The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2000

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Retracing the Route of the

Sullivan Expedition

through Pennsylvania


Thomas D. Cornell

Essay I, Essay II, Essay III, Essay IV, Essay V, Essay VI

Essay V

From Wilkes-Barre to Towanda

From our motel on the outskirts of Wilkes-Barre, a morning haze made the long-distance views less than perfect. But stretching across the western horizon, several miles beyond the city itself, was the faint outline of a ridge running parallel to ours. I had read enough of Bradford B. Van Diver's book Roadside Geology of Pennsylvania19 to know that Terry and I now held front-row seats for the concluding scene of a great geological drama. As a result of yesterday's drive, we had reached the western edge of the Valley and Ridge Province. Before us stood the eroded remains of the last fold in the series created when the North American and African plates had collided.

Yet my interest in the Wyoming Valley was historical as well as geological. Here European-American settlers had arrived after the French and Indian War to establish a successful agricultural community. Here also, in 1778 had occurred a deadly British and Iroquois raid. Finally, in 1779, it was here that Sullivan had assembled his expedition against the Iroquois homeland.

From a vantage point not unlike ours, the main body of Sullivan's men had first set eyes on the valley after their trek from Easton through the wilderness. "Getting within two miles of Wyoming," noted Rev. William Rogers in his journal entry for 23 June 1779: "we had from a fine eminence an excellent view of the settlement…It lies in a beautiful valley, surrounded by very high ground…"20 Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Dearborn's description was equally idyllic: "this river," he wrote, "is at this place about 50 rods wide & abounds with fish of various kinds."21

But descent into the valley gave the men direct contact with the effects of the 1778 raid, producing entries of a very different sort. "About 12 oClock," wrote Major James Norris, "we entered the town of Wyoming, which exhibits a melancholy scene of desolation, in ruin'd Houses, wasted fields & Fatherless Children & Widows."22 Similarly, Dr. Ebenezer Elmer, an army surgeon, noted: "The devastations of war are not less conspicuous here than in any place in America."23

Like the others, Lieutenant-Colonel Adam Hubley offered an idyllic overall description:

The situation of this place is elegant and delightful…. The valley [is] a mere garden, of an excellent rich soil, abounding with large timber of all kinds….24

Also like the others, he was shocked by the effects of the raid:

I cannot omit taking notice of the poor inhabitants of the town: two-thirds of them are widows and orphans, who, by the vile hands of the savages, have…[been] deprived some of tender husbands, some of indulgent parents, and others of affectionate friends and acquaintances, beside [being] robbed and plundered of all their furniture and clothing.

But Hubley's practiced eye saw something else, as well. Spread out before him was a newly-established military base. Alongside "about seventy houses, chiefly log buildings," he noted:

…there are sundry larger ones which were erected by the army for the purpose of receiving stores, &c., a large bake [house] and smoke houses.
There is likewise a small fort erected in the town, with a strong abatta around it, and a small redoubt to shelter the inhabitants in cases of an alarm.

My goal for the morning of Day Four was to explore the site of the Wyoming encampment, where the Sullivan Expedition had begun in earnest and where now stood the largest city we'd be visiting on our trip. After reloading the car, Terry and I left the motel and drove down the hillside to the city center.

Our first destination was Public Square Park. There we found several markers, including one made of granite whose purpose was to establish our exact position in the global grid of the professional mapmakers. According to an inscription on its south face, our latitude was 41 degrees, 14 minutes, 40.4 seconds; according to an inscription on its east face, our longitude from Washington, DC, was 1 degree, 10 minutes, 4.6 seconds; and according to the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey's benchmark on its upper face, our elevation above sea level was 1934 feet:

Next we walked a block due west, to the Market Street Bridge over the Susquehanna. To my delight, I was able to scramble down the embankment—right to the water's edge.

In the presence of the river itself, I felt a stronger sense of place than at the public square. The bare stones along the grassy bank bore no inscriptions. But I could read from them the river's low level and the contours of its gently curving channel.

Finally, we walked along the top of the levee until we reached a tree-filled park between the levee and River Street. There we located yet another marker in the series we had been following. "Fort Wyoming," this one proclaimed, "Mobilization Camp of Sullivan's Army [,] June 23 - July 31 [,] 1779."

From the area around the marker, Sullivan and his men had embarked on their expedition, and my goal for the rest of the day was to begin following their route. But first I wanted to make a pilgrimage to the site of the fighting during the 1778 raid. Back in the car, we crossed the bridge and made our way to US-11. Without any trouble, we located the site of Forty Fort—where the main body of American militiamen had set out—and then further along the highway we came to the tall stone monument erected years later "OVER THE BONES OF THE SLAIN."

Had the militiamen remained inside Forty Fort, their homes and farms would still have been destroyed, but few lives would have been lost. Instead the militiamen responded to what appeared to be the raiders' abrupt departure. Although they should have recognized this as a classic maneuver of Indian warfare, they left the fort in pursuit. When a small party of Indians offered modest resistance, the militiamen "routed" the party and then eagerly pressed their "advantage"—only to find themselves rushing into the trap set by the much larger main body. What ensued was a one-sided contest. In the words of Allan W. Eckert's novelistic account:

Of the twelve hundred Indians and British…only eleven lives were lost. Of the four hundred and fifty American soldiers who had marched out of Forty Fort…at least three hundred had been killed and many others wounded.

