Cresswell was born in 1750, the son of a sheep farmer in Edale, Derbyshire. It is likely that he was first educated at a school established by his father, and then at Wakefield grammar school. He worked with his father, until, in 1774, he sailed on the Molly for America, to seek a better life. He kept a diary during his three year adventure - the only real source of information about Cresswell - which tells of trade with native Americans, being caught up in the War of Independence (and often vilified for his patriotism towards Britain), various travels and exploits, and his many efforts to find work.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (log in required), Cresswell felt ‘increasingly desperate and under constant suspicion for his outspoken views against the patriot cause’ and so resolved to escape. ‘His acute sense of personal failure is the dominant theme of this part of his narrative. He repeatedly referred to his idleness and ill health in northern Virginia, his loneliness, heavy drinking, and mounting debts. His various schemes for quitting the province - via Bermuda, through ‘Indian Country’ to Canada where he contemplated joining the British forces, and overland to New York - all proved abortive. ‘I am now in an enemy’s country’, he lamented in October 1776, ‘forbidden to depart’.’
In early May 1777, Cresswell finally secured a passage to British-occupied New York. On arriving back in England, Cresswell tried, but failed, to gain a commission from John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, Virginia’s ousted royal governor. He returned to Edale, where he took up farming again, and married Mary Mellor in Wirksworth. They had six children. He died on 26 July 1804.
The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774–1777, was first published in 1924 by Jonathan Cape in London and The Dial Press in New York. In a foreword, Samuel Thornely, explained the diary’s provenance: ‘The Diary came into my possession on the death of my father, Frederick Thornely of Helsby, Cheshire. Joseph Cresswell was the youngest brother of Nicholas Cresswell and his daughter Ann married my grandfather, Samuel Thornely of Liverpool. My father, Frederick Thornely, eventually came into part of the Edale property and also Southsitch, Idridgehay, which had formerly belonged to Nicholas Cresswell. My father also came into the Nicholas Cresswell diary and on my father’s death in 1918 it came to me.’
The journal manuscript is now held by the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The full text is available through the American Memory website, while much of the book can also be previewed at Googlebooks. A commentary and extracts can be found in The Ohio Frontier: An Anthology of Early Writings, edited by Emily Foster, also available through Googlebooks. However, it is also worth noting that a new edition was published by Lexington Books in 2009 - A Man Apart: The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774 - 1781 - edited by Harold Gill and George M Curtis III. This edition contains Cresswell’s diary in an unabridged form, and reveals that Thornely had edited the text for the original publication without mentioning the fact. See an analysis of the unabridged text by Matthew C. Exline on the Liberty University website. The following extracts are from Thornely’s edition.
8 April 1774
‘Orders to be on Board to-morrow morning by Seven o’clock. Bought a Sea Bed; paid Captn. Parry my passage. Got my chest and things on Board. Understand we are to have three other passengers, but do not know who they are. Spent the afternoon on Mount Pleasant with Mr. Oaks of Sheffield. Wrote to Gustavus Bradford. Got everything ready for going so soon as the wind serves.’
9 April 1774
‘This morning got up very early and wrote to my Father. Got on Board about Nine o’clock. Set sail with a fair wind and tide in our favour; in the afternoon calm and pleasant; came to an Anchor off Ormshead. We are Four passengers, but don’t as yet know the others. All of us very merry at supper, tho’ I believe most of us Young Sailors are rather squeamish. At Eight in the evening, a Breeze sprung up; hove up the Anchor; about Ten saw the Skerry Lighthouse.’
10 April 1774
‘Last night in attempting to get into my Hammock the hook at the foot gave way and I had like to have broke my bones with the fall, to the no small diversion of my fellow passengers. The Hammock is a hard piece of canvas suspended up to the roof of the Cabin at each end with cords.’
16 September 1774
‘This Island is one of the most windward and eastward of the West India Islands [. . .] about 20 Miles long and 12 broad, contains about 20,000 White Inhabitants and 90,000 Blacks. Exports about 20,000 Hhds of Sugar and 6000 Hhds. of Rum annually. They are supplied with the greatest part of their provisions from the Colonies and all their slaves and lumber come from there, with Horses and Livestock of all kinds. In exchange for which they give Rum, Sugar and Cotton, but very little of the last article. It is a high rocky Island and reckoned the most healthy Island in the West Indies. I suppose there is one eighth part of the land too rocky for cultivation. The roads are very bad. It is nothing uncommon to see twelve yoke of oxen to draw one Hhd. of Sugar, but their cattle are very small. Their chief produce is Sugar, Indigo, Pimento and Cotton. The Pimento grows on large Trees like small berries, the Cotton on small bushes which they plant annually. The Indigo is planted in the same manner. [. . .]
