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


After years of gruesome frontier warfare and the establishment of provincial militias in the Pennsylvania colony, the conclusion of French-Indian War was supposed to eliminate the threat of frontier violence in the back country. However, despite English control of vast, uninterrupted swathes of North America, Ottawa tribesman Chief Pontiac aimed at resisting imperial authority. He led the Delaware and Shawnee tribes in a series of attacks on English forts across the Midwest in what came to be called Pontiac’s War.

Concerned about the possibility of new attacks on their Paxtang settlement (a suburb of what is today Pennsylvania’s capitol, Harrisburg), a group of Scotch-Irish militiamen decided to take the law into their own hands. They fixed their sights on the Conestoga (Susquehannock), a tribe who had peaceably inhabited a tract of land outside Lancaster for more than three generations.

These “Paxtang Men” or “Paxton Boys” sought to expunge the Conestoga—and any other Indians they could find—from the Pennsylvania colony. They marched on Conestoga Indiantown, murdered all the residents they could find, and torched their cabins. After the colonial government determined that the killings ought to be classified as murder, governor John Penn announced a reward for the Paxtons’ capture and placed the remaining Conestoga in the custody of the Lancaster jailhouse. The Paxton Boys broke into the facility and murdered the remaining Conestoga. They scalped and desecrated the bodies of their victims, terrorized nearby settlers, and vowed to march on Philadelphia, where other peaceable Indians had taken refuge. The Paxton Boys were met in Germantown, six miles outside Philadelphia, by a delegation led by none other than Benjamin Franklin, who persuaded their leaders to enumerate their grievances. None of the Paxton leaders would face trial, and that document (Declaration and Remonstrance) sparked a vigorous debate about the authority of the colonial government.

Critics contended that in murdering the Conestoga, the Paxtons had flouted the government’s agreement with the natives, and in pursuing them in the Lancaster jailhouse they had defied the rule of law. One critic argued that “malice and party-spirit” motivated the Paxtons and their sympathizers. He advised: “Let the Friends of Pennsylvania lay aside the animosities which have been raised and maintained by the wicked and weak.”

For their part, Paxton apologists held that the pacifist principles of the Quaker-dominated Assembly had long kept the government from protecting the lives of backcountry settlers. “It is an inexpressible Absurdity,” wrote one apologist, “that a warlike People should be governed by Persons of Quaker Principles, and especially in Time of War.” 

Critics and apologists rushed to shape popular opinion using pamphlets, which were produced from one or more sheets of paper printed on both sides and folded in halves, thirds, or fourths. Thanks to simplicity and economy of these materials, pamphlets could be produced quickly and in great volume. The Paxton debate made up more than one-fifth of the Pennsylvania colony’s total printed material in 1764, and today it is considered Pennsylvania’s first major pamphlet war.

Waged in pamphlets, political cartoons, broadsides, and various correspondence, the pamphlet war featured some of Pennsylvania’s preeminent figures, including governor William Penn and founding father Benjamin Franklin. At stake was much more than the conduct of the Paxton men. Pamphleteers used the debate over the behavior of the Paxtons to talk about wider matters too.  Pamphleteers staked claims about settlement practices, race and ethnicity, masculinity and civility, and religious association in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania.

Digital Paxton will serve as both an archive of and a critical edition to that pamphlet war.

Digital Paxton as Archive
As an archive, Digital Paxton makes available dozens of political cartoons, manuscripts, broadsides, pamphlets, and German language translations of pamphlets related to the Paxton incident. The original papers reside at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Currently, Digital Paxton features approximately 1,200 free, open-source, print-quality (300 dpi) images. In the future, I hope to expand the archive to include materials residing at Haverford Special Collections, Lancaster History, the American Philosophical Society, the Moravian Archives, and the Historical Society of Dauphin County.

Every digitized item features all the metadata available in the Library Company catalog related to printer, pagination, and authorial attribution. You can access that metadata by clicking the “Details” tab below any image. I will be adding full-text transcriptions on a weekly basis and communicate those additions using Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. As they become available, transcriptions will appear in “Annotations” tabs below images. This is a large project, and I welcome your contributions. If you’re interested in supplying transcriptions or German language translations, please email me. All contributors will receive author credit on the Creators page.

