July 3: Pennsylvania Loyalists Kill 300 Connecticut Patriots in Revolutionary Land Dispute

Today 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 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. To reinforce their claims, each colony had sent settlers to the region. They had fought bitterly for decades over control of the valley.

Once the Revolutionary War began, issues of power and leverage became even more important. Connecticut migrants to the Wyoming Valley avidly supported the patriot cause. Their Pennsylvania neighbors believed a victorious Britain would confirm their claim to the region. Native peoples from the Iroquois nations were divided: while the Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the Continental Army, the remaining four nations chose to fight with Britain. This was a recipe for deadly conflict, and it soon came.

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. The Connecticut migrants were defended by Colonels Zebulon Butler (no relation to the Tory commander) and Nathan Denison with a much smaller force. They were camped at a garrison called Forty Fort, near present-day Wilkes Barre.

To flush the Yankees out of their fortification, the British forces attempted a ruse. They set fires to nearby homes and garrison sites to make it appear they had moved on from the area after setting enemy structures ablaze.

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 secondary ambush by Seneca warriors.

07-03 Wyoming_Monument_2_LuzCo_PA
The Wyoming Monument near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania marks the common grave of victims of the July 3, 1778 massacre.

A call for the Connecticans to retreat triggered confusion and panic. Witnesses claimed 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 Connecticans’ 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 the Connecticut migrants’ 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.


Further Reading

The Susquehanna Settlers,” ConnecticutHistory.org

Connecticut Battles Pennsylvania in the Pennamite Wars, ” New England Historical Society

The Pennamite Wars, ” Society of Colonial Wars


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