Historical Sketch of Luzerne County

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

The Proclamation Line of 1763 was a stopgap devised to give England a chance to gather her forces and to adopt a policy for further expansion of the American colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. The Treaty at Fort Stanwix in 1768 resulted in a pre-revolutionary division of Indian land to establish a boundary between the Indian hunting grounds and the white settlements. The treaty was the last effort by the English government to delay the acquisition of Indian lands by the migration of colonists to the west, and to ap­pease the Indians for crimes committed against them by the frontiersman.

Through some of these lands the Susquehanna River flowed on its way from its source at Otsego Lake to the sea far to the south at the Chesapeake Bay. Thus the north branch of the river and its valley became the scene of the New York-Pennsylvania border wars and a contest for land which was to rage for a half century.

From the early years of the eighteenth century the ter­ritory of what is now the northern part of Pennsylvania be­tween the 41st and 42nd parallels was well known through­out the northeastern provinces of the British colonies, particularly in Connecticut, where the desire for western expansion was evident for two principal reasons. First, population was growing and second, the laws concerning primogeniture and entail had been repealed in the province. Expansionist tendencies were encouraged by the overlap­ping charters of Connecticut and Pennsylvania granted by Charles II. One gave land to Connecticut in 1662, the other to William Penn in 1681, thus giving nineteen years of prec­edence to Connecticut. The western boundary of Connecticut, to put it simply, extended to the “South Sea,” and on this premise the Colony of Connecticut laid claim to a large portion of northern Pennsylvania. This claim was to be con­tested from the time of the organization of the Susquehannah Company in Windham. Connecticut, in 1753, until the land titles were finally settled in 1806 according to the pro­visions of the Compromise Act of 1799, enacted by the Pennsylvania Legislature.

The legal and political actions which attended the conflict demonstrated that the Articles of Confederation were deficient and lacked the provisions necessary to settle territorial and boundary disputes between the states of the new republic. The debates prior to the adoption of the United States Constitution reveal the impression which the Connecticut-Pennsylvania dispute made on the framers of that document. The dispute contributed to the establish­ment of a strong central government which could decide interstate matters.

The first substantial record of the white man’s view of the valley was in 1723 when a group of Palatines floated down the river from the Schoharie Valley, to escape from the oppressions they had suffered, to their new home in the Tulpehocken Valley in Pennsylvania.

In 1729 Conrad Weiser, a son of the leader of the Palatine migrants, used the same route on his way to join his family. Some years later he returned to Wyoming Valley on an exploratory trip. At about the same time some Dutch traders were operating along the banks of the river.

The Rev. John Sergeant and a group of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Indians arrived in 1741 to carry the Christian message to the Indians. For the next ten or fifteen years others journeyed to the area for the same purpose, but the main obstacle to the success of such an undertaking was the fact that there were very few Indians to hear the message.

In 1754 a congress met at Albany with the Indians. Issues to be resolved were the regulation of Indian trade and the purchase of Indian lands, issues ultimately of peace or war. An outgrowth of the congress was the reservation of the Wyoming lands by the Six Nations for their own use. In Connecticut, however, the Susquehannah Company had organized the previous year to settle the region.

While these events were taking place the Susquehannah Company members were busy. Timothy Woodbridge was the chief operator on behalf of the company. Following the adjournment of the meeting at Albany, Woodbridge engaged the services of Col. John Henry Lydius to carry on negotiations between the Six Nations and the Susquehannah Company for title to the lands to be occupied by the proposed settlement. Lydius succeeded to the extent that in one year’s time he produced a so-called deed which he had obtained by the use of “fire water” and some money which he tendered to those who signed the deed (which was in violation of the customs and practices the Six Nations employed in such transactions).

The territory included in the deed extended from the Nescopeck Falls on the south, thence ten miles on the east of the course of the Susquehanna River to the 42nd parallel, thence west 120 miles, comprehending in all about 13,000 square miles. It was from a portion of this area that the original county of Luzerne was erected.

No effort was made to settle the land at once, for the French and Indian War intervened. and the Pontiac Con­spiracy set aflame the frontier from New England to Georgia.

