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10 April, 2017


Artist's rendition of Simon Girty at his rugged best.
"The early 1790s were perilous times. During much of this turbulent period, guerrilla warfare between Natives and whites raged across the undefined, wide open, western lands of the continent. The restlessly roaming residents of the young Republic, probed, then penetrated, the frontiers of the unexplored West in a relentless quest for ever-more new land. In fact, an underlying cause of the American Revolution was the passionate pursuit of Indian land by Americans, including some of so-called founding fathers, one of whom was in fact George Washington. They expressed unrelenting dissatisfaction with the restrictions imposed upon their land speculation ambitions by the King’s Proclamation of 1763."  

With the forgoing chronicle by author Philip Hoffman as a backdrop, what follows is an almost unbelievable story that is the equal of anything Hollywood or fiction writers have ever produced.  It is of particular significance to me  because there may be a family connection dating back to the late 1700s.  It is a two-part story about the unimaginable struggles of early immigrants in a new land, but it all comes together in the end, as if by script.

Catherine Malott’s parents were of French extraction living in Maryland, circa 1750, when it was decided to move into new territory in Kentucky. Coming down the Ohio River their flatboat was attacked by Indians and all the family was captured.  The father, Peter, however managed to escape and to make his way back to Maryland.  He was never to see his family again.  In fact, thinking that Sarah and his children were all dead, he went so far as to re-marry and raise another family.

After many hardships the remainder of the family, with the exception of Catherine, were brought into Detroit and there ransomed and released.  Meanwhile Catherine, reputed to be a strikingly beautiful young woman, was retained by the Indians in Ohio.  At Detroit, Catherine’s mother Sarah met a man by the name of Simon Girty, known to have close ties with the Indians.  Sarah offered to pay a substantial sum for her eldest daughter's safe return to her family and Girty accepted the commission with a promise to rescue Catherine from the tribe that was holding her captive and in successfully doing so he found himself a wife.

At the time Girty, a Frontiersman in every sense of the word, was employed by the Indian Department at Detroit, actively assisting with American penetration.  Many colourful tales are told of his actions in exploits ranging from Pennsylvania through Ohio to Kentucky.  At the end of the American Revolution he was awarded Crown land, along with fellow officers of the Indian Department, on the lower Detroit River at Malden, south of Amherstburg.  The land would become his future, and last, home.

It was to this farm that Simon brought his bride Catherine Malott, a girl 24 years his junior. One can only speculate on what happened to Catherine during her three years of captivity and what attracted her to a man almost twice her age.  It would be understandable if she was inordinately grateful to Simon for her rescue from the Indians and for his probable offer of love.  Then again, perhaps she had no choice in the matter.

One story has it that Girty convinced his Indian friends that he wanted to take the maiden back for a visit with her mother in Detroit, promising to return her thereafter. Girty, however had another plan and subsequently gained control of her through wedlock.  Their marriage in 1791, according to the old age testimony of Catherine herself, took place “at the mouth of the Detroit River."  The union was solemnized by a clergyman, a rarity for Protestants in that period on the frontier as usually such marriages were performed by the officer commanding at Detroit.  A daughter, Sarah, was born in 1792 and four other children followed -  John, Nancy, Thomas and Prideaux.

Simon was exposed to Indian culture while in captivity

Surprisingly, Simon's early history was similar to that of Catherine, in fact he too spent his formative years as a captive of Indians.

The story of Simon Girty, the frontiersman of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, is a prime example of the distortion that can be given to “history” -- in this case meaning the appearance in literature of a personage long subjected to adverse propaganda. “Renegade” and “heroic frontiersman” are the two guises in which he has been portrayed.

Girty’s later years were closely associated with the Detroit River area where he held the appointment of Interpreter in the British Indian Department, first at Detroit, and later at Amherstburg. In Essex County, scores of persons have Girty for an ancestor and it has been a perpetual source of annoyance down through the years for his descendants to read untrue stories imputing to Girty deeds in which he had no part.  However, there are two sides to every story and I tend to favor a blended, admittedly condensed version, at the risk of losing some of the flavor and color that is inherent.

