The Incredibly Convoluted History of Westmoreland County, Connecticut


October 29, 2014
by Jackson Kuhl Also by this Author


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In 1662, Charles II, the restored monarch of Great Britain, issued a charter for the founding of Connecticut. The colony’s borders were delineated as spreading from Narragansett Bay in the east to the “South Sea on the West.” Later the colony of New York took exception to this clause, and the two colonies battled over their common boundary until 1725, when it was set twenty miles east of the Hudson River. Yet many in Connecticut believed the original charter still granted them the land beyond New York all the way to the western ocean, and so in 1750 a petition was brought before the Connecticut General Assembly to create a township west of the Hudson River. The Assembly rejected it on the grounds that Connecticut’s western terminus had been fixed in 1725. But there is nothing under the sun as persistent and mule-headed as a Connecticut Yankee, and eventually northeastern Pennsylvania was settled by — and for a time even administered by — the colony and state of Connecticut.[1]

A few months ago, Thomas Verenna provided an overview of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars for the Journal. But it’s worth detailing exactly how a bunch of Connecticut Yankees wound up in Pennsylvania during the late 1700s as the events sit at the intersection of so many Revolutionary issues: religion, geography, land speculation, Native American relations, and most of all, defiance of authority, regardless of who was actually wrong or right.

The Susquehannah Company was founded in July 1753, when 152 subscribers adjourned in Windham, Connecticut to pay “Two Spanish Mill’d dollars” to join a new joint-stock venture. Declaring “Thatt Whereas we being desirous to Enlarge his Majesties English Settlements In North America and further To Spread Christianity as also to promote our own Temporal Interest,” their aim was to settle an area of the Susquehanna River beyond New York’s borders. Originating deep in the Iroquois country of northeastern New York, the Susquehanna flows south and west to Tioga, just below the modern New York-Pennsylvania border, where it joins another river, the Chemung, flowing from the northwest. From Tioga the river continues southeast before zigzagging to the southwest to meet the West Branch Susquehanna at Shamokin. Then it rushes south and southeast again through Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County before draining into the Chesapeake Bay. The Company proposed to settle at Wyoming, on the west bank of the river about 50 miles southeast of Tioga. Its clean soil and the scarcity of Native American settlements made it ideal to the Company members. More to the point, they believed the area was included in the Connecticut grant as per the 1662 charter.[2]

The Company’s adventure attracted willing subscribers. By September the Company was offering half-shares for a dollar; in January 1754, the Company voted to increase membership to 500, the new proprietors paying $4 per share; with another 500 shares offered in May at $5 each.[3] It seems to have been attractive for a number of reasons: land speculation was all the rage, seen as a can’t-lose investment, and expanding the frontier was a win-win scenario of evangelizing to the Indians while simultaneously blocking expansion of the Catholic French. Population pressure doesn’t seem to have been a factor so much as the perception that all the good land in the colony had been taken; Connecticut’s ground is notoriously rocky thanks to its former glaciation, and the poor road system greatly hindered transport of goods from anywhere situated far from a river. But probably the biggest inducement was the Great Awakening.

In the early 1740s, a handful of powerful orators appeared on the New England stage, reminding listeners of their worthlessness and sinful nature while simultaneously providing clues that grace might be theirs after all. God’s mercy was dispensed by whim alone, and only when an individual recognized that he was damned and unworthy of salvation could he feel the weight lifted when God granted it nonetheless. The process from wretched inward analysis to rapture often manifested itself physically. There was sobbing and yelling and fainting.

Suddenly the cold orderliness of Mayflower Puritanism gave way to thunderstruck parishioners having personal encounters with the Almighty smack in the middle of the congregation. These revivalists and their followers “discredited human learning, delighted in hearing the noisy exhortations of those who felt themselves moved by the Spirit to speak, and regarded efforts to repress outcries and displays of physical excitement at meetings as quenching the Spirit. They made much of visions and trances. They thought they saw Christ bleeding on the cross, or amid the glories of heaven. Ministers who did not approve of these experiences and visions they declared unconverted, and also laymen who expressed doubts of their own conversion.”[4]

The result of this Great Awakening was a schism within Congregationalism into what became the antirevivalist “Old Lights,” who despised the emotion and carnival of revivals — not to mention the threat to their authority by being declared “unconverted” by their own parishioners — and the revivalist “New Lights.” The Strict Congregationalists, as the New Lights called themselves, took offense to the Old Lights tolerance of (and specifically with granting Holy Communion to) those who had not had the conversion experience — or, at least, not the dramatic, emotive experience favored by the revivalists. For them, allowing these people into the congregation meant sharing the sacraments with the damned. Many New Lights splintered off from their old congregations to found churches with policies more to their liking. Yet the problem, especially in eastern Connecticut where Strict Congregationalism was popular, was finding someplace free of the persecution and harassment of the Old Lights where they could build those communities. To the New Lights, a share in the Susquehannah Company was a ticket out of Babylon.

