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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Legend of Simon Girty

Simon Girty was an important figure in American history, and his story is one that Americans should not have forgotten as they have. I hope my book, GIRTY: The Legend, which is soon to be published by American Books, will restore him to some wider consciousness. My sincere thanks go to Grandfather Lee Standing Bear Moore, Kituwah (Cherokee) storyteller, historian, author, lecturer, and famed elder of the Manataka American Indian Peace Council, for composing the foreword to my book and for encouraging me to continue with this project. He is my esteemed brother.

There was a time when the name Simon Girty made grown men tremble and children behave. It was vilified in stories told around campfires and fireplaces throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, in Canada and in all territories west. By the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, thanks to cheap novels and bad movies, Girty was a name known everywhere. The man who bore it was called "a monster of cruelty," "a depraved, wicked wretch," and "a whirlwind of fury, desperation and barbarity." Today, the name is almost unknown.

Girty deserted the American militia at Fort Pitt in 1778 to join the British in the war against his rebellious countrymen. Girty was no patriot, but neither was he a Loyalist. He probably was a psychopath, a defect that psychologists today call "severe emotional detachment." As far as we know, he never exhibited any empathy for his victims or any remorse for his deeds. He certainly must have been damaged by his appalling childhood. As a young boy, he saw his drunken father murdered by an equally drunk Indian as they celebrated the new year together. Simon and his family were later captured by a French-led war party in 1756. He was only 15 when he looked on as his step-father was tortured and murdered by the warriors that had captured the family. Eight years later, Girty was repatriated. There is no proof that he ever had a friend, white or Indian, or that he ever formed any real loyalties to anyone or to any cause. He was illiterate, so he played no role in creating his myth that soon spread all along the frontier.
The early myth-makers who spun tall tales about the great heroes, such as Daniel Boone (who did help create his own myth) and Simon Kenton, blamed Simon Girty for turning America's native people into a terrifying threat against civilized white society. By doing so, they claimed, this white renegade ensured the destruction of the only people he ever claimed to love, the Indians. If left alone in their wilderness, protected by a secure border, these child-like aboriginals would have lived peacefully with their white neighbors, or so insisted the myth-makers. (Well, not actually with civilized Europeans.) But the Indians had been tricked into doing evil by the clever, malevolent white renegade who taught them everything they needed to know about how to terrorize their white neighbors. In this way, the Indians were as victimized by Girty as his fellow white men, women, and children that he so gleefully killed and scalped. Thanks to Girty, the wild Indian was no more. Blaming him for the passing of the nation's native people disguised what really brought about their destruction -- white European contagious diseases, forced removal, murder, and neglect. The Indians were camping on land, lots of land, and the European settlers wanted it.

The North American Indian population was reduced by almost 98 percent from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to just 237,000 by 1900. Ninety percent of these deaths were caused by diseases imported from Europe, especially smallpox, that most lethal pathogen. As their population shrank, as their food and fur supply was taken by white hunters and traders, as their wilderness was chopped down and converted to plowed fields by white farmers, Indian villages and hunting grounds went up for grabs.

Populist writers and historians of the time created stories to explain why all this death and destruction was necessary. Girty served them well. He became one of the jury members in Stephen Vincent Benet's popular 1937 retelling of Faust, The Devil and Daniel Webster. The devil himself selects this jury, which is composed of the greatest villains in American history. Benet describes Girty as "the renegade, who saw white men burned at the stake and whooped with the Indians to see them burn." Girty was well aware of the hatred that Americans felt for him. He never said a good word about himself.

Any good American man or boy happily identified with Daniel Boone and Johnny Appleseed as they spread the seeds of white decency, health, and wealth through the dreaded wilderness. In truth, Boone hated fighting and probably killed one lone Indian in his long woodsman's career. He also refused to wear a coonskin cap, saying they were too heavy, especially when wet. The famous trailblazer preferred a stylish beaver hat. And what good American wouldn't hate Simon Girty, who at that very moment might be leading his pack of murdering savages right to your cabin? A fate worse than death would be to become a captive in the wilderness where you would be turned into a savage. Thank God for men like Daniel Boone who used musket and blade to force a great transformation on that wilderness. Violence was the way to convert it into civilization and to turn its wild inhabitants into enlightened humans. Natty Bumpo, who James Fenimore Cooper modeled on Boone, saves all of New York State from treacherous Indians as he leads a solitary life, pitting his strength and wits against the terrible forces of nature. Or consider Hawkeye. He never kills without provocation, and he would never kill for revenge. That is what Indians do. It's their creed. Only a white man who becomes an Indian could kill to settle a score.

