The Wyoming Valley massacre

Wyoming Forts rev
From George Peck’s Wyoming: Its History, Stirring Incidents, and Romantic Adventures (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1858).

Many years ago, during a visit with my wife to her maternal grandparents, her grandfather asked if we could deliver some books which he had sold to a bookshop in Boston. He had worked on his family’s genealogy since he was a young man, beginning about 1900, and he was culling books from his library.

When we returned home I browsed through the books. One had several accounts of attacks on settlers by Indians but, not really understanding the relevance to his research, I put the book down and later in the week delivered the books as promised.

After his death some years later, we received copies of his research. Included among his papers were biographies of each of his immigrant ancestors and an excerpt from a book chronicling the history of Hanover Township and the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania.

One of the settlers of Wyoming Valley was his ancestor, Elijah Inman. Elijah lost three sons as a result of the massacre on 3 July 1778; another was killed by Indians in the fall of the same year. Some estimate those killed as a result of the massacre and its aftermath at more than 300.

They were at war with Pennsylvania residents and with the British and Indians…

The most fascinating aspect to this story, however, is the sequence of events which led up to, and undoubtedly was responsible for, the massacre in 1778. The people of the Wyoming Valley, in Pennsylvania, considered themselves Connecticut citizens in a county which was created by the Connecticut legislature. They were at war with Pennsylvania residents and then with the British and Indians during the Revolution.

To understand the events leading to this situation, one needs to look back at the original charter to Plymouth Company, granted 3 November 1620 by King James I. The grant included all land “from the fortieth to the forty-sixth latitude from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean“!

By the 1700s, Connecticut was well settled and explorers were looking for new areas to colonize. Reports from the Wyoming Valley indicated that the land along the Susquehanna River was both fertile and unoccupied by white settlers. The charter of Connecticut made in March 1621 was derived from the charter to the Plymouth Company. This grant was confirmed by the King in the same year and again by Charles II in 1662. The only exception to this was New Netherland, or New York, which was occupied by the Dutch.

In 1753 the newly formed Susquehanna Company felt that, since Wyoming Valley was at the forty-first latitude, they were well within their right to found Connecticut townships there. The fact that, in about 1671, the English king granted William Penn a Pennsylvania charter which overlapped the Connecticut lands did not seem to concern the Susquehanna Company, and this unfortunate oversight became the basis for feuding between residents of the two states.

But first the Company was required to purchase the land from the Indians so that they might not come in conflict with them. To that end, in 1754 they sent a commission to Albany to meet with the great council of Six Nations. As the meeting was not secret, the governor of Pennsylvania sent a delegation to Albany in an attempt to prevent the purchase. Despite their efforts the purchase was effected. Five hundred and thirty-six purchasers were named. Most were residents of Connecticut but the group included some residents of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania.

The first year proved bountiful. The soil was fertile and the crops abundant.

The French and Indian War prevented the Company from sending the settlers to the area until 1762, when about a hundred men arrived and began clearing the land for planting. The first year proved bountiful. The soil was fertile and the crops abundant. Suddenly and without warning, Indians attacked them; as the settlers were totally unprepared for such an event, 20 men were killed and the remaining settlers scattered, fleeing in disarray back to their original homes destitute of food or clothing.

It would be six years before Connecticut attempted reoccupation of the land. In this intervening period the “Pennsylvania proprietors” met with four Indian chiefs to purchase the disputed territory. In February 1769 Connecticut sent forty men back to the Wyoming Valley to be followed by 200 more. When they arrived they found the area occupied and well-fortified by the lessees of the Pennsylvania proprietors. The interlopers were arrested, then released and forced to make their way home through the wilderness without the possessions they had brought with them. At least three more times during the following years the Yankees stubbornly tried to retake the property they had purchased. With an increase of settlers, and suffering significant hardships, they were eventually successful, but not without loss of life on both sides.

