The Mystery Indian Trader

The Mystery Indian Trader

or The Evolution of a Legend?


                                                                                    Linda Sparks Starr

                                                                                    June 2003



First a note of explanation. This is not my husband's line, but with oral tradition claiming a connection, I delved into the Cherokee Starr’s and quickly became intrigued with Caleb. There is a lot of tradition surrounding his life, some of which doesn't quite make sense when one considers the age of the participant at the time of the event. This is not an attempt to discredit Caleb by any means; it's just an attempt to find the 'real' man.   I apologize for inadvertently erasing the citation for a deposition by Caleb when clearing out old e-mails. Caleb in this deposition gave his age, which backed into 1764 as the year of his birth, instead of the usual 1758 given by early researchers.  I believe the deposition was part of a Revolutionary War Claim file or pension application file, but I do not remember the applicant's name. 


According to Emmet Starr (and I understand Cope before him), Caleb Starr was born 1758 in Chester Co. Pennsylvania, son of Alexander and Deborah (Bryant) Starr. Although a change in his birth year from 1758 to 1764 strengthens the case for Deborah being his mother, I don't believe she was the wife of Alexander Starr. I understand some BRYANT researchers also question the Deborah Bryant of the following Quaker records as Caleb's mother. 


"Testimony was ordered at New Garden MM 7.7.1764 against Deborah Bryant for being married by a magistrate [and]  6.22.1764 Testimony against Deborah Starr read."


Although this is not on the CD of Quaker records transcribed by Hinshaw, long-time-Quaker-Starr-researcher Rosemary Woodson provided the above information, but not her specific source. A general statement about Deborah's disownment by the Quakers is included whenever the traditional account of Caleb's lineage is given.  The 1830 will of "a" Deborah Starr, who mentions only daughter Mary, is "said to be" this Deborah (Bryant) Starr by some researchers. [The copy of the will sent to me by another did not include the specific Will Book and page number.] To my knowledge no one has located documentation for Deborah (Bryant) Starr's husband's given name. The only reason I accept the possibility that Deborah might be Caleb's mother is the year of her dismissal from the Quakers coincides with the above mentioned deposition.  Also, he and Nancy named a child "Deborah", but not "Alexander". 


Caleb's father "Alexander" is said to be the one who died 1768; an inventory was filed that year for an Alexander Starr of London Grove Township. (Index to Chester Co. PA Wills & Intestate Records 1713 -1850 by Bart Anderson et al)  In an undated letter, Rosemary Woodson now deceased, commented she couldn't remember seeing the name "Alexander Starr" other than for this person. Neither do I show another Alexander Starr in my notes on various STARRs in colonial Pennsylvania. Additionally, he's the only Alexander in the index to STARR: The Quakers From Ireland by Lillie Alberson Harris and Virginia Farlow Wittwer, 1995, Keystone, IN.  Therefore, I think we are safe to assume we are dealing with only one Alexander Starr.


With the exception of two years, I have a list of  "all taxable STARRs" in Chester Co. PA  from 1762 to 1771. Beginning in 1765, Alexander  (listed as "inmate" that year) is the only STARR in London Grove township. He doesn't appear by name on any list in 1766, but is back in London Grove twp with 200 acres, 1 horse, 3 cattle and 1 sheep in 1767.  In 1768 he has 200 acres, 1 horse, 3 cattle and 6 sheep. But then in 1769, "MARG'T Starr" is the only STARR in London Grove twp, taxed on only 1 cattle and 1 sheep. I haven't seen the 1770 tax list, but no STARR is in London Grove twp in 1771.  Admittedly more research is needed, but I believe the tax records indicate that Margaret is the wife of Alexander who died in 1768, and not Deborah.


If not Alexander, who then is the father of Caleb Starr who married Nancy HARLAN? Perhaps a closer look into the traditional account of Caleb's life before his marriage to Nancy will provide clues. According to this account,  he and his friend Joseph McMinn (later Gov. of TN) ran away to Indian country (1775) to avoid serving in the militia during the Revolutionary War. This story is only partially corroborated by a letter written 13 AUG 1819 by then Gov. McMinn to John C. Calhoun, Secry of War.  [pages 8-9,  Harris and  Wittwer] citing a letter in the National Archives, Indian Affairs Bureau.]


                        "... I appointed Mr. Caleb Starr to value the remaining

            improvements of the ceded land, with whom I have long been

            acquainted from his childhood. Capt. Starr has long been a

            resident of the Cherokee Nation and has by honorable and

            industrious means acquired a fortune amongst the natives."


An internet search turned up a short biography of Joseph McMinn

[ ]  which gives his birth in PA in 1758 and appearance in TN in 1787. Jackie McMinn, owner of  the rootsweb McMinn surname list, added: Joseph was 5th of 10 children of Robert and Sarah (HARLAN) McMinn. They married in West Marlboro twp, Chester Co. PA in 1748 and moved to Hampshire Co., VA in 1773.  She added, "in 1787 Joseph appears in the NC Military District that fell into the state of Franklin in 1796 and later into TN."  She explained there is no evidence Joseph served during the Revolutionary War, but his brother served in a NC unit.


Stories about the young Caleb Starr seem to grow with the telling of events. I suggest the following accounts attributed to him err due to his young age at the time of the event. And then, when the latter accounts were written, Caleb's statue in the neighborhood led the authors to assume his participation, especially when the "Starr" surname entered the story. I begin with the closest contemporary account found in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 17, Jan to Oct 1909, pages 52 to 65,  "Report to the VA Legislature by Cols. Christian and Lewis of their Cherokee Expedition 1776":


Writing from Bank of Broad River 14 OCT 1776:  On 12th a WHITE MAN with a flag met me 5 miles from the river. He said the Raven Warrior of Chote had sent him, wanting peace. Other Cherokees were ready to attack me.


Camp on French Broad 17 OCT 1776: Account of Col. Christian’s receipt from one HARLAND, a white man who the Indians sent with Flag of Truce. Harland told us 7 to 800 Indians are lying on the opposite bank of River. Col. Christian marched to the spot in the dark of night ... only 4 or 5 Indians in area by signs left.


Bank of Broad 15 OCT 1776: An hour after dark last night, Capt. GIST came with flag from Raven Warrior to intercede for Chote. The Raven influenced others based on my answer of the first flag ... all departed for their villages.


Island Town 23 OCT 1776 (about 30 miles SSW Knoxville): HARLIN says every part of Indians he has delivered my answer [to the first flag] to, turned around and ran home as fast as possible. Camron – the British Agent employed Indians to kill Harlin and Gist for bringing the flags of truce.  Three white men and their families who are always our friends will be in camp tomorrow night along with Raven, Little Carpenter and other chiefs. I plan to only destroy the towns of Dragging Canoe, the principal chief wanting war.



Apparently the same report was sent to NC but my notes are very sketchy and only provide this additional information.  Per  North Carolina Colonial Records, vol X,  1775 – 1776, p. 837 and following:


Henry Stuart was the King’s Indian agent and Cameron was his deputy. They incited the Indians against the ‘rebels’. Christian’s answer to the first flag of truce was for the Indians to deliver up Cameron before any peace talks would begin.


From here we turn to later published reports of the same events: Annals of Tennessee, by J. G. M. Ramsay, 1853, beginning p. 165.


At encampment on Lick Creek ALEXANDER HARLIN came in with information of Indians on French Broad. “He was ordered into camp with the spies.” Harlin was dismissed when evidence proved what he had told was true. He was then sent back to the Indians to inform them the whites were determined to cross the French Broad.


Isaac Thomas, a trader among the Cherokees, acted as pilot. The Army was met near Dumplin  River by FALLEN, a trader, with a white flag in his rifle. Christian refused to recognize his mission.


1,000 Cherokees were assembled at Big Island of the French Broad ready to resist the whites. FALLEN was sent from this assemblage. After Fallen’s departure from the Indians, a trader named STARR, who was in the Indian encampment, harangued the warriors in an earnest tone ... Essentially he said the Great Spirit intended for whites to rule reds  .... [I didn't note his sources if Ramsay provided footnotes.]


Per History of Southwest Virginia 1746-1786, by Lewis Preston Summers, pages 243-4 for which Summers credits Rear Guard of the Revolution, page 126:


“Sixteen spies were sent in advance of the army to the crossing of the French Broad river, a point where the Indians said the white men should never cross. After being several days out, ALEXANDER HARLIN came into camp and told Colonel Christian that 3,000 Indian warriors were awaiting his arrival at the crossing of the French Broad. ... The army continued its march through the wilderness, under direction of Isaac THOMAS, the noted Indian trader and friend of Nancy Ward, as pilot. When they approached the crossing of the French  Broad river, a king’s man by the name of FALLIN approached the camp with a flag of truce ... It is said that the Indians had gathered on the opposite side of this crossing determined to defend its passage to the last extremity, when a white man by the name of STARR, in the absence of Fallin, persuaded the Indians that it was folly to resist the invasion of the whites. In an earnest harangue, he told them it was folly to contend with the white man, that the Great Spirit intended he should overrun and occupy all the low lands  which should be cultivated. To the red man he had given the hills and forests, where he might subsist on game without tilling the soil, which was work fit only for women. ...”


History of Tennessee,  by Ramsay:


“Isaac Thomas, a trader among the Cherokees acted as pilot (for Christian) ... A trader named STARR who was in the Indian encampment harangued the warriors in an earnest tone *** the trader’s councils prevailed,  all defensive measures were abandoned ...” 



