, a young lady lovely to the sight, of virtuous character and amiable disposition, engaged to be married to an officer of your army, was…carried into the woods, and there scalped and mangled in the most shocking manner…”
News of the killing, surrounded by its aura of romantic tragedy, spread through the colonies & overseas. London’s 1777 Annual Register recorded that Miss McCrea’s death “struck every breast with horror.” In the House of Commons, Edmund Burke took the occasion to denounce severely the British policy of using Native American allies. Within the northern colonies, the event -which Gen. Horatio Gates, the American commander, quickly exploited for propaganda purposes- crystallized a growing indignation & uneasiness. Neutrals, alarmed for their safety, swung over to the patriot cause; patriot sentiment consolidated, & a surge of new recruits strengthened Gates’ forces.
Within 3 months came Burgoyne’s historic surrender. Col. John McCrea buried his sister at Moses Kill, near Fort Edward. It was reported that David Jones deserted Burgoyne’s army in despair & retired to the Canadian wilderness.
Soon Jane McCrea became a fabled heroine of the Revolution, celebrated in ballads & poems. Philip Freneau used her story in his 1778 “American Independence.” Joel Barlow recalled it in the 1807 The Columbiad. Mercy Warren wrote of Burgoyne’s guilt in her 1805 History…of the American Revolution. A French author turned the tale into a novel as early as 1784, & Delia Bacon made it into a play in 1839, The Bride of Fort Edward. In Philadelphia the 1799 Ricketts' Circus performed "The Death of Miss McCrea," a pantomime co-written by John Durang. John Vanderlyn painted the portrait (shown above) in 1804, and James Fenimore Cooper described similar events in his novel The Last of the Mohicans, where the captured maiden was named Dora.
In 1822, with suitable ceremonies, Jane McCrea’s remains were removed to the old Fort Edward cemetery. McCrea's remains have been moved 3 times. In 1852, they were moved to the Union Cemetery in Fort Edward. The body was exhumed again in 2003, in hopes of solving the mystery of her death.
The story of the last investigation of McCrea’s body is recorded in the Plymouth Magazine, Winter 2006, Volume XXI, No 2 written by Dr. David R. Starbuck
"What is it like to dig up an American icon—in this case the most famous woman to be murdered and scalped during the American Revolution? Over the past three years, I have worked with the remains of Jane McCrea. Her tragic death on July 27, 1777, prompted thousands of outraged Americans throughout the northern colonies to rise up against British authority because Jane had been murdered by Indians who accompanied General John Burgoyne on his march south from Canada. Jane’s death thus contributed to the great American victory later that year at the Battle of Saratoga, known as the “turning point” of the American Revolution.
"The mysterious circumstances of her death made Jane McCrea one of the best-known American women of the 18th century. In July 1777, she was living in Fort Edward, N.Y., awaiting the arrival from Canada of her fiancé, David Jones, a Tory officer with Burgoyne’s army. Most other settlers in northern New York had already fled for Albany. Only Jane and an older woman, Sara McNeil, remained behind in Sara’s house in Fort Edward. On July 27, a party of Indians was sent by Burgoyne to locate the two women and escort them back to the British camp. As the Indians approached, both women hid in the cellar; they were discovered and dragged out by their hair. The Indians mounted Jane on a horse, but Sara was forced to walk because she “was too heavy to be lifted on the horse easily.”
"What happened next has been hotly disputed by historians, but it appears that two competing bands of Indians fought over who was to receive the reward for delivering Jane to her fiancé. While we know that she was then killed and scalped, it is unclear whether her death was a deliberate murder or merely an accident. The Indians claimed afterward that an American musketball, intended for them, had mortally wounded the young Scottish-Presbyterian woman. Faced with the prospect of no reward, they scalped her and took the scalp to the British camp. David Jones recognized Jane’s hair in the middle of a pile of scalps. He recovered her body, and buried her about three miles south of Fort Edward. The colonial population intrepreted Jane’s murder as a symbol of British oppression—and American leaders manipulated her image most effectively as they organized resistance to British authority.
"The mysterious circumstances of her death made Jane McCrea one of the best-known American women of the 19th century.
