Wyoming Valley Massacre, Pennsylvania

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Wyoming Valley Massacre, Pennsylvania

WYOMING VALLEY MASSACRE, PENNSYLVANIA. 3-4 July 1778. Although the name was applied to most of the northern quarter of Pennsylvania, the Wyoming Valley of the Revolution was the twenty-five-mile stretch of the Susquehanna River below the mouth of the Lackawanna River, including modern Wilkes-Barre. "Wyoming" comes from the Delaware Indian name M'cheuwómink, "upon the great plain." The Wyoming Valley Massacre had its origins partially in local disputes. Conflicting claims of Connecticut and Pennsylvania resulted in regular clashes after the original Connecticut settlement in 1753. In January 1774 the Connecticut General Assembly, defying Pennsylvania's claims, incorporated the settlement into a chartered township called Westmoreland. By 1775 the three thousand inhabitants of the isolated valley split between the more numerous "Yankees" and the "Pennamites," although the two groups shared a strong attachment to the Patriot cause. But a number of Loyalist families began moving into the area from the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, most prominently the Wintermoot family.

In response to this influx of new settlers, who made no apologies for their loyalty to the king, the original settlers formed committees of vigilance. They arrested several of the newcomers and sent them off to Connecticut, where many ended up in the Connecticut Mines or Simsbury Prison. The Wintermoots had purchased land toward the head of the valley and proceeded to construct a fort. This was common sense in a region vulnerable to Indian raids, but under the circumstances the Patriot settlers thought it wise to start throwing up some forts of their own. About two miles above the Wintermoots they built Fort Jenkins. Forty Fort, a blockhouse whose name came from the first forty Connecticut pioneers, was strengthened. Plans were made to build and renovate other posts.

Meanwhile, the valley sent off two companies of regulars, eighty-two men each, to join Washington. Also, Patriot committees continued their vigilance, sending more accused Tories to the mines and further alienating neighbors with differing political views.

War had lurked around the edges of Wyoming Valley for some months. During St. Leger's expedition in June-Sept. 1777, stray Indians appeared. In January 1778, twenty-seven suspected Tories were arrested and eighteen were sent to prison in Connecticut. The other nine fled, probably to Niagara, and were followed by many other Loyalists from the Wyoming region. At British headquarters in Niagara, meanwhile, Major John Butler was preparing another series of raids against the exposed U.S. frontier.


Butler left Niagara in June 1778 with his Rangers, a detachment of Johnson's Royal Greens, and an assortment of volunteers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, about four hundred loyalists in all. As deputy of the Indian forces, Butler had the support of about five hundred Iroquois, mainly Senecas and Cayugas, under the command of a chief named Gi-en-gwahtoh. Though the strength of Butler's command remains in dispute, his forces definitely outnumbered the militia he encountered in Wyoming Valley.

The invasion route was eastward toward Tryon County, southward along Seneca Lake, and on to Tioga. The latter was roughly fifty miles up the Susquehanna River from the head of Wyoming Valley. While waiting for boats and rafts to be built, Butler sent raiding parties to the West Branch of the Susquehanna. On 27 June his entire force reached Wyalusing, and the next day the men camped at a rebel mill about twenty miles from their objective. Lacking provisions, Butler welcomed the arrival of several Wintermoots with fourteen cows and an offer to surrender their fort if promised safety.

The Wintermoots also supplied valuable intelligence, informing Butler that, though the Patriots expected a raid, the Continental army had been unable to spare any troops for their defense, Washington being in the midst of the Monmouth campaign during 16 June-5 July. The local defense was a hastily assembled company of from forty to sixty men at Forty Fort, commanded by Captain Detrick Hewett. Colonel Zebulon Butler (no relation to Major John Butler), a Continental officer home on leave, was given overall command of the situation and called on the militia to turn out. Many of the local militia insisted on staying at the seven other forts that extended ten miles on both sides of the river. Colonel Butler was able to raise some three hundred militia to reinforce Hewett's volunteers and arrived at Forty Fort on 1 July. Major John Butler's forces entered the valley from the west and quickly took possession of Fort Jenkins and a little fort called Exeter. He established headquarters at Wintermoot's fort (as his blockhouse was known). The Patriots clashed with an Indian patrol that surprised and murdered some men working in a field near Fort Jenkins; the Patriots then withdrew to Forty Fort.


On 3 July, Colonel Zebulon Butler fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book. Major John Butler had Fort Wintermoot set on fire and pretended to retreat, drawing Colonel Butler and his militia out of Forty Fort. Rather than proceeding cautiously and sending out scouts to determine the exact movements of the Loyalists and Indians, Colonel Butler rushed forward, apparently shouting taunts at what he took to be the retreating British forces. The Patriots were scattered over an open field, with Butler commanding the right, Colonel Nathan Denison the left, and Hewett's volunteers in the center. Major Butler anchored his left flank on Wintermoot's fort, where he personally commanded his Rangers, deploying the Indians on the opposite flank, and placing the Greens in the center. When the Patriots returned the fire of Butler's troops, the Indians rushed upon them with axes, knives, and hatchets before they could reload. The Patriots fled in panic, many of them throwing down their muskets and several dozen leaping into the Susquehanna in an effort to swim to safety. The Indians pursued the latter into the water, killing most of them. Many of the Patriots ran for Forty Fort but were intercepted by Butler's Loyalists.

