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


Beyond their historical import (the crisis of governance that in many ways presages the Revolution), the Paxton pamphlet war showcases a debate that is powerfully resonate with today’s zero-sum racial politics.

In A Spirited Existence, historian Gregory Evans Dowd argues that the late-eighteenth century saw “The Indian’s Great Awakening,” during which pan-nativist revivals brought Delaware, Shawnee, and other tribes toward monotheism. As tribes fused their beliefs with settlers’ theology and commerce, rural farmers created their own fused counter-culture. In The Backcountry and the City, Ed White writes, “As Indians begin to…adopt fusion as their response, some farmers, already inclined by racism to perceive Indians as an undifferentiated collective, come to see Indians as fused in a life-or-death-struggle to eliminate white settlers” (103).

This was a fiction, but a redolent one for a minority that felt besieged by outside forces, ignored by their government, and left behind in an increasingly cosmopolitan age. In the 1764, that aggrieved minority largely won the day: none of the Paxton Boys faced trial; anti-Paxton leaders were punished at the polls (including Benjamin Franklin​, who lost his Assembly seat); and the pamphlet war validated the Paxtonian policy of state-sponsored frontier war, as exercised in the Wyoming Valley. In the context of the Brexit vote and the rise of right-wing nationalist movements across the West, high school students on the cusp of enfranchisement would do well to study this incident and to critically engage pamphleteers’ zero-sum views of race, class, and cosmopolitanism.

To support such critical inquiry, Digital Paxton hosts reading selections and lesson guides designed for both secondary and post-secondary education.

The first, "Native American-European Contact in the Colonial Period," is a multi-part lesson plan designed by educational specialists at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The unit is tailored to high school teachers: it includes discussion questions, core concepts, competencies, background information, expansions, vocabulary, primary source materials, and assessments. While the lesson is correlated to common core standards, it could be adapted—and with little difficulty—to an undergraduate classroom. 

"Podcasting the Paxton Boys," meanwhile, is designed explicitly for college students. Montgomery Wolf (Senior Lecturer of History, University of Georgia) asks her students to break into groups, research the pamphlet war using the Digital Paxton archive, and conduct a talk show in which the host interviews members of the Paxton Boys. The assignment encourages students to both critically and creatively engage primary source material, and they’ll learn to do something well beyond my grasp—podcasting.

The final assignment, "Exploring the (Digital) Archive" emerges from a collaboration with two faculty members, Benjamin Bankhurst (Assistant Professor of History, Shepherd University) and Kyle Roberts (Associate Professor of Public History, Loyola University Chicago). In spring 2017 Bankhurst and Roberts co-taught an undergraduate history course about the American Revolution, and we integrated a transcription exercise using Digital Paxton. After a short introduction to Digital Paxton and a crash course in eighteenth-century cursive, students explored the Friendly Association papers. Every student transcribed at least one page of manuscript and reviewed another student’s work.

We have since ingested those student-authored transcriptions into Digital Paxton, and added an entirely new section of the project to support crowd-based transcriptions. Shortly after we completed the assignment, Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt—three Loyola graduate TAs—sought to create a system through which students on and off-campus could add transcriptions. Johnson, Pellissier, and Schmidt have created step-by-step instructions for transcribing manuscripts, and we’re now soliciting transcriptions via the "Transcriptions" page.

All lesson plans as rich web pages as well as downloadable, printer-friendly PDFs. We take this extra step with the understanding that while Digital Paxton is digital humanities project, it exists in analog conditions. Whether by choice or necessity, many educators rely upon printouts, and we don’t want to create barriers to bringing the Paxton crisis into classrooms. 

We will post additional educational materials as they are made available. If you would like to share a relevant assignment or lesson plan, please email fenton at fordham dot edu.

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  1. The Backcountry and the City
  2. Differences in Worldview