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Murder on the Frontier: The Paxton Massacres
Ron Nash and John McNamara
This unit is one of the Gilder Lehrman Institute's Teaching Literacy through History™ resources, designed to align to the Common Core State Standards. The lessons can also be modified to conform to the C3 Framework. These units were developed to enable students to understand, summarize, and evaluate original documents of historical significance. Students will learn and practice the skills that will help them analyze, assess, and develop knowledgeable and well-reasoned viewpoints on these source materials.
The title of this unit refers to a little-known massacre in colonial Pennsylvania. Over the course of three lessons, students will attempt to understand how a vigilante group justified its role in murdering twenty Native Americans. The primary source evidence will allow students to analyze questions related to claims about colonization, peace and war, race and ethnicity, masculinity and civility, the use of violence as a political weapon, and religious association. Most of the primary sources referenced here are available in Digital Paxton.
Ultimately, students will demonstrate what they have learned through an analysis of the various primary source materials by writing a response to essential questions posed for the unit, participating in whole-class and small-group discussions, and engaging in a news conference simulation.
- Analyze both primary and secondary source documents using close-reading strategies
- Interpret, analyze, and demonstrate understanding of visual materials
- Draw logical inferences and summarize the essential message of a work of art
- Compose summaries of the major points in written primary sources
- Compare and contrast the viewpoints and perspectives of different writers
- To what extent did fear of Native Americans develop into racial hatred in colonial Pennsylvania?
- To what extent can the rhetoric of fear incite a population to violence?
- To what extent did fear and racism shape colonial perceptions of neighboring Native Americans?
- How did the living conditions on the frontier contribute to confrontation and conflict between Native Americans and colonists?
- To what extent did the actions of the Paxton Boys disrupt or destroy William Penn's Peaceable Kingdom?
Number of Class Periods: 4
Grade Level: Grades 7-12
Common Core Standards
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6: Evaluate authors' differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors' claims, reasoning, and evidence.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on . . . topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6: Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.
Where are their Voices?
Students will use the graphic novel Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga to give voice to Leni Lenape, Conestoga, and Moravian Indians by analyzing primary source materials from the Paxton massacres and 1764 pamphlet war. This lesson provides a pedestal for students to explore colonial bias and stereotypes. Students will use primary sources to develop an historical understanding of how local Native peoples were excluded from colonial records of the incident.
- How were the voices of local Native Americans suppressed or excluded from the 1764 pamphlet war?
- How were local Native Americans stereotyped in primary source materials?
- How do printed materials (e.g. political cartoons) compare to unpublished materials (diaries)?
- How were the Native Americans interned in Philadelphia used to sway public opinion against Paxton critics such as Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly?
- How does Ghost River give voice to those Native peoples?
- Describe the representation of local Native Americans in primary source materials.
- Use contrasting primary and secondary sources to understand the perspectives of both colonialists and Native Americans.
- Use primary sources (a painting, political cartoon, and diary) to better understand a secondary source (Ghost River).
- Develop structured and coherent writing that uses textual evidence to make an argument about the Native Americans involved in the Paxton incident.
Grade Level: Grades 9 and 10
- CC.8.6.9-10.C: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
- CC.8.6.9-10.H: Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
- CC.8.5.9-10.F: Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
- CC.8.5.9-10.I: Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
Excerpt from Kevin Kenny, Peaceable Kingdom Lost:
The Paxton Boys, frontier militiamen on an unauthorized expedition, struck Conestoga Indiantown at dawn on December 14, 1763. "Fifty-seven Men, from some of our Frontier Townships, who had projected the Destruction of this little Commonwealth," Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Narrative of the Late Massacres in Lancaster County, "came, all well-mounted, and armed with Firelocks, Hangers [a kind of short sword] and Hatchets, having travelled through the Country in the Night, to Conestogoe Manor." Only six people were in the town at the time, "the rest being out among the neighboring White People, some to sell the Baskets, Brooms and Bowls they manufactured." The Paxton Boys killed these six and burned their settlement to the ground.
The Conestoga people lived on a 500-acre tract, which William Penn had set aside for them seventy years earlier, near the town of Lancaster, one hundred miles west of Philadelphia. By 1763 only twenty Conestoga people were living there—seven men, five women, and eight children.
