History Mystery #22: Betrayal at Cross Creek

Author: Kathleen Ernst

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Jean-Paul Tibbles

Publishing Year: 2004

Setting:  Cross Creek, North Carolina, 1775


Twelve-year-old Elspeth Monro just wants to show her good friend Mercy how much fun Scottish parties are, but the constant threat of war ruins what should have been a fun evening introducing her American friend to the customs Elspeth and her family brought from Scotland. Colonists who want independence from the crown have been badgering the Scottish immigrants, who are largely undecided which side of the war they stand on. Elspeth's grandparents are undecided, having lived through the brutal Scottish civil  war decades before. (Elspeth's mother died shortly after giving birth to her, and Elspeth's father died of an illness when she was five; she has three older married sisters back in Scotland.) Elspeth's grandparents are stopped on the way home from a party and accosted by some Patriots, demanding they declare their allegiance for or against England. Because of the specifics of the encounter, Elspeth's grandparents know that someone ratted them out.

Being hassled by Patriots is no small thing. Her grandparents already have almost no money or land, and if the war escalates, things will be even harder for the little family. Her grandfather is even wondering if she should quit her apprenticeship with Mercy's mother learning to weave, because she might be hassled when she goes into town. But Elspeth's grandmother insists that Elspeth should learn a trade, in case she needs to support herself. In her time and culture, all young women are expected to marry and keep house, but Elspeth's grandmother knows that sometimes husbands can be snatched away by war.

Elspeth wonders if the grudge her grandparents hold against the MacRacken family is behind their lack of allegiance being broadcasted. She's not sure why her grandparents don't like the other family, but she knows it has something to do with Battle of Culloden, a particularly barbaric time in the Scottish civil war three decades before. But her grandparents don't talk about it much: the memories are too painful.

Soon other Scottish immigrants are being confronted, some with physical violence. Elspeth herself is threatened by a menacing colonist. The war hasn't reached this part of North Carolina, so why do people care if some colonists have no allegiances? Who is behind all this?

Elspeth's grandfather calls a meeting of the Scottish immigrants in the little town. He says they have to decide who they stand for or risk further violence. Some of the men point out the the Patriots have good reason to want independence from the crown, and that the Scots can certainly sympathize. But others bring up the fact that the Patriots have been just as aggressive in pressuring colonists to pick sides, They also don't think the Patriots can win against the British military.

Some time later, Elspeth's two (male) cousins decide. They sign up for the Loyalist militia. Her grandfather, afraid to let them march off to war alone, signs up with them. Elspeth is sick with worry, not only for the safety of her family members who might fight in battle, but for the women left at home--what if the Patriots who had been hassling them earlier are angry when they hear about the Loyalist militia members?

And then word arrives that the Loyalist militia was in a battle. Most of them are killed or captured. Two days later, Elspeth finds one cousin, Robbie, hiding in the woods. Her other cousin, Duncan, is dead. Robbie doesn't know what happened to their grandfather.

Then the war arrives. Patriot soldiers raid her village. Her aunt's home is burned ot the ground, with Elspeth, her aunt, and the new mother they'd just helped deliver a baby (and the baby too) are forced out before the fire is set, but everything inside is destroyed. Elspeth also has an idea who might be talking to the wrong people. She's been looking for clues, and more and more they're pointing toward Mercy's father. She asks Mercy's mother outright, and she swears that her husband has said nothing. But something else she says reveals that Elspeth's grandmother has told Mercy's mother about the atrocities she suffered during the Battle of Culloden. Elspeth remembers the woven cloth from Mercy's mother that her grandmother has been so insistent to hang. It's a signal that Mercy's mother made to tell Patriot troops to leave certain homes alone. Her grandmother is the one who told the Patriots about everything.

Elspeth confronts her grandmother, coincidentally just as her grandfather arrives, having escaped captivity. Elspeth's grandmother confesses, explaining that in the aftermath of the battle, she angrily turned away a woman who had been her friend--part of the MacRacken family--and refused to share the small bit of food she had. Her friend's two-year-old son starved to death. Elspeth's grandfather points out that two of their own sons suffered the same fate, as did countless Scottish Highlanders, but her grandmother explains that when they had almost nothing left, she gave up her humanity. She can never support the British after that, and hoped that a bit of (non-physical) intimidation might have swayed her husband to the Patriot side. Patriot soldiers arrive then, and Elspeth's grandfather surrenders.

Three months pass. Elspeth goes to Mercy's house, to bury the hatchet. Mercy's mother apologizes for the deception, but not for supporting the Patriots. Elspeth has forgiven her grandmother, and forgives Mercy's mother as well. She also says her goodbyes: her grandfather will be released soon (Robbie is back fighting for the British) and most of the Loyalist Scots are moving to Nova Scotia in Canada, away from the fighting. Though she'll miss Mercy, Elspeth is looking forward to finally living near the ocean again, as she did in Scotland. She gives Mercy some things to remember her by, and Mercy and her mother give her a coverlet woven from a design Elspeth drafted herself, woven of wool carded by Mercy's father: a gift from all of them.

A Peek into the Past

The mid-1700s saw a large influx of Scottish Highlander immigrants to the American colonies, desperate to escape crushing poverty and severe political turmoil. The majority of them settled in North Carolina. When the American Revolution broke out, many wanted to avoid conflict altogether (colonists were evenly split between Loyalist, Patriot, and not fighting). Knowing the reputation that Scottish Highlanders had as fierce warriors, the British tried especially hard to convince them to join their side. When the British lost, those who had been loyal to them were social outcasts. During the war, they'd been subjected to raids by Patriots even if the actual battles were being fought far away. Some went back to Europe, and many resettled in Canada.


Dedicated "with thanks to: my parents, for raising me on books; and Peg Ross, for being so Midwestern."

Elspeth's grandmother recounts being dragged from her home by six British soldiers after the Battle of Culloden, when they failed to find her husband. She says her children, incuding Elspeth's mother, were screaming for the soldier not to hurt their mother. The details aren't spelled out, but it sounds like there may have been more than a beating...one woman, six men...She sometimes has flashbacks.

I think it's really interesting that American Girl had a book written from the perspective of a Loyalist during the American Revolution. I'm glad they decided to.

One of my mom's best friends remembers her kindergarten teacher taking the pencil out of her left hand and putting it in her right, forcing her to become right-handed. How long has left-handedness been "allowed"? (Mercy's father is left-handed.) Although, even if left-handedness was discouraged in the colonies, I doubt it would have been a huge priority at the edge of a frontier in a non-aristocratic family.

Geez, some of these mysteries are dark.

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