Tennessee During the Revolutionary War, by Samuel Cole Williams, pages 53 –57:


“Isaac THOMAS, with intimate knowledge of the lay of the land and of the Indians’ customs, was of the party and its pilot. ... Into the encampment at night ELLIS HARLIN, a white trader to the Cherokee towns, came in under a flag of truce and gave the commander information that seven or eight hundred men were lying on the south bank of the French Broad River to dispute a crossing. [Williams cites Christian’s report to Governor Henry here.] ... As the white forces had been moving forward, a sharp debate had gone on in the Cherokee towns. The chiefs were divided in regard to the course to be pursued. A trader of influence, CALEB STARR, addressed a red council urging that terms be made with Christian; and The Raven and the other older chiefs were for appeasement.  [He doesn’t cite a specific source here, but this passage appears between two citations to Ramsay’s Annals.] ... 


Before the [Broad] river was reached the army was met by FALLEN, a trader who bore a white flag on his rifle. The commander directed that no attention be paid to him. He soon left to inform the Indians of the large force they would have to confront. ...  Captain Nathaniel GIST, a Virginian who had been among the Cherokees for long periods intermittently through many years, came in to interview Colonel Christian, as spokesman for Chief The Raven. He interceded for the beloved town of Chota, and reported that the Indians had encamped about four miles south of the river, and that The Raven had used his influence to bring the Cherokees to yield to the superior force of the whites ...


HARLIN, the first  flag-bearer from the Indians, now told the Colonel that when he returned to the towns with news of the oncoming host, the Indians hurriedly packed what they could carry and fled precipitately, many towards the Hiwassee River; and that Cameron had tried to employ some of the Indians to kill him and Captain GIST ‘for their part in talking of peace.’  ...”


Old Frontiers: The Story of the Cherokee From Earliest Times to Removal, by John P. Brown.  Page 156-7, citing as his source Christian’s Report to the NC Colonial Records:


ELLIS HARLAN took the flag of truce to Col. Christian – “the older chiefs could not reconcile themselves to the loss of their beloved towns ... A trader CALEB STARR harangued the Indians ... "


Turning now to the 'real' Caleb Starr. The first documentation found for him living among the Cherokees is found in  “Persons Residing in the Cherokee Country, Not Natives of the Land – 1797”, from Letters to John Sevier, located in TN State Archives, copied July 20, 1949 and published in Tennessee Ancestors, vol. 5 (1) April 1989, pages 2 – 4:


ELLIS HARLIN                   Trader, licensed 18th January for 2 yrs

Marmaduke Daniels            Licenced hireling to HARLAN

CALEB STARR                         do          do             do


Ellis Harlan's name is found in the PA Archives among licensed Indian traders between 1765 - 1771. The internet search gave record number only so I can't be more precise for the year of the license. 


Questions and Comments:


1. Who IS the Indian trader STARR mentioned in the above accounts? I seriously doubt an 18 year old Caleb (b. 1758) [who is most likely only 12 (b. 1764)] is haranguing the Indian Chiefs. But IS there another, older trader named STARR?  I suspect Williams and Brown just assumed the Indian trader "Starr" was Caleb; but where did Ramsay / Summers get "Starr" in the first place? 


2. Where did Cope / Emmet Starr get 1758 for Caleb's birth year?  I find the wording in Joseph McMinn's letter interesting:  "Caleb Starr ... with whom I have long been acquainted from HIS childhood..."  This doesn't sound like Joseph is talking about someone born the same year as he [1758] and Caleb's deposition (when found again!) supports this.


3. Where / when did Joseph and Caleb meet? According to Jackie McMinn, Joseph's parents, Robert and Sarah (Harlin) McMinn, were  married in West Marlboro twp, Chester Co. "contrary to the usage of the Friends".  Jackie added Robert and Sarah moved to Hampshire Co., VA 1773 where they died.  In 1773 Joseph was 15; isn't he likely to have gone to VA with his parents? IF Caleb and Joseph left for the Indian country in 1775 together, was it from Hampshire Co. VA or Chester Co. PA?  Jackie also noted this earlier journey south for Joseph with Caleb Starr is new to her.


4. Who are the HARLAN's? According to Genealogies of the Cherokee Starrs, quoting Emmet Starr's History of the Cherokee Indians: Nancy Harlan was the daughter of ELLIS (b. Chester Co. PA) who m. Catherine Kingfisher. He was the son of EZEKIEL b. 19 MAY 1707 who m. Hannah Osborn 23 OCT 1724. This Ezekiel was the son of EZEKIEL (b. 16 JUN 1679 in Ireland), who was the son of GEORGE who m. 17 SEP 1678 Elizabeth Duck. Researcher Larry Harlan recommends  The History and Genealogy of the Harlan Family compiled by A. H. Harlan, originally published 1914.