The War Between the States
the history of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars (1768-1813)
I forget where I first saw it — Buzzfeed? Deadspin? — but as I was idly crawling the web when I came across a listicle of US state shapes, ranked. That’s cute, I thought, and clicked to see how my home, the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, stacked up. I was not happy to find the Keystone State down in the bottom quintile, below even the boring, rectangular states of Wyoming and Colorado. I think it’s got one of the best shapes: mostly regular, with some weird flourishes to make you think, “Hey, what’s going on there?”
Since I’m a pedantic know-it-all, I thought it might be fun to discuss the history behind those borders. (Your definition of “fun” may vary.)
In its earliest years, Pennsylvania’s borders were somewhat fluid. To some extent that’s because European settlements were few and far between, which made borders more theoretical than concrete. It didn’t help that the British made some absolutely terrible maps, either. That meant the royal charters for the various colonies were often extremely vague and had significant overlap with previous land grants. Since Pennsylvania was plunked down in the middle of five already-extant colonies, it had more than its fair share of boundary conflicts.
Let’s start in the east, where Pennsylvania meets New Jersey.
The border here is the Delaware River. It has the usual problem with any riverine border, of course — who owns islands in the river, what happens when the river changes course, etc. — but it’s nice and simple and uncontroversial, which is more than can be said for any of the Commonwealth’s other borders.
Going clockwise, we wind up at Delaware.
In the early days of the colony, no one was all that worried about where Delaware ended and Pennsylvania began, because the Penns were renting the “lower counties” of Delaware and administering them on the Crown’s behalf, but the border still needed to be mapped out in case that arrangement came to an end.
Eventually it was decided that the dividing line would be along the arc of a Twelve-Mile Circle with the city of New Castle at its center. That was painstakingly surveyed in 1763 and 1764 by Philadelphia astronomer David Rittenhouse.
Maryland is next.
Pennsylvania’s original charter established its southern border at 40°N… but those maps also thought New Castle was on that latitude, when it is actually about 25 miles to the south.
When the Penns realized that Philadelphia was on the wrong side of the border, they started pushing for it to be changed since they had de facto control of the land. The de jure owners of the land, the Calverts of Maryland, did not agree, and rightfully so. The two families sniped at each other for years, and tensions finally boiled over near Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the 1730s. “Cresap’s War” had few fatalities and no actual battles, but it was enough to finally get the Crown to step in to settle things once and for all.
The new border was set at 39°43′N… far enough to the south that Pennsylvania got to keep Philadelphia, but not so far south that the colony gobbled up huge portions of Maryland. The colonies again turned to David Rittenhouse to survey that border, but drawing the Twelve-Mile Circle had pushed him to his limits. He begged off and the Crown sent in two of their finest astronomers, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, to take over. They surveyed the border between the two colonies from 1764 to 1768.
One problem, though: Mason and Dixon were supposed to start on the Twelve-Mile Circle but actually started about a mile to its west. That left a small triangular Wedge, a no-man’s-land belonging to neither Pennsylvania, Delaware, or Maryland. This sort of irregularity could not stand, obviously, and it was resolved with all due alacrity. The Wedge was ultimately ceded to Delaware… 153 years later in 1921.
West Virginia and Ohio
That brings us to West Virginia and Ohio — or, back when the borders were first drawn, Virginia.
You see, Virginia had one of those extremely vague charters that could be interpreted as giving them rights to all of North America west of the Appalachian Mountains. Initially that was a moot point, since the Crown forbade settlers from moving west of the Appalachians to avoid antagonizing the French and to appease their Native American allies.
After the French & Indian War settlers began illegally moving west of the Appalachians. When Pennsylvania incorporated the area around Pittsburgh as Westmoreland County in 1773 the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, called out the colonial militia, stomped Pennsylvania a new mudhole, and declared Pittsburgh was part of Virginia. These territorial gains were immediately reversed a few months later when the American Revolution broke out.
During the Revolution the two colonies buried the hatchet. They agreed to a new border that would extend the Mason-Dixon line to the western boundary of Penn’s original land grant, five degrees of longitude west of the Delaware River, about 49°W. From there, they ran a line due north to the Great Lakes. This was painstakingly surveyed by Alexander Ellicott in the years after the war.
In 1787 the states ceded their unsettled western territories to the newly-formed federal government, which reorganized them as the Northwest Territory. That included the portions of Virginia north of the Ohio River, parts of which became the state of Ohio in 1803. West Virginia came into existence sixty years later when it seceded from Virginia during the Civil War.
Now, for New York.
Pennsylvania’s charter specified its northern boundary as 43°N, which had a significant overlap with New York — if they felt like it, the Penns could lay claim to anything south of Albany. Rather than duke it out, the two colonies agreed to settle this one amicably. In 1774 they agreed to a border at 42°N.
That line goes just south of Lake Erie, which meant Pennsylvania was cut off from the Great Lakes. Fortunately, there’s that little stovepipe, the Erie Triangle. It was originally New York land — well, it was originally Mohawk land, but New York bought it. Since it had yet to be settled it was ceded to the Northwest Territory in 1787, and Pennsylvania purchased it from the federal government in 1792. That completes the shape.
Which brings us to Pennsylvania’s final border with Connecticut.
I can hear you right now, saying, “Um, actually, Pennsylvania doesn’t border Connecticut,” and you’re right, no, it doesn’t.
At least, not any more.
In its earliest days Connecticut didn’t have borders, because the land was illegally settled by Puritans without any prior authorization from the Crown. When John Winthrop finally secured a royal charter for the colony in 1662, their borders were established as Narragansett Bay to the east, Massachusetts to the north, and Long Island Sound to the south. To the west, though, the colony extended all the way to Pacific, except for any existing territory “then possessed or inhabited by any other Christian prince or state.” Yes, another one one of those annoying sea-to-shining-sea land grants.
