Naming Wilkes-Barre

The naming of Wilkes-Barre began with a King's error.

In 1662 King Charles II of England gave a charter to the Connecticut colony to certain lands in North America that included the Wyoming Valley. At the same time, King Charles II owed a large debt to Admiral Penn of the English navy, father of William Penn. In 1681 King Charles II granted William Penn a charter to the Pennsylvania region in repayment of the debt owed to Penn's father. 

Inadvertently, the Pennsylvania and Connecticut charters both covered a prized Susquehanna River valley known as Wyoming. The name Wyoming was derived from a corruption of Maugh-way-wame, a Delaware Indian name for The Large Plains.

The Penns respected the Indians' right of conquest to the land and there was no felt necessity to settle the area. By the 1750s, however, soil exhaustion and a tripling population compelled Connecticut settlers to consider settlement of the Wyoming Valley. 

The Susquehanna Company was formed in July 1753 in Windham, Connecticut, for the purpose of purchasing the Susquehanna lands, including the Valley of Wyoming, from the Indian natives, and to explore and organize a settlement in the region. The settlement urge was blocked by the intervening French and Indian War (1754-1763) which pitted the French and their Indian allies against the English and the American Colonists. By 1758 the Iroquois had entered into a general peace with the English, and Delaware Indians under Chief Teedyuscung settled in the Wyoming Valley.

In September 1762 about 119 Susquehanna Company settlers arrived at Mill Creek, near the current site of the Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, to plant grain and erect shelters, after which they returned to Connecticut. They returned to Mill Creek in May 1763, shortly after Teedyuscung had burned to death in his home, near the site of present Riverside Drive in South Wilkes-Barre. 

Whether the fire was accidental or deliberate is not known. There were warring factions among the Indians. Then, on October 15, 1763, the Mill Creek settlement was attacked and twenty settlers were killed by marauding Delawares from outside the area. The settlers and local Indians both fled the Valley.

Pennsylvania established an Indian trading post at Mill Creek in 1765 and coal discovered in the area was sent to England for analysis. Permanent settlement of the Valley was not encouraged until 1768. The Pennsylvania Proprietaries now sought to establish their claim to the northeast region of Pennsylvania and had a survey of Wyoming completed in December 1768. The west side of the river valley was called the Manor of Stoke. Pennsylvania lessees resettled at Mill Creek in the same month, but as the year closed, the Susquehannah Company resolved in Hartford, Connecticut, to also resettle the Wyoming Valley.

The Susquehanna Company sent the "first forty" settlers to the Wyoming Valley in February 1769. Twice the Connecticut settlers were arrested by the Pennsylvania party, and taken to Easton, where they were released on bail, and each time the Connecticut settlers returned to the Valley. Two hundred additional Connecticut settlers arrived in May 1769 under the leadership of Major John Durkee. 

Fort Durkee was erected near the present location of Wilkes University's Darte Center for the Performing Arts.

The Susquehanna Company plan was to survey five towns in the Wyoming Valley, each about five miles square, and to divide the towns among the 240 Connecticut settlers. The Company also invited certain malcontented Pennsylvanians called the "Paxton Men," from the Lancaster-Dauphin County area, to join the Wyoming settlement in opposition to Pennsylvania authority. In the summer of 1769, amid a warring atmosphere between the Pennsylvania and Connecticut claimants, Major John Durkee made daring preparations to survey the region and to create settlements. 

John Durkee (1728-1782) is an important, but unheralded figure in our community's history. Durkee, born in Windham, Connecticut, moved to Norwich in 1750. In March 1756 he obtained a commission to serve a Connecticut regiment in the hostilities between England and France. Durkee was to serve in a distinguished manner in the English invasion of Canada and he was appointed a major for his regiment in March 1759. 

During the course of his service in 1759, Durkee met Isaac Barre, an officer in the English Army who served in Canada in 1758-59. The son of a French refugee, Barre was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1726, and educated at Trinity College. His parents hoped he would become a lawyer. He also had promise as an actor. But Barre preferred a military career and entered the service in 1746.

