Chapter VII
Plight of the Pittsburg Tories


The one event in the Revolutionary history of the border which had the most calamitous results was the flight of the tories from Fort Pitt in the spring of 1778. From the beginning of the struggle for liberty many partisans of King George were to be found on the frontier. Some of these were men who had been in the British service, most of them members of the Church of England. Others were animated by that natural reverence which many men feel for their sovereign. Many were adventurous and ambitious spirits seduced by the British promises of reward. There were some who did not believe that the Revolution would succeed, and others grew dissatisfied with the perils and the hard circumstances of frontier life in a time of war. A few were simply scoundrels, desiring turmoil and plunder. The failure of General Hand's two expeditions had much to do with the dissatisfaction with the American cause which developed on the border in the spring of 1778. During the winter the British had been in possession of Philadelphia, the American Congress had been driven to York, and Washington's army was reduced to a half-naked and half-starved remnant at Valley Forge. The cause of liberty languished, and there were many defections.

Governor Hamilton, at Detroit, sent many agents, red and white, to penetrate the border settlements, to circulate offers of pardon and reward and to organize the tories. In February and March, 1778, a daring and shrewd British spy visited Pittsburg and carried on his plotting almost under the nose of General Hand. A British flag was set up, for a short time, in the King's Orchard, which bordered the Allegheny river within gunshot of the fort, and there meetings were held by the disaffected among the soldiers of the garrison. Most of the tory gatherings in this neighborhood were at the house of Alexander McKee, at what is now called McKees Rocks. Another place of assembly was at Redstone, where a British flag flew during all of that winter.(1)

The tory leader at Pittsburg was Captain Alexander McKee, a man of education and wide influence on the border. He had been an Indian trader, and for 12 years prior to the Revolution had been the King's deputy agent for Indian affairs at Fort Pitt. For a short time he had been one of the justices of the peace for Westmoreland county. He was intimately acquainted with most of the Indian chiefs and even had an Indian family in the Shawnee nation.(2) In 1764 he received a grant of 1,400 acres of land from Colonel Bouquet, at the mouth of Chartiers creek, and he divided his time between his house in Pittsburg and his farm at McKees Rocks.

In the spring of 1776 McKee was found to be in correspondence with British officers in Canada, and he was put on his parole not to give aid or comfort to the enemies of American liberty, and not to leave the vicinity of Pittsburg without the consent of the Revolutionary Committee. In February, 1778, General Hand had reason to suspect that McKee had resumed or was continuing his correspondence with the British authorities and was organizing disaffection, and he ordered the Captain to go to York, Pa., and report himself to the Continental Congress. For a short time McKee avoided compliance with this order on the plea of sickness, but not being able to shirk obedience permanently, he decided to escape to Detroit and openly ally himself with the British cause.(3)

About a year before this a young trader of the name of Matthew Elliott, who understood the Shawnee language, had been employed by the Americans to carry messages from Fort Pitt to the Shawnees and other Indian tribes to the westward, in the interest of peace. He had been made captive by hostile savages and carried to Detroit, where, after a short imprisonment, he had been released on parole. He returned to Pittsburg by way of Quebec, New York and Philadelphia, all then in British possession. He had been impressed by the show of British power in the East, in contrast with the miserable condition of the American forces. He became convinced that the Revolution would be a failure, and, on his return to Pittsburg, got into communication with McKee and others of the tory party.

Elliott is suspected of having poured into the ears of McKee a tale that he was to be waylaid and killed on his journey to York. It is certain that McKee heard such a story and believed it, and that it decided him in his plan to escape from Fort Pitt to the West.(4)

The flight of the tories took place from Alexander McKee's house during the night of Saturday, March 28, 1778. A hint of McKee's intention was given to General Hand early in the evening, and he ordered a squad of soldiers to go to McKee's house Sunday morning and remove the suspected man to the fort. The soldiers were too late.

The members of the little party which fled into the Indian land in that rough season of the year were Captain McKee, his cousin Robert Surphlit, Simon Girty, Matthew Elliott, a man of the name of Higgins, and two negro slaves belonging to McKee.(5)

Girty was a Pennsylvanian, who had been captured by the Indians when ii years old, kept in captivity for three years by the Senecas, and afterward employed at Fort Pitt as an interpreter and messenger. Until within a few weeks of the time of his flight he had been a faithful servitor of the American interests, and had participated earnestly in the Squaw Campaign under General Hand. In the absence of positive knowledge of the reason for his desertion, it must be presumed that he was tempted by McKee with promises of preferment in the British service.

