Wyoming Valley, Settlement of
WYOMING VALLEY, SETTLEMENT OF
WYOMING VALLEY, SETTLEMENT OF. Until Europeans intruded just before the Revolution, the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania was largely the preserve of the Munsee Indians, a member of the Delaware Nation who dominated the region. Beginning about 1750, the arrival of white Europeans pressed the Indians gradually westward into the Ohio Valley.
The Wyoming Valley also became a Revolutionary-era bone of contention between Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Beginning in 1769 the valley was settled by Connecticut colonists, whose claim rested on grants issued by the Connecticut-incorporated Susquehanna Company (1754). By 1774, Pennsylvania settlers, with some success, made no less than five efforts to exepel the Yankees; seventeen Connecticut settlements survived when, on 3 July 1778, the Wyoming massacre occurred. In a bloody raid carried out by 1,000 Loyalist Pennsylvanians and their Iroquois allies under the leadership of John Butler, the Whig stronghold Forty Fort was successfully assaulted and the rest of the New Englanders evicted from Pennsylvania. Butler's Rangers (who blamed the Indians although both were responsible) killed 360 pro-independence New Englanders, including women and children.
The massacre was a classic case of using the cover of the American Revolution to settle local scores. Persistent Connecticut settlers came back to the valley near the end of the war, only to have the Continental Congress court of arbitration decide land ownership in favor of the now-sovereign state of Pennsylvania. The Yankees could either leave or accept Pennsylvania rule. Not until the 1799 Compromise Act did Connecticut finally relinquish all claims to jurisdiction over the Wyoming Valley.
But if political jurisdiction favored the Pennsylvanians, the New England colonizers still determinedly held that part of the land resting on the old Susquehanna Company patents. These English ethnics confronted largely German settlers, as well as some "Yorkers" from New York State. The Wyoming Valley was thus the site of conflict as ethnic and state loyalties were tested in a lush, fertile agricultural area. As typical for nineteenth-century America, assimilation worked over the generations to diffuse, without however wholly eliminating, ethnic hostilities and exclusivity.
In the 1880s, rich anthracite coal deposits drew many new immigrants into the valley: Irish, Welsh, Poles, and other Slavs were prominent among the new wave. This influx was also ultimately absorbed into the already richly varied population. Although by the end of the century two generations of settlers from many lands called the valley their home the region's towns like Williamsport, Westmoreland, Towanda, and Wellsboro retained their Yankee influence, as seen in its architecture and in the New England village atmosphere that survived the earlier expulsion or assimilation of the settlers from Connecticut. The area's story profoundly challenges the perception that immigrant influx in the northeastern United States was only an urban phenomenon.
Wilkes-Barre and environs became the center of the anthracite coal industry by the beginning of the twentieth century. Mining (and its attendant poverty) in turn brought manufacturing plants attracted by the proximity to their chief energy source. Unusually bitter labor strife, common to areas combining mining and manufacturing, ensued. The United Mine Workers Union, very active in the valley, was largely responsible for the confrontational and class-oriented labor battles in urban and rural areas alike.
After World War I, anthracite production plummeted, an economic disaster rendered final by the Great Depression. Not even the economic prosperity that accompanied World War II could halt the economic demise of large portions of the Wyoming Valley. In the large cities of the region, Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, union affiliation remained strong even after World War II, when most of the anthracite mines had been inactive for a generation or more. Agriculture survives in the rural area of the valley, as does tourist-driven hunting and fishing, and some industrial diversification came out of the war. But postwar prosperity has been elusive in a region, which, until very recently, was locked into a permanent state of recession.
From a historical perspective, what happened more broadly in the United States in terms of ethnicity, immigration and labor also occurred in the Wyoming Valley. Beginning with the valley's earliest settlement by Europeans, tensions between Native Americans and white Europeans over land claims, between different ethnic and political groups deriving in part to land-company patent rights, and between classes as a result of heavy mining and manufacturing operations in large measure mirrored those taking place through significant parts of America.
Bodnar, John E. Anthracite People: Families, Unions and Work, 1900–1914. Harrisburg, 1983.
Smith, Ernest Gray. The Sesqui-Centennial of the Battle of Wyoming, July 2, 3, 4, 1778–1928. Wilkes-Barre.
Works Projects Administraion Guide to Pennsylvania. New York, 1940.
Carl E. Prince