Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform

A History of Conestoga Indiantown

Conestoga Indiantown was at the forefront of Native American/Colonial relations in the eighteenth-century mid-Atlantic. The colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia each signed treaties through Conestoga concerning a range of Native American issues that impacted the entire continent as Europeans traveled west.

In hundreds of accounts written between 1701 and its demise in 1763, Indiantown served as a reference point in the first surveys to determine the Pennsylvania/Maryland border 16 miles to the south (Colonial Records of Pennsylvania). The records indicate that as Europeans moved in, Indiantown was increasingly regarded as a reservation and its inhabitants made increasingly dependent on both the Pennsylvania government and their European neighbors for sustenance.

This essay will explore the history of Conestoga Indiantown, its people, and their displacement after the Paxton massacre.

The Susquehannock Nation
The Susquehannock Nation finds its roots in the Seneca Nation of western New York. Beginning in the early 1400s, Susquehannock peoples differentiated themselves from the Seneca, and migrated south-east, downstream along the river which now bears their name, to settle in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Kent 13-18). By the mid-1500s, Susquehannock culture dominated trade along the Susquehanna River and established several cities along its eastern shore, both north and south of the confluence of the Conestoga River with the Susquehanna. They grew maize, beans, at least six species of squash, tobacco, paw-paw fruit, at least two species of chenopodium, marshelder and maygrass, and engaged in hunting, fishing, beadwork, weaving, flint knapping, construction, and trade through a network that extended at least from modern-day Louisiana to Quebec (Minderhout 30ff; Ward 231ff).

Captain John Smith referenced the Susquehannock in his account of exploration regarding the Chesapeake Bay in 1608 (Smith 58-61). Smith was surprised to find the Susquehannocks trading French goods from Quebec, a colony founded just a few years earlier. The Susquehannocks were also noted by the Swedish missionary Johannes Campanius, in 1645, when he described a fort located twelve Swedish miles (about 80 English miles) from New Sweden (now Wilmington, Delaware). “They came daily to trade with us…They live on a high mountain…there they have a fort, a square building surrounded with palisades…They have guns and small iron canon.” (Holm 157-158).

Due to colonial pressures and the traumatic effect of disease introduced by Europeans, however, the Native population soon declined precipitously. Europeans considered the effect as “divine providence,” the natural winnowing of a once powerful people (Carlisle and Golson 108ff). In the 1670s, the Susquehannocks, now possessing far lesser influence, moved to the west side of the Susquehanna River, which was claimed by the government of Maryland.

In May 1680, about 300 Susquehannocks were forcibly relocated from the lower village and placed in Maryland on a reservation 100 miles to the south near the first cataracts of the Potomac River (Maryland Archives). The reservation was rampant with disease and created systemic dependency, stripping the Susquehannocks of the ability to practice their culture and teach their children native values. Within two years scores of natives fled the reservation, and by any means possible, attempted to return to their homeland.

Conestoga Indiantown
Between 1682 and 1685, this group had reconnected with others and settled just south of the 40th parallel on the east side of the Susquehanna, about four miles inland (Jennings 198-199). They numbered about 200 people, and assumed the name Conestoga, and are henceforth known as the Conestoga Indians.

They settled in the heart of what later became Penn’s Manor, and area of 16,000 acres initially restricted from colonial settlement (Kenny 21-22). William Penn allegedly visited the Natives at this location on his second visit to Pennsylvania in 1701. The 1717 Taylor survey of “Conestoga Manor” clearly shows “Indiantown” immediately north of John Cartledge’s 300 acre tract (PA 4:49).

After William Penn’s death in 1718, the established Manor was gradually broken up for European settlement. By the time a new survey was drawn up in 1737, 414 acres remained surrounding the native village of “Indiantown.” The 414 acres were bracketed by farms established by English Quakers and Swiss-German Mennonites.

