On this day in 1778, the Battle of Wyoming – also known as the “Wyoming Massacre” – saw Connecticut troops, Pennsylvania loyalists, British soldiers and Iroquois warriors battle in a gruesome climax to years of land disputes.
Both Connecticut and Pennsylvania claimed the Wyoming Valley – the area around and including today’s Wilkes Barre and Scranton – as their own. Connecticut claimed rights to the region under its 1662 royal charter, which had extended the colony’s territory westward to the Pacific. Pennsylvania also relied on royal warrant, but of a later date, and as each colony sent settlers to the region, they fought bitterly for decades over control of the valley.
Once the Revolutionary War began, issues of power and leverage only became more important. Connecticut migrants to the Wyoming Valley supported the patriot cause, but their Pennsylvania neighbors believed a victorious Britain would confirm their claim to the region. Native peoples from the Iroquois nations divided over allegiance: while the Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the Continental Army, the remaining four nations chose to fight with Britain.
On July 3, 1778, British troops led by Tory Major John Butler (ironically, a Connecticut native), joined with loyalist locals and Iroquois allies to march a thousand men against the Wyoming Valley’s Connectican settlers. TheConnecticut migrants were defended by Colonels Zebulon Butler (no relation to the Tory commander)and Nathan Denison with a much smaller force camped at a garrison called Forty Fort, near present-day Wilkes Barre.
To flush the Yankees out of their fortification, British forces set fires to nearby homes and garrison sites to make it appear as though they had moved on from the area. The decoy worked. The outnumbered Connecticut militia advanced from the safety of their fort only to be surprised and then slaughtered, first by the British and Pennsylvania soldiers and then by a brutal ambush from Seneca warriors.
A call for the Connecticans to retreat triggered confusion and panic. Witnesses claimed that the Seneca pursued the retreaters, killing as many as possible and taking scalps to exchange for a promised British bounty. Casualty reports varied, but the massacre left as many as 300 of the Connectican’s defenders dead.
In the wake of the slaughter, the articles of capitulation offered by the Tory commander and signed by Denison, stipulated that in exchange for a pledge by the Connecticut troops to no longer fight in the Revolution, the local Pennsylvanians would do their utmost to respect private property. Notwithstanding that promise, the Pennsylvania loyalists and Seneca warriors ransacked farms and homes, leading most of the Yankee survivors, to either strike out for new territory or return to Connecticut.
Once the Revolution ended, however, the Yankee settlers came back, and despite a decision by the new United States that the Wyoming Valley belonged to Pennsylvania, the armed conflicts over land claims– which came to be called the Yankee-Pennamite Wars – continued until 1794.
Betsy Golden Kellem
“The Susquehanna Settlers,” ConnecticutHistory.org
“Connecticut Battles Pennsylvania in the Pennamite Wars, ” New England Historical Society
“The Pennamite Wars, ” Society of Colonial Wars