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US History E-Text > The Revolution: Frontier, Ocean, and South > Wyoming Valley

In north-central Pennsylvania there lies a beautiful valley, nestled between two mountain ranges that rise high on either side, as if nature had chosen to guard the lovely spot from the outer world. This valley of Wyoming, watered by the sparkling Susquehanna that winds among the hills like a belt of silver, seems from a distant view like a dream of Eden; and yet this beautiful spot, where "all save the spirit of man was divine," became the scene of the most fiendish massacre of the long and bloody war.

The Wyoming Valley was claimed by Connecticut by right of her charter of 1662, and her people had begun settling there more than a decade before the war with England began. Pennsylvania also claimed this territory, and there was strife between the sister colonies; but the family quarrel was hushed for a season in the presence of a common foe.

It was midsummer, 1778, less than a week after the battle of Monmouth, when a force of eight hundred Tories and Indians1 under Colonel John Butler swooped down from New York upon the settlement of New Englanders in the Wyoming Valley. The settlers, dwelling mostly in peaceful hamlets with their schools and churches, numbered something more than three thousand souls; but they were ill prepared for defense, as most of their young men had joined the Continental army. Nevertheless, a force of some three hundred men, commanded by Colonel Zebulon Butler, a resident of the valley, offered battle on July 3, near the site of Wilkesbarre.

After an hour of fierce fighting, the Americans broke and fled for their lives, but more than half of them were slain in the battle or in the massacre that followed. The British commander afterward reported the taking of "227 scalps," and of course laid all the blame on the Indians. During the night the Indian thirst for blood seemed to increase, and next day they began anew the massacre. Dreadful was the scene in the Wyoming Valley on that fateful day. The fort in which many had taken refuge surrendered, and the lives of the occupants were spared by the English commander; but the savages put many of the others to the tomahawk. All who could do so fled to the woods, and a large number perished in crossing a swamp, which has since been called the "Shades of Death." Others perished of starvation in the mountains. The country was abandoned for the season, and the blooming valley became a field of desolation.

The barbarities of Wyoming were long attributed to the great Mohawk chieftain, Joseph Brant, whom we have already met at the battle of Oriskany. But he was not present at the Wyoming massacre. Brant, who was known to his own race as Tha-yen-dan-e-gea, was a very remarkable character,2 a full-blooded Mohawk, a man of powerful physique, handsome, affable, and well educated. He was a devoted Episcopalian, served for a time as missionary among his own people, and translated the prayer book into his native tongue.

Brant was passionately devoted to the British cause in the Revolution, but the stories of his heartless cruelty are not generally true. In fact, he spared women and children from the scalping-knife when it was in his power to do so. While Brant was not at the Wyoming massacre, he figured in another scarcely less dreadful at Cherry Valley, Otsego County, New York, in November of the same year. During a heavy storm, a band of Indians led by Brant and of Tories led by Walter Butler, son of the Butler who commanded at Wyoming, fell upon the peaceful settlement without warning. Brant endeavored to save the helpless, but the fiend Butler encouraged the massacre, and thirty-two of the inhabitants, mostly women and children, were barbarously put to death, while sixteen of the garrison had fallen during the siege. After this bloody work was over, the invaders burned the village, drove away the cattle, and carried forty of the people into captivity.

General Washington was exasperated at these continued outrages, and he determined to strike a blow in defense of the northern settlers. He sent General Sullivan into the Indian country with five thousand men. Late in August, 1779, this army met fifteen thousand Tories and Indians, led by Sir John Johnson, the two Butlers, and Brant, at Newtown, on the site of the present city of Elmira. A terrific battle ensued, and the Tories and Indians suffered a fearful defeat, while the American loss was slight. Sullivan then laid waste the country, destroyed the growing crops on all sides, laid more than forty Indian villages in ashes, and returned after a march of seven hundred miles.

For two years longer the settlers were harassed by prowling Indian bands, but the Iroquois as a nation never recovered from the scourge of Sullivan's raid. A similar raid in the Alleghany Valley by Colonel Brodhead, with six hundred men, curbed the Indian power in western Pennsylvania, and henceforth the country was comparatively free from border warfare.


1Some historians say a thousand or more. [return]

2Fiske pronounces Brant the greatest Indian of whom we have any knowledge; but I cannot agree to place him above, or even equal to, Pontiac or Tecumesh. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIV p. 292-294. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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