The Connecticut colony in Pennsylvania prospered and grew in numbers. The Connecticut Legislative Assembly attempted to reconcile with Pennsylvania but the governor refused all of their entreaties. The Assembly then made a case for their cause and in 1773 transmitted it to four jurists in England who were famous for their knowledge of the law. Their opinion was returned unanimously in favor of the Wyoming colonists. Emboldened by this, the Connecticut General Assembly the following year established the town of Wyoming [today’s Westmoreland] under the auspices of Litchfield County in Connecticut. A census was taken the following year and it was found that the town had 1,922 inhabitants.

By 1775 relations with the local Indians had again deteriorated, and war with England was looking likely. Due to the difficulties of conducting court business in Litchfield County, which was 200 miles away, in November of 1776 the Connecticut Legislature created the new county of Westmoreland for the Wyoming Valley.

This order was promptly obeyed, leaving the town almost totally defenseless.

The county decided to prepare for the possibility of war by raising a militia and building forts for protection. The new United States Congress also ordered that two companies be raised in Westmoreland County and “stationed in proper places in defense of the inhabitants.” Equipping themselves, two companies of eighty-two men each were organized and officers chosen. However, when the British took New York the two companies were ordered to join General Washington “with all possible expedition.” This order was promptly obeyed, leaving the town almost totally defenseless.

In 1777, the Indians of the Six Nations became allies of the English, putting Westmoreland County in a precarious position. Further enlistments had been made taking an additional 300 men to the war in the east, leaving only women, children, and old men to defend themselves. Applications for help to both Connecticut and Congress fell on deaf ears. An order was given by Congress for Westmoreland County to raise a company of men from their town, one supplying its own blankets, guns, and ammunition. Without men or weapons, this was an empty order. Women sent word to brothers, fathers, and husbands to return to their defense. Only about twenty officers and soldiers left their positions to return.

On about 30 June 1778 about 400 British troops, along with six or seven hundred Indians, entered the northern part of the Wyoming Valley and took one of the forts without resistance. The remaining settlers had put together a small army of 300 – mostly old men and boys. They, along with wives and children, gathered at Forty Fort on the east side of the river. A decision was made to take an offensive position and attack the British forces. While they fought bravely, the small army was vastly outnumbered and easily surrounded. Some escaped, but the majority were killed or captured; virtually all those captured were killed as well.

By his own account the British officer in charge stated that 227 scalps were taken that day and only five prisoners. Of those five, only two are known to have survived the battle.

After the massacre, those in Forty Fort had no choice but to surrender. Contrary to the promises of the British officer in command, the Indians ransacked and plundered the remaining possessions in the cabins of the women, children, and old men. Following rumors of another impending massacre, the residents once again fled the valley, some perishing from hunger and exposure. In the fall they returned to find the bodies of their neighbors still lying in the fields where they died. These were gathered up and buried in two mass graves.

[The] issue of control of the township remained.

Eventually, colonial troops disbursed the Indian encampments and drove them further west, but the issue of control of the township remained. In December of 1782 both Connecticut and Pennsylvania submitted the matter to arbitration, where it was decided that Pennsylvania had rightful claim to the territory. The settlers expected this decision and cared not what state they resided in as long as they were entitled to keep the land they had homesteaded. But the state of Pennsylvania had other plans and ordered them expelled, giving them time to leave but no compensation for their property.

Conflict was renewed, skirmishes ensued, and lives were lost on both sides. An assault by the Pennsylvanians resulted in the death of one of their own. This was the last blood shed during this long conflict. On 15 September 1784, the Legislative Assembly of Pennsylvania “ordered the settlers to be restored of their possessions.” Thus, the long and bloody disagreement over the lands in the Wyoming Valley effectively came to an end.

