t is 1778 and the Revolutionary War is in full swing throughout the thirteen colonies of America. The British were on a campaign through the southern colonies and the Americans had just claimed a vital victory at the Battle of Saratoga in northeast New York. In the regions of northwest New York and northern Pennsylvania, however, there was a more pressing conflict at hand. Settlers in these regions encountered grave danger as their lands were being attacked, homes burned to the ground, and families’ safety jeopardized. The attacking force although led by the British, included the settler’s own neighbors and local factions of Indians. The inhabitants of these areas responded with force and the Battle of Wyoming Valley was the result; a battle historians would mark as both significant and extremely controversial.
As the Revolution rolled on, the British looked for any way possible to disrupt the American Patriots’ war fighting abilities. While the frontier land of the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania may not seem to be ideal land to capture, it actually was a key location at the time. The Susquehanna River was a crucial route to move important supplies to the army as it ran all the way from New York to Maryland. In addition to the ease of transportation, the Wyoming Valley was also a leading producer of grains and other crops that could be shipped to the army. These factors combined with the presence of several sturdy forts in the area made this region a “must have” for the invading British Army.
The responsibility of taking these pivotal areas in northern Pennsylvania fell on the shoulders of 50-year-old Major John Butler, a Connecticut Tory (Loyal to the Crown during the Revolution). He had gained favor with the English after fighting for them in the French and Indian War. With his extensive knowledge of Indian languages, he proved himself a valuable asset in organizing and communicating with the native groups. His experience in this area also made him the prime choice for the mission at hand as he was instructed to recruit as many nearby Indians as possible. The Mohawks, one of the Six Nations of Iroquois from northern New York, were the primary source of recruitment for Major Butler. A total of 500 Mohawks volunteered along with a group of 400 Tories whom Butler also recruited locally.
With this force of about 900 men, Butler now had the military power to wreak havoc along the frontier of the Wyoming Valley. His campaign began by stirring up fear in the minds of surrounding settlers. His men headed south while stopping only to burn homes, attack settlers, and to raid settlements for much needed food and valuable goods. This guerrilla warfare was well suited to the Mohawk warriors under Butler’s command. Arthur Miller, Jr., in his book Pennsylvania Battlefields and Landmarks, claims that the British would pay the Mohawks for each settler’s scalp that they claimed. Miller went on to describe the attacks by saying, “Settlers were murdered in their beds, frontier cabins and lean-tos put to the torch, and children abducted.” The attacks seemed to reach a climax on June 30, 1778 when the force killed eight settlers working in a corn field along the Susquehanna River.
The Wyoming Valley was a very pro-Revolution region with most of its able-bodied men already away fighting for the cause. Manpower was therefore at a premium. The officers in charge of the safety of the Wyoming Valley frontier, Colonel Zebulon Butler (no relation to the British commander) and Colonel Nathan Denison, were well aware of this fact. Colonel Butler was on leave from his position as lieutenant colonel in the 3rd Connecticut Continental Regiment and he was extremely wary of the task at hand. They were given only 400 militiamen to defend the entire Wyoming Valley from pending invasion. In many cases, the men who volunteered were older than ideal for the combat they were about to experience. These men were placed into the 24th Connecticut Militia Regiment under the joint control of both Butler and Denison.
Connecticut troops were located in the Wyoming Valley during this time because Connecticut had a legal claim on the region. This claim originated in overlapping mandates given to the colonies of Connecticut and Pennsylvania by the British Crown. In fact, Connecticut would create its own County of Westmoreland in the northeastern corner of what is now Pennsylvania before the claims were resolved in Pennsylvania’s favor.
