'Rattlesnake Colonel' was a remarkable man

July 22, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

The simple mention of "Dan's Rock" in a recent story brought back memories of early research about one of the most remarkable families in the history of Maryland. The senior member, Thomas Cresap, was a versatile, colorful and pugnacious "Rattlesnake Colonel," who left a heritage of three mountains named in events related to his family located just to the west of Cumberland, Md.

Dan's Mountain, on which Dan's Rock is situated, was the scene of a near fatal accident in which Cresap's son Daniel fell from a tree while trying to catch a bear cub. He was saved by a friendly Delaware Indian, Nemacolin, who carried him home for care in time for recovery.

Negro Mountain was named in remembrance of a servant of the Cresap family who was killed in a clash between an Indian war party and several members of Cresap's patrol group ranging the area.

Cresap also lost his son, Thomas Cresap Jr., in a conflict with Indians who were alarmed at the steady pressure of Euro-Americans on their hunting grounds. The site is now known as Savage Mountain.


These accounts of violence give a distorted picture of Cresap in view of the fact that he was known as "Big Spoon" among the Iroquois Indians because he was generous to them as they traveled the "Great Warrior Trail" southward to fight Catawba braves.

It is possible that few local residents are aware of the fact that this amazing frontier personality once lived just north of Hagerstown on a 500-acre plot known as "The Long Meadow." Cresap was forced to vacate the farm when he could not repay the loan to buy this property. Cresap was brought to ruin as a consequence of the French capture of his cargo of furs being carried to England. He then became quite wealthy as a fur trader in his new home site at Old Town, Md.

Thomas Cresap cut a wide swath when he began a career operating a ferry on the Susquehanna River at what is now Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. At that time, the territory was in dispute with Maryland claiming up to the 40th parallel near Philadelphia. Settlers from Pennsylvania ("Pennites") had the same dislike for the settlers from Maryland as those from Maryland had for the "Pennites," making the area a very perilous place to live. From 1730 until 1736, there was intermittent border warfare known as the "Conojacular War" in which Cresap was lucky to have survived.

During one assault on Cresap's home, he was captured and held prisoner in the Lancaster County jail. The sheriff's posse then wanted to put the "Maryland Monster" on display, so they carried him in an open carriage through Philadelphia. A curious bystander asked Cresap what he thought of the city and Cresap made the taunting reply that "It is the prettiest little town in Maryland."

Tired of the continuous friction and outright conflict between the two provinces, the King of England intervened and ordered Cresap to be released on condition that he vacated the region. He then moved to the Long Meadow because land there was cheap.

Cresap was no ordinary trader. He was a natural leader who thrived on a life of action. He served in the Maryland legislature for a while and then sat on the court located in Frederick Town (the present Frederick, Md). A reading of the court records tells a lot about his feisty temper. Cresap was before the court as much as he was on the court. In one assault case, the plaintiff accused Cresap of beating him so severely that he despaired of his life.

One other member of the Cresap family deserves attention because of the interest in him shown by Thomas Jefferson. In his now famous publication, "Notes on the State of Virginia," Jefferson accused Michael Cresap (the youngest son), of murdering the Logan family on the Ohio River in 1774.

Logan, a well-known, friendly Indian, had earlier made this charge and Jefferson perpetuated the mistaken accusations. After exhaustive study of this ugly massacre, it became clear that Michael Cresap was innocent.

The Cresap family is worthy of our recognition because they demonstrated the rugged determination to survive and prosper in adversity. They were self-reliant, versatile, and hard working. The unflattering title, "Rattlesnake Colonel," while a caricature, is nonetheless appropriate. It is doubtful if he ever earned that rank, but it shows his capacity for self-promotion. Yet a family with so much talent and character deserves more notoriety.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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