While many of the negotiations were taking place. Canasatego, Shikellamy, and Conrad Weiser had warned repeatedly that any attempt at settlement would only end in disaster, for it tampered with the geopolitics of the Six Nations. By 1760 all three had died and the influence that they had exerted to maintain the status quo was gone. In 1762 the first attempt to settle was made, some crops were planted and the settlers withdrew, only to return the next year. They were warned to leave but did not do so. In the spring of 1763 Teedyuscung met death under mysterious circumstances, and on October 15 the Massacre at Wyoming occurred when a band of Indians fell upon the settlement, killing some of them, taking some prisoner. The remainder fled the valley.

The first permanent settlement was begun in 1769 when the First Forty arrived in February. As they entered the valley the first confrontation occurred with Pennamites, who had built a small fort at Mill Creek. After a skirmish and some name calling, the settlers moved down the river and built their own defenses. Thus the little internecine wars started and continued intermittently until after the Revolution.

On Christmas day of 1775 the final action of the second Yankee-Pennamite War concluded when the settlers under the command of Zebulon Butler and Lazarus Stewart sent Colonel Plunkett down the river to Shamokin where his ex­pedition had originated. Following this defeat of the Pen­namites both sides agreed to cease hostilities and engage in “the common cause in defense of their liberty.”

The town of Westmoreland was erected by the Connecti­cut Assembly and attached to the County of Litchfield, and thus became a political entity. Military companies were organized and became a part of the 24th Regiment of Con­necticut Line. Some of these companies served under General Washington in the Continental Army. This action withdrew many men from the valley and reduced the forces so necessary to defend the frontier.


The Battle of Wyoming

In the writer’s opinion, the following letter, written in 1778, is the most accurate and descriptive account of the Battle of Wyoming. For this reason, it is included in its entirety.

The letter was written by Nathan Denison to Jonathan Trumbull. Denison was one of the commanders and a par­ticipant in the battle. He also signed the Articles of Capitu­lation.

Lower Smithfield township in the State of Pennsylvania the 28th of July 1778

Honoured Sr as my Circomstances have been Such that it Renderd allmost impractible for me to give your Excelency an account of the unhapy affair that hapend at Westmoreland.on the 3d of this instant Shall now indever to Represent the affair: on the Last of June We got intelegenc of a Party of the Enemy being up the River about 30 miles Distant from us the Party Supposd not to be grate the Next Day after another Scout Returned and gave an ac­count that they had Discovered about fifty Gannoe Loads of the Enemy With Considerable Parties of them on Each Side the River Coming Down Which intelegenc alarmed the inhabitence so that Some Ware for Securing their famalies in our forts others for moveing out of the Settel­ment in this Situation We Collected to the numbr of four Hundred of our men and marched up the River in order to meet the Enemy but not meeting With them Saving a Small Scout Which Ware Killed by our People the Day before this hapend the Enemy fell on a Small Party of our men that Ware at Work Killed four of them the other made their Escape the Next Day after the body of the Enemy Came to a Small fort & Demanded it Which Was instantly given up Whear they mad there Head Quarters During the time they Was in the Settel – the Enemy upon Which there Was a little over three Hundred that marched out & attact them the Enemy got no advantage of us in the first fire but we ware over Powerd by numbr, our People Ware abliged to Retreet the Numbr Killed on our Sid Can not be Certing Knoon but I beleve not far from two Hundred the numbr of the Enemy Killed not far from Eighty the Next morning John Butler the Commander of the Enemy Sent a flag to Demand the fort I Let him no that I Wold See him at one o Clock after noon after Which I Went to the Loar Part of the Settlement to tind the Situation of the People & found numbr of Wimen & Children then in the Roads Som Pushing out of the Settlement Some one Way & Some the other in the utmost Distres & Ankziety indevering to make thire Escape from the Saveges at my Return to ‘the fort faun that it Was the minds of the gratest Part of the Peopl then Present to Capitulate With the Enemy I Went to theire Camp & Was Put to the Disagreable necesity of Sineing the in Closed Paper after Which no Person Was hurt by the Enemy untill after I Left that Plac the Next Day after I Come from there: there Was five Person murderd by the Enemy on the Rode as they Was Coming from there and as the artickle of Cappitulation are brook on the Part of the Enemy I Do not Look upon me Self holden on my Part by them and Expect Soon to Return to Return to Westmoreland to See if Some trifels Can be Saved that the Saveges have Left the numbr of Enemy that Came against us Did not Exeed Seven or Eight Hundred at most by the best information I Can git I am Sr With Due Regard your Exlences most obediant humble

