The sensational murder of Jane Macrae in July 1777 made her one of the best known women of the 19th century.
She was a casualty of the American Revolution, and so was the truth about her death.
This much is true: Jane Macrae was a young Loyalist who went to upstate New York to meet her fiancé, a lieutenant in Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne’s army.
According to the myth that grew up about her, she was tall, beautiful, accomplished and much loved. Iroquois Indians captured her near the town of Fort Edward, N.Y., on her way to meet her lover at Ticonderoga. Two Indians were taking her to the British fort, quarreled, killed her and took her scalp. To make matters worse, Burgoyne refused to punish the murderers.
The news of her unavenged murder spread quickly, fueling outrage and fear throughout upstate New York and Vermont (then the New Hampshire Grants). Continental Army enlistments spiked and resistance to the British so strengthened the patriots they won the Battles of Saratoga.
Propaganda about her murder also built support for the 1779 Sullivan Expedition, a campaign led by Maj. Gen. John Sullivan against Loyalists and the four American Iroquois tribes that sided with the British. And James Fenimore Cooper used the tale in The Last of the Mohicans.
Some of it is true, and some of it isn’t. Some we’ll never know.
At least this is known: There was a Jane ‘Jenny’ Macrae, or McCrea, or MacCrea, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister born sometime in New Jersey in 1752. She had gotten engaged to a Loyalist neighbor, David Jones, who joined the British Army.
A newspaper account described Jane Macrae as "lovely in disposition, so graceful in manners and so intelligent in features, that she was a favorite of all who knew her." Her hair "was of extraordinary length and beauty, measuring a yard and a quarter." James Wilkinson, who actually saw her, described her as "a country girl of honest family in circumstances of mediocrity, without either beauty or accomplishments."
Her hair was described as reddish, black and blonde.
Waiting On A Friend
It is certain that Burgoyne was leading an invasion down the Hudson River Valley from Canada that summer. Patriot fighters harassed his army, and he encouraged his Iroquois allies to hunt and kill them.
Historians agree that Jane Macrae traveled to Fort Edward to meet her fiancé. She stayed with an elderly friend, Sara McNeil. With the approach of British forces, many of the townspeople fled to Albany. Jane Macrae and Sara McNeil stayed behind because Jane had received a letter from David Jones. It said,
In a few days we will march to Ft. Edward, ….where I shall have the happiness to meet you.
What happened next will never be known for sure. According to a 19th century version of events, David Jones sent two Indian escorts to fetch her so they could be married that day. And then:
When pretty Jane Macrae, imagining herself safe under the escort of two Indians, was on her way to join her betrothed lover at Fort Edward, the escort quarreled about her, and as the easiest way of settling it, drove an ax into her skull. The deed, committed under such circumstances, sent a thrill of horror through the country.
According to other accounts, she was -- or they were -- captured by the Indians. One of the Indians later said Jane Macrae was shot by pursuing rebels. An American soldier claimed to have been captured with them and saw the Indian shoot, then scalp her. Another British officer said she was taken against her will and tomahawked.
Propaganda about her death may have increased recruitment into the patriot cause. It may have solidified resistance to the British forces in the run-up to the Battles of Saratoga. On the other hand, it may not have done either.
John F. Luzader, in Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution, reviewed muster rolls and found no increase in enlistment after the death of Jane Macrae. In fact, he found, it dropped.
He also questioned how much the news of her murder spread fear and loathing.
Burgoyne did complain to Gen. Horatio Gates about the way Americans treated British prisoners after the Battle of Bennington. Gates replied in a letter:
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...
The Bride of Fort Edward
Gates circulated the letter and boasted he had run a successful propaganda campaign. His claims probably prompted the myth that eventually grew up around Jane Macrae.
John Vanderlyn painted the portrait of her in 1804. And in 1839, Delia Bacon made it into a play, The Bride of Fort Edward.
If you enjoyed this story about Jane Macrae, you might also enjoy this story about a young patriot officer who fell in love with a Loyalist here. This story was updated in 2019.