The Battle of Wyoming Valley
Commemorating the ‘Massacre’


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In 1778 ...

Opposing Forces Assemble

On June 1, 1778, British Major John Butler and 110 of his Rangers made their way down the Susquehanna River toward the Wyoming Valley. Accompanied by “a large force of Six Nations Indians,” mostly Seneca and Cayuga, they arrived in the valley on June 30 and camped on a high point of ground.1 Their location provided them with a sweeping view of the settlement, and scouts sent out soon returned with scalps and eight prisoners. At about the same moment, Loyalist spies arrived to inform Butler of the preparedness of the settlement, estimating a combined force of about eight hundred men assembled in forts, Wintermoot, Jenkins, and Forty.2

Down in the settlement at Forty Fort, the scouts of American colonels Nathan Denison and Zebulon Butler reported the arrival of the British and the Indians. They saw “about fifty cannoe loads of enemy” and large parties gathered on each side of the river.3 This intelligence alarmed the inhabitants of the settlement around Forty Fort. Some wanted to move into the fort, but others wanted to leave the settlement as quickly as possible. The majority of the men decided that they would rather march out to meet the British and Indians than wait in the fort while their homes were destroyed. So when Major Butler demanded the surrender of Forty Fort on July 1, Colonels Butler and Denison refused.

This refusal perplexed Major Butler, who had already secured the surrender of forts Wintermoot and Jenkins. Assured that their peaceful surrender and promise to remain neutral in the war would ensure their protection from harm by rangers or Indians, the settlers in those two forts had readily and willingly capitulated.4 Forty Fort’s refusal meant that Butler and his army would have to take the fort by force.

The March

The sun was hot when the Americans prepared to march on July 3. Between three hundred and four hundred men assembled at Kingston Fort, about three miles from the British camp.5 By two p.m. Indian foragers in the area had reported settler movements back to Major Butler. That the Americans were approaching “pleased the Indians highly who observed they should be upon equal footing with them in the woods.”6 Around four p.m. the Americans were within one mile of the British. Hoping to deceive the Americans into believing that his forces were retreating, Major Butler ordered the Wintermoot and Jenkins forts fired. The Americans continued their progress toward Major Butler’s forces without faltering, so he prepared to meet them. Posting his rarangers on the left and the Indians on the right, a combined force of 564 men lay flat on the ground and silently awaited the approach of the Americans.7

That the Americans were approaching “pleased the Indians highly who observed they should be upon equal footing with them in the woods.”

Meanwhile, American Colonels Butler and Denison formed their soldiers into battle lines, and Butler instructed the men to “stand firm the first shock and the Indians will give way. Everything depends on standing firm the first shock.”8 Marching forward, guns ready, the Americans fired their first volley at two hundred yards. The rangers and Indians continued to lie still without returning fire. By the time the Americans were within a hundred yards of Butler’s forces, they had fired three volleys. It was then that Sayenqueraghta, the Seneca war chief, gave the signal for the Indians to fire, and the rangers followed suit.9 At such close range, the Americans suffered greatly. The Indians closed in around their flanks and an attempt by the American left wing to fall back to a better position was misinterpreted as a signal for retreat, resulting in a rout. Overpowered and unprepared, the Americans panicked, dropped their guns, and fled in different directions. The British and their Indian allies were relentless in their pursuit, cutting the Americans down as they ran and tomahawking many who attempted to escape across the river. After half an hour, only a “pathetic remnant” of the Americans made it back to the fort.10

When it was over, American Colonels Butler and Denison had both survived the battle, but the British and the Indians had the scalps of 227 soldiers who had not. They also had taken five prisoners, and British Major John Butler remarked later that it was with “the greatest difficulty” that he prevented the Indians from killing more.11

Surrender and Aftermath

The next morning, Colonel Denison and Major John Butler met to discuss the terms of surrender, Colonel Zebulon Butler having gone down river with his family the night before. Denison claimed a loss of 1 lieutenant colonel, 2 majors, 7 captains, 13 lieutenants, 11 ensigns, and 268 privates - a total of 302 men. Butler claimed the loss of 1 Indian and 2 rangers, and 8 Indians wounded in the battle.12 The articles of capitulation demanded that the inhabitants lay down their arms and occupy their farms peaceably “preserved entire from hurt”; that the stores be surrendered and the garrisons demolished; that any property taken “from the people called Torris” be returned and they be allowed to live peaceably as well; that the inhabitants together with Denison not take up arms during the present war; and “that Major Butler will use his utmost influence that the private property of the inhabitants shall be preserved entire to them.”13 Soon after the papers were signed and the surrender was completed, Denison left the valley.14

Perhaps Major Butler’s promises were only a ruse. His report to his superior, Lieutenant Colonel Bolton, on July 8 did not include the conditions of the surrender, but boasted that eight palisaded forts were destroyed, along with all the mills, and about a thousand homes. In addition, he reported that a thousand head of cattle had been killed or driven off, as well as a great number of sheep and swine. Major Butler was also proud that he could “with great truth assure [Bolton] that in the destruction of the settlement not a single person [had] been hurt of the inhabitants but such as were in arms; to those indeed the Indians gave no quarter.”15 By July 28, Colonel Denison had heard not only about the destruction of the settlement but that five settlers had been killed on the road as they tried to leave the area. This information he included in his report to Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, along with a promise to return and take up arms again.


1 Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (New York: Syracuse UP, 1972), 167.

2 Major John Butler to Lieutenant Colonel Mason Bolton, 8 July 1778, in Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783, (Colonial Office Series), 21 vols., ed. K. G. Davies (Dublin, Ireland: Irish Univ. Press, 1976), 15:165. (Hereafter DAR).

3 Nathan Denison to Jonathan Trumbull,28 July 1778, in The Susquehanna Company Papers, 11 vols., ed. Robert J. Taylor (New York: Cornell University Press, 1969), 7:47. (Hereafter SCP).

4 Graymont, Iroquois, 168.

5 Denison to Trumbull, 28 July 1778, SCP, 7:48.

6 Butler to Bolton, 8 July 1778, DAR, 15:166.

7 Graymont, Iroquois, 169.

8 Ibid.; Butler to Bolton, 8 July 1778, DAR, 15:166.

9 Graymont, Iroquois, 169-71.

10 Butler to Bolton,8 July 1778, DAR, 15:166.

11 Ibid.

12 Graymont, Iroquois, 171.

13 Denison to Trumbull, 28 July 1778, SCP, 7:48.

14 Butler to Bolton,8 July 1778, DAR, 15:166.

15 William Maclay to Timothy Matlack, 12 July 1778, SCP, 7:45-6.

This website is a work in progress, created as a practicum for “History and New Media,” a graduate class at George Mason University. Text is extracted from “The Wyoming Valley Battle and ‘Massacre’: Images of a Constructed American History,” Master’s Thesis, The College of William and Mary, 2001.