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.

Date May 21, 2015
  • Mike Burke