The Wyoming Valley belonged to the Iroquois, and more specifically, had been granted by them to the Delaware, who were clients of the Six Nations.[5] The Susquehannah Company obtained a deed from the Iroquois under some very dodgy circumstances (the sachems involved lacked the authority to sign, and in any event, alcohol may have been involved) and conducted a survey so that parcels could be distributed to shareholders.[6] However, the Company still lacked official approval. Rather than chance a denial from the General Assembly, the Company side-stepped them by merely asking for permission to seek the king’s confirmation of the Iroquois deed; royal sanction of the deed would officially validate the charter and Connecticut’s right to the land. The Assembly recognized that as they had no burden in the adventure, they risked nothing and so agreed.[7] Events moved slowly in London, so without waiting for the result, the Company began to settle the valley, with 119 settlers living there by 1762.[8]

Yet the Company’s claim did not find a receptive audience among either the king’s attorney general, Charles Pratt (“I do not believe there is one Settlement in that part of the Globe that has not in some measure either been encroached upon, or else usurped upon its Neighbour,” he wrote, “So that if the Grants were of themselves the only rule between the Contending Plantations there never could be an End of their Disputes.”), or the superintendent of Indian affairs Sir William Johnson (who was “apprehensive that if they [the Connecticut settlers] are suffered to proceed … the most fatal Consequences may be expected.”).[9] King George, nervous of inflaming his Iroquois allies, commanded all settlement to cease and ordered Connecticut and Pennsylvania to appoint a commissioner to remove the settlers already present.[10] However, by the time a Pennsylvania expedition reached Wyoming to oust the Yankees, they found the settlement destroyed by Native Americans.[11]

When, in 1768, the boundary between the colonies and Native lands was moved west by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Susquehannah Company decided the justification for the king’s order had become moot and therefore it was safe to settle Wyoming again. In early 1769 a party of 40 Connecticut settlers reached Wyoming and erected a stockade, christened Forty Fort, on the west bank of the river. It sat within one of the five five-by-five-mile square townships circumscribed by the Company. An estimated 200 to 300 settlers soon followed and spread themselves throughout the other “towns,” which were nothing except lines on a map: Wilkes-Barre, on the east bank opposite Forty Fort; Nanticoke; Pittstown; and Plymouth.[12] But by the end of the year, a posse mustered by John Jennings, sheriff of Pennsylvania’s Northampton County, had driven off the settlers.[13]

Late in 1769, two of the leaders of the Paxton Boys — a group of Lancaster thugs who had, some years before, infamously butchered a number of peaceful Conestoga Indians — wrote to the Company requesting a grant of land. In return, the 50 Paxton Boys “would immediately enter on our lands at Wyoming, Take cair of our houses and effects and, with our people that are their and such as shall from time to time joyn them on said land, and hold possession of those lands with us.”[14] The Paxton mob hated Indians but they loathed the Pennsylvania legislature too. The three eastern counties — Bucks, Chester, and Philadelphia — had more votes than the other six combined, and a lack of new western counties meant frontiersmen often went unrepresented in the Assembly.[15]

The Susquehannah Company and the Paxton Boys saw in each other a solution to their problems. One group claimed land they couldn’t hold; the other owned a predilection for violence; and both opposed the Pennsylvania government. Upon forming this notorious alliance, the Company managed to withstand two more Pennamite routs, each time returning to repossess the valley. By the summer of 1771, Company settlers and the Paxtons had firmly seized the area.[16]

