Simon Girty – Villain or Hero?


I have a friend who grew up in the 1930s in Ohio. She told me that even then, a century after his death, Simon Girty was used as a bogeyman to frighten little children into proper behavior, as in, “Go to sleep, or the Girty-man will get you!”

At the same time, my mother was growing up in Leamington, Ontario, and was raised to consider her fifth-great grandfather a hero, celebrated at family reunions as a man who remained true to his principles and his friends.

Quite aside from family loyalty, there were significant reasons for the difference in attitudes towards the frontiersman Simon Girty. His story highlights the complex relationship in the Ohio Valley and the Midwest between the native tribes who lived there, and the European settlers who streamed into the area in the years before and after the American Revolution.

Early Life of Simon Girty

Simon Girty was born at Chamber’s Mill, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, in 1741, one of four sons. His father was Simon Girty Sr., usually described as “a drunken Irish trader”, and his mother was Mary Newton, an Englishwoman. The family was living on what was then the frontier of colonial America, where there was ongoing disagreement, often erupting into violence, between the native tribes who claimed the land as theirs by right of prior occupation, and the settlers who were moving in and establishing homesteads, settlements, and forts throughout the Ohio River valley.

In 1751, Simon Girty Sr was killed in a dispute either with a British officer or an Indian called “the Fish” (accounts vary), and Mary then married John Turner. In 1756, the family was captured by Indians and Turner was burnt at the stake for his past actions against Indians. It was common for white prisoners to be adopted into an Indian tribe and treated as one of their own. Indeed, in many cases when white captives were rescued, they often showed a preference for the native way of life that they had grown accustomed to.

This is was what happened with Simon Girty. He spent the next eight years living as a member of the Seneca tribe, an experience which obviously had a profound impact upon him, since for the rest of his life his sympathies certainly lay with the native peoples of the Midwest. He simply believed that they had a right to their land, and therefore were justified in resisting, violently if necessary, the annexation of that land by settlers and the government and troops that supported them.

Before the Revolution

In his early twenties Girty returned to white society, probably operating as a trader with the Indians, and certainly maintaining close relationships with the tribes during this period of time. Most notably, it was Girty who translated and delivered from memory the speech “Logan’s Lament” at the peace conference at the conclusion of Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774. Chief Logan had refused to attend but let Lord Dunmore’s intermediary, Girty, who was fluent in eleven native languages, deliver it for him. This has become one of the most famous speeches in American history, admired by people such as Thomas Jefferson and memorized by millions of American schoolchildren.

The Revolution

At the beginning of the Revolution, Girty was affiliated with the Continental Congress, working as an intermediary with the Iroquois. However, he was overlooked for promotion on more than one occasion. As well, he realized that the Americans had plans to move across the Ohio River and settle on Indian lands. By 1778 he had switched sides and joined the British, working out of Fort Detroit as an interpreter. This defection infuriated the Americans. He became known as “The Great Renegade”.

The war gave the British an opportunity to work with the tribes on a common goal, keeping the Americans out of the Midwest, and Girty proved to be an invaluable link between the two groups. He did not have a cordial relationship with Joseph Brant, and sported a scar on his cheek from an unfortunate encounter with the Mohawk leader. However, he was closely allied with the Shawnee, Mingo, and Wyandots and participated in their raids into the Ohio country from Fort Detroit. The Americans hated Girty more for allying himself with the Indians than with the British. After all, fighting by the side of the Indians, to help the Indians against the American invaders, made him, as they saw it, a traitor to the white “race”. They started to call him “the White Savage.”

There are many stories of him participating in scalping raids and the torture or execution of American captives, most notably that of Colonel William Crawford in 1782. However, there are conflicting eyewitness reports of his behavior there, so it is impossible to know with certainty how he acted. It is, however, known that on another occasion he interceded to save the life of a former friend who had remained on the American side in the conflict, Simon Kenton.

