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Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Riots
The Paxton Boys struck Conestoga Indiantown at dawn on December 14, 1763. “Fifty-seven Men, from some of our Frontier Townships,” Benjamin Franklin later reported in his Narrative of the Late Massacres in Lancaster County, “came, all well-mounted, and armed with Firelocks, Hangers and Hatchets, having travelled through the Country in the Night, to Conestogoe Manor.” Only six Indians were in the town at the time, “the rest being out among the neighbouring White People, some to sell the Baskets, Brooms and Bowls they manufactured.” The Paxton Boys killed these six and burned Conestoga Indiantown to the ground.
The Conestoga Indians lived on a 500-acre tract near the town of Lancaster, which William Penn had set aside for them seventy years earlier. Once an important center of trade and diplomacy, Conestoga Indiantown was in terminal decline by 1763, with a population of only twenty–seven men, five women, and eight children. They survived by raising corn, begging at local farms, soliciting food and clothing from the provincial government, and selling their brooms and baskets.
The remaining fourteen Conestoga Indians were removed to the Lancaster jail for their safety, but on December 27 the Paxton Boys rode into town in broad daylight and finished the job they had started two weeks earlier. Fifty men, “armed as before, dismounting, went directly to the Work-house and by Violence broke open the Door,” Franklin observed, “and entered with the utmost Fury in their Countenances.” They slaughtered the fourteen Indians sheltering inside, including the eight children.
The Paxton Boys were fully aware of the symbolic significance of their actions. They exterminated defenseless, non-belligerent Indians to make the point that all Indians were the same. And they slaughtered the Conestogas on government property. In perpetrating the massacres, they deliberately repudiated the Indian policy of William Penn.
Inspired by Quaker principles of compassion and tolerance, Penn had founded his colony in 1682 as a “holy experiment” in which Christians and Indians could live together in harmony. He referred to this ideal society as the “Peaceable Kingdom.” The nineteenth-century Quaker artist Edward Hicks produced a series of allegorical paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom, based on a theme from the Book of Isaiah, in which he always included Penn’s legendary (and probably mythical) meeting with the Delaware Indians under the elm tree at Shackamaxon, in present-day Philadelphia. In pursuit of his harmonious vision, Penn treated the Indians in his province with unusual respect and decency. (For Penn’s use of the term “holy experiment," reference "John Penn to James Harrison" in Further Reading). The Conestogas revered him, his children, and his grandchildren.
For all Penn’s decency, however, his holy experiment rested firmly on colonialist foundations. Pennsylvania was founded on the basis of a gift of 29 million acres from Charles II, which made William Penn the largest individual landlord in the British Empire. Within his charter, Penn purchased land from Indians fairly and openly. But his motives were not purely altruistic. Purchasing the land through legal mechanisms freed it of prior claims and titles, at least from the English perspective, so that Penn could sell it to settlers and begin to recoup the vast expenses incurred in setting up his colony. Penn wanted harmony with Indians, but he also needed to own their land outright. Native Americans, by contrast, believed that land could be sold only temporarily and could not be alienated permanently from the tribe or nation that held it in trust. For this fundamental reason, Penn’s holy experiment could never properly take root.
Already in decline by the time of William Penn’s death in 1718, the Peaceable Kingdom disintegrated over the next few decades and collapsed during the Indian wars of the 1750s and 1760s. When Penn’s son and principal heir, Thomas, reverted to Anglicanism, he cast off the Quaker faith and, with it, his father’s humane benevolence. Thomas Penn and his brothers continued to negotiate with Indians they did not hesitate to use fraud and intimidation, most notoriously in the “Walking Purchase” of 1737, which robbed the Delaware Indians of a huge tract of land in Eastern Pennsylvania.
