The Life and Myth of Simon Girty

Simon Girty, by Mike Burke
Contemporary sketch of Simon Girty based on a 19th century engraving. Illustration by Mike Burke.

In the decades following the American Revolution, no one was more universally hated by frontier residents than former Indian captive Simon Girty.

Born near Chambersburg, Pa. in 1741, Girty and his brothers were captured and adopted by Indians during the French & Indian War. Released in 1759, he used his mastery of native languages to find work in and around Fort Pitt, first as a fur trader’s assistant, and later as an interpreter between the British and Native Americans.

Following the outbreak of the Revolution, his motivations became suspect, and in 1777 he was even tried—and acquitted—for treason. In early 1778, his distrust for his American colleagues and their unscrupulous treatment of Native Americans led him to flee Fort Pitt to join the British at Detroit, thus laying the cornerstone for his reputation as the quintessential frontier villain.

His subsequent role leading Indian war parties against frontier settlements established him in the eyes of his countrymen, as not only a traitor to his nation but also to his race. Later, his alleged conduct at the torture of Continental Army officer Col. William Crawford in 1782 cemented his fate as the most hated man on the frontier. More recent scholarship has revealed, however, that it was not Simon, but his brother James, who rebuked Crawford at his execution. Further, several reliable witnesses, such as former captive Jonathan Alder, recalled that Girty’s influence was “in several instances…the means of saving prisoners’ lives.” Close examination of the sources surrounding Crawford’s execution reveals a similar story.

A longtime friend of Crawford’s from his days at Fort Pitt, Girty attempted to intercede on the doomed officer’s behalf with Captain Pipe, the Delaware war chief in charge of the execution, but to no avail. Both the massacre of the Moravian Delawares at Gnadenhutten earlier that year and prior aggression from the Americans precluded any leniency in the matter. Despite the obvious risk involved in helping Crawford, Girty only ceased his attempts to prevail on the Delaware chief when his own life was threatened.

In the years following Crawford’s execution, Girty continued in service with the British in their ongoing war for control of the Ohio Country. Though he found continued demand for his services, he never fully reconciled his British, American, and Seneca identities. He died in relative obscurity at his home near Fort Malden, Ontario in 1818, though branches of his family reside in the Pittsburgh area to this day.

Learn more about regional captives at the Fort Pitt Museum’s new exhibition, Captured by Indians: Warfare & Assimilation on the 18th Century Frontier.

Mike Burke is the exhibit specialist at the Fort Pitt Museum.

2 thoughts on “The Life and Myth of Simon Girty

  1. I think that knowing the story of Simon Girty is vital for finding a deeper understanding of North America in the latter half of the 18th Century, and it is great that you are bringing him into the exhibit. Consider how conflicted his perspective must have been…His childhood was spent on the Western Frontier of the 13 Colonies with his father, who traded goods illegally until killed in a duel. Then at age 13, he was kidnapped by raiding Shawnee Indians, who later gave him to Mingo Chief, Guyasuta, who then later returned him to the British General Bouquet at Fort Pitt in 1764. He’s marched with George Washington, served as the voice of the Six Nations Native Confederation in peace talks, and fought with the British and the Iroquois against the American Rebels, until their final defeat at Detroit. This guy was all over the place in History.

    Because of Simon’s time with the Natives, he learned more than just their language, but their customs and rituals as well. When the American Revolution came around, he first sided with Washington’s rebels, but he came to believe that the Americans ultimately coveted the Native tribes’ lands. His actions serving as an “Indian Agent” and Translator for the British, as well as his continued loyalty to “Savages”, led some in Pittsburgh to accuse him of being a Loyalist to the Crown, forcing him to leave much of his family behind in Squirrel Hill, and drawing him into the center of one of the largest Cultural conflicts in History.

    America’s expansion into Native lands is an incredibly complicated story. It the story of a “New World” clashing into and obliterating the old one. Simon Girty is often portrayed in American History as a villain and a traitor, but I tend to see him as someone who made a moral judgement call, based on what he believed Americans would do to the Native people if the British were ever defeated, and Simon wasn’t wrong about that detail. He stood his ground and made a great deal of personal sacrifices for what he believed was the right thing; all to protect a Culture that wasn’t his. Simon Girty, in my opinion, is a guy worth learning more about, if you really want to know the whole story about America’s past.

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