If they felt like it, Connecticut could lay claim to the entire northern third of Pennsylvania. (And, if you wanted to extend the line ad absurdum, also probably Medford, Oregon). For practical purposes, though, the colony ended at the Hudson River where it bumped up against the Dutch colony of the New Netherlands, which meant there was no way to effectively access those lands.
The area became slightly more accessible when the British ousted the Dutch for good in 1674, but turns out the Susquehannock who lived there weren’t exactly keen on sharing their lands with the white man, either. (And for good reason.) By the mid-18th Century, though, the Susquehannock had been devastated by war and disease and were powerless to keep would-be colonists out.
The first visitors were Moravian missionaries and hardy woodsmen. What they found was the lower valley of the Susquehanna River, three miles wide, twenty five miles long, and protected by tall mountains on either side. The Indians called it Maughwauwan, “the large plains,” but the white man called it Wyoming.
The Wyoming Valley was the sort of idyllic paradise many colonists dreamed of: abundant game, verdant soil, incredible natural beauty, and best of all, not enough Native Americans to mount an adequate resistance against European encroachment. In 1809, Scottish poet Thomas Campbell rhapsodized about the land in his epic poem “Gertrude of Wyoming”:
On Susquehana’s side, fair Wyoming!
Although the wild-flower on thy ruined wall
And roofless homes, a sad remembrance bring
Of what thy gentle people did befall;
Yet thou wert once the loveliest land of all
That see the Atlantic wave their morn restore.
Sweet land! may I thy lost delights recall,
And paint thy Gertrude in her bowers of yore,
Whose beauty was the love of Pennsylvania’s shore!
Delightful Wyoming! beneath thy skies,
The happy shepherd swains had nought to do
But feed their flocks on green declivities,
Or skim perchance thy lake with light canoe,
From morn till evening’s sweeter pastime grew,
With timbrel, when beneath the forests brown,
Thy lovely maidens would the dance renew;
And aye those sunny mountains half-way down
Would echo flageolet from some romantic town.
Then, where of Indian hills the daylight takes
His leave, how might you the flamingo see
Disporting like a meteor on the lakes—
And playful squirrel on his nut-grown tree:
And every sound of life was full of glee,
From merry mock-bird’s song, or hum of men;
While hearkening, fearing nought their revelry,
The wild-deer arched his neck from glades, and then
Unhunted, sought his woods and wilderness again.
And scarce had Wyoming of war or crimeThomas Campbell, “Gertrude of Wyoming” (1809)
Heard, but in transatlantic story rung,
For here the exile met from every clime,
And spoke in friendship every distant tongue:
Men from the blood of warring Europe sprung,
Were but divided by the running brook;
And happy where no Rhenish trumpet sung,
On plains no sieging mine’s volcano shook,
The blue-eyed German changed his sword to pruning-hook.
Campbell has taken a lot of poetic liberties with his subject matter here. Bear in mind the Wyoming Valley is the area around modern-day Scranton, and if you’ve ever seen The Office you know that it has its moments but it’s not exactly the Garden of Eden. I’ve never seen a flamingo here outside of a zoo. And “scarce had Wyoming of war or crime heard?” We’re about to put the lie to that. Wyoming was such a hotbed of conflict that in 1773 William Maclay declared, “If Hell is justly considered as the rendezvous of Rascals, we cannot entertain a Doubt of Wyoming being the Place.”
To crowded, land-poor Connecticut, the Wyoming Valley was a godsend. Here were new lands ready to settle and clearly within the bounds specified by their royal charter. In 1753 Yankees from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island formed two companies, the Susquehannah Company and the Delaware Company, to colonize the land. They promptly sent a “journeying committee” to survey the area as soon as possible so that it could be settled by company shareholders.
Pennsylvania objected, on the grounds that the Wyoming Valley also lay within the bounds specified by their royal charter. The Penns weren’t planning on doing anything with the area — in fact, they had explicitly set it aside as a refuge for Native Americans displaced by earlier European settlement. When they learned that Yankee land speculators were already dividing up into the area, they moved to stifle those ambitions by explicitly purchasing the land from the Iroquois Confederacy at the 1754 Albany Congress… though it should be noted that a second group of Iroquois at the congress also sold the exact same land to the Susquehannah and Delaware Companies for £2000.
(There was also the slight problem that the land did not actually belong to the Iroquois. It belonged to the Delaware and the Shawnee, and while the Iroquois considered them subordinates those tribes begged to differ.)
The Penns argued that the two companies’ purchase was null and void, on the grounds that they had not followed formal treaty protocols, and that it violated a treaty the Penns had earlier negotiated with the Iroquois giving them the right of first refusal on all Native lands within the colony. The companies fired back that Connecticut’s 1662 charter took precedence over Pennsylvania’s 1681 charter, and thereby invalidated any treaties or purchases the Penns had made. Meanwhile, the ongoing hostilities of the French & Indian War made both positions moot since no one wanted to move into an area full of hostile Native Americans.
That stumbling block was removed when the Delaware and Shawnee signed the Treaty of Easton in October 1758. With hostilities in the area over, settlers from Connecticut streamed over the border and established a village on the west bank of the Delaware called Coshutunk.
This time, the Penns filed an official complaint with the Crown. Their representative was Charles Pratt, the future Lord Camden and then attorney-general.
His argument was based on five key points: that Pennsylvania’s land purchases had followed formal treaty protocols, while Connecticut’s had not; statements from the Iroquois declaring the Connecticut purchase fraudulent; that Pennsylvania’s newer charter superseded Connecticut’s; that Connecticut’s charter established its western boundary at the New Netherlands, later New York; and that even if the charter hadn’t set fixed western bounds for the colony, Connecticut itself had when it made an 1685 agreement with New York that made that border “the western bounds of the said colony of Connecticut.”
