What was the Battle of Wyoming (1778)?


The Battle of Wyoming (also known as the Wyoming Massacre) was an encounter during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) between American Patriots and Loyalists accompanied by Iroquois raiders which took place in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania on 03 July 1778, in Exeter and Wyoming, Pennsylvania. More than 300 Patriots were killed in the battle.

After the battle, settlers claimed that the Iroquois raiders had hunted and killed fleeing Patriots, then committed ritual torture against 30 to 40 who had surrendered, until they died.

The Battle

In 1777, British general John Burgoyne led the Saratoga campaign to gain control of the Hudson River during the American Revolutionary War. He was weakened by loss of time and men after the Battle of Oriskany and was forced to surrender after the Battles of Saratoga in October. News of his surrender prompted France to enter the war as an American ally. The British were concerned that the French might attempt to retake parts of New France which they had lost in the French and Indian War, so they adopted a defensive strategy in Quebec. They recruited Loyalists and enlisted Indian allies to conduct a frontier war along the northern and western borders of the Thirteen Colonies.

Colonel John Butler recruited a regiment of Loyalists, Seneca chiefs Sayenqueraghta and Cornplanter recruited primarily Seneca warriors, and Joseph Brant recruited mostly Mohawks, for a guerrilla war against the American frontier settlers. By April 1778, the Senecas were raiding settlements along the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers, and the three groups met at the Indian village of Tioga, New York, in early June. Butler and the Senecas decided to attack the Wyoming Valley, while Brant and the Mohawks targeted settlements farther north.

American military leaders, including George Washington and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, sought to recruit Iroquois primarily as a diversion to keep the British busy in Quebec. These recruitment attempts, however, met with more limited successes. The Oneidas and Tuscaroras were the only tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy to become Patriot allies.

The Battle

The British forces arrived in the valley on 30 June, having alerted the settlers to their approach by killing three men working at an unprotected gristmill on 28 June. The next day, Colonel Butler sent a surrender demand to the militia at Wintermute’s (Wintermoot) fort. Terms were arranged in which the defenders would surrender the fort with all their arms and stores and would then be released on the condition that they not bear arms again during the war. On 03 July, however, the British saw that the defenders were gathering in great numbers outside of Forty Fort. William Caldwell was engaged in destroying Jenkin’s fort with the American militia a mile away, so Butler organised an ambush. He ordered Fort Wintermute to be set on fire, and the Patriots believed that it signified a British retreat and advanced rapidly. Butler told the Seneca to lie flat on the ground so as not to be seen. The militia advanced to within a hundred yards of the British rangers and fired three volleys at them. The Seneca rose to their feet, fired one time, and then charged to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

The battle lasted about 45 minutes. An order to reform the Patriot line instead turned into a frantic rout, as the inexperienced militiamen panicked and began to run. It became a deadly race from which only about 60 Patriots escaped. The Loyalists and Iroquois killed almost all who were captured, and only five prisoners were taken alive. Butler reported that his Indian allies had taken 227 scalps.

The next morning, Colonel Nathan Denison agreed to surrender Forty Fort and two other posts, along with what remained of his militia. Butler paroled them on their promise to take no part in further hostilities. The British spared non-combatants, although they molested a few inhabitants after the forts’ surrender. Colonel Butler wrote:

But what gives me the sincerest satisfaction is that I can, with great truth, assure you that in the destruction of the settlement not a single person was hurt except such as were in arms, to these, in truth, the Indians gave no quarter.

An American farmer wrote: “Happily these fierce people, satisfied with the death of those who had opposed them in arms, treated the defenceless ones, the woman and children, with a degree of humanity almost hitherto unparalleled”. According to one source, 60 Patriot bodies were found on the battlefield and another 36 on the line of retreat. All were buried in a common grave.

Aftermath and Legacy

Butler reported only two Loyalist Rangers and one Indian killed out of 1,000 men, and eight Indians wounded. He claimed that his force took 227 scalps, burned 1,000 houses, and drove off 1,000 cattle plus many sheep and hogs. Only about 60 of the 300 militiamen and 60 Continentals escaped the disaster, though Graymont states about 340 killed. The Seneca Indians were angered by the accusations of atrocities which they said they had not committed, and at the militia taking up arms after being paroled. Later that year, Joseph Brant under the command of Butler further retaliated in the Cherry Valley massacre.

The American public were outraged by reports of the massacres of prisoners and atrocities at Wyoming. Afterward, Colonel Thomas Hartley arrived with Hartley’s Additional Continental Regiment to defend the valley to try to harvest the crops. They were joined by a few militia companies, including that of Captain Denison. In September, Hartley and Denison ascended the east branch of the Susquehanna with 130 soldiers, destroying Indian villages as far as Tioga and recovering a large amount of plunder taken during the raid. They skirmished with the hostile Indians and withdrew when they learned that Joseph Brant was assembling a large force at Unadilla.

Connecticut Continentals led by Captain Jeremiah Blanchard and Lieutenant Timothy Keyes held a fort in Pittston, several miles away from the battlefield. A group of British soldiers took over the fortress on 04 July 1778, one day after the Battle of Wyoming, and some of it was destroyed. Two years later, the Continentals stormed the fortification and recaptured it, and it remained under Patriot control until the end of the war.

In summer 1779, the Sullivan Expedition commissioned by General George Washington methodically destroyed 40 Iroquois villages and an enormous quantity of stored corn and vegetables throughout upstate New York. The Iroquois never recovered from the damage inflicted by Sullivan’s soldiers, and many died of starvation that winter. The tribes allied with the British continued to raid Patriot settlements until the end of the war.

The massacre was depicted by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell in his 1809 poem “Gertrude of Wyoming”. Because of the atrocities involved, Campbell described Joseph Brant as a “monster” in the poem, although it was later determined that Brant was not present. Brant was at Oquaga on the day of the attack.

The western state of Wyoming received its name from the US Congress when it became Wyoming Territory in 1868.

The battle and massacre is commemorated each year by the Wyoming Commemorative Association, a local non-profit organisation, which holds a ceremony on the grounds of the monument dedicated to the battle. The Wyoming Monument is the site of a mass grave containing the bones of many of the victims of the battle and massacre. The commemorative ceremonies began in 1878, to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle and massacre. The principal speaker at the event was President Rutherford B. Hayes. During the 100th anniversary commemoration, the people of Wyoming Valley used the motto “An honest tale speeds best when plainly told” in an effort to promote the historical account of the battle.

Re-enactment of the Battle of Wyoming

Traditionally on the Fourth of July, every year for the past 140 years members of the Wyoming community and Luzerne County Historical Society have organised a ceremony re-enacting the battle.


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