The true tale of Revolutionary War turncoat Girty
Aspen Times Weekly
Phillip Hoffman’s book, “Simon Girty Turncoat Hero,” is the culmination of 19 years of research into the history of the lesser-known but pivotal Frontier warfare that took place during the Revolutionary War.
Hoffman shows us that the Revolutionary War was not just an East Coast war about taxes on tea and obedience to the king, it was also (perhaps mainly) about the British attempt to control the development of the West by joining with numerous Indian tribes to keep American settlers from streaming into Kentucky and Ohio and on to the West Coast which, of course, they eventually did.
Three prominent figures in the Frontier war were Simon Girty, Alexander McKee and Matthew Eliott, all American agents stationed at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) who, after working for the colonists, decided to throw in on the side of the Indians and the British, in part due to the treacherous way the Indians were being treated.
This triple defection was a serious blow to the Americans, since all three men were fluent in the Indian languages (Girty and McKee had both been young captives; Eliott was a trader), very useful as translators and spies for the British.
If the British had won the war, these men would have been hailed as heroes. The Indians, it goes without saying, would have ended up being screwed either way. As it was, the three were branded as traitors and Girty, “Dirty Girty,” took the brunt of the colonists’ wrath, wrongly blamed for every atrocity. Over a century after these events, my mother remembered being told, “You’d better behave or Simon GIRTY will get you,” as if he were the bogeyman personified.
My great-great-great-great grandmother, Margaret Paulee Erskine, was captured by a group of Shawnee Indians in 1779 and lived in Shawnee towns in Ohio until her ransom in 1783.
Margaret’s narrative mentioned all of these men (who lived in close proximity and had Indian wives) in positive terms. Simon Girty had assured her she would not be forced to marry or cohabitate; McKee had saved her life. I’ve been waiting for a book that told the true story and here it is.
“Simon Girty Turncoat Hero” is a scrupulously researched, fascinating account of the events surrounding the Frontier war in general and an exoneration of Simon Girty in particular.
Phillip Hoffman has managed to take a mountain of raw data (battles, treaties made and broken, both sides floundering through the woods with short supplies, runners routinely sent on 100-mile foot-journeys to deliver messages) and turn it into a very readable account of “how the West was lost.”
Hoffman’s career as a screenwriter served him well in this endeavor. Girty, his friends, members of his family, and the Native Americans they lived and fought for, spring to life on the pages of his book, which, in other hands, might have come across as dry as dust.
Simon Girty, “The Most Hated Man on the Early American Frontier,” a man with a large price on his head and a gash in it as well (coshed by an Indian chief during a drunken brawl), emerges as a person both tender and tough, who loved his family and was a champion in the Indian cause to hold onto their land.
It may perhaps be a small choir that Hoffman sings to, but for anyone interested in the history of the Revolutionary War, this book is a must-read.
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