Patriot Stephen Harding (1723-1789)

My application for membership to the Sons Of The American Revolution states that my 5th Gr-Grandfather, Stephen Harding, “assisted in the establishment of American Independence while acting in the capacity of Captain of the 7th Co., 24th Regiment, Colonel Zebulon Butler Connecticut Militia in1775 and he was in command of Fort Jenkins in Wyoming Valley, PA when he was captured on July 2,1778 by the Tories and the Indians.”

That is all true, of course, but there is so much more to the story…

Stephen Harding Jr. was born March 11, 1723 in Warwick, RI.  His 4th Gr-Grandfather, Richard Harding, had emigrated from England a century earlier making Stephen a fourth generation American.

His father, Capt. Stephen Harding, was a mariner, building and sailing his own ships.  Capt. Stephen must have gained considerable wealth for in 1732 he purchased a highly improved 400 acre farm that included a sawmill in what became Waterford, CT.  The family moved there when the younger Stephen was perhaps 9 years old.

Little else is known about Stephen Jr. until May 31, 1743 when he married Amy Gardner (daughter of Stephen & Frances Congdon Gardner).  Together they settled in Colchester, CT where they resided for over 25 years and raised 9 sons and 4 daughters.

During the French and Indian War Stephen Jr. served in Captain Thomas Pierce’s Twelfth Company of the Second Connecticut Regiment.  He served as a private for about six months and was involved in the Campaign of 1760.

“From the lips of those who were acquainted with them during their lifetime, we are told that (Stephen) was a man of means, and a prominent man in the town of Colchester (Connecticut), from whence he had come; and that both he and his wife had been members of the Baptist Church there. He was a man of great will power and energy, of more than ordinary physical stature, and always ready to act upon every emergency.”  (Source: Luscomb, J.S. (1998). Genealogical Outline of the Richard Harding Line. Wyoming Historical Society collections.)

Stephen’s name appears several times among those from Connecticut who, beginning in the 1760’s, attempted to establish a settlement in the Wyoming Valley in NE Pennsylvania.  This very fertile valley was formed by the Susquehanna River which flows from upstate New York through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and into the Chesapeake Bay. We are primarily interested in the 30 mile stretch just north and east of Wilkes-Barre, PA.

The problem with settling the Wyoming Valley was that it was embroiled in a border dispute between the Colonies of Connecticut and Pennsylvania.  King Charles II had unwittingly granted the area to both Colonies; and neither wanted to give it up.  The result was a series of Yankee-Pennamite Wars that raged, off and on, for 25 years.  That is a great story for another time.  But for now, suffice to know only that Stephen Harding believed that he was settling in Westmoreland, Connecticut.  All of his civic and military service was for Connecticut.  Even though the area is now part of Pennsylvania.

Stephen was living in the Wyoming Valley in 1772 when Pittston Fort was a built by the  Connecticut settlers.  The fort contained about 35 cabins within a triangular palisade.  The settlers owned and occupied their cabins until such times as they were ready to live on the farms which they had located.  One of these cabins, #33, belonged to Stephen Harding.

April 19, 1775 – The American Revolutionary War began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

May, 1775 –  The Connecticut Legislature enacted “that the town of Westmoreland shall be one entire regiment distinguished and called by the name of the 24th Regiment” Zebulun Butler was appointed Colonel.

Fall of 1775 – Stephen sold his interest in Pittston Fort and presumably moved into his house in Exeter Township.  Located on the west side of the Susquehanna river, near Falling Spring the settlement later became the village of Harding. (it’s on Google Maps)

October, 1775 – The 24th Connecticut Militia Regiment was organized into nine companies.  The Line Officers for the Seventh Company, located around Exeter Township, were Stephen Harding, Captain; Elisha Scovell, Lieutenant; John Jenkins, Ensign (Harding & Jenkins were brothers-in-law; their wives Amy Gardner Harding and Lydia Gardner Jenkins were sisters.)

August, 1776 – Two Independent Companies of the 24th Regiment were established for Continental Service .  At least three of Stephen Harding’s sons, Stephen III, Thomas (my ancestor), and Israel, enlisted in the First Westmoreland Independent Co.

January, 1777 – The two Independent Companies left the Wyoming Valley and marched off to join General Washington at Morristown, NJ.  Their departure left primarily women, children and old men to defend the Wyoming Valley.  Stephen was then 54 and one of the men that stayed behind.  One of the children was Stephen’s son, Elisha, who later gave this testimony:

“In answer to your request, I will begin with the building of Jenkins fort. In the month of June, 1777, it was thought proper to commence building forts, for defense against the enemy.  We went to work I, but a boy, could do but little, except driving oxen to haul logs ; the logs were about eighteen or twenty feet long, and placed in a ditch of a sufficient depth to stand against any thing that could be brought by the enemy against it ; the corners so constructed as to rake any thing on the outside of the fort that should attempt to assail it.”

