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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.
Murder, Theft and Silence: The Conestoga Massacre
This lesson will cover events, interpretations, and perspectives about the murder of the Conestoga Indians in 1763, the theft of their land, and ensuing pamphlet war in colonial Philadelphia. Students analyze 3 political cartoons and 4 primary source documents from 1763-64, read Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga, create their own political cartoon from the historical point of view of the Conestoga Indians, and research current events about Native American individuals and organizations fighting for social and economic justice.
- Why hasn't the story of the Conestoga been told from Native American perspectives?
- How do power dynamics, bias, notions of (in)justice, race relations, and colonial politics shape our understanding of this historical event?
- How would the Conestoga people have responded in the 1764 pamphlet war?
- Interpret and analyze the point of view (POV) of primary source images.
- Identify and explain key words and phrases from primary source readings.
- Draw conclusions based on textual and visual evidence.
- Collaborate with classmates to read and present historical evidence.
- Analyze historical POV by creating a political cartoon from the perspective of the Conestoga (or another Native American people).
- Identify character strengths of historical people involved in this event (ref: work of Dr. Seligman, Dr. Pawelski, and MAPP program at the University of Pennsylvania).
- Research current Native American owned/operated organizations throughout the United States working to promote social and economic justice.
Grade Level: Grades 8 and 9
Standards: Designed for Independent School in alignment with Pennsylvania State Standards.
- 5.1.8C: Analyze the principles and ideas that shaped local, Pennsylvania and National Government
- 5.1.8F: Analyze how political symbols are used by the media and leaders to influence public opinion
- 5.2.8B: Describe how citizens resolve conflicts in society and government
- 5.2.8C: Describe the role of political leadership and public service
- 5.3.8H: Describe the role of mass media on government
- 8.8.1B: Compare and contrast a historical event using multiple points of view from primary and secondary sources
William Penn's Philadelphia was grounded in Quaker ideals, evident in his relationship with Native Indian communities throughout colonial Pennsylvania. The Quaker community in Philadelphia of the early-mid 1700's wielded significant economic and political power and was directly involved in the governance of local affairs. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 (issued February of that year) concluded the North American chapter of the Seven Years' War and the Proclamation of 1763 (issued that October) infuriated British settler colonists by limiting westward expansion. After a century of contact, conquest, and economic, political, and cultural exchange, the relationship between a multitude of Native American peoples and settler colonists had grown increasingly tense and violent, as exemplified by Pontiac’s War. That December, a group of former militiamen, the Paxton Boys, murdered 20 Conestoga Indians to express their disapproval of the Quaker dominated-government, to make a political statement about their beliefs about race relations, and to seize their land. Following the massacre, a massive public debate unfolded (the 1764 pamphlet war) through more printed materials published than any time prior (to 1763). Those pamphlets and political cartoons speak to priorities of colonists, but largely neglect the stories of the Conestoga. By March 1764, the land previously inhabited by Conestoga people was already being claimed by relations to and beneficiaries of the massacres.
Digital Paxton Materials (for projection)
- Franklin and The Quakers
- An Indian Squaw King Wampum Spies
- The Paxton Expedition
- John Penn Proclamation, December 22, 1763
- John Penn Proclamation June 4, 1765
- Jacob Whistler Letter to William Peters March 12, 1764
- Jacob Whistler Letter to William Peters April 9, 1764
Source Materials and Excerpts (optional handout)
Graphic organizers for image analysis and document analysis
Blank 16 x 11 paper, markers, pencils, paint, art supplies, and color printer
Procedure, Assessment, and Extensions:
This lesson asks students to analyze three primary source images (political cartoons) about the Paxton massacres; jigsaw 4 primary source documents and report out to the group; read excerpts of Ghost River and grapple with historical POV by creating a Conestoga response to the propaganda produced by non-Native American authors. Lastly, students will research and select a current event around similar theme (e.g. violence towards Native American peoples, absence of justice, resilience in the face of atrocities) and identify contemporary organizations, businesses, Native American communities, and/or legislation that seeks to protect and/or celebrate Native Americans histories (e.g. Indian Country Today, Native American Indian Policy Center, Native American Art Council).
Step 1: Students begin by discussing the 3 political cartoons. Possible prompting questions:
- Who is present and who is not?
- Whose story (or point of view) is told or omitted? What implications does this have?
- What adjectives would you use to describe what you see?
- How are women portrayed in these images?
Step 2: After preliminary analysis and discussion, students perform jigsaw activity. Reading excerpts from 4 primary sources in groups of 4. Students should make marginal notes and/or annotations, discuss POV, and identify key words and phrases. Prompting questions:
- Do the primary source readings align with their interpretations of the political cartoons?
- Whose story is told?
- Is it accurate?
Step 3: Students read aloud excerpts of Ghost River that give voice to the Conestoga perspective (e.g. pages 11-14, 29-37, and 50-60), acknowledging their responsibility to integrate the voices and experiences of those who have been excluded from historical narratives. (For clarification, teacher may share guidelines for interpreting political cartoons from Eastern Illinois University.) Students are encouraged to recognize the courage, strength, and resilience of Native Americans who have endured hundreds of years of genocide and institutional racism, to understand the multitude of Native Americans living today, and to deconstruct negative and inaccurate stereotypes.
Given that Conestoga voices are largely absent from historical records, students will offer their own counter arguments by creating a political cartoon from the Conestoga or indigenous POV (similar to those they analyzed in step 1). The teacher provides supplies (16 x 11 paper, colored pencils, markers, rulers, paints, and color printing for those using digital media). Students sketch, paint, or use digital images (with proper citations) and share their work via Google Classroom and/or gallery walk. Students use Padlet to ask questions, give peer feedback, and make observations about each other's work. Prompting questions:
- How do these modern cartoons differ from the historical pamphlets that circulated in Philadelphia in 1764?
- What adjectives would you use to describe the images?
Step 4: Students research and report on a current event that parallels the events of the Conestoga massacres and post 2-3 sentence justifications to Google Classroom or similar platform. Current events may concern violence, trauma, injustice, physical/mental health issues, (mis)treatment of and violence against Native women, or idea that silence is compliance by majority and politicians. Ideally, they will engage in conversation about Native American courage, strength, and resilience. Teacher should encourage students to rely upon Native American sources such as Indian Country Today.
Assessment and Extensions:
- Graded graphic organizer for primary source documentation jigsaw
- Graded political cartoon
- Graded homework grade for current event analysis
- Graded participation for level of engagement and depth of contributions to discussions
- Ungraded Student Reflection
This lesson was created during the 2019 Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Teacher Seminar, "Native Peoples, Settlers, and European Empires in North America, 1600-1840" (July 28-August 3, 2019). You may also download a printable version of this lesson.