Friday, August 15, 2008

Thomas Cresap - Maryland Pioneer

Thomas Cresap Family Monument - Cumberland, Maryland
(Click on either image to see a larger and more legible version.)
Thomas Cresap
(b. 1694 ?; d. 1790)

A name that still strikes sparks in our imagininations is that of Thomas Cresap. With his air of daring, his boastfulness, his audacious swagger coupled with sheer courage, his colorful attitude and speeh, and a gift for finding his way despite any and all obstacles, he often reminds us of another English-born adventurer connected with Maryland: Captain John Smith.

Certainly, the family fort, househould, and trading post called "Oldtown," which he established and operated for many years, was one of the best-known place names in colonial America. Every traveler of any consequence knew about Cresap and Oldtown (known to many Indians as Opessa's Town). Located on the northern bank of the Potomac River, about 15 miles east of Cumberland, [Maryland], it was, for some ten years or more, looked upon as a sort of "Ultima Thule, or farthest west," in Maryland.

Cresap, a frequently-embattled rough-hewn frontiersman, and speculator, in a certain sense, was also an innkeeper --- but food and lodgings were free of charge to all who came. This was a custom of the time, especially in such a region where the usual inns and taverns were non-existent. On any one day, he might have as his guests one or two Moravian missionaries, on their way from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Virginia - and their Bethabara or Wachovia settlements in North Carolina (bent on converting Indians to Christianity); a government emissary on some important mission; perhaps even George Washington or Christopher Gist; three or four Indians, passing through; and one or two hunters, or trappers. Very likely, he enjoyed the "tall stories," and profited by the items of genuine frontier news, but was equally glad to find tourist traffic light on other days, considering his expense for food.

It is evident that Cresap had something further to gain from all this. He did considerable business with friendly Indians, trading European-style hardware and food items (flour, salt, gunpowder, weapons, bacon, hams, and so on) for furs. Increasingly, too, he bought and sold land, not omitting to solicit business from his Moravian churchly visitors. Here, we encounter an odd quirk of his nature. Though not religious, he looked upon their religious activities as a stabilizing influence. In addition, he respected them for their godly behavior and high principles.

As for Indian visitors, he welcomed friendly ones who might be customers; and he "put up" with others, showing whatever grace he could summon. (Often, there were war parties of the Six Nations, on their way to or from battles with their customary southern enemies, the Cherokees. These rather unwelcome guests --- who never bought real estate and seldom traded furs -- apparently reasoned that the colonists had driven away or killed their deer or other game, and that Cresap, therefore, should supply food to take its place. They regarded him as the only visible representative of a faraway "Great White Father" who had already broken one promise or another. Here, though not especially gifted as a diplomat, Cresap usually managed to "strike a deal.")

"Big Spoon," we are told, was the name usually given to him by Indians, descriptive of his apparently open-handed generosity in supplying them with food. As for Cresap, himself, the descriptions we have vary considerably, depending upon who said or wrote them. (See "Thomas Cresap, Maryland Frontiersman," by Kenneth P. Bailey.) William Trent, the Pennsylvania trader and Virginia military personage, was a prominent and fairly frequent quest at Oldtown. Andrew Montour, another respected individual (three-quarters Indian, and long noted as an interpreter and diplomat in Indian affairs) was Cresap's close friend. So was that courageous diplomat and Indian scout, George Croghan. It was from Cresap that George Washington learned much frontier lore, the two remaining friends until Cresap's death in 1790. (He was born in Yorkshire, England, probably about 1694, though he, himself, never was sure of the date).

On the other hand, a member of Braddock's expedition, described him thus.

"May 8th: Ferried over the River into Maryland ... there lives Colonel Cressop, A Rattle Snake Colonel, and a D---d Rascal ..."

No doubt, the title of "Rattle Snake Colonel" was intended to be derogatory, indicating that the military title was self-adopted rather than official.

By some, no doubt, Cresap was accused of "interfering in Indian affairs." He was not one to "go by the book." Yet, time and again, we read statements praising his hospitality, such as this one by two Moravians, visitors at Oldtown in 1749:

"... On October 31st, we passed no house for thirty-five miles, but indescribably high mountains. We started early ... and after passing safely through two creeks we came to Colonel Crissops at night, pretty well tired out. He received us very courteously ... Several other people were with him, a gentleman from Maryland and a servant from Virginia, to whom he gave all kind of good information about Bethlehem, and also about the conversion of the Indians... He also showed us on a map where the Six Nations live ..."

Extraordinary, indeed, was Cresap's ability to serve in the Maryland General Assembly, at Annapolis during part of one week, while being on hand the remainder of the week, as a sort of human "frontier listening post," at Oldtown.

It was in 1739 that a Pennsylvania captain, John Charlton, took out, from the Maryland government, a patent for 200 acres of land at a spot known as "Indian Seat." Cresap bought this on May 24, 1740 (for 100 pounds current money). With later land additions, it became known as Oldtown. From then on, he frequently acquired more land, selling whenever there was promise of a good profit.

From all this, we may certainly conclude that Thomas Cresap was just the right sort to have stationed along such Indian trails as Nemacolin's Path; one from whom news would be frequently forthcoming; and one who would seldom leave either friends or enemies in doubt.
(Biographical Sketches of Maryland by George and Virginia Schaun, 1969, p. 96-97)

The Cresap Society

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