One advantage that the Patriots did have on their side was the large presence of forts in the Wyoming Valley area. They included Wilkes-Barre Fort and Forty Fort in the south along with the northern forts of Wintermoot, Jenkins’, and Pittston. These structures provided excellent defense against oncoming invaders if they were properly manned. With only 400 militia in service, however, Zebulon Butler found it very difficult to appropriately use all the forts as they were intended. Fort Pittston had a garrison of only eight men to defend it from capture. The fort most important to the cause, however, was Forty Fort. The fort was named after the forty settlers it was originally built to protect during a conflict between the states of Connecticut and Pennsylvania in the recurring land dispute of the Pennamite-Yankee Wars. This fort built along the Susquehanna River would be the main rallying point for Zebulon Butler and his band of Patriot militia. Upon hearing of the destruction caused by the invading Tories and Indians, Butler decided to assemble his men at Forty Fort to undertake the defense.
Colonel John Butler led his group of Mohawks and Tories into the heart of the Wyoming Valley. The force reached Wintermoot Fort in the early hours of July 1 and immediately sent an emissary requesting its surrender. Butler promised that no one inside the fort would be harmed if a prompt surrender occurred. Wintermoot quickly raised the white flag and Colonel Butler had conquered the first fort he desired. Not resting on his laurels, the next day, Butler received news that Jenkins’ Fort had also yielded to the power of his force. Having captured two forts in as many days, Butler gained confidence and demanded that all forts and militia in the area were to surrender immediately. In return for their surrender, Butler promised not to harm the militia as long as they never fought again in the War for Independence. Colonel Denison received the message from Butler and quickly assembled the militia and requested reinforcements. The response from the militia stationed at Forty Fort was determined and unified. They replied stating that they would, “never give up the fort over to the Tories and savages but stand it out to the last and defend it to the last extremity.”
Hearing the news of Forty Fort’s resistance, Colonel John Butler devised a plan to lure the Patriot militia out of their fortifications. He concluded that if his force left Forty Fort, the Patriots would infer that the Indians and Tories would continue to terrorize nearby communities. The garrison of men would then follow Butler’s force in an attempt to protect their homes from destruction. On July 3, Colonel Butler had his men set fire to Jenkins’ Fort along with several houses north of Forty Fort in a demonstration of the destruction he was about to create. Butler and his men then left, heading back to Wintermoot Fort.
John Butler’s ploy was executed perfectly and the militia was desperate to pursue the fleeing Tories and Indians. The commanding officers however were not as eager to follow. Both Colonels Zebulon Butler and Nathan Denison were of the opinion that waiting for reinforcements was their best option. Neither Butler nor Denison had any idea about the strength of their enemy and therefore elected to use caution. The men in the garrison did not agree with this decision and demanded action. They believed their homes and families were being destroyed and that attack was the only viable option. Denison and Butler soon conceded and the men headed out of the fort in pursuit. They caught up to the enemy and found the Tories in a long line behind a wood fence with the Mohawks nowhere in sight. Quickly, Butler and Denison formed their 400 militia into a single line to prepare for battle. The militia advanced upon the line of the Tories firing three volleys of musket fire with no reply from the enemy. The two enemies found themselves inching closer and closer as the dense smoke filled the air. John Butler and his men were now ready to spring their trap. Before the Patriot militia could release their fourth volley of musket fire, the Tories let loose a volley of their own. At the same time, hundreds of Mohawk warriors came storming out of the nearby woods, enveloping the militia in brutal hand-to-hand combat. The Mohawks, carrying spears and tomahawks, were vastly more experienced and well equipped for this type of fighting. The militia’s left flank began to crumble. Orders were given to refuse the line in order to create stability on the left flank, but these commands were not followed due to the confusion and panic of the situation.
The line of Patriot militia began to break and orders were given for retreat. The battle seemed to be reaching its conclusion with many militiamen escaping to safety, but the Mohawk warriors had other plans. They continued to pursue the retreating militia, scalping and slaughtering any soldier they could find. Many men made it as far as the Susquehanna River, but were either taken capture or butchered in the river. The men who were captured by the Mohawks encountered a terrible fate as they were soon tortured and tomahawked by their captures; their scalps taken and later exchanged for a British bounty. Colonel Denison surrendered Forty Fort the next day and Colonel Butler promised not to harm any civilians in the fort. Most civilians however had packed up and left when news of the defeat reached them.
