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


Welcome to Digital Paxton, an archive, critical edition, and teaching platform devoted to the 1764 Paxton pamphlet war.

The conclusion of French-Indian War was supposed to eliminate the threat of frontier violence from the Pennsylvania backcountry. However, despite English claims to vast, uninterrupted swathes of North America, Ottawa tribesman Chief Pontiac rejected 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.

Fearing new attacks on their Paxtang settlement (a suburb of what is today Pennsylvania’s capitol, Harrisburg), a group of Scotch-Irish militiamen fixed their sights on the Conestoga (Susquehannock), a tribe who had peaceably inhabited a tract of land outside Lancaster for 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 publicly desecrated the victim's bodies and vowed to march on Philadelphia, where other peaceable Moravian Indians were being sheltered. 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 in Declaration and Remonstrance, which 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 comprised more than one-fifth of the Pennsylvania colony’s total printed material in 1764, making it one of the most important pamphlet wars of the colonial period.

Waged in pamphlets, political cartoons, broadsides, and 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 stake claims about settlement practices, race and ethnicity, masculinity and civility, and religious association in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania.

Digital Paxton serves as both an archive and a critical edition of that pamphlet war.

Digital Paxton as Archive
As an archive, Digital Paxton collects more than 175 political cartoons, manuscripts, broadsides, pamphlets, and German-language translations of pamphlets related to the Paxton incident. The original papers reside at the American Philosophical Society, the Bethlehem Moravian Archives, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Currently, Digital Paxton features more than 1,600 free, open-source, print-quality (300 dpi) images. In the future, I hope to expand the archive to include materials residing at Lancaster History 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. More than one-third of the corpus is fully-transcribed, and I will add new transcriptions on a weekly basis and communicate updates 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.

To jump directly to the Paxton archive, click here.

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 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 three forms of critical context: historical overviews (nested inside this introductory path), conceptual keyword essays, and teaching materials designed by and for secondary and post-secondary educators. This introduction models my iterative approach: since the site launched, I have revised and expanded this introduction to include a more expansive critical apparatus.

Digital Paxton’s online format ameliorates issues of access, scope, and design. Thanks to the generosity of partnering institutions, Digital Paxton provides free, print-quality images with rich metadata and, in many 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. For example, I recently added high-resolution imagery of an Edward Hicks’s painting, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Thanks to its foundation in Scalar, an open-source, online publishing platform developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (USC), Digital Paxton supports multiple narratives (Paths) using archival contents. I currently use paths to create sequences of content, as with this introduction.

Using Digital Paxton
You may navigate the Paxton archive by several avenues. I recommend you begin by following this introductory path (the sequence of items listed below Contents) to access five contextual essays, beginning with an overview of the Paxton riots authored by Kevin Kenny, an historian at Boston College who quite literally wrote the book on them. With the permission of the Encyclopedia for Greater Philadelphia, we have excerpted an essay on the relationship between Pontiac's War and the Paxton rebellion, written by Michael Goode an historian at Utah Valley University. Jack Brubaker, a Lancaster journalist and author, has authored an essay on the immediate and long-term aftermath of the Conestoga massacre. Darvin Martin, an advisor to the Circle Legacy Center, provides a history of Conestoga Indiantown, its people, and their displacement after the Paxton march. Finally, I have created a digital companion that both reproduces and extends an exhibition that is currently on display at the Library Company of Philadelphia. My hope is that this exhibition will serve as the basis of a more expansive approach to the 1764 pamphlet war.

Upon completing the introductory path, you will find yourself in the Archive, where you may filter by type of content (pamphlets, manuscripts, broadsides, political cartoons, and art).

You may also navigate Digital Paxton using the Table of Contents, accessible when you hover over the menu icon in the upper left corner of any screen. You may click any associated arrow  to preview the contents of a section. 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 sequences of content, such as pamphlets or collections of pamphlets. Filtering for Media will enable you to browse all individual pages of archival items. Alternatively, you may perform a keyword search by clicking the magnifying glass in the menu bar.

Readers may choose to dip into the Paxton archive using conceptual Keywords, modeled on the work of Raymond Williams (Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society) and, more recently, Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler (Keywords for American Cultural Studies). Authored by Paxton scholars, these essays theorize and historicize a keyword in the Paxton debate using primary source material available in the Paxton archive and secondary sources as further readings. I'm delighted to share essays from Benjamin Bankhurst (Shepherd University), Nicole Eustace (New York University), Scott Paul Gordon (Lehigh University), James P. Myers, Jr. (Gettysburg College), and Judith Ridner (Mississippi State University). Alongside full-length essays dedicated to eighteenth-century material culture, condolence rituals, the idea of elitism, and the use of anonymity, Digital Paxton also supports Wiki-style contextual tags. To that end, Scott Paul Gordon has authored tags for the Moravians, Christian Indians, and Edward Shippen.

To facilitate greater knowledge of and access to the Paxton massacre, the site also includes a Pedagogy section where secondary and post-secondary educators may contribute lesson plans. Educators at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania have created a multi-part high school lesson plan. Montgomery Wolf (University of Georgia) has submitted an innovative assignment in which students create podcasts using the Digital Paxton archive. And Benjamin Bankhurst (Shepherd University) and Kyle Roberts (Loyola University Chicago), who are co-teaching an undergraduate history course about the American Revolution, have shared a Digital Paxton transcription assignment.

In conducting that assignment, Loyola graduate students
Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt created documentation to support crowdsourcing transcriptions using an open-source platform called FromThePage. I have created a Transcriptions section to surface transcribed materials, to showcase their documentation, and to solicit your contributions. To that point, I have also added a Public Outreach section that foregrounds various project milestones, including collaborations, talks, and publications.

As evidenced by our collaborative approach to transcriptions, Digital Paxton wouldn't be possible without the contributions of countless individuals and institutions, and I encourage visitors to use the Creators section to acknowledge the individuals behind the technology. Invisible labor is labor nevertheless.

I hope that you enjoy Digital Paxton, and I invite you to share your thoughts, suggestions, and discoveries using any of 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. Thank you for contributing to the project.

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