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

The Aftermath of the Conestoga Massacre

How did the Paxton Boys avoid punishment for killing 20 peaceful Conestoga Indians under government protection? More than 250 years after the massacre, there is no clear answer to that question. But it is clear that a legal system that had previously punished white men for killing Christian Indians failed catastrophically in the County of Lancaster and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in December 1763.

Many British and provincial leaders understood that identifying, trying, and punishing the killers of the Conestogas was critical to maintaining the rule of law. The British statesman Lord Halifax condemned the “horrid murders” and ordered Thomas Gage, chief of British armies in North America, to assist Pennsylvania’s government in finding and punishing the killers. Pennsylvania Governor John Penn delivered two proclamations condemning the Paxton Boys’ “barbarous” behavior and issued arrest warrants and rewards for information leading to convictions. He further requested that Lancaster County’s magistrates interrogate the county sheriff, coroner, and any others who might have information about the murderers.

These should not have been difficult tasks. Lancaster’s magistrates and other residents knew the identity of some of the killers. On the day before the first attack, leaders of the vigilantes told John Elder, pastor of Paxton Presbyterian Church and military leader of the Paxton militia, as well as Edward Shippen, Lancaster County’s chief magistrate, that they planned to attack the Indians at Conestoga Indian Town. Neither man did anything to stop the slaughter or identify the killers.

After leaving Indian Town in flames following the massacre of the first six Conestogas, the killers talked at some length with Thomas Wright, an Indian Town neighbor, and Robert Barber, a resident of nearby Wright’s Ferry. Given the tone of the conversation, Wright and Barber suspected the worst and soon discovered they were correct. They could have identified some of the killers.

Scores, perhaps hundreds, of Lancaster residents observed the raiders as they marched to and from the slaughter of the last fourteen Conestogas at the Lancaster County workhouse in the center of Lancaster. But no one identified them.

One reason for this silence was indifference. Many Lancastrians did not pay much attention to the killings, either because they accepted the Paxton Boys’ allegation that the Conestogas had been spying for hostile Indians or because they did not care about the fate of any Indians, peaceful or hostile. Another reason was intimidation: the Paxton Boys threatened those who might have informed on them. James Wright, one of Lancaster County’s delegates to the Pennsylvania Assembly, a government-appointed caretaker for the Conestogas and a Quaker, might have been expected to identify the raiders he knew. A Pennsylvania historian reported in 1857 that Wright “well remembered” the killers and had told a fellow legislator that he had “survived nearly the whole of them, and that they generally came to untimely or suffering deaths!” (Watson 169). But Wright never identified any of the Paxton Boys. His sister, Susanna Wright, explained that Paxton vigilantes roamed about the area after the massacre, making threats against her brother and other Quakers. 

Meanwhile, Lancaster County’s magistrates bizarrely modified their instructions from Governor Penn. Instead of collecting depositions naming the murderers, they obtained affidavits from residents who despised Indians. These affidavits are not included in court records—in fact, nothing related to the Conestoga massacre appears—but they do appear among pro-Paxton manuscripts produced early in 1764. None of these affidavits mention the Paxton Boys. Most cast blame on the Conestogas.

Nothing in these affidavits relates in any way to Penn’s request that the magistrates obtain information about the men who had killed the Conestogas. Nothing in these accusations, which rely heavily on hearsay, clearly indicts the Conestogas for crimes against settlers. In sum, the affidavits seem to blame the murder of the Conestogas on the Conestogas themselves.

While the magistates’ response was not unpopular among the general citizenry, it incensed some groups, particularly Pennsylvania Quakers. Quakers were quick to condemn the killers and those who paved the way for the killings. These “abettors,” according to several sources, may have included the county’s jailer, who unaccountably disappeared from the jail and workhouse on the day of the second massacre; and the county sheriff and coroner—the only “guards” at the workhouse—who quickly stepped aside when the Paxton Boys arrived to do their bloody work. John Reynolds, editor of the Lancaster Journal, later indicted several Lancastrians for their part in what he termed a conspiracy against the Conestogas. He said that the jailer, the sheriff and his son, and two other men “were also suspected of being in the plot” (Mombert 187).

Others pointed to more obvious targets, especially the Rev. Elder and Judge Shippen. Elder, as the man who ministered to many of the Scots-Irish Paxton Boys in his church and led the Paxton militia in the county’s defense against hostile Indian attack, wielded great influence. As a large landholder in the Paxton area, some observers believe, he may have had a personal reason to rid the area of any Indians who would discourage investment on the frontier.

As chief magistrate, Shippen held more power than any other Lancastrian. Few actions of substance occurred in Lancaster County without his approval. Early Quaker historian Robert Proud directly blamed the murder of the Conestogas on “the connivance, if not the encouragement, of the Christian-professing Magistrates, and other principal persons of that town” (Pound 329). While critics questioned why the magistrates did not employ a British regiment to guard the Indians against a second attack that they knew was coming, Shippen’s explanation to John Penn was that he did not know some 200 soldiers were billeted in a town of 2,000 residents.

