Girty, Simon

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Simon Girty

Born 1741 Chambers' Mill, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Died February 18, 1818
Malden, near Amherstburg, Ontario

Frontiersman, interpreter of Indian languages, scout, raider

Simon Girty, roughneck son of the American wilderness, spent nearly his entire life involved in warfare. He was first caught up as a child in Indian-white struggles over land on the frontier. At fifteen he was captured by Indians and lived among them, learning their language, their ways, and their deep distrust of white settlers. During the American Revolution, he fought for both the British and the Americans and led Indian raids against white pioneers. His name is so closely linked with stories of savage brutality against American pioneers that it is difficult to separate the truth from the frightful legends that grew up around him.

In 1741, Simon Girty was the second of four sons born to Simon Girty, an Irish immigrant, and Mary Newton Girty, an Englishwoman. His birthplace in western Pennsylvania was on the American frontier. Biographer Thomas Boyd described it as "a huddle of rough log houses, a stockade named Fort Hunter, a mill and a tavern."

The Indians of western Pennsylvania came to Fort Hunter to trade furs for whiskey, weapons, and cloth. Girty's father supported his family by trading illegally (without a license) with them.

The Girty boys received no formal education and could neither read nor write. Their life in the backcountry was hard. Diseases were common, medical treatment was primitive, and the diet was monotonous and unhealthy. The boys mingled freely with the Indians who came to the fort, but everyone on the frontier lived under the constant threat of Indian attack. (The Indians objected to the increasing numbers of white settlers trespassing on their hunting grounds.)

Like most pioneers of his time, Simon Girty Sr., wanted to own land, and it made no difference that the Indians had a prior claim. In 1750 he moved his family about six miles westward, across the Blue Mountains into Indian territory. Other families settled around him. The Indians protested to white government authorities, and this time the law favored the Indians. The settlers were evicted, their homes were set on fire, and they were forced to pay fines. The Girtys moved back east of the Blue Mountains.

This may have been young Simon Girty's first serious encounter with the white man's law. While many pioneer children emerged from childhoods like his to become law-abiding citizens, Girty developed a contempt for authority that lasted the rest of his life.

Taken captive by Indians

The senior Girty liked to entertain his Indian trading partners in his small home; they played cards and drank heavily. One day when young Simon was about ten years old, the party got out of control, and an angry Indian warrior by the name of the Fish sank his tomahawk into the skull of old Simon. Another partygoer named John Turner then killed the Fish. Shortly thereafter, John Turner married Mary Girty and became stepfather to the four Girty boys.

According to biographer Thomas Boyd, under Turner's parenting, young Simon Girty spent the next four years "learning to bawl out roaring curses and take his liquor like a man." John Turner soon discovered he could not support his large family. In 1755, he learned that the Penn brothers (relatives of William, founder of Pennsylvania) had bought land from the Indians, including the land old Simon Girty had tried to settle. The Girty-Turner family moved west of the Blue Mountains and built a farm.

In 1756, the already chaotic lives of the Girty-Turner family took a dramatic turn when they became victims of the French and Indian War (1756–63) on the American frontier.

The French and Indian War was the American part of a global struggle between France and England. England had her colonies on America's eastern seaboard. France claimed the land west of the Appalachian Mountains and had built a line of forts to protect it, extending from Lake Erie to what is now western Pennsylvania. George Washington see entry was sent to protest the construction and manning of the forts, but the French refused to leave.

In July 1755, Washington and his militia men (pronounced ma-LISHA; citizen soldiers) joined 1,400 British soldiers under the command of General Edward Braddock to drive the French out of the disputed territory. The party was ambushed by the French and their Indian allies. Braddock was killed, and Washington and the rest of the soldiers were forced back into Virginia.

Urged on by the French, the Indians then went on a rampage through the Pennsylvania-Virginia frontier, murdering and scalping white settlers, burning their cabins, and killing their livestock. Sometime in 1756, the Girtys were taken prisoner by the Indians. As his family looked on, John Turner was tortured and scalped; after three hours of torment, a tomahawk was buried in his skull, ending his misery. Several tribes then divided the rest of the family among themselves. Simon Girty went to live with the Seneca tribe.

Lives with Indians; returns to white world

Simon Girty was adopted into a Seneca family and treated like any other member of the tribe. For perhaps three years, he hunted with the Senecas, learned their language and customs, and became a Seneca warrior. For a young man like Girty, who was not interested in owning land, it was probably a rich experience.

Girty might have remained with the Senecas forever, but events in the white world intruded. In 1758, a treaty was signed that required certain Indian tribes to give up all their prisoners. The next year, Girty was reunited with his family at Fort Pitt (on the site of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).

