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Heir of 'Great Renegade' Girty preserves history of Squirrel Hill settlers

| Sunday, April 13, 2014, 11:24 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Headstones mark graves in the Turner Cemetery in Squirrel Hill. The half-acre cemetery dates back to 1785 and is the second oldest graveyard in Pittsburgh.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Ken Girty, 80, of Connoquenessing, a direct descendent of the Girty family who settled Squirrel Hill, meets with Sandy Rim at the Mary S. Brown-Ames Church in Squirrel Hill on Sunday.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Ken Girty, 80, of Connoquenessing, a descendent of the Girty family who settled Squirrel Hill speaks at Mary S. Brown-Ames Church in Squirrel Hill on Sunday, April 13, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Ken Girty, 80, of Connoquenessing is a direct descendent of the Girty family who settled Squirrel Hill.

When Ken Girty goes to reunions for descendants of Revolutionary War-era Americans, his name is known among the best of them.

“When you meet descendants of Daniel Boone and people like that, it's fun,” he said. “But they're excited to meet a Girty.”

Girty, 80, of Connoquenessing discussed his family history before a crowd of about two dozen people on Sunday in Mary S. Brown Memorial-Ames United Methodist Church in Squirrel Hill, on land settled by his ancestors.

The Girty family was among the earliest settlers of Squirrel Hill, but the family history also entwines with the politics of the nation's founding. Simon Girty Jr., who allied with the British during the Revolutionary War and acted as a spy and interpreter among Native Americans, is often portrayed in historical volumes as a notorious turncoat.

He was one of four sons of Mary Girty Turner and Simon Girty Sr., a Native American trader who was killed in a bond duel.

The four sons and their half brother, John Turner Jr., were captured by Senecas as children. One, Thomas, escaped early on, while Simon lived among the Senecas and learned their language.

Thomas Girty and John Turner Jr. remained in Pennsylvania. Turner amassed about 150 acres of farmland that would become swaths of Squirrel Hill, including Turner Cemetery on Beechwood Boulevard beside the church in which Ken Girty spoke. Mary Girty Turner was buried there in 1785.

Thomas had hundreds of acres in Butler and established a trading post called Girty's Run north of the city, near what is now McKnight Road. Yet it is Simon Girty Jr. who inspires the calls, letters and autograph requests from historians around the world.

“I've gotten people that said, ‘Your family is a bunch of killers,' ” Ken Girty said.

But Simon Girty Jr., who moved to Canada, is also known for saving the lives of prisoners during the war, bartering with Native Americans to secure escorts for captured men, women and children. Girty hears from their descendants, too.

“He wasn't all bad,” he said. “But like I said, the victors write history.”

Girty explained the ways in which he has sought to separate fact from fiction while researching the events of nearly 250 years ago. Some stories are dispelled when documents or information come to light.

This information sometimes leads to preservation efforts, such as a stone plaque in Butler to mark where Thomas' wife, Ann Emmons Girty, is buried. She was shot by an intruder who wanted the land, Girty said.

Just north of Harrisburg, roadside historical markers pay tribute to Simon Girty Jr. as the “Great Renegade” and acknowledge his controversial defection from the American army and hostility to the United States during the War of 1812.

Bob McGowan, 62, of Mt. Lebanon and his son Ross, 30, of Friendship are ninth- and 10th-generation Girty descendants. They brought along a copy of a handwritten family tree compiled by a cousin, mostly using information from family Bibles. Their ancestry traces back to Thomas Girty. McGowan said he appreciates the way the Girty family has remained in the area for hundreds of years.

“Three miles from their gravestones, the 10th generation is living,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511.

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