Much Reason to Fear

A Note to My Readers:  It’s been a deep plunge into early American history and my German-Swiss immigrant families…the Learns and the Brinkers…and their pre-Revolutionary life in northeastern Pennsylvania. I found a number of colonial Pennsylvania archives online that witness the months, weeks and days before the Learn family massacre on July 3, 1781. It becomes a warren of circumstances that entail personal grudges, slander, political clay feet, atrocities and the fog of war.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker-The Learn Massacre

Pennsylvania Historical Marker-The Learn Massacre

For quite sometime I have researched Tannersville and Wyoming Valley during the pre-Revolutionary period because my maternal 4th great grandfather, Samuel Weyburn, fought with the Pennsylvania Rangers as part of Washington’s Continental Army and was under General Sullivan’s command. Journals from officers encamped in Tannersville, refer to John Learn’s tavern as a favorable and strategic bivouac point in the Pocono Mountains. General Sullivan and his troops used the Learn site to gather and prepare for Sullivan’s Campaign in 1779.  Not far from the site of John Learn’s tavern is Brinker’s Mill which still stands today. Jacob Brinker is my paternal 6th great grandfather. His daughter, Anna Margaretha, married George Learn (son of John Learn) and they are my paternal 5th great grandparents.  On July 3rd, 1781, Jacob Brinker would lose his daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and close friend in what has come to be known as “The Learn Massacre”.

As the story unfolds, John Learn and Jacob Stroud (Stroudsburg, PA was named after him.) were not on the best of terms. It seems that Stroud got it into his mind that John Learn was a Tory sympathizer and as the local in charge of militia, left Learn’s tavern without protection during the restless and uncertain days of the Revolutionary War. Though the Learns often traded with the local native population and according to survivors had no issue of any kind, they still worried. Tory sympathizers and British soldiers under the command of the infamous Captain Joseph Brandt, a Mohawk,  and Colonel John Butler were providing the local tribes with liquor and guns and fostering ill will against the settlers. The situation was escalating and becoming unpredictable and perilous.  John Learn and Jacob Brinker petitioned over Stroud’s head for more military protection. While witnesses testified Stroud’s behavior was concerning and promised a tragedy, nothing went further up the line to get help. It seems a junior politician (Robert Levers) worried about his fledgling career though he did have the honesty to admit it in a letter to his superior after the massacre.

On July 7, 1781 a grieving Jacob Brinker came to the quarters of Robert Levers and gave the account of the Learn Massacre and what led up to that unfortunate day. I transcribed the letter that Levers wrote to Joseph Reed, President of the Supreme Council (a position analogous to Governor).

“Jacob Brinker, whose daughter was the Wife of George Lerne, Two of the late unhappy Victims slain by the Indians, was with me last Evening, with young John Lerne, who killed and scalped an Indian soon after his Father was shot, desiring a small party of men might be posted at the place of his late Father deceased, for the Protection of his Crop and of his mother and younger Brethren – upon what occasion I know not, but Lerne tells me, that a few men were posted at one Jacob Lewis(?) about a mile & and half within Lernes’. Here a Regard to Truth, and a Commiseration of this unhappy Family, constrain me to reveal to Council what has long lain on my mind with deep Concern; it is in the Line of my duty now I apprehended if I interfered some Persons in County might have given an ungenerous Construction to my good design.

These Families, there is too much reason to fear, have unhappily fell a Sacrifice to malicious Resentment; -Frequent application had been made to Col. Strowd for Guard, by the late unhappy John Lerne, whose Place is so situated that it is certainly a proper Post, and he was as often refused; and, as the deceased some time past told me himself, because Col. Strowd asserted he was a Tory, and he only wanted men there to have them destroyed, and on which Account John Lerne, in his Life Time, brought and action of Slander against Col. Strowd. On the 30th June, when Col. Chambers was with me, he produced to me a paper directed to him, & delivered as he said, by one Mr. Denis (?) to him; the Paper contains a Number of Charges against Col. Strowd, and I have taken the Liberty to enclose a Copy; and I was desired to put Col. Strowd under Arrest.