Barre was with General James Wolfe of England when Wolfe was fatally shot during the defeat of the French on the Plains of Abraham in the Battle of Quebec in September 1759. Barre himself received a severe bullet wound to his right cheek which distorted his appearance and blinded his right eye. But Barre was denied an army promotion by William Pitt, blind to Barre's commendable years of service.

After the war, Barre returned to England and entered Parliament for Chipping Wycombe from 1761-1774 and for Caine from 1774-1790. Pitt had resigned from the King's cabinet and sat in the House in opposition. The King's men, now under Lord Bute, sought to challenge the feared Pitt. Immediately after his seating in Parliament, Barre received considerable notice when he attacked Pitt in a critical speech in the House of Commons. Barre was later awarded the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by Bute in 1863. Barre reconciled with Pitt in 1764, partly over the government's treatment of Wilkes.

The careers of Durkee and Barre were again joined during the Stamp Act controversy. The Stamp Act was introduced in the House of Commons in February 1765. Barre was the single most vocal opponent of the tax in the House; he predicted rebellion in the Colonies. In a famous speech in opposition to the Stamp which stunned the House, Barre called the British Colonists in America the "Sons of Liberty," a catch-word which ignited passion in the New England settlements, but did not stay passage of the Stamp Act by Parliament.

In America, radical patriotic groups called the Sons of Liberty were organized to oppose the Stamp Act. John Durkee was active in these pre-Revolutionary activities as Norwich was the center of the Sons of Liberty resistance in Connecticut. In September 1765 Durkee organized a gang of five hundred men to capture and harass Jared Ingersoll, the Stamp Act agent for Connecticut. The Sons of Liberty grabbed Ingersoll in Wethersfield and took him to Hartford and forced him to resign.

Among the Sons of Liberty with Durkee were Captain Zebulon Butler, future leader of the Wyoming forces defeated in the Wyoming Massacre of July 3, 1778, and Benjamin Harvey, who later settled in West Nanticoke and Plymouth. Harvey became an important figure in Wyoming Valley frontier life, and he discovered Harvey's Lake in 1781. When the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, the town of Boston had a portrait of Barre hung in Faneuil Hall. The portrait was later destroyed by British troops during the Boston siege of 1775.

Durkee only knew John Wilkes by reputation since Wilkes never visited America. The Wilkes name was well-known among the Colonials in the decade before the Stamp Act crisis. He, like Barre, also had a grievance with Pitt after Wilkes was denied the governorship of Quebec in 1762. Wilkes was a vocal opponent of the King's ministers. Whether he was a dedicated reformer, or an opportunist with unusual wit, can be debated. Nevertheless, Wilkes became a symbol of British and Colonial national rights and liberties which an oppressive government sought to suppress. His confrontations (or antics) were closely followed in Massachusetts and Connecticut newspapers, and Colonial assemblies would periodically meet in local taverns to cheer Wilkes' legal victories over Parliament.

During the North Briton controversy in England in 1762-1763, Barre supported the rights of Wilkes in the House of Commons. This led the government to temporarily dismiss Barre from the Army and his rank. Barre was more fond of the constitutional rights Wilkes represented than of Wilkes himself, and he once spoke of Wilkes as "a wicked, daring infamous incendiary" and as an "infernal parricide."

When Durkee arrived in the Wyoming Valley in May 1769, Wilkes had been the talk of England and America for a decade. At the time of Barre's Stamp Act speech, Wilkes had been popularly re-elected to Parliament. But the House of Commons voided the election to prevent Wilkes from being seated, which only provoked additional outburst of support for Wilkes on both sides of the Atlantic. Wilkes wrote to the Sons of Liberty in Boston in March 1769, expressing his wish to have the Stamp Act repealed, if he were ever seated in Parliament.

Durkee was the extreme patriot. In October 1767, he named his third son Barre Durkee, after Durkee's comrade in Parliament. In July 1868, Andrew Durkee, a cousin of John Durkee, named his son Wilkes Durkee.

