Born Simon Girty Jr. in 1741 near present-day Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Girty, like those other mythical figures, lived the sort of life that lent itself readily to legend. Simon Girty was the son of an Irish immigrant who settled in Eastern Pennsylvania. The son of a packhorse driver employed in the fur trade, his life became something of a romantic tragedy. His natural father was murdered by Indians in 1750 over a land dispute, and, following the capture of the entire Girty family by Indians during the French & Indian War in America, his step-father, John Turner, was burned at the stake before Simon's eyes in 1756. Upon the Girty family capture, Simon was adopted into the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois League while his two younger brothers, James and George, were adopted by the Shawnee and Delaware respectively. The next decade of his life was spent living among the Seneca of northwestern Pennsylvania. The Seneca introduced Girty to the language and culture of the natives and eventually resurfaced sometime after the end of the French & Indian War near Fort Pitt, where he began to make a name for himself as a capable scout and interpreter for the Crown. By then, Girty had come to love the Indian way of life, and, at one point, served as bodyguard to Seneca Indian Chief Guyasuta. Even back among the frontier settlements, Girty continued to practice the Indian mode of dress and lifestyle, moving about frequently along the Ohio River valley and making no permanent ties. His military career began as a frontier scout during Lord Dunmore's War, the brief border conflict in 1774 between Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Shawnee tribes over possession of what are now southwestern Pennsylvania, western West Virginia, and southeastern Ohio. Girty continued in this capacity during the early years of the American Revolution, operating out of Fort Pitt as an Indian agent and spy for the Americans.
It was during this time that Simon Girty met Simon Kenton. While in an altercation near Fort Pitt, Kenton came to the aid of a short, thickset man in trouble. Kenton and Girty joined the army together as scouting agents and were assigned together on Kenton’s first mission into the Ohio Country up the Muskingum River. They quickly became the best of friends. “One night, as Kenton and Girty were resting in a small cave along the Muskingum, Girty suggested that the two of them bond themselves together in brotherhood in a sacred rite he had learned with the Senecas. What it meant, he explained, was that their blood became one and they were brothers and would vow to forever help and protect one another at all times, regardless of risk. There weren’t many people a man could depend on in this country, he added, and it would be good to know there was at least one. Simon [Kenton] agreed readily and Girty, with shallow flicks of his knife, laid open his own and Simon’s right wrists. They then gripped each other’s forearm so that the incisions met and pressed tightly together and their blood mingled. The grip was held for several minutes, during which first Girty then Kenton swore eternal friendship, brotherhood, devotion, and protection, one for the other, as long as they both should live. It was a solemn and impressive ritual and the youth [Kenton] felt a great warmth for his companion. He hoped one day to be able to prove the strength of this bond.” [Eckert, p. 104]
Simon Girty and Simon Kenton both served during Lord Dunmore’s War and at the battle of Point Pleasant together. Girty and Kenton both met with Chief Logan, under his great Elm near Congo Creek, when Logan had refused to attend the peace conference following Lord Dunmore’s War but would dictate a message to be read there. Girty translated Logan’s message that will forever be known as “Logan’s Lament”—his distraught speech after his glutted revenge over the murder of his entire family.
When Simon Kenton asked Girty to accompany him to search and explore for the illusive “canelands” down the Ohio near the falls of Ohio (across the river from present day Cincinnati, Ohio), Girty refused preferring the life around rapidly growing Pittsburgh. Girty spent the next four years continuing to scout and spy for the Americans.
Kenton returned to Pittsburgh four years later and it was a joyous reunion between Girty and his beloved friend. Girty and Kenton went on a hunt together the next day but did little hunting. They walked through the woods, rambling on and catching up on the past four years. It was quickly made apparent that this would be their last time together as Girty explained to his friend that it so happened that the next day he was planning on defecting to the British at Fort Detroit. Throughout history and in many historical accounts, Girty is portrayed as a savage, a coward, and a traitor; however, nothing could be farther from the truth. “Simon was momentarily speechless. That his beloved friend, a Pennsylvanian by birth, could turn his back on his fellow Americans was unbelievable. Nor could Simon’s pleas change his mind. Girty’s reason was not so much the pledge of allegiance to King George, which he had taken and never renounced, as it was his disgust at the way Americans were treating the Indians in general and himself in particular. His own life here at Fort Pitt had been made miserable because of his admiration for and dealings with the red men. Any kind of promotion or advancement had been denied him. … [To Kenton] nothing can change the fact that we are brothers and are pledged to one another.” [Eckert, p. 173]
Less than eight months later in October 1778, Girty was able to prove the strength of his blood bond to his friend when Kenton was captured by the Shawnee and condemned to death. Girty happened to be in one of the villages where Kenton ran the gauntlet helping the Crown and the Shawnee by serving the Shawnee to resist the oncoming wave of white settlers. When Girty realized who the prisoner was he threw his arms around the condemned man and cried. With an impassioned speech to his Shawnee brothers, Girty begged for the life of Simon Kenton to be spared. Simon Girty was well liked and more than once had he proven that his interests lay with the Shawnee. Upon a swift revote, the condemnation was revoked and Simon Kenton was adopted into the Shawnee tribe. Through the next few months, Girty and Chief Logan arranged for Simon to be traded to the British at Fort Detroit and were able to give Kenton his freedom once again.
From 1779-1791, Girty stayed active with the Shawnee in the Ohio Country and fought in many altercations, a few of which were: Shawnee siege of Bryant’s Station, Kentucky in 1782; Shawnee and Miami victory against General Josiah Harmar’s invading army, sent to wipe the tribes out of western Ohio in 1790; the sound defeat of General Arthur St. Clair’s invading army, again sent to wipe out the tribes of western Ohio in 1791; the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which was the last stand of the Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, and other tribes of the Ohio Country, when the aforementioned tribes were marched against by General Anthony Wayne to exterminate them, and eventually decided their future in the Ohio Country.
Girty set up his own small trading post and town at present day St. Mary’s, Ohio, and lived there until Girty and the Native Americans were defeated at the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 alongside Blue Jacket and Little Turtle.
After the Shawnee defeat at Fallen Timbers, Girty went to Canada and settled on a farm just below Malden on the Detroit River. Simon Girty there married and raised a family. He died on his farm in 1818, having aged over seventy years.
To American Indians, Simon Girty Jr. was a trusted translator and friend. To Simon Kenton, Girty was the best friend a man could ask for. To victors of the American Revolution, Girty was a traitor for deserting their army to aid the British. Whatever stories are told about him, Simon Girty was definitely a man that followed his heart, stood up for his beliefs, loved the Native American way of life, and loved the out-of-doors.
For more information on Simon Girty, check out these resources:
The Frontiersmen by Allan W. Eckert