As it had in New York at Oriskany, the Revolutionary War had come—with a vengeance!—to the Pennsylvania frontier.25

After a picnic lunch, Terry and I resumed our efforts to follow the route of the Sullivan Expedition. Where US-11 joined PA-92, I parked in the shade, and we walked most of the way across the bridge. Looking upstream, we had a clear view of the water gap through which the Susquehanna enters the valley:

PA-92 then took us through the water gap and out of the metropolitan area. Sullivan and his men had actually followed the river's eastern side. But the highway—and hence the signs—followed its western side.

The geological province we now entered was the Allegheny Plateau. At the time of the Appalachian orogeny, the strata of the Allegheny Plateau had been uplifted and tilted somewhat—but not folded. Meanwhile, the meandering Susquehanna had kept pace, cutting its channel deeper and deeper. Nestled inside many of the river's huge U-bends were flats that amazed Sullivan's men with their richness: trees 9 to 12 feet in diameter and abundant game—frustratingly abundant, given Sullivan's strict orders against any unnecessary discharge of firearms.

Separating one flat from the next were narrow "defiles"—a term the men often used in their journals—with dense thickets at their bases and rugged high ground above. Under the best of circumstances, crossing such terrain was physically hard on soldiers and pack animals alike. But for Sullivan's men the danger was increased by the possibility of surprise attacks.

After the 1778 raid on the Wyoming Valley, Colonel Thomas Hartley had led a reprisal raid against an Iroquois town, and on his return he had been attacked. In crossing that same ground on 5 August 1779, Sullivan's men were so apprehensive that some of them fired on their own flank guards—mistaking them for Indians. At this stage, however, real traces of the Indians' presence were few and fragmentary. On 3 August, two Indians were seen on the opposite side of the river; on 5 August, some of Sullivan's men came across fresh Indian tracks; and in his journal entry for 8 August, Rev. Rogers noted:

On this day's march we saw one or two places where the savages had lately encamped, also an Indian paddle floating down the river, and a canoe lying on the beach.26

Through this landscape Terry and I now raced at a steady 55-mile-per-hour pace, punctuated by short stops at the historical markers for successive encampments. After the first two, we crossed the river and soon found several systems of transportation—river, railroad, and highway—stretched out, ahead of us, in sinuous parallel:

By the time we reached the village of Tunkhannock—where PA-92 joined US-6—we were both ready for some exercise. So along with locating the marker for the encampment on 3 August, we did some walking around. For the encampments at Vanderlips Farm (on 4 August) and at Wyalusing (on 5 - 7 August), I went back to my routine of hopping out just long enough to snap a few pictures. But our experience with the marker for the encampment at Standing Stone (on 8 August) was different.

One of our main navigational tools for the trip was the Pennsylvania Atlas and Gazetteer, published by the DeLorme Mapping Company.27 Like the topographical maps prepared by the U. S. Geological Survey, the atlas showed topographical details. But unlike the topos, the atlas was easy to use in the car.

Working with the atlas, I saw that we could get to the village of Standing Stone from US-6 via Tracey Road. But when we reached the turnoff, we found Tracey Road to be little more than a tractor path—going straight up the hill, with fields on either side. My first response was to seek a different route. But Terry wanted to try it anyway.

After climbing a short distance, Tracey Road fell gently and then climbed again. When it finally topped out, I stopped for a photo—looking back the way we had come:

Often in my countryside drives around Grandma Cornell's house, I had explored unimproved backroads. Without giving a lot of thought to my choice of words, I had called such roads "capillaries." Now I began wondering if there might be more to the term than I had realized.

Interstate driving rarely facilitates direct contact with the surrounding territory. Even highways such as the ones Terry and I had followed all afternoon make full immersion difficult—despite our regular stops at roadside historical markers. But the capillaries are different. When you stop the car and get out, the land itself is right there. No broad shoulder. No traffic whizzing by. No road, really, except for parallel tracks of gravel on which the car wheels rest. To step out of the car is to step into the landscape, to enter the land itself, to become part of it—just as the nutrients in the bloodstream are absorbed in capillaries of the body.

I was the one who got out of the car, but somehow it was Terry who was grounded by the experience—and who therefore was able to help ground me. As we reached the end of Tracey Road and turned left onto a paved "blue highway" near the river, I expressed the kind of habitual worries that make me such a difficult person to live with. We weren't finding the historical marker, still less the Standing Stone itself. Even worse, the time to locate a motel was again upon us, and our AAA guidebook listed none in the area. Just then, the marker came into view, in front of Standing Stone United Methodist Church. "Ha!" Terry said—in the way that only she can say it—meaning that the reality we faced was far simpler than the complexities I had been so anxiously contemplating.

Back on US-6, we crossed the river and joined US-220 at Towanda. As we were leaving town, we passed an AAA-approved motel not listed in our guidebook. "Ha!" I could now hear a voice inside me say.

On the reception desk stood a rack of postcards, including one that showed the Standing Stone—so in some sense we had found it after all. "Ha!" said my inner voice yet again.

The desk clerk gave us keys to two rooms, and after brief inspections, we made our choice. Neither of us felt peppy enough to explore the town, but that was OK. We had done plenty for one day, so we just fixed our supper and spent the rest of the evening "in."

© 2000, Thomas D. Cornell
Essay I, Essay II, Essay III, Essay IV, Essay V, Essay VI

Notes to Essay V

19 (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 1990).

20 Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan, p. 248.

21 Ibid., p. 63.

22 Ibid., p. 224.

23 Ibid., p. 81.

24 Ibid., p.146.

25 Allan W. Eckert, The Wilderness War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978), p. 259.

26 Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan, p. 259.

27 3rd Ed. (Freeport, ME: 1990).

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