Under their sustained control, life within the Susquehanna Purchase achieved a nervous stability. In summer, settlers tended to their crops and animals. They spent the winters in a large stockade, sallying forth on regular patrols. Avoiding patrol duty or work on the defenses was a punishable offense. A single retailer in each of the five towns possessed a monopoly to sell liquor, an attempt toward curtailing drunkenness. A triumvirate of judges refereed squabbles, the members of the panel chosen by the aggrieved parties and the committee of settlers, which also enforced the judgment through elected constables. Logging was regulated, exportation of grain in wintertime forbidden, weights and measures standardized, roads built, and ferries established across the river.[17]

Then, in December 1773, a three-man delegation of Yankee settlers returned from Philadelphia with bad news: their attempt to convince the governor to submit the issue to third-party arbitration — or at least to negotiate a border between the Susquehanna Purchase and Pennsylvania — had failed. Pennsylvania believed the matter non-negotiable; there was no point in arguing over what was clearly theirs.

Wyoming Monument, Wyoming, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Wyoming Monument, Wyoming, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years had passed since the Susquehannah Company’s formation, and during the interval, many shareholders had been elected to public office. The result was a private enterprise that, in a strange echo of the East India Company, was in effect an organ of Connecticut itself. Having no intention of seeing Pennsylvania infringe upon their investments, those Company members in the Connecticut government — chief among them New Light and governor Jonathan Trumbull — declared the full protection of the colony was necessary for the Wyoming Valley. Riffraff, they claimed, gravitated to the valley, evading prosecution and harassing the lawful citizens of Connecticut; the people needed the justice of civic authority. So in January 1774, the Susquehanna Purchase was incorporated into a new town christened Westmoreland, its tri-syllabic etymology a summation of its promise, and annexed to Connecticut’s northwestern Litchfield County.[18] Trumbull wasn’t shy about hiding the fact from Pennsylvania: he informed Governor John Penn of the decision immediately and warned that only Connecticut had jurisdiction over the area.[19] The Susquehanna Affair ceased being a dispute between colony and private association: it became a dispute between two colonial governments.

The settlers managed to withstand another Pennsylvania attempt to roust them in December 1775, and Connecticut strengthened its grip by making Westmoreland its own county in 1776, complete with its own court system.[20] Then, in July 1778, the entire settlement was destroyed by John Butler’s rangers and his Seneca allies at the Battle (or, if you wish, the Massacre) of Wyoming. And yet within months, Connecticut settlers had returned.

As the dust was still settling from the war, Pennsylvania and Connecticut implemented Article IX of the Articles of Confederation (which specified a tribunal remedy for “All controversies concerning the private right of soil claimed under different grants of two or more States,” begging the question of whether that clause was explicitly written with the Connecticut-Pennsylvania dispute in mind) to settle the argument in the neutral city of Trenton, New Jersey. The judges ruled unanimously in favor of Pennsylvania.[21]

And yet this still wasn’t the end of it. The Connecticut settlers agreed to swear loyalty to the Commonwealth as long as Pennsylvania upheld their land grants, something Philadelphia refused to do since — in a mirror reflection of Hartford — many legislators were members of the Pennsylvania Land-Claimants Association and owned titles to the very same parcels of land, only issued through Pennsylvania. Yet another expulsion attempt erupted into a guerrilla war in the summer of 1784, with the Connecticut settlers staying put. Susquehannah Company shareholder Ethan Allen made a dramatic appearance in 1786, and there were alleged rumblings of Westmoreland’s secession into a new state, though nothing came of it. There is plenty of blame to spread around, from the ugly tactics of the Pennsylvania Land-Claimants Association who, with the fair wind of law forever at their backs, should have treated the Yankee settlers more mercifully; to the infuriating actions of the Susquehannah Company (and, by extension, the Connecticut government), which continued to issue shares and grants to fresh settlers long after the decision at Trenton. Finally, in 1799 Pennsylvania did what it should have done in 1783 by passing the Compromise Act, in which a commission bought the land grants from the Pennsylvania claimants with money paid by the Connecticut claimants in exchange for official confirmation of their Susquehannah Company deeds. By 1807 a majority of the Company grants had been converted and in 1808 the commission was dissolved, mission accomplished.

Today the towns of Connecticut’s former Westmoreland County lay within Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, established 1786. Historical groups like the Wyoming Commemorative Association and the 24th Connecticut Militia Regiment keep the history alive with annual celebrations and reenactments. Presumably most of their members are thankful they only have to pay property taxes to one state rather than two.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Alonzo Chappel’s painting (1858) depicting the Wyoming Massacre, July 3, 1778. Source: Wikimedia Commons]


[1] James Edward Brady, Wyoming: A Study of John Franklin and the Connecticut Settlement Into Pennsylvania (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1973), 28-29.

