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Grief, Crime, and Mercy in Colonial Charleston: The Story of Elizabeth McQueen, Part 1
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When an unmarried young woman of Native American ancestry lost a newborn child in 1747, her white neighbors on the frontier of South Carolina interpreted her private grief as a mask for clandestine guilt and summoned the force of English law. Today we’ll begin to reconstruct the fragmented story of Elizabeth McQueen’s painful journey from “innocence and sobriety” to arrest, humiliation, and incarceration in colonial Charleston.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve spent a lot of time at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia, reading through all of the manuscript records of South Carolina’s early government. Most of this material is dominated by dry and mundane details about the very necessary but often boring work of civic administration, but occasionally one finds tidbits of interesting and sometimes scandalous stories scattered among the drab routine. In short, these public records are a veritable goldmine of historical treasures.
I found today’s story about a woman named Elizabeth McQueen while reading through one of the unpublished manuscript journals His Majesty’s Council, a small but elite legislative body that functioned as an advisory council to the colonial-era governors of South Carolina. The entire story is contained within just a few pages the Council’s 1747 journal and consists of four discrete parts, including a petition, an order, a judicial report, and an opinion, all recorded with pen and ink in mid-November of that year.
The surviving text related to this story includes just over five hundred words, but I’d like to use this sparse material as an example of how we can make the most of the surviving documentary history of our community. Let’s begin by reading Elizabeth McQueen’s brief petition to the governor of South Carolina, which was probably written by an unknown amanuensis who was visiting Elizabeth in jail. The text, which is written in a formal third-person voice that was customary for legislative petitions of that era, might not represent her exact words, but it conveys the spirit of her appeal for mercy:
The petition of Elizabeth McQueen to His Excellency the Governor, a condemned Person for the Murther [sic] of her Child
Praying for Mercy
That Your Petitioner hath the misfortune to be under sentence of Death for the murder of her Bastard Child after having sufferd [sic] many hardships dureing [sic] a long imprisonment since the committing of the aforesaid rash inconsiderate act of leaving the Child exposed which to the best of your Petitioners [sic] belief was born dead But your unhappy Petitioner is now to [sic] late informed that a Bastard Child born dead and concealed by the Mother is by the law deemed to be born alive and murthered [sic].
Your Petitioner begs leave to informe [sic] your Excellency that her Mother was a Creek Indian and her Father an Englishman.
Your Petitioner will not attempt to deceive your Excellency with any falacious [sic] defence [sic] of the act for which the law hath sentenced her to suffer Death. But with the greatest Humility and most sincere Repentance throws her self at Your Excellencys [sic] feet and implores that Mercy in this World which your Petitioner is taught God Almighty hath promised to Repenting sinners in the next. If Your Excellency shall be pleased so farr [sic] as to incline your Ear to this Petition as to make any inquiry concerning the Tryal your Petitioner flatters herself it will appear that no Circumstances were alledged [sic] that aggravated the Offence [sic] while the Custom of the Indians and the Ignorance
ofthat usually attends persons in her low Situation being poor and half Indian and being no common prostitute may plead for some extra extinuation [sic] of her guilt and to interceed [sic] so far with your Excellency as to represent your unhappy Petitioner a proper object of Mercey [sic] And your Petitioner as in duty bound will spend the days which she shall owe under God to your Excellencys [sic] Humanity in amending her life and in Praying for your Excellency[.]
When I first encountered this brief text in the Council Journal, I was immediately intrigued. Most of the surviving records of life in early America were written by men about the activities of men, so we know relatively little about the lives of individual women who once formed an equal share of the population and made significant contributions to the formation of our society. Contained within this three-hundred-word petition, however, we have a brief sketch of a much larger story that provides valuable insight into the life of a specific woman at a specific moment in South Carolina’s early history. Furthermore, it provides the kernel of an intimate, melodramatic narrative that has the potential to appeal to a broad audience beyond the narrow field of academic historians.
While lamenting the paucity of surviving details about Elizabeth McQueen, I also recognized that it might be possible to locate clues imbedded within the brief record of her life that might enable us to reconstruct the framework of a much more robust version of the story. I like to compare this sort of work to paleontology. As we’ve all seen on TV and in the movies, paleontologists are skilled professionals who dig up old bones and study dinosaurs and other ancient living creatures. More specifically, their work often requires them to draw broad conclusions from just a handful of clues. For example, a paleontologist in the field might a few fossilized bones and take them back to a lab, where they study and interpret the materials. Using their broader knowledge of the subject and the context of the discovery, they can transform their interpretations about fossilized fragments into an intriguing reconstruction of an entire dinosaur or other creature.
