The case of the murder and scalping of Jane McCrea during the American Revolution

This depiction of The Death of Jane McCrea was painted in 1804 by John Vanderlyn.  Image from Wikipedia.

This depiction of The Death of Jane McCrea was painted in 1804 by John Vanderlyn. Image from Wikipedia.

Jane McCrea was a Loyalist who was killed and scalped during the American Revolution on the way to meet her fiancé in a British camp. According to the most widely accepted account of her death, Jane was murdered by Wyandot scouts working with the British Army. But a conflicting version, given by the man accused of her murder, was that Jane was accidentally shot by American soldiers during an ambush. The uncertainties about the events of that day prompted a forensic examination of Jane’s remains in 2003 and 2005.

Jane McCrea’s (1752-1777) family lived near Saratoga, NY when the Revolution started and eventually divided the McCrea family. Her brothers supported the American efforts and joined the Albany militia. But Jane’s fiancé, David Jones, joined the Loyalist army in Quebec, eventually becoming a Tory officer in a British unit commanded by General John Burgoyne (Starbuck 2006).

When Jones’ unit started to move south, Jane traveled north to a village near Fort Edward to meet her fiancé. During this time she lived with Sara McNeil (1722-1799), a Loyalist friend and relative of a British General.

Hearing that McCrea and McNeil were staying at a home near the British camp, General Burgoyne sent a group of Wyandot scouts to accompany them to the encampment on July 27, 1777 (Starbuck 2006). We know that Jane and Sara encountered the Wyandot scouts and became separated but what happened after the women were split up has been debated.

According to a letter written by General Gates to General Burgoyne, the American Indian scouts attacked other villagers in the area then grabbed Sara and Jane. (Baxter & Phinney 1887 p. 262). The women were separated when Jane was put on a horse with scout named Wyandot Panther and Sara was forced to walk to the British camp. Jane was taken in the woods with some of the Wyandot scouts. At this point a fight broke out between the Wyandots about who would bring Jane back and claim the reward. It was during this dispute that Jane was allegedly killed and scalped (Baxter & Phinney 1887 p.264, Starbuck 2006).

Jane’s scalp was brought back to the British camp with the others the Wyandots gathered that day. Sara immediately recognized Jane’s distinctive hair and alerted the British officers (Buehler 1887).

General Burgoyne ordered an inquest and asked the Wyandot people to present Jane’s murderer for an interrogation. When Wyandot Panther was brought to Burgoyne and questioned he claimed that American soldiers ambushed their scouting party and Jane was shot and killed by a musket ball fired by an American rifle. Although Sara didn’t see Jane’s death, she reportedly told officers that the American soldiers did indeed attack their group and that they were aiming their muskets high to avoid hitting the Native Americans and civilians that were on foot (Baxter & Phinney 1887 p. 236). Burgoyne doesn’t believe Wyandot Panther’s story but pardons him anyway to preserve his relationship with the Wyandot people (Baxter & Phinney 1887 p. 265).

In letters written between General Gates and General Burgoyne in September of 1777, published in The British invasion from the north: the campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne, from Canada, 1776-1777,  Gates lectures Burgoyne for allowing American Indian scouts to attack and scalp prisoners and European settlers.  He also mentions the violent murder of Jane McCrea to illustrate how this tactic profoundly backfired. In his reply, Burgoyne acknowledges McCrea’s murder and scalping at the hand of Wyandot Panther (Baxter & Phinney 1887 p. 262-265).   If Jane McCrea was accidentally killed as the result of American gun fire, wouldn’t Burgoyne have brought this up in his reply to General Gates? Despite these contemporary letters, doubts still persisted about the events surrounding Jane McCrea’s violent death.

David Jones recovered Jane’s body and buried her near Fort Edward-but this was not the end of Jane’s post-mortem journey.

In 1822 Jane McCrea’s body was moved to the State Street Cemetery in the Village of Fort Edward when a canal was scheduled to be expanded near her grave. Since this was the same burial ground where Sara McNeil was buried in 1799, cemetery officials decided to bury the two women in the same plot (Starbuck 2006). In 1852, the remains of both women were exhumed, the bones combined in one box, then reburied at the Union Cemetery, a new cemetery near Fort Edward (Starbuck 2006).

In 2003 David R. Starbuck assembled a team of historians, archaeologists, and forensic scientists to exhume and examine Jane’s body. They found the bones of two people, but only one skull. The researchers believe that Jane’s skull was likely stolen when her body was reburied with Sara’s in 1852 (Starbuck 2006). This team collected mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), measured the bones, and took x-rays to help identify injuries. The bones of both women were put in a new coffin and reburied.

Although it was assumed that the second body in Jane’s coffin was Sara, the researchers wanted to confirm it with DNA. When forensic scientists compared a DNA sample from one of Sara McNeil’s descendants to a sample taken from one of the bodies they got a match (Starbuck 2006).

Starbuck’s team returned to Jane and Sara’s grave 2005 to separate the commingled remains and examine them once more. Anthony Falsetti, a Board Certified Forensic Anthropologist who was head of the C.A. Pound Laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville at the time, further analyzed the bones:

“…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. (Starbuck 2006)”

A forensic artist was also tapped to reconstruct the 77-year-old face of Sara McNeil (pictured here). Afterwards the remains of Sara and Jane were put in separate coffins and reburied (Starbucks 2006).

The brutal murder of Jane McCrea became the subject of American propaganda, which was used to fuel outrage against the British and increase American recruiting efforts (Starbuck 2006). Her death was also used to undermine the British claims that they could protect Loyalists from violence from their forces. The murder of Jane McCrea was catapulted into American folklore and even used in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.

 

Works Cited

Baxter, James Phinney; Digby, William (1887). The British invasion from the north. Albany, NY: J. Munsell’s Sons. Retrieved from: https://ia600400.us.archive.org/31/items/britishinvasion00digb/britishinvasion00digb.pdf

Buehler C.H. & D.A. (1887, April 4). The True Story of Jane McCrea. The Star and Banner, Volume XXII, No. 4, pp. 1. Retrieved from: http://www.newspapers.com/image/36854919/?terms=%22jane%2Bmccrea%22%2Bgrave%2Bmcneil

Starbuck, D.R. (2006). The mystery of the second body. Retrieved from: https://www.plymouth.edu/magazine/issue/winter-2006/the-mystery-of-the-second-body/

This article was syndicated on Forensic Magazine.

 



Categories: Forensic Science

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2 replies

  1. I really enjoyed reading about this case. Very interesting! Thank you!

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  1. Martyrdom and Modern Mobilization: Jane McCrae and the Battle of Saratoga

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