By “Collapse,” what is meant is the last stand, removal, and therefore erasure of natives and their cultures in the Wyoming Valley. While the removal and erasure of natives from the colonies seems to have been a coming consequence of colonialism from the moment Europeans stepped foot on the eastern shores of North America, the American Revolution can really be seen as a major expediting force for this process. One can speculate that natives might have been able to hold on in the Wyoming Valley for some time if not for the Revolutionary War, especially if not for American victory. However, the historical reality is that this war was a catalyst for removal and a grand devastator and disruptor of native existence in what would become the eastern United States. Quite frankly, it was a tragedy and a horror for native peoples and native sovereignty. This is a harsh reality to wrestle with. Although the most progressive government known to that point in human history did come out of the war, unspeakable horrors against natives were a direct consequence of American independence, both during and after the war. This complexity is something that should be considered in any discussion of America’s founding. It was not a perfect revolution.
By the time the revolution began, the people of the Wyoming Valley were really a distinct people, an ethnogenesis, which can be referred to as the Wyoming Delawares (see “Wyoming Delawares” tab under “Nations”). Following Chief Teedyuscung’s death in Wilkes-Barre in 1763 (again, see “Wyoming Delawares”), the Wyoming Delawares continued to lose control over the valley due to the influx of settlers and land speculators from Connecticut. By 1776, the Wyoming Delawares were essentially removed from the valley, with many retreating north into Iroquois lands. However, these people did not forget the injustices that forced their withdrawal. Many fought alongside other tribes and the British army in the Revolutionary War in order to hopefully regain their sovereignty. When the opportunity came to exact revenge on the colonists inhabiting the Wyoming Valley, many of the former native inhabitants seized on it.
On July 3rd, 1778, a force of nearly 600 men consisting of predominantly Iroquois warriors, but also British troops and a small but significant number of Wyoming Delawares descended from New York into the Wyoming Valley and engaged American militiamen around the towns of Wyoming and Exeter. Approximately 350 Americans were killed, while the British-Native forces suffered only 3 deaths. The British-Native combined forces burned down many homes and destroyed agricultural products. It was a dominant British victory. Former Wyoming Delawares personally exacted revenge on settlers. A mix of truth and legend has it that Queen Esther Montour of the prominent Pennsylvania Montour family, but also a Wyoming Delaware by kinship and nationality, avenged the death of her son by killing 15-30 prisoners with a mace on what would become known as the “Bloody Rock.” However, this story may have been American propaganda following their pitiful defeat. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that some prisoners taken in the battle were likely tortured and killed by native warriors in accordance with native war customs and out of a desire for revenge. The Battle of Wyoming came to be known as the “Massacre of Wyoming” by Americans. However, while it was certainly a massive defeat for American forces, the term “massacre” may be a bit biased. One can easily interpret the events as a case of what would be made famous approximately 90 years later by William Tecumseh Sherman and his march through Georgia. Namely, total war. The troops devastated the Wyoming Valley, seemingly strategically laying waste to agricultural resources in order to not only capture Forty Fort and an outpost in Pittston, but also to diminish American resources and force militiamen into greater need and desperation. While the events of the Battle of Wyoming are certainly disturbing, in the context of 18th century warfare they are not so extreme. One can easily imagine that if the roles were reversed, Americans would hail such an event as a great military victory. The term massacre seems to be more of an adoption for national solidarity, morale, and propaganda purposes than to be an accurate term for what constituted massacre during this period.
Despite their victory at Wyoming, the former native inhabitants of the valley would, of course, never regain their territory as the United States won its independence and continued its campaign against native peoples across North America. It seems then that violent resistance against American colonialism was not a viable course of action for native peoples, especially following the Revolution when British firepower and manpower served as a crutch for any native military efforts. Naturally, if native military resistance did not work, one must wonder whether nonviolent efforts were generally successful. In contrast to the militant Wyoming Delawares, there was a group of Wyoming Delawares in Ohio during the Revolution who used nonviolence as a strategy for survival.
In 1782, a small community of Moravian Delawares (or “praying Indians”) with roots in the Wyoming Valley, many formerly of the Friedenshütten Mission in Wyalusing, were annihilated by commissioned American militiamen under the command of Colonel David Williamson (see “Friedenshütten Mission” under the “Christianity and Colonization” for more information on the Friedenshütten community). The small community of Moravian Delawares in Gnadenhütten, Ohio were struggling as is due to supply issues due to the war and a poor harvest the previous season. In March 1782, the American forces descended upon the village and tricked the natives into giving up their guns, which the natives only used for hunting as they were committed nonviolent pacifists. After obtaining the natives’ hunting rifles, the Americans announced they would kill the whole settlement. The natives begged for one night to prepare for death, and the Americans obliged. On the night of March 7th, 1782, the natives stayed up all night praying and singing hymns while the American troops desecrated the settlement and got drunk on communion wine. The next morning, the American militiamen took 96 men, women, and children to “killing houses” for their slaughter. The women and children were brought to one building, and the men to another. They tied up, tortured, and raped the women and even some young girls. They tied up and tortured the men as well. Finally, they killed all of them – 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children. As they were suffering, the natives reportedly prayed, consoled one another, and begged for their lives, but they did not fight back as they were fully committed to Christian pacificism. This horrific act was committed against a nonviolent, neutral, noncombatant community and later justified on a certainly false claim that some of the men were combatants on the side of the British. In contrast to the Battle of Wyoming, one can say without a doubt that what occurred at Gnadenhütten was a massacre.
Thus, neither violence, as seen at the Battle of Wyoming, nor nonviolence, as demonstrated by the Gnadenhütten natives, sufficed as strategies against American colonialism during the Revolutionary War. This reality, coupled with the historical experiences of natives all across North America, lends itself to the grim conclusion that American settler colonialism was intent on Indian removal, and no matter how natives responded, there would be tragedy and loss.
The American Revolution effectively spelled the end of native inhabitance in the Wyoming Valley. Following the war, European settlement continued in the valley mostly under the false belief that they were settling virgin soil. In reality, the valley is historically home to much loss, and was once home to culturally rich peoples, whose descendants can still be found today on reservations in places like Kansas, Oklahoma, and Canada, and on non-reservation land across the United States, as most natives no longer live on reservations.