This is the chief Town in the Island and was pretty large, but a great part of it burned down in the Year 1766 and is not yet rebuilt. Here is a Good Church dedicated to St. Michael, with an Organ. The Church yard is planted round with Coco Trees which makes a pretty appearance. The houses are built of stone, but no fireplaces in them only in the Kitchen. The heat of the climate renders that unnecessary, only for cooking. Indeed it would be insupportable was it not for the Sea breeze which blows all day, and from the Land at Night. All the S.E. Part of the Island is fortified with Batteries, the windward part of the Island is fortified by nature. No Garrison or Soldiers here, only the militia which are well disciplined to keep the Negroes in awe. The Planters are in general rich, but a set of dissipating, abandoned, and cruel people. Few even of the married ones, but keep a Mulatto or Black Girl in the house or at lodgings for certain purposes. The women are not killing beauties or very engaging in their conversation, but some of them have large fortunes, which covers a multitude of imperfections. The British nation famed for humanity suffers it to be tarnished by their Creolian Subjects - the Cruelty exercised upon the Negroes is at once shocking to humanity and a disgrace to human nature. For the most trifling faults, sometimes for mere whims of their Masters, these poor wretches are tied up and whipped most unmercifully. I have seen them tied up and flogged with a twisted piece of Cowskin till there was very little signs of Life, then get a dozen with an Ebony sprout which is like a Briar. This lacerates the skin and flesh, and lets out the bruised blood, or it would mortify and kill them. Some of them die under the severity of these barbarities, others whose spirits are too great to submit to the insults and abuses they receive put an end to their own lives. If a person kills a slave he only pays his value as a fine. It is not a hanging matter. Certainly these poor beings meet with some better place on the other side the Grave, for they have a hell on earth. It appears that they are sensible of this, if one may judge from their behaviour at their funerals. Instead of weeping and wailing, they dance and sing and appear to be the happiest mortals on earth.’
19 June 1775
‘Got under way early this morning. As we sat at dinner, saw two Buffalo Bulls crossing the River. When they were about half way over four of us got into a Canoe and attacked them in the River, the rest went along shore to shoot them, as soon as they came ashore. The River was wide and we had fine diversion fighting them in the water. The man in the head of the canoe seized one of them by the tail and he towed us about the River for half an hour. We shot him eight times, let him get ashore and he ran away. Our comrades ashore very angry with us and they have a great right to be so. Passed the mouth of the Little Miamme. In great fear of the Indians. Saw a Black Wolf pursuing a Faun into the River, the Faun we caught, but the Wolf got away. My company quarrels amongst themselves, but behave well to me. Camped late in the evening.’
18 July 1775.
‘At Mr. V. Crawford’s, Jacob Creek. These rascals have wore out all the clothes I left here, so that I am now reduced to three ragged shirts, two pair linen breeches in the same condition, a hunting shirt and jacket, with one pair of stockings.’
27 July 1775
‘Went shooting and knocked down a Young Turkey. Nothing but whores and rogues in this country.’
1 August 1776
‘Refining Nitre. I have made several experiments but have hit on one that answers well, by putting the crude Nitre into a pot and fluxing it till it has the appearance of milk, then let it cool and put to every pound of Nitre three pints of water, boil it a little and sit to shoot. It made a beautiful appearance like Icicles, white as Snow and transparent as glass. From 7½ pounds of crude Nitre I have got 4½ pound pure.
News that Lord Dunmore was driven from Gwinn’s Island and the Fleet had left the Bay. I am now at a loss again. Determined to go to New York and endeavour to get to the Army.’
23 January 1777
‘Curiosity and company induced me to spend the evening at a place of no great credit. The various scenes I saw may be of great service to me sometime or other.’
12 July 1777
‘I think I have taken my farewell of New York, tho’ I promised to pay one visit more, but never intend to perform. Cannot bear the abominable hypocrite. I wish to be at Sea but hear nothing of our sailing this week. I wish to be at home and yet dread the thought of returning to my native Country a Beggar. The word sounds disagreeable in my ears, but yet it is more pleasing and creditable than the epithet of Rascal and Villain, even if a large and opulent fortune was annexed to them, though one of the latter sort is in general better received, than an indigent honest man. I am poor as Job, but not quite so patient. Will hope for better days. If I am at present plagued with poverty, my conscience does not accuse me of any extravagance or neglect of sufficient magnitude to bring me into such indigent circumstances. However, I have credit, Health, Friends and good Spirits, which is some consolation in the midst of all my distresses. Better days may come.’
13 October 1777 [last entry in the published diary]
‘There is such a sameness in my life at present it is not worth while to keep a Journal.
I am afraid it is likely to continue longer than I could wish it, as no proposals have been yet made to me concerning my future way of life. I imagine my Father expects I shall stay at home in my present dependent situation. I cannot bear it. Though at present his behaviour is very kind and in some respects indulgent, but that moroseness he observes to some of the family is very disagreeable to me. I expect something of the same sort as soon as the first gust of paternal affection subsides, but I am determined to stay with seeming patience till April next, and behave in such a manner as not to give any just offence. I call this waiting the Chapter of Accidents, something fortunate may happen. (Mem. Never to have anything to do with my Relations, I know their dispositions only too well. Some of them begin to hint at my poverty already. I must be patient and if possible, Silent.)’
The Diary Junction