Connecticut went out and found four other eminent legal minds who disagreed with Pratt on the simple grounds that Connecticut’s charter predated Pennsylvania’s.
Both sides were right and both sides were wrong. When the charters had been issued England had been an absolute monarchy, where the sovereign’s current whim takes priority on anything he may have said yesterday, last month, or last year. In the subsequent years, Great Britain had transitioned to a constitutional monarchy under the rule of law, where earlier claims take precedence over later ones. British common law was still grappling with that fundamental change eighty years later.
While the barristers hashed things out in court, the Yankees did something dumb that once again made the entire debate a moot point. In April 1763 Teedyuscung, a Delaware chief who had opposed the Delaware Company’s settlements, died when his house “mysteriously” burned to the ground. Six months later in October, Teedyuscung’s son Captain Bull retuned at the front of an army of a hundred braves, killed and scalped twenty of the settlers, drove the rest from the Wyoming Valley, and burned Coshutunk to the ground.
And that was it for Wyoming… at least for a few years.
The First Yankee-Pennamite War (1768-1771)
In November 1768 the Treaty of Fort Stanwix brought an end to the various Native American wars that had broken out in the wake of the French & Indian Wars.
Representatives of the Penns were present at the treaty negotiations and finalized an agreement with the Iroquis to purchase “all lands not previously sold to the proprietaries lying within the province of Pennsylvania.” This “New Purchase” explicitly included the disputed Wyoming Valley. This was a strategic move by the Iroquois; they did not like the rapid and aggressive colonization methods of the Yankees and preferred to deal with the Penns, who were slower, more methodical, and deferential to Native concerns.
Over in Connecticut, the Susquehannah Company declared the New Purchase invalid and saw the peace brokered by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix as permission to revisit their plans to settle Wyoming. In December 1768 the Company voted to send an advance party of forty men to the area in February, to be followed by two hundred additional settlers in May.
When the Penns found out, they decided to beat the Susquehannah Company to the punch. In January 1769 they awarded lands in Wyoming to surveyors Amos Ogden and Charles Stoke. Each man was given a seven-year lease on a hundred acre tract, on the condition that they would establish an Indian trading post and protect the land from “intruders” — i.e., Yankees. The Penns made a similar grant to Northampton County sheriff John Jennings. Having a sheriff involved was an assertion that the Penns were the true owners of the land, and other claimants were merely squatters and claim jumpers. These large grants were followed by a series of forty smaller grants, to make sure Jennings had enough locals to round up a posse if needed.
This decision wound up sparking off a series of conflicts over the Wyoming Valley that would come to be known as the Yankee-Pennamite Wars. (“Pennamite” is what they used to call Pennsylvanians in the olden days, and boy am I glad that one didn’t stick.)
At the end of January, Ogden, Stoke, Jennings and their men moved into the Wyoming Valley and built a small blockhouse on Mill Creek, where they waited for the Susquehannah Company’s advance party to arrive. They didn’t have to wait long. On February 8th, forty men led by Colonel Zebulon Butler moved into the area and built their own blockhouse, which they called “Forty Fort.”
The two groups were immediately aware of each other — and Ogden realized that the Yankees outnumbered the Pennamites 4:1. Thinking quickly, he invited three of the Yankee leaders to come negotiate a peaceful resolution to their dispute. Once the Yankees were safely inside the Pennamite blockhouse, Jennings arrested them and whisked them away to Easton, some sixty miles to the south, to be charged and jailed. Jennings struck again on March 15th, arresting 31 more Yankees while they were out building log houses for the second wave of settlers.
(None of the captured Yankees ever stayed long in Easton, mind you. The Susquehannah Company always made sure their bail was promptly paid, and Pennsylvania didn’t exactly have solid legal reasons to hold them.)
While all this was going on, Pennsylvania Governor John Penn wrote an official letter of protest to Connecticut Governor William Pitkin politely asking him to rein in the Susquehanna Company. Pitkin wrote back, politely telling Penn to go pound sand.
The balance of power shifted on May 12th when several hundred Yankee settlers led by Major John Durkee arrived. They built a new blockhouse, the humbly-named Fort Durkee, and divided the region into five townships: Pittston, Plymouth, Nantikoke, Forty Fort, and Wilkes-Barre. Ogden and Jennings, who had been down in Easton filing claims and securing warrants against the Yankees, returned in late May to discover that the forces arrayed against them against them had risen from 4:1 to 30:1.
The emboldened Yankees tried to negotiate with the Pennamites, who received them with courtesy but made no concessions. That’s because they knew something the Yankees didn’t, namely that Governor Penn had decided to send some backup: a veritable army of two hundred militiamen armed with muskets… and a four-pound brass cannon.
In November, Ogden and the others sprang into action and arrested several Yankee leaders. Then Jennings arrived with the new militia, drove off their cattle and horses, and razed their cabins. The confused and leaderless Yankees tried to hunker down in Fort Durkee, but once they saw the Pennamites setting up the four-pounder, they promptly surrendered. Seventeen of the Yankees were allowed to remain and finish the fall harvest. The rest were sent back to Connecticut.
Amazingly, no one was injured.
Jennings left ten men to hold down Fort Durkee, dismissed the rest, and returned back to Easton. Ogden carried the Yankee leaders back to Philadelphia in irons and spent several weeks drinking to his triumph.
Meanwhile, the Susquehannah Company decided to respond by fighting dirty, and they recruited the dirtiest fighter of all to help them: Lazarus Stewart and his Paxton Boys.
The Paxton Boys had formed near Harrisburg at the tail end of the French & Indian War, and were little more than a gang of thugs looking to vent their pent-up rage and frustration. Their most prominent leader was Captain Lazarus Stewart, a veteran of the war who had survived the disastrous Braddock expedition of 1755 and led a a retaliatory strike against Captain Bull earlier in the year.
