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He Whooped to See Them Burn

Simon Girty (1741-1818) -- renegade and traitor, or man of principle?

And with that, and all of a sudden, there was a rushing of wind outside and a noise of footsteps. They came, clear and distinct, through the night. And yet, they were not like the footsteps of living men.

“In God’s name, who comes by so late?” cried Jabez Stone, in an ague of fear.

“The jury Mr. Webster demands,” said the stranger, sipping at his boiling glass. “You must pardon the rough appearance of one or two; they will have come a long way.”

And with that the fire burned blue and the door blew open and twelve men entered, one by one.

If Jabez Stone had been sick with terror before, he was blind with terror now. For there was Walter Butler, the loyalist, who spread fire and horror through the Mohawk Valley in the times of the Revolution; and there was Simon Girty, the renegade, who saw white men burned at the stake and whooped with the Indians to see them burn. His eyes were green, like a catamount’s, and the stains on his hunting shirt did not come from the blood of the deer. King Philip was there, wild and proud as he had been in life, with the great gash in his head that gave him his death wound, and cruel Governor Dale, who broke men on the wheel. There was Morton of Merry Mount, who so vexed the Plymouth Colony, with his flushed, loose, handsome face and his hate of the godly. There was Teach, the bloody pirate, with his black beard curling on his breast. The Reverend John Smeet, with his strangler’s hands and his Geneva gown, walked as daintily as he had to the gallows. The red print of the rope was still around his neck, but he carried a perfumed handkerchief in one hand. One and all, they came into the room with the fires of hell still upon them, and the stranger named their names and their deeds as they came, till the tale of twelve was told. Yet the stranger had told the truth—they had all played a part in America.

“Are you satisfied with the jury, Mr. Webster?” said the stranger mockingly, when they had taken their places.

The sweat stood upon Dan’l Webster’s brow, but his voice was clear.

“Quite satisfied,” he said. “Though I miss General Arnold from the company.”

“Benedict Arnold is engaged upon other business,” said the stranger, with a glower.

That, of course, is a brief excerpt from Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” It’s fascinating that Benét has packed his jury of the damned with men who are supposed to represent the dark side of the American soul, but who in retrospect aren’t actually that bad.

Okay, sure, there are two genuinely evil men on the jury. Walter Butler was a Tory during the Revolution who ordered the massacre of women and children. And you probably know “Teach, the bloody pirate” better as Blackbeard.

But the rest? Not so much.

King Philip is Metacom, a Wampanoag chief who just wanted to stop the Plymouth Colony from stealing his land and slaughtering his people. Thomas Dale was governor of Virginia, and while he had a reputation for being stern he never tortured anyone. Thomas Morton was a neo-pagan whose only crime was settling near Puritans who refused to grant others the religious tolerance they demanded for themselves. And the Reverend John Smeet is entirely fictional.

That leaves Simon Girty, the renegade.

Girty is a curious figure. He was one of the most feared villains of the frontier in the late 18th century. Butterfield’s History of the Girtys declared that “no other country or age ever produced, perhaps, so brutal, depraved, and wicked a wretch.” Boyd’s Simon Girty, The White Savage claimed that “no famished tiger ever sought the blood of a victim with more unrelenting rapacity than Girty sought the blood of a white man.”

Yet Simon Girty was also a man who faithfully served the American cause for three years in spite of outright hostility from his fellows. Contemporary accounts credit him with surprising kindness and tenderness. His friend Simon Kenton continued to think of him warmly, even after they wound up on opposite sides of multiple wars. Even his detractors had to admit he was loyal and honest to a fault.

So let’s talk about Simon Girty.

Early Years (1741-1754)

Simon Girty, Jr. was born in 1741 to Simon and Mary Girty at Chamber’s Mill, Pennsylvania, near modern-day Harrisburg. Simon had one older brother, Thomas, and two yonger brothers, James and George, soon followed.

In the 1740s central Pennsylvania lay on the borders of colonial America. Simon Girty, Sr. was a trader who worked that frontier, selling supplies and manufactured goods to would-be settlers and Native Americans alike.

Of course, to work the frontier you have to move with the frontier. In 1749 Simon Sr. moved his family across the Susquehanna River to Sherman’s Creek.

That was Native American country. Normally that wouldn’t have been a problem, because the colonial attitude towards Native property rights was that they didn’t have any. They treated the tribes as vermin or weeds, obstacles to be cleared away before white men could settle the “wilderness.”

Unfortunately for Simon Sr., Pennsylvania was one of the few colonies that actually did respect the Natives. When the local tribes complained to the colonial government, the Cumberland County militia forcibly resettled the residents of Sherman’s Creek to the other side of the Susquehanna and burned the town to the ground.