Nathan Denison


Final Settlement of Land Titles

On October 8, 1781, Pennsylvania presented a petition to Congress to settle the Wyoming land question under the terms of Article IX of the Articles of Confederation. After the machinery had been established a court of five members met at Trenton, New Jersey, on November 19, 1782, to decide the controversy. After hearing testimony from both sides, the court rendered its decision on December 30, 1782. The verdict was unanimous: that “the State of Connecticut had no right to the land in controversy, and that all lands lying within the Charter Boundary of Pennsylvania – do of Right belong to the State of Pennsylvania.”

The Trenton Decree was not acceded to by Connecticut until May of 1786. While it decided the territorial limits, it did not determine the “right of soil,” which was the basis of the whole problem. It demonstrated the glaring weakness of the Articles of Confederation in its inability to settle such disputes and in a small way led to the adoption of the Federal Constitution providing for a strong central government.

Shortly after the Decree of Trenton, the Pennsylvania land jobbers, who had long cast an avaricious eye on Wyo­ming lands, began a campaign of brutality and ejectment against the settlers who possessed the land by virtue of a Susquehannah Company title. These actions, then, brought two strong-willed men such as Franklin and Pickering into violent conflict. It was a period of violence and deceit and continued until 1790 when Franklin went to Sheshequin taking with him some of his adherents. From there, with his friends the “half-share” men, he continued the contest.

In 1791 Pickering left the valley and went to Philadel­phia to become a member of Washington’s cabinet. He finally returned to his native Massachusetts.

The Compromise Act of 1799 settled the controversy, when under the terms of the act a commission was appointed to examine the facts and make a final judgment. Under the leadership of Thomas Cooper, later judge and a college president, the seventeen townships were resurveyed and the settlers were awarded the land they had so long occupied. The only item that remained to be done was to secure a warrant from Pennsylvania to certify the settlers’ title, giving them free and complete ownership. John Franklin fought many a battle, but in the end he was the victor.


Forming the County

On September 25, 1786, Luzerne County was erected by the legislature from a portion of the county of Northumberland and boundaries were essentially coterminous with that of the old Connecticut town of Westmoreland. The county took its name from the French envoy to the United States, the Chevalier de la Luzerne.

The fourth section of the act incorporating Luzerne County provided

That Courts of Common Pleas and General Quarter Sessions of the Peace to be held in and for the said county, shall be held at the house of Zebulon Butler in the town of Wilkesburg sic. in the county until a court house shall be built.

Section nine of the aforementioned act provided that Zebulon Butler, Nathaniel Landon, Jonah Rogers, John Phillips and Semon Spaulding be appointed trustees, “for the purpose of acquiring a piece of land in or near Wilkesburg sic. for the seat of a court house and a jail sufficient to accommodate the public service.”

On May 27, 1787, William Hooker Smith, Benjamin Carpenter, and James Nesbit, justices of the Court of Com­mon Pleas, met at the house of Zebulon Butler, where the following proceedings took place: The commissions of William Hooker Smith, Benjamin Carpenter, and James Nesbit, also those of Timothy Pickering, Obadiah Gore, Nathan Kingsly, and Matthias Hollenback as justices of the Court of Common Pleas.

The authority granted to Timothy Pickering and Nathan Denison by the Supreme Executive Council empowering them to administer oaths was read. Pickering then administered the oath of office to William Hooker Smith, Benjamin Carpenter, and James Nesbit as justices. The court then convened and appointed Joseph Sprague court crier.

