MY ARTICLE FROM A '97 ISSUE OF OLD TUSCALOOSA MAGAZINE:
JOHN MCKEE: INDIAN AGENT
By Robert Register
The memory of the frontier career of Colonel John McKee, Tuscaloosa's first U.S. Representative, can never be relegated to the shadows of oblivion shared by most of Alabama's pioneers. A mountain of documentation produced by almost forty years of McKee's public service in the old Southwest continue to await the biographer who will someday preserve McKee's memory for posterity.
Colonel McKee would certainly be unconcerned that his life had never been illuminated by American historical research.
Consider the Colonel's own words.
"...money is the subject of my story, and if they will, God bless them, give me but enough of that they may keep their honors for those who are more ambitious of them."The grateful citizens of Tuscaloosa certainly spared no expense in honoring Colonel McKee at his retirement party held at the Eagle Hotel on May 19, 1829. The Tuscaloosans were eating high on the hog and they were well aware that Colonel McKee held responsibility for much of their good fortune. For eight years, ever since he opened Tuscaloosa's Land Office and sold the first lots in 1821, John McKee had had his finger in the pie. Some of the men in the audience at this public dinner in the Eagle Hotel had fathers who had received their Revolutionary War & War of 1812 pensions with McKee's help while he served in Washington as their congressman from 1822 to 1828. The property deeds that many of these men held were received from Colonel McKee in 1821. This real estate certainly turned out to be a good investment.
At the time of the dinner, in the spring of 1829, Tuscaloosa had been Alabama's capitol for more than two years.
This party hosted by the men of a grateful city raised their glasses forty-two times for the toasts that preceeded sitting down to have dinner with the Colonel. Toast #11 was drunk to "The University of Alabama- may is indeed become the cradle of genius and the abode of science."Colonel McKee himself led the congregation at the end of Toast #6. The old colonel raised his cup to "The citizens of Tuscaloosa- may wealth reward their industry and enterprise, and health and happiness surround their firesides."Tuscaloosa's leaders were reminded of something very important as Colonel McKee stood at the head of the table to address them. This old man in his blue swallowtail coat held himself up with the assistance of a knotted hickory walking stick. Each of the stick's thirteen knots held a silver plate onto which a letter had been engraved. Together the thirteen silver letters spelled "ANDREW JACKSON."The first year of Jackson's presidency was 1829 and the Tuscaloosans looked forward to seeing Old Hickory put the tariff-loving Yankees in their place. Jackson also promised to fix the "Indian Problem" once and for all.
Three years after his retirement party, McKee's body, weakened by decades of frontier living, gave up the ghost at his plantation home, Hill of Howth, near Boligee in Greene County. In its obituary THE GREENE COUNTY GAZETTE stated: "With the earlier history of Colonel McKee's life we are unacquainted..."
In this newspaper obituary from August of 1832 we begin to find evidence that a collective amnesia concerning their frontier origins had already begun to cloud the thinking of Alabama's citizens. To consider Colonel McKee's earlier career would force Alabama's men to consume a bitter pill of history. Not only would they have to recall the long forgotten memories of abandoned Indian wives and children, they would also have to face the unpleasant fact that the negotiations that produced the civilization they and their fathers had founded, were based on three elements:
alcoholic intoxication, intimidation and bribery.
John McKee knew this better than anyone else. McKee's influence was ubiquitous throughout many affairs of the Southern Indians from 1792 until his death in 1832. Colonel McKee may have been an honorable man, but the frontier world he lived in was anything but honorable. The records of the Colonel are a window into the destruction of every Southern Indian nation; the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw and the Creek. Through his life one can know the complete historical record of the decline of the Southern Indian, yet a comprehensive analysis of the Colonel's life has never been written. The light that this yet unwritten biography would shed upon our forgotten past would certainly be appreciated by an American public that treasures a legacy which has shown the world that self-government is possible. Regardless of the psychic trauma that certain unpleasant details about our origins might produce, this history continues to influence continues to influence us in the present day.
John McKee's life with the Indians began in 1791 during General George Washington's presidency when William Blount, Governor of the territory south of the Ohio, appointed him to survey the Cherokee boundary from Clinch River to Chilhowee Mountain according to the Treaty of Holston, July 2, 1791. Educated at Liberty Hall Academy, now Washington and Lee University, the twenty-year-old McKee began to apply the lessons he learned in this log schoolhouse near the Shenandoah Valley town of Lexington, Virginia. To go along with his surveying skills, McKee began to acquire a mastery of Indian languages by utilizing the most renowned of all foreign language classrooms:
the marriage bed.
