The Wyoming Valley of present day Pennsylvania was the scene of the bloodiest and most heinous battle of the Revolutionary War. In 1662, the valley had been claimed as part of Connecticut and residents of that colony began settling there in 1762, originally designated as the county of Westmoreland.
The settlers planted crops, harvested them and returned to Connecticut for the winter. They returned in the spring of 1763 and that autumn were attacked and killed by Indians. Those remaining fled back to Connecticut. In 1769 another wave of settlers decided to migrate to the area once again.
The area was so dangerous, however, that one historian noted that between 1769 and 1775 “so frequent were the conflicts resulting in bloodshed within the town of Westmoreland, that it may be said to have been in a state of continual war.” Not only were there Indians to contend with, but the land was disputed by Pennsylvania and Connecticut, a conflict called the “Pennamite War”.
In 1774 a series of forts were built in the Wyoming Valley: Plymouth Fort, Wilkes-Barre Fort, Forty Fort, Jenkins Fort, Pittston Fort and Wintermoot Fort. Some of the forts were actually built around the homes of the families for which they were named. An Act of Congress was passed on August 23, 1776 which called for two companies to be formed to serve in the Valley. Less than a month later, the quota had been filled. In October of 1776, the Connecticut Assembly passed an act which completed what would be called the 24th Regiment of the Connecticut Militia.
Several of the companies of the 24th Regiment consisted of older men. The original companies formed by the August 1776 Act of Congress were engaged in campaigns in New Jersey in 1777 and 1778, and consisted of the younger men of the Valley.
With the ongoing conflicts between Connecticut and Pennsylvania, the Wyoming Valley was quite vulnerable. Added to that was the presence of the Six Nations, the cruel band of Indians who had attacked in 1763. The Indians were no doubt seething when settlers returned in 1769 and waiting for the chance to exact revenge again. That thirst for revenge would be fueled by none other than the British.
The Indians were promised reward for American scalps, the original idea of Colonel Daniel Claus, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs. The British assault on the Valley was led by Colonel John Butler. On June 30, 1778 he led his troops, first capturing Fort Wintermoot at the head of the Valley. One historian reported that it was possible that this fort was actually inhabited by Tory sympathizers.
Fort Jenkins, defended by seventeen, mostly aged people, fell next. On the morning of June 30, eight men had gone to work in the fields, armed with only two guns. Upon their return in the evening they were fired upon by Indians and as one observer related, “they fought bravely as long as they could stand, but being overpowered by numbers were cut to pieces in their sides, their arms cut to pieces, tomahawked, scalped and their throats cut.”
On July 2, the remaining occupants of Fort Jenkins surrendered without resistance. News of Butler’s entrance into the valley put the residents of the valley on alert and they proceeded to assemble at Forty Fort, the largest of the valley forts. Lt. Colonel Zebulon Butler, on leave from the Continental Army, was placed in command. Interestingly, it is believed that Zebulon Butler was related to Colonel John Butler.
On the morning of July 3, a council of war was held at Forty Fort. Lt. Colonel Butler believed that action should be delayed until reinforcements arrived, however Lt. Colonel Lazarus Stewart disagreed. Stewart was in favor of immediately preparing for the expected attack – Butler and those siding with him finally consented to Stewart’s plan.
At about 3:00 in the afternoon, the spirited patriots left the fort in search of the enemy. The British observed them and lay in wait until Lt. Colonel Butler and his men reached a point where they would be ambushed by the Indians. An order by Lt. Colonel Nathan Denison to fall back was mistaken for “retreat”. In the words of one historian, “the mistake was fatal, the falling back became a retreat, the retreat a panic, and the massacred followed, the Indians pursuing the flying troops and attacking them with terrible slaughter.”
Afterwards, John Butler boasted the taking of 227 scalps – and blamed the Indians. The price of each scalp was $10, amounting to $2,270, although by the American casualty count there were only 182 certified for the official commemorative monument. The British, who suffered little in the way of casualties, were complicit observers of the carnage.
The final surrender of the Americans came the following day on July 4, 1778. In testimony to Congress in 1838, several young residents of the valley testified about the battle:
The dead lay all around and there were places where half-burnt legs and arms showed the cruel torture our poor people must have suffered.
We … helped to bury the dead as soon as it could be done. The battle field presented a distressing sight; in a ring around a rock there lay 18 or 20 mangled bodies. Prisoners taken on the field were placed in a circle surrounded by Indians, and a squaw set to butcher them.
Observed at Pittston Fort: “St. John and Leach were moving off with their goods, St. John was tomahawked, and Leach had his child in his arms. The Indians tomahawked him and gave the child to its mother. On the night after the battle, seeing fires under some large oaks near the river, he [Ishmael Bennet] with his father, Squire Whitaker and old Captain Blanchard, went down to the river side, they could see naked white men running around the fire, could hear their cries of agony, could see the savages following them with their spears, it was a dreadful sight.”
The Americans had a total of 360 men, 60 Continentals and 300 militiamen, and only about 60 of them escaped, so the total of American casualties was around 300. By contrast, the British lost only two men, one Indian was killed and eight Indians wounded. The terms of surrender for the Americans included a parole agreement whereby they would not participate further in the war.
News of the atrocities horrified and infuriated Americans. A regiment commanded by Colonel Thomas Hartley was dispatched to defend the valley and harvest the crops. The regiment was joined by other militia, including one commanded by Nathan Denison, who in doing so, violated the parole agreement entered into with the British after the massacre. Retaliation ensued with the destruction of Indian villages and crops. One expedition conducted in 1779 caused so much damage that the Indians never recovered and many starved the following winter.
The Battle of Wyoming and Massacre are commemorated each year by the Wyoming Commemorative Association, with a ceremony on the grounds of the monument, first held in 1878 on the 100th anniversary. The Wyoming Territory was given its name in honor of the battle.
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