The commissions to Timothy Pickering appointing him to the following offices were read as follows, “Prothonotary, Clerk of the Peace, Clerk of the Orphans Court, Register for the Probate of Wills, and Recorder of Deeds.”

The Court then admitted the following to the bar: Ebenezer Bowman, Putnam Catlin and Rosewell Wells, and they too were sworn. Lord Butter, sheriff, petitioned the court to authorize the proper parties to proceed with the erection of a jail.


Economic and Social Development

During the decade 1800-1810 the first signs of a stable government began to appear after a half century of turmoil and conflict. The county, from an economic standpoint, was departing from the household industries and the shop stage was developing.

The “turnpike craze” began with incorporation of the Wilkes-Barre and Easton Turnpike on Feb. 11, 1803 and from that time highways were built and radiated from the thickly settled areas to every backwoods hamlet.

The Susquehanna river had long been a waterway by which the products of the county had found their way to market and by which the needed staples were acquired. The lumber rafts, the flat boats, and Durham boats were employed in river transportation. River traffic was attended by many dangers: shallow water for most of the year, a rocky bottom, and swift rapids made the trips dangerous and unprofitable. The products of agriculture, lumber and, eventually, coal had to depend on the spring and fall freshlets to reach the marketplace.

Coal mining in Wyoming Valley was first attempted by Abijah Smith in 1806. He was joined the following year by his brother John. They used the pick and wedge method at the outset, but soon blasting powder was introduced to extract anthracite, proving to be a great advance in method.

On Feb. 11, 1808, Jesse Fell demonstrated that coal could be burned without a forced draft. This event was a great step forward in the development of an industry which was to dominate the economy for over a century. The investigations into the character and extent of anthracite car­ried on by Jacob Cist added further impetus and attracted other men to explore and exploit the wealth that lay underground in the greatest hard coal field in the world.

The construction of the North Branch Canal, starting at Northumberland, was begun in 1828 and was completed in 1834 with its northern terminus at Pittston. It afforded an easier and more profitable method of transportation and supplanted the old methods of river traffic.

The first entry of a railroad into the valley occurred in 1843, when the descent from the mountain was accomplished by a series of planes. It was not until 1867 that the Lehigh Valley succeeded in constructing a right-of-way to enter the territory entirely by rail.

The Lackawanna and Bloomsburg railroad was begun in 1853 on the western side of the valley and finally extended to Northumberland. Years later, it became an integral part of the D L & W railroad system. From these early improvements, eventually a half dozen railroads penetrated the region and aided in the development of the anthracite industry.

In the early days, most mining was done either on an individual basis, small partnership, or as family enterprises, notably by the Smith, Dorrance, Hollenbach, Butler and Shoemaker families. As the railroads expanded, foreign capital entered the picture. As a result, the giant corporate structures began to appear and the small businesses that started the industry began to disappear and foreign ownership began to dominate.

The market for coal continued to expand by leaps and bounds, and as a result the transportation companies dominated the industry. The expansion following the Civil War was tremendous, and this advance required more and more labor.

The local labor market was unable to keep up and a re­cruiting system composed of various agencies allied with transportation evolved, namely, railroads, steamship lines, and professional recruiters in company employ. They first searched the British Isles, for from there came those who had a fundamental knowledge of mining they had acquired in their native land. The search seemed to never end and, as a consequence, many of the nations of western, cen­tral, and southern Europe furnished the swarming thou­sands who came to the coal regions of Pennsylvania to sup­ply the unsatisfied demand for additional hands.

Arrivals brought new languages and customs which resulted in a kind of segregation in the “mine patches,” where the immigrants settled near their new places of employ­ment. Here they maintained the language and customs that they brought with them.

In this situation the immigrants became the victims of injustice, and hard and dangerous working conditions brought death and maiming to hundreds of them. With expansion came wealth and increasing social position to the owners, and an ever widening discontent among those who made such things possible. In the “long strike of 1870” the first signs of unrest began to appear. Several at­tempts were made to unionize the miners under the leadership of Siney and Powderly, but such efforts were soon quelled. Finally the arrival of John Mitchell solidified the workers, and agreement reached in the settlement of the 1902 strike provided that the United Mine Workers Union would be the bargaining agent for the labor forces in any subsequent negotiations with the mine owners.

