Monday, May 05, 2014

Phillip W Hoffman's Simon Girty bio reviewed

from History Journal:

Simon Girty, Turncoat Hero: The Most Hated Man on the Early American Frontier (review)
"In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
Among infamous characters of the early American backcountry, Simon Girty is one of more notable for his seeming lack of any true allegiance. Phillip Hoffman attempts to delve much more deeply into this enigmatic individual and provide a much more detailed account of Girty's role in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. Hoffman aptly suggests that Girty was as much a product of his early childhood among English colonists as his adolescence among the Seneca Indians. Simon Girty was not the maniacal killer and cultural traitor that history has painted him, according to the author, but rather a sympathetic and conflicted individual attempting to maintain his status in conflicting cultural worlds. This inevitably led to his downfall, at least from a Eurocentric point of view. Hoffman notes that, unlike Indian-killers like Daniel Boone, his turncoat hero Girty was "notorious because he helped Indians fight whites" (289).
Hoffman's exhaustive account of Simon Girty's life is written in nineteen chronological chapters densely packed with details. The author begins with the arrival of Simon Girty's father in Pennsylvania from Ireland. The story follows the breakup of the Girty family after the death of their father during the early stages of the French and Indian War. Simon and two of his three brothers were abducted and adopted into various Indian groups. Simon found himself adopted into the Seneca of western Pennsylvania. Hoffman then discusses Girty's successes as an interpreter and trader in the backcountry during the Revolutionary War. Girty's sympathy for the Seneca led to his support of colonial interests against the Shawnee during the period after the French and Indian War. This support severed when the Americans fired upon Delaware Indians without provocation. Girty responded by defecting to the British but had, at best, a rocky relationship with the Crown's forces. The defection, though, brought him closer to his allies the Seneca while placing him at odds with the colonists. After nearly thirty years of forays against Americans, Simon retired to Canada where he restlessly remained until his death in 1818.
Phillip Hoffman should be commended for his exhaustive accounting of Simon Girty's life, although his study lacks a wider and deeper historical understanding of the eighteenth century. While Indian people were mentioned frequently, their very different cultural beliefs and motivations were largely ignored. This weakens the power of Girty's story by ignoring a major psychological influence on his own actions. In addition, Hoffman too readily trusts the accuracy of his sources. Hoffman relies heavily on two sources for his placement of Girty at historical events, the interviews of Girty's daughter in the Draper manuscripts and Consul Butterfield's History of the Girtys. Few other sources are used to verify his presence or influence at these events. As the author suggests, "the truth is less colorful or tragic" (275). Hoffman attempts to place too much detail in the narrative while providing little of the analysis typical of the current historiography.
The narrative reconstructed by Phillip Hoffman was enjoyable and informative though many of his details need to be reevaluated. In his attempt to bring Simon Girty into greater focus and to discuss his motivations, Hoffman unfortunately misses the complexity of Girty's difficulty in negotiating three cultural worlds: Seneca, British, and American. His decision to support the British was not just a product of the unscrupulous Americans, but also of a deep connection to the Seneca that Hoffman only briefly discusses. Despite the wealth of information, Hoffman's attempt to illuminate Simon Girty's actions remains limited by its lack of analysis of the Indian influence on the Turncoat Hero.
Copyright © 2009 West Virginia University Press
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Retrieved January 8, 2014.