One of the Paxtons’ chief grievances was that they felt the British government showed more concern for their Native American allies than their own colonists. So they went looking for Natives to hurt, specifically the nearby Conestoga tribe, who had been Christianized by Moravian missionaries and allied with the British during the war. On December 14th, 1763 the Paxton Boys fell on Conestoga Town, killed six tribesmen they caught unawares, and then hacked to pieces fourteen more who sought refuge in the county jail. Only two members of the tribe survived, because they had been working elsewhere.
The Paxtons then marched on Philadelphia, with the intent of killing other Natives who were sheltered there and the colonial officials who were protecting them. When they reached Germantown, they realized a militia had been organized to fight them and dispersed. Pennsylvania offered a £600 reward for anyone who would turn in the leaders of the mob, but while everyone knew who they were, no one dared to talk.
In early 1769, Stewart and other members of the Paxton Boys had petitioned the colony for land grants in the Wyoming Valley. The Penns, who knew exactly who they were, snubbed them. So the Paxtons began to negotiate with the Susquehannah Company.
The Company agreed to provide the Paxtons with land in exchange for their muscle. This was playing with fire. Prior to Stewart’s involvement, Wyoming had been on edge and the threat of violence very real, but the use of force had been careful and controlled. By bringing in the Paxtons the Susquehanna Company was throwing a match into a powder keg.
On February 11th, 1770, Stewart and forty of his men turned up at Fort Durkee, overwhelmed the tiny garrison, and turned it over to John Durkee and the Susquehannah Company. Ogden, who was still partying in Philadelphia, rushed back to his old blockhouse and tried to raise another militia, but the Company turned his own cannon against him and forced him to flee. During the struggle several settlers were wounded and one was killed, the first real casualties of the wars.
Now that he was losing, Governor Penn furiously wrote to General Thomas Gage, the commander-in-chief of the British armies in North America asking him to stop the violence. General Gage declined, since it would be improper for the King’s troops to involve themselves in a mere property dispute.
For several months Wyoming was at peace. Then, at the end of September, Ogden returned with another militia of 140 men. Rather than attack Fort Durkee directly, he waited until the settlers left the fort and split up into small groups for fieldwork, then picked off each group one by one. The captives were sent back to Easton while Ogden, wary of engaging the Company’s forces, retreated to nearby Solomon Gap. The small garrison at Fort Durkee figured out what had happened when the workers failed to return. Reasoning they could not stand against Ogden’s superior numbers, they sent messengers back to Connecticut to help. Those messengers went right through the Solomon Gap and were captured. Now realizing he had the advantage, Ogden attacked under cover of night and recaptured the fort. Zebulon Butler and other Company leaders were once again sent off for detention and trial.
Astoundingly Ogden repeated his previous mistake, deserting the valley and leaving only a skeleton crew behind to garrison Fort Durkee. On December 18th, Lazarus Stewart returned and re-recaptured the fort. Only six of the Pennamites managed to escape by leaping from the parapets and running naked through the woods.
That set the tone for the early months of 1771. Pennsylvania put out warrants for the arrest of Yankee leaders but lacked the strength to enforce them. Connecticut had the upper hand, but just barely, and weren’t strong enough to drive off all the Pennamites. Odgen built a new blockhouse, Fort Wyoming, and traded control of Fort Durkee back and forth with Stewart. Parleys and negotiations degenerated into firefights, and several settlers were killed, including Odgen’s son Nathan.
On July 6th, 1771 the Susquehannah Company flooded the valley with hundreds of reinforcements. They laid seige to Fort Wyoming and Ogden, realizing his days were numbered, fled — er, left to “convey intelligence” to Governor Penn by floating down the Susquehanna under cover of night, trailing his stuff behind him in a waterproof bindle.
Once again Pennsylvania raised two hundred militiamen and sent them off to retake the valley. They arrived at the end of July, but were jumped on the road by Yankee raiders who stole their supply train but allowed the troops to make it to the shelter of Fort Wyoming. This was disastrous, since the Pennamites now had extra mouths to feed and no supplies. On August 14th, with no relief in sight, Fort Wyoming surrendered to the Susquehannah Company and the Pennamites were expelled from Wyoming. Infuriatingly, on the road home they ran into reinforcements from Philadelphia, arriving several days too late.
At this point, the few remaining Native Americans in the region could see the writing on the wall. They abandoned the village of Wyalusing, where they had been living and relocated to Moravian settlements further to the west that would be safer. Settlements like Gnadenhutten, Ohio. (Spoiler alert: that did not end well for them.)
In October, Governor Penn made yet another a formal complaint to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull. Trumbull’s response indicated he saw no reason to rein in his side… especially when it was winning. Besides, Trumbull argued that it technically wasn’t his side: this was not a colonial matter, but a private one between the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Susquehannah Company, which was not an organ of the state. (Never mind that the Susquehannah Company had been bribing Trumbull and other influential Connecticut politicians with shares in the company and free parcels of land.)
At this point the Penns had run out of options. Locals were not likely to volunteer for another militia, since all the Penns could offer them was land in an area they did not control. Hiring mercenaries was expensive; the Penns couldn’t afford it to do it on their own, and the colonial assembly was dominated by pacifistic and parsimonious Quakers.
Pennsylvania made one last-ditch attempt to sway settlers in the Wyoming Valley when they incorporated it as Northumberland County in 1772, with the county seat in nearby Sunbury. They hoped that ready access to courts and sheriffs would sway Wyoming’s residents to their side. It didn’t work. No one thought the Pennsylvania would do a damn thing to enforce their titles and deeds and the Yankees didn’t recognize their validity anyway.