The seven renegades made their way through the woods, which they knew well, to the chief town of the Delawares, Coshocton, where they tarried several days and ,endeavored to arouse that tribe to rise against the colonists. Their efforts were thwarted by White Eyes. That remarkable savage had, during the winter of 1776-7, been elected chief sachem of the Delaware nation in the place of old Newcomer, who had died in Pittsburg. White Eyes had declared his friendship for the "buckskins," as he called the Americans, and he proved his sincerity with his life.

A great debate took place in the Coshocton council, Captain Pipe, an influential chief, haranguing the savages in advocacy of war, and White Eyes pleading the cause of peace. The oratory and character of White Eyes prevailed, and the tories departed to the Shawnee towns on the Scioto. There they were welcomed. Many of the Shawnees were already on the warpath and all were eager to hear the speeches of their friend McKee. James Girty, a brother of Simon, was then with the Shawnee tribe, having been sent from Fort Pitt by the American authorities on a futile peace embassy. He had been raised among the Shawnees, was a natural savage and at once joined his brother and the other tones.(6)

Governor Hamilton heard of the escape of McKee and companions from Fort Pitt and sent Edward Hazle to the Scioto to conduct the renegades safely through the several Indian tribes to Detroit.(7) Hamilton received them cordially and gave them commissions in the British service. For 16 years McKee, Elliott and the Girtys were the merciless scourgers of the border. They were the instigators and leaders of many Indian raids and their intimate knowledge of the frontier rendered their operations especially effective. Long after the close of the Revolution they continued their deadly enmity to the American cause and were largely responsible for the general Indian war of 1790-94.

McKee and his associates left behind them a band of tories organized among the members of the Thirteenth Virginia, of which a detachment was stationed in Fort Pitt. These rascals had formed a plot to blow up the fort and escape in boats by night. In some way this scheme was frustrated at the last moment, probably by the confession of one of the conspirators, and the explosion was prevented. Sergeant Alexander Ballantine and about a score of the traitors were able to get away in one of the large boats belonging to the post, and in the night of April 20 fled down the Ohio river. On the following day they were pursued by a large party of their comrades and were overtaken near the mouth of the Muskingum. Eight of the runaways escaped to shore and were lost in the trackless woods, some were killed in conflict on the spot and others were returned as prisoners to Fort Pitt. They were tried by a court-martial, of which Colonel William Crawford was president.

The leaders were found to be Sergeant Ballantine, William Bentley and Eliezer Davis. Two of these were shot and the other was hanged. Two other men were publicly whipped on the fort parade ground, each receiving loo lashes on the bare back.(8)

The punishment of these men was almost the last act performed by General Hand before his departure for the East. For a time it put an end to the machinations of the tories at Pittsburg, but it marked the beginning of the most cruel and disastrous warfare since the uprising of the tribes under Pontiac in 1763.

1 Deposition of John Green, Notes and Queries, Fourth Series, vol. l., p.68

2 Jones's Journal of Two Visits, under date of January 23, 1773.

3 American Archives, Fourth Series, vol. v., p. 815; Washington-Irvine Correspondence, p. 17.

4 George Morgan to Henry Laurens, March 31, 1778, MS. In the Pittsburg Carnegie Library.

5 Morgan to Laurens, as In note 4;. The Girtys, p. 50; Rev. A. A. Lambing, in Warner's History of Allegheny County, p. 83; Pennsylvania Archives, First Series, vol. vi., p. 445; Howe's Historical Collections of Ohio, edition of 1890, vol. I., p. 910.

6 Heckewelder's Narrative, p. 182; Schoolcraft's Indian Tribes, vol. vi., p. 300.

7 The Girtys, pp. 58, 59; Winning of the West, Roosevelt, vol. ii., pp. 4, 5.

8 Washington-Irvine Correspondence, p. 18; The Girtys, p. 58; Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, vol. iii., p. 189.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 45-48: Old Westmoreland, A History of Western Pennsylvania During the Revolution by Edgar W. Hassler, J.R. Weldon & Co, Pittsburgh, 1900

Contributed by Nathan Zipfel for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (

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