After the murders, local magistrates removed the remaining fourteen residents to the Lancaster jail and workhouse for their safety, but on December 27 the Paxton Boys rode into that town to continue the attack 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 reported, "and entered with the utmost Fury in their Countenances." Within a matter of minutes they had slaughtered the fourteen individuals sheltering at the workhouse, including the eight children.
The Paxton men were fully aware of the symbolic and political significance of their actions. They murdered unarmed, peaceable Conestoga people to make the point that all Indians were the same. And they slaughtered the Conestogas on government property in broad daylight. In perpetrating the massacres, they repudiated the settlement policy of William Penn.
Excerpt from Scott Paul Gordon, Christian Indians
The armed frontiersmen who marched to Philadelphia in February 1764 planned to murder 140 Indians gathered in barracks in the city's Northern Liberties. Most of these Indians were Christians, having lived in the Moravian mission towns of Nain and Wechquetank in Northampton County. Provincial authorities decided to “order the Moravian Indians down to Philadelphia” in November 1763, as Governor John Penn wrote, because “the people of Northampton County … were determined to cut them all off” (John Penn to Richard Penn). These individuals were joined by other Native Americans from Wyalusing, an Indian town on the Susquehanna River. Except for their leader, John Papunhunk, who had been converted by Moravian missionary David Zeisberger, the Wyalusing Indians were neither Moravian nor Christian. The Paxton Boys' Declaration and Remonstrance clearly identified the different groups gathered in Philadelphia: “Some of these Indians now in the Barracks of Philadelphia are confessedly a part of the Wyalusing Indians, which Tribe is now at War with us; and the others are the Moravian Indians, who [are] living amongst us under the Cloak of Friendship.”
These Christian Indians were confined at the Philadelphia barracks and on Province Island from November 1763 until March 1765. Many prominent citizens visited them, including Governor John Penn and Anthony Benezet, and mobs threatened them. They tried, as much as possible, to live as a congregation as they had in Nain and Wechquetank. Moravian missionary couples, Bernhard Adam and Margaret Grube and Johann Jacob and Johanna Schmick, lived with them. The diaries kept by these missionaries record regular services, communions, lovefeasts, births, and baptisms. Sadly, these diaries are also filled with deaths and burials. Fifteen Indians died in May and June 1764, and twenty more died the next month: in all, fifty-five Moravian Indians were buried in 1764 in Philadelphia's Potter's field. The Paxton Boys did not reach the Christian Indians in February 1764, but the confinement that their threats precipitated turned out to be more deadly than their guns and sabers.
- Ghost River: The Fall & Rise of the Conestoga (print or digital edition)
- Excerpts from Ghost River (34-36; 45-47)
- Franklin and the Quakers (political cartoon and transcription)
- Excerpts from Diary of the Indian Gemeine in the Barracks of Philadelphia, Final Draft (Jan. 24 - Dec. 31, 1764)
Warm-up: Write-Pair-Share (10 minutes):
- Show image of Benjamin West's Penn's Treaty with the Indians (1771-72) and ask students to write and reflect on:
- How are the colonists portrayed in this painting?
- How are the native peoples portrayed in this painting?
- What might have been Benjamin West's agenda for creating these portrayals?
Notes for the Teacher: Penn's Treaty with the Indians (1771-72) was commissioned by William Penn's son Thomas Penn. It depicts the meeting of William Penn and the Quakers, members of the Leni Lenape tribe, and merchants in Shackamaxon along the Delaware River.
- Divide students into pairs and have them share their responses with partners.
- Reset class and ask volunteer pairs describe their responses.
- Guide students to understanding about how images can shape popular understandings of peoples and histories.
- Refer to image of page 46 from Ghost River to introduce the lesson's objective.
Guided Review: Mini-Lecture (5-10 minutes):
- Review chronology of the Paxton incident using Ghost River and historical background excerpts.
Notes for the Teacher: The Paxton pamphlet war features dozens of political cartoons, pamphlets, and broadsides. Engravers like James Claypoole, who created Franklin and the Quakers, used these materials to attack their political opponents and influence popular opinion. This image depicts Benjamin Franklin conspiring with his political allies, the Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly, to arm their enemies, the Native American had attacked the colony during the Seven Years' War. It should be noted that the "Christian Indians" that the Paxton mob murdered (the Conestoga people) did not participate in any of that violence.
Activity (20 minutes):
- Break students into two groups (A and B) based upon their original Write-Pair-Share pairings.