The First Yankee-Pennamite War war was over. It was a decisive win for the Yankees.
Second Yankee-Pennamite War (1774-1775)
Once it became clear that the Pennamites weren’t coming back any time soon, Yankees began streaming over the border. In a few scant months the population of the Wyoming Valley jumped from a few hundred to almost six thousand.
In January 1774, the Connecticut legislature formally annexed the Wyoming Valley as Westmoreland County, Connecticut. Governor Trumbull issued a proclamation forbidding any further settlement except under Connecticut’s authority. As the new justice of the peace, Zebulon Butler devoted himself to turfing out any Pennamites who still remained in the area.
Governor Penn responded in the same ineffectual way he always did: by writing a strongly worded letter to his Connecticut counterpart. As he noted, “This Proclamation appears to have been regarded with as little attention by the inhabitants of Wyoming as would have been a royal edict by the King of Spain.”
So Penn wrote another strongly worded letter, this one to the British Board of Trade. They decided to take up the case but tabled it for discussion at a later date. They had more important things to deal with right now, like a mysterious band of Native Americans that had just dumped a load of tea into Boston Harbor.
In May 1775, Connecticut took advantage of the chaos of the early American Revolution by enlarging Westmoreland County to the Stanwix Line — basically, all the way across modern-day Pennsylvania — and settting up the town of Muncy inside the new border.
Governor Penn complained yet again, and this time his complaint found a more receptive audience: the Second Continental Congress. The Congress took a long hard look at the matter, but for the moment did nothing other than urge both sides to be cool. To be fair, there was nothing the Congress could do that would have helped. The two sides were far past the point where a peaceful resolution could be brokered. They weren’t talking to each other, just yelling past each other.
The Yankees, at least, made a few faltering efforts at compromise. Throughout the summer of 1775 they held civil defense meetings trying to bring the Pennamites into the fold and get them to join the local militia — but also made it clear that it was the Connecticut militia, that joining it was tantamount to admitting Connecticut’s control of the land, and that anyone who wouldn’t swear an oath to that effect to that would be considered a Tory.
It all hit the fan on September 25th, when the Susquehannah Company called out the militia to suppress Pennamite “Tories” near Sunbury, only to run into a ragtag Pennamite militia led by Northumberland County judge William Plunkett and sheriff William Scull. In the ensuing firefight one Yankee was killed, two were wounded, and 72 were captured. Plunkett then marched to Muncy, shot several more Yankees, and destroyed the settlement.
The Yankees returned in October with an army of four hundred men commanded Zebulon Butler, but this time, there were no Pennamites to be found.
Both sides wrote to the Continental Congress asking for protection. The Congress’s reply was brief:
…considering that the most perfect union between all the Colonies is essentially necessary for the preservation of the just rights of North America, and being apprehensive that there is great danger of hostilities being commenced at or near Wyoming between the inhabitants of the Colony of Pennsylvania and those of Connecticut:
Resolved, That the Assemblies of the said Colonies be requested to take the most speedy and effectual steps to prevent such hostilities.
In other words, cool your jets, guys, there’s a goddamn war on.
Attempts to broker a ceasefire predictably failed. On November 25th the Pennsylvania raised a force of 750 militiamen along with several boats and carts and a cannon; put the whole shebang under the command of Plunkett and Scull; and directed them to expel the Yankees, reminding them to act in a “civil” and not a “military” manner.
How was Pennsylvania able to raise 700 men in 1775, when they could barely raise 200 in 1772? In the intervening years the Penns had set up the towns of Stoke and Sunbury in areas outside Yankee control, and had been aggressively selling nearby parcels of land. The new militia did not consist of men trying to secure new lands that the Penns could not hold, but of men trying to hold on to what they already had. Which turns out to have been a much better motivation.
On December 15th Plunkett and his army set out from Fort Augusta in Sunbury and marched towards Wilkes-Barre. The Congress found out almost immediately, and on December 23rd once again told both sides to cool it:
Whereas a dispute subsists between some of the inhabitants of the Colony of Connecticut, settled under the claim of the said Colony on land near Wyoming on the Susquehanna river and in the Delaware country and the inhabitants settled under the claim of the Proprietors of Pennsylvania, which dispute it is apprehended will, if not supended during the present troubles in the Colonies, be productive of pernicious consequences, which maybe very prejudicial to the common interest of the United Colonies, therefore:
Resolved, That it is the opinion of this congress and it is accordingly recommended that the contending parties immediately cease all hostilities and avoid every appearance of force until the dispute can be legally decided; That all property taken and detained be immediately restored to the original owners; That no interruption be given to either party to the free passing and re-passing of persons behaving themselves peaceably through the disputed territory, as well by land as by water without molestation of either persons or property; That all persons seized and detained on account of said dispute on either side, be dismissed and permitted to go to their respective homes, and that things being put in the same situation they were before the late unhappy contest, they continue to behave themselves peaceably on their respective possessions and improvements until a legal decision can be had on said dispute, or this congress shall take further order thereon, and nothing herein done shall be construed in prejudice of the claim of either party.
In response, Pennsylvania and Connecticut agreed to call off the hostilities and not to send any more settlers into the disputed territory.
No one bothered to tell the troops already on the ground.
On December 24th, Plunkett and his men arrived at the Nanticoke Falls. Since the Susquehanna was unnavigable at this point, they landed and began marching north, right into a trap. The Susquehannah Company had advance warning that the Pennamite force was on their way and were ready for them. Plunkett’s expeditionary force came under fire from Yankees commanded by Zebulon Butler, who had taken up a protected position behind rocks near the falls. The Pennamites tried to circle around and take Butler from behind, which exposed them to fire from a second group of men commanded by Lazarus Stewart. Plunkett’s artless frontal assaults could not overcome the Yankees’ superior positions, even with his superior numbers.