Simon Sr. did not take the loss of his home well. He gambled, borrowed heavily, and started drinking himself to death. I say “started” because he never got a chance to finish the process. In 1750 or 1751 he got into a drunken brawl, either with an Englishman named Samuel Saunders or a Native nicknamed “The Fish.” Either way, the fight ended with a tomahawk dead-center in Simon Girty, Sr.’s skull.

Simon Sr. died owing $300 for trade goods and rum he had purchased on credit. Rather than eat the loss, Girty’s creditors bribed officials to backdate a contract with Girty by a whole year. That allowed those creditors to recoup their losses by seizing the Girty homestead and any remaining goods. No one seemed to care that it left Mary Girty and her four boys penniless.

Fortunately, Mary was resilient. She quickly remarried one of Simon’s friends and fellow traders, John Turner, and soon Simon Girty, Jr. had a young half-brother, John Turner, Jr.

French and Indian War (1754-1963)

Alas, John Turner also had trouble making ends meet on the settled side of the frontier, so in 1755 he moved his family back across the Susquehanna to Sherman’s Creek.

It wasn’t a smart move. The French and Indian War was raging, and the British were losing. In July 1755, General Edward Braddock’s expeditionary force was ambushed and destroyed by the French and their Native allies, leaving the frontier almost completely undefended. Throughout the summer of x1756, residents of Sherman’s Creek found themselves under near-constant assault by guerilla bands of braves. They crowded into nearby Fort Granville on the Juniata River for protection.

The fort was ostensibly well-defended, but in late July the militia marched off to gather nearby crops before they could rot in the fields, leaving only a token force of defenders behind. That left the fort wide open to a French attack.

The settlers trapped inside Fort Granville fought bravely, but they were outnumbered and surrounded. At midnight several braves approached along the river under cover of darkness, set the stockade ablaze with flaming arrows, and sniped the only remaining officer in the fort as he made futile attempts to extinguish the flames.

That left John Turner in charge. Faced with a choice between fiery death and surrender, he chose surrender. The settlers were taken as prisoners-of-war and marched to the nearby village of Kittanning.

The Girty family was recognized by the Natives. Simon Sr. was well-known to the tribes along the frontier, and they’d heard about his murder. Unfortunately for John Turner, a fiendish game of telephone had changed the story to a more sinister one: that Simon Girty, Sr. had been murdered so that the murderer could steal Girty’s wife. 

The Natives would not let that stand, and John Turner was sentenced to death by torture. He was tied to a stake by a short leash and prodded with red-hot gun barrels. He was held down and blazing brands were heaped on his chest. He was scalped alive. After three hours of merciless torture he was put out of his misery by a tomahawk.

All of this was done in full view of his wife, child, and step-children.

In those days Native Americans would adopt younger captives into their tribes, and that’s exactly what happened to Simon Girty, Jr. He was taken from his family and sent off to live in a Seneca village. There he was forced to run a gauntlet of braves armed with sticks, which he barely survived. After recovering from his wounds he was ritually bathed by three maidens in a nearby brook, symbolically washing away his white blood and making him a member of the Seneca Nation.

For the next seven years Simon Girty lived as a Seneca brave, albeit one kept far away from the fighting to the east. He spent his days hunting, fishing and learning the lay of the land. He absorbed Native life, language, and culture. The Seneca chief, Guyasuta, even took an personal interest in Simon and mentored the young man.

It sounds like a pretty sweet life. But he was still a captive.

Indian Agent (1764-1773)

The French capitulated to the British in 1763. Their Native allies continued to fight on, but they were forced to bury the hatchet eventually. The peace treaties the tribes signed forced them to return the captives they had taken during the war.

Simon Girty was returned to the recently-renamed Fort Pitt to be reunited with a family he hadn’t seen in almost a decade. His older brother Thomas had been rescued only a month after his capture when the British sacked Kittanning, and was now a farmer on nearby Squirrel Hill. He welcomed his newly-reunited family with open arms.

The Girty boys were not popular in Pittsburgh. The locals were convinced they’d “gone native” and called them “the Injun Girtys.” With no background in a skilled trade, and no one willing to hire them for menial work, the Girtys were forced to use the skills they had developed: a knowledge of frontier geography, a facility with local languages, and how to handle a gun. They went to work for the British Department of Indian Affairs as field agents.

Working out of Fort Pitt, they accompanied government agents and traders on their forays into the frontier, serving as guides and interpreters. 

