A tumultuous beginning, struggle-wrought middle age, and quiet end mark the physical life of Simon Girty during the American Revolution, but his true relevance is a universal truth – that the far-reaching and monumental influence of the wordsmith is never to be underestimated.
His first breaths were taken near modern-day Harrisburg, PA, and most of Girty’s life would be spent in the northeast region of America. A relatively uneventful childhood was soon punctured by the violence of white-Native American warfare when his father got into a drunken fight with an Indian, and was killed. He and his siblings, still young but old enough to understand, managed to move on. Even his mother remarried, needing a husband with a paycheck to support her children.
Girty would soon meet again with terrible misfortune brought on by the events of the time, however, when a war party of Native Americans took his family hostage (among others), and burned his stepfather at the stake… right in front of him. He, his younger brothers, and his mother were kept captive in a Seneca tribe for three years. During those years, Simon picked up the language and culture, and the slightly different surrounding languages. This unwanted but extremely useful skill would carve Girty’s place in history.
Due to his unfortunate but ultimately beneficial time in captivity, he had come to master the languages of Seneca, Shawnee, and Delaware. As a young man now living amongst the white men, this deep understanding of Native Americans made him a valuable asset – he was hired as an interpreter at Fort Pitt as a second lieutenant in the Pennsylvania militia. He enjoyed the position, as he was, ironically, a fan of the Native American lifestyle. He was good at, too – very good. His natural, effortless connection with the natives could be used to smooth over conflict, or kindle sparks into raging fires.
His ties, however, wove quite a net. Questionable friendships with known loyalists made some Americans suspicious, so Ford Pitt – unwilling to lose their knowledgeable and experienced liaison – kept him practically under lock and key within the fort. Unhappy with the arrangements and weary of the Americans’ methods of operation, he devised an escape with two fellow interpreters he had grown close to, Alexander McKee and Matthew Elliott, and they escaped from under the noses of the commanding officers. They quickly fled the jurisdiction of the American forces and made their way well into British-claimed territory in Detroit, Michigan.
There, he was given a post in the British Indian Department as an interpreter to the Six Nations (a peace agreement comprised of six Native American tribes: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora. These tribes agreed amongst themselves not to wage war on one another, but rather, to combine their forces when need be.). Through Six Nations gatherings, he, Elliot, and McKee managed to turn the Natives’ resentment toward white man into resentment mostly for Americans. A mixed party of Native Americans and the three interpreters ambushed an American settlement in Kentucky, effectively overtaking several major posts and hundreds of captives – an important gain, won through Girty’s clever communication skills.
Following that Native American – and, technically, British – victory, several retaliation battles were fought, underscoring Girty’s power as a liaison to set off such a chain reaction. After one particularly nasty skirmish in Ohio, a group of Delawares reveled in their victory by torturing and eventually killing Colonel William Crawford, of the Americans. Girty, on the side of the Delawares, allegedly jested mirthlessly at Crawford as he was dying. American propaganda spread this like wildfire, amplifying Girty’s reputation as a ‘savage.’ Outraged, the American government hung a hefty price on Girty’s head – he never was apprehended, however, even after the war ended. Never well liked by his white counterparts (Wrote Henry Bird in 1780, “…Simon Girty is useless.” They also seemed frequently displeased with his fondness for liquor.), it seems surprising that he managed to avoid the wrath of so many irate rebels.
His escape from being turned in was most likely due to his low profile post-war as a trader in Ohio. Another theory is that the lack of sensationalism surrounding the position of an interpreter meant no flags were raised on Girty after the ‘white savage’ propaganda was replaced by new happenings. After all, who would suspect that a mere translator could tip the odds of a war one way or another on a whim?
But in reality, who could have more power? He who chooses what words reach each side holds the key to every potential alliance and spark of violence. Loyalist, American trader, white savage, soldier, liaison – all applied to Girty. Which one he really was is up for interpretation, but one thing that is indisputable is the enormous power he held during the American Revolution. Perhaps it was so great because no one suspected that Girty, a coarse, usually drunken man with questionable loyalties, could ever be so astoundingly influential. But as a master of language, he was able to weave the tapestry of human history exactly as he envisioned, just as wordsmiths throughout all of time have done.
Sources, for further reading: