Wyoming Valley Conflict

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On Christmas Day in 1775, six months before the out-break of the war that would make the United States a nation, Americans in the Wyoming Valley of the Susque-hanna River, in what is now Pennsylvania, were already engaged under arms in a bitter fight among themselves. This little-known conflict is sometimes referred to as the Pennamite Wars.

The dispute had been growing since 1754 when an association of Connecticut residents purchased a parcel of land, which they intended to settle and farm, from the Six Nations at a tribal council in Albany "for 2,000 pounds of current money in New York." The association, calling itself the Susquehanna Company, at that time numbered fewer than six hundred souls. It was not for another ten years that they would begin to settle their land. By then, the Pennsylvania colony, which claimed the land as its own, and the Connecticut colony, with an equally valid claim extending back to the British Crown itself, had entered the fray. The fighting began as early as 1769, when a faction of local Pennsylvanians known as Pennamites began harassing and driving off Yankee settlers from their homes on the eastern bank of the Susquehanna near Jacob's Plains. Most returned right away. By 1775 violent skirmishes between the two parties were common. On Christmas in 1775 a bloody confrontation took place at Forty Fort, claiming lives and leaving many wounded. This period is known as the First Pennamite War.

The Revolutionary War put a halt to the fighting, but added its own dose of bitter feeling to the brew. The British induced the Six Nations to take up arms against the Americans. Colonel John Butler accompanied the American Indians along with a party of Tories and a troop of British soldiers down the Susquehanna to destroy settlements in the Wyoming Valley. A few old men and some soldiers on leave from the Continental Army were defeated, and the survivors of the fight were put to the tomahawk. In all, some four hundred were massacred, an event that was immortalized in Thomas Campbell's 1809 narrative poem Gertrude of Wyoming. The Native Americans were punished for their role by the Continental Army under General Sullivan in 1779, but rancor in the valley remained.

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the old dispute resurfaced. In 1782 the Decree of Trenton had been passed, assigning the right of jurisdiction and preemption to Pennsylvania, but as spring planting began in 1783 the Yankee settlers were still in the Susquehanna Valley. Pennamite sentiment flared once again; settlers were attacked, men were rounded up and whipped with rifle rods and made to lie in pens on the muddy ground. A rule that no more than two Yankee men could congregate in any place was put into effect, and on May 14 soldiers from Pennsylvania arrived with orders to drive the settlers out. Some five hundred took to the Lack-awaxen Road headed back toward Connecticut. But they did not give up. Appeals were made to the Connecticut legislature, but many settlers did not wait for a decision to be reached and returned directly to their homes.

In the fall of 1785 there was a skirmish between Pennamites and Yankees in a piece of woods called Plymouth in which two were killed and several wounded. The Pennamites were driven back, but soldiers were again sent and there began a prolonged struggle. This period is known as the Second Pennamite War. The Yankees were defeated, but still refused to leave. In 1786 the Pennsylvania legislature took up the matter and both Pennamites and Yankees were expelled from Forty Fort, but it would take years before the Compromise Act (1799) settled all claims and peace finally came to the region, now known as Luzerne County in Pennsylvania.

These conflicts in the Wyoming Valley represent a feature of American society that has been overlooked and overwhelmed by attention given to the war with England. Before and during the Revolution, Americans were often at war with each other, and with American Indians, over land, and in some cases combatants used the Revolutionary War as a pretext to engage in vicious frontier warfare for their own ends, including revenge killings.

Charles B. Potter

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Wyoming Valley Conflict

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