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- 1 2016-08-19T13:35:52-07:00 Will Fenton 82bf9011a953584cd702d069a30cbdb6ef90650a A Narrative of the Late Massacres Will Fenton 2 A narrative of the late massacres, in Lancaster County, of a number of Indians, friends of this province, by persons unknown. With some observations on the same. gallery 2018-02-12T01:37:11-08:00 [Philadelphia] : Printed [by Franklin and Hall?], in the year M,DCC,LXIV.  Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790. Call number: Am 1764 Fra Ar 64 f.83 Generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Ascribed to the press of Franklin and Hall by Miller on the basis of the typeface used. Evans, Hildeburn, and P.L. Ford suggest Anthony Armbruster as printer. Sabin says "Written and printed by Franklin." Signatures: A-B? (B8 verso blank). Evans, C. American bibliography, 9667; English short title catalogue (ESTC), W17009; Hildeburn, C.R. Pennsylvania, 1992; Miller, C.W. Franklin, 807; Sabin, J. Dictionary of books relating to America from its discovery to the present time, 25557. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Will Fenton 82bf9011a953584cd702d069a30cbdb6ef90650a
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The Paxton pamphlet war was waged in physical materials. The pamphlets and prints that circulated in Philadelphia during 1764 were material objects that had value as consumer goods in the marketplace. Yet their worth lay less in the paper and ink that composed them than in what scholars would call their materiality, the power these printed words or images had to evoke ideas about self and society in their readers or viewers. Those ideas assumed forms that reflected the eighteenth-century Pennsylvania culture that produced and consumed them.
Thus, when Paxton critic Timothy Wigwagg called upon his fellow Pennsylvanians to gaze into a collective looking glass (a mirror) to see the Paxton men’s true motives and character, he highlighted the central role of material culture in this pamphlet war.
Thanks to an eighteenth-century consumer revolution, small and affordable hand-held mirrors had become increasingly common goods in colonial America, allowing colonists to gaze at themselves and assess their appearances (Breen). Yet as Wigwagg knew well, mirrors did more than just reflect; they were also optical devices that could magnify and distort images, which gave them magical properties that allowed their holders to see truths and predict the future. Wigwagg was thus confident that his looking into mirror would reveal “Painted in the most striking Colours” the lines of a “design well Plann’d and Judiciously executed” by the Scots-Irish Presbyterian Paxton Boys, a design that would then be “clear to the Understanding of every Person, and Recorded in History as undeniable Facts.” Material objects such as looking glasses, Wigwagg argued, were powerful lenses that could be manipulated to reveal the hidden identities and agendas of the Paxton men.
Wigwagg’s use of the looking glass was metaphorical. Yet it illustrates how the writers and illustrators of the pamphlet war employed a commonly understood language of material goods to mobilize public opinion and persuade their readers. Then, as now, material goods were read as indicators of an individual’s class status and identities. They could also be used in figurative ways to stereotype and stigmatize groups.
Such was the case with the pamphlet war; for when these writers and illustrators depicted the physical appearance of those groups involved in this crisis, including how they dressed, the props or weapons they carried, and the objects they pursued or were associated with, they employed material culture as a rhetorical device to embody group identities and distinguish villains from victims. Yet because the Paxton men had both their critics and supporters, no group involved in the Paxton crisis was spared scrutiny.
As the ethnic group most closely identified with the Paxton men, Pennsylvania’s Scots-Irish were the first group pamphleteers caricatured. Benjamin Franklin set the precedent in his pamphlet, A Narrative of the Late Massacres, which sparked the pamphlet war. Franklin was an esteemed printer, editor, satirist, and “an extraordinarily knowledgeable student” in the use of “visual symbols, devices, and heraldry” for maximum impact on his audiences (Lemay 465). In this case, textual representations that would evoke visceral visual images were his weapons of choice. The Paxton men, he charged, were “CHRISTIAN WHITE SAVAGES” who had “inhumanly murdered” the Conestogas “in cold Blood” (8). To confirm, he signaled the Paxton men’s “barbarous” intent (9) with the “Firelocks, Hangers, and Hatchets” they carried with them as they road in to Lancaster on the day of the massacre (5). Readers, he knew, would notice that these Scots-Irish frontiersmen carried not just the muskets and swords typical of Euro-American warriors, but hatchets, items that were manufactured for the Indian trade, and weapons that colonists had come to associate with the most brutal forms of Indian warfare. In linking the Paxton men to a weapon used to stereotype Native warriors as bloodthirsty brutes, Franklin sought to prove their nefarious intent.