In the West, meanwhile, on either side of the Susequehannah River, Native Americans faced an even greater threat from squatters, most of them Presbyterians of Ulster extraction. Ulster settlers began to arrive in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the eighteenth century, intruding on unpurchased Indian lands as squatters. They immediately came into conflict with the Penn family, who were both the rulers and landlords of the province. As early as 1730, a generation before the Paxton Boy massacres, a group of Ulster squatters temporarily occupied Conestoga Manor, declaring that it was “against the Laws of God and Nature that so much Land Should lie idle while so many Christians wanted it to labour on and raise their Bread.” (Reference "James Logan to John, Thomas, and Richard Penn" in Further Reading).
Conflict between western colonists and Native Americans intensified during the French and Indian War (1754-63). Expelled from their native lands in eastern Pennsylvania, the Delaware Indians west of the Susquehanna River sided with the French as the lesser of two evils and launched devastating raids on settlers Pennsylvania. The provincial government responded by declaring war on the Delawares and, for the first time, establishing a provincial militia. A handful of strict pacifist Quaker activists, led by Israel Pemberton, remained true to William Penn’s vision and protested vigorously, but the Peaceable Kingdom was at an end. Frontier settlers did most of the fighting and, from their perspective, both the Quaker-dominated Assembly and the proprietary executive branch seemed callously indifferent to their fate.
No sooner had the British secured imperial mastery over North America in 1763 than the short-sighted policies of Sir Jeffery Amherst helped trigger Pontiac’s War, the largest Indian rebellion in colonial American history. As Delaware and Shawnee Indians once again launched raids east of the Susquehanna River, embattled frontier settlers re-lived the nightmare of the French and Indian War. In December 1763 the Paxton Boys unleashed the full force of their accumulated rage against Indians and the provincial government by attacking the defenseless Conestogas.
The Paxton Boys arose directly out of a local militia created by the government in response to frontier demands for defense. In the summer of 1763 the government authorized the creation of two militia units in the Susquehanna Valley, appointing the two leading Presbyterian figures in the valley to recruit and command them – Colonel John Armstrong of Carlisle and the Rev. John Elder, the “fighting pastor” of Paxton Presbyterian Church. These units had a strictly defensive function, but Elder and Armstrong used them to launch punitive raids against Delaware Indians. When these raids failed, the militiamen, known variously as the Paxtang Rangers and the Paxton Boys, attacked the Conestoga Indians instead.
At the end of January 1764 reports reached Philadelphia that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Paxton Boys were on the march, threatening to sack the city unless their grievances were met. They also demanded the right to “inspect” 140 Delaware Indians who had been removed from Moravian missions on the frontier and placed in protective custody in the city. In the end, several hundred Paxton Boys reached Germantown, six miles outside Philadelphia, where a delegation led by Benjamin Franklin persuaded them to write down their grievances. Their spokesmen, Matthew Smith and James Gibson, submitted a Declaration and a Remonstrance for consideration by the provincial government.
Instead of a war of weapons, a war of words ensued. Presbyterian supporters of the Paxton Boys, in uneasy alliance with the Anglican faction surrounding the Penn family, did battle with Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker party. The debate, which featured more than sixty pamphlets and ten political cartoons, went far beyond the immediate issue of the Conestoga massacres to address the fundamental question of how Pennsylvania ought to be ruled.
Franklin’s Narrative of the Late Massacres was the first pamphlet published. “If an Indian injures me,” Franklin demanded to know, “does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians? It is well known that Indians are of different Tribes, Nations, and Languages, as well as the White People.” If the French, “who are White People,” injured the Dutch, should the Dutch take revenge on the English “because they too are White People?” The Conestogas had committed no crime other than having “a reddish brown Skin, and black Hair; and some People of that Sort, it seems, had murdered some of our Relations.” By the Paxton Boys’ logic, if a man “with a freckled Face and red Hair” – the stereotypical Ulster complexion – should kill Franklin’s wife and child, it would be right for him “to revenge it, by killing all the freckled red-haired Men, Women and Children” he could find.
