Selected Papers From The 1991 And 1992 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences
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Larry L. Nelson
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Ohio Historical Society

There was little rest for Alexander McKee during the autumn of 1793. Throughout the course of the preceding three years, a loose confederation of Native Americans from along the Maumee River Valley had looked to their British allies for assistance. In their campaign to expel the United States from the Ohio country, the northwestern tribes already had frustrated two American expeditions sent into the region. In October, 1790, troops commanded by Josiah Harmar retreated in disorganized array after encountering unexpectedly stiff Indian resistance at the headwaters of the Maumee. During November of the following year, the confederated tribes completely routed a second United States army led by Arthur St. Clair. Now, the tribes along the Maumee watched with mounting concern as a third force, with Anthony Wayne at its head, poised itself to strike at the native stronghold. [1]

Comprised of the Miami, Shawnee, and Delaware tribes living along the Maumee, together with individuals from other bands who had fled into the area after the commencement of hostilities, the confederacy opposing Wayne was as much a creation of McKee and the British government as it was of the Indians themselves. To be sure, the tribes comprising the coalition had come together voluntarily for their mutual defense. They pursued their own interests and set their own agendas. But the aid that McKee offered, and the continued support that the British government promised, served as the glue which held the alliance together.

McKee (born circa 1735 — died 1799), a fur trader, land speculator, and agent with the British Indian Department, played an active role in lower Great Lakes Anglo-Indian affairs for approximately 50 years. Fathered by a white trader, but raised, in part, by his Shawnee mother, McKee was equally at home in either culture. He had lived among, traded with, and fought alongside many of the Ohio country tribes. Now, as tensions between the western tribes and the United States again flared into open warfare, he met with tribal delegations at his post at the foot of the Maumee Rapids to discuss strategy, dispense gifts, and offer advice. He attempted to persuade the petulant Northern Lake tribes to join the league. At the same time, he worked to isolate representatives from the accommodationist eastern Iroquois Confederacy who felt that it would be in their interests to avoid armed conflict. He oversaw the shipment of military supplies and provisions from British officials at Detroit to his storehouse on the Maumee and also coordinated covert British military assistance to the waning tribes. He entertained American envoys and received emissaries from the Crown. He directed spies, interrogated deserters, and exchanged prisoners. American ambition, native aspiration, and imperial apprehension converged at the British outpost along the rapids. In the center stood Alexander McKee.

McKee was a cultural mediator, a go-between who linked the native and white worlds. Cultural mediators were indispensable in establishing and in maintaining the delicate linkage between Europeans and Indians on the Great Lakes frontier. Throughout colonial North America, mediators played equally useful roles in establishing and in maintaining relations between Europeans and Native Americans. Mediators, or cultural brokers, conducted business and forged alliances. They exchanged information and distributed gifts. Nearly always bilingual, mediators not only translated the formal, conventionalized speeches that constituted tribal councils, but they also assisted both sides in adhering to the rigors of formal ceremonial behavior. Furthermore, they also arranged unofficial meetings and conducted informal negotiations away from the council fires. [2]

For much of the latter half of the 18th century, McKee exploited his familial affiliation and close economic ties to both communities to encourage trade, to foster diplomatic relations, and to forge a military alliance between the British government and the tribes of the Old Northwest. Living on the margins of the British Empire, McKee was nonetheless a loyal British partisan. Throughout his career, he employed his abilities to reconcile Crown and native political, military, and economic interests. Shrewd, politically astute, and skilled as a negotiator, McKee manipulated his position to acquire wealth, power, prestige, and eventually entry into Upper Canada's governing elite.

At the Maumee Rapids, McKee presided during the conclusion of a long and bitter confrontation between natives and whites throughout the region. The final half of the 18th century had been a period of dramatic change along the lower Great Lakes frontier. Native peoples only recently had repopulated the area after their expulsion during the Erie-Iroquois wars that had swept the region during the mid- and late 17th century. After 1740, the area became an arena for virtual continuous intercultural and international conflict. France, England, and the United States, each in its turn, sought to wrest control of the region from its indigenous native population, attempting to extract the wealth promised by vast reserves of land and furs. From the outset of the Seven Years' War to the conclusion of the War of 1812, Native Americans throughout the lower Great Lakes vicinity waged a protracted, rancorous, and often violent resistance against European intrusions into their homelands. Despite their efforts, the line of white settlement moved in an unrelenting tide, flowing westward across the region from the crest of the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. [3]

