Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Plum Tree Massacre

Plum Tree Massacre Memorial, Williamsport

At the corners of West Fourth and Cemetery Streets in Williamsport stands a monument memorializing one of the most bloody incidents to occur in the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna. On June 10, 1778, a group of Indians (almost twenty in number) ambushed and massacred a group of settlers arriving in the area.

I first heard about the monument from a friend who lives in the area. While I had often thought about visiting the memorial, it was usually forgotten while I was in town. It would be almost three years after learning about the Plum Tree Massacre Monument that I would finally seek out and visit the marker.

As I jumped out of the vehicle, I could see the memorial in front of the old church (it appears to be apartments now from what the signs stated around the property) and two tombstones behind it against the building. I read the words on the plaque and then looked at the two gravestones. One of them belonged to William King who was an early settler on Lycoming Creek. I had run into his name before - his cousin Simon Cool was killed during an Indian attack. Sadly, William's name is connected with this Indian attack.

The summer of 1778 was extremely tense on the Pennsylvania frontier; rumors of Tory and Indians descending upon the North Branch Valley ran rampant causing many families to leave the frontier for safer grounds. Many people of the West Branch also left their lands to seek refuge. In July of this year (after the events of the Plum Tree Massacre) the infamous Wyoming Massacre would take place.

Despite the growing number of incidents with Indians in the region, not all settlers were convinced to leave the lands they were developing. William King was one of those men. He, along with Robert Covenhoven and James Armstrong, was in the process of erecting a settler's fort along Lycoming Creek. This fort covered almost a half-acre and had walls that leaned slightly outward to prevent Indians from easily scaling it.

While many settlers sought shelter in safer regions of the state, some ignored the warnings and rumors. Peter Smith was among those people; in early June he made the decision to continue up the West Branch to the lands along Lycoming Creek. He brought with him his wife, six children and five men from Captain Reynold's Company: Michael Smith, Michael Campbell, David Chambers and two men whose last names were Snodgrass and Hammond.

Also included in this party was the wife of William King and their two children, Sarah and Ruth. Rachel King had been purposely left behind by her husband as he helped erect a stockade and prepared a home for them in the wilderness; she had been told to stay at the safety of Fort Muncy until he came back for her. Peter Smith talked her into joining the party so William would not have to travel alone to get them. She reluctantly agreed and joined the party with her two children.

Close-up of the Monument

June 10th was a very bloody day in the West Branch Valley, though those in Peter Smith's party would not have known what they were wandering into. Indians had already attacked and killed at least three other people in the region. The party would soon discover themselves a part of this bloody day.

The sun was setting when the group reached the Loyalsock. Here they encountered John Harris, who reported the sounds of gunfire along Lycoming Creek. The travelers continued towards the Lycoming and John Harris headed for Fort Muncy. When he reported this to the commanding officer, a group of fifteen soldiers were sent out to find the party.

By that time it was already too late.

When the party was approximately a half mile from their destination, they were ambushed. In the first volley, Snodgrass was killed by a bullet that struck him in the head. The men took cover behind trees and returned fire. Two children (one boy and one girl) immediately fled into the underbrush and escaped.

The Indians tried to surround the party and surprisingly the men abandoned the wagons and fled for their own lives. One of the men, Michael Campbell, tried to stay and defend the women and children but was soon overtaken by the attackers.

As the massacre was occurring, the group of soldiers led by Captain Hepburn encountered the boy who escaped. Due to the nervousness and fear in the boy he gave the impression that the attack was happening on the river and the group turned away from the massacre spot (they were closer to it than they were to the river). By the time they arrived at the spot it was dark and though they discovered two bodies they left them and continued to the fort.

The next morning they returned to the spot and discovered the bodies of Snodgrass and Campbell, the two bodies they had discovered the night before. Searching the area around the plum grove, they discovered the body of Peter Smith's wife and two children savagely mutilated. Following a trail of blood, they discovered Rachel King barely alive lying along the stream; she had been stabbed a number of times and scalped. William took her in his arms and held her as she died.

Sadly, had Captain Hepburn understood where the ambush occurred, they might have arrived in time to save some of those wounded. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Graves of William King and Arad Sutton, Williamsport

The end result of the massacre was eight dead, four survivors, and two missing - William King's two daughters who were missing would later be discovered alive in Canada. Peter's actions and determination resulted in the death of his wife and four of his six children. Unfortunately, local histories fail to reveal the fate of two of the soldiers (Micheal Smith and Hammond) who accompanied the party that fateful day.

As I stood there that day, thinking about the hardships that the early settlers had experienced, the pain that the survivors had gone through couldn't even start to be imagined. The sorrow of the events of so long ago seemed to still linger in the air.

After reading the monument, I stepped over to the two tombs that stood against the side of the building. It seemed odd to me that the two graves were located where they were; no other tombstones were nearby. The amount of land between the church and road did not allow for a lot of burials, yet two Revolutionary soldiers were resting here.

I thought it odd that William King was buried at the place he had lost his wife and people he had to have known while they were alive. Then the sudden realization hit me; he was buried here because his wife had been buried here. In the aftermath of the massacre, the bodies were probably buried near the spot they fell.

The air seemed to grow even heavier with as the realization that more than these two people were buried here. A church, parking lot, and road had been built atop the graves of the massacre victims and any others who may have been buried here in the following years. Before leaving I paid my respects to the victims of the massacre and any others who may have been buried there over the years.

Though very little of the cemetery still exists, please use respect when visiting the graves and memorial.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your post. My ancestor was William King on my father's side. I never knew Capt Simon Cool was his cousin. I agree with you about the site of the burial. It is a shame so many of our ancestors of this country might be lying beneath an asphalt parking lot.