The Paxton Boys rather than their Indian victims, Franklin concluded, were the true “savages.” He denounced the Paxton affair as a “Horrid Perversion of Scripture and of Religion!” The people of Pennsylvania “pretend to be Christians,” Franklin wrote in the Narrative, “and, from the superior Light we enjoy, ought to exceed Heathens, Turks, Saracens, Moors, Negroes and Indians, to the Knowledge and Practice of what is right.” Citing numerous “Examples from Books and History,” he concluded that the Conestoga massacres could have been perpetrated “by no civilized Nation in Europe.” “Do we come to America,” he later asked, “to learn and practise the Manners of Barbarians?” The Conestoga Indians had offered hospitality to William Penn and Pennsylvania had offered them protection in return, but “the mangled Corpses of the last Remains of the Tribe” demonstrated “how effectually we have afforded it to them!” The Conestogas “would have been safe in any Part of the known World,” Franklin concluded, “except in the Neighbourhood of the CHRISTIAN WHITE SAVAGES of Peckstang and Donegall!”
Despite Franklin’s efforts, the Paxton Boys went unpunished. Nobody was investigated let alone arrested or prosecuted. The result was wave after wave of violence on the frontier, culminating in total war against Indians during the American Revolution. The Paxton Boys’ brutality was anomalous as late as 1763, in Pennsylvania at least, but during the Revolution it became commonplace.
Most historians in the nineteenth century, and many in the twentieth, cast the Paxton Boys as harbingers of the American Revolution, frontier democrats fighting against the quasi-feudal privilege of the Penn family. The Paxton Boys did fight against proprietary privilege, but scarcely in the interest of liberty and equality for all. What they wanted was land, personal security, and vengeance against Indians. Earlier historians made much of the western counties’ underrepresentation in the Pennsylvania Assembly, which the Paxton Boys included as a grievance in their Remonstrance in 1764. But all of their other grievances concerned Indians. Political representation was an abstraction compared to the more fundamental need for self-preservation.
The idea that the Paxton Boys were precursors of republican revolution is, however, accurate in one sense. The American Revolution did more than topple the proprietary government in colonial Pennsylvania. It also doomed the region’s Indians, who once again had opted to support the lesser of two evils – this time the British rather than the Americans, whose new nation, as they so clearly realized, could only engulf and destroy them.
This essay is based on a book by Kevin Kenny, Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment (Oxford University Press, 2009) © 2009 by Kevin Kenny.
- "James Logan to John, Thomas, and Richard Penn, February 17, 1731." Historical Society of Pennsylvania, James Logan letterbooks, vol. 3.
- "John Penn to James Harrison, August 25, 1681." Mary Maples Dunn and Richard S. Dunn, eds, Papers of William Penn, 4 vols. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981–1987), 2:108.
Origins of Discontent: The Friendly Association and the Seven Years’ War
Lacking a provincial militia, Pennsylvania relied upon a patchwork of all-volunteer militias. During the Seven Years’ War, Ohio country Indians began attacking frontier settlements in the Pennsylvania and Virginia backcountry.
During the war, Quakers played a central diplomatic role by organizing the Friendly Association, a non-governmental organization that laid the groundwork for the Treaty of Easton in 1758. At Easton, the Pennsylvania government promised to respect the autonomy of Ohio country Indians in return for their cessation of attacks on settlements. The Quakers’ chief ally was Teedyuscung, a Lenape chief who sought to secure his territories in the Wyoming Valley (Wilkes-Barre).
The Friendly Association’s influence was short-lived. After 1758, the Pennsylvania government began negotiating directly with Ohio country Indians, shutting out Teedyuscung, and with him his Quaker allies. Because of the significant visibility of their Indian diplomacy, Quakers raised the ire of some colonists, who increasingly saw all native peoples as enemies.
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The Paxton Massacre
The conclusion of French-Indian War promised to halt the frontier violence that had ravaged the Pennsylvania and Virginia backcountry. After France ceded most its territorial claims in North America to Britain in 1763, a coalition of Indian nations attacked British forts and outposts in the Great Lakes and Ohio Country. The attacks began with the Ottawa warrior Pontiac’s siege of Detroit that spring. The siege inspired the Delaware and Shawnee to engage in similar attacks in the Ohio Country. Although the event would be later known as Pontiac's War (1763-66), in reality Pontiac was only one among many Indian leaders involved in this loosely coordinated offensive.