[2] Minutes of a Meeting of the Susquehannah Company, July 18, 1753, vol. I of The Susquehannah Company Papers (Wilkes-Barre, PA: Wyoming Historical & Geological Society, 1930), 28-39, hereafter cited as SCP.

[3] Minutes of a Meeting of the Susquehannah Company, September 6, 1753, vol. I of SCP, 40-41; January 9, 1754, vol. I. of SCP, 43-50; May 1, 1754, vol I. of SCP, 86-87.

[4] Rev. Albert E. Dunning, Congregationalists in America (New York, NY: J.A. Hill & Co., 1894), 256-257.

[5] Pennsylvania Historical Commission and the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania: A Guide to the Keystone State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1940), 18; James Hamilton to Sir William Johnson, May 18, 1763, vol. II of The Susquehannah Company Papers (Wilkes-Barre, PA: Wyoming Historical & Geological Society, 1930), 219-221.

[6] Deed From Indians of the Six Nations to the Susquehannah Company, summer 1754, vol. I of SCP, 101-121. For criticism of the circumstances in which the deed was obtained, see Minutes of the Indian Conference at Hartford, May 28, 1763, vol. II of SCP, 236-241; Richard Peters to Sir William Johnson, February 12, 1761, vol. II of SCP, 57-58.

[7] Brady, Wyoming, 38-39.

[8] Partial List of the First Settlers, vol. II of SCP, 189-190.

[9] Opinion of Charles Pratt, March 7, 1761, vol. II of SCP, 64-66; Representation From the Board of Trade to the King in Council, January 14, 1763, vol. II of SCP, 191-193.

[10] Order of the King in Council, June 15, 1763, vol. II of SCP, 255.

[11] Extract From the Pennsylvania Gazette, October 23, 1763, vol. II of SCP, 277; Thomas Penn to James Hamilton, November 11, 1763, vol. II of SCP, 282-284; Eliphalet Dyer to Jared Ingersoll, April 14, 1764, vol. II of SCP, 290.

[12] Minutes of a Meeting of the Susquehannah Company, December 28, 1768, vol. III of The Susquehannah Company Papers (Wilkes-Barre, PA: Wyoming Historical & Geological Society, 1931), 43-47; Oscar Jewell Harvey, A Connecticut Town and County in Pennsylvania, 1774-1782 (Scranton, PA: Lackawanna Historical Society, 1921), 2; Brady, Wyoming, 46.

[13] John Penn to John Jennings, August 24, 1769, vol. III of SCP, 168-169; Agreement Between Connecticut and Pennsylvania Settlers at Wyoming, November 14, 1769, vol. III of SCP, 200-203.

[14] The Executive Committee to John Montgomery and Lazarus Young, January 15, 1770, vol. IV of The Susquehannah Company Papers (Wilkes-Barre, PA: Wyoming Historical & Geological Society, 1933), 5-6.

[15] Brady, Wyoming, 49.

[16] William R. Nester, The Frontier War for American Independence (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2004), 43; Brady, Wyoming, 52.

[17] Introduction, vol. V of The Susquehannah Company Papers (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968), xxii-xxiv.

[18] Act of the Connecticut General Assembly Erecting the Town of Westmoreland, January 1774, vol. V of SCP, 268-269.

[19] Jonathan Trumbull to John Penn, January 31, 1774, vol. V of SCP, 267-268.

[20] General Assembly of Connecticut, October 1776, vol. I of The Public Records of the State of Connecticut (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co., 1894), 7.

[21] The Trenton Trial Proceedings and Related Documents, December 30, 1782, vol. VII of The Susquehannah Company Papers (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969), 245-246.


  • I appreciate the generous citation! I covered some of this more broadly, as you said, but it is great that you’ve done this legwork in more detail. Enjoyed the read. Thanks!

    1. And thank you for writing your article! Many histories of the settlement in the Wyoming Valley tend to be written by Pennsylvanian historians, which makes sense considering the landscape (and often the records) is right there around them. This isn’t a bad thing — not at all — but I think it also helps to give insight into the Yankees’ motivation and what was happening in Connecticut at the time.

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