Chapter 3: War and Crisis in Indian Pennsylvania, 1754-1784
Why did the American patriots put an $800 price on Simon Girty's head during the American Revolution? From a very early age, this infamous Pennsylvanian had seen his share of violence on the frontier. He was born in the 1740s to Irish parents who were squatting on Indian land in the Juniata Valley. They were evicted from their homestead by colonial agents during the Burnt Cabins expedition of 1750, but like many other squatters, the Girty family remained on the frontier, one step ahead of the law.
While still a teenager, Simon Girty was taken captive by Indians during the French and Indian War. He lived among the Seneca in the Ohio Country for several years, learning Indian languages and customs, but eventually returning to white society at the end of the war. Girty then made a name for himself among the Indians, colonists, and soldiers who lived in the vicinity of Fort Pitt, working as an interpreter, fur trader, and scout who bridged the gap between native and colonial worlds.
During the American Revolution his reputation among white Americans changed. Patriots in western Pennsylvania accused him of planning an Indian assault on Pittsburgh, and he decided to join the British cause, participating in Indian and loyalist raids against Pennsylvania's settlers and soldiers. The American patriots even offered an $800 reward for his arrest or proof of his death. By the time the war ended, Girty was one of the most hated men in the newly independent United States. He left the Ohio Country, a region he had inhabited since his childhood, and spent the rest of his days in British Canada, an inveterate enemy of people who had once claimed him as kin.
Had Girty lived a generation earlier, his story might have been very different. The skills he acquired by living among the Indians might have made him a wealthy trader and influential mediator in Pennsylvania's Indian relations. Several such figures, such as Conrad Weiser, had risen to prominence during the first seventy years of Pennsylvania's history. Girty, however, lived during an age of protracted cultural conflict and violence, a time when the gap between Indian and white worlds was growing apart rather than coming together. Under such circumstances, people like Girty ultimately had to choose sides or face being destroyed by both. In the era between the outbreak of the French and Indian War and the conclusion of the American Revolution, Indians throughout Pennsylvania faced a similar choice, and, like Girty, many were hated and exiled by those who had once called them friends and neighbors.
The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years' War, began as a contest over control of the Allegheny-Ohio watershed, a region contemporaries referred to as the Ohio Country. To the British and French, this was a contest between imperial powers for control of the North American interior, but for the Indians who lived there, it was a battle to defend their homelands from an ever-increasing tide of European encroachment. When a small force of soldiers led by George Washington tried to force the French to abandon their fortifications in the Ohio Country in 1754, the Delaware, Shawnee, and Iroquois Indians who lived there were anxious to have the help of the British but were skeptical of their motives.
A year later, the Indians' suspicions were confirmed when the British marched a much larger army to the Forks of the Ohio to confront the French. Asked by the Indians to acknowledge their right to the Ohio Country, General Edward Braddock declared abruptly that "No Savage Should Inherit the Land" he intended to occupy. Braddock's Defeat at the hands of French and Indian force in July 1755 quickly deflated such pretensions, but the damage had been done to Pennsylvania's Indian relations. With no guarantees of security to their own lands, the Indians had no reason to trust or support the British and every reason to make war against the colonists who had dispossessed them.
In the wake of Braddock's Defeat, the Pennsylvania frontier erupted in violence. Supplied at Fort Duquesne, Indians and French soldiers raided outlying colonial settlements in an arc from the Lehigh River in the northeast to the Monongahela in the southwest. Not surprisingly, these raids focused on settlements made on land acquired in fraudulent land purchases or occupied by squatters with no clear title to it.
The intercultural warfare that plagued Pennsylvania for the next forty years had no precedent in the colony's history. Each side committed atrocities against the other, murdering non-combatants, burning homes and crops, and mutilating corpses. At the raid on Kittanning in 1756, Pennsylvanians led by Colonel John Armstrong destroyed a Delaware village and shot men, women, and children as they fled their burning homes.
Vigilante frontiersmen known as the Paxton Boys engaged in a similar bloody episode in December 1763, when they destroyed the Conestoga Indian Town in Lancaster County and murdered every single one of its unarmed inhabitants. During the American Revolution, the Continental Army's Sullivan Campaign marched through central Pennsylvania and western New York, burning Iroquois villages and destroying their food stores. Indians retaliated by conducting more raids on frontier communities and taking captives, some of whom, like Mary Jemison, they adopted, while others, like Colonel William Crawford and the prisoners taken at the Battle of Wyoming, they tortured and executed.
The escalation of intercultural violence continued unabated through the second half of the eighteenth century. On the European side, "Indian-hating" became an acceptable means of addressing the presence of Indians within Pennsylvania's borders. Although the Quakers and Moravians tried to restore peace, the majority of Pennsylvania's white inhabitants increasingly regarded all Indians as degenerate savages fit only for death or exile.
On the Indian side, spiritual movements arose during the French and Indian War (1754-60), Pontiac's Rebellion (1763-64), and the American Revolution (1775-83) that emphasized the need for all Indians to restore their cultural integrity and autonomy by disavowing European liquor, Christian missionaries, and any other accommodations to white society.
As each side drew further apart from the other, those Indians and Europeans who tried to bridge the gap between them found their work increasingly difficult. Moravian missionary Christian Frederick Post shuttled between Philadelphia and Ohio Indian communities, such as the Kuskuskies Towns, several times between 1758 and 1760 to re-open the path of trade and diplomacy that had been blocked by war. A less successful go-between was Teedyuscung, an eastern Delaware who tried to secure a permanent homeland for his people in the Wyoming Valley during the 1750s, but was rebuffed by both the Iroquois and the Pennsylvania government.
After the French and Indian War, the Delaware towns he had sought to defend through negotiation, such as Wyolutimunk, were squeezed out of the northern Susquehanna by the Connecticut settlement of the region. Other Indians from central Pennsylvania, such as the Iroquois leader Chief Logan, moved further west into the Ohio Country to find refuge from white encroachment, but even there they faced rapacious Pennsylvanians and Virginians competing over access to the Pittsburgh region.
It is no wonder then that someone like Simon Girty found it impossible to remain a part of Indian and white worlds during the second half of the eighteenth century. Whatever personal failings or strengths Girty may have had (and contemporary accounts attributed many to him), they could not compensate for the fact that the world he lived in was changing abruptly.
The horrors of war made it impossible for Indians and whites to forgive the differences of the past or to mediate those of the present. Their fingers pried one by one from the great river systems that had been their homelands - the Delaware, the Susquehanna, the Allegheny-Ohio - Indians decided that their survival depended on distancing themselves both culturally and physically from white society. Whites, on the other hand, used these wars as convenient justifications for killing, exiling, or permanently disenfranchising Indians in the new American nation.