The exact number killed in this battle is unknown, but at least twenty militia officers and three Continental officers were killed, including Hewett. Major Butler claimed to have killed 227 patriots while losing just two Rangers and one of his Indian allies. Only 60 patriots escaped the vigorous pursuit, and Denison led some of these back to Forty Fort to protect the women and children. Zebulon Butler was less heroic, not stopping until he reached Fort Wyoming at Wilkes-Barre, where he gathered such regulars as he could and withdrew from the valley. The slaughter of fugitives and torture of prisoners continued through the night of 3-4 July. J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur wrote, "It is said that those who were then made prisoners were tied to small trees and burnt the evening of the same day" as the battle (Smith 2: 1157) Some accounts say that prisoners were thrown into a fire and held there by pitchforks.

During the night a few reinforcements under John Franklin reached Forty Fort, but Denison accepted John Butler's surrender terms the next morning. These terms required the people of the Wyoming Valley to not take up arms again during the war, demolish their garrisons, and spare loyalists from further persecution while restoring their lost property.

For the Loyalists, the battle at Forty Fort was a great victory. As Richard McGinnis described events, "Thus did loyalty and good order that day triumph over confusion and treason, the goodness of our cause, aided and assisted by the blessing of Divine Providence, in some measure help to restore the ancient constitution of our mother country, governed by the best of kings" (Commager and Morris, p. 1007).

The Patriots, of course, had a very different view. Atrocity tales quickly circulated and multiplied until not a single inhabitant of the Wyoming Valley, it seemed, remained alive. Newspapers throughout America reported on the Loyalists refusing quarter to rebel brothers, the roasting of prisoners, the slaughter of babies, and several instances of parricide. Revenge was called for and promised.

Major Butler withdrew from the Wyoming Valley on 8 July, having accomplished his primary purposes of destroying a Patriot stronghold and spreading terror throughout the U.S. frontier. He reported the destruction of one thousand houses and the capture and evacuation of one thousand head of cattle, as well as large numbers of sheep and pigs. Butler reached Tioga on 10 July, and four days later he started for Niagara. Small bands of Indians continued to roam the defenseless settlement, however, destroying crops, burning buildings, and menacing the remaining inhabitants.

A relief column of Connecticut troops led by Captain Simon Spalding was nearly fifty miles away from Wilkes-Barre the day of the battle. When Spalding got within twelve miles of the valley, his scouts reported the enemy was still there in strength, so he wisely withdrew to Stroudsburg. Colonel Butler assembled some settlers and troops and returned to Wilkes-Barre on 3 August. Colonel Thomas Hartley arrived with the Eleventh Pennsylvania Regiment to protect the valley until the crops were salvaged and the enemy threat was gone.

In September came the first of the promised reprisals as 130 patriots under Hartley and Denison, who broke his parole in volunteering to serve, moved up the East Branch of the Susquehanna destroying several Indian villages and taking a few prisoners. They withdrew upon learning that the Indians were massing under Joseph Brant around Unadilla. A few settlers strove to get crops planted even though the season was well advanced, and several were killed in isolated attacks by Indians. It was not until 22 October that the rebel dead were collected on the battleground and buried in a common grave.


Major John Butler deserves his due as a military commander. This fifty-three-year-old officer led his mixed force almost two hundred miles through the wilderness from Niagara, achieving a highly effective surprise. Patriot authorities, civil and military, local and elsewhere, failed to do what they could with available resources, and the militia showed no spirit of courage or sacrifice in organizing its own security before John Butler reached Tioga in overwhelming strength. Zebulon Butler's handling of the situation on 3 July was singularly inept: he and Denison herded their troops forward to be slaughtered by an enemy superior in numbers and quality. John Butler's vigorous pursuit resulted in the tactician's dream: a battle of annihilation. In justice to the officers and men who tried to defend Wyoming Valley on 3 July, it must be reiterated that it was already too late to overcome Butler's tactical surprise.

John Butler always denied that any massacre occurred. In his report, written 12 July at Tioga, he concluded: "But what gives me the sincerest satisfaction is that … not a single person was hurt except such as were in arms, to these in truth the Indians gave no quarter" (Swiggett, p. 133). However, the treatment of prisoners after the battle, though grotesquely exaggerated, spread the perception of barbaric treatment and fed popular demands for retribution. The virulence of frontier warfare accelerated after July 1778.

SEE ALSO Butler, John; Butler, Zebulon; Denison, Nathan; Monmouth, New Jersey; Spalding, Simon; St. Leger's Expedition.


Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Mancall, Peter C. Valley of Opportunity: Economic Culture along the Susquehanna, 1700–1800. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991

Smith, Page. A New Age Now Begins. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Swiggett, Howard. War out of Niagara: Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1933.

                            revised by Michael Bellesiles

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