 

Sources

George Peck, Wyoming: Its History, Stirring Incidents, and Romantic Adventures (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1858)

Henry Blackman Plumb, History of Hanover Township: including Sugar Notch, Ashley and Nanticoke Boroughs: and also a History of Wyoming Valley, in Lucerne County, Pennsylvania (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: R. Baur, 1885)

Donna Bingham Munger, Connecticut’s Pennsylvania “Colony,” 1754–1810: Susquehanna Company proprietors, settlers and claimants (Westminster, Md.: Heritage Books, 2007)

Charles Miner, A History of Wyoming, in a series of letters, from Charles Miner, to his son William Penn Miner (Philadelphia: J. Crissy, 1845)

Tom Dreyer

About Tom Dreyer

Tom has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Boston University. He has been a genealogical researcher for the past thirty years. His areas of interest are New England, Nebraska, Missouri and Germany

35 thoughts on “The Wyoming Valley massacre

  1. Tom, your surname is well known to us as in our younger days we had friends who came from Wayne Co., PA they had two sons, one of them “Tom.” I know this is a long shot but wondering if your parents were from PA.

    1. My parents were both from Nebraska and my father’s paternal grandfather immigrated to Missouri. No family in Pennsylvania that I am aware of, but the Dreyer name is more common in Germany.

  2. Thank you for your insight. I am in the midst of researching my families (Wheeler and Desha among others) from the Wyoming Valley right now. They were caught up in the land disputes with the Susquehanna Company, and the Indian warfare that took place after the French and Indian War. Very heart breaking what everyone went through to protect their land.

  3. Elijah Inmans son Lieut. Elijah Inman JR, was the first husband of my 4x great grandmother, Sarah Walker. He was killed at the Battle of Wyoming, and after the Revolutionary War was over, she married my 4x great grandfather, Sgt John Ryon when he returned to the Wyoming Valley. They were the parents of my 3x great-grandfather Judge John Ryon Jr. My 5x great grandfather, Lieut Col George Dorrance was taken prisoner at the Battle of Wyoming, and was murdered by Indians on July 4, 1778.

  4. My 3xgrtgrandmother and her children were in Forty Fort. Her husband, Silas Gore, was one of the men who came back from the war to defend the fort. He was killed. Keziah and I presume, her children, (not stated in accounts) escaped in canoes down river to Wilkes-Barre. My 3xgrt grandfather, Benjamin Clark’s children were in the fort with their grandparents (names unknown). Their mother had died and Benjamin had joined up.
    After the war Benjamin and Keziah married and moved upriver to Ulster and settled there.
    There is a lot of information in the Susquehanna Company volumes. The U of Washington has them.

    1. Many thanks that was a great resource. I have already located it and will see what I can do to access it. I am also a direct descendent of Zebulon PARRISH was one of the original settlers. I’ve been researching my families story as well

  5. The land companies and the processes that established occupancy of the original colonial grants pre-war and post-war, is an interesting topic. It was news to me that Massachusetts and Connecticut and Virginia were originally granted as bands from sea-to-(unknown) sea. I had settlers who had to go to court after the Revolutionary War to validate their own purchase from native Americans and avoid eviction at Owego, N.Y.

    1. Donna Munger’s book which is in my list of sources has both proprietors and deed holders for Wyoming Valley along with the dates and townships. Also, another source which I did not list, which contains similar information and much more, is the set of volumes of The Susquehanna Papers edited by Julian P. Boyd and published by the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society in 1930. I don’t believe these are available on line but we have volumes 1-4,7 and 11 on our shelves here at the library.

    2. The Wisconsin State Historical Library in Madison has some great references including a book with all the CT settlers in the Wyoming Valley. Lots more than Wisconsin history and a go to resource for anyone.

  6. Tom, Thank your for your thorough job with the material. I spent plenty of time with the material in exploring my wife’s Sutliff ancestors who are still found in the Shickshinny area. The Bloomingdale PA cemetery is full of them. Few farms remain and fracking does not offer much promise today.