Some legends say that Simon Girty became a savage during his captivity, but biographer Consul Willshire Butterfield disagreed. Girty became a productive citizen. Because he spoke an Indian language, he was ideally suited for a job as an interpreter (translator) for white and Indian traders. He proved to have a flair for Indian languages and learned several. He became so popular among the Indians that a Delaware chief took for himself the name "Simon Girty." To anyone who dealt with the Indians, a man like Girty was a necessity. According to writer James K. Richards, "he could take you among the [quarrelsome] tribes, help you conduct your business, and get you out again with a whole skin and your hair in place."

Girty became a responsible citizen and voted in the first election held in western Pennsylvania. But he did not like to take orders, and he was usually unpopular with his bosses.

Joins Lord Dunmore's War

From 1758 to 1773, Simon Girty worked mostly for the British government, acting as an interpreter and earning a dollar a day. During that time, a boundary dispute simmered between Pennsylvania and Virginia; both claimed the region west of the Allegheny Mountains that now falls in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The dispute came to blows in 1774 when Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia (appointed by the British government), sent a man named John Connolly to take Fort Pitt from the Pennsylvanians. Connolly took it and renamed it Fort Dunmore.

Meanwhile, there was trouble brewing with the Indians of the region, who had recently stepped up their attacks against white settlers. Connolly and Lord Dunmore led a series of counterattacks in what became known as Lord Dunmore's War. Simon Girty, who favored Virginia in the boundary dispute even though he was a Pennsylvanian, agreed to serve as a scout and interpreter for Lord Dunmore (scouts were men who knew the land and the people and could serve as advisers).

Many famous frontiersmen served as Lord Dunmore's scouts, including George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton, who would later play a role in the Simon Girty legend. They would go down in history as heroes, but Girty is reported to have shown an enthusiasm for killing that became the basis of his evil legend.

Girty got along well with Lord Dunmore. One night during the campaign, when Dunmore grew bored, he asked Girty and the other scouts to put on a performance of Indian songs, dances, and war cries. Dunmore was delighted with the performance. Lord Dunmore's War ended in 1774 with the signing of a series of treaties with several Indian tribes. Simon Girty was present when Chief Logan of the Mingo tribe refused to sign a treaty (see box).

Lord Dunmore was so pleased with Girty's assistance that he named him a lieutenant (pronounced lew-TEN-ant) in the Virginia militia at Fort Dunmore. As part of his new job, on February 22, 1775, Simon Girty took an oath of allegiance to King George III see entry of England. Two months later, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired in Massachusetts.

Girty aids patriots in American Revolution

At first Girty supported Great Britain in the struggle, but he soon changed sides, for reasons that can only be guessed at. Perhaps he was inflamed by the anti-British talk he was hearing, about the British denying colonists their rights and overtaxing them.

In May 1775, representatives from all the colonies met at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to prepare for war with England. One item on their agenda was what to do about the Indians on the frontier. The Congressmen knew that in case of war, the Indians would be more sympathetic to the British than to the American colonists, who cheated them and trespassed on their land. Knowing they would not get cooperation from the Indians in a war, they hoped to at least get neutrality (non-involvement) from them.

In July 1775, Captain James Wood undertook the dangerous mission of visiting Ohio tribes to request neutrality. Simon Girty went with him as interpreter and guide. For nearly three years, Girty worked for the patriot cause, as an interpreter, militia man, and recruiter for the frontier militia (convincing people to join). Despite his efforts, his superiors never trusted him; they always suspected him of loyalty to the British. When they did not give Girty an army promotion in 1777, he got angry and resigned.

In late 1777, some of the Indian tribes Girty was known to have visited entered the war on the British side. Girty was placed under arrest for suspicion of being a British sympathizer. He escaped easily, returned to face the charges, and was set free without being convicted of any crime. He was bitter about the incident.

In February 1778, Girty was sent as a guide on a mission to seize weapons the British supposedly had stored in an Indian village somewhere in Ohio. The mission was a disaster; it resulted in nothing but the slaughter of several innocent Indian women and children by white soldiers.

Girty changes sides; supports British

In March 1778, soon after the failed action in Ohio, Girty and several other men deserted to the British. Historians cannot say for sure what his reasons were. Perhaps he believed that the American cause was doomed. Maybe his companions in flight were unusually persuasive. Whatever his reasons (and in later years he gave many different ones), he made his way to the British fort at Detroit, where he was hired as an interpreter at a wage of two dollars a day.

Girty used his influence to talk the Indians out of their neutrality and into joining the British side. He promised the Indians that land already taken from them by white settlers would be returned to them if they fought on the side of the British and won. He spent the next few years going from one Indian village to another, convincing the tribes to join the British cause. Along with British soldiers and their Indian allies, Girty also took part in raids on the frontier, from Fort Pitt to the Kentucky River. The intention was to destroy American supplies and divert American soldiers from General George Washington's main army in the East. Washington was forced to send badly needed troops to protect American settlers on the frontier.