In 1739, a Swiss-German neighbor by the name of Michael Bachman attempted to obtain the last of the Native lands—the very acres upon which the remaining Susquehannocks had settled. He went to Philadelphia and presented a request in which he claimed he could convince the Indians to remove themselves from the manor so that he could “purchase the spot where the old Indian town stands with the whole vacancy” (Taylor 147). James Logan denied the request, as the Indians of Conestoga were necessary as a listening post for broader Indian affairs.

Seven Years’ War
English frontiersmen turned against Conestoga Indiantown during the prologue leading into the French and Indian War. Gross atrocities occurred on both sides of the conflict brewing in the 1740s and exasperated into full scale guerilla warfare in the 1750s. However, Indiantown remained reclusive and largely peaceful.

Those joining the war effort left Indiantown for the front lines of battle to the north and west. The small band of Conestogas that remained on 414 acres in southern Manor Township became trapped within this “reservation.” They were fearful of carrying guns to hunt beyond their small acreage. Even traveling outside the reservation to sell handmade baskets and bowls aroused the suspicion of a local public, which grew discontent with the native presence, and sought to take over their lands.

Many of the Conestoga at Indiantown had converted to Christianity. They took on Christian names and named their children after their English and German neighbors. The local Lancaster government distanced itself from the administrative duties regarding Indiantown, and by default such responsibility rested squarely on the Quaker government in Philadelphia. Clinging to a three-generation old arrangement made by William Penn, Indiantown petitioned the Philadelphia government directly to settle its grievances. Quaker justice James Wright and German Mennonite Abraham Herr, who both lived near Indiantown, were appointed by the Pennsylvania government to supply them with flour and basic necessities (“Recollections”). Mennonite gunsmith Abraham Newcomer began to refuse serving the Natives at Conestoga Indiantown for fear that their guns and knives were being used against white frontiersmen (Dunbar 282).

In Colonial Records (Vol. 9, p.88) we find the last address from the Conestoga, dated November 30, 1763:

To the Honorable John Penn, esquire, lieutenant Governor and Commander-in-chief of the Province of Pennsylvania,

Brother: We (the Conestoga Indians) take the present opportunity, by Captain Montour, to welcome you into this Country by this string of Wampum and as we are settled at this place by an agreement of peace and amity established between your grandfathers and ours, we now promise ourselves your favor and protection, and as we have always lived in peace and quietness with our Brethren and neighbors round us during the last and present Indian Wars, we hope now, as we are deprived from supporting our families by hunting, as we formerly did, you will consider our distressed situation and grant our women and children some clothing to cover them this winter. The government has always been kind enough to allow us some provisions, and did formerly appoint people to take care of us, but as there is no person to take that upon him, and some of our neighbors have encroached upon the tract of land reserved here for our use, we would now beg our brother, the Governor to appoint our friend Captain Thomas McKee, who lives near us and understands our language, to take care and see Justice done us.
SOHAYS, his mark
SAGUYASOTHA (JOHN), his mark (Colonial Records 9:88)

Pennsylvanian frontiersmen, particularly of Scots-Irish descent, festered increasing resentments against the Quaker-led Pennsylvanian government and its apparent sympathy for the Native people. The frontiersmen sought to defend their squatter properties from both Native American raids and the Pennsylvania Provincial Council. Suspicious that the peaceful natives of Conestoga Indiantown were providing aid and intelligence to the hostile natives on the frontier, these vigilantes formed their own militia with the goal of exterminating the local natives.

Right of Conquest
The Paxtons’ intent to kill every Conestogan, every adult or child who could claim inheritance, furthered their goals to take control of Indiantown. Immediately following the massacre, the Paxtons cited “the right of conquest,” claiming themselves as victorious with the right to claim ownership of a conquered territory. However, the property had been effectively managed as a reservation for decades by the Pennsylvania government in Philadelphia. Following the massacre, the property’s management was assumed by Sir William Johnson, the British-commissioned superintendent of Indian affairs for the colonies. Johnson appointed Jacob Whisler, a Mennonite neighbor, as the property’s caretaker (PA 1:119).