Because intense ethnic and religious political rivalries undergirded the pamphlet war, Franklin also sought to undermine Scots-Irish political standing in the colony. To do so, he rhetorically racialized the Paxton men by associating these “freckled Face[d] and red Hair[ed]” Scots-Irish Presbyterians--a stereotyped portrait of an Irishman, even in the eighteenth century--with these heinous acts of violence (Bankhurst; Kenny). His point was clear: Scots-Irish Presbyterians were inherently bloodthirsty and thus stood apart as a savage other. To confirm, he noted how even the Turks, Moors, Popish Spaniards, and “Negroes of Africa” (21)--groups his colonial readers would most certainly have perceived as savage--were more civil than “these People” (13). By reducing the Scots-Irish to an ethnic stereotype, one that played to anti-Irish and anti-Presbyterian prejudices of his time, Franklin discredited these men as members of the provincial society. As he reckoned it for his readers, brutes who had “imbrued” their “Hands in innocent Blood,” thereby breaking the laws of King, Country, and God, did not deserve to be part of the polity (27).
Scots-Irish bloodthirstiness became a popular trope used by Paxton critics. In the satiric, A Dialogue Between Andrew Trueman, and Thomas Zealot another anonymous pamphleteer wrote his narrative in a derogatory dialect meant to mimic an Ulster brogue, using the material sound of language to emphasize the cultural coarseness of the Scots-Irish. The fictional Thomas tells Andrew that while “fechting [fighting] the Lord’s Battles and killing the Indians at Lancaster and Cannestogoe,” he and other Paxton men had “shot six and a wee ane, that was in the Squaw’s Belly; we sculped three; we tomahawked three; we roasted three and a wee ane; and three and a wee ane we gave to the Hogs.” Shooting and roasting women and children were unimaginably heinous acts, but just as troubling, was the fact that these Christian Paxton men scalped and tomahawked them with hatchets in Indian-style.
Paxton critics thus echoed Franklin’s critique of the inherently bloodthirsty nature of the Scots-Irish, while taking it one step further to suggest that these Scots-Irish were nothing more than bloodthirsty Irish Catholics in disguise. “[T]hey are all the same Family,” remarked another critic, “and always attended Mass in Ireland, whatever they may do in Pennsylvania.”
While Paxton critics ridiculed the Scots-Irish as blood-thirsty brutes, Paxton apologists took up a looking glass of their own and tilted it away from the heinous deeds of the Paxton men and towards their political adversaries, the Quakers. Using their mirror as a kind of magnifying glass, they saw deception. Material goods were not so much symbolic representations as they were props that could be manipulated to disguise Friends’ true character and intent.
Proving Quaker duplicity was the primary intent of Paxton apologists. As the English immigrant pamphleteer David James Dove wrote, the Quakers acted “meek, merciful, [and] compassionate” to the point they “would seem to monopolize Christian Charity, and all the Tenderness of human Nature amongst themselves.” But they were not what they appeared to be to be. Indeed, upon hearing of the frontier depredations of Pontiac’s War, which had forced “near a thousand Families” to flee their homes and farms, Philadelphia Quakers had turned unsympathetically in the other direction, ignoring the plight of frontier colonists. These “compassionate and merciful Christians,” Dove noted with irony, “would not grant a single Farthing … for the Relief of their Fellow Subjects.” Yet they assisted and even sheltered Native American allies, a fact that Dove and other Paxton apologists regarded as particularly galling.
The Paxton men echoed this charge in their Declaration & Remonstrance. As they saw it, Philadelphia’s Quakers “cherished and caressed” the Conestogas “as dearest Friends,” even though frontier residents accused these Native peoples of being allied with the colony’s “openly avowed imbittered Enemies.” Consequently, the Paxton men, who turned the tables on their critics by identifying themselves as “his Majesty’s faithful and loyal Subjects” (10), felt abandoned by Quaker political leaders who ignored their plight while finding the “means to enslave the Province to Indians” (8).
Such favoritism, as the satirical etching Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers illustrates, was driven by avarice. Money served as the material object that Friends’ most desired and would do anything to acquire, even if it meant encouraging Native peoples to make war on frontier settlers. On the left-hand side of the illustration, Quaker merchant Israel Pemberton, signaled with his broad-brimmed hat and initials on the barrel, disperses hatchets to Indians, telling them to “Exercise those on the Scotch Irish & Dutch [Germans] & I’ll support you while I can.” Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin, to the right, calls the shots, urging others on while he holds a bag of Pennsylvania money while a group of Quaker men sit at the table and fret over the colony’s fate. A small Quaker man standing behind Franklin calls attention to the scene, observing: “This is the way our Money goes.”