(Ironically, their bosses at the Department of Indian Affairs included George Croghan, who had been one of the soldiers who burned down Sherman’s Creek, and Alexander McKee, the son of one of the creditors who had stolen their inheritance.)

Simon Girty had grown into a rugged, handsome young man with piercing jet black eyes and a full, round face. He was popular with Natives and traders thanks to the traits he had picked up from the Seneca: unflinching honesty, fierce independence, great courage, and unswerving loyalty. It was claimed he once sold his only horse to pay for a debt, and then walked 100 miles to hand over the money.

Simon also had the negative versions of these traits. He could be blunt and tactless, hot-tempered, and vicious. He rarely forgot a grudge. 

Soon, Simon was one of the most successful Indian Agents in the northwest. He even the honor of being the chief interpreter for the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. In the treaty, the Iroquois ceded almost all of the lands south of the Ohio River to the British.

Lord Dunmore’s Wars (1773-1775)

Settlement past the Appalachians had been restricted by the Proclamation of 1763, but that had never stopped the colonies from moving their borders westward. In 1773, Pennsylvania organized some of the lands acquired by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix as Westmoreland County. That did not please the colony of Virginia. Virginians interpreted their open-ended royal charter in a way that gave them all of the lands west of the Appalachians, south of the Great Lakes, and east of the Mississippi.

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, Governor-in-Chief, Captain-General and Vice Admiral of the Colony and Dominion of Virginia, responded to Pennsylvania’s actions by having the House of Burgesses incorporate the same area as West Augusta County. Lord Dunmore started raising an army to kick the Pennsylvanians out. Raising troops takes time, though, so he sent an agent, Dr. John Connolly, to prepare the area for his arrival.

Connolly hired some goons to browbeat the locals into compliance. Simon Girty was one of those goons. He had no love for the locals who treated his family with scorn, and was happy to take Dunmore’s coin. Busting up printing presses and beating pamphleteers did not make Girty more popular with the locals, but even they had to admit he had some honor. Girty would not allow anyone to assault women or children, a scruple not shared by his fellow thugs.

The Pennsylvanians struck back, swearing out arrest warrants for Connolly and Girty. They captured Connolly, but could never lay a hand on Girty, and those warrants became unenforceable when Lord Dunmore and the Virginia militia rode into Fort Pitt and took control of the entire area.

By then the locals had bigger problems. Their attempts to settle the area had angered the Natives. Now, I know you’re thinking that the Iroquois had traded away the land, but here’s thing thing: technically, that land didn’t belong to the Iroquois. It belonged to the Cherokee, Lenape, Mingo, and Shawnee. Those tribes were not happy to find settlers establishing homesteads on their lands.

Conflict between the settlers and the Natives worsened until it boiled over into all-out war. Lord Dunmore’s militia took the field and met the Native resistance at the Battle of Point Pleasant. The battle itself was a draw, as the Virginians took heavy losses but held firm. It also gave the Natives a chance to see their foes’ true strength, and they realized they were hopelessly outmatched. They sued for peace.

As one a skilled Indian Agent in Lord Dunmore’s employ, Simon Girty was an integral part of the war effort. He was one of the militia’s most effective scouts, shuttling messages between Dunmore and his field commanders. He was one of the translators who negotiated the Treaty of Camp Charlotte that ended the war. He was even responsible for memorizing and transcribing Logan’s Lament, an impromptu speech made by a Mingo chief who refused to come to the negotiating table.

Girty’s contributions were noticed. When the Virginians returned to Fort Pitt, he was rewarded with a commission as a lieutenant in the militia. He took the king’s shilling and swore an to defend the British crown. 

It was February 22, 1775.

Patriot (1775-1778)

Two months later it all went to hell.

When the American Revolution broke out, Lord Dunmore and his militia were forced to retreat back to Virginia. Out of a job, Girty went back to work for the newly-established American Department of Indian Affairs. He tried to throw himself into his job, but the department was staffed by Pennsylvanians who would only give him meaningless busy work.

Girty accompanied future Virginia governor James Wood on a diplomatic mission to persuade the nearby tribes to stay out of the growing war. They were too late. The British had already won the Natives over with rum, rifles, and promises to restore the 1763 borders. Wood and Girty were forced to flee through now hostile territory.

Simon pressed on, recruiting a company of men to go fight for the Continental Army back east. He’d hoped that for his efforts he’d be rewarded with a captaincy, but he was passed over. When the company mustered out, Girty deserted and stayed behind in Pittsburgh.

Girty had a small success when he convinced the Iroquois to stay neutral in the coming conflict. It helped that he was negotiating with his old mentor, Guyasuta. But the negotiations also made it clear that his time working with Dunmore forced Girty’s Native friends to look at him in a new light. They no longer trusted him completely.

