Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When the swollen waters of the Susquehanna River roared and smashed over its banks in the Spring of 1972, bringing destruction to property and homes and despair to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania citizens, one of the hardest hit areas was the Wyoming Valley in Northeastern Pennsylvania with its many small towns. One such community was the quaintly and historically named Forty Fort. That town’s cemetery with headstones dating from the early eighteenth century stood at a bend overlooking the river. The burial ground was struck a crushing blow as the surging, grinding waters attempted to obliterate the markers which had stood as reminders of the long years that people had struggled to build homes, to carve out a living, and to find security in that place.

Among the Valley’s first settlers whose graves had to be restored when the Susquehanna returned to its natural quiet course was Hannah Swetland. She would well understand what it meant to Pennsylvanians of the Twentieth Century to fight for survival and to face personal loss and hardship. That was the common lot of the Pioneer Woman in Colonial America in the 1700’s.

The flood conspired in other ways to try to erase any memory of this woman and her descendants. The Wyoming Historical and Geological Society library which held diaries and manuscript recollections of her family and neighbors was inundated and much of the written record was lost. The foul, muddy waters also came within feet of the Swetland Homestead, built in sections from 1797 to 1813, which had been turned into a museum. Necessity then made the well­-kept grounds of the modest white frame home the site of a National Guard command post directing flood recovery. Despite these assaults, scattered records of Hannah Swet­land’ s life remain and they tell a story which shows that the hardships of the 1970’s parallel in striking ways life in the 1770’s.

Hannah Swetland was not a native of Pennsylvania. So many of Pennsylvania’s outstanding citizens came to her by migration to seek the opportunities and to take advantage of rich natural resources that the state has to offer. Born in Connecticut in 1740, she married Luke Swetland at Litch­field in 1762. Ten years later they traveled together to the Wyoming Valley with its rich farmland deposited along the banks of the Susquehanna. They arrived three years after the first settlers had begun to open this heavily wooded land, just as America entered the decade that would witness the Declaration of Independence by the Colonies from King George of England.

It was not the river that disputed their claim to home­stead in the 1770’s, but their fellow human beings. First, Connecticut had laid charter claim to a corridor of land which included the Northeastern part of the present terri­tory of Pennsylvania and it was within this section that the Swetlands settled. However, Pennsylvanians granted prop­erty there by their state government resisted Connecticut’s title. This resulted in a series of clashes in the area called the Pennamite Wars in the 1770’s and 1780’s.

Another group vying for possession of the ground was the British. After 1776 the Mother Country’s troops would attempt numerous times to secure the Susquehanna water­shed. Luke Swetland joined the Colonial Army which led him finally to service under George Washington at Valley Forge.

The other people to seek control over the area were those whose claims had priority in time to the others. The Indians by 1776 had made alliances with the British in an effort to drive the settlers from encroaching on their tradi­tional lands.


Hannah Swetland’s Role

In this environment of contending human forces, Hannah Swetland, as any other pioneer woman, had the task of exacting sustenance from a rugged wilderness in full partnership with her husband or on her own resources, as happened so often while the men hunted or went to war. Records exist of two essential duties that Hannah and the other women in the area had to perform. There was the corn to gather, husk, grind, and ready for storage. Another feminine job was to process and to store the highly valued gunpowder.

As if the problems of day-to-day living on the frontier were not enough, Hannah Swetland’s courage and stamina were to be tested to the fullest in 1778. Released from the army by General Washington, Luke, along with other Valleyites, returned to build defenses for their homes in the face of an expected attack by the British Colonel Butler and his Indian allies. The colonists constructed a fort, now Forty Fort, and awaited the enemy. In what has been termed by many a tactical error, most of the men left the enclosure to attack Butler and the Indians who proceeded to defeat the colonists and then to massacre the survivors of that battle. Luke Swetland had been chosen by lot, accord­ing to one later account, to remain behind at the small stockade but was himself captured by Seneca Indians on an expedition to bring grain to a grist mill down the river at Nanticoke. Hannah and her four children were then responsible for their own survival.

Perhaps by prior agreement or according to Luke’s com­mand (the accounts are not clear) Hannah Swetland and the children, ages nine to sixteen, made their way back to the safety of family and friends in Connecticut from whom they had been separated for many years. The trials of that journey through hostile terrain along Indian and animal trails can only be imagined but the strength of this deter­mined woman must have been considerable.

After a short period of captivity, Luke escaped from the Indians and finally was reunited with his family in Connec­ticut. The Swetlands eventually returned to the Wyoming Valley, after the Pennamite Wars ended, to resume the process of settlement which resulted in the building of the permanent residence which was narrowly spared by the flood waters of 1972.

Although homesteading a new area under hostile conditions would have been a sufficient test for any individual, Hannah Swetland along with countless other frontier ,mothers bore another responsibility. She was to have the babies upon which the future continuation of the settlement depended. The records, though conflicting, show that Hannah had many, a common occurrence of the early his­tory of the country, successful though physically demand­ing, pregnancies. The Swetland children, grandchildren, and generations on down to the present have contributed to the development of the life of the Wyoming Valley. How­ever, the records also show that a number of Hannah’s chil­dren died, a sadness that must have been part of the burden of every pioneer mother.

In 1813, four years after his mother’s death, Artemus Swetland wrote to his father asking him for an article of Hannah’s clothing. The father replied that the girls in the family had taken and made use of every scrap and that there was none to give him. Hannah Swetland would probably have been pleased that her clothes had been so completely utilized for the benefit of her children. Such was the un­sentimental legacy of this Pennsylvania pioneer woman.

Although the flood came in 1972, the story of Hannah Swetland survives as she did. Her marker beside that of her husband has been restored in the cemetery, standing about halfway between the remains of the Forty Fort and the home they built.


Further Sources

Biddle, Gertrude B. and Lowrie, Sarah Dickinson, Notable Women of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1942, pp, 49-52.

Merrifield, Edward, The Story of the Captivity and Rescue from the Indians Luke Swetland. Scranton, Pennsylvania: Privately Printed, 1915.

Pearce, Stewart, Annals of Luzerne County: A Record of Interesting Events, Traditions and Anecdotes from the First Settlement in the Wyoming Valley to 1866. 2nd Edition. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1866.

The Swetland Family. A collection of family history containing writings, letters, and photographs complied by Elma Caroline Bishop and edited by Ruth K. Fairchild (Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania).


Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series devoted to women who have distinguished themselves in Pennsylvania history.


Dr. John Furlow, Jr. is associate professor of history at Wilkes College.