In July 1769, Major John Durkee, President of the Settlers, began to use the name "Wilkesbarre" for the region near the Connecticut fort in his official correspondence. In September 1769 five towns authorized by the Susquehannah Company were surveyed: Wilkesbarre, Nanticoke (renamed Hanover a year or two later), Pittstown (later Pittston), Forty Township (renamed Kingstown in 1770, later Kingston), and Plymouth.

Durkee's designation of the critical center of the settlement as Wilkesbarre, of course, honored John Wilkes and Isaac Barre. The name Wilkesbarre assuaged Durkee's patriotic ardor, and was a shot across the Atlantic in the direction of the King's ministers. But the Connecticut settlers did not press their effrontery to the mother country. Pittstown honored the British Minister William Pitt.

Detail of a drawing of King George III A settler, Ezra Dean, offered a quart of Connecticut whiskey to his friends to have the honor of renaming Forty Township. He called it Kingstown, after the birthplace of his wife in Rhode Island, and, therefore, by descent, a compliment to the King. Nanticoke Township was given to the "Paxton Boys," who renamed it Hanover, a town near York, an area populated by German immigrants from Hanover, Germany. King George III descended from the House of Hanover.

However, open warfare broke out when Pennsylvania troops captured Fort Durkee on November 14, 1769, causing the first Yankee-Pennamite War (1769-1775). The Connecticut (Yankee) settlers were driven out of the Valley. In February 1770 Captain Lazarus Stewart and the "Paxton Boys" retook Fort Durkee on behalf of the Yankees. The Pennsylvania forces built Fort Wyoming on the river common near Northampton Street in January 1771.

There were additional sieges between the Pennsylvania and Connecticut forces, but the Pennsylvanians were defeated in August 1771 by Yankee forces led by Captain Zebulon Butler.

Approximate locations of Fort Durkee and Fort Wyoming, according to monuments in the River Common park.
Approximate locations of Forts Durkee and Wyoming, according to monuments in the River Common park.

The local war was not fully abated until the Yankees again defeated a Pennsylvania invasion force at Rampart Rocks near Harvey's Creek at Christmas 1775.

In the meantime, Durkee had been jailed and released but later arrested again and jailed in Philadelphia. He was not freed until August 1772, after nearly two year's confinement. After his imprisonment, Durkee did not return to settle in the town he named along the upper Susquehanna River. He returned to Norwich where his wife, Martha, and children resided. They were nearly destitute during Durkee's confinement, a reason he was released. He returned to the Wyoming Valley only for brief visits in 1773 and 1774.

In years immediately before the Revolutionary War (1775-1781), the Wyoming Valley was under the control of the shareholders of the Susquehannah Company. The townspeople created their own government which was neither formally attached to Connecticut nor recognized by the settlers as subject to Pennsylvania authority. In January 1774, however, the Wyoming townships were organized under a general town name of Westmoreland and attached to the county of Litchfield, Connecticut.

During this time Major John Durkee returned to active military duty in Connecticut. He participated in major battles of war for the patriotic cause, including Bunker Hill and the Battle of Trenton. Durkee crossed the Delaware River with General George Washington on Christmas Day 1776. He became Colonel of the 4th 

Regiment, Connecticut Line, in January 1776. His regiment spent the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. At the Battle of Monmouth, Durkee received a wound of the right hand which left him permanently disabled. He retired from active military service in 1781, and exhaustion from the war years contributed to his death in Norwich on May 29, 1782.

A portrait of John Wilkes

John Wilkes finally regained a seat from Middlesex to Parliament in December 1774, having also secured his election as Lord Mayor of London three months earlier. The Common Council of London and Wilkes protested the government's coercion of the Colonies in 1775; Wilkes continued his opposition to governmental policies during the Revolutionary War.

During the 1780s he was still an anti-authoritarian advocate and was involved in controversial British-Indian politics. Wilkes finally left politics in June 1770 when he did not seek re-election. He spent his declining years, usually dressed in scarlet, gold lace and ruffles, writing essays and his memoirs. His wit and entertaining manner had served to reconcile him with the government and his political opponents. He did on December 26, 1797, and was buried at Grosvenor Chapel in London.