Simon’s mission to stop a party of Seneca braves from attacking Fort Wheeling was a complete fiasco. It was immediately obvious the braves did not care about their purported neutrality and would not be swayed by a silver tongue. Simon was forced to flee, leaving his horse and all his provisions behind. He arrived back at Fort Pitt rain-soaked and muddy, and was immediately fired.

The offical reason given for Simon Girty’s termination was “ill-behavior.” This has traditionally been interpreted to tar Simon as a drunken lout, which may be true, but the truth is complicated.

Girty had been negotiating with the Natives for months, trying to convince them that the Americans had no designs on their territory. He naively assumed this was the truth. In actuality his superiors in the Indian Department were planning to size the land and develop it after the war. Girty, honest to a fault, was enraged to discover that he’d been negotiating in bad faith and confronted his bosses. He was let go on the spot.

(He may have also been slipping the pickle to the 15 year-old daughter of Fort Pitt’s commander, which probably didn’t help.)

Soon after wild rumors began to circulate about Simon Girty and his old boss, Alexander McKee, who was also on the outs with the new government. They claimed Girty and McKee were still loyal to Lord Dunmore and were conspiring to seize Fort Pitt for the British. They claimed Girty and McKee had finally gone Native and were inciting the tribes to slaughter every settler west of the Appalachians.

Pure poppycock, of course, but the authorities felt pressured to act. They arrested Girty and McKee and threw them into prison. Girty made a powerful statement by escaping through the privy, spending the night in a nearby orchard, and turning himself back in the following morning. His message was clear: you could only hold Simon Girty if he allowed you to. The authorities released him on his own recognizance, but continued to scrutinize his every move.

After his arrest Girty was persona non grata in Pittsburgh, but he still made one last attempt to fit in. In February 1778 he served as a scout for General Edward Hand on an expedition to punish some tribes along the Cuyahoga for raiding. But the militia became bogged down by an early spring thaw and became dispirited. General Hand decided it wasn’t worth going after his initial target and settled for shooting the Natives he encountered at a nearby salt lick. Hand declared the mission accomplished and marched back to Fort Pitt.

The Natives Hand had killed were members of the Lenape Nation, which was allied with the Americans. They were also mostly women, children, and the elderly. It was a senseless slaughter that accomplished nothing.

Girty was furious. For three long years he’d worked with the Americans even as they’d continued to undercut his honor and integrity. They’d made him a liar, turned his old friends against him, and now they’d made him a murderer of innocents.

Traitor (1778-1784)

Simon Girty found himself in a moral quandary, but his friend and former employer Alexander McKee found himself in a much more serious one. McKee had spent the previous three years trying to ignore the war and do his job as an Indian Agent. He’d also tried to keep a foot in both camps just in case. To that end, he kept up a correspondence with loyalists, including Lord Dunmore and Dr. John Connolly.

When that correspondence was inevitably discovered the reprisals came quickly. General Hand placed McKee under house arrest and ordered him to travel to York to be tried for treason. McKee knew what the verdict would be, and decided that if he was in for a penny he was in for a pound. He formulated a plan and reached out to other disaffected men at Fort Pitt.

On March 28, 1778 Alexander McKee, Simon Girty, and five others fled from Fort Pitt in the middle of the night. They made their way through the wilderness to Fort Detroit and offered their services as Indian Agents to Governor Henry Hamilton of Quebec.

Governor Hamilton knew the value of the men who’d defected, and welcomed them with open arms. He allowed them to continue their work as Indian Agents, with a twist. In addition to their usual duties they would also live among the Natives, accompany them on raids against American settlements, and spy on the Americans for the British government. Simon Girty was sent to live among the Mingo and Shawnee, near the village of Wapatomica.

He was reinvigorated. He had an important job that he could do with a clear conscience. He had regained the trust and respect of his Native friends. He even had the company of his brother James, who defected a few months later. If his new job gave him a chance to take a pound of flesh from the those who had spurned him, more the better.

Simon Girty was now the most feared man on the frontier. Settlers, alone in the woods and far from comfort, already lived in constant fear of Native attacks. With Girty on the Natives’ side, the settler’s thought the “savagery” of the Natives would be coupled with the intelligence of the white man, or at least the low cunning of the Irish. Girty was worse than a traitor to his country, he was a traitor to his race. And he was out there, in the woods, ready to strike at when you least expected it. The settlers’ fear became terror, and that terror created panic.

Not everyone feared Simon Girty. There were quite a few who were grateful that he was out there.