  7. In am descended directly from John Gardner who was murdered by the Indians in Painted Post, NY. His children founded Ransom and Newton Twps. in what is now Lackawanna Co. I am also descended from Capt. Stephen Harding who married into the Gardner family.

  8. Hello thanks so much for this article. Like others who have left you notes my family descends from the settlers. My grandfather some generations back was captain Zebulon Parrish. He and his sons Stephen and Jasper were kidnapped by the Tories and the Native Americans who invaded the camp and assaulted The settlers. My grandfather and Stephen We’re trying to warn the villages when they were captured and then kidnapped They were held until just after the end of the Revolutionary war. Jasper PARRISH was kept roughly 9 years. Records of his release and his later efforts to help make peace with the six tribes in the six tribes treaty are at Vassar. The letters of Charles Miner are in a book you can get online and they list all of the settlers love of the details of these events and have a map of the land holdings. If you read David Hackett Fischers Book Washington’s Crossing you’ll get an idea of why Washington left so many settlers un protected and took away their troops. You will also know the story of why they were gone for so long and how the settlers were killed in the early spring when they were at their weakest from a long winter. Online you can find Washington’s letter to Sullivan when he sent him to destroy the six tribes who were part of this assault. The letter is chilling and uncharacteristic of Washington who is normally pretty dispassionate And if you look at mewspapers they were written during this time you will see that the country was up in arms and it inspired many people to decide to fight for the revolutionary cause. These were major tipping point events. And to the penny a pound with you read accounts of these events written by Pennsylvania historians or Connecticut his story and you will get a very different account and a very different perspective. It is worth reading both. I am still tracking down where my great-grandmother generations back and her many children stayed when they escaped through the Pocono Mountains. There are some amazing narratives of that escape written by the wives and mothers of those children Currently I have reason to believe that hey may have gone to orange county New York. My great-grandfather is buried In little Britain New York by the home of the Clinton family near Washington’s headquarters in Newburgh. Only a few months ago I didn’t know any of this. It has been a revelation. I am looking forward to learning so much more. I hope you will all keep sending your stories so I can read them I have spent months searching for these stories. I hope my story help some of you with your search. . “Sam”

    1. Sam,
      You are right. There is so much more to this story that wasn’t possible to be included in a blog posting. I will look at some of your suggestions and thank you for your comments

  9. Brent Downing, one of my Compatriots in the Rochester, New York Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution is a descendant of Ensign Downing, a survivor of the Wyoming Valley Massacre. The main part of the force sent to attack the settlers there passed through our area, up the Genesee River and Canaseraga Creek, over the watershed into the tributaries of the Susquehanna River and down into the Wyoming Valley. Don Troiani did a dramatic painting of this event several years ago for Brent that he sometimes brings to our talks to school groups.

  10. Thank you for a most interesting article! My fourth great-grandfather Robert Fulton served as a ranger on the frontier in the Westmoreland County militia during the revolution, his family having come to that county from Articlave, Northern Ireland, in 1772.

  11. I periodically work at filling in some gaps in the migration narrative of one of my lines, who migrated from CT to TN/KY in the mid to late 1700s, but not much info about route or possible stops along the way. Not long ago I learned that my 4th ggm died in SE PA. I do not know yet if this was a trail death or if they had settled there. Subsequently my 4th ggf and his youngest son migrated to Tenn where the younger son married, though at an older age than usual. Some descendants conjecture that he had a previous marriage, but no evidence (and as youngest son, he may simply have taken on the traditional role of caretaker of parents). Other sons scattered to various states. This seemed odd to me, given that the family seemed to stay close until then. This article is giving me some insights into what may have been going on. I am adding Munger to my list of must-check resources. Thank you for the information you’ve pulled together. I think you may have saved me a good bit of muddling about. Even if it doesn’t bear fruit directly, I think it will open up doors for additional research.

