Sunday, March 14, 2021

ARP192 Wyoming Valley Massacre

After the British evacuated Philadelphia, they consolidated their forces around New York City.  By early July, 1778, General Henry Clinton’s army was still settling into New York following the battle of Monmouth in Northern New Jersey.  General Washington moved his Continentals into camps in northern New Jersey where they could challenge any movements by the British out of New York City.

Wyoming Valley Massacre by Alonzo Chappel
Although the British regulars were taking up defensive positions, that did not mean Americans were safe from attack.  British agents had been trying to encourage Indian tribes in Canada, upstate New York, and along all the western frontiers to support the King’s efforts to suppress the rebellion.  The British warned tribal leaders that, unchecked, the colonists would take more of their tribal land.  They also gave some tribes hope of reclaiming lands that had been taken from them, especially to tribes who helped the King during the rebellion.. 

Back in Episodes 151 and 152, I talked about the mostly Native American force that was assembled under General Barry St. Leger to assist Burgoyne’s army by capturing Fort Stanwix in western New York.  That army planned to meet up with the main British army at Albany.  The patriot militia stopped this advance at Oriskany.  Then General Benedict Arnold forced the British and their native allies at Fort Stanwix to flee back to Canada.

That, however, was only one setback in a larger effort to use local tribes.  British agents remained active all along the frontier, trying to encourage warriors to join in a continuing campaign against the rebels. 

John Butler

One such agent was Colonel John Butler, who would form Butler’s Rangers.  Butler had been born in Connecticut, but moved to upstate New York as a boy.  His father, who held a commission as captain in the British Army, settled the family to the Mohawk Valley.  As a teenager, Butler had interacted with the native tribes, getting involved in the fur trade.  He learned to speak several native languages and often found work as an interpreter.  In 1755 he had received a commission as a captain in the newly created Indian Department of the British government.

John Butler
During the French and Indian War, Butler had served as an officer under Indian Agent Sir William Johnson, commanding a native American force of mostly Iroquois warriors.  Following the war, Butler’s venture in fur trading and farming had put him at the head of a wealthy and powerful family in the region.  By the 1770’s Butler had become a prosperous landowner, with over 26,000 acres, the second largest landowner in the area, next only to Sir William Johnson. 

Butler had become a pillar of the community.  He served as a judge, as a representative to the colonial legislature, and a lieutenant colonel in the Tryon County Militia.  After William Johnson’s death, and after Johnson’s successor Guy Johnson traveled to London for an extended time, Butler became acting superintendent of the Iroquois Six Nations.

When the revolution began, Buller spoke up as a leading loyalist.  He soon had to flee to Canada to avoid capture by patriots, although his wife and several of his children were captured.  His family would remain in custody for nearly five years, until they were reunited in 1781 as part of a prisoner exchange.  Going from respected community leader to war refugee only made Butler eager to bring the fight back to New York and put down the rebellion.

When the war began, British policy was to keep the native tribes neutral or to use them primarily as scouts.  Butler was an early advocate of using loyal tribes, like the Iroquois, as warriors in battle.  By 1776, Butler was organizing loyalists and natives to assist with resistance to the Continental Army’s invasion of Canada.  In 1777, he helped to organize the warriors who marched with General St. Leger to capture Fort Stanwix. He was involved in the Battle of Oriskany and subsequent retreat.  

Following the army’s withdrawal to Canada, Butler traveled to Quebec.  There, General Guy Carleton commissioned him to maintain a permanent regiment of loyalists.  Butler organized both loyalist refugees from New York as well as native warriors. The regiment became known as Butler’s Rangers.  Following the capture of Burgoyne’s Army, Butler’s Rangers went into winter camp around Niagara, with plans to go on the offensive again the following spring.  The entry of France into the war, and London’s decision to evacuate Philadelphia and go on the defensive did nothing to deter Butler from launching an offensive with his native forces. In the spring of 1778, they looked south for possible targets to strike.

