On Monday, March 26, 1804, William Clark made a remarkable journal entry:
a verry Smokey day I had Corn parched to make parched meal, workmen all at work prepareing the Boat, I visit the Indian Camps, In one Camp found 3 Squars & 3 young ones, another 1 girl & a boy in a 3rd Simon Girtey & two other familey— Girtey has the Rhumertism verry bad those Indians visit me in their turn, & as usial ask for Something I give them flour &c.
Clark’s attitude about encountering Simon Girty is remarkably nonchalant. A 21st century equivalent would be: “You’ll never guess who I saw at Starbucks. Osama bin Laden! He was reading the paper and drinking a vanilla latte.” For in the early 19th century, Simon Girty was one of the most vilified, feared, and hated men in America.
Born in 1741 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Girty personified the era of frontier violence. His father, an Irish drover and trader, was killed during a drunken frolic by an Indian named The Fish, who was in turn killed by a man named John Turner, who later married Simon’s mother. During the French and Indian War in 1756, the family was captured at Fort Granville by a band of Delaware, Shawnee and Seneca Indians. They burned the stockade and marched the captives away to a nearby Indian village. Girty’s stepfather was tortured, scalped, and burned at the stake, while his wife and her five sons watched in horror. Simon was adopted by the Seneca Indians and readily learned their language, though he could neither read nor write English.
Released as part of a peace agreement in 1759, Girty found work as an interpreter and scout. He was involved in translating the famous speech of Logan, chief of the Mingoes, during the conflict known as Lord Dunmore’s War. At one point, Lord Dunmore asked Girty and his brother to dance in the Indian fashion, which they did, to the astonishment of an observer: “They interspersed the performance with Indian songs and yells that made the welkin ring.”
When the revolution broke out, Girty wavered in his loyalties. He joined the American army, but in the spring of 1778, he deserted Fort Pitt and struck out for Indian country, determined to help the British and Indians fight the Americans. Hired as an interpreter by the “Hair-Buyer” General Henry Hamilton at Detroit, Girty took up the hatchet and participated enthusiastically in marauding and raiding parties against settlers on the Kentucky frontier.
As the Revolution dragged on in the west, Girty returned to live with the Wyandot Indians. He participated in raids and supported the Wyandot chief, known as the Half-King, in his efforts to harass, persecute, and drive out Moravian missionaries in the area who were trying to Christianize the Indians. In May 1782, a force of about 500 mounted men under Colonel William Crawford marched against the Wyandots. With the help of British agents, the Indians along the Sandusky River quickly mobilized and defeated the Americans on June 5, 1782. Colonel Crawford ended up a prisoner. When Crawford learned that Girty was at the Half-King’s town, he asked to be taken there, somehow hoping that Girty would persuade the Indians to spare his life.
Crawford’s fate was related later by the only surviving witness, Dr. John Knight, who did more than anyone to seal the reputation of Simon Girty in the American mind. According to Knight’s account, when he and Colonel Crawford reached the Half-King’s town on the Upper Sandusky, they were stripped naked and forced to sit on the ground, while a crowd of sixty or seventy Indians beat them with sticks and fists. Crawford was tied by his wrists to a post. The Indians took up their guns and shot powder into his naked body. The mob then cut off his ears. They built a fire six or seven yards from the post to which he was tied, and the men took turns picking up burning hickory poles and touching them to Crawford’s body, surrounding him. They also threw hot coals at him, so soon he had nothing to walk on but burning coals and ashes. In the midst of this torture, Crawford called to Girty and begged him to shoot him. Girty replied, laughing, that he had no gun.
Crawford lasted about two hours before he gave out and lay down on his stomach, at which point the Indians fell upon him and scalped him. They threw the scalp in Knight’s face. As Knight was dragged away from the dreadful scene to be taken to the Shawnees, Crawford was roasting alive in the slow fire. After he died, it was said the Indians heaped sticks upon his body and danced around his charred remains for hours. According to Knight, Girty made no effort at all to end Crawford’s suffering.
When the Revolution ended, Girty returned to Detroit, still in the pay of the British. He played a prominent role in agitating among the frontier Indians for the next ten years. Girty led a force of 300 warriors against the Ohio River settlement of Dunlap’s Station in January 1791. Girty’s party killed several soldiers outside the fort, captured another, and fiercely but unsuccessfully laid siege to the fort. The captured prisoner was tortured within earshot of the fort, so the soldiers within could hear his agonized screams as flaming brands were “applied to his naked bowels” and the Indians kindled a fire on his belly.
After Anthony Wayne defeated the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794, Girty tried to dissuade as many chiefs as possible from going to the treaty negotiations at Greenville, but most of the chiefs were tired of fighting and wanted to bury the hatchet. In November 1794, John Jay negotiated a treaty with Britain, which stipulated that the Western posts should be vacated by British soldiers.
When the Americans arrived to take possession of the fort at Detroit, they found that “the wells had been filled with stones, the windows broken, the gates locked, and the keys deposited with an aged Negro, in whose possession they were afterward found.” There were no British officers on hand to transfer possession of the fort, but Simon Girty was in the town, drunk and raving, declaring that he would not stir one inch unless driven out. However, at the sight of American troop boats coming up river, Girty became so alarmed that he plunged his horse into the stream without waiting for the ferry-boat, and, at the risk of drowning, made for the Canada shore.
The last known sighting of Girty in America—besides the March 1804 account of William Clark—occurred during the War of 1812, when Detroit was temporarily recaptured by the British. As the redcoats took possession of the town, Girty crossed the river, exclaiming, “Here’s old Simon Girty again on American soil!” He visited the town frequently over the next few months.
After Commodore Perry’s victory over the British fleet in September 1813, Girty’s friends persuaded him to leave before American troops invaded Canada. Old, nearly blind, and crippled with rheumatism, Girty sought refuge with a band of Mohawks on the Grand River. He returned to his home in Canada in 1816, blind and depressed. In February 1818, he died in the presence of his wife and family, having asked forgiveness for his sins. He was buried on his farm, and British soldiers fired a salute over his grave.