Shortly after midnight the Pennamites made a disorganized retreat back over the Susquehannah to safety. Plunkett himself only escaped by going over the Nanticoke Falls in a boat, lying down so he wouldn’t be shot.
The Second Yankee-Pennamite War ended the same way as the first: a disastrous defeat for Pennsylvania. In its aftermath, the Continental Congress resolved to let Connecticut govern the Wyoming Valley until the matter could be revisited after the war.
The Wyoming Massacre (1778)
The Susquehannah Company consolidated its hold over the Wyoming Valley over the next several years. In October 1776 the Connecticut legislature incorporated even more of the disputed area into Westmoreland County. Meanwhile, the Company continued to brand anyone who did not accept Connecticut sovereignty or who violated Connecticut law as a Tory loyalist. The Company was warned to knock it off several times by the Continental Congress and the Connecticut and Pennsylvania legislatures, but ignored them all.
In the end the strategy backfired by turning imaginary Tories into actual Tories. The Loyalist forces in the area, led by former Indian Agent John Butler and his son Walter, were offering 200 acres of land to anyone who would join them. Non-Yankee residents of Wyoming, who had been impoverished by Connecticut and abandoned by Pennsylvania, signed up in droves.
In April 1778 John Butler and his ally, the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, pulled off an amazing diplomatic coup when they convinced the Iroquois to enter the war on the British side. They now commanded a formidable force of New York Loyalists, embittered former Pennamites and Native American braves who were ready to move against the vulnerable settlements in Wyoming.
It started off small, with raids on isolated outlying settlements in May and June. At the end of June, Walter Butler moved the bulk of his forces into the Wyoming highlands and started marching towards Wilkes-Barre, capturing and burning smaller forts along the way.
On July 3rd the Tories reached Forty Fort and four hundred Connecticut militiamen marched out to meet them. At first the Tories did not seem eager to fight, exchanging a few volleys with the Americans and retreating into some nearby woods. The Yankees gave chase, but as they closed in on Walter Butler’s men the Iroquois burst from the swamps on their left flank and engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. The startled Yankees fell back… right into the rest of Butler’s forces, who had circled around to cut them off. In just half an hour the Battle of Wyoming was over. The British were barely wounded, while the Americans had lost some 230 men.
Lazarus Stewart died in the fighting. Zebulon Butler escaped by the skin of his teeth and fled back to Connecticut. Forty Fort surrendered immediately. The good people of Wilkes-Barre downstream retreated to Fort Wyoming, only to surrender the next day. The British burned most of the forts in the valley, along with all the houses and mills, destroyed the crops, and butchered the cattle. The Yankees fled in terror, either back to Connecticut or to the Pennamite communities near Sunbury.
When they reached safety, the settlers spread tales of British atrocities: vengeful Tories scalping their own families, burning prisoners alive, raping women, cutting the hands off of children. These tales of the “Wyoming Massacre” were not true — in fact, not a single noncombatant had been harmed by the British — but they hurt Walter Butler deeply. Four months later he decided to give the Americans a real massacre when his forces fell on the small New York village of Cherry Valley.
In the weeks after Wyoming Massacre the valley emptied out. The population plummeted from several thousand to less than one hundred in just two weeks. A series of retributive strikes tried to clear the valley of Native Americans and Tories, but were less than successful and the Tories continued to threaten the area for years. By the end of the Revolution the population of the Wyoming Valley was still far below its pre-war peak.
Zebulon Butler returned to the area in October 1778, empowered by the Continental Congress to maintain the garrison at Fort Wyoming. He was soon back to his old tricks, persecuting Pennamites and confiscating their property. Pennsylvania responded by refusing to provision the fort until the Connecticut militia was replaced by the Pennsylvania militia. Congress responded by treating them both like children, replacing the garrison with militia from other states who did not give a crap about some petty property dispute.
Third Yankee-Pennamite War (1783-1810)
After the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781, Pennsylvania filed an Article IX petition asking the Congress to settle the Wyoming question once and for all. To that end, Congress established a special commission which met in Trenton, New Jersey from November 12th to December 30th, 1782.
Pennsylvania’s arguments were smooth and rehearsed — hardly surprising, since they hadn’t changed in thirty years. Connecticut once again argued that they weren’t directly involved, framing it as a dispute between Pennsylvania and the privately-held Susquehannah Company, though this argument was complete nonsense since the entire region had been incorporated and administered as a Connecticut county for over a decade. The Susquehannah Company, meanwhile, tried to run out the clock with delaying tactics like repeatedly failing to produce documentation of their 1754 purchase from the Iroquois.
At the end of the year, the commission concluded its investigation with a short decree:
We are unanimously of opinion that Connecticut has no right to the lands in controversy. We are also unanimously of opinion that the jurisdiction and preemption of all the territory lying within the Charter of Pennsylvania, and now claimed by the State of Connecticut, do of right belong to the State of Pennsylvania.
The commissioners did not explain the reasoning behind their decision. Perhaps they felt that since the Trenton Decree was simple and unambiguous, no further explanation was needed.
The Susquehannah Company separately petitioned Congress to create a second commission to sort out the issues of land ownership and overlapping claims. Technically, this shouldn’t have been necessary. If their deeds were registered in Connecticut, and Connecticut never actually had authority to register those deeds, they never had a leg to stand on. But possession is 9/10ths of the law, and Pennsylvania knew this was a sensitive subject and wanted to resolve things diplomatically. The Commonwealth agreed to a meeting with Susquehannah Company representatives.