I’m not suggesting that we can physically reconstruct Elizabeth McQueen, of course, but the comparison to paleontology is still valid. By applying our historical knowledge, archival experience, and imagination to the surviving fragments of her story, we can discern latent clues that enable us, with a bit of hard work and patience, to restore many of the missing pieces that formed the world inhabited by Elizabeth McQueen. Let’s begin by profiling our protagonist, and then we’ll try to reconstruct the chain of events and the actors that set her on a path to the hangman’s noose in 1747.
Who Was Elizabeth McQueen?
Everything we know about Elizabeth McQueen stems from the brief text that survives in the manuscript journal of His Majesty’s Council. You might have noticed that her petition to the governor described her as living in a “low situation[,] being poor and half Indian.” More specifically, it says “her mother was a Creek Indian and her father [was] an Englishman.”
The term “Creek Indian” was invented in the early eighteenth century by European colonists who settled in the area now encompassed within the state of Georgia, where they found numerous independent bands of interconnected Native people. Although the descendants of those indigenous people mostly use the term Muscogee or Mvskoke to identify themselves today, the settlers of South Carolina used the term “Creek Indian” as a broad, imprecise label that encompassed a number of different tribal components. As such, we can’t be certain of Elizabeth McQueen’s precise tribal identity within the spectrum of Native peoples living to the southwest of colonial-era Charleston.
Many of the English-speaking traders who lived and worked among the Native American population on the southwestern frontier of South Carolina in the early eighteenth century were men of Scottish descent, and their interactions with the Creek people form a significant part of the early history of both South Carolina and Georgia. Think of the more famous colonial names in this area, including McGillivray, McIntosh, McPherson, and so on. Alexander McQueen and Duncan McQueen, for example, were licensed Indian traders working on the frontier of South Carolina as early as 1725 and 1726, respectively. By the 1730s, the McQueen surname was found in more settled areas like St. Paul’s Parish, in Colleton County, and on James Island, in St. Andrew’s Parish.
Despite the proximity of the McQueen surname to urban Charleston, the fact remains that Augusta, Georgia, on the banks of the Savannah River, was always the nexus of trade between white South Carolinians and members of the Creek nation. Creek dignitaries often came to Charleston to parley with the governor, but there were few Creek people living in the Lowcountry. It is possible, therefore, that Elizabeth McQueen or her mother was a refugee of sorts from the larger Creek spectrum, or was estranged from her home community, and had drifted eastward into the South Carolina Lowcountry. Perhaps she was living in the vicinity of the Ashepoo River, among the small band of Notchee people who represented a vestige of the once powerful Natchez tribe of Mississippi. Or perhaps she lived among the last of the Chehaw people, a Creek satellite band that had also fled eastward in the early 1700s and settled in Colleton County between the Ashepoo and Combahee Rivers.
While South Carolinians of European heritage routinely expressed disdain for the “half-breed” children of white men and native women, the Creek people were not so prejudiced. Creek life revolved around a matrilineal culture, in which women enjoyed control over their own bodies and possessed significant social and political power within their community. Unmarried Creek women who formed liaisons with white men, be they casual sexual encounters or permanent relationships, were not subjected to scorn or rejection, nor did their reputations suffer if they bore children with white men. In fact, the mixed-race children of Creek mothers were considered full members of the tribe, and were routinely given Creek-language names.
Elizabeth McQueen probably had a Creek name that she received at birth, but it appears to be lost forever. Her use of a Judeo-Christian first name suggests that Elizabeth might have been baptized by a rural minister in the parish where she was born, and perhaps had a rudimentary introduction to European religious traditions. What role, if any, her white father played in her early life is a mystery, but it was customary for female children in the Creek community to live with or very near the other women of her extended matrilineal family.
Where was Elizabeth living at the time of her arrest? The surviving documents do not contain any hint of a geographic location, but, as I mentioned earlier, I suspect she might have been living somewhere in Colleton County—perhaps near or among the small bands of Notchee or Chehaw Indians living in the vicinity at that time. The 1747 judicial report on Elizabeth’s petition, which reveals a few additional facts from her trial, mentioned that the judges had heard favorable testimony from “the people with whom she had lived for several years past.”
To my mind, this statement suggests that Elizabeth McQueen had been residing for some time in a domestic situation dominated by white settlers of European ancestry. It is unclear, however, whether or not she was accompanied by any family relations, such as her mother or aunts or cousins. If not, then somehow she had become totally detached from the traditional matrilineal network that formed such an important part of Creek life. There was, no doubt, a colorful backstory related to this matter, but the details are now long gone. In the absence of further documentation, the location of her residence and the nature of her domestic situation is totally ambiguous. The scene of this drama might have been rural Colleton County, but we can’t rule out the possibility that she lived somewhere farther inland, or had even drifted into urban Charleston in search of a home.