Digital Paxton as Critical Edition
In 1957, historian John Raine Dunbar created the first critical edition to the 1764 pamphlet war, The Paxton Papers. While Dunbar’s Papers has served scholars well, it now suffers from three limitations: it’s dated, limited in scope, and not easily accessible.

The past sixty years have seen significant Paxton research and scholarship, enabled, in no small part, by Dunbar’s edition. Dunbar’s introduction offers a useful entry point to the study of the Paxton incident, it obviously does not reflect the vast and varied work scholars are doing today. In the past several years alone, MCEAS organized a 250th anniversary Paxton conference from which Early American Studies culled an impressive special issue.

Dunbar’s corpus is also quite selective. While he curated twenty-eight pamphlets in Papers, Alison Gilbert Olson later identified sixty-three pamphlets and ten cartoons. Even that tally does not account for the complete range of Paxton material, given that many cartoons are nested inside of pamphlets, many of which circulated in multiple editions throughout 1764.

Finally, the Dunbar Papers is out of print, and when it can be found, it’s expensive. Though many of the Paxton pamphlets are available online, access remains either ad hoc or expensive. Several pamphlets are available in the Internet Archive. Many more are searchable via Readex Early American Imprints. However, in both instances, readers must identify specific pamphlets to retrieve results, and, in the case of Readex, they will need to affiliate with an institution that has purchased access to them. Perhaps most important, search-based discovery flattens what was a heated exchange in which writers address, answer, examine, counter, and unmask one another. Current digital access makes it difficult to discern derivation (who’s responding to whom) and authorship (writers employ a variety of pseudonyms).

Digital Paxton seeks to address each of these limitations.

As a web-based critical edition, Digital Paxton will accommodate four forms of scholarly contributions: historical overviews (which are nested inside this introductory path), contextual entries (available as tags to relevant pages), conceptual keyword essays (Keywords), and lesson guides designed for primary and secondary educators (Pedagogy). This introduction models my iterative approach: since the site launched, I have revised and expanded this introduction to include an historical overview of the Paxton riots authored by Kevin Kenny, a historian at Boston College who quite literally wrote the book on them. In the coming months, I look forward to showcasing contributions from other prominent Paxton scholars, including John Fea (Messiah College), Michael Goode (Utah Valley University), Scott Paul Gordon (Lehigh University), Angel-Luke O’Donnell (King’s College, London), Judith A. Ridner (Mississippi State University), John Smolenski (University of California, Davis), and Edward White (Tulane University).

In like manner, Digital Paxton’s online format ameliorates issues of access, scope, and design. Thanks to the generosity of partnering institutions (Creators) access to the complete Digital Paxton is free, and includes print-quality images with rich metadata and, in some instances, full-text transcriptions. Because Digital Paxton does not need to be printed or reprinted, it can accommodate new materials and scholarly contributions as they become available. I recently added high-resolution imagery of Edward Hicks’s painting, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Thanks to its foundation in Scalar, a free, open-source, online publishing platform developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (USC), Digital Paxton supports multiple narratives (Paths) using archival contents. I’m currently use paths to create sequences of content, as with this introduction.  In the coming months, I will supply new ways to explore the Paxton corpus, including paths that foreground chronology, ideology, and intertextuality.

Using Digital Paxton
You may navigate the Paxton archive by several avenues. First, I recommend you follow this path (the sequence of items listed below Contents), which will direct you to the aforementioned introduction by Kevin Kenny to the Paxton incident. After that, this path will direct you to the Archive of pamphlets, which itself includes numerous ways to explore the Paxton corpus. If you continue on this path, you will also discover contextual keyword essays (Keywords), supplementary teaching materials (Pedagogy), and additional information about the project (Creators).

Alternatively, you can navigate Digital Paxton using the Table of Contents, accessible when you hover over the menu icon in the upper left corner of any screen. Below the Table of Contents, you can access the Index, which allows you to filter items by type. Filtering for Paths will allow you to browse all sequences of content, such as pamphlets or collections of pamphlets. Filtering for Media will enable you to browse all individual pages of archival items.

Finally, you can perform a keyword search by clicking the magnifying glass in the menu bar. We ask your patience as we refine the structure of the project.

I hope that you enjoy Digital Paxton, and I invite you to share your thoughts, suggestions, and discoveries using the aforementioned social media platforms. By design, Digital Paxton is a work in progress, and I hope that it will become a richer, more useful tool with each passing month. Thank you for using the site and for contributing to this endeavor.

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