Diagnosing deception did not fully explain how the Quakers had duped the colony, however. To do that, colonists had to tear off the Quakers’ “Mask of falsely pretended Friendship” and strip them naked in order to reveal the truth of their selfish motives. This call to unmask the Quakers was a metaphorical one, yet it held persuasive power because it posed a head-on challenge to their physical modes of spiritual expression and self-presentation.
Quakerism, as any Pennsylvanian knew, had an embodied quality that placed emphasis on corporeal forms of worship, including the controversial practice of quaking with the divine Light, which critics charged were staged to dazzle, enchant, and deceive onlookers (Tarter 145-151). Then there was the Quaker practice of plainness, which included the adoption of simple dress, speech, and manners. Among Quaker men, hats were especially important objects used to express this group aesthetic. Refusing to doff one’s hat to a superior was a hallmark of the Quaker commitment to denying false distinctions among men (Haulman 22; Kesselring 299-304; Smolenski).
Because Quaker critics disagreed and interpreted Quaker men’s refusal to engage in “hat honour” (Kesselring 302) as a sign of disrespect for others, Paxton apologists frequently used broad-brimmed hats as visual cues to distinguish Quakers from others in the colony. The verses accompanying the illustration, The German bleeds & bears ye Furs noted how the “Hibernian … kicks to fling his broad brim’d Master.” Yet in depicting this plain-dressed, broad brimmed man as the master who rides the back of the Scots-Irishman with a hatchet-carrying Indian and a blindfolded German yoked to his arm (with Benjamin Franklin again overseeing the action from the sidelines) the engraver also captured the suspicions many Pennsylvanians harbored of the Quakers; namely, that these “broad-brims” were really the oppressive “Lords” whose desire of profit from trade with the Indians left a trail of dead colonists and burning cabins in their wake. Plain speech and simple dress were nothing more than disguises that masked the Quakers’ true character and intent.
The Native Americans
While pamphlet war authors and illustrators targeted Scots-Irish Presbyterians and Quakers as the villains in the Paxton crisis, their take on Pennsylvania’s Native peoples varied depending on their position in this war.
Anti-Paxton writers focused their attention on the Conestogas, emphasizing their victimhood at the hands of the murderous Paxton men. The Conestogas, as Benjamin Franklin noted, were long known for “many Years” living “in Friendship with their White Neighbours” and “their peaceable inoffensive Behaviour.” More significant, he signaled their “poor, defenceless” status by “the Baskets, Brooms, and Bowls they manufactured” and sold to colonists. Their association with domestic tools, ones typically associated with women’s housekeeping and food preparation chores, feminized them, rendering these “trembling Lambs” even more sympathetic victims of the “savage Beasts of Prey,” the Paxton men (6). To make their case, Paxton apologists cast a wider net, drawing no distinction between the peaceful, Christian Indians and the colony’s Native American enemies, those who had “laid waste” to the frontier and practiced severe “Cruelties” on white captives.
Armed with the assumption that all Native peoples were inherently barbaric, they regarded the Conestogas with intense suspicion, and thus deployed the metaphorical looking glass to scrutinize these Natives’ actions and motives. What they found reflected back at them was deception. The Conestogas, charged Thomas Barton “have been Spies upon all our Actions” and “have treacherously held a Correspondence with our avowed Enemies—and have often lent a helping Hand to bring Ruin and Desolation upon the Province.”
This meant that the Conestogas were also artful wearers of disguises. “[T]o Day they are painted red, To-morrow blue, and the next Day they are any other Colour that they think will best prevent their being known,” wrote David James Dove. And once colonists removed their paint, wrote another, the true nature of these “Wolf-like” people was revealed; the Conestogas were not colony’s friends, but its enemies.
Paxton apologists, many of whom adamantly opposed his campaign to oust the Penn family proprietorship and replace it with royal government, seized upon the opportunity the Paxton crisis offered to critique of Franklin and his politics. Franklin, they argued, reveled in artifice. Rev. William Smith, the Anglican provost of the College of Philadelphia, charged that Franklin’s “real design … was not to elucidate, but the disguise and conceal the truth; which … according to his usual custom, he has very artfully, but not honestly, done.”
To reveal his trickery, engravers pulled back a curtain and depicted Franklin as the powerbroker on the sidelines who called the shots. In Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers, Franklin holds the colony’s money while inciting action by calling out “Fight Dog[,] Fight Bear[,] I am Content If I but get the Gover’t.” Likewise, in The German bleeds & bears ye Furs, Franklin steps from the left while holding a petition to remove the proprietors; four tethered figures approach him with the Quaker reaching out his hand to greet him. In the verses that accompany the print, Franklin is identified as “the help” who arrives to “hold down the Hibernian[’]s Head” so that all would not “tumble down.”
