History, they say, is written by the winners. And so is Hell's phone book. After all, the Devil Himself was cast down after his revolt against God failed, and ever since then it's been God -- and everyone claiming to be on his side -- who's gotten to decide who goes to hell.
Simon Girty is a case in point. A quick glance at some of the books that have been written about him -- Simon Girty, the White Savage and Simon Girty, the Outlaw -- tell you all you need to know about his reputation. He's been denounced as a traitor for centuries. But perhaps his biggest mistake was being loyal ... to the King of England. If George III had been able to put down the American Revolution, we might well have Girty's face on our currency and books with titles like George Washington, Toothless Renegade on our bookshelves.
Born in the western frontier in the mid-18th century, Girty was kidnapped by Indians when he was 15 and held in captivity near Kittanning for another eight years. By the time he was released, he was able to speak nearly a dozen Indian dialects. But any protracted stay in Kittanning can scar a man deeply, and it may be that some 18th century version of the Stockholm Syndrome took hold of Girty's brain.
Up until the American Revolution, Girty was an able and respected trader and interpreter operating throughout the Pittsburgh region. But when the revolution began, Girty joined the Indians who were fighting on the British side. Since most of the major battles of the Revolutionary War were far from Pittsburgh, Girty and his fellows -- including one Alexander McKee, whose name graces McKees Rocks today -- were more feared in the area than the Redcoats themselves.
Most conventional histories speak glancingly of Girty if they mention him at all. Pittsburgh of Today: Its Resources and People, says merely that "McKee and Girty did their utmost to excite Indian outbreaks ... and were held by all the patriots in the greatest abhorrence." But he was a notorious figure of his day: According to a 2000 Detroit News column by George Cantor, a writer who included Girty in his book Bad Guys in American History, Girty was such a fearsome figure that parents used to tell their children, "If you don't behave, Simon Girty will get you."
Girty was tied to bloody raids throughout the frontier, ranging from Pennsylvania to Kentucky. He was said to have presided over the execution of wounded soldiers during campaigns against Indians, though the most notorious act ever attributed to him was participating in the 1782 burning of Colonel William Crawford at the stake. Captured by Delaware Indians, Crawford was said to have been tortured for hours, having been poked with burning sticks and seared by shots of musket-powder fired from point-black range. Seeing and recognizing the infamous Girty, Crawford is said to have cried out, "Girty! Girty! For God's sake, Girty, shoot me through the heart!" Girty's response, according to witnesses who later escaped: "I cannot. ... I have no gun."
Girty was said to have helped the British during the War of 1812 as well, and he finally moved to Canada, like many Tories who clung to the throne during the Revolution.
In fact, there were many other Americans who did the same: Historians estimate that only one-third of Americans supported the revolutionary cause. Another third chose sides with the King, and the rest remained neutral -- or tried to.
It'd be interesting to know how Girty would be remembered if the other side had won. As an old saying goes: "Treason doth never prosper; why, what's the reason? / For if it doth prosper, none dare call it treason."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Girty's descendents have been calling for a reappraisal of their ancestor's legacy. ("He was just misunderstood. He fought for what he believed in," Ken Girty told the Post-Gazette in 1999.) At the very least, he certainly wouldn't be the only frontiersman who committed atrocities in that day: He's just among the few accused of committing them against other frontiersmen. And in context, it's hard to say who the real savages were. Was it Girty and his native companions, or was it the English-speaking settlers at Fort Pitt who gave smallpox-infested blankets to Indians as "gifts" -- ensuring their settlements would be overcome with the disease when they were wiped out? Only God knows for sure.