For some Englishman, the political conflict between the United Kingdom and its American colonies was an afterthought that should not interfere with their plans to build a future based on American wealth. Nicholas Cresswell was one such person. He traveled to the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution and returned home in 1777, having kept an extensive diary of his travels, experiences, thoughts, and conditions in America during the war’s first years. Along the way, he met some of the most colorful and interesting people who played prominent roles in the war: George Rogers Clark, Delaware Indian leaders White Eyes and Killbuck, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, William Howe, Robert Rogers, and Charles Lee to name a few. Since its publication, Cresswell’s journal has become a touchstone for historians looking for insight into those people, how a loyal Englishman like Cresswell saw the world and the Americans around him interpreted events. In particular, he recounts the feelings and treatment of loyalists trapped in America during the war. With that in mind, reviewing Cresswell’s diary might help spread the word about a worthwhile primary resource.
An English Adventurer in the Colonies
The son of a prosperous and well-off farmer from northern England, Nicholas decided in 1774 to explore the colonies with an eye toward securing his own financial future. Quite simply, he recorded in his diary on March 1, 1774 that, “I am sensible a person with a small fortune may live much better and make greater improvements in America than he can possibly do in England. Especially in the Farming way, as that is the business I have been brought up to.”[i] In truth, Cresswell had a falling out with his father and seems likely to have been given an ultimatum to make his own way in life.
Cresswell arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in May. Ashore, he found a country focused on its growing disagreement with Britain: “Nothing talked of but the Blockade of Boston Harbour. The people seem much exasperated at the proceedings of the Ministry and talk as if they were determined to dispute the matter with the sword.”[ii] The crossing played havoc on Cresswell’s health. So, soon after arriving at Alexandria, Virginia, he returned to sea bound for the allegedly healthier climate of Barbados.
He was back by October. Cresswell had a letter of introduction to a merchant in Alexandria, James Kirk. The merchant readily became Cresswell’s host, a critical role that would enable the young man to explore Virginia looking for opportunities to make his fortune. Kirk was a fortunate connection. He was successful and did regular business with the colony’s elite. He was also an American patriot and had co-signed the Fairfax Resolves that July.
In Virginia’s cash-constrained economy, Cresswell received personal advances from Kirk, then make drafts on his father’s resources to pay the debt recorded in Kirk’s account books. In short, Kirk-the-storekeeper acted as Kirk-the-banker who would then submit the debt to Cresswell’s father for payment, more than likely by having it entered in account book somewhere in England as a debt payable to Mr. Kirk. It was an inefficient way to do business and a daily reminder of the difficulties caused by Great Britain’s monetary policies vis-à-vis the colonies.
The political mood in Virginia had evolved swiftly while Cresswell was in Barbados. He noted upon his return:
Everything here is in the utmost confusion. Committees are appointed to inspect into the Characters and Conduct of every tradesman, to prevent them selling Tea or buying British Manufactures. Some of them have been tarred and feathered, others had their property burnt and destroyed by the populace. Independent Companies are raising in every County on the Continent, appointed Adjutants and train their Men as if they were on the Eve of a War. A General Congress of the different Colonies met at Philadelphia on the 5th of last month are still sitting, but their business is a profound secret.[iii] Subscription is raising in every Colony on the Continent for the relief of the people of Boston. The King is openly cursed, and his authority set at defiance. In short, everything is ripe for rebellion.[iv]
For his part, Cresswell remained the patriotic Englishman, blaming the growing unrest on Yankee manipulation. “The New Englanders by their canting, whining, insinuating tricks have persuaded the rest of the Colonies that the Government is going to make absolute slaves of them. This I believe never was intended, but the Presbyterian rascals have had address sufficient to make the other Colonies come into their Scheme.” When the First Continental Congress adopted its Declaration and Resolves announcing, among other things, the boycott of English trade, Cresswell responded with fury.
“Read a Petition to the Throne and an address to the people of Great Britain. Both of them full of duplicity and false representation. I look upon them as insults to the understanding and dignity of the British Sovereign and people. Am in hopes their petitions will never be granted. I am sorry to see them so well received by the people and the sentiments so universally adopted. It is a plain proof that the seeds of rebellion are already sown and have taken very deep root, but am in hopes they will be eradicated next summer. I am obliged to act the hypocrite and extol these proceedings as the wisest productions of any assembly on Earth, but in my heart I despise them and look upon them with contempt.”[v]
Cresswell largely kept his thoughts private and associated with Alexandria’s luminaries, including Kirk and John Carlyle, who owned one of the most ostentatious houses in town. He still needed them to make his fortune and hoped the whole thing would blow over by the spring. In his spare time, he watched George Washington take the local troops through their maneuvers and an independent company march through town before burning Lord North in effigy. A reconnaissance trip to Winchester confirmed his suspicions about the farming potential in Virginia, but he found no opportunities.
That winter, Kirk rode to the rescue. The merchant and a partner had acquired shares in a land company working in the Illinois country. They offered to sell Cresswell one third of their allotment at the original purchase price or he could have 5,000 acres outright should he go and inspect the land for them as a surveyor.[vi] Cresswell agreed. While he went to Maryland to learn something about surveying—a skillset he lacked—Kirk started working his connections to get Cresswell a license. (It was lost on Cresswell that the Quebec Act of 1774, one of the Intolerable Acts that had Americans up in arms, put Kirk’s investment—and thus Cresswell’s future—in question.)
With every passing month, American frustration with the mother country grew and Marylanders began to suspect that Cresswell was a spy. Warned that the Committee of Safety might arrest him, he left with a bad taste in his mouth. “The Committees act as Justices. If any person is found to be inimical to the liberties of America, they give them over to the mobility to punish as they think proper, and it is seldom they come off without a tarring and feathering. It is as much a person’s life is worth to speak disrespectfully of the Congress. The people are arming and training in every place. They are all liberty mad.”[vii]
Cresswell confessed many of these sentiments in letters home, which were intercepted when American boatmen boarded the vessel carrying them to London. Cresswell’s correspondence was reviewed and sent to the Alexandria Committee of Safety with an order for his arrest. The letters arrived too late for the Alexandria Committee to act.[viii]
[i] Nicholas Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell (New York: The Dial Press, New York, 1924), March 1, 1774.
[ii] Cresswell, Journal, May 30, 1774.
[iii] The First Continental Congress.
[iv] Cresswell, Journal, October 24, 1774.
[v] Cresswell, Journal. November 1, 1774. This was the “Declaration and Resolves” of the First Continental Congress which, among other things, called on the colonies to boycott English trade.
[vi] Cresswell, Journal, January 6, 1775.
[vii] Cresswell, Journal, February 18, 1775.
[viii] Cresswell, Journal, June 1, 1777.