Except the Susquehannah Company no-showed the meeting. One of the Pennsylvania commissioners, William Bradford, related it to one of his lady friends thusly:
We got rid of the Court without argument or difficulty. We found neither Committee of the States to receive nor Antagonists to oppose us. We paraded about the Streets, enquired for the Connecticut Agents, vapoured at our disappointment (as one would do on the duel-ground when the Challenger forgets his appointment), made official communications to the President who we knew could not answer them, visited the members of Congress, made our bows, and about 9 o’clock at night re-embarked & began our returnWilliam Bradford to Susan Boudinot, July 1 1784
With the Susquehannah Company out of the way, Pennsylvania moved to integrate the the Wyoming Valley into the Commonwealth. They pledged to honor Connecticut titles that predated the Trenton Decree, and set up courts to resolve any conflicts when those titles overlapped with Pennsylvania titles. Sounds simple, right?
In practice, it was very complicated. Connecticut townships had a structure that was alien to Pennsylvania law, where citizens owned stock in the corporation, which then owned the town. Pennsylvania titles were owned by individuals. Trying to reconcile the two structures was a real headache — especially for Yankees who couldn’t prove individual ownership of a parcel of land.
The Pennamites were also a problem. They were sick of being persecuted by Yankees and eager to be the ones doing the persecuting. No one was more eager than Alexander Patterson and Henry Shoemaker.
Patterson was a Northumberland County magistrate, Shoemaker a justice of the peace, and both of them wanted every last Yankee out of Wyoming. They badgered Yankees to give up their Connecticut deeds. If Yankees resisted, they would be arrested only to discover upon their release that their property had been attached and re-sold. If that still wasn’t enough to get them to leave, Patterson and Shoemaker would come back with a mob and administer an old-fashioned beating.
It was a page right out of Zebulon Butler’s playbook — not that Butler himself could appreciate it, since arresting him was the very first thing Patterson and Shoemaker did.
The Yankees turned to Fort Wyoming for aid, only to belatedly realize that the new garrison consisted almost entirely of Pennamites who were on Patterson’s side. So they formed their own mob.
Throughout 1784 Wyoming was a battleground. In May, Patterson marched 150 Yankees out of the valley at gunpoint. Yankees responded by laying siege to Fort Wyoming in July. The Pennamite mob would dispossess widows and orphans, and the Yankees would fire back by robbing Pennamite farmers blind. Hardly a week went by without someone being shot or wounded by one side or the other.
In September, Pennsylvania sent a special commission to the area to help stop the violence, only to have the commissioners flee when they literally came under fire from both sides. At this point the Commonwealth had seen enough. It disbanded the Fort Wyoming garrison and indicted Patterson, Shoemaker, and several key members of their mob.
In court Patterson argued that that his actions were “not strictly consonant of the Letter of the Law” but “dictated solely by the principles of self-preservation”; he apparently thought that was some sort of affirmative defense. The court did not agree and convicted the lot in November. Patterson and Shoemaker resigned their offices in disgrace, and were financially ruined by the steep fines levied against them.
With Patterson and Shoemaker gone, there was a power vacuum in the Wyoming Valley… and a revitalized Susquehannah Company stepped in to fill it.
In July 1785 the Company was revived by a consortium of land speculators from New York and New England. They held the opinion that when the Trenton Decree voided Connecticut’s claim to the Wyoming Valley, it rendered the entire area terra nullius — though to reach that conclusion they had to completely ignore the rest of the decree, awarding the land to Pennsylvania. The new Company laid claim to the entire top third of the Commonwealth, and handed out 600 “shares,” land grants of 600 acres, to each of its investors. Those investors were mostly land speculators looking to flip their properties, so to secure their claim in the short term they handed out “half-shares” of 300 acres to anyone willing to drive the Pennamites from the land and hold it by force of arms.
These “half-share men,” desperate and dispossessed men operating without official sanction from the State of Connecticut, became known as “the Wild Yankees.” Their primary leaders were two new faces, John Franklin and John Jenkins, but they also included some blasts from the past including Zebulon Butler… and Ethan Allen.
The Company had explicitly recruited Allen to join the conflict because they sought to emulate his struggle for independence against New Hampshire and New York. In September 1786 he penned a manifesto urging the Wyoming Valley to break away and form a new state, “Westmoreland.” Of course, the manifesto also included an out: the Susquehannah Company would submit to Pennsylvania’s authority, but only if the Commonwealth confirmed all Connecticut titles, including the new grants that had been made since 1782.
This made the Wild Yankees sound somewhat reasonable, since they seemed amenable to compromise, while in fact they staked their entire position on a line they knew the Pennamites would never cross on principle. In the meantime, Allen’s Green Mountain Boys swelled the ranks of the half-share men.
Pennsylvania was nervous, because the Yankees were still the majority of the population in the Wyoming Valley. The Commonwealth moved to squash this new movement by giving it a bigger voice in affairs of state. It incorporated the new area claimed by the Company as Luzerene County and held snap elections to choose representatives… but John Franklin and the half-share men boycotted the election, and when elected to office refused to serve.
In March 1787 the Commonwealth went even further, passing the Confirming Act which reaffirmed the rights of Connecticut settlers whose claims predated the Trenton Decree, even giving them precedence over Pennsylvania claimants.
The Commonwealth selected General Timothy Pickering to help organize the new county and settle property disputes. Pickering, the former quartermaster-general of the Continental Army, was an excellent administrator and admired for his fairness and even-handedness. There was also the hope that the the Wild Yankees might negotiate more readily with Pickering, a fellow Yankee (albeit from Massachusetts).
Pickering dashed those hopes to pieces right out of the starting gate, because his first official act was to arrest John Franklin. In Pickering’s defense, Franklin didn’t give him much of a choice. Throughout the month of September he had been organizing the Wild Yankees into a fighting force that would prevent Luzerne County from forming a militia. So when Pickering arrived in Wilkes-Barre on October 2nd, he and his men jumped Franklin in the street, bound him to a horse, and sent him off to Philadelphia to be tried for conspiracy to commit treason. Without Franklin to lead them, the Wild Yankees seemingly melted away. Pickering’s attempt to organize the new county met little resistance… or so it seemed.