To his critics, Franklin was the ultimate double-dealer. By terminating the proprietary government so that he might advance his own interests as his goals, he used his “knowing head, and Silver tongue,” as the lyrics of a satirical song suggested, to dupe others, particularly the Quakers, into believing that he was a “gentle humane worthy man, a Pious good Samaritan.” Franklin was thus the real threat to the colony and its people.
While pamphlet war writers and illustrators lampooned many of Pennsylvania’s ethnic, religious, and racial groups, they mostly spared the colony’s Germans. Given the distinctiveness of the German language and material culture, this is a curious omission; the Germans would have been easy to satirize with various visual and material cues (Falk). Ten years earlier, after all, Franklin had characterized them “Palatine Boors,” likening these newcomers to swine who “swarm into our settlements” and “become a Colony of Aliens” (Franklin).
Furthermore, frontier German colonists were Paxton men. As such, they had joined the Scots-Irish who rode into Lancaster and murdered the Conestogas and had marched on Philadelphia, and that was because they, too, were angry about the protected status of these Native peoples. As the Lutheran Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg confirmed, “many of our Germans thought that it could be proved that the Indians living among the Moravian brethren had secretly murdered one or more of the inhabitants” (I:73-78). So why, then, did pamphleteers and engravers mostly ignore them?
Both Paxton critics and apologists mostly agreed that the German were dupes being led along by others during this crisis. Paxton critic Isaac Hunt, charged that the Scots-Irish had tried to “blind the Dutch [Germans] by all the Political Dust [they] can raise.” As the print and verses accompanying, The German bleeds & bears ye Furs, demonstrate, Paxton apologists agreed, the bleeding, blindfolded German who bore “the furs of Quaker Lords and Savage Curs,” was nothing more than a dupe who was led along, not by the Scots-Irish, but by Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers.
The blindfold, then, was the agreed upon material symbol for the colony’s Germans. This is significant because in a print debate that was ultimately a proxy for a larger discussion of power and identity in the colony, dismissing the Germans as easily-led fools also signaled their status as outsiders. Depictions of blindfolded Germans indirectly confirmed Franklin’s characterization of them as ignorant “Aliens,” which, as William Smith wrote in their defense, denied their agency as “the industrious” people” to whom this province is so much indebted for its flourishing state.”
In a colony that was marked by tremendous cultural diversity by the mid-eighteenth century, the writers and illustrators who fanned the flames of the Paxton crisis employed looking glasses of their own making to scrutinize the objects that their ethnic, religious, or racial rivals wore, carried, or desired. Their goal was to reveal truths that would allow them to assess and dismiss their rivals’ claims to status and power in the colony. But context mattered, as these critics knew, because material items could be used in artful ways to disguise, obscure, or even blind. Thus, their works ought to be read as cautionary tales. In an age when consumer goods, including pamphlets and prints, were more readily available than ever before, colonists, these writers and illustrators warned, had to be wary about how they perceived and interacted with the diverse others around them, because not every group was who they appeared outwardly to be.
This essay is based on Judith Ridner’s article “Unmasking the Paxton Boys: The Material Culture of the Pamphlet War” (Early American Studies, 2016). For more about Judith Ridner, visit the Creators page.
- Benjamin Bankhurst, “A Looking-Glass for Presbyterians: Recasting Prejudice in Late Colonial Pennsylvania,” PMHB 133.4 (October 2009): 317-348.
- T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
- Cynthia Falk, Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans: Constructing Identity in Early America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).
- Benjamin Franklin, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” (Benjamin Franklin Papers (1751): Vol 4: 225).
- Kate Haulman, The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
- Kevin Kenny, Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Krista J. Kesselring, “Gender, the Hat, and Quaker Universalism in the Wake of the English Revolution,” Seventeenth Century 26.2 (October 2011): 299-322.
- J. A. Leo Lemay, “The American Aesthetic of Franklin’s Visual Creations,” PMHB 111.4 (1987): 465-499.
- Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, Account of the march of the Paxton Boys against Philadelphia in the year 1764. (Philadelphia: John Pennington and Henry C. Baird, 1853).
- John Smolenksi, Friends and Strangers: The Making of a Creole Culture in Colonial Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).
- Michele Lise Tarter, “Quaking in the Light,” in A Centre of Wonders: The Body in Early America, eds. Janet Moore Lindman and Michele Lise Tarter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).
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.