Connecticut’s Lost Cause

Whereas the petition of Zebulon Butler and others, claiming private right of soil under the State of Connecticut, and within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania … the claims of Zebulon Butler and others be, and hereby are, repealed.


Zebulon Butler was Connecticut’s foremost military leader in its boundary war with Pennsylvania over Wyoming. Connecticut and Pennsylvania fighting over Wyoming? Didn’t these people have maps? Didn’t they notice that New York and the northern end of New Jersey are in between Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and that Wyoming hadn’t even been invented?

They did have maps-pretty good ones, by then—and the Wyoming they were fighting over was the original Wyoming, which was the name of a valley along the Susquehanna River. The conflict resulted from the fact that Connecticut’s colonial charter gave it reason to lay claim to Pennsylvania’s northern tier. The dispute led to warfare-forts, cannons, deaths-three times over thirty years. Though Connecticut ultimately lost, those battles that it won were led by Zebulon Butler.

Butler grew up in Lyme, Connecticut. The hilly and rocky nature of the area likely contributed to his purchasing, at the age of twenty-nine, newly available land being sold by Connecticut’s Susquehanna Company in the fertile Wyoming Valley. Like his fellow pioneers, Butler knew that Pennsylvania disputed the legality of their purchases. Pennsylvania’s reasons were quite simple. The land being sold and deeded in Connecticut was well within the borders stipulated in Pennsylvania’s 1681 charter.

The boundaries in Connecticut’s 1662 charter, however, overlapped those of Pennsylvania. It had granted Connecticut a northern border along its (yet-to-be) agreed-upon boundary with Massachusetts, a southern border at Long Island Sound, and a western border at the Pacific Ocean. Massachusetts and Connecticut ultimately agreed upon a line located just above the 42nd parallel. Its southern coast at Long Island Sound extends as far south as the 41st parallel. Hence, colonial Connecticut could make a claim to a swath of land that crossed the colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and onward to what is today the northernmost tier of California and a thin slice of Oregon.

Connecticut land claims

Connecticut gave little thought to this vast western wilderness during its first hundred years. There was land enough for cultivation and expansion surrounding its settlements in the bays and rivers leading to Long Island Sound. But its population grew exponentially as the initial hardships and dangers in the New World dissipated.1 By the mid-1700s, Connecticut needed more land.

Connecticut first asserted its western claims in 1754, when Governor Roger Wolcott allowed the Susquehanna Company to purchase land from the Iroquois along the Susquehanna River. The fact that Connecticut made no effort to assert its claim to the intervening lands in New York and New Jersey would later become legally significant. Politically and militarily, however, Connecticut knew it could not achieve a claim to land already populated by New York and New Jersey. The land in Pennsylvania, however, was still populated primarily by Iroquois tribes. If Connecticut thought that Pennsylvania’s pacifist Quakers would enable it to settle the disputed land without a fight, that notion was soon corrected. When the first forty pioneers arrived in January 1769, three were promptly arrested and the others ordered to leave. Leave they did, but en route they encountered 200 other Connecticut settlers heading for the valley. Joining their ranks, they returned and were joined by even more in the months that followed—one of whom was Zebulon Butler.

When Butler arrived in July 1769, he was simply another settler, though he had distinguished himself in the recently concluded French and Indian War. The group’s leader was Major John Durkee, who named the first settlement after two members of England’s Parliament who supported the growing protests of the nation’s American colonists: Isaac Barre and John Wilkes. To this day Connecticut’s imprint, and an imprint of the approaching Revolutionary War, remains in the name Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

In early November Pennsylvania Governor John Penn sent troops to attack the Connecticut settlements. (This Governor Penn, whose father had returned to the Anglican Church, did not hesitate to use force.) The Pennsylvanians captured Durkee, and within two weeks the Connecticut settlers surrendered and again agreed to leave.

In the wake of this defeat, Zebulon Butler’s leadership began to surface. No sooner had the settlers returned to Connecticut than they began to plan their return, with Butler among those mapping out their strategy. He served as a key aide to the newly released Durkee when the Connecticut settlers departed yet again for the Wyoming Valley in March 1770. To clear the way for their return, Connecticut settlers availed themselves of the services of a group of Pennsylvania vigilantes known as the Paxton Boys, for which they would later pay a heavy price. In the series of skirmishes, cannonades, and sieges that ensued, both Butler and Durkee were captured. This time Pennsylvania kept Durkee imprisoned. But Butler was released after four months and emerged as the new leader of Connecticut’s forces.

Butler displayed a keen sense of when to attack, when to wait, and when to lay siege to an enemy settlement. In mid-August 1771, the Pennsylvanians, trapped and without provisions, surrendered to Captain Butler, thus ending the first eruption of what became known as the Pennamite War.

A stalemate prevailed over the next four years as both colonies awaited a ruling from King George III regarding their conflicting claims. The king, however, was in no hurry to issue such a ruling. Since relations with his American colonies were deteriorating, conflict between colonies served his purposes by obstructing efforts by many of the colonists to unite.

