The McDonald Who Turned George Washington Down by William Naylor McDonald III.

Most Americans whose families have been in this country since colonial times are particularly proud of having had representation in the American Revolution’s Continental Army. My McDonald family can’t do that, but it takes amused pride in the fact that its emigrant – Angus McDonald, a Glengarry – politely, but with some apparent yet guarded peevishness, declined General Washington’s extension of a Lieutenant-Colonelcy.

Angus arrived in Falmouth, Virginia, then a prosperous, busy port at the headwaters of the Rappahannock River, in August 1746, five months away from the tragic battle on Drumossie Moor where, according to family tradition, he was a member of the Glengarry Regiment. That fact, nor any other facts about this my great-great-great grandfather, have never been definitely nailed down by our old friend Donald J. Macdonald, whose help we sought when we first met him in 1957.

Angus is well documented after his arrival here but all that his vast number of descendants know of his life before that is in a letter written by his grandson who was raised by his grandmother, the emigrant’s widow.

The life of Angus W. McDonald, born near Winchester, Virginia, in 1799, is itself a colourful chapter of Americana and too full of historical references to be told here. His own father, Angus, a son of the emigrant, died in a military hospital in Batavia, New York, as an American army major in what we call the “War of 1812”. His mother had died earlier.

He wrote a letter in 1847 responding to a Prof. Lyman Draper, then in Baltimore, Md., who was collecting all possible information about those involved in the beginnings of the Middle West. His research included my emigrant great-great-great grandfather who had been actively involved in clearing the way West as a major of Virginia militia, Lord William Fairfax’s agent, and sheriff of Frederick County, Virginia, whose eastern border was the Blue Ridge Mountains, and borderless to the west.

Angus W. told Professor Draper that his grandfather was of the clan Glengarry, raised and educated with two brothers in Glasgow, “was engaged in the rebellion of 1745, then only 18 years of age and fled or was sent to this country in the year 1746″. We know he arrived in Falmouth in August that year. The identity of his father still remains unknown. His grandson told Draper he thought his name was Angus, that he was ”educated and independent, was also engaged in the Rebellion but whether he was killed, executed or died, I do not remember. He was not alive when my grandfather left Scotland in 1746″.

The emigrant moved west into the hardly settled back-country in 1754, to Winchester, Va. in the Shenandoah Valley, today the thriving Frederick County seat. In 1766, Angus, now 39, married Anna Thompson, 18, the daughter of a Scot who had settled in nearby Hancock, Maryland. They moved to “Glengarry”, immediately north of Winchester which Angus had built on a several hundred acre tract, and proceeded to have seven children.

He was appointed agent and attorney for Lord Fairfax in 1768 and rose to major in the Virginia militia in 1769. Active in the community, he was a vestryman of the Anglican church and a founder in 1768 of Winchester’s Masonic lodge. He became a juryman in 1763, a justice in 1765, continuing until his appointment by John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and Governor of Virginia, as Frederick County sheriff in 1775. He renewed the oath as sheriff “under the new order of things”, in the words of Professor Draper, on August 6,1776, not long after the Declaration of Independence. On December 7, 1774, he was promoted to militia Lieutenant Colonel. A recent article in a Virginia newspaper about the state’s early days noted that he held more county offices than any man of his time.

So much for statistics. The history books of these United States best remember him for his part in six months of Indian fighting – April through September 1774 – in the Ohio River valley in north-western Virginia labelled “Dunmore’s War”, regarded by many historians as the first action of the American Revolution.

The Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years French and Indian War opened up the Ohio River Valley and lands west of it to settlement. But the Indians, particularly the Shawnees, resented the incursion. Thus settlers were constantly harassed, killed, or taken into captivity.

In April, 1774, Major McDonald and his small party “taking up and improving lands” on the Ohio returned to Winchester as the result of several Indian encounters. On Governor Dunmore’s orders, Angus recruited 400 men and moved back west to the Ohio. Daniel Morgan, who later became one of the American Revolution’s most celebrated generals whose riflemen devastated the English forces at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, was among Major McDonald’s captains. Among McDonald’s scouts were Simon Garty, later the Revolution’s most infamous renegade, and Jonathan Zone, who with his brother Ebenezer founded Zanevitle, Ohio, today a city of about 50,000.