Historians previously have tended to interpret this era only in terms of military and cultural confrontations. To view the Great Lakes region during this period only in terms of Indian/white conflict, though, is in error. As historian Colin Calloway noted, the reality was far more complex. Inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic cooperation defined the social reality as much as inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic rivalry. A richly diverse social mosaic asserted and defended a tangled web of interconnected national, regional, local, and individual agendas. Unified European stratagems frequently collapsed along opposing ethnic, religious, or economic lines. Indian allegiances equally were fragmented. Sovereign tribes and autonomous bands independently pursued their own self-interests through separate, often competing policies. The Great Lakes frontier was an open, assimilative world of shifting relationships in constant evolution. In such a world, loyalties were fluid, pragmatic, and occasionally uncertain. National, cultural, even racial affiliations could become problematic. Change, indeed, came through warfare. More often, though, the very fabric of everyday life instigated the process of diversification. Social ambivalence was the natural byproduct of the region's intercultural contact, trade, marriage, and diplomacy. Within this world persons such as McKee assumed great importance. Able to transcend the boundaries of race and culture, mediators employed their skills to facilitate, and occasionally to direct, the course of native and European interaction. [4]

During his half century of activity along the Ohio frontier, McKee used his close cultural ties to the region's Native American and European communities along with his long involvements in business, civic, and military affairs, to position himself as an intermediary among the area's disparate cultural, economic, and political interests. Historian R. David Edmunds, writing in a recent assessment of needs and opportunities in the field of Native American studies, has suggested that investigations of the metis, may be particularly productive. Metis were individuals who, similar to McKee, were "mixed blood" members of the tribal community. Commentators frequently have portrayed these individuals as cultural outcasts, unaccepted by either whites or natives. Edmunds, however, has noted that these persons commonly served as "middlemen," both interceding for their tribes and acting as agents for the colonial or federal governments. Rather than unscrupulous misfits, these persons often were well educated, socially sophisticated, and financially shrewd. Their ability to comfortably conduct their own affairs, as well as the affairs of others in both cultures, enhanced their prominence in each. [5]

It appears that the half-Indian-half-white McKee, who was involved in both private and governmental enterprises, was trusted by the Crown, was respected by tribal officials, was regarded highly by his business and civilian associates, and was rewarded well by all, does fit Edmunds' cultural "middleman" model. By virtue of his association with the Great Lakes tribes, his land ventures, and his continued participation in the fur trade, McKee acquired land, influence, and wealth, all the while retaining the high esteem of his Crown, business, and native associates. McKee was a man in the middle, one who, throughout his career, was able to exploit his role as intermediary to benefit his clients, and himself.

The encounter between whites and natives, to be sure, occasionally engendered confrontation and violence. More often the encounter also brought opportunities for economic and social intercourse, intermarriage, and political and diplomatic interaction. Cultural mediators stood at the center of these exchanges. Reflecting, as well as manipulating, the cultural ambiguity of the Great Lakes frontier, McKee and others similar to him shaped the course of Anglo-Indian relations throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Throughout his adult life, McKee helped shape the course of events transpiring in the political and cultural uncertainty of the Ohio country. McKee was the son of a Shawnee mother and also the son of Thomas McKee, a well-known western Pennsylvania trader. Serving as a junior officer in the Pennsylvania militia during the French and Indian War, in 1759 McKee joined the British Indian Department under the tutelage of George Croghan. Acting as an interpreter and as a low-level diplomatic envoy to the western tribes, he worked on the Crown's behalf during Pontiac's Rebellion, Bouquet's Expedition, and Lord Dunmore's War. During the same period, he continued to expand his fur trading activities. By 1770, he had taken a wife from, and had established a home with, the Shawnee bands living on the Scioto River in present-day central Ohio. Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Indian affairs for the Northern District, recognized the high esteem in which McKee was held among the Ohio country tribes. Upon Croghan's retirement during 1771, Johnson appointed McKee to replace Croghan as Indian agent and as head of the Indian Department Commissary at Fort Pitt. [6]

Remaining loyal to the British government during the Revolutionary era, McKee made his way to Detroit in 1778. Throughout the remainder of the war, he engaged in a variety of military and diplomatic activities taken against the rebelling colonies. In 1778, McKee accompanied Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton's expedition to Vincennes. Later, he participated in Henry Bird's 1780 campaign into Kentucky and with the 1782 foray along the Ohio River to Bryan's Station which culminated in the defeat of American irregulars at the Battle of Blue Licks.

