College of Arts and Sciences


Master of Arts in History - Thesis (MA)


Samuel Smith

Primary Subject Area

History, General; History, United States; American Studies; Native American Studies


Committee of Public Safety, Nicholas Cresswell, Delaware Indians, Loyalist, New York City, Virginia


American Studies | History | Political History | United States History


The diary of Nicholas Cresswell, a young Englishman who traveled in America from 1774-1777, has long been an important primary source on the American Revolution. Cresswell's travels took him from the eastern seaboard (and Barbados) to Kentucky and Ohio, and from Williamsburg, Virginia to New York City. The people he met encompassed almost the entire political spectrum of the day, ranging from William Howe and Loyalist operatives such as John Connolly to grassroots patriot activists on the Committees of Public Safety and founding luminaries such as George Rogers Clark, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. He rubbed shoulders with people from radically different social, ethnic, and cultural groups: prosperous merchants in Alexandria and Philadelphia; plantation elites and their slaves in Barbados, Maryland, and Virginia; struggling Scots-Irish pioneers on the frontier; peaceful Delaware Indians and Moravian converts; poor tenant farmers in Loudoun County, Virginia; and the wildly diverse inhabitants of British-occupied New York City, including naval captains and crews, redcoats and Hessians, Loyalist refugees, and the beggars and prostitutes that constituted the social dregs of a city under siege. Above all, he had adventures, described in vivid detail and with a wry humor. Despite the diary's popularity as a cornucopia of useful quotations, historians have written almost nothing about Cresswell himself, nor have they examined his diary simply for its own sake. In order to make Cresswell's fascinating record of his American journey more accessible, this work will take advantage of a new edition of the diary text to provide a detailed narrative retelling and restore chronological order to the story while also including necessary historical context and analysis. Cresswell did not remain politically neutral but instead acted decisively to support the British cause during the early years of the Revolutionary War, which he viewed as a grassroots insurrection sparked by the Intolerable Acts of 1774 and goaded on by the zealous Committees of Public Safety, without any broader philosophical or ideological justification. His experiences among the Delaware Indians on the western frontier caused a remarkable transformation in his attitude towards American Indians, and his descriptions of relationships with American women reveal important facts about eighteenth-century views of women, marriage, and sexuality. The diary of Nicholas Cresswell, often quoted but seldom read, can open a valuable window on the life of a remarkable individual and the remarkably ordinary people around him during the crucial early years of the American Revolution.