Undoubtedly, Girty was rough and tough, a hard drinker and a true product of his age and situation. The myth that has grown around the image of Girty suited the war-time tensions born of the Revolution and American hatred of the Indians -- the general downgrading of him as one of the “enemy”.  Poor identification and communication contributed the myth, the acts of others being attributed to Girty. The result has been that in novels and a modern play, Girty is held out as the arch-type of frontier ruffian. However, some, more serious writers, have made an honest attempt to show Girty as he was, a minor officer of the British Indian Department doing his duty as he saw it.

Simon Girty was born on the frontier at a period when the French and British empires were expanding their bounds in the Ohio territory at the expense of the Indians. The date of his birth has been given as November 14, 1741, the second son born to Simon Girty Sr. and his wife Mary Newton. His elder brother was Thomas, and at two-year intervals two more brothers came into the Girty household, James and George.

The Girty home at this period was on the east bank of the Susquehanna River five miles above present Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There were various removals but the Girtys lived always on the extreme frontier under primitive conditions. Simon Girty Sr. was a trader in Indian country, but also kept a tavern as an accommodation to travellers and neighbours.

Tragedy entered the Girty story when the senior Girty was killed in an dispute with a bond-servant, Samuel Sanders. In this same encounter John Turner, a neighbour and half-brother, killed an Indian known as “The Fish”.  Sanders was convicted of manslaughter at the assizes in April 1751. Sometime later, in 1753, Turner married Girty’s widow, and by this marriage was born still another son Thomas Turner, in about 1755.

The American phase of the Seven Year’s War soon engulfed the frontier. The French had erected Fort Duquesne at the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers and by this means held the key to the Ohio territory. Braddock, the British commander moving from Virginia towards Fort Duquesne was defeated in the Battle of the Wilderness, July 9, 1755. The next season, Noyan de Villiers, the French commandant at Fort Duquesne moved eastward against Fort Granville, a British outpost on the Juanita River.

The Turners with the Girty boys and others from the area, were taking shelter at the palisaded fort when it was surrounded by the French and their Indian allies.  Resistance was hopeless. Turner himself opened the gates and gave entry to the Indians.

The Indians conducted the Fort Granville prisoners to the Delaware Indian town of Kittanningon.  At this location Turner was identified as the killer of “The Fish” and accordingly was executed in the Indian fashion by burning at the stake. Sarah Turner and the Girty boys were witnesses to the stepfather’s sufferings.

Simon with brothers James and Thomas
The family members were then separated. Mrs. Turner with her two younger sons, George Girty and John Turner were adopted by the Delawares. Thomas Girty, the oldest son made a successful escape about this time. James Girty was adopted by the Shawnees, while Simon Girty was taken to Upper Sandusky in Ohio to a Seneca town and adopted by the tribe's chief. Simon was then about 15 years of age and for the next three years, until the general pacification, lived among that tribe and was treated as their own.

This period of Indian captivity gave the Girty boys a taste for Indian life which never left them. Each had become able to converse in the Indian language in use in the Ohio valley and thus they were able to act as interpreters for the traders which then surged into Fort Pitt, the former Fort Duquesne.

Fully six-feet tall with an impressive build, large head and black eyes, Simon Girty was said to be tough and temperamental with rough manners and a grim sense of humor born of the harsh conditions in which he spent his life.  Someone recalled that his somewhat sinister face was made more so by Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant who laid his cheek open with a sabre in one notable physical confrontation.

Girty in 1760 was employed by a trader as an interpreter in the Delaware Indian towns northwest of the Muskingum River in Ohio. There he became so well liked that a Delaware chief, KA-TE-PAPKO-MEN, exchanged names with him. Thus early in his career he exerted that influence which in the years of the Revolution and the Indian wars afterward made him such a valuable agent for British influence.

In 1775 he joined the Virginia militia and was originally on the side of the “Patriots” and was hired as a sort of liaison between the Continental Congress and the Six Nations. Simon went on to further service with the Continental Army in a number of campaigns on and away from the frontier but was often snubbed, denied promised promotions and witnessed Continental troops massacre Indians whose tribes had given their support to the fledgling Americans. This and the fact that it was clear the Americans intended to move west to settle lands Britain had reserved for the Native Americans, finally prompted Girty to defect to the British side in March of 1778.

