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Using Digital Paxton
Digital Paxton is a digital collection, critical edition, teaching platform devoted to the 1764 pamphlet war.
Digital Paxton as Digital Collection
As a digital collection, Digital Paxton hosts more than 200 political cartoons, books, broadsides, manuscripts, and newspaper issues related to the Paxton incident. The original papers reside at 18 different archives, research libraries, and cultural institutions, including the American Philosophical Society, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At present, Digital Paxton features more than 2,500 free, print-quality (300 dpi) images.
Every digitized item features metadata available in the Library Company of Philadelphia's catalog related to printer, pagination, and authorial attribution. You may access that metadata by clicking the "Details" tab below any image of by clicking "Additional metadata" in its parent.
About half of the corpus is fully-transcribed. Transcriptions are configured to appear as Annotations that automatically overlay when you cursor over the top left quarter of an image. New transcriptions will be added on a regular basis and announced via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All transcriptions are fully searchable and will be collected in Transcribed Records. We welcome reader contributions using the project’s crowd-sourced Transcriptions platform.
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, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies 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 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 Historical Overview), conceptual keyword essays (Keywords), and teaching materials designed by and for secondary and post-secondary educators (Education).
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.
Thanks to its foundation in Scalar, an open-source, online publishing platform developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, Digital Paxton supports multiple narratives (Paths) using a common library. Digital Paxton uses paths to create sequences of content, as with this introduction. You may access the contents of a pathway by scrolling to the bottom of the page (listed below Contents) or by using the arrows in the wings (in the left and right hand margins) to access the next or previous page in a pathway.
Using Digital Paxton
You may navigate the Paxton corpus by several avenues. We recommend that you click the blue button at the bottom of this page to progress to Historical Overview. That pathway features six brief essays, beginning with a piece by Kevin Kenny, who quite literally wrote the book on the Paxton riots. 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 historian Michael Goode. In the next essay, historian Jay Donis looks ahead to the next year in order to compare the violence of Black Boys to that of the Paxton Boys. 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 adviser to the Circle Legacy Center, provides a history of Conestoga Indiantown, its people, and their displacement after the Paxton march. Finally, editor Will Fenton has created framework that situates the Paxton massacre in a longer lineage of settler colonialism that extends from the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) through the Northwest Ordinance (1787). This “new looking-glass” seeks to serve as a new, more capacious framework for thinking about the pamphlet war, as well as those who could not participate in it.
Upon completing this Historical Overview, you will find yourself in the Digital Collection, where you may filter by type of content: artwork, broadside, manuscript, pamphlets, or political cartoon.
You may also navigate Digital Paxton using the Table of Contents, accessible when you hover over the menu 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 records. Alternatively, you may perform a keyword search by clicking the magnifying glass in the menu bar.
Readers may choose to dip into the digital collection 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 six essays theorize and historicize a keyword in the Paxton debate using primary source material available in the digital collection and secondary sources as further readings. We’re delighted to share essays from Benjamin Bankhurst (Shepherd University), Nicole Eustace (New York University), Scott Paul Gordon (Lehigh University), Angel Luke O'Donnell (King's College London), 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 Education 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 library. 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. We have created a Transcriptions section to surface transcribed materials, to showcase their documentation, and to solicit your contributions. To that point, we 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 we encourage visitors to use the Credits section to acknowledge the individuals behind the technology. Invisible labor is labor nevertheless.
We hope that you enjoy Digital Paxton, and we 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 we hope that it will become a richer, more useful tool with time. Contact Will Fenton with any submissions queries, questions, or suggestions. Thank you for contributing to the project.
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.
This page is tagged with relevant contextual essays available for free in Digital Paxton. To continue your research, consider the following books and articles:
- Dixon, David. Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac's Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
- Dowd, Gregory. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
- Goode, Michael. "Dangerous Spirits: How the Indian Critique of Alcohol Shaped Eighteenth-Century Quaker Revivalism." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 258-283.
- Gordon, Scott Paul. "The Paxton Boys and Edward Shippen: Defiance and Deference on a Collapsing Frontier." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 319-347.
- Eustace, Nicole. Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
- Griffin, Patrick. American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.
- Kenny, Kevin. Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- McConnell, Michael. A Country Between: The Upper Ohio Valley and Its Peoples, 1724-1774. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
- Merrill, James. Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
- Merritt, Jane. At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
- Middleton, Richard. Pontiac's War: Its Causes, Course, and Consequences. New York: Routledge, 2008.
- Olson, Alison. "The Pamphlet War Over the Paxton Boys." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 123.1/2 (January - April 1999): 31-56.
- Richter, Daniel. Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
- Ridner, Judith. "Unmasking the Paxton Boys: The Material Culture of the Pamphlet War." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 348-376.
- Silver, Peter. Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
- Smolenski, John. "Embodied Politics: The Paxton Uprising and the Gendering of Civic Culture in Colonial Pennsylvania." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 377-407.
- Spero, Patrick. "1763: Pontiac and Paxton." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 199-202.
- Spero, Patrick. Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
- Ward, Matthew. Breaking the Backcountry: The Seven Years’ War in Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1754-1765. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.
- White, Edward. The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
- White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.