The Renegades by William Dean Howells
Simon Girty, who tried so hard to save Kenton’s life at Wapatimika, was the most notorious of those white renegades who abounded in the Ohio country during the Indian wars. The life of the border was often such as to make men desperate and cruel, and the life of the wilderness had a fascination which their fierce natures could hardly resist. Kenton himself, as we have seen, might perhaps have willingly remained with the Indians if they had wished him to be one of them, though he was at heart too kindly and loyal ever to have become the enemy of his own people, and if he had been adopted into an Indian family he would probably have been such an Indian as Smith was. But in the sort of backwoodsman he had been there was such stuff as renegades were made of. Like him these desperadoes had mostly fled from the settlements after some violent deed, and could not have gone back to their homes there if they would. Yet they were not much worse than the traders who came and went among the Indians in times of peace, and supplied them with the weapons and the ammunition they might use at any moment against the settlers.
Indeed, wherever the two races touched they seemed to get all of each other’s vices, and very few of each other’s virtues; and it is doubtful if the law breakers who escaped from the borders to the woods were more ferocious than many whom they left behind. Neither side showed mercy; their warfare was to the death; the white men tomahawked and scalped the wounded as the red men did, and if the settlers were not always so pitiless to their prisoners or to the wives and children of their warriors, they were guilty of many acts of murderous treachery and murderous fury. One of the best and truest friends they ever had, the great Mingo chief Logan, who was at last the means of Kenton’s escape from the stake, bore witness to these facts in his famous speech; for in spite of his friendship for the whites, he had suffered the worst that they could do to the worst of their foes. When such white men as butchered Logan’s kindred sided with the Indians, they only changed their cause; their savage natures remained unchanged; but very few of these, even, seem to have been so far trusted in their fear and hate for their own people as to be taken by the Indians in their forays against the whites.
The great Miami chief Little Turtle, who outgeneralled the Americans at the defeat of St. Clair, used to tell with humorous relish how he once trusted a white man adopted into his tribe. This white man was very eager to go with him on a raid into Kentucky, and when they were stealing upon the cabin they were going to attack, nothing could restrain his desire to be foremost. When they got within a few yards, he suddenly dashed forward with a yell of “Indians, Indians!” and left his red brethren to get out of the range of the settlers’ rifles as fast as they could.
But Simon Girty led many of the savage attacks, and showed himself the relentless enemy of the American cause at every chance, though more than once he used his power with the Indians to save prisoners from torture and death. He was born in Pennsylvania, and he was captured with his brothers, George and James, during Braddock’s campaign. They were all taken to Ohio, where George was adopted by the Delawares, James by the Shawnees, and Simon by the Senecas. George died a drunken savage; James became the terror of the Kentucky border, and infamous throughout the West by his cruelty to the women among the Indians’ captives; he seems to have been without one touch of pity for the fate of any of their prisoners, and his cruelties were often charged upon Simon, who had enough of his own to answer for. Yet he seems to have been the best as well as the ablest of the three brothers whose name is the blackest in Ohio history. Many of the stories about him are evidently mere romance, and they often conflict. As he was captured when very young, he never learned to read or write; and it is said that he was persuaded by worse and wiser men to take sides with the British in the Revolution. But we need not believe that he was so ignorant or so simple as this in accounting for his preference of his red brethren and their cause. In fact, several letters attributed to him exist, though he may have dictated these, and may not have known how to write after all.
It is certain that he was a man of great note and power among the Indians, and one of their most trusted captains. He led the attack on Wheeling in 1777, where he demanded the surrender of the fort to the English king, whose officer he boasted himself. In 1782 he attacked Bryan’s Station in Kentucky with a strong force of Indians, but met with such a gallant resistance that he attempted to bring the garrison to terms by telling them who he was and threatening them with the reenforcements and the cannon which he said he expected hourly. He promised that all their lives should be spared if they yielded, but while he waited with the white flag in his hand on the stump where he stood to harangue them, a young man answered him from the fort: “You need not be so particular to tell us your name; we know your name and you, too. I’ve had a villainous untrustworthy cur dog this long while named Simon Girty, in compliment to you, he’s so like you, just as ugly and just as wicked. As to the cannon, let them come on; the country’s aroused, and the scalps of your red cutthroats, and your own too, will be drying in our cabins in twenty-four hours; and if, by chance, you or your allies do get into the fort, we’ve a big store of rods laid in to scourge you out again.”
The Indians retreated, but Girty glutted his revenge for the failure and the insult in many a fight afterwards with the Americans and in many a scene of torture and death. The Kentuckians now followed his force to the Blue Licks, where the Indians ambushed them and beat them back with fearful slaughter.
Girty remained with the savages and took part in the war which they carried on against our people long after our peace with the British. He was at the terrible defeat of St. Clair in 1791, and he had been present at the burning of Colonel Crawford in 1782. By some he is said to have tried to beg and to buy their prisoner off from the Wyandots, and by others to have taken part in mocking his agonies, if not in torturing him. It seems certain that he lived to be a very old man, and it is probable that he died fighting the Americans in our second war with Great Britain.
But the twilight of the forest rests upon most of the details of his history and the traits of his character. The truth about him seems to be that he had really become a savage, and it would not be strange if he felt all the ferocity of a savage, together with the rare and capricious emotions of pity and generosity which are apt to visit the savage heart. There have always been good Indians and bad Indians, and Simon Girty was simply a bad Indian.