The surviving documentary materials related to Elizabeth’s case do not specifically mention her age in 1747, but I feel confident in concluding that she was a young woman—perhaps even a teenager. We know that she was sufficiently mature to become pregnant and to carry a child, but, according to the testimony of her neighbors at Elizabeth’s trial, she had led a life of “innocence and sobriety” prior to her pregnancy. Perhaps she was born around the year 1730, which date, coincidently, aligns with the known presence of Indian traders Alexander and Duncan McQueen on South Carolina’s southwestern frontier.
The Nature of Her Crime
Through circumstances now lost to time, Elizabeth McQueen became pregnant in 1746 without the legal benefit of a marriage recognized by colonial authorities. She was apparently alone when she gave birth, sometime in the first half of 1747, and the child did not survive. “To the best of [her] belief,” said her later petition to the governor, the child “was born dead,” but there were no witnesses present at the birth to confirm this assessment. The death of a newborn is certainly a sad event, but it is definitely not a crime. The child, had it lived, would have been deemed a fatherless “bastard” in the judgmental eyes of contemporary English law, but that fact only amounted to a misdemeanor offense against polite society. Elizabeth’s crime and felonious culpability proceeded from the actions she took in the aftermath of that personal tragedy.
According to the text her petition, Elizabeth then committed the “rash inconsiderate act of leaving the child exposed.” The meaning of this phrase might seem a bit ambiguous, but I believe the implication is plain: She abandoned the child’s lifeless body, probably in an outdoor setting, and left it exposed to the elements of Mother Nature.
Here, I’d like to interrupt the narrative for a moment simply to introduce what I think is a pivotal question that will return at a later point in the story. Was Elizabeth so distraught and traumatized by the act of giving birth in solitude, and then discovering the child to be dead, that she mindlessly walked away from the corpse in a state of shock? Or did she purposefully leave the child’s lifeless body outdoors in accordance with some Native American custom that was beyond the understanding of the white community in which she lived? As in many of the psychological melodramas we’ve all read and seen on television, the answer to this question might never be resolved, but the mystery surrounding this issue will color our understanding of the rest of the story.
The subsequent events in Elizabeth’s narrative are not recorded, but we can reasonably reconstruct the scenario with a bit of imagination. After she emerged from her solitary ordeal, someone must have noticed that Elizabeth was no longer carrying a child. Perhaps her body or clothing bore some physical evidence that called attention to a change in her condition. Someone must have asked her what had happened, and perhaps expressed sympathy and concern for her well-being. The child was born, Elizabeth said, but it was dead. But what did you do with the poor child’s body? The answer to that simple question, whatever it might have been, touched off a series of events that swept Elizabeth McQueen into a torrent of humiliation and grief.
Although corroborating facts are now lacking, I suspect that one of Elizabeth’s white neighbors, wherever she was living, went out to search for the newborn child and found it, dead, in some exposed situation outdoors. Perhaps the smell of its decaying flesh or a trail of insects or animals led the searcher to the location of the body. Elizabeth claimed that the child was born without life, but there were no witnesses to the fact, and she had abandoned the tiny corpse. These facts seemed odd and troubling to the girl’s white neighbors, who probably broadcast the story through the parish gossip mill.
At some point, the story of Elizabeth’s dead child came to the attention of a prominent white man in the community who served as a local magistrate, or “Justice of the Peace.” His identity is unknown, but if we knew the parish in which she lived we could narrow his identity to a very short list of names. Nevertheless, we can follow the trail of her story with an anonymous magistrate. Anyone with a modicum of training in English law at that time would have recognized that Elizabeth’s actions, lamentable though they were, amounted to a felonious crime. More specifically, the facts of her case matched the object of a law passed in England during the reign of King James I to combat the practice of infanticide among “lewd women.”
In 1623, the English Parliament ratified “An Act to Prevent the Murthering [sic] of Bastard Children.” Although this law predated the founding of the Carolina colony by nearly half a century, it was among the scores of ancient English laws adopted by the South Carolina legislature in a sweeping legal act ratified in 1712. It remained in force here until nearly the end of the eighteenth century. Since it forms such a pivotal part of Elizabeth McQueen’s story, I’d like to share the brief text of this forgotten Jacobean law (with its original spelling):
An Act to Prevent the Murthering of Bastard Children.