After 1763, Indians resumed their attacks on the Pennsylvania frontier. Fearing new raids on their Paxtang settlement (a suburb of what is today Pennsylvania’s capitol, Harrisburg), a group of Scotch-Irish militiamen targeted a peaceful Conestoga Indian (Susquehannock) town outside of Lancaster. The origins of the reservation date back to 1701, when William Penn had signed a treaty with them, promising them friendship and protection. The Conestoga had peaceably inhabited the area for three generations. During that time, the community had good relations with the provincial government and traded with colonists.
The “Paxton Boys” sought to expunge the Conestoga—and any other Indians they could find—from the Pennsylvania colony. Because the inhabitants were unarmed, they were easy targets for the mob. On December 14, 1763, they marched on Conestoga and murdered all the residents they could find, six in total, and torched their cabins. After the colonial government determined that the killings ought to be classified as murder, Pennsylvania 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 another fourteen Conestoga, including women and children. They desecrated the victim's bodies and vowed to march on Philadelphia, where Moravian Indians from the Susquehanna 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.
Below Contents, you will find six historical overviews that will introduce some of key contexts for understanding that debate.
First, Kevin Kenny, professor of history at Boston College, frames the Paxton massacres as both bloody and symbolic acts in "Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Riots." In slaughtering Conestoga on government property, the Paxton Boys repudiated William Penn's "holy experiment." Kenny's essay was the first I solicited and edited because I wanted an essay that would foreground the role of Quaker settlement practices in the Paxton debate.
Next, historian Michael Goode provides a short overview of Pontiac's War in "Pontiac's War and the Paxton Boys," an excerpted essay that originally appeared on The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.
In the wake of Pontiac's War and the Paxton massacre, Pennsylvania frontiersmen united to assert themselves against enemies in their own mist: the white businessman and government officials suspected of abetting Indian enemies. In "One Year Later: The Black Boys of 1765," historian Jay Donis explores how, unlike the largely Scots-Irish and Presbyterian Paxton Boys, the Black Boys appealed across colonial borders to a diverse ethnic constituency.
Jack Brubaker, author of the Massacre of the Conestogas, shares a granular account of the Paxton expedition drawn from magistrates, colonial record books, and correspondence—many of which are available in Digital Paxton. Perhaps of most value to educators, Brubaker's "The Aftermath of the Conestoga Massacre" connects the past to the present by describing recent efforts towards commemoration and reconciliation.
Darvin Martin extends Brubaker's work by historicizing the site of the first massacre in "A History of Conestoga Indiantown." Far from some random target, Conestoga Indiantown occupied a central place in Native American-colonial relations in the eighteenth-century mid-Atlantic. Similar to Brubaker, Martin makes the past present by mapping the reservation’s historical deed onto modern property boundaries.
Finally, this pathway concludes with my first attempt at what may eventually serve as a more capacious framework for understanding the Paxton massacre. With "A New Looking-Glass for the the 1764 Paxton Pamphlet War" I seek to place that print in lineage that extends from the Seven Years' War through the Northwest Ordinance. My hope is that this more expansive framework will enable students and scholars to de-emphasize urban polity and to attend to records from previously marginalized voices.
Each essay is edited to ensure that it’s thesis-driven, jargon-free, and accessible to students. At the same time, each piece maintains the features of a scholarly essay: a bibliography of secondary research, attribution of primary source materials, and contextual notes where relevant.
Each essay is also self-contained. That is, if a reader were only interested in the history of Conestoga Indiantown, she could read Martin's essay, use its links to explore the Digital Paxton collection, and perform additional research using the two-dozen linked resources listed below further reading.
To continue to these key historical contexts, follow the path listed below Contents.