On March 12, 1764, Whisler wrote an urgent letter to Surveyor General William Peters, in which he said that two men came to his home to inform him that nine or ten Paxton families intended to settle the town by right of conquest. In April, Whisler wrote again, informing the authorities that two families were already living on the land and a third was plowing it. When approached by Whisler, the squatters claimed they would defend their rights for the conquered land to the death. Whisler identified the families as that of Richard Meloon and Robert Bow (Brubaker 131).

The Lancaster Magistrate Edward Shippen also reported to governor Penn that settlers were building new log houses on the Indian land and that an elderly couple named Magginty was living in one of the existing “Indian Wigwams.” However, both Edward Shippen and Thomas Barton, the rector at St. James Episcopal Church, issued pamphlets defending the acts of the Paxton militia. Shippen’s influence in 1763 was extensive. With the Philadelphia government demanding the identity and detention of the killers, the Paxton Boys could not have evaded arrest without the help of Shippen.

Four years later, the land was still occupied. On January 13, 1768, the Pennsylvania assembly, through speaker Joseph Galloway, addressed the governor, reiterating that the respected colonial general Thomas Gage (later Governor of Massachusetts) and Sir William Johnson were dissatisfied with the management of Indiantown and that the perpetrators who murdered “a number of Seneca and other Indians,” had “eluded the hands of justice” (Colonial Records 9:409). The assembly gave voice to a concern among the continental governing authorities that the Indian lands were settled without the consent of the Indians themselves, namely the Seneca nation. A plan was developed to insure that Conestoga Indiantown was “officially” returned to the Pennsylvania government, and no Indian could ever lay claim to it again.

Treaty of Fort Stanwix
On November 5, 1768, Johnson signed a treaty with the Six Nations of the Iroquois at the strategic Fort Stanwix (present-day Rome, New York). In the treaty the Iroquois relinquished lands beyond their scope, extending the British boundary from the Alleghenies west through the full course of the Ohio River to the Tennessee River. The treaty effectively granted all of Pennsylvania south of the West branch of the Susquehanna, and all of modern-day West Virginia and Kentucky south of the Ohio River. And here, near the end of the verbiage of the treaty, specifically by name, the commissioners presented 500 dollars to the Seneca and Cayuga peoples “in full satisfaction of the ‘Conostoga Lands,’ which by the death of that People became vested in the Proprietaries.” The treaty stated that Pennsylvania “freely gave this sum as a farther Proof of the regard of that Province, for them, and of their concern for the unhappy fate of the Conostogas” (Marshall; full text available here). The payment was not made in standard British currency, but in dollars, presumedly the popular Spanish silver dollar of the time. The approximate exchange of four Spanish dollars equaled one British pound.

Many of the Shawnee, Lenape, Cherokee, and various other tribes who lived throughout the lands negotiated in the treaty, did not acknowledge or agree to the terms and conditions. And as we find later, both Seneca and Cayuga Peoples challenged the claim to Conestoga Indiantown.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia government considered the Lancaster magistrate responsible for arresting a detaining the perpetrators of the Conestoga massacre. No one was arrested, but instead, after the treaty was signed, Jacob Whister was dismissed from his appointment as caretaker of the property. That responsibility instead was handed to Thomas Barton, the Episcopalian rector who earlier issued a pamphlet condemning Benjamin Franklin’s remarks about the massacre and justifying the actions of the Paxton boys (Myers).

Barton almost immediately moved from his parsonage to Indiantown, and rebuilt the fences, constructed a barn and planted an apple orchard inside 50 acres of cleared land. In December 1770, he wrote a letter to Edmund Physick, the Penns’ land agent and suggested that occupying the land was not solely his idea or Johnson’s. He said his friends and he made the decision, that the governor endorsed such a decision to occupy the land, exactly as Whisler had done. Barton told Physick that he improved the property. At the time he moved there (1768) the fences were decayed, and the property was without “house, barn, nor stable, except two cabins erected by the Paxton people” (Brubaker 140-141).