That summer Simon and James Girty returned to Wapatomica after a raid to find that the Shawnee had captured an American horse thief, beaten him to within an inch of his life, and sentenced him to be burned to death. As Simon interrogated the prisoner for strategic information, he realized that the prisoner was his old friend Simon Kenton, who fought by his side in Dunmore’s War. Girty made an eloquent plea to the Shawnee on Kenton’s behalf, and convinced them to spare his friend’s life. 

Girty and Kenton spent a few pleasant days getting reacquainted. Then a war party returned after a failed attack on Fort Wheeling. The braves were angry, looking for an outlet, and spotted Kenton. His death sentence was reinstated, and even Simon Girty’s eloquence could not save his friend’s life.

So instead, Girty used his cunning. He recommended that instead of burning Kenton in Wapatomica, they should take him to Sandusky where the tribes were gathering to receive gifts from King George. That way the execution could be a spectacle everyone could enjoy. The braves saw the wisdom in this and agreed.

Simon thought that the British traders at Sandusky would never let a European be burned at the stake, and he was right. A Canadian trader bought Kenton from the Indians with a generous amount of rum and tobacco, and released him a few days later.

During the winter of 1778-1779 the Americans set up a new outpost in the Ohio country. Fort Laurens was intended to protect the settlers along the frontier, support the Americans’ native allies, and provide a staging point for an invasion of Detroit. Simon Girty was sent to spy on the fort, sabotage its supply lines, and destroy American morale by picking off soldiers a handful at a time. He was very successful. Though the British were unable to lay siege to the fort, Girty’s efforts made life there so unpleasant that it was eventually abandoned and the proposed invasion of Detroit had to be scrapped.

Girty’s reputation was now so fearsome that an American force conducting a raid on Chillicothe retreated when they heard that Simon Girty was on his way to reinforce the town. (Girty was a hundred miles away at the time.)

Simon’s brother George Girty had been serving with the American military, but as the brother of two traitors he was treated poorly. So he, too, decided to defect. In October 1779, George led his brothers and a large force of Natives in an ambush on an American supply train. It was a one-sided slaughter, and though the Natives did all the work, Simon Girty got all the credit.

Maybe too much credit. The Americans convicted him of treason in absentia and put a bounty on his head: $800, dead or alive.

In the spring of 1780, Girty served as the chief interpreter and scout for Captain Henry Bird, who led a small force of Canadians and hundreds of Native allies into Kentucky to lay siege to Louisville. Along the way, they laid siege to a small fort on the Licking commanded by Captain Isaac Ruddle.

Ruddle put up a brave resistance but started to think better of it when the British wheeled out their cannon. Girty was able to negotiate a surrender, with the only condition being that the British protect Ruddle’s men from the Natives. But when the stockade was opened, Hand and Girty could not control their allies. The Natives mowed down the defenders, fought over women, and slaughtered the cattle.

Bird and Girty were infuriated by the Natives’ actions — but mostly because they’d slaughtered the cattle, which they needed for provisions. They gave their allies a dressing down, and the abashed Natives agreed to be on their best behavior. A week later the exact same scene repeated itself at Martin’s Station down-river. Now short on provisions, the British called off their invasion and retreated to Detroit.

On the long march back, Girty recognized one of their captives as John Hinkson, another old friend of his from Dunmore’s War. During the war Hinkson had killed a popular brave named “Wipey,” and Girty knew that if the Natives ever found out, Hinkson was a dead man. So that night Girty and Hinkson swapped clothes, which enabled Hinkson to sneak past sentries and escape.

Later that year Simon also saved the life of another young captive, Henry Baker, who was sentenced to be burned alive.

In the fall of 1780 Girty was back in Detroit enjoying a drink with one of his allies, Mohawk chieftain Theyendanegea, better known as “Captain Joseph Brant.” Brant was regaling the tavern with tales of his cunning and bravery. Simon’s brother George had been working with Brant, and Simon knew that Brant’s boasting was hollow. When Brant started claiming glory that rightfully belonged to George, Simon could take it no more. He slammed down his mug and loudly proclaimed that Brant was a liar.

The response was sudden and unexpected. Brant drew his saber and struck Simon on the forehead, cutting him to the bone. Girty was in a coma for weeks and was not well enough to travel until the new year. He was left with a terrible scar over his right eye, which he covered with a red bandana that became his signature look. Afterwards, he was never quite the same, suffering from headaches and dizzy spells.

For the next few years there was little action along the frontier, so Girty turned his attention towards a troublesome group of Moravian missionaries saving Native souls along the Muskingum and Tuscarawas Rivers. The British had long suspected the Moravians of spying for the Americans and convincing the Natives to stay out of the conflict. Probably because that’s exactly what the Moravians were doing.