Wyoming Valley

The Wyoming Valley is a large area in what is today northeastern Pennsylvania, around modern day Scranton.  At the time, control of this area was still a matter of dispute between Pennsylvania and Connecticut. During the colonial era, Royal charters often gave vague or contradictory information on the borders of various colonies.  As a result, colonists often had to fight to assert their legal claims to land.  Connecticut claimed that it was entitled to all of what is today northern Pennsylvania, and even parts of what is today northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. At the same time, Pennsylvania had claimed all that same land, as well as most of what is today western New York.

The Wyoming Valley
King Charles II had granted this land to Connecticut back when the Dutch still controlled New Netherlands, what later became New York.  The grant seemed to be an attempt to challenge Dutch control of the area.  After the British took New York, this grant mattered much less to those in London, since these lands were all now British colonies.  Near the end of his reign, Charles II granted much of the same territory to William Penn.  Since, at the time, the area was controlled by the Susquehannock Indians, no colonists were moving there anyway.

Although the Iroquois lived further north in New York, they asserted control over the natives living in the Wyoming Valley.  Those tribes living in the area were not members of the Six Nations, but did speak Iroquois.  In asserting its claims to the land, Connecticut made a deal with the Iroquois for control of the Wyoming Valley and the right to settle there.  

They signed the agreement just before the French and Indian war began.  With the outbreak of war, Connecticut did not really try to settle the area.  Near the end of the war, the local Delaware under Teedyuscung resisted encroachment by settlers.  As I discussed way back in Episode 18, Teedyuscung had been attempting to broker a deal with Pennsylvania to keep the valley for the local tribes.  After Teedyuscung was killed, probably by fellow Indians who opposed his attempts to start a war, his son massacred a small outpost of about 40 Connecticut settlers in the valley.  The attackers tortured and then murdered ten of the men to send a message that settlers were not welcome.

The attack had its intended effect as Connecticut did not send any more settlers in the years following the war.  Later, the Iroquois reneged on their deal with Connecticut and sold the land again to Pennsylvania. 

Land Claims around Pennsylvania
Colonists from Pennsylvania, known as Pennamites, began to settle the Wyoming Valley in the 1760’s, mostly in relatively isolated farms along the Susquehanna River.  Alarmed by this development, Connecticut Yankees once again formed their own colonization plan, establishing the town of Wilkes-Barre in 1767.  This kicked off what is known as the first Pennamite-Yankee War in 1769.  Pennsylvania militia tried to force the Connecticut settlers to leave.  Both sides established forts, had guns, and tried to force their will on the other, but it was not really a full-scale war.  Only three people were killed over two years.  The violence, however, once again largely deterred further immigration from Connecticut.

In 1771, King George III confirmed Connecticut’s claim to the land.  Things remained relatively calm for a few years.  Then in 1773, with the support of the King’s Privy Council ruling, Connecticut sent another group of colonists who founded the town of Westmoreland.  Once again, Pennamites resisted what they saw as an incursion on land that they owned.  

In 1775 the fighting flared up again in what became known as the Second Pennamite-Yankee War.  On Christmas Day, 1775, a Pennamite force of about 600 militia attacked a Connecticut fort at what became known as the Battle of Rampart Rocks.  The Yankee defenders managed to hold off the assault and keep their position. This motivated the Connecticut legislature to establish Westmoreland County which soon grew to a population of over 3000 Connecticut transplants.

When the revolution began, most of the Connecticut Yankees joined with the patriots, while the Pennamites largely backed the loyalists.  Aware of this division, Colonel Butler attempted to recruit Pennamite loyalists to attack the Connecticut outposts in the Wyoming Valley.  When local loyalists combined with Butler’s Rangers, who were New York loyalists, and with the Seneca and Delaware warriors, they created an imposing force for the region.

Forty Fort
Connecticut militia in the Wyoming Valley had four forts with only a few hundred militia to garrison them in times of emergency.  These were Wilkes-Barre, Forty, Wintermoot, and Jenkins.  None of them were of a substantial size to fight off a large army.  These were more stockades designed to provide some protection against smaller attacks that were common in the ongoing fighting between the Yankees and Pennamites, 

The patriots in the area were already at lower strength.  Many of the Connecticut militia in the area had already volunteered with the Continental Army and were off fighting in New Jersey.  Those who remained behind, were often younger or older men who could not endure the longer military campaigns. This reduced militia would quickly find themselves well outnumbered. 