- Group A will analyze the political cartoon Franklin and the Quakers (1764) and pages 36-40 of Ghost River. Students will draw connections between the political cartoon and the graphic novel using these questions:
- How are Native Americans stereotyped in the political cartoon?
- Why might the voices of local Native Americans have been suppressed or excluded from the political cartoons and pamphlets that circulated in the 1764 pamphlet war?
- How does Ghost River give voice to those Native peoples?
- Group B will analyze excerpts from Diary of the Indian Gemeine in the Barracks of Philadelphia, Final Draft (Jan. 24- Dec. 31, 1764) and pages 36-40 of Ghost River. Students will draw connections between the diary and the graphic novel using these questions:
- How do the diaries describe the experience of Moravian Indians interned in Philadelphia? How does that experience contrast with Benjamin West's idyllic scene (Penn's Treaty with the Indians)?
- How do these diary entries give voice to the interned native peoples? Who gives voice to those peoples?
- How does Ghost River represent the experience of interned Lenape and Moravian Indians?
Notes for the Teacher: The Diary of the Indian Gemeine in the Barracks of Philadelphia was recorded by Moravian missionaries who accompanied the Lenape and Moravian Indians interned in Philadelphia. These excerpts are recorded in German, and they have been transcribed and translated in order to make them accessible to the students. These excerpts describe their relocation from Province Island (where the Philadelphia Airport currently resides) to the Philadelphia Barracks (in what is today Northern Liberties).
Excerpts for Analysis:
Partner & Class Discussion (5 minutes):
January 25: We began to settle in a bit. The things that we had left behind on Province Island came to us, although our good Indians missed many things, particularly axes, that had been stolen. In the evening, Br. Grube held a service in his own room.
February 4: Br. Neusser and Ludwig Weiss visited us. We heard a lot of bad reports. In the afternoon, Captain Schlosser came and reported to us that we should move to the second story with the soldiers, because there were no keys if the rooms should be broken into. Because the order regarding the moving of the soldiers came so late, a great confusion arose between them and our poor Indians, who were chased from one place to another, particularly when a couple shots happened outside the barracks, so that everyone got alarmed and made ready to fight. We then had our hands full with our Indians, getting them in their lodgings, and quieting them.
February 20: After the early service, first Br. Schmick and then his wife visited the Indians in their rooms, and they found several sick.
- Have students return to their partners from the first Write-Pair-Share exercise and share and record their responses to the two different primary source materials they examined (the diary and the political cartoon).
- Ask pairs to answer a prompt and be prepared to share it with the class.
- How were Native Americans represented in the two primary source documents?
- Why might be these two documents tell such a different story about the Paxton incident?
- How does Ghost River give Native peoples a voice?
- Have volunteer pairs share their answers with the class.
Assessment: Students will conduct research on their own by using either Digital Paxton or the Ghost River digital edition to find an additional printed, manuscript, or visual record that gives voices to the Conestoga, Lenape, or Moravian Indians. Students should justify their selections by describing how their records contrast with Benjamin West's Penn's Treaty with the Indians.
You may also download a printable version of this lesson.
Which Pennsylvania? Procedure
Instruct students to bring a laptop or electronic device to class in order to read an online essay, complete a digital worksheet, and conduct light research. Make communal laptops available. Post learning objectives in the classroom.
Anticipatory (10 min)
- Distribute Do-Now sheets to students as they enter the classroom.
- Give students five minutes to consider the sheet and write a short reflection.
- Direct students to think pair share reflections on the Do-Now with a neighbor.
- Question: Which would convince most people to drink Coke?
- Call on pairs to share reflections with the class (as time allows).
- Highlight student responses that reveal differences between the rhetorical impact of print and visual sources.
- Remind students to keep the Do-Now in mind.
- Explain that the class will:
- Describe how print and visual sources contribute to histories of Pennsylvania.
- Question the motivations for producing such sources in the eighteenth-century.
Teaching and Modeling / Guided Practice (40 min)
- Project Penn's Treaty with the Indians onto the board accompanied by the following quote.
- Read aloud the following quote from Voltaire’s "Letters on the English Nation":
- "The first step he took was to enter into an alliance with his American [Indian] neighbours, and this is the only treaty between those people and the Christians that was not ratified by an oath, and was never infringed."
- Open class discussion of the painting and quote.
- If needed, answer framing questions: What does this painting depict? What does the quote refer to? Who was Voltaire? Who was Benjamin West?
