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Flintlocks & Tomahawks: Simon Girty and the Lost Legend of the American Frontier

From the Rock Island Auction Blog


The treacherous and turbulent American frontier created a plethora of heroes, villains, and legends. When thinking of the American frontier, people’s minds often immediately drift to the “West,” Indian Territories, the soon-to-be-states full of cowboys, Native American warriors, bandits, and lawmen. There is no doubt that this area during the late 19th century created plenty of legendary figures, however the “original American West” did the same about a century earlier. Though the “Western frontier” of the mid-to-late 18th century was far further east than where the cowboys roamed, it was definitely no less dangerous and untamed. No matter the time period, these perilous frontiers created strong willed people and an environment in which the stuff of legends could be sewed. This “old frontier” created heroic figures with larger than life deeds such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, however it also had a role in creating its share of villains and atrocities. Sadly, many of these heroes and villains have been lost to history. In 1741, central Pennsylvania could certainly be considered frontier territory, and it is there, along the Susquehanna River, where the story of Simon Girty begins; one of the lost legends of the old frontier.

Childhood and Troubles on the Frontier

Much like the misty valleys and peaks of the Allegheny Mountains that fill this area, much of Simon Girty’s life is shrouded in mystery. The area where the Juniata and Sesquehanna rivers meet, just north of modern day Harrisburg, was settled sometime in the early 1700s, and, by the 1740s, had become a well-known and popular trade hub. It is believed that Simon Girty’s biological father, Simon Girty the Elder, arrived in this area from Ireland sometime around 1730 and began life there as a trader or pack mule driver with ties to the fur trade. Simon Girty was born to Simon the Elder and Mary Newton in this area of Pennsylvania around 1741. He was one of four sons, all born between 1739 and 1746.  Just to the south of this area, Girty the Elder established a homestead near where Sherman’s Creek dumps into the Susquehanna. This was extremely dangerous and risky at the time as British authorities were still limiting the number of new settlers in the area. Consequently, in 1750, the entire Girty family was arrested and their homestead burnt for illegal settlement. How the family avoided conviction for this settlement is unclear, but later that year, Simon the Elder was either killed in a duel with a rival trader or by a Native American over a land dispute.

Map of Chambers Hill, the (now non-existing) town in Pennsylvania where Girty was born.

Three years after the death of Girty’s biological father, his mother remarried, to a man named John Turner, and in 1754 they had a son, John Turner Jr. The family once again settled near where the original Girty homestead was burnt. Over the next few years the violence of the French and Indian War swept over this part of the Appalachian frontier and John Turner decided to take his family up the Juniata River to the safety of Fort Granville, where he joined the militia and was quickly promoted to sergeant. After local raids by groups of the Delaware Lenape people in July of 1756, Turner was left as second in command of the fort under Lieutenant Armstrong while the majority of the militia were out on patrol in search of the war parties. The Lenape along with their French allies became aware of the situation in the undermanned fort, and they attacked on August 2nd, setting the fort on fire. Lieutenant Armstrong was shot and killed attempting to extinguish the flames, leaving John Turner in command. Turner realized the situation was hopeless and surrendered the fort with the hope that its inhabitants would be spared. Unfortunately for him, he was made an example of by the attackers who, “after having heated several old gun barrels red-hot, they danced around him, and every minute or two, seared and burned his flesh… After tormenting him almost to death, they scalped him, and then held up a lad, who ended his sufferings by laying open his skull with a hatchet.” The tomahawk used would have been very similar to some we have to offer here at Rock Island Auction Company in our upcoming Premier Auction.

It is believed that due to previous trading relationships with Girty the Elder, the Lenape recognized the Girty family, sparing them. Shortly after this, the family was split up and sent to various tribes, with, the then 15-year-old, Simon being given to Guyasuta (an important leader of the Ohio Seneca), and eventually ending up in northwestern Pennsylvania near Lake Erie. Over the next decade, Simon lived with the Seneca, learning their skills, language, and traditions, as well as those of neighboring tribes. During this time, he was nearly accepted as one of their own and it is also likely that Simon fought alongside the Seneca in many of their battles against the British through the end of the French and Indian War and during Pontiac’s War. Sometime around the end of Pontiac’s War Girty was “released” to the British in a prisoner exchange, and then in 1768 was one of the chief interpreters at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix between the British and the Iroquois.