While casualty numbers are not mutually agreed upon by both sides, it is clear that the Patriot militia experienced monumental casualties. Colonel John Butler claimed that his Indians took 227 scalps while Denison claimed to have lost 303 men. The number of Indians and Tories who perished during the battle is also a dispute, but according to Ernest Cruikshank, the casualties were minimal. In Cruikshank’s book The Story of Butler’s Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara, he depicts John Butler saying, “On our side we lost one Indian killed, two rangers and eight Indians wounded.” A big question raised by historians about the massacre is how involved John Butler and the Tories were. The slaughtering was done exclusively by the Mohawks, but the question of whether Butler encouraged the Indians is still hotly debated. Butler defended himself by stating the Mohawks were out for revenge of a previous encounter between white settlers. He stated, “The Indians were so exasperated with the loss at Fort Stanwix last year that it was with difficulty I could save the lives of these few.” Also, some of the atrocities that occurred in the aftermath of the battle were exaggerated severely by nearby settlers. Some reports shortly after the battle depicted Butler organizing groups of women and children to be burned alive. According to Barbara Graymont these terrible events did not occur at all. In her book The Iroquois in the American Revolution, she writes that “No women were along on the expedition, and no such sanguinary tortures took place.”
In response to the heinous events that occurred on July 3, many settlers decided to flee the Wyoming Valley for fear of their safety. Trying to stabilize the situation, the Continental Army assigned Colonel Thomas Hartley and nearly one thousand Pennsylvania militia to reinforce the area. While considerably less than one thousand men actually showed up, Hartley and his men took the offensive to try and ensure the safety of local settlers. They attacked Mohawk villages and slaughtered many natives, causing the Indians to focus their attention back on their own settlements. Moving the fighting out of the Wyoming Valley restored some order to the region and gave settlers a chance to repopulate the valley.
The effects of the Battle of Wyoming Valley could be felt throughout America. The event greatly increased the tension between Patriots and Tories throughout the thirteen colonies. These two factions lived side by side as neighbors in communities throughout America, so it was obvious that many would be shaken up by the events that took place in Pennsylvania. The combination of strong pro-British sentiment along with Indian guerrilla warfare provoked a terrible result. Many Americans would be reluctant to live in areas where the Indian presence resembled that of the Wyoming Valley. They wanted to avoid similar conflicts if at all possible. These frontier conflicts are often forgotten about because they occurred at the time of the Revolution, but they play an important part in the history of Pennsylvania.
Today, at the site of the battle near Kingston, Luzerne County, is a sixty-two foot monument that honors the men who fought and died during that July day. The monument was built in 1803 and it demonstrates the bravery and commitment of the Patriot militia. Along with this monument still stands the original house of Colonel Nathan Denison, where tours are offered May through August.
Maybe the most famous remembrance of the Battle of Wyoming was not built by the hand of a carpenter, but crafted by a poet. Scottish poet Thomas Campbell’s 1809 poem Gertrude of Wyoming reflects the horror and sadness many experienced in the battle’s aftermath. The poem remembers the fatal day in its first lines stating, “On Susquehanna’s side, fair Wyoming! Although the wild-flower on thy ruin’d wall, and roofless homes, a sad remembrance bring, of what thy gentle people did befall.” Many historians believe that this poem was strongly influential in the naming of the western state of Wyoming.
While the poem is a highly romanticized version of the Battle, or “Massacre” as many put it, and while the flamingoes he mentions would surely be out of place in northeastern Pennsylvania, Campbell’s poem made the Wyoming Valley known throughout the English-speaking world in the 19th century. The story of the men who bravely fought defending their homes and families, however, will be the lasting memory of a spirited battle in northern Pennsylvania.