"Savage and Bloody Footsteps Through the Valley" : The Wyoming Massacre in the American Imagination
Master of Arts
Along the banks of the Susquehanna River in early July 1778, a force of about 600 Loyalist and Native American raiders won a lopsided victory against 400 overwhelmed Patriot militiamen and regulars in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. While not well-known today, this battle—the Battle of Wyoming—had profound effects on the Revolutionary War and American culture and politics. Quite familiar to early Americans, this battle’s remembrance influenced the formation of national identity and informed Americans’ perceptions of their past and present over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
From the beginning, however, Americans’ understanding of what occurred in the Wyoming Valley in July 1778 was strongly influenced by reports from partisans not present at the battle, reports which wildly differed from eyewitness accounts. In the aftermath of the battle, a fabricated myth about Loyalists and Native Americans massacring women, children, and wounded soldiers quickly took root in the public imagination and influenced the Patriot war effort. Despite having no evidence backing it up, the myth eventually outlasted its Revolutionary context, coming back to shape political dialogue and popular culture in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, this Revolutionary fabrication was only the beginning of the historical distortion related to the Battle of Wyoming. By mid-century, a whole new myth about the battle arose, featuring a Native American woman known as Queen Esther who murdered prisoners around a rock. Made possible by the cultural atmosphere of the period, this myth proved equally sensational.
This thesis explores how these myths about the battle formed, spread, and influenced American society on national and local levels from 1778 to around 1878. Tracing and analyzing how Americans have remembered and misremembered the Battle of Wyoming, more popularly known as the Wyoming Massacre, its primary focus is to look at the meaning behind the narratives that formed around this event and what those meanings say about the individuals and cultures that created them. It also scrutinizes some of the ways Americans have tailored their remembrances of Wyoming to speak to their present. Ultimately, this thesis points to how historical distortions can easily enmesh themselves into popular memory and how they can influence national and local identities.
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