The Pennamite Wars between Connecticut and Pennsylvania involved some of the worst brutality of the Revolutionary era. They also resulted in the name of a western state.
Settlers from both Pennsylvania and Connecticut claimed ownership of 23 miles along the Susquehanna River. Called the Wyoming Valley, it had lush, fertile plains that rarely disgorged a stone when plowed.
King Charles II had given the valley to Connecticut in 1662. Unfortunately, he also gave it to Pennsylvania in 1681. In 1768, a development company met in Hartford to divide up the Wyoming Valley into five towns, which they named Plymouth, Kingston, Hanover, Wilkes-Barre, and Pittston.
When the first Connecticut settlers arrived, they found Pennamites – Pennsylvanians – already there.
Fighting soon broke out. And then it broke out again and again for the next 30 years. The bloodiest fight – a massacre, really — in 1778 was later recast as a conflict of the American Revolution.
The Battle of Wyoming, however, had more to do with competition over land than revolution. Its brutality stoked such outrage that George Washington sent Gen. John Sullivan on a scorched earth campaign to retaliate.
First Pennamite War
When 40 Connecticut Yankees arrived in the Wyoming Valley, they set about building two forts, Durkee and Forty, on one side of the Susquehanna River. The Pennamites built forts Wyoming and Ogden on the other side to stop the Yankee encroachment on their land.
The two sides skirmished for years, though accounts vary on the number of casualties and what actually counts as a Pennamite battle.
In 1763, someone murdered a respected Indian chief, Teedyuscung. His son blamed Connecticut and raided a Connecticut settlement, killing more than two dozen people.
But those first conflicts certainly did not claim anywhere near as many lives as the Battle of Wyoming.
Battle of Wyoming
During the American Revolution, the Connecticut militia in the Wyoming Valley got called up to serve in the Continental Army. The departure of hundreds of able-bodied men left the Connecticut settlements vulnerable.
A British officer named John Butler decided to exploit Pennamite resentment against the Connecticut settlers. He recruited loyalist Pennamites as well as Iroquois Indians (who obviously had their own grievances against settlers) to attack the Yankees. They massed outside of Forty Fort on July 3, 1778.
Another Butler, a Yankee leader with a first name of Zebulon, led some 300 men from the fort to attack the much larger force of about 500 British soldiers, Pennamite Loyalists and Indian warriors. He should have stayed inside the fort.
Accounts of the subsequent massacre probably exaggerated the atrocities committed against the Connecticut Yankees. But the British-led forces claimed to take 227 scalps. Later accounts put the casualties at between 150 and 340 lives.
In 1891, Milo M. Acker presented to the Canisteo Valley Historical Society a toned-down account of the Battle of Wyoming. He described how John Butler’s men attacked Zebulon Butler’s forces, who then panicked and ran.
“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,” he wrote.
One Yankee, a German immigrant named Henry Pencil, hid in the willows on the river’s edge. His brother John, who took the Pennamite side in the conflict, happened to discover him. Henry, already wounded by an arrow, struggled up the bank, crying he would serve John forever if he would spare him.
“’Mighty well,’ was the taunting reply, ‘but you are a damned rebel,’ and the Tory shot him dead,” wrote Acker. “Even the Indians were struck with horror at this deed.”
A captain named Bidlack was thrown on a fire and held down with pitchforks while he burned.
And an Indian queen named Esther forced as many as 18 men to kneel around a rock, wrote Acker. “This fiend in woman’s shape danced slowly around the ring and crushed out their brains in turn, to the rhyme of a monotonous and blood-curdling death chant,” he wrote.
The Pennamite side burned nearly every Yankee house and barn, reducing the Wyoming valley to a smoking ruin.
The Indians later denied committing any ritual torture, but the massacre had enormous propaganda value. The Yankees successfully branded the battle as one of Loyalists vs. Patriots. (Ironically, King George III had upheld the Yankee claim in 1771.)
A Scottish poet named Thomas Campbell wrote a poem about the battle, Gertrude of Wyoming; A Pennsylvanian Tale. The poem was so popular that a western territory was named Wyoming after it, no doubt to the bewilderment of the Wyoming settlers.
The summer after the Pennamites massacred the Yankees, George Washington ordered Gen. John Sullivan to retaliate. In 1779, Sullivan led Continental troops and Pennsylvania militia from Easton, Pa., to upstate New York. They methodically torched 40 Iroquois villages and an enormous amount of stored corn and crops.
Many Iroquois starved to death the following winter, and the tribe never fully recovered from the Sullivan expedition. But they continued to harass the Wyoming Valley settlers for years.
Final Years of Pennamite Wars
In 1782, the Continental Congress decreed that the Wyoming Valley belonged to the Pennamites and the Connecticut Yankees had no claim to the land. Unsurprisingly, more violence broke out as Pennamite forces cleared out the Yankee settlers. They nearly succeeded.
Only 2,000 Connecticut Yankees remained, mostly women and children scattered in the woods. They suffered starvation and cold, with only primitive huts of bark and thatch to shelter them from the coming winter. Their enemies possessed all their property — houses, farms and crops.
Armed men from Connecticut and Vermont rushed to the region to defend against the Pennamites. Then in 1787, the Pennsylvania Assembly granted the Connecticut settlers the right to their lands.
By 1799 the final Pennamite War died down, when the new federal government decreed the Yankee lands part of Pennsylvania and the Yankees were Pennsylvania citizens with full rights to their lands.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also want to read about how Cleveland belonged to Connecticut.
Map of Connecticut Land Claims: By User:Kmusser – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1290884; the Wyoming Massacre, painting by Alonzo Chappel. With thanks to Kathryn Shively Meier, The Landscape of Indian and White Violence in Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania, 1753-1800, in Blood in the Hills
A History of Violence in Appalachia, ed. by Bruce Stewart. This story was updated in 2023.