Girty's legend grows

The raids that Girty and others took part in were astoundingly brutal. Scalping, rape, the cold–blooded murder of innocents, torture, and burnings at the stake were common. Before long, Simon Girty was being called "The White Savage." No one knows what motivated him; he never wrote anything down. At the time, most people believed he enjoyed the violence. It has been said that he was a champion of the Indian cause and was fighting for Indian rights. According to James K. Richards: "A mystery that will never be solved is Girty's perception of the Indians themselves; whether or not he felt any affection for them, any empathy for their plight, or sympathy for their cause, or was simply doing a job he was good at… in spite of an undercurrent of contempt" for them.

In one famous incident, Girty was able to talk the Indian captors of his old friend, Simon Kenton, out of burning him at the stake (Kenton was accused of stealing Indian horses). This was done at the risk of Girty's own safety. Kenton became famous as a Kentucky frontiersman, and he often afterwards spoke of Girty's kindness. But he was one of the few who ever had a good word to say on Girty's behalf.

In 1780 Girty was charged by the state of Pennsylvania with treason and a price was put on his head. He evaded capture and continued his journeys through Indian country, stirring up the Indians to higher levels of brutality against the Americans. In 1781, legend says, he got involved in a drunken fight with the Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant see entry, who struck him on the head with his sword and gave him an ugly wound. The resulting scar only added to his reputation as a human nightmare.

By 1782, Revolutionary War fighting had mostly ended in the East but it continued on the frontier. Girty was part of a white-Indian force that captured American Colonel (pronounced KER–nuhl) William Crawford in Ohio in June 1782. Crawford suffered a horrible torture and death; it is said that Girty refused to do anything to help and may even have been amused at the scene—he is reported to have directed jokes at the dying man. The grisly story spread and became the most famous evil deed attributed to Girty. Some historians have pointed out that Girty would have put his own life at risk if he attempted to save Crawford's, and probably would have failed.

Last days

Girty was given a pension by the British after the war (an annual payment for his military services). He moved to Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada, across the Detroit River from Detroit. In 1784 Girty married Catherine Malott, a former Indian captive who may have been rescued by Girty. She was less than half his age. The couple took up farming and eventually had at least three children.

Simon Girty was too restless for farm life, though. He often left home to visit Indian villages and stir up the residents against the increasing numbers of white settlers. He took part in a few more battles against American forces during outbreaks of white-Indian violence on the frontier. By 1794, it was obvious to the Indians that the British support Girty had promised them would not be coming. His usefulness to the Indians ended, and Girty retired to his farm.

Girty's health and eyesight began to fail; he became crippled after he broke his ankle in 1800. He liked to sit in the local bar and tell tales of his exploits. His wife left him for a time; his enemies liked to say it was because of his evil temper and drunken abuses. Girty died quietly at home in 1818.

About Girty's lasting reputation as a man of unmatched viciousness, James Leighton wrote in an encyclopedia article: "These tales were spread by people who could not see that hostilities between the western tribes and the new [American government] were caused, not by the behavior of men like Girty, but by the white settlers' insatiable hunger for land and their government's failure to honor its agreements with Indians."

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M. "Crawford's Death." "Indians in the Colonial Wars and in the Revolution." "Western Operations." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 306-7; 541-3; 1188-94.

Boyd, Thomas. Simon Girty: The White Savage. New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1928.

Butterfield, Consul Willshire. History of the Girtys. Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1890. Reprinted by Long's College Book Co., Columbus, Ohio, 1950.

Grey, Zane. The Spirit of the Border: A Romance of the Early Settlers in the Ohio Valley. Originally published in 1906. Reprinted, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Johnson, Tom. Reminiscences regarding the renegade, Simon Girty. In the Henry T. Thomas Papers, MSS 645. Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.

Leighton, Douglas. "Girty, Simon." Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983, pp. 345-6.

Richards, James K. "A Clash of Cultures: Simon Girty and the Struggle for the Frontier." Timeline (a publication of the Ohio Historical Society), June-July 1985, pp. 2-17.

Web Sites

Ohio Historical Society. [Online] Available (accessed on October 4, 1999).

Chief Logan Gives a Famous Speech

Logan (c. 1725–80), sometimes called James Logan, was a chief of the small Mingo tribe of Ohio. Logan is said to have been friendly to white settlers until his family, including a pregnant sister, was slaughtered in 1774 during Lord Dunmore's War. This was one in a series of brutal acts committed by whites against Indians that contributed to the violence of the time.

Chief Logan refused to participate in the peace treaties that ended Lord Dunmore's War. Under the shade of a huge elm tree, Chief Logan delivered a famous speech said to have been translated into English by Simon Girty. Chief Logan said in part: "I appeal to any white man to say that he ever entered Logan's cabin, but I gave him meat; that he ever came naked, but I clothed him… He will not turn his heelto save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? No one."