Your RDA of Irony

How Wyoming Got Its Name–To Its Complete Bewilderment

July 3, 1778:  The Why in Wyoming

We Americans tend to misuse the word “massacre”.  When five rowdies in Boston get shot by British troops defending themselves, that is remembered as the Boston Massacre.  When seven members of the Moran gang are gunned down by their Capone rivals, that is the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Now, really, do seven corpses even add up to a  misdemeanor?  A massacre should amount to a mass of dead.  The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre certainly meets that standard; in 1572 as many as 30,000 French Protestants discovered the disadvantage of being the chosen elect.  (In fact, the appalling number left the English at a loss for words–so they borrowed one from the French:  massacre.)

But on this day in 1778 there really was a massacre in the Wyoming Valley in northeastern Pennsylvania.  A raiding party of some 600 Tories and Iroquois attacked the settlements there.  The Patriots–as they fancied themselves–(and Rebels by the British definition) had only half of that number in their militia.  But their commander, a Colonel Zebulon Butler, decided to attack.  Frederick the Great would have done the same thing; Napoleon probably would not because at the time he was only nine.  However, both Frederick and a grown-up Napoleon might have used more tactics than just blind audacity.  So Zebulon Butler is not remembered as a military genius.  He was lucky enough to survive the battle and manage to avoid being captured.  About twenty of his men were also that fortunate.

The Tories and the Iroquois did take prisoners; they just didn’t keep them.  The British commander counted 273 scalps, but he did curtail his troops’ tonsorial enthusiasm.  The civilians of the Wyoming Valley were not harmed.   Of course, the late and defoliated militia men had been their husbands and sons; so they were not exactly grateful to the Empire.  The British had gained a minor victory and major notoriety. 

Indeed, the lurid story of the Wyoming Valley Massacre spread well beyond Pennsylvania.  Thomas Campbell, a Scotsman who could empathize with anyone hating the English, wrote an epic poem recounting the life and losses of a witness to the massacre:  “Gertrude of Wyoming”.  Stop laughing.  At the time (1809), that seemed like a serious title. The poem really was very popular.  It must have been a favorite of Ohio Congressman J.M. Ashley; in 1865 he proposed a bill naming a stretch of the Great Plains for a valley in eastern Pennsylvania.  The choice of Wyoming was irrelevant, incongruous and absurd, but it stuck.

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