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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Richard Taylor’s Girty melds myth and fact to tell story of notorious frontier traitor


In this classic work, Richard Taylor artfully assembles passages from diaries, travel accounts, biographies, poems and monologues to tell the story of Simon Girty (1741-1818), branded as a notorious traitor, and one of the most hated men in the Ohio River Valley and Kentucky frontier.

Girty survived important battles in two wars that had a profound impact on Kentuckians, the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795), while fighting on the side of the British and Native Americans.

In the Introduction Ted Franklin Belue provides a timeline on Simon Girty’s life and insight into his relationship with other important figures in early frontier history, west of the Appalachians. “Daniel Boone was America’s first frontier hero…a living legend, the original Leatherstocking. Simon Girty was America’s first frontier villain…the archetypal antihero and scurrilous renegade.”

Daniel Boone and Simon Girty befriended one another, but would fight each other in 1782 at Blue Licks.

The son of an Irish immigrant, Simon Girty was raised on the western Pennsylvania frontier. In 1756 he was captured by the Senecas and spent eight years living among them on Lake Erie’s eastern shore. He was adopted into the tribe, learned survival skills, woodsmanship and eventually became fluent in in 11 native dialects. These were important skills that molded his future.

“Most of the time I am free to hunt. When I am not hunting, I am eating or sleeping. Wearing a loincloth, acquiring a taste for stewed dog and boiled mussels, an eagle feather tied to my scalplock, my white skin greased and gaudy,” wrote Simon Girty.

Freed after the French and Indian War, he drifted down the Ohio River, working as an interpreter and hunter. By 1775, this tough, versatile frontiersman had become a second lieutenant in the Virginia Militia, acting as an intermediary and negotiator with native peoples.

But Simon Girty did not take to army discipline, was thought to be too friendly with British loyalists, and a defender of Indians and their culture, who suffered bouts of drunkenness.

On March 28, 1778 Simon Girty deserted, “turned Indian,” and defected to the British Indian Department.

In today’s misguided culture of political correctness, Simon Girty might be seen as a defender of Native Americans, but in his own time he was branded as a traitor, a party to moments of torture and horrifying bloodshed.

Richard Taylor
(Photo from Transylvania University)

Richard Taylor

Richard Taylor is Kenan Visiting Writer at Transylvania University, where he has taught creative writing and English since 2008. A former Poet Laureate of Kentucky, he is the author of two novels and three books relating to Kentucky history, including Elkhorn, Evolution of a Kentucky Landscape, winner of the 2018 Thomas D. Clark Medallion. Taylor lives on a small farm near Frankfort, Kentucky.

Introduction by Ted Franklin Belue

Ted Franklin Belue lectured on Kentucky and U.S. frontier history at Murray State University for 27 years. He has written or edited five books, three on Daniel Boone, and has written more than 100 essays/reviews published in the popular or scholarly press. In the 1991 Twentieth Century Fox movie about the French and Indian War, The Last of the Mohicans, he was an extra/stand-in.

University Press of Kentucky
Publication Date: November 3, 2020
149 Pages, 5.5 by 8.5 inches

ISBN 978-0-8131-8055-7 Hardcover $50.00
ISBN 978-0-8131-8038-0 Paperback $19.95.

“Simon Girty saw white men burned at the stake and whooped with the Indians to see them burn. His eyes were green like a catamount’s, and the stains on his hunting shirt did not come from the blood of deer,” from The Devil and Daniel Webster, by Stephen Vincent Benet.

“Contrary to his malevolent celebrity, Simon Girty was a blood-brother to famed woodsman Simon Kenton, saved a score of Americans from the stake, and purchased captive white boys from Indians to give to Brits to be educated and freed,” wrote Ted Franklin Belue.

Simon Girty’s bloody exploits and legend made him hated and feared in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, but many who knew him respected him for his convictions, principles, honesty and bravery.

Many white frontiersmen of that era adopted the dress and lifestyle of Native Americans, and their sustainable use of land and natural resources.

On long, solo treks, Simon Girty celebrated the beautiful landscapes of the region, abundant wildlife and streams filled with fish.

“Shot this morning a fine buck, 12 points. His winter coat he has not shed yet. A fat buck grazing his way through the high grass which abounds in the clearing…I maneuver my body in line with his, bring my weapon to bear, drawing a gradual bead to the center of his chest just above the jointure of the forelegs, then slowly squeeze.

When I reach him, the tremors are already in his extremities, legs stiffening in awkward jerks, large buck eyes glazing…a knot of blue-stem stuck between the front teeth. Life and death.

Cut out the tongue and liver, delicaces, and some fillets from the tender part of the shoulder, all I can carry. I strike a fire, skewering some choice on a green stick, roasting it brown and dripping.”

Readers also learn about Native American tribes present in the Ohio Valley in the late 18th century.

Simon Girty’s traitorous legacy in Kentucky is based on several forays during the Revolutionary War, including attacks on Painted Stone Station and Bryan’s Station, and a bloody ambush at Blue Licks.

In 1781 Simon Girty and a band of Wyandots attacked Squire Boone’s Painted Stone Station, near present day Shelbyville, with reports of 60 dead.

Before marching on Bryan’s Station, northeast of Lexington, Simon Girty addressed a council of tribes in Ohio. “Brothers, the long knives have overrun your country, and usurped your hunting grounds…they have destroyed the cane, trodden down the clover, killed the deer and the buffaloes, the bear and raccoon. They are building cabins and making roads on the ground of the Indian camp and warpath.”

In August, 1782, a large force of Indians, Tories, and Canadian Rangers, under the leadership of Alexander McKee, Simon Girty and British officer Capt. William Caldwell surrounded the station. The siege lasted several days but the station could not be taken without artillery, so they withdrew. Two Kentuckians were killed and livestock was slaughtered.

On August 19, at Blue Licks, a ford on the Licking River in present day Robertson County, 180 Kentucky Militiamen caught up with the retreating enemy.

丹尼尔·布恩建议一个侧翼机动,但Kentuckians pressed on. They crossed the river and walked right into an ambush in a ravine, with 77 killed, including Daniel Boone’s son, Israel. The bloody defeat was stunned Kentucky frontier settlers.

Simon Girty died on February, 18, 1818 west of the Detroit River, at Fort Malden, in Canada.

“This evocative work brings to life a complex figure who must permanently dwell in the borderland between myth and fact, one foot in each domain,” wrote the University Press of Kentucky in its marketing release.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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