Cresswell found cheap lodging in New York and reunited with Joseph Brewer, who had fled Philadelphia himself, leaving his wife behind. “The persecution against the friends of Gorvernment was too violent for a man of his warm temper to stay any longer amongst them with safety either of person or property.” While in New York, he watched the buildup of forces that Howe would later take on the Philadelphia campaign, but his focus remained on securing passage home. It would take months, but Cresswell found ways to kill time, including watching a skirmish with the Americans he had so frequently cursed.
Finally, in the spring of 1777, Cresswell again decided to try returning to England. Thomson Mason, who had already intervened with two Committees of Safety to protect the Englishman, offered to help with Virginia authorities once more, provided that Cresswell swear not to join the British Army. Cresswell did. The best plan was to leave Leesburg, travel overland to Alexandria, then take a schooner down the Potomac and Chesapeake for Williamsburg and Hampton, where it might be possible go aboard a ship bound for British-occupied New York. As he made his preparations, the local Committee of Safety arrived on April 16 to search his possessions for treasonable items. They seized a shot pouch, powder horn, and bearskin he acquired from the Delaware Indians. Cresswell decided not to contest the seizure lest it complicate his departure.
Having failed to reach the British Army in New York, Cresswell spent a miserable autumn and winter of 1776/1777 in northern Virginia, often arguing with his host, James Kirk, a Patriot and the only man who had ensured the Englishman could keep clothes on his back and a roof over his head. Cresswell’s loyalist proclivities and extensive travels were widely known and on November 28, three men of the Committee of Safety in Alexandria “waited on me and informed me that the committee did not think it prudent to let me go out of the Country at this time and hoped that I would give my word of honour not to depart this Colony for three months. Otherwise they would confine me. I was obliged to do the first as the lesser evil of the two. They were polite enough not to search my chest.”[i] Depressed as ever and suspecting Kirk of arranging the entire affair in order to keep him in Virginia, Cresswell did what he usually did when he was unhappy. He got drunk.
Nicholas Cresswell left Alexandria for the Illinois Country on March 16, 1775, his correspondence as yet unknown to the local Committee of Safety. The Ohio River served as a highway to the west, so he headed for its origin at Pittsburgh. Along the way, he stopped to visit the battlefield where French and Indian forces defeated Major General Edward Braddock in July, 1755. Cresswell and his traveling companions found “great numbers of bones, both men and horses. The trees are injured, I suppose by the Artillery…the greatest slaughter seems to have been made within 400 yards of the River…We could not find one whole skull, all of them broke to pieces in the upper part, some of them had holes broken in them about an inch diameter, suppose it to be done with a Pipe Tomahawk.”[i]
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.