Redcoats and Turncoats

After this, Simon Girty served with the Virginia militia during Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774 which took place in modern states Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and Ohio. It was here that he fought alongside other old frontier legends such as George Rogers Clark, Daniel Morgan, and Daniel Boone. Despite the war only lasting a few months, Girty would rise through the ranks and saw a promotion by the time it concluded. After learning about the passing of the widely unpopular Intolerable Acts by the British government, Girty would becoming one of the original Virginia frontiersmen to help draft an original declaration of independence. A daring act of insubordination, being in the militia under the crown and refusing to suppress an uprising of their countrymen would have been seen as an act of treason. In open defiance of this, he, along with many of the militia members, decided to settle in the wild to the west of the Allegheny Mountains, an act which was prohibited by the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

During this conflict, and those to follow, it is extremely likely that Girty was armed in a similar fashion to other frontiersmen and militiamen of the time. Common armaments consisted of a long rifle of one of the various regional patterns, a tomahawk, a knife, and likely a pistol or two of a similar pattern to the rifle.

Lot 1182: American “Kentucky” Flintlock Pistol Attributed Simon Girty

This is where Rock Island Auction Company enters the picture and why you are reading this epic tale now. There is a pistol in our September Premier Auction with documentation indicating that it belonged to the notorious frontiersman himself. This pistol certainly has the look of having been tucked into Girty’s belt through much of this story. Don’t miss your chance at this piece of history, as well as many similar items that are straight out of legendary adventures from the old frontier.

When the American Revolution broke out, Girty initially sided with the Americans. His first involvement was in the Squaw Campaign, which involved a party of 500 Americans led by General Edward Hand, Colonel Providence Mounts, and Colonel William Crawford. Their goal was to set out from Fort Pitt, cross the Allegheny River, and move up the Ohio River towards the mouth of the Beaver River, where it was believed that a large cache of Native American and British munitions were being hidden. A combination of poor planning and terrible prevented the troops from reaching their goal, resulting in a long, fruitless march back to Fort Pitt. Tempers of the troops had reached a tipping point upon arrival at a small Lenape village. It is said that Girty and another man were separated from the main party when they heard shots ring out. By the time they had returned to the group, the Americans had attacked the Lenape, who were neutral at the time. Once the smoke had cleared and a scouting party was sent out, three of the Lenape were dead; an old man, a woman, and a young boy who had been hunting birds. The Americans then returned to Fort Pitt with, “a few Indian muskets, pots and pans, two Indian women captives, and a pair of scalps,”concluding the failed campaign. The scalps were from the old man and the young boy, and it is said that a pair of the American militiamen fought over who got to scalp the boy.

Lot 1113: Carved Native American Style “Beavertail” Dag Trade Knife

It was likely during or shortly after the Squaw Campaign that Girty had learned that some tribes of the North-Western Pennsylvania area were planning to unite against the Americans and side with the British. It is very likely that this news affected Girty deeply as he had developed such a strong bond with some of these tribes during his time as their “captive.” In many ways, Girty may have seen himself as more like them than the Americans he was currently fighting alongside. There are also versions of the story that imply that General Hand disliked Girty upon meeting him, and after discovering a relationship between Girty and his daughter, planned to have him arrested, tried with treason, and executed. If this version of the story is true, it failed to pan out on the night of March 27, 1778, Girty had a discussion with Simon Kenton, a personal friend of Daniel Boone. It isn’t known what exactly was discussed between Girty and Kenton but one can assume that it was related to the news of the North-Western tribes uniting because the next night, March 28, 1778, Simon Girty defected. Girty along with a group of others, including many fellow scouts, left the fort and headed into Ohio country to link up with the British at Fort Detroit. Shortly after his defection, a bounty of $800 was placed on his head.

The “White Savage”

Upon reaching Detroit, Girty was quickly hired by the British as a scout and interpreter due to the frontier skills he had acquired as part of the British Indian Department. He remained in this role for the rest of the war. Leading numerous raids against American settlers along the Ohio and Kentucky frontier, Girty earned a ruthless reputation as a “white savage” for his cold-blooded and merciless attacks against his former allies. It is also said that at some point during this period, Girty once again met Simon Kenton, who had been captured by Native Americans and was headed towards a torturous execution. According to some versions of the story, Girty convinced the Natives that Kenton was a good man, effectively sparing his life. One event that cemented his reputation as a villain in the eyes of the Americans more than any other took place during the Crawford Expedition in 1782. Much of this story is related from a newspaper article in the Hartford Courant from November 11, 1783, in which a Dr. Edward Knight, who was captured with Colonel William Crawford, recounts the tale.

Simon Girty as depicted by artist, Gary Zaboly.

Read the rest linked below-

https://www.rockislandauction.com/riac-blog/simon-girty-legend-american-frontier

1 thought on “Flintlocks & Tomahawks: Simon Girty and the Lost Legend of the American Frontier”

  1. Interesting stuff.

    “Indians kidnap kid who later acts as a go-between” is a pretty common story from America’s early frontier days.

    Hannah Dustin’s story turned out somewhat differently. There is a statue of her in Hognose’s old A.O., if they haven’t cancelled it yet.

    Reply

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