He went to Detroit, Michigan and was employed by the Indian Department as a go-between with the local tribes.  It was during this time that gained an unsavory reputation in the American press as he participated in Indian raids against American settlements. The fighting was harsh to be sure and Native American warfare was not the same as that in Europe. However, contrary to revolutionary propaganda, Simon Girty saved the lives of many captives who would have otherwise been killed.

Girty aided the British throughout the frontier in raids on colonial outposts as well as at the victory over the Kentucky militia at the battle of Blue Licks. Feared and hated on the American frontier, he eventually retired to his farm with Catherine and a growing family where for 10 years he raised corn for the government and continued to work with the Natives.  Blind, crippled and a shadow of his former self, he spent his happiest hours at his favourite public house recounting tales of his spine-tingling career. Even then a $1,000 American bounty remained on his head.

When Oliver Hazard Perry's 1813 victory on Lake Erie opened Canada to American forces, Girty fled to his friends the Mohawks. His house was overrun but not destroyed because the Americans did not realize that he had lived there. He returned to it in 1816.

Americans resurrected the memory of Simon Girty during the War of 1812 to again make him the face of British and Indian savagery but by that time Girty was near the end of his life, still one of the most hated men in America despite the fact that there is not a shred of evidence that he ever actually participated in any of the atrocities attributed to him. The only thing he was “guilty” of was returning to the loyalty of his King and fighting to defend the lands and rights of the Indian community both sides of the American and Canadian border.
Memorial stone erected on the front lawn
of Simon Girty's homestead.

Simon Girty died February 18, 1818 and was buried on his homestead with British military honors. Warriors on both sides respected and remembered him fondly. To the Mohawks, Simon Girty was to become an "Indian Patriot." American frontiersmen called him a white savage and years later, Kentuckians crossed the Detroit River into Canada "just for the satisfaction of spitting on his grave."

While I have been unable to establish a direct family link, it is only natural for me to wonder if, at some point, Catherine Malott Girty would have contact with the former Delilah Malott and her husband Philip Wright (my great, great grandparents) who also lived on neighboring Crown land in Malden.  Simon would have surely regaled them with his stories.

I wish that I knew more about Catherine's story -- what her life was like as a captive of the Indians, what her life was like with Simon, what life was like after her husband's death.  Perhaps that would be asking too much.

Quite by coincidence, Catherine died January 1852 and Delilah passed away several months later.  I would dearly love to make a family connection, but have determined that it is next to impossible, given conflicting information and records that have been altered and confused by succeeding generations of researchers.  It does not help that two Sarah Melotts show up in the records of the period. It is all too coincidental that Catherine's mother, Sarah, was born Keyes and was married to Peter Malott while Delilah's mother was also named Sarah, born Tracy and married to Joseph Malott. So confusing! So many unanswered questions!

It all simply boggles the mind.  I find myself laying awake at night just thinking about it -- and wondering...

You would think that I do not have a life of my own.

That too is reality.

Memorial stone and plaque erected at 1173 Front Road South, Highway 18, Detroit Riverfront, Malden, Ontario. Lot 11, 1st Concession, Malden Township, Essex County, Ontario
Inscription on the memorial stone reads, "Simon Girty 1741 - 1818 A Faithful Servant of the British Indian Department for Twenty Years."
Inscription on the plaque above reads -- "Simon Girty UE 1741 - 1818 - Girty's life crossed cultural boundaries between native and white societies on the frontier of American settlement. In 1756 his family was captured by a French-led native war party in Pennsylvania. Simon was adopted by the Seneca, then repatriated in 1764. An interpreter at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh), he became an intermediary with native nations. In 1778, dismayed over rebel policy on the natives, Girty fled to Detroit. During the Revolutionary War, and subsequently in the Ohio Valley, he was employed by the British Indian Department while serving native nations as a negotiator, scout and military leader. Angry at his defection and fearful of his influence, Americans made Girty a scapegoat for frontier atrocities. He is buried here on his homestead. Erected by the Bicentennial and Toronto Branches of the UELAC with assistance of the Ontario Heritage Foundation."

Adapted from The Wright Story

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