Wilkes University

Early History

Early Days in the Wyoming Valley

When you stand on the top of Dial Rock, sometimes called Campbell’s Ledge, you are at the northern end of Wyoming Valley.  From this vantage point you can look across the Susquehanna River to view the towns of West Pittston and Pittston.  On a clear day you can see all the way to Wilkes-Barre.   Less than twenty miles from Dial Rock is the town of Nanticoke (named for the Native American tribe).  On the west side of the valley are mountain ranges named Back Mountain that run south to other ranges until the end of the valley at Plymouth Mountain.   The east side of the valley includes the ranges of Wyoming Mountain, and Wilkes-Barre Mountain.  In-between these two points is the Wyoming Valley.

The 440 mile long Susquehanna River flows through the entire length of the valley.  This is the sixteenth largest river in the United States and the largest river located entirely within the United States that empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  It drains 27,000 square miles.  That comprises a larger area than the states of Vermont, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Delaware combined.  In the early days of the valley, shad (spelled sceadd in old English) thrived in the river.  Settlers from Connecticut had several fisheries at Wilkes-Barre, Kingston, Forty Fort, and Nanticoke to catch the tasty meal.  A fishery’s daily haul could range anywhere from 1,500 to 4,000 of these fish that made a migration from the Chesapeake to the headwaters of the Susquehanna in New York.

Wildlife, fish, and rich, fertile soil, combined with plentiful lumber attracted many people here.   Bishop deWatteville, a bishop of the Moravian church, came here in 1748 as a missionary not as a settler. “From the top of a high mountain we had our first view of the beautiful and extensive flats of Wyoming and the Susquehanna winding through them,” he writes.  “It was the most charming prospect my eyes had ever seen. Beyond them stretched a line of mountains high up…We viewed the scene for several minutes in silent admiration, then descended the precipitous mountain side, past a spring, until we got into the valley.”  He added that the grass grew so tall that it was difficult to see over it, even when riding on a horse.

But the bishop was not the first to come to the valley.  He had come to spread Christianity to the descendents of the earliest arrivals here--the Native Americans. In fact, many believe that the word Wyoming comes from a Delaware Native American word that means large or flat plain.   The Six Nations of the Iroquois governed this land when Bishop deWatteville arrived.  Their base was located near what is now Syracuse, New York.  To protect themselves from settler incursions, they invited other Indian tribes to settle in the Wyoming Valley.  At various times, Shawanese established a village in the valley near present day Plymouth in 1701.   The Nanticoke, Mohegan and Lenni Lenape (called the Delaware) also lived here at different times.

In 1662, King Charles II of England granted land to colonists who settled in what is now Connecticut.  The strip of land he gave to them included the northern half of Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately, nineteen years later, he gave the same land within a larger grant to William Penn.  (This set up a series of battles between the two groups known as the Yankee Pennamite Wars.) It was easy to do make this mistake because real mapping of these areas had not yet taken place.  The people in Connecticut, soon to be known as Yankees, lived in an area where the population had tripled.   By the early 1750’s, the soil was wearing out, too, so a number of the settlers decided to move farther west—west to Wyoming Valley.    They formed the Susquehanna Company in 1753 and sent three men to the valley of Wyoming for future settlement.  Supposedly, the Susquehanna Company purchased Wyoming Valley from the Indians.  But the sale was called into question when it turned out that an agent for the company first  got the Indian representatives drunk and then had them sign documents giving their land away.  Some Susquehanna company members refused to go to Wyoming Valley when they learned about the incident as they thought it was unethical.

The Indians who lived in the Wyoming Valley did not like that intrusion into their home by the Yankees. In the meantime, Pennsylvania settlers known as Pennamites, helped to build houses for some of the Indians including Teedyuscung, the Delaware Indian chief.  They, too, had purchased Wyoming Valley from the Indians based on William Penn’s example of fair treatment of the Natives.  (The sons of William Penn, however, were involved in the fraudulent Walking Purchase from the Delaware Indians.)  By 1762, however,  the Connecticut settlers had located their own camp near what is the mouth of Mill Creek (near present-day General Hospital.)  The following year, Teedyuscung was burned to death in his house (near  present-day Wilkes University.)  Alternately Indians and white settlers were blamed, but the revenge was taken against the Yankee camp.  In October of 1763 about the same time as the end of the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War, the Yankees were attacked.  Some settlers were killed, some prisoners were taken, and the rest were driven away.  Throughout the next few years the valley was home only to a few fur traders.

