Beloved Revolution-Era Translator Or Villainous Spy? Depends Which History Buff You Ask

Apr 10, 2017

Some called him a hero of high moral values. Others dubbed him a traitor. Either way, the infamous Simon Girty will soon be remembered with an historical marker in Greenfield.

The installation is the culmination of nearly 30 years of research on the part of his great-great-great-great-great nephew, 83-year-old Ken Girty, who as a child believed his ancestor to be a good-for-nothing "baby-killer."

He's since changed his mind.

Etching of Simon Girty from Thomas Boyd's 1928 book, "The White Savage"
Credit Wikimedia Commons

"I think he was just misunderstood," Girty told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1999. "He fought for what he believed in."

Eric Marchbein, associate at the Squirrel Hill Historical Society, nominated the elder Girty for a blue roadside placard near the intersection of Beechwood Boulevard and Federal Hill Street in October, citing his Butler County descendant as a local source.

The proposed site was once part of the family farm and sits adjacent to a small burial ground for several relatives, including Thomas Girty, who owned land in modern-day Millvale where Girty’s Run flows into the Allegheny River.

Experts agree Simon Girty was born near Chambersburg in the Pennsylvania territory near the Susquehanna River in 1741.

The Seneca tribe captured him after Gen. Edward Braddock’s defeat near the colonial frontier at Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War. He was just 15 at the time.

Girty fell under the tutelage of Seneca Chief Guyasuta, who is most famous for his negotiations with Gen. George Washington, and eventually learned up to 13 languages and dialects. Nine years later in 1764, Girty was forcibly repatriated, according to Marchbein.

The proposed site for a state historic marker in Greenfield to commemorate the life of Simon Girty, 1741-1818.
Credit Eric Marchbein

He settled with his family on a 155-acre parcel of land near Fort Pitt in what was then called “Squirrels Hill” and is now mostly in the Greenfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Because he was comfortable in both Native American camps and settler villages, Girty spent the next few years helping to negotiate treaties between the British and native tribes.

As the American Revolution broke out, he initially served as an officer in the Virginia militia as an interpreter and scout, but later sided with the British. Marchbein said Girty’s decision was more about how Native Americans were being treated than independence from Britain.

The British were interested in maintaining their treaties because they were selling the tribes manufactured goods, he said. The Americans, according to Marchbein, wanted their land.

“The Americans began a campaign of total destruction of the Indians,” Marchbein said. “They were attacking friendly villages and non-hostile Indians.”

The nuances of Girty’s decision were not something discussed on the frontier.

“A great deal of mythology was created about Simon Girty. He was attacked viciously in print and attributed to him were many horrific crimes that never took place,” Marchbein said.

Read an excerpt of Marchbein's nomination form here.

In 1777, Girty was tried and acquitted for treason. He fled for British encampments in Detroit the next year.

"In the decades following the American Revolution, no one was more universally hated by frontier residents than former Indian captive Simon Girty," wrote Matt Burke for the Heinz History Center in 2015.

Girty was credited with leading attacks alongside native tribes on American soldiers and not ending the torture of Continental Army Col. William Crawford, who was captured and ultimately killed for his part in a earlier massacre that left almost 100 Delaware Indians dead. When the British abandoned Detroit after the war, Girty moved to Ontario where he was buried with military honors in 1818.

“He was really a man of conscience and compassion,” Marchbein said. “So the real Simon Girty, I believe, needs to be reexamined after centuries of misrepresentation.”

A dedication ceremony is expected to be held this fall.