Battle of Wyoming Region: Poconos / Endless Mountains County: Luzerne, State: PA.
The Battle of Wyoming and the massacre that followed, in July 1778, has been called the “horror of the American Revolution” because of the brutal and horrific acts committed by Iroquois Confederation warriors and their British and Loyalist allies against the Connecticut Yankees who had settled Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley. Both of these bloody events were part of a larger land dispute among Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Native American claimants. That they occurred during the American Revolution reflects the explosive influence of Pennsylvania’s internal revolution on the struggle for independence from Great Britain.
After the success of the Pennsylvania forces against New Englanders in the “First Yankee-Pennamite War” of 1769-1771, Connecticut settlers continued to filter into the Wyoming Valley. Another series of sharp skirmishes in the upper Susquehanna Valley followed during the next few years with modest casualties and no clear-cut winners or losers. The hostilities culminated on Christmas day, 1775, at the Battle of Rampart Rocks near present-day West Nanticoke, where the Yankees defeated a Pennamite force of 600 men. The victory spurred the Connecticut General Assembly to establish Westmoreland County, which soon grew to 3,000 residents.
Low-grade warfare continued in the Wyoming Valley through the early spring of 1776. With the War for American Independence threatening to spill over into Pennsylvania’s borders, the Continental Congress, in mid-April, appealed to both Yankees and Pennamites to cease their hostilities and “join their brethren in America in the common cause of defending their liberty.”
Westmoreland County immediately raised a militia and two companies, which joined the Connecticut Line of the Continental Army. Some of the Pennsylvania settlers also favored American independence. But many of the Pennamites thought that Britain was more likely to favor their claims over the Yankees if they fought on the Redcoat side. Complicating matters were the Iroquois of western New York, who agreed to fight for the British in the hope that by doing so they would regain their own control of the Wyoming Valley.
Supported by the British Rangers of Capt. John Butler, Iroquois leaders began planning to terrorize the Wyoming settlers. They found willing allies in the displaced Pennsylvania land claimants now living north of Wyoming. As these forces mobilized, in the late spring of 1778, Col. Zebulon Butler, a leading Connecticut settler and Continental Army officer, assumed command of more than 386 Yankee militiamen who gathered to protect their community. Late in June 1778 Colonel Denison was informed by scouts that a force of approximately seven hundred Tories, Rangers and Indians under the command of Major John Butler and Chief Sayenqueraghta of the Seneca were gathering near Pittston at Fort Wintermute. With this news the alarm was sounded. Appeals for help were sent to General Washington, who sent troops, and to John Franklin in Huntington. The families quickly moved to the forts. The twenty-fourth Regiment gathered in Forty Fort and there decided to meet the enemy as far from the fort as possible in order to save their homes and crops. According to the inscription on the Wyoming Monument this group is described as being “chiefly the undisciplined, the youthful, and the aged”. Many of these so called soldiers were farmers. Their only interest was in driving off the savages so they could return to their farming. “The urge, of peaceful necessities, overcame the danger of precipitate action, in the minds of these simple men.”
On July 1st, John Butler’s force of about 1,000 regular British troops, Loyalist irregulars, and Indians, marched into the Wyoming Valley and seized control of Yankee forts Wintermoot and Jenkins, on the western banks of the Susquehanna River just above Wilkes-Barre.
The next morning the combined Indian-Loyalist force of 500 marched south and demanded the surrender of Forty Fort. Col. Zebulon Butler and other senior officers urged caution, debating whether to stay in the fort and await reinforcements, or to move out and confront the raiders in the open field. With Washington and the Continental Army en route to New Jersey in July of 1778, there was little hope for immediate support. The longer the officers debated, the more the younger militiamen pressed for an attack, accusing them of cowardice.Early in the morning the British commander sent under a flag of truce, and under escort of an Indian and a Ranger, a message delivered by Daniel Ingersol who had been captured at Fort Wintermute. Ingersol was not allowed to utter a word out of their hearing to either Col. Butler or Col. Denison. Their demand for surrender was refused. Toward noon, the beating drums down the lower Kingston road, announced the approach of reinforcements from Hanover, with Lazarus Stewart at their head.Lt. John Jenkins, Jr. was left in command of the Fort. With him were a few old men including the settlement’s minister. Rev. Jacob Johnson’s daughter, Lydia, was married to Col. Zebulon Butler. Others at the fort included Captain Obadiah Gore, Cpt. Wiliam Gallup and Thomas Bennet. The militia, in the New England way of doing things, met in a sort of town meeting to debate the advantages and disavantages of an immediate attack. They pointed out that Captain Spaulding, with what remained of the companies of Durkee and Ransom, were en route, less than a hundred miles away. In a few days more help might come from Fort Jenkins and even Fort Augusta. Earlier in the day, Zebulon Butler had sent Isaac Baldwin with a message to the Board of War at Philadelphia. They hoped for a large group of Continental soldiers within a short time. They argued that the true number of the enemy had not been calculated. There were evidently large numbers of the Seneca who were well experienced in warfare. But, the passionate words of Luzarus Stewart overcame the warnings of the more cautious. His enthusiasm was reinforced by the younger and more adventurous among the group. It has been said that Lazarus Stewart charged Zebulon Butler with cowardice; threatening to lead the others against the Indians, if Butler refused to give the order to advance.