Throughout 1781 and 1782, Girty relocated the Moravians and their flock north to Sandusky, ostensibly for their own safety but in actuality to move them further away from their American contacts. Simon never passed up a chance to antagonize the missionaries by openly mocking their religion, pushing them around, and stealing their supplies. In their correspondence to Pittsburgh the Moravians portrayed Girty as a remorseless devil, which only burnished his fearsome reputation.

Eventually American forces under the command of Colonel David Williamson moved to secure the territory that had been vacated by the Moravians. At the former settlement of Gnadenhutten they encountered a large group of Christian Lenape who had been left behind, scrounging for provisions. The Lenape were allied with the Americans, and the foragers consisted largely of women, children, and the infirm. It made no difference to Williamson and his men, who slaughtered them all.

When the Natives found out, they reacted with swift fury. They met the Americans in battle on June 6th and fought them to a stalemate. Believing themselves to be vastly outnumbered, the Americans tried to flee during the night but became separated into two groups. Williamson was able to lead one group to safety on the far side of the Ohio. The other group, led by Colonel William Crawford, accidentally wandered into a large group of Natives and were captured. The prisoners were sent to Sandusky where they were tried and sentenced to death.

Simon Girty was sent to interrogate the prisoners before their executions. He recognized Crawford immediately — they had served together during Dunmore’s War, and back in Pittsburgh Simon had been sweet on Crawford’s sister Sarah. 

Crawford asked Girty what had happened to his son-in-law and nephew, who had also been captured. Girty replied that they were fine, but it wasn’t true: they had been burned to death earlier that day and their bodies were still smoldering outside. (It’s not clear whether Girty was ignorant, lying, or just trying to spare an old friend unneeded pain.) Crawford swore that he had not been responsible for the Gnadenhutten massacre, and it was true. His company had joined up with Williamson’s forces a few days later. He tearfully asked Girty to intercede on his behalf.

Girty replied that he would try, but made no promises. Most of Simon’s friends were Seneca, Wyandot or Mingo and he had  little or no influence over the Lenape. His silver tongue proved to be ineffective against hearts full of burning rage and a righteous fury that could not be quenched. Simon even tried to buy Crawford’s freedom with his prized white horse and all of his provisions, but this offer, too, was refused.

Later that night Crawford was taken from his prison and beaten with sticks. He was tied to a tall post with a short leash. Braves surrounded him and fired dozens of powder charges into his body from point blank range, causing painful burns. Then they cut off his ears and beat him with flaming brands from a nearby fire. Whenever he fell down, squaws would scoop up hot coals from the fire and pour them over his back and head. Soon there was nowhere Crawford could walk that wasn’t covered with flaming debris.

During his ordeal Crawford cried for Girty to shoot him and put him out of his misery. Simon laughed bitterly, said he had no gun, and turned away from the spectacle. What could he have done anyway? If he had shot Crawford the Lenape would doubtlessly have turned on him.

Crawford was then scalped and coals were once again poured on his bloody head and neck. For four hours Crawford endured this painful torture, and when he died his body was thrown on the fire.

Dr. John Knight, the company surgeon, witnessed the whole ugly scene. Knight managed to escape and return to Fort Pitt, where he published a sensationalistic account of Crawford’s execution that put all the blame on Girty. From that point on, Girty was no longer a villain in the eyes of the Americans. He was a monster.

In the closing days of the war Girty saw action at the Battle of the Blue Licks, when the British and their Native American allies defeated a ragtag group of Kentuckians led by Daniel Boone. Girty was instantly recognizable to his enemies, thanks to his red bandana.

A few months later, Simon was with a raiding party near Pittsburgh when he heard the guns of Fort Pitt thundering. He asked one of his captives what was going on, and was told that they were announcing the end of the war. Girty thought it was a trick, but when he returned to Detroit he found out it was true.

Northwest Indian War (1785-1795)

With the war over Simon had little to do. He may have made some covert visits to his brother Thomas’s farm in Squirrel Hill by using the clever disguise of “not wearing a red bandana.” He served as a negotiator, working with Joseph Brant as he tried to expand the Iroquois Confederacy into a larger “United States of Indians” but that effort was doomed to failure.

Mostly Simon was put to work tracking down captives who had been adopted by the Natives and returning them to their families. One of the captives he repatriated was Catherine Mallott, a young woman half Simon’s age who dazzled him with her independence and beauty. The attraction was apparently mutual, and the next year the two were married. They settled down on a farm near Fort Malden in Canada and started raising a family.

