CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 15 . . . . December 9, 2011
Simon Girty: Wilderness Warrior. (Quest Biography).
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2011.
276 pp., pbk., $19.99.
Girty, Simon, 1741-1818.
Indians of North America-Wars-1750-1815.
Pioneers-Ohio River Valley-Biography.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Val Ken Lem.
Simon was, in fact, a rarity in that he could live comfortably with one foot in the white man’s world and the other in the Native world. He was permitted to sit on Native councils, a privilege given no other white man. This made him the best man [Alexander] McKee could possibly have for diplomatic missions among the tribes. Native leaders knew that if they gave Simon a message, McKee would receive it exactly as they had said it. In 1772 and 1774, when [Seneca chief] Guyasuta was obliged to travel to the Mohawk Valley in New York to confer with Sir William Johnson at his estate, Johnson Hall, Simon was his escort.
Simon Girty was born on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1741. When he was 15, his family was captured by Delaware Indians and their French allies. Girty’s step-father was tortured to death, and the rest of the family was dispersed to various tribes. Girty spent the next eight years living with a Seneca tribe. He proved adept at learning different native languages and dialects and became skilled as an orator. This facility, together with his ability to quickly memorize speeches, would serve him well in his later work as an interpreter and guide first for the American colonists and eventually as an agent for the British Indian Department.
In his second biography in the “Quest” series, Butts delivers a fine historical account of the life and times of a little known figure in eighteenth century North American history. This is a welcome volume, uncovering as it does, the life of a significant frontiersman and agent. There are few books devoted to the lives of Indian agents in this period. Since he was illiterate, Girty left no writings in his own hand, thus forcing historians to uncover his story in other people’s writings—sometimes by myth-making Americans who demonized him as a traitor and savage white warrior. In Butts’ account, Girty emerges as a practical man who understood the warrior ways of both the natives and whites, and who was instrumental on more than one occasion in securing the freedom of American settlers captured by Natives during raids and battles. The biography is not hagiography as some of Girty’s less admirable traits, especially his fondness for drink, are also noted.
In the late 1760s and early 1770s, Girty worked as an interpreter and guide for colonial officials in their treaty negotiations with Indian tribes. The land-hungry settlers, land speculators, and political agitators were eager to keep extending the growth of American settlement to the west of the Thirteen Colonies. Skirmishes between settlers and the indigenous people remained a fact of life. As the American Revolution unfurled, colonists and natives alike took sides with the pro-British or American sides or tried to remain neutral. Girty found that his loyalty to the pro-American cause was always suspect by the independent forces. Eventually, after participating in General Hand’s campaign of 1778 that saw the undisciplined militiamen that made up most of the expedition slaughter several defenceless natives (ironically members of a clan that were friendly to the Americans) and Hand ridiculed for not killing more natives, Girty finally realized that the Americans would never be content with a fixed boundary between white and native lands. The whites clearly wanted all of the native lands even though they might pretend otherwise in their treaty negotiations. To many settlers, the natives were wild savages that needed to be exterminated in the name of civilization. Even peaceful converts to the Christian faith were not safe from militiamen. Girty joined the British side for the remainder of the Revolutionary war. He worked as an interpreter, guide, spy, diplomat and warrior. For more than a decade after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, Girty frequently left his new wife and new homestead near Amherstburg on the Ontario side of the Detroit River to participate in the futile efforts to defend native lands in the Ohio frontier from further white expansion.
Readers will discover many details of the social life and customs of the frontier settlements and of native societies at the time. Military tactics and blood-thirsty activities practiced by both sides are explained. Many campaigns saw native crops and villages burned by the Americans, or the cattle of settlers and frontier outposts slaughtered by the natives. The volume includes an excellent map of the American frontier of 1775-1780 identifying the towns, forts, and geographic features noted in the text. There are several portraits of figures in the biography, including two artistic imagined depictions of Girty, and a few reproductions of scenes, including a typical fortified frontier settlement. The thorough chronology will help readers keep track of the many expeditions in which Girty participated. The chronology extends from the time that his birth father arrived in America in 1730 to 1852 when Catherine Malott Girty, Simon’s widow, died, some thirty-four years after Girty’s own death in 1818. The index is quite extensive with one quirk: the listing for unspecified “Natives” is immediately followed by entries for all of the specific tribes from Cayugas through Wyandot. Butts acknowledges his particular indebtedness to Phillip W. Hoffman’s Simon Girty: Turncoat Hero (Franklin, TN: American History Press, 2008), a book not commonly available in Canadian libraries, and, as well, includes 12 additional titles in his bibliography.
The volume can be useful for students interested in Native-white relations of the second half of the 18th century, frontier life, military practices, the American Revolution on the western front, early North American espionage, and the expansionist agenda of the American settlers and their backers. While Girty was too elderly and disabled to participate in the War of 1812, the volume does touch upon this period in US-Canadian history and can be a supplementary work for a collection focussing on this timely period.
Val Ken Lem is a librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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