Rock Island Auction Company

September 2, 2020

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

By Brian Beck

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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.

Lot 1068: Tack Decorated Pipe TomahawkLot 1068: Tack Decorated Pipe Tomahawk

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 GirtyLot 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 KnifeLot 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.

The previously mentioned Colonel Crawford had been persuaded out of retirement to lead a band of roughly 500 Americans up the Sandusky River to raid Native American villages with the hope of surprising them deep in their own territory. Unfortunately for the Americans, the Natives and their British allies at Detroit learned of the plan and sent a force to oppose them.

After a day of indecisive fighting, the Americans found themselves surrounded and began an attempted retreat during the night, but many of them were killed or captured in retaliation for a previous massacre against the Natives. One of those captured was Colonel Crawford. Much of what happened to Crawford next was told and retold in newspapers throughout the Americas, leading even further to Girty’s reputation and legend.

Crawford, and many of the others that were captured, were taken by the Delaware, who were led by a chief known as Captain Pipe. Some accounts claim that Captain Pipe held Colonel Crawford personally responsible for the murders committed earlier in the Squaw Campaign. The prisoners were paraded through a Delaware village where they were struck by nearly everyone they met.

Upon arriving at a large fire at the center of the village the Colonel was stripped naked and was tied to a post. At this point Colonel Crawford asked Girty, who had ridden up with a small band of natives, if they intended to burn him. To this Girty answered, yes. After a speech from the Chief Pipe, the Delaware warriors began charging their arms with powder alone and firing them into Crawford’s body, burning him from head to toe, before cutting off his ears.

The crowd then began pulling burning sticks and coals from the fire that was close by, burning the colonel further all over his already charred body. It was at this point that Crawford broke and called out to Simon Girty, begging to shoot him and end his misery. To this Girty replied that he had no gun, before turning to the Native warriors behind him and laughing along with them. Some versions of this story also imply that Captain Pipe had told Girty that if he ended the colonel’s suffering, then he would take his place.

After this, the colonel endured similar tortures for nearly two hours before passing unconscious, at which point he was scalped. This torture of Colonel Crawford continued until he died and his body was burnt in the fire. This was the story told by Dr. Edward Knight, who was captured with the colonel and later escaped, though some accounts say that Girty had convinced Captain Pipe to turn the doctor over to the British, who eventually released him.

The torture and execution of William Crawford in 1782. Thoughts of this event and‌‌ similar ones no doubt filled the young scout’s mind.

Simon Girty continued to fight alongside the Native Americans, who in many ways had raised him, until the end of the Northwest Indian War. After the war, he and many others were granted land near Fort Malden in Upper Canada for their services. He remained here for most of the rest of his life before dying in 1818. Events like those that affected the life of Simon Girty were not isolated incidents. The extreme violence that took place during these times, in these places, shaped countless people, hero and villain alike.

Often however, it created people like Girty, who fell somewhere in between. Depending on where your sympathies lie, Simon Girty could be seen as a patriot or a traitor, and sometimes a little of both. Maybe the legacy of men like Girty is not something that we, in our comfortable homes and relative safety, should have the privilege of deciding. Perhaps it was the frontier that decided, and we should be but a witness to the captivating stories it has to tell.

Legacy

The story of Simon Girty would go on to inspire countless books, movies, and plays about his daring exploits during the American Revolution and deep connections with the Native American tribes that practically raised him. However, the legacy of Simon Girty lives on and resonates within the halls of Rock Island Auction Company. Here, during the September 11th-13thPremier Firearms Auction, you can find an amazing collection of authentic frontier firearms used and carried by men like Simon Girty during their travels across the Wild West. What is even more amazing is the American "Kentucky" Flintlock Pistol that is attributed to the man himself available for bidding!

The pistol is of very good quality considering both its age and usage, and features a typical full-stock in the Kentucky or Pennsylvania style of the early-to-mid-18th century. The stepped barrel is fitted with a small brass blade front sight and a tang notch rear sight along with an unmarked stepped lock. It also boasts a modest array of detailed carvings that become even more impressive when contrasted against the finely figured curly maple stock. With insets of diamond-shaped silver inlays along the forestock, this pistol is not only an incredible piece of history but a wonderful piece of early American art.

Lot 1182: American "Kentucky" Flintlock Pistol Attributed Simon GirtyLot 1182: American "Kentucky" Flintlock Pistol Attributed Simon Girty

Included documentation attributes the pistol to Simon Girty and claims it was originally purchased from the estate of his widow. This pistol is just one of many treasures waiting in the September Premier Firearms Auction to find a new collection to call home. From the hazards of the early American frontier all the way to the 21stcentury, this pistol is not quite finished with its story just yet. Where will it end up next? Join Rock Island Auction Company September 11th – 13th to find out where the lost legend of the old frontier will settle at last.

Lot 1182: American "Kentucky" Flintlock Pistol Attributed Simon GirtyLot 1182: American "Kentucky" Flintlock Pistol Attributed Simon Girty

Do you have a rare piece of history with a story just begging to be told? Contact Rock Island Auction Company to learn more about our exciting consignment process. If there are any other questions regarding bidding, registration, and shipping, please follow this link.

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Sources:

Simon Girty, the Outlaw. An Historical Romance Uriah James Jones

Simon Girty: "The White Savage" A Romance of the BorderCharles McKnight

A History of the Juniata Valley and Its PeopleJordan, John Woolf

History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata ValleyJones, Uriah James; Egle, William Henry

https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Simon_Girty

http://twipa.blogspot.com/2015/11/new-perspectives-on-old-subject-trade.html

A Monster So Brutal:” Simon Girty and the Degenerative Myth of the American Frontier, 1783-1900 Daniel P. Barr

Hartford Courant 11 November 1783 (https://www.newspapers.com/image/233772879)

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