"Ironically, after her first burial in 1777, Jane McCrea was later dug up and relocated twice because of her prominence as a tourist attraction. In 1822, she was moved to State Street Cemetery in the Village of Fort Edward where her remains were placed atop the brick vault of Sara McNeil (who had passed away naturally in 1799 at the age of 77). In 1852, she was exhumed again and moved to the newly-created Union Cemetery in Fort Edward. A disturbing story later appeared in a local newspaper that year, describing how the box containing Jane McCrea’s bones had been “broken open and nearly all the bones stolen,” and her bones were “scattered all over the country.” … History alone could not establish whether any of Jane McCrea’s bones still rested in her third grave in Fort Edward.
"Given the many questions surrounding the circumstances of Jane McCrea’s death and subsequent reinterments, I wrote to her oldest living relative, Mrs. Mary McCrea Deeter (then 97 years old), on May 1, 2002, and asked whether she would give her consent to an exhumation and forensics study that would establish for certain whether Jane McCrea actually rested in Union Cemetery. Upon receiving her consent, I retained an attorney to draft a petition to the Supreme Court in Washington County, N.Y., and assembled a team of forensic scientists and archaeologists including several forensic scientists from the New York State Police Forensics Investigation Center and Dr. Anthony Falsetti, head of the C.A. Pound Laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The court granted our petition in November 2002, and I chose April 9, 2003 as the date for the fourth and—we hoped—final exhumation of Jane McCrea.
"Using the skull as a starting point, scientists were able to reconstruct the features of Sara McNeil, the 77-year old female colonist who was Jane McCrea's companion in life and death.
"All between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. that day, we conducted the exhumation, found the original burial trench, and discovered the remains of a 20" x 24" box containing the skeletons of two women—but only one skull, from a very old woman who had definitelynot been scalped. I was the archaeologist in the bottom of the trench, responsible for excavating the bones and passing them up to the scientists who took measurements and collected bone samples for mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing. We also brought in a radiologist who took x-rays to look for possible cause(s) of death. In addition to the two dozen scientists and historians who attended the exhumation, I was joined by a PSU student, Jennifer Gynan, who was one of our bucket-carriers and sifters. At the end of the day, we placed all of the bones inside a modern coffin and returned it to the grave. A Presbyterian minister said the burial service (again!), and then the process of analysis and interpretation began.
"The presence of two skeletons was utterly unexpected but, since one set of bones was from a very old woman, I acted on a hunch and contacted a descendant of Sara McNeil to find out whether there might be a modern-day maternal descendant of Sara’s from whom we could obtain an mtDNA sample for comparative testing. There was an off chance that the bones of Sara had become combined with Jane’s in 1852, and the two women might have been moved together to Union Cemetery. It took a full year for the U.S. Department of Defense to prepare a DNA sequence for the “ancient DNA” from the grave but only a couple of weeks to collect the modern DNA from a 94-year-old (seventh generation) descendant of Sara McNeil and to have the samples compared. And sure enough, they matched! Sara McNeil, Jane’s companion at the end of her life, had joined her in death.
"Our project was the subject of multiple news stories by the Associated Press, and in November 2004 we appeared on The History Channel’s “Buried Secrets of the Revolutionary War.”
"We returned to the grave on April 22, 2005 with yet another court order from the Supreme Court, and this time we were able to do a much more thorough separation of the two commingled skeletons. We prepared a reconstruction of Sara’s 77-year-old face from the skull discovered in the grave, and I experienced the thrill of showing “the face” to the descendants of Sara McNeil just before we returned both women to the ground, each with her own coffin.
"In addition to reconstructing Sara’s face, perhaps the most significant outcome of our new work was discovering that the skeleton of Jane McCrea was just as intact as that of Sara McNeil. Because of the old stories about Jane’s bones having been stolen as souvenirs, we had assumed that no more than a handful of the bones might be hers. However, this time it was possible for Anthony Falsetti to spend much more time with the bones, and as he laid out the two skeletons side-by-side on our laboratory tables, it became clear that most of the major limb bones were present from both women, but with very few surviving ribs, vertebrae, hand or foot bones. Jane McCrea’s skull was missing from the assemblage (no doubt stolen as a souvenir in 1852), so while it is now possible to describe even the face of Sara McNeil, we can only say that Jane was a petite woman, between 5' and 5'4" tall, with no evidence of any injuries on the bones that were still in the grave.
"The relatives and descendants of Jane and Sara have been quite pleased with our efforts to bring both women “back to life” and to restore to them a part of their identities. One of the very real benefits of our research is that we have prompted a flurry of new historical research into the lives of 18th-century women on the frontier of upstate New York. We have also prompted a host of questions about when we might go back into the grave for what would be the 6th time."
David R. Starbuck is associate professor of anthropology in the department of social science at PSU.