  12. This was an interesting article. I found out through one of my Mom’s cousins a few years back that one of their paternal 5x great Grandfathers, Nathan Wade, originally from CT, was one of the casualties of the Battle of Wyoming. Nathan’s son (also Nathan) had a daughter Amy (who married Henry Siveley), so Amy is our family’s connection to the Wades. Back in the 50’s, being a descendant of one of the Connecticut Settlers was a big deal in Kingston & Forty Fort. Neither of Mom nor her cousin knew this back then…

  13. For many years I wondered why my great(4)-grandfather MILES OAKLEY in his application for a pension for his Revolutionary War service listed his residences as Fairfield, Connecticut; Alleghany, New York; and Washington and Meigs, Ohio, while his daughter (my great(3)-grandmother) LYDIA COOPER is in the census records of Richland County, Ohio, in 1850 and 1860 (as ages 44 and 61) with her birthplace given as Pennsylvania. Why was she born in Pennsylvania when her parents never lived there?

    I asked my question in a casual conversation at DAR Continental Congress in 2014 and was told by other members about the land dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania. One of them told me about the multi-volume set The Susquehannah Company Papers in the DAR Library. Miles Oakley appears in volume 11, page 194, on “A List of the names of Persons residing on Tawandee Creek who relinquished to Thomas Smiley but from whome the papers were taken and burned, by a mob on the 8th of July 1801.” Later that summer I visited Allegany County, New York; Bradford County, Pennsylvania; and Litchfield County, Connecticut to see what more I could learn about Miles Oakley.

    Incidentally, Miles Oakley married EUNICE BENNETT and is a son-in-law of DANIEL BENNETT whose home in Barhkamsted, Connecticut, is now known as Squire’s Tavern and is the museum of the Barkhamsted Historical Society.

  14. This article was very interesting to me as my husband’s ancestor, Daniel Washburn (1763-1846), escaped from Forty Fort in a raft….I have a full transcript (with all misspellings intact!) of his account if others are interested…..”we heard the report of the enemy shooting at the Wilkesberre fort and knew it to be the enemy we then got aboard of our rail raft my father and Mother, Caleb and 2 children and Mrs Woodring and her 5 children takeing with us provisions to last us to cross the blue Mountains we then set sail with our rail raft and went on very well till we got to nanticoke falls when we saw 2 boats fast on a rock they called to us to help the loose, there were in these boats men women and children we then landed our raft on the Shawny side we then went and helped them losse and helpt them below the rifts safe….”

    1. I am a descendant of the Woodrings (many many spellings). I have wondered how the family of William Woodring escape so that eventually I would be born. Mrs. Woodring would be Christerina Kocher Woodring. My grandmother, Florence Woodring Cochran was the daughter of Edward Woodring, 4xgrtdescendent of William Woodring, That sounds like how his family escaped. I would love to have the transcript. On the monument the spelling is William Woodringer.
      William’s parents were Abraham Vautrin, (Wotring, Woodring) and Marie Margaretha Mertz.

        1. One of the reasons for the interest, is because I have a paragraph that states, “William’s family, wife and children fled to safety with Daniel Andreas and his family.”

  15. My ancestor, William Brink( or Brinck), was of Dutch origin. The family was from Wageningen, Gelderland, Holland. The early family records of baptisms and marriages are found in Kingston, NY. The family ended up living in an area called Minisink which is generally located in western New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. The settlers baptized their children at Walpeck, New Jersey located on the Delaware River. William Brink gave a sworn statement regarding the Wyoming Valley on 27 July 1784. This deposition is from the Papers of the Continental Congress, publication M247, Papers Relating to Claims of Territory by Pennsylvania and Connecticut 1780-85. The deposition says that William Brink was “one of the Constables near Wyoming, and for the Shawanese Township in the County of Northumberland and State of Pennsylvania”. Details are stated regarding the circumstances of various people which might be interesting to others.