‘It occasioned me much Uneasiness of mind, and I declined the matter, telling Col. Chambers I was young in office, the Military duty never having engaged much of my Thoughts; and that as it was well known that I had an unfavorable Opinion of Col. Strowd, which however well grounded, my Interference at such a time might rather be injurious, and frustrate my design, which was rather to cement different Parties than divide; nevertheless, I would take a Copy of them, and if upon strict Enquiry, I should find the Charges well grounded, I would transmit them to your Excellency and sollicit advice and Instructions from you on matters of that Nature. What has since happened, has made me conceive it to be my duty to represent the Whole to Council without Reserve.

From the Account I have received from young John Lerne, the Indian attack was thus: – his Brother George was mowing Grass in a meadow where he was attacked; upon endeavoring to make to the House, his Retreat was cut off and he killed & scalped. The old man with Son John were in a Rye Field, and attacked by Two Indians, who both fired; John Lerne the Elder having first fired, but missed, he was shot and began to run; his Son escaped, and whilst he was watching the Fate of his Father, the Two Indians running after him to scalp him, Young Lerne saw another in the Rye, with his Head down as if he was doing something to his Rifle, upon which Lerne immediately fired & shot him through the Head, but dared not venture to scalp him at that time. He thinks he could have shot another of the Indians after he had loaded, but his Weakness of body being such that he could not make his Escape if he should have missed, he judged, as his Father and Brother were killed, it was best to secure himself. He says had there been Four or Five Persons then present, beside the Family, all the Indians must inevitably have fallen into their Hands –From every Circumstance it appears there were but Four. The Indian he killed was of those who formerly lived at Chemung, named Edsky, but about Five years ago gave himself the name of Jacob Stroud. His Brother George’s Wife and Child were taken & carried off by the Indians, with some Plunder, the House, &c, not destroyed – and after the Prisoners were taken some distance were both killed. That upon Col. Strowd coming up with a Party, the Indians were pursued to the Edge of the Great Swamp; and upon one of the Party’s going into the Swamp & whistling in the Indian Fashion, he was answered by the Indians, and by the Sound at a very small distance, it is imagined the Indians supposed it to be the Comrade that Lerne had killed – But it is said that the Party Col. Stroud had the Command of, had taken out a Ten Gallon Keg of Whiskey, and some of them had become so intoxicated with Liquor, and began to whistle, hoop & haloo, that they might have been heard a mile, by which unhappy Accident the Indians were alarmed, when that had collected wood to make a Fire, and went off in a great Fright, leaving their Plunder, besides other matters of their own, behind them.

It is generally conjectured old John Lerne wounded one of the Indians, and that he died somewhere of his Wounds; because Two Indian tracks were only seen on their Retreat. – Young Lerne tells me a strange circumstance of Col. Strowds’ Conduct, which I have heard from others, and is difficult to be accounted for – That after having marched some distance with Party on the Pursuit along the Indian Tracks, and had passed the Place where the Woman and Child had been killed, he lost his party, and was afterwards found on the Road leading from his house to Wyoming, (about Four miles, supposed to be across from the Indian Track pursued, by a party that had come out to strengthen him, and had reached Lernes’ after he and his Party had marched about two Hours; with which latter Party her returned & proceeded to the great Swamp. The Two Companies is said to have been about Fifty men. I cannot say how far this Report is to be depended on, as I have heard nothing from Col. Chambers; but it appears of too serious a nature not to mention it in Council.

I have the Honor to be,
your Excellency’s
most obedient Servant,
ROBERT LEVERS.

John Learn Monument.  Miller Cemetery, Lansing, NY

John Learn Monument. Miller Cemetery, Lansing, NY

Other accounts of the event are more specific. John was killed first and then his son George, as in the testimony given by George’s surviving brother, Margaretha was carried off with her infant daughter, Susan. Both were scalped and gutted. Their two year old son, John, survived the attack after being gathered up by his aunt who hid with him in the unmowed rye. The young family dog threatened to give them away so she kept it and the child silent until it was clear to run for help.

The little boy is John Learn, my 4th great grandfather. He was raised by his father’s family and when they migrated to New York State, he settled in Lansing, New York. John is buried in Miller Cemetery along with his wives, Elizabeth (my 4th great grandmother) and Linda.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c)Copyright 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

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