Concerns about the massacre faded with time. As it became clear that the authorities had no interest in discovering who had killed the Indians, let alone who may have helped them, most people moved on to other matters.

But John Penn’s critics kept up a drumbeat for years. They charged that officials in Philadelphia and Lancaster had a political reason to avoid punishing the Paxtonians. In the 1760s, the militant Germans and Scots-Irish gained greater political power, at the expense of Quakers and German pacifists. Those who wanted to retain power found it useful to defend the Paxton Boys’ slaughter and to oppose the Quaker lobby that defended Indians. In the autumn elections of 1764, a united “new ticket” of Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Lutheran and Reformed Germans supported stronger anti-Indian policies. They won more seats in the legislature—although not enough to take control—and then strengthened their influence as the decade progressed.

Some observers suggested that John Penn may have had another motivation for siding with anti-Indian forces. They believed he had made a deal with the Paxton Boys when they marched on Philadelphia following the killings in Lancaster. They claimed he had made political promises in exchange for retreat from a planned assault on the city to kill Lenapes, the so-called Moravian Indians, being held for their protection there.

In any case, Quakers and other members of the General Assembly wrote to Penn in January 1768, saying that the Indian killers could still be identified. In a formal message, the legislators wrote

When we consider the Manner of committing the Murders at Lancaster; that it was done at Noon-Day, in the midst of a Populous Borough, and in the Presence of many spectators by Men probably of the same County, undisguised and well known, we apprehend their Names may be easily discovered (Colonial Records 441). 

But this was a legislative exercise in futility. More than four years after the massacre, most Pennsylvanians understood that the names of the killers would remain unknown.

Recognizing that the Paxton Boys might not be brought to justice, some officials worried about how the killings might affect the conduct of other Indians, especially the Iroquois. In the winter of 1764, Sir William Johnson, British superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Northern Department, told Penn he was concerned that the incident would “stagger the affections” of the Iroquois (Colonial Records 130). In fact, repercussions from the massacre continued for years. At treaty sessions, the Iroquois repeatedly cited the fate of the Conestogas as a reason not to trust white negotiators.

Other Indians living in Pennsylvania’s white settlements never trusted the government to sanction the Paxton Boys or to protect other Indians. Many Lenape immediately fled the state. Hannah Freeman and other Indians living in Chester County moved to a Quaker community in New Jersey. An Indian named William Peters told Samuel Hunter at Fort Hunter, north of Harrisburg, that he feared for his safety after the massacre and the march on Philadelphia.

The Moravian missionary John Heckewelder reported that the Lenapes believed Indian-settler relations had been poisoned because the Conestogas’ “blood ran in streams into our (treaty council) fire, and extinguished it so entirely, that not one spark was left us whereby to kindle a new fire” (Heckewelder 80). A group of Lenapes that had moved to Ohio declined aid from the Continental Congress early in the Revolutionary War because they feared the government might “protect” them as it had the Conestogas.

These Indians clearly recognized the significance of the decision by British authorities, Pennsylvania’s governor, and Lancaster County’s magistrates not to pursue the murderers of the Conestogas. The time for killing any and all Indians, it was clear, had been extended to all seasons.

The wounds of the 1763 massacre never have healed, although multiple efforts have been made at reconciliation. In recent years, various groups have apologized for the actions of the Paxton Boys and the ineffectual leaders of the Lancaster community. They have lamented the utter failure of the judicial system.

In 2003, a group of Lancaster County Mennonites and evangelicals met with representatives of the Iroquois from New York. The Mennonites guided the Iroquois on a tour of sites associated with the Conestogas. They asked for forgiveness for their ancestors’ sins of killing Indians and stealing their land. The Iroquois forgave the Mennonites and the two groups embraced.

In 2010, a meeting of reconciliation was held at First Presbyterian Church in Lancaster. Representatives of Mennonite, Quaker, Presbyterian, and other churches acknowledged to several Indian groups that early Pennsylvanians were wrong to break treaties and kill the Conestogas. For the first time, Presbyterians acknowledged the role of their predecessors in the massacre. And, for the first time, a Lancaster official acknowledged fault. Mayor Rick Gray expressed his distress that previous town leaders did not protect those they had pledged to protect.

Most recently, in the spring of 2016, a bishop from Lancaster County’s Amish settlement met with representatives of a dozen Indian tribes. The bishop and two other Amish men apologized for the way their ancestors treated Native Americans and took their land. In an emotional session, both groups shed tears. The reconciliation process continues.

This essay is based on a book by Jack Brubaker, Massacre of the Conestogas: On the Trail of the Paxton Boys in Lancaster County. To learn more about Brubaker, visit the Creators page.

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