Remaining with the British Indian Department following the American Revolution, McKee also renewed his participation in the fur trade with the Ohio country tribes. In addition, he became a prominent figure in local and provincial affairs during this time by serving as a member of the Land Board of Hess, the provincial body which regulated settlement along Upper Canada's Detroit River region. He also was appointed a justice with the local Court of Common Pleas and served as a lieutenant colonel in the Essex County militia of Upper Canada. During the 1790-1795 Ohio Country Indian Wars, McKee played a central role in defining and implementing Upper Canada's diplomatic response. Throughout the crisis, he was an energetic participant in the Crown's efforts to supply arms, ammunition, and provisions to the Maumee Valley tribes opposing United States expansion into the region. The 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers and subsequent Treaty of Greeneville ended the conflict with an American victory. Soon thereafter McKee was named Deputy Superintendent and Inspector General of Indian Affairs for Upper Canada, a position that he retained until his death during January, 1799.

The process of assimilation played a prominent role in the life of Alexander McKee, defining his role as cultural mediator. Who he thought he was influenced his actions as much as what he thought he was. Both changed dramatically during the course of his career with the Indian Department. During the 1750s and 1760s, the period in which he first entered the historical record, McKee apparently was a completely accepted and fully participating member of Indian society. His Shawnee background aided him in acquiring complete fluency in several native languages and in mastering the liturgical intricacies of tribal ceremony and diplomatic protocol. His cultural ties to Shawnee society were strengthened further through his decision to live, to many, and to raise his children among the tribe, as well as by his continuing involvement in the economic life of the community.

At the time of his death, his contacts with native society were more formal than intimate. He resided in a home that he properly referred to as "the mansion," controlled vast holdings of land, kept African slaves and other servants, purchased a commission in the British army for his son, and enjoyed easy access to and great influence within the highest levels of local, county, and provincial governments. He had become a totally accepted and fully participating member of Upper Canada's governing aristocracy. [7]

McKee typified the world in which he lived. Being a product, as well as a creator, of the social and political complexity of the Great Lakes frontier, he straddled the critical intersections where national, ethnic, and individual interests intertwined. He and others, such as Simon Girty, Matthew Elliott, and William Caldwell, brokered the encounter between whites and natives along the Ohio frontier. Like his contemporaries, he intimately was connected to the cultural and political ambiguity of the region and was adept at transforming this personal sense of cultural diversity into a shared perspective of common cause between Europeans and Native Americans. As Colin Calloway observed, the Ohio country offered these men both place and purpose as cultural mediators. [8]

Calloway recently has reassessed the career of another cultural mediator, Simon Girty, who was active along the Great Lakes frontier. In analyzing Girty's life, Calloway employed an ethnohistorically derived approach, utilizing Everett Stonequist's definition of "the marginal man" as a sociological model for understanding Girty's life. According to Stonequist, a marginal man is one "who through migration, education or marriage, or some other influence, leaves one social group or culture without making a satisfactory adjustment to another," consequently finding himself "on the margin of each, but a member of neither." Calloway's methodology has removed Girty's life from the "paranoia, fear, and rumor colored" stereotypes that have framed previous interpretations. In Calloway's appraisal, Girty becomes more than a heinous criminal. He was, indeed, a traitor to Americans living along the Ohio frontier. But, to British settlers in the same region, he was no less a Loyalist, a faithful servant of the area's legitimate government. And he continued to defend what he perceived to be the best interests of the area's Native Americans, people whom he regarded as "his own" until his death. Calloway's understanding of Girty is complex and subtle, proceeding from a sensitivity to the region's cultural pluralism. [9]

What distinguished McKee was his unique sense of place and distinct articulation of purpose. More than any of his fellow brokers, McKee coupled his sense of place within the lower Great Lakes region with a wider appreciation of the frontier's place within the British realm. If Girty indeed was a "marginal man" as far as white society was concerned, it in part was because that marginality was self-imposed. Girty took little interest in the world beyond the Ohio country. Matthew Elliott, too, was similarly indifferent, with an insular view of the events transpiring outside of his immediate experience. Only McKee's vision of the Great Lakes frontier transcended the Ohio country and placed it within the broader confines of the British Empire. Girty and Elliott mediated local interests where they intersected with those of the Crown. McKee mediated imperial interests where they meshed with those of the Ohio country. [10]

For McKee, the process of mediation interconnected with that of assimilation. As he drew away from native society, he gravitated toward the centers of Crown authority. Rather than acquiring marginality, McKee's growing affiliation with white society brought him cultural centrality. This provided McKee direct access to, and participation in, the decision-making process on both sides of the cultural line. With cultural centrality came opportunities to direct, to control, and to manipulate the course of cultural contact for both his own benefit and that of the British government. Cultural centrality, informed by loyalty to the Crown and filtered through the lens of self-interest, defined his career.