A portrait of Isaac BarreIsaac Barre's political career is no longer cherished in the public memory. But his motivation in championing the Colonies was probably more legitimate than that of Wilkes. With his disfigured face, Barre could rattle the House of Commons with "a savage eye" and unparalleled censure of is opponents. He was acclaimed in America for his opposition in the House to measures against the Colonies. Nevertheless, Barre managed to walk the waters of eighteenth-century British politics with more conventional grace and official honors than Wilkes. At various times, he held the offices of Adjutant General in the British Army, Governor of Sterling Castle, Vice-Treasurer of Ireland, and Clerk of Pells.

He became totally blind in 1785, a consequence of his war wound in 1759, but he retained his seat in Parliament. Barre served in the House of Commons for thirty years, finally retiring in 1790, the same year as Wilkes. Colonel Barre, who was heirless, died at his home on Stanhope Street, in Mayfair, London, on July 20, 1802.

Events in the Wyoming Valley subsequent to the naming of Wilkes-Barre also had a colorful history. During the Revolutionary War, the settlers of Westmoreland organized troops to join Washington. Consequently the settlement was largely defenseless, which contributed to the infamous Wyoming Massacre of local settlers and militia by British and Indian forces in July 1778.

In response, Washington sent Major General John Sullivan on an expedition which arrived in Wilkes-Barre in June 1779. Sullivan's troops marched into New York State to destroy the Indian bands known as the Six Nations.

The Revolutionary War ended with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 23, 1781. The Treaty of Peace with England also ended the proprietary control of Pennsylvania by the Penn family. A new state government immediately asked the Congress to resolve the Pennsylvania-Connecticut claims in the Wyoming Valley. A court established at Trenton, New Jersey, ruled on October 31, 1782, that Pennsylvania owned the Wyoming Valley but that the claims of Connecticut settlers to land titles should be honored.

The Connecticut settlers were not satisfied with the Trenton Decree and in March 1783 a local delegation went to Connecticut to request the Connecticut General Assembly to petition the Congress for another trial of the Wyoming claims, but Connecticut took no action. Another Yankee-Pennamite War erupted in the Wyoming Valley in October 1783, ending with another Connecticut victory in November 1784. The Pennsylvania General Assembly created Luzerne County in 1786, and the claims of Pennsylvania and Connecticut settlers were eventually settled, in general conformity with the Trenton Decree.

The author of this historical information, F. Charles Petrillo, is a graduate of Wilkes College, Class of 1966, and the Dickinson School of Law. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society and he has published several local historical studies in recent years. This article originally appeared in the catalogue for John Wilkes and Isaac Barre: Politics and Controversy in Eighteenth Century Graphics, an exhibition at the University's Sordoni Art Gallery, copyright Wilkes College (now University) 1988.

Suggested Readings 

"A History of Wilkes-Barre,"
O.J. Harvey (Wilkes-Barre, PA., 1929)
The best historical source for a study of frontier Wyoming; exhausting and masterful in detail. Harvey also provides a full treatment of the various spellings and pronunciations of Wilkes-Barre. (The hyphenated Wilkes-Barre came into general use after the 1840s.) Harvey's work contains a large chapter on Wilkes. His chapter on Isaac Barre may be the most extensive history of Barre available anywhere.

"History of Wyoming,"
Charles Miner (Phil.: J. Crissy, 1845)

"Annals of Luzerne County,"
Stewart Pearce (Phil.: J.B. Lippincott, 1886)

"The Story of Wyoming,"
Louis Frank (Wilkes-Barre, PA., 1930)
A children's history of the Wyoming Valley; may be found in the reference section of local libraries.

"History of the Certified Township of Kingston,"
William Brewster (Kingston, PA., 1930).

"Proceedings of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society"
(1900), VI, 113-136
An article or summary biography of Isaac Barre.