Whereas many lewd women that have been delivered of bastard children, to avoyd their shame, and to escape punishment, doe secretlie bury, or conceale the death, of their children, & after, if the child be found dead, the said women doe alledge that the said child was borne dead; whereas it falleth out sometymes (although hardlie it is to be proved) that the said child or children were murthered by the said women their lewd mothers, or by their assent or procurement: For the preventing therefore of this great mischeife, be it enacted by the Authoritie of this present Parliament, That if any woman after one moneth next ensuing the end of this session of Parliament, be delivered of any issue of her body, male or female, which being born alive, should by the lawes of this realme be a bastard, and that she endeavour privatelie either by drowning or secrett burying thereof, or any other way, either by herselfe or the procuring of others, soe to conceale the death thereof, as that it may not come to light, whether it were borne alive or not, but be concealed; in every such case the said mother soe offending shall suffer death as in case of murther, except such mother can make prooffe by one witnesse at the least, that the child (whose death was by her soe intended to be concealed) was borne dead.
Armed with the knowledge of this English statute and its legal force in South Carolina, a magistrate from within Elizabeth McQueen’s neighborhood sought her out and arrested her for the crime of murder. We’ll never know if someone tried to shelter the half-Creek girl from the long arm of the law, or if someone perhaps led the magistrate directly to her usual place of abode. We do know, however, that the Justice of the Peace, perhaps with a set of iron shackles in his hand, confronted Elizabeth and explained to her the nature of the English law she had transgressed.
We might imagine Elizabeth’s shock at being confronted by the magistrate. The white people among whom she had been living in harmony “for several years past” were now turning against her. Disdainful of her sexual liberty and what they perceived as her callous disregard for the body of her dead child, Elizabeth’s neighbors now pointed her out as a “lewd” woman who had secretly murdered her “bastard” child to avoid shame and escape punishment. In the petition she later submitted to the governor, Elizabeth stated (in the third person) that “your unhappy petitioner is now to[o] late informed that a bastard child born dead and concealed by the mother is by the law deemed to be born alive and murthered [sic].”
No matter where in colonial South Carolina Elizabeth lived in 1747, she was obliged to travel to urban Charleston to answer the grave charges leveled against her. For a variety of reasons, both political and logistical, there was only one jail and one courtroom in the entire province, located within rented facilities located in the heart of the capital town. Elizabeth’s journey to Charleston might have been on horseback, or in a canoe, or on foot, and might have taken several days to complete.
Whether or not Elizabeth was obliged to wear a set of iron shackles during this journey is a matter of conjecture, but there’s little doubt about what awaited her in Charleston. Arriving at the provincial jail in King Street, she would have been greeted by the Provost Marshal of South Carolina, Rawlins Lowndes, and his assistant “turnkey,” whose duty was to chain prisoners to the floors and walls of a rented house while they waited for months on end for their trials to commence.
Tune in next week, when we’ll follow Elizabeth McQueen’s progress from the perils of a lengthy incarceration to a summary conviction for a capital crime. Will the governor respond to her cry for mercy, or will Elizabeth’s ignorance of the colony’s patriarchal laws condemn her to death?
 South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Records of the General Assembly, Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 15 (1747–48), pages 44–45 (10 November 1747), 60–61 (13 November 1747).
 Verner W. Crane, “The Origin of the Name of the Creek Indians,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 5, No. 3 (December 1918): 339–42.
 See Kathryn E. Holland Braund, Deerskins & Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685–1815 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993).
 Tony Draine and John Skinner, compilers, South Carolina Soldiers and Indian Traders, 1725–1730 (Columbia, S.C.: Congaree Publications, 1986), 26–31.
 For more information about Creek people in the South Carolina Lowcountry, see Steven C. Hahn, “‘The Indians that live about Pon Pon’: John and Mary Musgrove and the Making of a Creek Indian Community in South Carolina, 1717–1732,” in Michelle LeMaster and Bradford J. Wood, eds., Creating and Contesting Carolina: Proprietary Era Histories (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 343–66.
 Kathryn E. Holland Braund, “Guardians of Tradition and Handmaidens to Change: Women's Roles in Creek Economic and Social Life during the Eighteenth Century,” American Indian Quarterly 14, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 239–58.
 The full text of this law, properly identified as 21 James I, c. 27, can be found in Alexander Luders, et al., eds., The Statutes of the Realm: Printed by Command of King George the Third, In Pursuance of an Address of the House of Commons of Great Britain. From Original Records and Authentic Manuscripts, Volume 4, Part 2 (London: Dawsons, 1819; reprint, 1963), pages 1234–35.
 See “An Act to Put in Force in This Province the Several Statutes of the Kingdom of England or South Britain, Therein Particularly Mentioned,” ratified in 1712, the text of which is printed in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 2 (Columbia: A. S. Johnston, 1837), pages 401–548. The 1623 statute in question appears on page 513.
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