According to a written notation made by "E.A." in the margin of page 508 of the book A HISTORY OF ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY VIRGINIA, McKee "...married a half-breed Chicasaw[sic], birth of a daughter Alzira is recorded in a notebook preserved from 1794."
Elizabeth Archibald, in her essay on McKee, states that, "Papers preserved from his days as a Congressman show John McKee burdened with a son, Alexander..." This child was also likely the result of McKee's relationship with an Indian woman. According to THE DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN BIOGRAPHY, McKee "...was said to have been legally married to an Indian wife, and he provided that after his death, his friend and heir, William P. Gould, should make a quarterly payment in gold to his half-breed son." A nineteenth century biographical summary of Colonel McKee indicates that McKee died a bachelor. There's much evidence that McKee himself distanced himself from his Indian family after his entrance into politics in 1821. An example comes from the recollections of George Strother Gaines. Gaines wrote that in the early 1820s McKee mediated a Choctaw conflict a the Choctaw Indian Trading House near Epes in Sumter County. During the negotiations, Greenwood Leflore, Choctaw chief and namesake of Greenwood, Mississippi, told Gaines, "Colonel McKee has become a stranger to the Indians and cannot be expected to feel as much interest in their well doing as you feel."
This occurred thirty years after McKee's entry into Indian affairs.
In February 1793 McKee received his first opportunity to apply his mastery of Indian language when Governor Blount appointed him to head a peace mission to the Cherokees. These negotiations initiated McKee's career as an Indian agent. On page 12 of the first volume ofTHE CORRESPONDENCE OF ANDREW JACKSON,these words are found in a letter from Jackson to McKee dated January 30, 1793:
"One question I would beg leave to ask, why do we now attempt to hold a Treaty with them [i.e. the Cherokees]; have they attended to the last Treaty; I answer in the negative then why do we attempt to Treat with [a] Savage tribe that will neither adhere to Treaties, nor the law of Nations upon these particulars. I would thank you for your sentiments in your next [letter]."McKee certainly learned how to "Treat with the Savage Tribe." Over the next thirty years, at one time or another, McKee served as U.S. agent to the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations. He applied a persuasive argument in his negotiations with Indian leaders. After lubricating the chiefs' tongues by applying copious amounts of rum, McKee would ply the Indians for information and then ask them this rather pointed question when the Indians began to gripe about losing their land:
"Did you ever know Indians to recover land by war? Have you not observed that war is invariably followed by loss of land?"
With this argument McKee was able to talk the Choctaws and Chickasaws out of joining the Creeks during the War of 1812. In fact, the only action the Chickasaw tribe saw during the entire war was with McKee. They accompanied him on his expedition which destroyed all that remained of Black Warrior's Town located near present-day Tuscaloosa.
In his last years in Tuscaloosa, McKee showed evidence that he had mastered personal control over the demon rum. According to William R. Smith, McKee allowed himself only one drink per day. The occasion of this single daily libation by the Colonel turned into a sort of community ritual. McKee's rule was to take his daily drink at noon in Travis' saloon which was located at the intersection of University Boulevard and 23rd Avenue. Smith described what he saw each day when he was a ten-year-old boy growing up in Tuscaloosa:
"...when he [McKee] reached the steps he would invariably stop, pull out his watch, and go in, or not as the pointers of the watch directed; if it lacked one or more minutes of the exact period, he would walk up and down in front until the time should come...When the Colonel entered the saloon, the boys of the town would yell,'IN HE GOES; IT IS EXACTLY 12!'"
Colonel McKee's plantation home in Boligee stood until the death of John McKee Gould, Jr. in 1944. Timbers from the demolished "Hill of Howth" plantation home were used to build a relative's home between Eutaw and Greensboro. Today nothing remains on the site of McKee's 1816 home, the first house ever built by a U.S. citizen in what is now Greene County. This quiet hill where the Choctaws showed McKee springs that never ran dry has now returned to the forest. The springs at the foot of "Hill of Howth" still flow and the muck that surrounds these flowing waters produces the only evidence of human occupation. Glass bottles, left by one hundred thirty eight years of continuous human occupation, glisten as the visitor washes off the mud that covers them. Maybe someday, like these old bottles, a light will shine once more on the life of one of early Tuscaloosa's most important citizens:
COLONEL JOHN MCKEE.