Like other New England militiamen, who had a reputation for assertive and democratic behavior, the Connecticut Yankees understood their terms of enlistment literally as “contracts” that had to be complied with in detail or else the contract was invalid. They enlisted in order to fight, not to wait for an attack. Realizing this, the officers yielded to their demand for an assault. It was a fatal mistake.
Shortly before noon on July 3rd, Butler and his 386 militiamen marched out of Forty Fort to do battle with the British-Iroquois-Pennamite invasion force. While marching to Fort Wintermoot to launch their attack, the troops were spotted by an Indian foraging party. Informing British Col. John Butler that the Yankees were within a mile of his position, Butler ordered the fort “to be set on fire so that the enemy will be deceived into believing that they had retreated.” Butler then proceeded to organize his line of battle in the surrounding woods. About 2:00 P.M. some three hundred and seventy five men marched out of Forty Fort to the fife and drum’s “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning”. It is reported that they carried the “stars and stripes”, our new national flag, for the first time. Colonel Zebulon Butler who was on leave from the Continental Army at the time, led the small army. Colonel Nathan Denison was second-in-command. The men marched up what is now Wyoming Avenue. They stopped at a bridge which crossed Abraham’s Creek. “In fact, Thomas Bennet boldly declared, they were marching into a snare and that they would be destroyed; and he left them at Abraham’s Creek and returned to the fort.” Another halt was made at Swetland’s Hill. This time scouts reported the enemy was in full retreat. Here Butler, Dorrance and Denison wanted to hold the line until reinforcements arrived from General Washington and John Franklin. But Lazarus Stewart prevailed.
At approximately 3:00 p.m., Butler and his Yankee militia arrived at Wintermoot, which was now aflame. But the Yankee officer was not fooled, and taunted the invaders as he deployed his men for the battle. “Come out, ye villainous Tories!” he cried. “Come out and show your heads if ye dare, to the brave Continental Sons of Liberty!”When the British Rangers and their Pennamite and Iroquois allies ignored his demand, Butler gave the order to attack, and his militiamen marched forward to deliver their first volley. Three volleys they fired, with no resistance from the enemy, who were still laying low in the forest. When the Yankees came within 100 yards of their position, though, the Iroquois warriors sprang from the woods. Supported by the firepower of the British Rangers and Pennamites, the Indians outflanked the Yankee forces, who retreated in confusion. Within thirty minutes, the Battle of Wyoming had ended and the “Wyoming Massacre” had begun.The Iroquois flanking parties cut off the Yankee retreat to Forty Fort and placed them in a bloody crossfire from both the British Rangers and Pennamites. For the rest of the day, Connecticut militiamen were tortured, slain, and in some cases scalped. Many Yankees “plunged themselves into the Susquehanna River with the hope of escaping, only to be pierced with the lances of the Indians.” By dawn, the following morning, their “carcasses floated down river, infesting the banks of the Susquehanna.” Only sixty of the Yankee militiamen who marched into battle survived. The Iroquois took the scalps of 227 slain Yankees, in spite of the British order to “respect their remains.” Out of 1,000 men available, John Butler reported only two Loyalist Rangers and one Indian killed, and eight Indians wounded. He claimed that his force took 227 scalps, burned 1,000 houses, and drove off 1,000 cattle plus many sheep and hogs. Of the 60 Continentals and 300 militiamen involved, only about 60 escaped the disaster, though Graymont states about 340 killed. The Seneca Indians were angered from the accusations of atrocities they said they had not committed, and at the militia taking arms after being paroled. Later that year, Joseph Brant under the command of Butler further retaliated in the Cherry Valley massacre.
The Wyoming Valley was largely depopulated of white settlers after the summer of 1778. The massacre became an important propaganda tool for the patriot cause, forcing Gen. George Washington to appoint Maj. Gen. John Sullivan to lead a huge and carefully planned campaign against the Iroquois on the Pennsylvania and New York frontier in the autumn of 1779. The success of that campaign resulted in the Iroquois ceding their lands in Pennsylvania and western New York to the United States under the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. While the Wyoming Valley land dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania would linger into the early nineteenth century, the northern frontier had been secured from further invasion.
Fossler, Linda A.: Hero of the Revolutionary Frontier (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press), 1995.
Miner, Charles A History of Wyoming, in a series of letters, from Charles Miner, to his son William Penn Miner (Philadelphia: J. Crissy, 1845).
Munger, Donna Bingham Connecticut’s Pennsylvania “Colony,” 1754–1810: Susquehanna Company proprietors, settlers and claimants (Westminster, Md.: Heritage Books, 2007).
Peck, George Wyoming: Its History, Stirring Incidents, and Romantic Adventures (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1858).
Plumb, Henry Blackman History of Hanover Township: including Sugar Notch, Ashley and Nanticoke Boroughs: and also a History of Wyoming Valley, in Lucerne County, Pennsylvania (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: R. Baur, 1885).
Stefon, Frederick J. “The Wyoming Valley,” in Beyond Philadelphia: The American Revolution in the Pennsylvania Hinterland, John B. Frantz and William Pencak, eds. (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1998): 144-149.