On June 26th, 1788 Pickering and his wife Rebecca were startled awake in the middle of night. They lit a candle and were shocked to discover that their bedroom was full of Wild Yankees brandishing hatchets, their faces blackened with charcoal to hide their identities. They kidnapped Pickering and whisked him away to a remote cabin in the woods, with the intent of using him as a bargaining chip to secure the release of Franklin.
At least, that was the idea. It turns out the Susquehannah Company did not think Franklin was nearly as essential as the half-share men did, and that kidnapping a close personal friend of George Washington was maybe taking a step too far. (After all, who wants to antagonize a 6’20” man who kills for fun?)
It took the half-share men almost twenty days to realize they had been hung out to dry, and once they did they decided to set Pickering loose rather than be hunted down like dogs by the brain-eating inventor of cocaine. Before releasing Pickering, they asked him to plead for lenience on their behalf. To his great credit, Pickering did… and then he got the hell out of Luzerne County. (He would later go to have more successful career in politics, serving as the Postmaster General, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of State.)
In November 1788, John Franklin was finally charged with treason. Thirteen months in jail had not been kind fo the Wild Yankee — he was dreadfully ill, a condition exacerbated by his attempts to treat his illness with a dysentery- and dyspepsia-inducing diet of whiskey, wine, watermelon and pineapple. Mindful of Franklin’s health, and hoping that leniency might sway him to the Pennamite site, Governor Thomas Mifflin pardoned Franklin on the condition that he stop being such a naughty boy.
Franklin reluctantly agreed, and his capitulation brought an end to the breakaway state of Westmoreland. He would later serve as the sheriff of Luzerne County and as a representative to the Pennsylvania legislature. He never again took up arms against the state… though behind the scenes, he still gave the Wild Yankees all the support he could.
At this point, the shooting stage of the Third Yankee-Pennamite War was largely over. There would be sporadic outbreaks of mob violence and the occasional shooting over the next two decades, but for the most part the war itself moved to the courts.
The Pennsylvania legislature tried everything they could think of to appease the Wild Yankees. They offered juicy carrots, offering preferential prices for land and preferential treatment in courts of arbitration. They wielded the stick, imposing criminal penalties for anyone who attempted to sell titles issued by the Susquehannah Company without first exchanging them for Pennsylvania titles. The only line they drew in the sand was that they would not honor Connecticut titles issued after the Trenton Decree.
For the Yankees, that wasn’t enough. They wanted all Connecticut titles confirmed, and they didn’t want to have to pay twice for them, even though they didn’t have a leg to stand on in either case. Since the legislature wouldn’t budge on those points, the Yankees resisted by taking over the Luzerne and Northumberland County governments, which was easy, because they were still the largest power block in the area. They vigorously enforced judgments and laws against Pennamites, and ignored them against Yankees. When the state struck back by removing Wild Yankee officeholders, the voters would just elect another group of Wild Yankees.
The Commonwealth decided to get super-tough with the Compromise Act of 1799, which was essentially no compromise at all — essentially, any conflict between Pennsylvania and Connecticut titles were automatically resolved in favor of Pennsylvania claimants. That set off another round of both violent and non-violent resistance, leading to the Intrusion Act of 1801 which took the enforcement of the Compromise Act out of the hands of non-complying county officials and put it in the hands of reliable state officials.
At some point in the middle all of this the Susquehannah Company decided to bow out, since the out-of-state land speculators running the joint had been throwing money at Wyoming for twenty years with no sign they would ever realize any profits. In 1807, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania threw in the towel too, agreeing to recognize titles issued by the Susquehannah Company after the Trenton Decree.
What ultimately brought an end to the Yankee-Pennamite Wars? Was there some sort of climactic battle? Did the Commonwealth finally come up with a legal strategy that satisfied everyone? Was there some sort of calamity or natural disaster that brought the communities together?
Nope! It all just sort of fizzled out as the Wild Yankees realized they had other options. After all, why risk life and limb a for a piece of Scranton when land in the Northwest Territories was selling for pennies an acre? Over the years the exhausted combatants just gave up on their claims and drifted west, where they could snatch up land without having to worry about a contested title.
The final battle of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars, appropriately enough was a lawsuit. In 1813 Elizabeth Mathewson sued her brother, Elisha Satterslee, who had leased some property from his sister’s late husband and then stole the land by securing a Pennsylvania deed that undercut his brother-in-law’s Connecticut title. As was typical for the wars, both sides managed to simultaneously win and lose. In 1827 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed Satterslee to retain the title, but forced him to pay Mathewson an astonishing $10,000 in damages.
Which was probably more than the land had ever been worth in the first place.
We mentioned “Cresap’s War.” That conflict was named after Thomas Cresap, one of the chief belligerents on the Maryland side. Three decades later of Cresap’s sons, Michael, led a series of raids against Native Americans in western Pennsylvania which boiled over and became Lord Dunmore’s War. You know those Cresap boys, always starting trouble. Anyway, we discussed Dunmore’s War in Series 4’s “He Whooped to See them Burn.”
Those Christianized Delawares who moved west to Gnadenhutten? They were eventually be massacred by American militiamen in 1782 and in revenge, Native Americans tortured Col. William Crawford and burned him at the stake. Simon Girty got all the blame, though. See Series 4’s “He Whooped to See Them Burn” for more.
Walter Butler’s actions earned him a spot in the jury of the damned in The Devil and Daniel Webster. Also on that jury? Simon Girty, again, from Series 4’s “He Whooped to See Them Burn.”
I guess what I’m saying is, go listen to “He Whooped to See Them Burn.”
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