- If needed, pose questions to prompt discussion: Is this painting and sentiment familiar to you? Have you heard this quote? What is your initial response? What is the overall idea these sources are trying to communicate?
- Encourage students to share their thoughts (as time allows).
- Explain that the class will read an historical article that tells a different story about colonial Pennsylvania—the story of the Paxton Boys.
- Upon completion, open class discussion.
- Questions to prompt discussion: Is this story familiar to you? How does it square with the sentiment expressed by the paired image and quote? Why do you think this was written? How do they coexist?
- If needed, emphasize truths in both stories. One story is not true to the complete exclusion of the other.
Independent Work (40 min)
- Distribute assignment sheet to students via Google Drive.
- Call on a student to read assignment sheet aloud. Students will read a primary source document discussing the events from the Peaceable Kingdom Lost. They will answer a series of questions designed to facilitate consideration of overarching questions. Students will submit their responses via Google Drive by the beginning of next class for grading.
Closure & Feedback
Grade student assignments mostly for completion, except in cases where students fail to engage with sources. Provide feedback and follow up questions to prompt further independent inquiry. Solicit student opinions on the assignment for the purpose of instructional reflection.
Download a printable version of this procedure.
- Distribute Do-Now sheets to students as they enter the classroom.
Preparing the Learner
Introduce five key terms / concepts for the lesson. State the term and ask students to repeat the term (2 - 3 times). Have students complete the Knowledge Rating to assess if they understand the terms. Students understanding and use of the terms will increase as they use them throughout the unit. A Vocabulary Jigsaw is included to review the terms at the end of the unit.
NOTE: The Knowledge Rating includes cognates. For students whose first language (L1) is not Latin-based, the teacher may choose to provide a translation of the term.)
In the eighteenth-century, "frontier" was defined as a vulnerable, militarized boundary, not an area for expansion (Spero). In Spanish, "frontera" is a term for a national border.
Analyze Benjamin West Painting
- Use the Primary Source Analysis Tool to model analysis of the Benjamin West's Penn's Treaty with the Indians (1771-72).
- Distribute reproductions of the painting and the Primary Source Analysis Tool.
- Have students complete the tool in pairs or triads.
- As a class, share summaries about what they learned from the painting. What is the message? What may be misleading about the paintings? (buildings, clothing, position of people, etc.) Is the painting a primary source document? (No – it's an artist's rendition of an event created nearly 100 years after it occurred and it was commissioned by Penn's son, Thomas Penn.)
- Ask students what the painting tells people about the relationship between European settlers and indigenous peoples?
Optional: Project Penn Wampum Belt (1682 Shackamaxon treaty). The belt was given to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by William Penn's great grandson in 1857. Ask students to consider whether or not it is a primary source and what it might tell us about contact between European settlers and indigenous peoples.
Analyze historical maps of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Conestoga Manor
- Students will analyze 5 historical maps of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Conestoga to locate the Conestoga Indiantown in relation to Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and the colony of Pennsylvania.
- Model using the Primary Source Analysis Tool to analyze A Map of the Province of Pennsylvania (1756)
- Divide the class into groups of 4 students. This is the "home group."
- Give each member of the "home group" a different map. Tell students they will be responsible for teaching one map to other members of their home group.
- Break into "expert groups." Each member of the "expert group" has the same map. Students should complete the Primary Source Analysis Tool for their map.
- Return to the "Home Group." Each student will report their findings of the map.
- As a class, discuss the summary of their findings about the maps.
Summary Quick Write
Project the Conestoga Indian Town Historical Marker and read the marker text:
About one mile eastwards stood the Conestoga Indian Town. Its peaceful Iroquoian inhabitants were visited by William Penn in 1701 who made treaties with them. In 1763 they were ruthlessly massacred by a frontier mob called the Paxtang Boys.
Students will summarize the historical maker: who, what, where, when.
- Model who (Iroquoian inhabitants, "Paxtang Boys").
- Ask students to find what, where, and when with a partner. (Students may benefit reading the text with the bold, italicized and underlined information.)
- Review the summary.
- Quick Write: What will be read in Ghost River? (In Ghost River, we will read about…)
- What did you learn about Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Conestoga Indiantown based on the information on the maps? (I learned…)
- What is the connection between the paintings, historical marker, and the maps? (The connection is…)
- What did you learn from the historical marker? (We learned…)