When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
July 3, 1778 Massacre at Wyoming
On July 1st, John Butler’s force of about 1,000 regular British troops, Loyalist irregulars, and Indians, marched into the Wyoming Valley and seized control of Yankee forts Wintermoot and Jenkins, on the western banks of the Susquehanna River just above Wilkes-Barre. The next morning the combined Indian-Loyalist force of 500 marched south and demanded the surrender of Forty Fort. Col. Zebulon Butler and other senior officers urged caution, debating whether to stay in the fort and await reinforcements, or to move out and confront the raiders in the open field. With Washington and the Continental Army en route to New Jersey in July of 1778, there was little hope for immediate support.
Shortly before noon on July 3rd, Butler and his 386 militiamen marched out of Forty Fort to do battle with the British-Iroquois-Pennamite invasion force. While marching to Fort Wintermoot to launch their attack, the troops were spotted by an Indian foraging party. Informing British Col. John Butler that the Yankees were within a mile of his position, Butler ordered the fort “to be set on fire so that the enemy will be deceived into believing that they had retreated.” Butler then proceeded to organize his line of battle in the surrounding woods.
At approximately 3:00 p.m., Butler and his Yankee militia arrived at Wintermoot, which was now aflame. But the Yankee officer was not fooled, and taunted the invaders as he deployed his men for the battle. “Come out, ye villainous Tories!” he cried. “Come out and show your heads if ye dare, marker to the brave Continental Sons of Liberty!”
When the British Rangers and their Pennamite and Iroquois allies ignored his demand, Butler gave the order to attack, and his militiamen marched forward to deliver their first volley. Three volleys they fired, with no resistance from the enemy, who were still laying low in the forest. When the Yankees came within 100 yards of their position, though, the Iroquois warriors sprang from the woods. Supported by the firepower of the British Rangers and Pennamites, the Indians outflanked the Yankee forces, who retreated in confusion. Within thirty minutes, the Battle of Wyoming had ended and the “Wyoming Massacre” had begun.
The Iroquois flanking parties cut off the Yankee retreat to Forty Fort and placed them in a bloody crossfire from both the British Rangers and Pennamites. For the rest of the day, Connecticut militiamen were tortured, slain, and in some cases scalped. Many Yankees “plunged themselves into the Susquehanna River with the hope of escaping, only to be pierced with the lances of the Indians.” By dawn, the following morning, their “carcasses floated down river, infesting the banks of the Susquehanna.” Only sixty of the Yankee militiamen who marched into battle survived. The Iroquois took the scalps of 227 slain Yankees, in spite of the British order to “respect their remains.”
The Wyoming Valley was largely depopulated of white settlers after the summer of 1778. The massacre became an important propaganda tool for the patriot cause, forcing Gen. George Washington to appoint Maj. Gen. John Sullivan to lead a huge and carefully planned campaign against the Iroquois on the Pennsylvania and New York frontier in the autumn of 1779. The success of that campaign resulted in the Iroquois ceding their lands in Pennsylvania and western New York to the United States under the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. While the Wyoming Valley land dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania would linger into the early nineteenth century, the northern frontier had been secured from further invasion.
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