In June he had a fort – Fincastle, named for Dunmore who was also Viscount Fincastle – built at the mouth of Wheeling Creek where it entered the Ohio. The fort was the beginning of Wheeling, West Virginia, now a city of 60,000. Assisting was a Captain William Crawford who as a colonel in the Continental Army was tortured and burned at the stake not many miles west of Wheeling in 1782.

Then followed what American history calls “McDonald’s Expedition”, a strike 90 miles across the Ohio at a collection of five Shawnee villages called “Wapatomica”, now the site of the small Ohio Town of Dresden. On August 3, they burned the villages and 70 acres of corn, the Indians having withdrawn. The expedition whose climax was the destroying of the Wapatomica villages included a number of skirmishes and much Indian treachery and ambush.

The letter of grandson Angus William to Professor Draper recounts two stories told him by two old men – Samuel Kercheval and John L. Jacobs – who had served with Major McDonald, illustrating the latter’s bravery, and disciplining force. Described as “a powerful man about six feet two and one half inches tall and of fine proportions”, the Major on one occasion was set upon by two Indians. McDonald wounded one and unhorsed him, jerked the other from his saddle onto his own horse and carried him back to camp.

He brooked no defiance of discipline. While in the field against the Indians, one of his captains disregarded orders for quiet in camp and on refusing to comply to an order for his arrest was tied to a tree for 14 hours when he apologized and was released.

“He was a man of great composure and equanimity”, wrote his grandson to Professor Draper, ”sedate, stern and commanding, and I have often heard my grandmother and oldest uncle say that no one who knew him ever ventured to oppose or contradict him”. Traits not foreign to many of his descendants.

After striking this the first effective blow of “Dunmore’s War”, the Major and his men went home, to be replaced by an army of 1,200 men under Dunmore himself. On December 7, Angus McDonald was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

Appointed sheriff of Frederick County by Governor Dunmore on March 7, 1775, he settled down to family affairs, the business of enforcing the laws in the area and continuing as Lord Fairfax’s agent.

That year was one in which events moved rapidly in the Colonies. Relations between the colonists and the Crown worsened rapidly mainly as the result of increased taxation without representation. In April came the confrontation of British troops with the “Minutemen” of the Massachusetts militia in Lexington and Concord, and the ”shot heard around the world”. The first Continental Congress raised an Army and put George Washington, Angus’s comrade-in-arms and neighbour, in command.

Always a staunch Whig, Angus had written his militia commissary captain William Harrod in January from Winchester that he had just come from Williamsburg, where payment of the militia by the Governor and the Assembly was still unsettled. He added that “we are all preparing for war, both Maryland and Virginia are in motion, and I believe will fight before they suffer themselves to be imposed on. Lord Dunmore that summer transferred the public powder supply to a British warship, a move which resulted in such a hue and cry he was forced to seek safety aboard the ship, finally withdrawing to England. He was Virginia’s last colonial governor.

It wasn’t until March 16, 1777 that Angus was asked by Washington, to join him – as a Lieutenant Colonel – in a letter from Morristown, New Jersey – a rather cryptic message which said, in part:

“I sincerely wish that you would accept this office, and let me entreat you not to permit the love you bear to the cause to be smothered by any neglect of attention to your military character. The contest is too serious and important a nature to be managed by men totally unacquainted with the duties of the field. Gentlemen, who have from their youth discovered an attachment to this way of life, are in my opinion called upon in so forcible a manner that they ought not to withhold themselves…”

Washington’s letter said the colonel in command would be “Mr. Thruston”. The Rev. Minn Thruston was an Anglican clergyman in Winchester with whom Angus, as a vestryman, had long been at odds. Militarily, Thruston was a lieutenant under General Forbes in the French and Indian War, going to England to be ordained an Anglican priest in 1764. When the Revolution broke out he raised a volunteer company in the fall of 1776, was elected its captain, and joined Washington’s Army. His arm shattered by a musket ball near Amboy, New Jersey in January 1777, he was promoted to Colonel but became a supernumerary not long thereafter and was retired.