Meanwhile, Connecticut’s settlements in the Wyoming Valley prospered under Butler’s leadership. Connecticut officially named the area Westmoreland and declared it to be part of Litchfield County. Governor Penn, aware that silence could be interpreted as concession, responded with a proclamation in March 1774. Published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, it pointedly included:

AND WHEREAS I have received information that a certain Zebulon Butler, under pretence of authority from the government of Connecticut, hath lately presumed to issue and disperse, through the counties of Northampton and Northumberland, in this province, a summons, or advertisement, setting forth, that the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut had appointed him a Justice of the Peace for the County of Litchfield, and in a town lately made and set off by the Assembly of the said colony, called by the Name of Westmoreland … I do hereby strictly prohibit and forbid the inhabitants of the said Counties of Northampton and Northumberland, and all other the inhabitants of this province, to yield any obedience or to pay the least regard whatsoever to the aforesaid summons, or advertisement, or to any orders which may be hereafter issued or given by the said Zebulon Butler.

Prosperity in Connecticut’s settlements led to growth and, in August 1775, a new settlement was founded along Warrior Run, a tributary to the Susquehanna and, most significantly, the first Connecticut settlement located on the river’s western side. This westward push raised Pennsylvania’s concerns beyond the battle of words. Should Connecticuters come to occupy regions west of the Susquehanna (the extent of its initial purchase from the Iroquois), they stood a greater chance of ultimately prevailing in their larger claim to possess the entirety of what they had come to call their Western Reserve. One month after the Connecticut settlers broke ground at Warrior Run, they were attacked by 500 soldiers from the Pennsylvania militia.

In response, Zebulon Butler led 400 Connecticut soldiers along the river’s western side, where, on suitable terrain, he erected formidable defenses. Never before had so many men faced off in the conflict. Butler, however, knew his forces need not attack. They simply had to maintain a presence west of the Susquehanna. He also knew that Pennsylvania, to support its claim to the area, could not allow their presence to go unchallenged and would have to attack. On Christmas Day 1775, the Pennsylvanians did just that. But Butler’s shrewdly located fortifications served their purpose, enabling Connecticut’s militia to repel the Pennsylvanians. That in itself constituted victory in this second eruption of the Pennamite War.

Almost immediately, both militias turned to fight side by side in the American Revolution. Even then, however, the conflict continued to haunt them. In late June 1778 approximately 400 British soldiers and 600 American Indians approached the Wyoming Valley. On June 30 they attacked, driving back Butler’s outnumbered forces. Butler retreated to a nearby fort, where he received word that reinforcements were en route. He and his officers decided to remain in the fort until the additional troops arrived. But many among the rank and file believed that, while waiting, they could be surrounded and destroyed.

Leading the opposition were Connecticut’s earlier “shock troops,” the Paxton Boys, who had good reason to fear for their lives. Their name derived from their hometown of Paxtang, Pennsylvania, where, under the leadership of Lazarus Stewart, they had formed a notorious anti-Indian rangers group. Twice they had raided peaceful Conestoga villages, massacring men, women, and children. Their fellow Pennsylvanians were outraged—most notably Governor Penn, who ordered them captured, and Benjamin Franklin, who published a pamphlet attacking their actions.2 It was then that the Paxton Boys thought it best to ally themselves with the newcomers from Connecticut.

Now, in 1778, finding themselves at risk of being surrounded by 600 Indian warriors who had joined forces with the British, Stewart and his fellow Paxton Boys impressed upon the Connecticut soldiers the extreme jeopardy they were in. Butler, facing disapproval and terror among his men, and not entirely certain they were wrong, reversed his order and agreed to a counterattack. Their position was weak, however, and they were promptly outflanked. Butler ordered his men to retreat but, in the confusion of the rout, many never received the order.

Then came payback time. The Indians tortured and murdered the captured men, including Stewart. Despite efforts by the British to restrain them, the warriors spread into the neighboring communities, plundering and burning homes and barns.

The poison of prior conflicts did not end there. Connecticut blamed Pennsylvania for not sending nearby troops to protect the civilian population. Pennsylvania, in turn, blamed Butler for undertaking a foolhardy counterattack before the arrival of reinforcements. In similar fashion, the venomous relations between the Americans and the British explain what came next. Despite the fact that no civilians were killed during the rampage, and despite the fact that the British commander immediately offered sanctuary to those left homeless and restitution for their property, the American press blamed England for the disaster.3 To this day, accounts of the Wyoming Massacre, as it has come to be known, often perpetuate this wartime propaganda.

The Continental Congress did not blame Butler, who was soon promoted to colonel. He continued to serve in the Wyoming Valley and elsewhere along what was then America’s western frontier.

Congress also created a commission to rule on the Connecticut and Pennsylvania boundary dispute. It ultimately decided in favor of Pennsylvania. The decision was based on the fact that Connecticut had made no prior effort to assert its claim for nearly a hundred years, that it had previously (during a boundary dispute with New York) recognized that it was bounded on the west by New York, and that it had never asserted claims to areas of New York and New Jersey that it could have asserted for the same reasons it used in Pennsylvania.4

Zebulon Butler accepted the ruling. After the Revolution, he worked to validate the settlers’ land titles in Pennsylvania. His efforts led to his being arrested four times, though he was never indicted. Violence erupted again in March 1784 following a flood that wiped out fences, houses, and barns in the valley. When the residents commenced rebuilding, they were driven away and ordered to evacuate by Pennsylvania troops still on active duty. Numerous men, rather than evacuate, hid in nearby caves and engaged in insurgent attacks. Butler was not among them. His fighting days were over.

When Pennsylvania’s troops in the Wyoming Valley were finally discharged, Butler and his fellow settlers returned, and issues involving land titles were eventually resolved. Butler lived out his days in what became Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.

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