In 1768, men from Pennsylvania were sent to the northeastern corner of their colony to survey the land and divide it into parcels.  Several of them established a blockhouse at Mill Creek.  In February of 1769 the Connecticut Yankees decided to try to settle the valley again.  Forty of them came and chose to make their fort in what we now call Forty Fort.  A larger group joined them in May led by John Durkee.  They built their own Fort Durkee across the river on what is now Ross Street.  In June, armed Pennamites ordered the Yankees to get out of the Wyoming Valley.  By September, the Yankees were forced to leave.  They came back in 1770, the same year as the Boston Massacre, and retook their Fort Durkee.   John Durkee laid out the city of Wilkes-Barre.  It is named for John Wilkes and Isaac Barre two colonial sympathizers in the British Parliament.

In January of 1771, the Pennamites created a new fort closer to the Yankees near Northampton Street and named it Fort Wyoming.  Eight months later, the Yankees laid siege to it and forced the Pennamites to leave.  Over the next four years, the Yankees built gristmills, built other forts, and surveyed more land.  Crops were planted, roads were made and schools and churches were planned. They set up five townships named Wilkes-Barre, Pittston, Kingston (Kingstown), Hanover, and Plymouth.

The Continental Congress recommended to the Pennamites that they resolve the issue of ownership.  Instead they attacked the Yankees—and lost.  The Yankees won the Battle of Rampart Rocks in December, 1775,  and pushed the intruders out.  The Yankees barely had time to enjoy their victory over the Pennamites as the American Revolution broke out and they sent men as part of the 24th Connecticut to help the new Continental Army under George Washington.

They were with the Continental Army in 1778 when an organized force of British and Tory soldiers (known as Butler’s Rangers) and Seneca Indians, perhaps as many as 600, came into the valley in late June.  The valley was protected by about 350 older men and young boys led by Colonel Nathan Denison of Forty Fort and Colonel Zebulon Butler of Fort Wilkes-Barre.   This force was made up mostly of men too old or too young to fight with the 24th Connecticut.  The Continental Congress finally released the men fighting with Washington to go home to the valley, but it would be too late to prevent what has become known as the Wyoming Massacre.  You can read more about the particulars in The Battle of Wyoming—A Brief Account. 

A few months later in November of 1778, a young girl named Frances Slocum was taken by the Indians from her family home in Wilkes-Barre.  She eventually grew up to marry a chief of the Miami Indians and lived in Peru, Indiana.  Luke Swetland was also captured by the Indians and kept for nearly a year before he escaped.  His wife Hannah left the Wyoming Valley and moved back to Connecticut.  She was there when her husband returned to his home in Wyoming.  He then walked to Connecticut, rejoined his wife and family, and then walked back to Wyoming.

In response to the massacre, George Washington ordered General Sullivan to protect the frontier settlements.   The expedition arrived in Wyoming in 1779 with more than 3.000 men.  From July through October, they destroyed scores of Indian villages, stores, and crops in the valley and north to the Finger Lakes.  In 1780, Indians abducted Benjamin Harvey.  He was taken to Fort Niagara and later released.  Upon walking back to his home in Plymouth, he discovered the lake that now bears his name.

While the Yankees and Pennamites were fighting over the valley in what is known as the Second Yankee-Pennamite War in 1784, John Franklin tried to create a new state carved out of what was then Westmoreland.  He had help from the famous Ethan Allen who declared that he had created one state and would like to create a second one.  Franklin was arrested by his old friend Timothy Pickering, clapped into irons, and sent to Philadelphia where he suffered in prison for two years. Though unsuccessful in the attempt to make a new state, the honorable name of Franklin is still remembered in Wilkes-Barre.

In 1783, two years after the Battle of Yorktown and just as the Treaty of Paris was being signed to end the American Revolution, the Pennamites took over Fort Wyoming from the Yankees and renamed it Fort Dickinson.  They also tried to change the name of the city to Londonderry.  Arrests of Yankees continued and the debate over who owned the land raged for a number of years.  Eventually, a court appointed in Trenton decided that the land and citizens came under the sovereignty of Pennsylvania.   This was a difficult case because under the Articles of Confederation (we were not yet under the authority of the Constitution) there were not any courts set up to handle disputes between states.  The question was about which state had jurisdiction over the situation in Pennsylvania: was it Connecticut or the new proposed state of Westmoreland or was it Pennsylvania?  At the suggestion of Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State and later, Secretary of War, (and formerly from Wilkes-Barre) Yankees could retain ownership of their land under the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania.   The question of who owned Wyoming Valley was finally settled.