In 1782, he was a part of the largely Shawnee force that defeated Daniel Boone at the Battle of Blue Licks in Kentucky. At the close of the Revolution, he remained at Fort Detroit, which at that time was in British hands.

After the Revolution

Girty was at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, when the native tribes under Blue Jacket and Little Turtle were defeated decisively by the American forces. This battle marked the end of a united effort to stem the tide of American settlement into the Midwest, and the tribes were forced into signing the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. This would have established clear boundaries between white settlements and native land if the settlers had not almost immediately started new settlements on land promised to the tribes.

Girty returned to Fort Detroit, but when word reached there in 1796 that the British had ceded the forts south of the Great Lakes in Jay’s Treaty, he knew that he had to get out of what had become American territory as quickly as possible. He swam across the Detroit River with his horse. He knew how much the Americans hated him. Besides, he was a married man with a family to worry about, and already had a farm to settle on near Fort Malden at Amherstburg.

In 1784, he had been asked by Sarah Malott to arrange the release of her daughter Catherine from the Delawares who had captured her; he did, and they were married shortly after. They had four children, but the marriage was not a success; Catherine had become increasingly religious and was troubled by Simon’s dissolute ways. They separated in the early 1800’s.

Simon grew into an unhappy old man. He became known as a drunk who hung out at local taverns. When his rheumatism grew so bad that he found movement difficult, he wouldn’t even dismount from his horse, but instead banged on the door of the tavern with his shillelagh until the tavern-keeper brought his drink to him.

Girty even gave liquor to his Indian friends and farm-hands, which horrified the white inhabitants of Essex County; however, no doubt his reasoning was that since he loved liquor, and the Indians were his friends, he wanted his friends to be able to enjoy liquor as well. Without a doubt, Girty considered the Indians to be his equals, which is more than could be said for most of the other settlers in Essex County.

Life’s End

During the War of 1812, Girty had to flee from the Americans once again. The U.S. army invaded across the Detroit River in 1813, and he moved ahead of them to the Six Nations territory along the Grand River. After the war he returned to his farm, and died on February 18 1818. He was buried on his land with his coffin in a vertical position to hide its location; the fear was that if American forces invaded again as they had in 1813, they would dig up his grave and despoil the body, such was the vehemence of their hatred for him. Apparently people from Kentucky made the journey to Amherstburg just to spit on his grave anyway.

His Reputation

The Americans never forgave Girty, and his depiction in literature and film and television demonstrates that. Steven Vincent Benet put him on the Devil’s jury in The Devil and Daniel Webster, right next to Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold. As well, he was the title character’s nemesis in the 1936 film Daniel Boone, which was not shown in southern Essex County, Ontario movie theaters for fear of a boycott by the many descendants of Simon Girty who lived there. He was also featured as a bad guy on the television showDaniel Boone.

Why the difference between the perceptions in Canada and the United States? Racism plays an important role in the traditional perception of Simon Girty in the United States. During the War of 1812, when the Shawnee and Mohawk were fighting on the side of the British, American General Hull made the following statement in his proclamation to the inhabitants of Canada: No white man found fighting by the Side of an Indian will be taken prisoner. Instant destruction will be his Lot. This makes it clear that to fight with the Indians against any white man was to be a traitor to one’s race, and that such a man could expect no mercy. Simon Girty had certainly transgressed this racist rule, time and again. His traditional reputation in the United States was thus inevitable.

However, in recent years some people have actually started to see him less as an evil villain lurking on the frontier, and more as a man who had legitimate reasons for the actions that he took. This has a lot to do with a growing sympathy for the native Americans. The traditional view of Indians as a stubborn and violent barrier between white settlers and the land that rightfully belonged to them has started to give way to an understanding of them as a civilization and nations who were justified in resisting the unrelenting and often violent annexation of their territory. Films such as Dances with Wolves and Little Big Man demonstrate that new sympathy for the native point of view. With that new viewpoint, it would be inevitable that the reputation of a white man who supported them in that endeavor would have to be re-evaluated as well.