The Plum Tree Massacre

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Graves of Lt. King and Sgt. Sutton. Insert: Plum Tree Massacre Memorial

I arrived at the corner of West Fourth and Cemetery Streets in Williamsport in search of a monument to one of the bloodiest incidents to occur in the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna. Parking along either street was limited, so I parked in the small lot on the opposite side of Cemetery Street from old Cavalry Methodist Church. As I got out of the vehicle, I could see the memorial next to the old church and the two tombstones behind it which leaned against the building. The monument remembers the Plum Tree Massacre, also known as the Plum Thicket Massacre, that occurred here in the summer of 1778.

I paused at the memorial to read the simple plaque marking the site of the massacre “This memorial marks the site of a massacre of white settlers by the Indians, June 10th 1778.” After reading the plaque, I walked over to the two tombstones. One of them belonged to Lieutenant William King, who was an early settler on Lycoming Creek, and the other belonged to Sergeant Arad Sutton. While King’s name is connected with this massacre, he was not killed during it, but would be buried here many years later.

The massacre that happened here on June 10, was just one of many that happened that year on the Pennsylvania frontier. The summer of 1778 was extremely tense. Rumors of Tories and Indians descending upon the North Branch Valley running rampant, causing many of these settlers to leave the frontier for safer grounds.

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 any raiders from easily scaling it. While King worked on erecting a fort and building a homestead, his wife, Rachel, remained with their children, Sarah and Ruth, at Fort Muncy.

In early June 1778, Peter Smith made the decision to continue up the West Branch to the lands along Lycoming Creek. As he journeyed into the West Branch Valley, he brought with him his wife and six children. With them were 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 Rachel King the the two children. Despite William’s instructions for them to stay at Fort Muncy for their safety, Peter Smith talked her into joining the party. Smith’s reasoning was so William would not have to travel back down the West Branch Valley alone to get his family. to bring them to the homestead. She reluctantly agreed to join the party as it ventured into the wilderness.

June 10, 1778 was a bloody day in the West Branch Valley, though those in Peter Smith’s party would not have known what they were wandering into. Raiding Iroquois had arrived in the West Branch Valley and had already attacked settlers, killing at least three people.

The sun was setting when Smith’s group reached the Loyalsock Creek. There they encountered John Harris, who reported hearing the sounds of gunfire along Lycoming Creek. Despite Harris’ warning them about the gunfire and advising them to turn back to Fort Muncy, which was located near the present-day Lycoming County Mall. Smith and his group continued towards Lycoming Creek, while Harris continued to the fort to make a report about what he had heard. Upon hearing the information, the commanding officer sent out a group of fifteen soldiers to find Smith’s party and bring them back to safety of the fort.

By this time, it was already too late.

Smith’s party was approximately a half-mile from their destination when they were ambushed by the raiding party. Smith’s group had entered into a thicket of wild plum trees when the attack occurred.

In the first volley fired by the Indians, Snodgrass was killed by a bullet that struck him in the head. The soldiers took cover behind trees and returned fire. Two children, one boy and one girl, immediately fled into the underbrush and escaped. As the Indians began to surround the party, the men abandoned the wagons and fled for their own lives, leaving the women and children to defend themselves. One of the soldiers, Michael Campbell, stayed and attempted to defend the women and children, but was soon overtaken by the attackers.

As the massacre was happening, the group of soldiers from Fort Muncy, led by Captain William Hepburn, encountered the young boy who had escaped. Due to the boy’s nervousness and fear, Captain Hepburn had the impression the attack was happening along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and not near the plum grove. The group of soldiers from Fort Muncy turned away from the massacre spot and headed towards the river. By the time they realized their mistake and returned to the site of the massacre, the sun had set and Captain Hepburn was unable to determine what had exactly happened. In the darkness, the group of soldiers stumbled upon two bodies which were left, and the soldiers returned to the safety of Fort Muncy.

The next morning Captain Hepburn and his men returned to the plum thicket and discovered the bodies of Snodgrass and Campbell, the two bodies they had stumbled upon the night before. As they were searching, William King arrived at the scene. The group searched the area around the plum grove, where they discovered the body of Peter Smith’s wife and two children savagely mutilated. The group followed a trail of blood to a nearby stream where they discovered Rachel King lying along the stream. Although she had been stabbed a number of times and scalped, Rachel was still alive. William took her in his arms and held her as she died.

Sadly, had Captain Hepburn understood where the ambush occurred, they may have arrived in time to save some of those wounded. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The result of the massacre was eight dead and four survivors, with William King’s two daughters missing. The girls would later be discovered alive in Canada and recovered. Peter Smith’s actions 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 – Michael Smith and Hammond – who had accompanied the party that fateful day.

As I stood there, I noted that the two stones seemed out of place. The amount of land between the church and road does not allow for a lot of burials, yet two Revolutionary soldiers are resting here. I thought it odd that King is buried here, and then it dawned on me – King was buried here because this is where his wife had been buried. In the aftermath of the massacre, the bodies were buried near the spot they fell.

The air seemed to grow even heavier with the realization that more than these two people are buried here. A church, parking lot, road, and possibly the buildings nearby, had been built atop the graves of the massacre victims and any others who may have been buried here in the following years.

I finished paying my respects to the victims of the massacre and any others who may have been buried here — and unfortunately forgotten about – before leaving them resting in the shadow of the abandoned church.

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