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Tom Chaney: The Unseen Savage of the White Man's Heart

Of Writers and Their Books The Unseen Savage of the White Man's Heart. First published in the Hart Co. News-Herald Sunday, 7 May 2006.
The next earlier column: Tom Chaney: No. R709: War: sex, and money

By Tom Chaney

History has not been kind to Simon Girty.

During the nineteenth century he was probably the most hated man in American history. In the trial of Daniel Webster in Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster, Girty is rung in by the devil as a juror. "[T]here was Simon Girty, the renegade, who 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."

Born on the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, at ten Simon Girty saw his father killed by an Indian come to trade. The father's partner killed that Indian, called The Fish. That partner then married the elder Girty's widow.

At fifteen Simon Girty, along with his family, was captured by the Delaware. Again he was orphaned at Kittanning, a Delaware town on the Alleghany River. Girty watched as his step-father John Turner was burned by the Delaware, whose chief of the town was brother to The Fish -- the square complete.

Girty was then adopted by the Delaware, became blood brother to Simon Kenton, or Butler as he was known when he attempted to kill his rival for a lady's hand before fleeing to the wildness of the west.

If Daniel Boone became the mythical hero of the settlement of the west, then Simon Girty is the equally mythical anti-hero of the time. Perhaps it is the accident of victory which gave them their antithetical roles in the closing decades of the eighteenth century as the nation was formed and began to spill over the cusp of the Appalachians into the western lands.

Richard Taylor, former poet laureate of Kentucky, gives us a fresh picture of Simon Girty in his poetic novel Girty.

Taylor states that his job is not to rehabilitate Girty, rather to let him speak in his own voice, to tell his own story, to temper the myth of evil with the voice of the man himself -- the illiterate man who could leave no voice of his own.

Taylor uses the voice of the nineteenth century poet Frank Cowan at one point in Girty as Girty addresses William Crawford at the stake:
You, naked as at birth, bound with a thong,
Will symbolize the Right enthralled by Wrong.
While I, in savage guise, will play my part,
The unseen Savage of the White Man's Heart.
Girty is with the Indians at the siege of Bryan Station in 1782 and plans the rout of Daniel Boone and the Kentuckians at the Battle of Blue Licks a few days later in the last engagement of the Revolutionary War.

And the Americans came and kept coming. In 1790 the population of Kentucky was 73,677. By the end of the century the state was filling up with a population of 220,959. By then Girty, whose loyalty lay with the British and the Indians, was living in Canada across from Detroit as a trader and holder of land granted to him by the British.

Taylor's poem "Girty's Vision of the Future" speaks true in the voice of the aging fighter, interpreter, rescuer of white children:
I see the corn in puckered rows
the stumps of squandered trees
the landscape tamed with fences
ruts cut by metal wheels.

I see the skulls of buffalo
bone commas stacked in piles
plucked turkey wings & Indian hair
words twisting black as rivers.

The land made fit for Christians
stiff trophies on each wall
the hobby of extinction
made universal law.
Ted Franklin Belue provided an introduction to this edition by Wind Publications in 2005. His judgment of Girty is one I have come to share. "When I want to read writing truly done, I read Girty, a poetic foray into a Dark and Bloody Ground that couples man and myth, romantic hero and implacable antihero. Iconoclastic in its tack, elegiac and spare in its lyricism, no other work on this singular man who was both so loved and reviled hits the mark so well and gives him a reason for being."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-05-08 05:26:57
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