Originating in the British government's chief offices at Whitehall, British policy seeking to guide Indian affairs in the Great Lakes region undertook a long and perilous journey before achieving implementation. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, imperial directives were filtered through successive layers of bureaucracy until, growing increasingly thin and web-like at each stage, they arrived on the trans-Appalachian frontier to be put into action by persons such as McKee. Policy, no matter how explicit or well-defined in Great Britain, became subject to greater and greater degrees of personal interpretation at each stage in the process. Therefore, the execution of imperial Indian policy was derived only partly from the instructions articulated within that policy. Indian affairs also were shaped to a considerable degree by perceptions of self and of place which were carried by the agents who were charged with putting that policy into action. These perceptions differed from person to person and, as McKee's career showed, were subject to change throughout the course of an individual's life. To understand Indian policy along the trans-Appalachian frontier, it is essential to be cognizant of the personal world views imposed on that policy by the cultural mediators who shaped the course of Indian affairs throughout the region.


1. This and the following two paragraphs are based on Earnest A. Cruikshank, ed., The Correspondence of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, With Allied Documents Relating to His Administration of Upper Canada, 5 vols. (Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1923-1931), passim; Wiley Sword, President Washington's Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), passim; Reginald Horsman, "The British Indian Department and Resistance to General Anthony Wayne," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, IL (1962), 269-290. For general studies see Robert F. Berkhoffer, "Barrier to Settlement: British Indian Policy in the Old Northwest, 1783-1794," in David M. Ellis, ed., The Frontier in American Development: Essays in Honor of Paul Wallace Gates (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1969), pp. 249-276; Reginald Horsman, "American Indian Policy in the Old Northwest, 1783-1812," William and Mary Quarterly, XVIII (1961), 35-53; Robert S. Allen, "The British Indian Department and the Frontier in North America, 1755-1830," in Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1975), pp. 5-125.

2. Daniel K. Richter, "Cultural Brokers and Intercultural Politics: New York-Iroquois Relations, 1664-1701," Journal of American History, LXXV (1988), 40-67; Nancy L. Hagedorn, "'A Friend To Go Between Them': The interpreter as Cultural Broker During Anglo-Iroquois Councils, 1740-70," Ethnohistory, XXXV (1988), 60-80; Yohuside Kawashima, "Forest Diplomats, The Role of Interpreters in Indian-White Relationships on the Early Frontier," American Indian Quarterly, XIII (1989), 1-14; Clara Sue Kidwell, "Indian Women as Cultural Mediators," Ethnohistory, XXXIX (1992), 97-107. For fuller explanations of Iroquois social and diplomatic protocol see Elisabeth Tooker, "The League of the Iroquois: Its History, Politics, and Ritual," in William C. Sturtevant and Bruce G. Trigger, eds., Handbook of North American Indians (hereafter cited as HNAI), 20 vols., (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978), XV Northeast, 418-441; Francis Jennings, et al., eds., The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy: An Interdisciplinary Guide to the Treaties of the Six Nations and Their League (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985), passim; Michael K. Foster, "On Who Spoke First at Iroquois-White Councils: An Exercise in the Method of Upstreaming," in Michael K. Foster, et al., eds., Extending the Rafters: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Iroquois Studies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), pp. 183-208; Wilbur R. Jacobs, Wilderness Politics and Indian Gifts: The Northern Colonial Frontier 1748-1763 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), passim.