Adam Stephen, a Scot educated as a physician in Edinburgh, emigrated to the Winchester area about the same time as Angus went west to Winchester from Falmouth. They apparently became good friends. Stephen served in the French and Indian War, was a magistrate of Frederick County in 1784, and was made sheriff of adjoining Berkeley County when it was established in 1772. He apparently also operated a mill.

At any rate he wrote Angus on March 15, 1777, the day before Washington’s letter, apparently apprehensive about the way in which Angus would react to the fact that he would be reporting to Thruston. By this time, Stephen, also an ardent Whig, who had joined Washington in 1776, was a Major General. Said Stephen’s letter:

…I desire you will not decline it, it is more honorable than if you had been appointed by convention or committee as their appointments are influenced by party or private views too often. Your appointment comes entirely from your own merit. Your Highland pride may stare you in the face and bellow out – shall I serve under . . and under. . . It is incompatible with my mistaken honour, merit, service, etc., etc. I desire you will remember that in February 1776 I was nothing in the military way – in less than a year I was a Colonel – Brigadier – and Major General. Had not my attachments to the interests of America been superior to all scrupulosity, I would have been poking at home about the mill. The times require active men and the useful will be promoted and employed.

I am desirous to have you, and Colonel Thruston told me he would rather give a hundred guineas than you should decline it. But should you be obstinate – God forbid – write a polite letter to General Washington, thanking his excellency for his notice and making the best excuse you can.

I am, dear Colonel,

Yours affectionately,

Adam Stephen

More than that no friend, could have pleaded. But it did little good. Angus replied to Washington in an April 20 letter, in which he said he had received Washington’s letter only the day before and that:

… I am truly sensible of the honour conferred on me by your appointment and shall to my latest hour bear it in greatful remembrance but am so circumstanced that I cannot without exposing my family to a prospect of ruin accept of it. This situation obliges me to decline a post which must reflect credit on me from the channel through which it came. From the first commencement of the troubles I had an expectation that I might be called upon to serve in the field and regulated my domestic affairs in such a way as to obey the summons when called upon until the last military promotions in this state. When finding to my great disappointment the rolls filled up, I then concluded that I should not be wanted and have since undertaken and launched out into other businesses that I cannot leave. This I hope will plead my excuse well, your excellency. May God preserve you long, a blessing to your country, a terror to tyrants, and an ornament to human nature.

I have the honour to be with profound respect

Your excellency’s most obliged and obedient servant,

Angus McDonald”.

Granted, a gracious letter but one in which a certain sense of injury at not having been called at the “commencement of the troubles” clearly shows through.

My great-uncle Hunter in a book about the family published in 1935, said: “Both General Washington and General Stephen seem to have fully realised the difficulties of the situation and were eloquent in their efforts to forestall refusal”.

Professor Lyman Draper in his manuscripts ascribes Angus’ refusal to being “unwilling to serve second in command to a colonel without military experience”. Truly a typically intractable Scot.

His friend Adam Stephen came home to Virginia not many months later on being cashiered for having been allegedly intoxicated at the Battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777. He went on to become one of Virginia’s leaders, as a member of the state’s assembly and of the State’s constitution-ratifying convention. His daughter married Alexander Spotswood Dandridge forebear of my cousin Elizabeth Dandridge McDonald, wife of cousin Angus, Lexington, Ky. lawyer.

As for Angus, a year and four months after writing his letter of refusal, he died at his home “Glengarry” on August 19, 1778. According to a granddaughter, Mrs. Richard Holliday, cause of death was the taking of a dose of tarter emetic by mistake. That seems a rather ignominious manner of passing for such a doughty Scot and American pioneer, and we favour the reason given at the Masonic Lodge’s “Lodge of Sorrow” on February 2, 1785, the first after the close of the Revolutionary War. Among the absentees accounted for were ”Brother Angus McDonald, died by the fatigue of a severe campaign against the Indians”. He was 51.