Sunday, December 26, 2010


I was a government major and history minor in college, and I'm from Pennsylvania, so it should be no surprise to anyone that Timothy Truman's Wilderness: The True Story of Simon Girty, Renegade has been on my shelves since it came out in 1989 and 1990. Throw in my great affinity for Truman's Scout books and this was an easy pick for me.

When I was in high school I started reading Allan W Eckert's books about the US frontier of the 1700s, as well as books on Tecumseh, Black Hawk, and Blue Jacket. There was some mention of Simon Girty during the course of those books but nothing that stuck with me. Girty's story is engaging and complicated. To most of the early Americans, he was a traitor but his motivations were complex.

As a son of an Irish immigrant in 1750 his family was burned out of its settlement that was deemed by colonial authorities to be too far west and in Indian territory. Not long after, his father was killed by a drunken comrade, leaving his mother with 4 boys. She would re-marry and have another son, but her second husband was also killed, this time after the family was captured by Delaware Indians allied with the French. Rough times.

Simon Girty was 16 by this time. He was made to run a guantlet, which he survived. He was adopted by the tribe and lived as one of them for the next 4 years. From that point onward he would consider the tribes of Western Pennsylvania and Ohio his family, though he remained in touch with his brothers and often allied with colonists, British or both in various conflicts that never seemed to end in that area.

Anyone who thinks that American history is a straightforward tale of European settlement, conflict with Indians, independence from the UK, and more conflict with Indians is only partially correct. There were constantly shifting alliances. In Girty's early years the French were more often allied with the native tribes, especially during the French and Indian Wars. However, when the colonists rebelled, it was the English who became the closest allies of most of the tribes. But, not all. Some allied with the colonists. Add to that the conflicts among the colonies prior to and after the Revolutionary War and you have miasma.

In this life story the colonial conflict was between the Virginia and Pennsylvania factions as they fought for control of what's now Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Both colonies claimed the area, and Girty was aligned with the Virginia faction, which eventually lost out. In fact, Girty had a propensity for choosing the loosing side. When the Revolution broke out he started with the colonists but many of the former Virginia faction ended up switching to the British side, in part because many of them were allied with the native tribes, either as adopted members or traders.

Of course, the Revolution ended after the surrender at Yorktown, but the war between the Americans and the tribes did not. Really, there was no respite at all.

Because he was on the wrong side of history, there were many attrocities attributed to Simon Girty. Truman goes to great length, and backs it up with a lot of documented evidence, to show that Simon Girty actually went out of his way to save many captives from being tortured and executed by the tribes. He also shows that the attrocities attributed to Girty are not well supported. Girty often wasn't even in the area when the attrocities occurred. Some of the attacks were actually the work of one of his brothers, an evidently vindictive and unstable man.

Girty ended up living a surprisingly long time, not only for that era but also for someone living on the frontier, where death was likely to crop up at any time. He died in 1818 at the age of 77. By then he'd fled to Canada and lived on a pension from the British. He was blind and cared for by a daughter.

These two books contain a lot of information. Truman stays away from dialog in favor of captions narrating what happened. When he does use dialog it tends to be either documented conversations people had or reasonable suppositions from the available evidence.

This is history as entertainment. It's a little known corner of American history. Violence, disease, and exposure were constant threats. Those who fought against the encroachment of "civilization" on another civilization were appalled by the felling of trees for farming, wholesale slaughter of game, and building of dirt roads. They'd probably think they were on another planet if they visited the area now. I wonder if they'd appreciate the irony of today's efforts to preserve the family farm when 200 years ago the family farm was the encroaching threat?

If you have any interest in history, or just a good story, this is an easy pick. Truman's art is wonderful, as always, and is heavy on historical accuracy. No anachronistic weaponry here.

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