Labor seemed to be on an equal footing with capital in the mining industry, but the situation was of short duration. Bad mining practices and increasingly frequent strikes resulted in the loss of markets and disaster in the nineteen twenties, with markets revived only to a degree by the Second World War.

From 1820, when the first records were kept, until 1920 the production of anthracite increased from 365 tons to approximately 70 million tons. Today the labor force has decreased to about 4,000 and production to a few million tons, most of it by strip mining.

In the wake of the coal business other industries began to appear. The manufacture of locomotives, mine car wheels, wire rope, squibs, were used in great quantities. Shovels were manufactured and quantities of lumber were needed as props to support the roofs in the underground workings and to supply material for the “breakers” and housing for the labor force. Financial institutions appeared in such places as Wilkes-Barre, Pittston, Nanticoke and Hazleton. Adding machines were produced to be used in business institutions. Automobiles were built by the Matheson Brothers in their plant at Forty Fort. For a time even motion pictures were produced in the county.

The first newspaper published in the county was the Herald of the Times, first printed in 1797. The Federalist and the Gleamer soon followed and from those early papers have come the present daily papers published in Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, and the weekly papers which are pub­lished in various sections of the county.

Foreign language newspapers proliferated in the second half of the nineteenth and for about three decades of the twentieth centuries. A declining readership, however, has forced most of them out of existence.

The advance of religion has been striking from the days of the Methodist circuit rider until the present. The Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopal and Lutheran, among other Protestant faiths, have been established. The Roman Catholic church followed in the wake of the increasing population of ethnic groups who came here, and the church buildings of that faith now dot the whole countryside. The Jewish peddlers with their packs on their backs introduced the faith of their fathers. They came from oppression and found a climate of toleration and stayed. Today the fine temples of the Jews are the visible evidence of their ability to make the adjustment and further, to become leaders in the community.

The advance of education has been no less spectacular from its beginning at a town meeting held in Kingston in 1774. It provided for a school to be built and a suitable schoolmaster to be employed. Public funds were to pay for the school and teacher.

All of these accomplishments have on occasion been interrupted by mine disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes and river floods with the accompanying tragedy and sorrow. In many instances, the road to recovery has been long and hard. In 1784 the valley of the Susquehanna suffered its first great flood on record. A few days later, a letter from Rev. Jacob Johnson and two other citizens recounted the losses that had resulted together with a plea for help. The following quote from that letter is significant. “The ice went mountains high, and bore down all before it. The aboriginal natives tell us that once in about twenty years there is such a flood, that the mountains and hills only are seen.” It would seem that this letter was a portent of things to come, and to a degree belies the theory of great floods occurring once in a century.

Out of two centuries of experience, a lively lot of folklore and legend has grown concerning many events that oc­curred. The tales of the lumber woods, the mines, the Revolution and the early settlement are entertaining and seem to take on new luster with each telling.

These are the entertaining elements of the history of the county, but there remains a more serious side. The historians of another day put down the events as they viewed them, and from the facts available, and in some cases with a trace of bias. Men like Charles Miner, Stewart Pearce, Hendrick B. Wright, Oscar J. Harvey and others can in justice, be thanked for the records they have left to us.

Present day historians, be they amateur or professional, have an obligation to perform, that is to continue to sepa­rate truth from fiction and to let a new light shine on local history. The collections of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society are available and much research needs to be done. Wilkes College and Kings College continue to collect material of interest to the social and economic historian. As the dross is being skimmed from the social institutions, let the same methods be applied to history – for sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.


Ralph Hazeltine, a life-long resident of Trucksville in Luzerne County, is director emeritus of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society. He is a former mem­ber of the PHMC and holds an honorary doctorate from Albright College, Read­ing. He is currently treasurer of the Penn­sylvania Federation of Historical Societies.