Reading Dale Van Every’s Forth to the Wilderness the other night, I realized with a start that in the more-than- seven-year history of the Frontier Partisans site, I have never mentioned the name of George Croghan. This is a terrible sin of omission — one that is illustrative of a broader historical phenomenon. There was no more significant figure in the Ohio Valley frontier world of the mid-18th Century than this extraordinary Irish trader, land speculator and diplomat. Yet when he died a broken man in 1782, Croghan had fallen so far into obscurity that he didn’t even merit mention in the newspapers.
How the hell does that happen?
In my case, I have to admit that I neglected Croghan because he wasn’t a warrior. His name crops up everywhere when you read frontier history, but from my youth I was focused on the hunter-warriors like Simon Kenton, Blue Jacket, Robert Rogers and their ilk. Hence Frontier Partisans. My interest in the Mountain Men of the early 19th Century swirled around their feats of derring-do much more than what they were doing in the Rocky Mountains in the first place. I paid less attention to Economic Man than I should have. That has changed, as you might expect, as my studies delved deeper and became more sophisticated, and as I came to appreciate the way in which the wheels of commerce make everything move — now as it was then. Truly, it was trade that originally drove virtually all activity in the frontier borderlands.
And no one was more important to trade in the Middle Ground than George Croghan.
Croghan appeared in the Pennsylvania backcountry in 1741 as if purpose-built for the fur trade. He had a personal history, of course, but we know nothing at all about it — not even the names of his parents. We know he was Irish and came from Dublin and that’s it. He created himself in the borderlands of the Pennsylvania colony. And he took to the trade with rare celerity and capability. As Dale Van Every writes:
“His phenomenal success was due to several factors, the foremost of which was his own tremendous energy. Most of his opposite numbers heading other Pennsylvania trading firms were conventional merchants who remained comfortably in Philadelphia, delegating to employees all physical operations connected with getting their goods into the wilderness and into the hands of Indian customers… Croghan on the other hand went himself into the wilderness and literally paddled his own canoe. He took the trouble to learn Indian languages. He respected Indian customs. He kept his word as carefully in the most distant Indian towns as in Philadelphia. Hundreds of influential Indians became his personal friends. Naturally his business flourished.”
Inevitably, business meshed with public service, as Croghans’s skills and connections became valuable tools of frontier diplomacy. In time, Croghan rose in stature to stand second only to the astounding Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Northern District. He actually carried more influence than Johnson among the tribes of the interior Ohio Country. Croghan served the British Crown as Johnson’s deputy, and negotiated preliminary treaties on behalf of His Majesty’s government. The work was arduous, and demanding, and Croghan was doubtless one of the most widely-traveled men of his age. He hardly ever stopped to rest at Croghan Hall, established near the headwaters of the Ohio River, his highway into the Middle Ground. Sometimes the work was dangerous, as when a band of militant Kickapoos killed several of his party and wounded the Irishman with a tomahawk.
The trader/diplomat did the British Crown a signal service in eroding the support of the western Indians for the French during the latter years of the French and Indian War. This was work of tremendous, perhaps decisive, strategic significance. He labored mightily to stave off the conflagration of Pontiac’s Rebellion, and to repair the damage done by high-handed and boneheaded post-F&I War British policy. The dark and bloody ground of the interior Old Northwest would have been darker and bloodier if not for his tireless efforts.
Croghan married a white woman during the 1740s and had one daughter. I don’t know if his wife died or simply got tired of a husband who was never home. At any rate, Croghan married a second time — to a prominent and influential Mohawk woman named Takarihoga, called Catherine Peters. Their daughter would later go on to become the third wife of the Loyalist militant Thayendeganea, or Joseph Brant. Croghan, like his mentor Johnson, involved himself in massive land transactions. The vicissitudes of war, trade and politics buffeted him in his later years, leaving him land rich and cash poor. He was often faced with financial ruin.
During the onset of the American Revolution, Croghan seems to have made a genuine effort to keep the western tribes neutral, as he had done in the past. He operated, however, under a cloud of suspicion. Given his connections to the Johnson family — ardent Loyalists — and his status as a Crown diplomat, such suspicions were perhaps inevitable. In 1777, General Edward Hand, American commander at Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania, banished the trader from the frontier that had been his area of operations for more than 30 years. Perhaps Croghan would have joined Alexander McKee and Simon Girty — also suspected traitors — in defecting to the British in 1778, but he was too old, too worn out and hampered by gout to make such a move (if, indeed, he actually contemplated it; the notion that he might have is just my own surmise). He was acquitted of any wrongdoing in a November 1778 trial, but he never made it back into action.
He died broke and obscure in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1782, a man whom history passed by and swiftly forgot. It is my honor — belatedly — to remember this giant of the frontier, this Man of the Middle Ground.