In May of 1775, eight Cayuga Indians journeyed down the Susquehanna to Conestoga to petition their own claim to Indiantown. They proceeded to Philadelphia, where a council was held with them on May 16th. Three of the eight claimed to be the closest living survivors of Sohays, who lived at Conestoga. One claimed to be Sohays’ brother. The Governor revealed a copy of the Stanwix Treaty and described that the land had already been paid. He claimed that a value in goods equal to “200 pounds York money” was paid to Togaiato, the Cayuga Chief, to be distributed as he saw fit. However, for their trouble and journey, the Governor granted the claimant party of eight a total of 300 dollars. The Cayuga accepted the payment and signed the back of the treaty forfeiting their claim to Indiantown (Mombert 280ff). As before, the Pennsylvania government negotiated with the Indians using Spanish dollars.

The Deed is Done
On September 16, 1780, an official deed was created for Indiantown. The deed mentioned the original Jacob Taylor Survey of 1717, which partitioned 16,000 acres as Penn’s Manor, including Indiantown by name. The deed also mentioned the treaty at Fort Stanwix, declaring that the next of kin to the murdered Natives forfeit all “right, title and interest to said Indian Town and the lands thereto belonging.” Finally, the deed stipulated 414 ¾ undivided acres, owned in fourths. John Musser, the Mennonite land agent of Lancaster, was granted one-fourth for the sum of 1,244 pounds 5 shillings lawful money of Pennsylvania in gold or silver. The remaining three-fourths were sold to Robert Morris, esquire of Philadelphia, for 3,750 pounds (Deed Book BB-28-38).

The amount that the Philadelphia government paid in 1768 (500 Spanish dollars or 125 pounds) increased forty-fold when the government sold the tracts twelve years later. Over the same time period the farms adjacent to Indiantown significantly decreased in monetary value due to the American Revolution.

Pennsylvania purposely did not pay a fair price to the Indians for these lands. This is a common theme we find throughout this tragic history. While written on September 16, 1780, the deed was not recorded until November 16, 1784. There is no record detailing what happened to the property between 1780 and 1784. It is probably during this period that squatters were removed. The deed would not have been finalized until the land was cleared of potential claims and could be subdivided for new settlement.

John Musser acted as the local representative of Robert Morris’ land speculation. Morris represented Pennsylvania in the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1778, and extensively financed the American Revolution, giving one million pounds to pay the Continental troops under Washington. Morris owned numerous ships that carried cargo from Cuba and the West Indies to France, Spain, and Italy. He engaged in profiteering and seized illegal cargo in the West Indies, which is quite possibly why the Pennsylvania treasury paid Indians in Spanish dollars (Rappleye). The new United States Congress appointed Morris as the United States superintendent of finance from 1781 to 1784.

John Musser took the first steps to divide up Indiantown a year after the deed was recorded. He sold 63 acres and 63 perches to the neighbor to the south, James Pratt on January 1, 1786 for 1,014 pounds (Deed Book EE-543). Pratt later transferred this property to his son William. Thirty days later, on Jan 31, 1786, Musser paid Morris for the remainder of Indiantown (Morris’s ¾ investment), for 7,000 pounds (Deed Book FF-122). After this, Musser continued to divide up Indiantown.

Today, Chief’s Hill (also known as Indian Round Top) is the wooded patch inside property #19. The top of the mound is located where the western corner of property #20 is adjacent to the wooded patch. This mound is named for Togodhessah (Chief Civility), who as a young chief, addressed the Philadelphia government council on October 15, 1714, saying, “our Old Queen (Conguegos) is in the Indian mound, the aged warriors are dead; we are young buds of the old tree; we never saw our Great Father (Connoodaghtoh), but we shall keep the peace as long as the waters run or the sun continues to shine” (Colonial Records 2:574).

This essay was derived from Darvin Martin’s “The Case for Conestoga Indiantown” (2015). To learn more about Martin, visit the Creators page.

Further Reading

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