3. For general works describing the region's development during the period 1700-1815 see Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Francis Jennings, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies... (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984); Francis Jennings, Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years' War in America (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988); Richard Aquila, The Iroquois Restoration: Iroquois Diplomacy on the, Colonial Frontier, 1701-1754 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983); Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); Randolph C. Downes, Council Fires on the Upper Ohio: A Narrative of Indian Affairs in the Upper Ohio Valley until 1795 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1940); Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed., Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987); James B. Griffin, "Late Prehistory of the Ohio Valley," and William A. Hunter, "History of the Ohio Valley," in Sturtevant and Trigger, eds., HNAI, XV Northeast, 547-559; 588-593; Michael N. McConnell, "People 'In Between': The Iroquois and the Ohio Indians," in Daniel K. Richter and James Merrell, eds., Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600-1800 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1984), pp. 93-112.

4. Colin G. Calloway "Beyond the Vortex of Violence: Indian-White Relations in the Ohio Country, 1783-1815," Northwest Ohio Quarterly, LXIV (1992), 16-26. Calloway suggested that in place of the inadequate phrase, "Indian-White relations," historians should consider the following working formula: "Relations in the Ohio country between Delawares of the Turtle, Turkey and Wolf clans and the Moravian missions; Shawnees of the Kispoki, Maquachake, Piqua, Chillicothe, and Thwakela divisions; Wyandots from Sandusky, Wyandots from 'over the Lake;' Miamis, Mingoes and other Six Nations Indians, displaced Conoys, Nanticokes and Cherokee; English, Scottish, Irish and French-Canadian agents, soldiers and traders, 'Americans' of British, Germanic, Dutch, Gallic, African, Yankee or other heritage, of different regional allegiance, or different economic and political position; marginal, bicultural, or just 'culturally confused' individuals, their wives, their mixed blood children. And so on." See also "Introduction," in Bernard Bailyn and Philip D. Morgan, eds., Strangers Within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), pp. 1-31; White, The Middle Ground, passim.

5. R. David Edmunds, "Coming of Age: Some Thoughts Upon American Indian History," Indiana Magazine of History, LXXXV (1989), 312-321. Although Edmunds here uses the term "metis" to refer generally to persons of mixed Indian and European parentage, the term more correctly identifies persons of Native American and French extraction who were living in west central Canada. See Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S.H. Brown, eds., The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Metis in North America (Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1985), especially pp. 5-7. For a discussion of the term "mixed blood" see Jacqueline Peterson, "Prelude to Red River, A Social Portrait of the Great Lakes Metis," Ethnohistory, XXV (1978), 44.

6. This and the following two paragraphs are drawn from Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 4, 1771-1800 s.v., "Alexander McKee," by Reginald Horsman.

7. For McKee's early life see Charles Hanna, The Wilderness Trail (New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1911), pp. 207-212, and Raymond McKee, The Book of McKee (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Company, Ltd., 1959), pp. 157-175, 428-495. For his marriage to a Shawnee woman see Lyman C. Draper Manuscript Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 11YY33 [Tecumseh Papers], "John Johnston to Lyman Draper, July 10, 1848"; McKee Family Genealogical Collection, Fort Malden National Historical Park; McDonald Collection, The Hiram Walker Museum, Windsor, Ontario. For his subsequent life among the Shawnee see James Sullivan, Alexander Flick, Milton W. Hamilton, et al, Johnson Papers, passim. For McKee's later life see Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, particularly Vols. 9, 10, 12, 19, 20, 23, and 24; and also see Cruikshank, Simcoe Papers, passim.

8. Colin G. Calloway, "Beyond the Vortex of Violence: Indian-White Relations in the Ohio Country, 1783-1815," Northwest Ohio Quarterly, LXIV (1992), 21.

9. Colin G. Calloway, "Simon Girty: Interpreter and Intermediary," in James Clifton, Being and Becoming Indian: Biographical Studies of North American Frontiers (Chicago: The Dorsey Press, 1989), pp. 38-58; Everett V. Stonequist, The Marginal Man: A Study of Personality and Culture Conflict (New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1961), especially pp. 2-3. For critical comment regarding the "Marginal Man" model see Arnold Green, "A Re-evaluation of the Marginal Man Concept" Social Forces, XXVI (1947), 167-171; as well as Milton M. Goldberg, "A Qualification of the Marginal Man Theory," American Sociological Review, VI (1941), 52-58. For further ethnohistorically based studies of European/Indian cultural brokers, see the remaining essays in Clifton, Being and Becoming Indian, especially Gary C. Anderson, "Joseph Renville and the Ethos of Biculturalism," pp. 59-81.

10. Ibid., 21; Calloway, "Simon Girty: Interpreter and Intermediary," pp. 38-58.

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Last Updated: 23-Mar-2011