War came calling for Simon Girty not long after. There were ambiguities in the Treaty of Versailles that left the ownership of certain areas unsettled. The British could not strike openly against the Americans, but they armed the Native Americans to fight a proxy war on their behalf. Simon Girty and Alexander McKee were drawn into the conflict, operating in much the same way they had during the Revolution.

In one of the more gruesome incidents of the Northwest Indian War, Simon tried to convince the defenders of Dunlap’s Station in Ohio to surrender. When they declined, he had one of his American captives burned alive in front of the fort as a warning to its defenders.

Or maybe not. No one at Dunlap’s Station actually saw Girty there, but claimed they had heard he was there after the fact. It’s not clear whether the captive was burned alive, tortured, murdered, or merely shot. And contemporary records actually put Girty at Baker’s Station in Virginia at the exact same time. So probably not.

The raids demanded a response from the young American government. Governor Arthur St. Clair was sent to crush any Native resistance in the Northwest. St. Clair had been an old enemy of Girty’s. In fact, he was the justice of the peace who had sworn out a warrant for Girty’s arrest back when Virginia and Pennsylvania were squabbling over fthe frontier.

St. Clair was also a useless fop. In October 1791 he marched his a poorly-trained and ill-equipped army (and for some reason all their camp followers) slowly through the wilderness. The raw recruits failed to conduct adequate reconnaissance and were continually shadowed by Natives. On November 3rd, 1791 the Americans were ambushed while eating breakfast along the Wabash River, and a quick battle turned into a rout. More than a rout, actually: the worst defeat ever suffered by the United States military, with casualty rates of 88% for officers, 97% for soliders, and 100% for camp followers. Over 832 Americans were killed that day, compared to 21 Natives.

After the battle, the Natives combed over the battlefield, mutilating the bodies of fallen soldiers and stuffing dirt in their mouths so the Americans could finally have the land they craved so badly. Girty noticed an old enemy of his, General Richard Butler, leaning against a tree and bleeding out. Simon pointed Butler out to some nearby braves, who scalped the general, cut out his heart, and ate it.

The panicked Americans sent a delegation to negotiate a peace treaty with the Natives. Girty was present at the negotiations, correctly pointed out the Indian Agents had no authority to redraw borders, and led a walkout of many tribes.

War it was, then. The Americans sent General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to settle the score. Wayne set up training camps west of Pittsburgh, organized and trained an “Legion of the United States,” and decisively defeated the Natives at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. A year later, the Jay Treaty finally put an end to all hostilities and ended British claims over the land.

Tradition holds that as American troops marched into Detroit, Simon Girty was the last British loyalist to leave town. When he was discovered drinking in a tavern by the militia, he ran through the streets with bullets whizzing over his head. He plunged his horse into the cold Detroit River, rode safely to the other side, and blew raspberries at his former countrymen from the safety of Canada.

Later Years (1796-1818)

That was pretty much it for Simon Girty. He settled into a life as a farmer. He and his wife Catherine had a tumultuous relationship, and she left and returned to him several times. In 1800 he broke his leg in a fall from his horse, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. In 1804 he had a chance encounter with William Clark, of “Lewis and Clark” fame, who said that Girty was rheumatic and nearly blind.

During the War of 1812, American forces crossed the Detroit River and Simon fled to live in safety with a nearby band of Mohawk. American troops seized Simon’s farm and threatened to burn it, but were stopped at the last second by his old friend Simon Kenton.

Simon returned home in 1816, now nearly blind and entirely dependent on his estranged wife and children for care. He died in his bed in February 1818.

Legacy

Why did Simon Girty strike fear into the hearts of early Americans?

He’d never been trusted after his return from captivity. Other settlers saw him as a race traitor, more Native than American. They were afraid of the Natives, who they thought of as little better than animals, and had nothing but contempt for a white man who would “lower” himself to that level.

That same racism also allowed them to blame Simon for actions committed by Natives. They assumed that a white man speaking for a group of Natives had to be in charge, even though Girty’s actual role was that of an advisor and interpreter. It was another small way that they dehumanized the Natives and inflated Girty’s role in the conflict.

Girty was also a high-profile traitor who deserted at a pivotal time in the war. That had to play into American anxieties as well.

Dr. Knight’s narrative was widely disseminated in its day, cementing Girty’s reputation as a cruel monster. Of course, there are more documented instances of Girty stopping torture and executions than there are of him participating, but those were usually dismissed by the Americans out of hand.

And let’s not forget that there were three Girtys raiding along the frontier! Any act committed by the Girty boys wound up attributed to Simon, and as his legend grew, completely unrelated atrocities along the frontier wound up the Girty name attached to them.