So, Fort Jenkins was actually built by Harding, Jenkins, Gardner and their families. It was nothing more than a log stockade built around the house of Judge John Jenkins.  Other forts in the area were larger.  I’ve already mentioned Pittston Fort; and Forty Fort occupied almost an acre.  But Fort Jenkins was small and only able to accommodate a few families in times of danger.

.Fort Wintermoots, another stockaded house, was also small and only a mile away from Fort Jenkins.  But it had been built by Tory settlers from New York who were sympathetic to the British.

Spring of 1778 – Butler’s Ranagers began wreaking havoc in the Susquehanna Valley.  Major John Butler (no relation to Zebulun Butler) was a Connecticut Tory, loyal to the British Crown, with extensive knowledge of Indian languages and customs.  He had at his command as many as 500 Mohawk Indians and 400 local Tories.  The Susquehanna was a strategic waterway and food source and they meant to take it by any means.

May, 1778 –  Sensing the danger, the Hardings, Hadsalls, John Gardner and perhaps others moved into Fort Jenkins.  But they were still farmers. They had to go out and tend to their crops or they would have nothing to eat come winter. 

June 30,1778 – A work party, including Stephen’s sons Benjamin, Stukley, & Stephen III (apparently back from his tour with Washington) went up river five or six miles to work in their corn fields.  Toward evening, as they were beginning to make their way back to the fort, they were ambushed by Indians.  Benjamin and Stukley were killed, mutilated, and scalped.  Stephen III fled and after wandering through the woods all night made it back to the fort the next morning.

July 1, 1778 – A force from Forty Fort marched the 11 miles to the site of the murders seeking retaliation.  They also recovered the bodies of Benjamin and Stukley. Amy Gardner Harding, their mother, prepared them for burial and they were laid to rest outside of the fort. These were the first burials in the Jenkins-Harding Cemetery.

July 2, 1778 – I again quote Elisha Harding’s testimony:

“In the course of the after noon, Butler sent a flag to our fort, demanding a surrender thereof; Captain Harding and Esquire Jenkins met Butler; and there being but five able-bodied men, and two old men, and three boys, left in the fort, and the Indians in possession of Wintermoots, it was thought most advisable to surrender on the following conditions: that nothing should be taken from the inhabitants of the fort, except such things as were wanted for the army, and that to be paid for; the inhabitants to have liberty to return home and occupy their farms in peace, but not to take up arms during the war.”

July 3, 1778 –  All the Companies of the 24th, except for Harding’s 7th Co.,which was captured the day before, were gathered in Forty Fort for a war council.  Colonel Zebulun Butler was there; and troops from the Independent Companies were on their way.  Smoke could been seen on the horizon as Forts Jenkins and Wintermoots were being destroyed. Some of the men at Forty Forty insisted that they must go out immediately and confront the enemy to protect their farms and families.  Col. Zebulun Butler advised that they should stay in the Fort and wait for reinforcements. But he eventually relented and the men of Wyoming left the Fort and went out in pursuit of the enemy.

They found the enemy, established a line, and fired a couple of volleys.  But then they realized that they were outflanked by Indians hiding in the woods.  Savage hand-to-hand combat with spears and tomahawks ensued and within 45 minutes the Battle and Massacre of Wyoming was over.

Numbers vary, but roughly 200 Patriots were killed, tortured, and/or mutilated that day.  The Wyoming Monument lists the names of 182 men known to have died.  When Col. John Butler left the Valley a few days later he took with him 227 scalps for which the British paid him $2270.

By being captured on the previous day, the Hardings escaped the horror of the Battle & Massacre.  But they surely suffered tremendous loss among friends and neighbors.

Despite the surrender agreement at Jenkins Fort, it was not safe to remain in the valley.  The Hardings fled to Colchester for the duration of the war.  In 1778, they returned to the Wyoming Valley and resumed living on their farm in Exeter.  Stephen Harding died Oct 11,1789 and Amy survived him until June 4,1804.  They are both buried in Jenkins-Harding Cemetery in West Pittston, PA along side of their sons, Benjamin and Stukley.

Jenkins-Harding Cemetery, West Pittston, PA

Wyoming Monnument

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