On June 28, the same day as the Battle of Monmouth, an advance team from Butler’s column attacked a gristmill, capturing and later killing three locals.   A few days later, Butler’s force of over 600 men arrived, supported by another 400 or so local Pennamite loyalists.

Butler’s first action in the area was to demand the surrender of Fort Wintermoot.  The garrison had to surrender their arms and supplies but was permitted to leave on the promise that they not take up arms again for the remainder of the war.  The small garrison surrendered the fort and departed.  Following that, Butler sent a messenger to nearby Fort Forty to demand the surrender of that garrison as well.  Fort Forty was named for the Forty settlers from Connecticut who had built it years earlier.

The Battle

At Fort Forty, Colonel Zebulon Butler, no relation to the British commander John Butler, commanded a militia force of about 350-400 patriots.  Zebulon was also a veteran of the French and Indian War.  He had come to the Wyoming Valley in 1769 from Connecticut.  He had fought the Pennamites in the earlier disputes, capturing Fort Wyoming in 1771, and leading the successful defense at Rampart Rocks in 1775.  Butler was actually a Continental colonel from the Second Connecticut Regiment.  He happened to be home on leave and attempting to recruit more volunteers for the Continental Army when the war came to his home in the Wyoming Valley.  Given his rank and experience, Zebulon took command of the efforts to defend against the invasion.

At a council of war, the more senior officers wanted to wait for more reinforcements. Others, however, wanted to attack right away.  As I said, most men of prime fighting age were already away in the Continental Army.  The militia was largely made up of men too old or too young to serve on campaigns.  The older men wanted to await more reinforcements.  They expected the arrival of at least 100 more neighboring militia shortly, and had also sent riders to Philadelphia to get Continental support. They also had no good intelligence on how large a force they actually faced. The experienced Butler agreed with this group and cautioned restraint.

Others, however, strongly advocated for an immediate attack against the invaders, particularly among the younger soldiers.  They called Butler a coward and said they would march without him if he did not want to fight.  In the end, those calling for an immediate attack prevailed.  On July 3, 1778, a force of nearly 400 Yankee militia marched toward Fort Wintermoot.  At the time it seemed the plan was to get near the fort but then form a defensive line to determine just how large a force they would be facing.  As they approached the fort, a few men announced they were marching into a trap and fell out of the column.

Back at the fort, the British force received word of the advancing enemy column.  The British commander at Fort Wintermoot ordered it burned but then formed his men outside the fort mostly in the woods to prevent the enemy from counting their numbers.  He sent his Indian warriors to hide in the forest near the fort. The American militia saw the fort on fire, and took it as an indication that the British were abandoning the fort and retreating.  They quickened their pace to catch up with the British.  They hoped to find a retreating column that they could hit in the rear.

That, however, is not what they found.  As they approached the burning fort, the attackers indicated that they were aware that the enemy was still in the area, and called on them to show themselves on the field.  The undisciplined Yankee militia began firing from about 200 yards as they advanced on the British line, too far to hit anything.  By some accounts the Yankees fired at least three volleys as they advanced, with almost no effect. 

When they got to within about 100 yards, Rangers rose up and fired back. The Seneca warriors rose up from their position on the right flank, fired and then with loud war whoops charged at the militia.  The Americans panicked at the surprise of charging Indians.  Field commanders attempted to keep the lines formed and face both the rangers and the Indians.  The militia, at least by some accounts, tried to hold their lines, but were quickly overrun. They turned and fled the field in disorder.  The entire engagement had lasted only about 30-45 minutes. 

Only a small portion of the nearly 400 the American forces escaped the field that day.  About 60 men were able to outrun the attack by the Rangers and Indians.  The rest were either killed or captured.  We don’t know how many died on the field, because those who were captured did not remain prisoners very long. 


As with many battles between loyalists and patriots, or between settlers and Indians, combatants showed little respect for the enemy’s life or for any rules of warfare.  Many years after the battle, a historian wrote down accounts based on oral history. He recounted what happened next:

Men were transformed into demons, and while Indian marksman skillfully wounded the flying Yankees in the thigh bone, thus disabling them yet saving them for future Tories, both Tories and Indians clubbed and scalped them as they tried to conceal themselves near by or in the water. 