These factors combined to make Girty one of the most hated villains of American history and legend. Some early American histories even tried to give him a dramatically appropriate death, having him cut down by brave frontiersmen or even by William Henry Harrison himself.

Novelist Uriah James Jones turned some dubious Harrisburg folklore about Girty’s exploits into the novel Simon Girty: The Outlaw (1846), in which Simon is a Swiss-born robber with a gang of thieves and a secret cave filled with gold. Charles McKnight’s Simon Girty, The White Savage: A Romance of the Border (1880) is more historically accurate, though still biased towards the sensationalistic. Zane Grey made Simon Girty and his brother “Buzzard Jim” the primary antagonists of The Spirit of the Border (1906), though he also made Girty responsible for the Gnadenhutten massacre instead of one of its avengers. 

Shortly after 1900, Girty’s hold on the American psyche began to wane. Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” was his swan song in the popular imagination. So why did we stop fearing Simon Girty?

Partly because we’d had another hundred years of American history. When you have the same amount of school time to cover more material, marginal figures like Simon Girty are the first to get cut from the curriculum.

Early 20th-century historians were also questioning our frontier narratives with a critical eye. Girty was recontextualized as a man of conscience and a figure of Native resistance to American expansion. (Though someone truly opposed to American expansion would have never fought on Dunmore’s side in the war.) Some of Girty’s descendants even pushed a theory that he was secretly an deep cover American double-agent, even though that’s clearly not true.

In the end, I’m not sure what we should think about Simon Girty, because he contains multitudes. He walked in two worlds and was never at home as either. He was capable of tender mercy and exceptional cruelty. We’ll never know how much he set his own destiny, or was buffeted by the winds of fate. So maybe I’ll let his friend Simon Kenton have the last word.

“He was good to me, and it was no wonder. When we see our fellow-creatures every day, we don’t care for them; but it is different when you meet a man all alone in the woods — the wild, lonely woods.”

Simon Girty chewing gum card

Connections

General Richard Butler gave his name to a number of places around the United States, including Butler County, Pennsylvania. Twelve years after Butler’s death, Butler County became the first home of George Rapp’s Harmony Society, a celibate and apocalyptic religious organization who we covered in the Series 2 episodes “Hold Fast What Thou Hast” and “That No Man Take Thy Crown.” (Also, if you want to really get into it, the site of “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s training camp, Legionville, was later resettled as “Löwenburg” by the New Philadelphians who left the Harmony Society.)

“Mad” Anthony Wayne, who ended the Northwest Indian War, is buried in Erie, PA. (Or at least his flesh is. His bones are somewhere else. It’s a long story.) Who else is buried in Erie? Why, Spanish-American war hero Charles Vernon Gridley, who we covered in the Series 1 episode “He Fired When Ready.”

Sources

  • “A Proclamation by the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” The Pennsylvania Packet, 17 Jun 1778.
  • “Doctor Knight’s narrative.” The North-American Intelligencer, 07 May 1783.
  • “Forfeited estates.” The North-American Intelligencer, 20 Feb 1782.
  • “Simon Girty.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Girty Accessed 1/10/2020.
  • Boyd, Thomas. Simon Girty: The White Savage. New York: J. Little & Company, 1928.
  • Burke, Mike. “The Life and Myth of Simon Girty.” Fort Pitt Museum Blog, May 22, 2015. https://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/blog/fort-pitt-museum/life-myth-simon-girty Accessed 3/1/2020.
  • Butts, Edward. Simon Girty, Wilderness Warrior. Toronto: Dundurn, 2011.
  • Calloway, Colin G. “Neither White Nor Red: White Renegades on the American Indian Frontier.” Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 17 No. 1 (Jan 1986).
  • Frederic, Harold. The Damnation of Simon Girty. Havelock, NC: self-published, 1991.
  • Hoffman, Philip W. Simon Girty, Turncoat Hero. Franklin, TN: Flying Camp Press, 2009.
  • Jones, Uriah James. Simon Girty, The Outlaw. Harrisburg: Aurand Press, 1846.
  • McKnight, Charles. Simon Girty, the White Savage: A Romance of the Border. Philadelphia: J.C. McCurdy, 1880.
  • Shannon, Timothy J. “French and Indian Cruelty? The Fate of the Oswego Prisoners of War, 1756-1758.” New York History 95.3
  • Sosin, Jack. “The British Indian Department and Dunmore’s War.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol 74. No. 1 (Jan 1966).
  • Truman, Timothy. Wilderness: The True Story of Simon Girty, Renegade. Lancaster, PA: 4Winds Publising, 1989.

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