Only a few heroes toiled in the violent wilderness, a dark, menacing, sinister place. Beware. Girty could watch as you roast over an open fire. It was going to take a bunch of Boones to transform the savage wilderness into a safe, urban, industrial landscape.

The story of Girty's involvement in the torture and death of Colonel Henry Crawford was well told. Not so well known was Girty's treatment of Abner Hunt. On the night of January 7, 1791, Hunt and three other white men camped along the Miami River in Ohio. Next morning, they walked only 100 yards from camp before they were fired upon by a party of whooping warriors. Abner Hunt was captured. Girty tied him up and forced him to accompany his party to raid Dunlap's Station, a small fort, on the evening of January 9th. There, Girty forced his prisoner to stand on a stump with a white flag to urge those inside to surrender. Girty promised Hunt that his life would be spared if the people came out. The people inside heard Hunt's pleas, but they refused to surrender. Abner Hunt was doomed. Girty ordered the Indians to burn him alive for all to see and hear inside the fort. Wretched Hunt was roasted all night long as the Indians danced around him.

Such stories traveled back east. Urban Americans developed a low regard for frontier society. Important figures, such as Hugh Henry Breckinridge, used the stories to show Americans "what have been the sufferings of some of her citizen by the hands of the Indian." He wrote, "As they (the Indians) still continue their murders on our frontiers, these narratives may be serviceable (sic) to induce our government to take some effectual steps to chastise and suppress them; as from hence, they will see that the nature of an Indian is fierce and cruel, and that extirpation of them would be useful to the world, and honorable to those who can effect it."

Breckenridge wrote that Indians "have the shapes of men and may be of the human species . . . in their present state they approach nearer the character of devils." These "animals vulgarly styled" had the inherent supernatural power to corrupt the innocence of white society and subvert it to savagery. The author succeeded in firing the fears of the fledgling federal government. It adopted a grand military initiative in the 1790s to tame and secure the Ohio frontier. Far more often than not, however, the Indians defeated and humiliated the U.S. military. The question became: how can an inferior race of savages periodically conquer a superior force of trained white militiamen and Indian fighters? Girty provided the answer: the white traitor was teaching them how to build a barrier against white expansion. Only a devious white man could empower the essentially weak and docile Indian. Girty may have degenerated to the level of an Indian, but he was still white. He retained the innately superior qualities of his race. The only way to counter his influence, then, was for white men to become better Indians than any Indian. Boone, Crockett, and Carson appeared along with many simple-minded, probably insane murderers. Each one was a super savage. As demonic Girty employed his borrowed savagery to destroy white civilization, the heroes used their woodland prowess to destroy the Indian so as to advance civilization.

The truth was that white men dispossessed red men with tools far more deadly than rifles. They used the ax, saw, and plow to eradicate the environment that the forest man depended upon for survival. Next came the land speculators. They were followed by whiskey and slave traders. Then came the politicians. The forest was soon plowed under along with the people who lived in it. By the middle of the nineteenth century, as America used the maxim of manifest destiny to wipe out surviving Indians in the west, Simon Girty was being turned into something that could only have crawled out of the black lagoon.

Not even the mighty Daniel Boone was ever able to take Girty's scalp. The infamous renegade died blind, drunk, miserable, and alone on his small farm in Canada. The mission of genocide was finally completed in 1890 when the Seventh Cavalry massacred more than 200 peaceful Miniconjou Sioux at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The west was won. Girty served his purpose. Today, his story is useless, so his name is forgotten.

It is important to discover the real Simon Girty. By observing the life of this man in his time and place, perhaps we can gain a more honest, realistic sense of the past and our present. Maybe we -- white, red, black, yellow -- can even make a better future together. I hope my book serves that end. In the meantime, the next time you are sitting around the campfire on a dark, lonely night, ask yourself: is Charles Manson the reborn Simon Girty? Goodnight. Sleep tight.

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