Battle of Wyoming
Many of the Yankees fled into a nearby swamp, or dove into the Susquehanna River, seeking to hide themselves from their pursuers.  But the Tories and Indians followed after them, killing them without mercy.  One account is of a militiaman named Henry Pencil, who hid in the willows after being wounded by an Indian arrow. His brother John, who was fighting with the loyalists, found his wounded brother. Henry, cried for his brother to spare him.  John replied, “’Mighty well, but you are a damned rebel.” He raised his musket and shot him dead.  The writer commented  “Even the Indians were struck with horror at this deed.”  Others reported lancing men in the river, allowing their corpses to float away.

Even soldiers who were not killed immediately on the field did not fare any better.  Over the course of the night, the loyalists and Indians tortured and murdered their prisoners. 

One account describes militia Captain James Bidlack.  His captors threw him into a campfire that night, then held him down with pitchforks as the screaming and struggling man burned to death.  Another account reports of an Indian Queen named Esther who forced 18 prisoners to kneel around a rock.  She chanted and danced as she bashed out the brains of each victim one at a time.

In the end, the British reported only five prisoners surviving the night.  The British commander reported that his men took 227 scalps. Many more missing were also likely killed.  British casualties amounted to two loyalists and one Indian killed, and another eight Indians wounded.


The following day, the locals surrendered Fort Forty and two other small forts. The Rangers disarmed the garrisons and permitted them parole.  The British commander said little about the massacre of prisoners in his reports, but did stress that non-combatant women and children were treated with utmost dignity.

Of course, that meant they were allowed to live, but not much else.  Over the next few days, the loyalist forces destroyed over 1000 houses and barns in the area, forcing all the patriot inhabitants to flee with almost nothing.  They confiscated all property, including thousands of cattle, sheep, and horses as well as harvested grain.  What they could not carry away, they destroyed. The effort had the intended effect. It forced virtually all surviving Connecticut settlers or others who backed the patriot cause, to abandon the Wyoming Valley.

The massacre became a rallying cry for the patriots.  It would eventually lead to retribution, but that would happen the following year and will be the topic of a future episode.  The Seneca later strongly denied the accusations of atrocities.  Whether true or not, the stories of the atrocities had the effect of spreading fear and a desire for revenge among the patriots. 

Next week, we return to Philadelphia as Silas Deane attempts to clear his name before Congress.

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Next Episode 193 Silas Dean Hearings 

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Further Reading


John Butler:

Indians of Pennsylvania:

Early Days in the Wyoming Valley:

Verenna, Thomas “Connecticut Yankees in a Pennamite’s Fort” Journal of the American Revolution, 2014.

Connecticut Battles Pennsylvania in the Pennamite Wars:

Zebulon Butler:

Battle of Wyoming:

The Battle of Wyoming Valley (Massacre)

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Hayden, Horace E. The Massacre of Wyoming. The Acts of Congress for the Defense of the Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania, 1776-1778: with the Petitions of the Sufferers by the Massacre of July 3, 1778, for Congressional Aid, Wilkes-Barre Historical and Geological Society, 1895.

Peck, George Wyoming, its history, stirring incidents, and romantic adventures, New York: Harper, 1868. 

Sipe, C. Hall The Indian Wars of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg: Telegraph Press, 1929. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Commager, Henry Steele Commager (Ed) and Richard B. Morris (Ed) The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants, 2002.  

Frederick J. Stefon, "The Wyoming Valley," in Beyond Philadelphia: The American Revolution in the Pennsylvania Hinterland, John B. Frantz and William Pencak, eds. (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1998): 144-149.

James R. Williamson and Linda A. Fossler, Zebulon Butler: Hero of the Revolutionary Frontier Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1995 (Book recommendation of the week). 

Watt, Gavin K. Fire and Desolation: The Revolutionary War’s 1778 Campaign as Waged from Quebec and Niagara Against the American Frontiers, Dundurn, 2017.

Williams, Glenn F. Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois, Westholme, 2005.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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