  16. Fascinating bit of US history! My 4th great grandfather (Benjamin Hungerford) was a member of the Susquehanna Company of Bristol CT and “owned” land in the Wyoming. His son, Stephen (3rd great grandfather) settled that land. I am hoping to do more research on it when we visit the area as well as when we are able to make a trip to the NEGHS library. I suspect there may also be some related records in the Congregational Library in Boston. Thanks for the references which I will definitely be adding to my TODO list!

  17. Thank you for this article. My ancestor Samuel Williams of CT was killed in this massacre his wife and daughter (from whom I’m descended) managed to survive by means of a difficult escape.

    1. John, I am also a descendant of Samuel Williams’ daughter and trying to find more information about our family history. Can you contact me?

  18. Thanks for putting together this overview and background of the settlement of the Wyoming Valley explaining what led to the Wyoming Massacre. My wife’s direct paternal line ancestor was an early Wyoming Valley settler from Connecticut named Daniel Spencer. Family tradition recorded in H.C. Bradsby’s 1893 “History of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania” claims Daniel Spencer “participated in the defense of the fort at the time of the Wyoming Massacre, and caused several Indians to ‘bite the dust.'” Daniel was born in Farmington, Connecticut, in 1761, so if he was really a survivor of the Wyoming Massacre, he would have been 17 at the time. On the face of it, it’s a plausible story . . . .

    Daniel’s Revolutionary War pension file, however, contradicts this family tradition. In his pension file, Daniel said “July 1778 served two months in the drafted Connecticut Malitia (sic) under Capt Stoddard in the regiment of Col. Moseley – marched to White Plains – from there to West Point staid there two months – Got a written discharge It is lost.” Obviously Daniel could not have been at Forty Fort at the time of the massacre if he was then serving in the Connecticut militia. I expect the tradition recorded in Bradsby’s book was a false recollection or embellishment of Daniel’s children and grandchildren, who knew he served in the Revolution and knew he was an early Wyoming Valley settler (he signed the Petition of the Connecticut Settlers to the Connecticut General Assembly, dated 13 Sept. 1796), but otherwise probably didn’t recall the details of his war-time experiences.

    I go into this and other details of Daniel Spencer’s life here (and I’ve added a hyperlink to Tom Dreyer’s helpful essay too):

    http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~fesschequy/Spencer3.html

    1. Hello In response to your concerns that your family could not both have lived in the Wyoming Valley and served in the revolutionary war for Connecticut — this may not need to concern you. Both things can be true. I wrote in an earlier set of comments that in a book by David Hackett Fischer regarding Washington’s Crossing it mentions that troops guarding various settlements were called up from all over the colonies. In fact The troops guarding the fort you mentioned in the Wyoming Valley were called up by Washington as part of his move to cross the Delaware. They were kept by Washington until later in the spring. Which means they weren’t there to defend their forte and protect the colonists That would explain why they weren’t there during the massacre. You might check to see if his group was called up by Washington or one of the other commanders in charge of the revolutionary forces. I hope this proves to be useful. It’s possible that the Connecticut historical society might be of help to you. Sam

  19. I love all the comments people have been adding to this post. I learned recently that those people who escaped through the Pocono Mountains and ended up in orange county in the town of Minisink were later attacked again. I suggest the person who mentioned this town look up the battle of minisink.

    In addition, I was able to obtain some maps of the area from the 1700s. And I saw one that just went up for auction a couple weeks ago that is of this area at the time of this event and the map is covered with notes. It shows the route that Native Americans would’ve used along with the British to attack. It shows the root of the sullivan expedition at Washington sent in retaliation for the attack. It also shows some of the paths that escaping settlers used. There are numerous notes with lots and lots of information. I am attaching a link so you all can take a look at it. I suggest clicking on the highest resolution image so you can read all the really great captions I hope you find this is exciting and useful as I did

    Sam

    https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mitchell_Map-06full2.jpg#mw-jump-to-license

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