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


When Philadelphia government officials condemned the actions of the Paxton settlers who murdered Christian Indians at Conestoga in late December of 1763, representatives of the rioters answered their critics with an official letter of explanation addressed to Governor John Penn. This essay, delivered in February 1764, in part justified the vigilantism of the Paxton settlers by complaining that the governor had paid “exorbitant presents and great servility” to Indians during treaty negotiations at the expense of defending the lives and interests of settler colonists. They charged that “at the last treaty, not only was the Blood of our many murdered Brethren tamely covered, but our poor unhappy captivated Friends abandoned to Slavery.”

This point of dissatisfaction was reiterated in another essay, “The Apology of the Paxton Volunteers,” which claimed that Indians “insolently boasted of the horrid Murders they had committed, when they saw that our Blood was tamely covered at the last treaty and themselves loaded with presents.” The repeated claim that settler blood had been “tamely covered” referred to a ceremonial practice with deep, but divergent, cultural and political significance for colonists and Indians in early Pennsylvania: the condolence ceremony.

A degree of truth lay beneath the Paxton Boy’s charges that elite leaders had neglected the rituals of grief. In one of his first acts as the new governor of Pennsylvania, in early December 1763, John Penn had convened a treaty conference with representatives of the Delaware nation that disregarded the conventions of condolence by neither expressing nor soliciting grief. Official government minutes recording December 1763 treaty transactions between Governor John Penn and Papounan, a “Mohickon” allied with the Delawares and Nanticokes, reveal the accuracy of the Paxtonites’ assertions concerning the governor’s lack of ceremony. The governor neither demanded nor received any expressions of condolence from the assembled Native Americans. Instead, he explained to the assembly that he would take the dead bodies of the slain settlers and “by this string…bury them and cover them out of sight” (Penn 85). As far as the Paxton settlers were concerned, the governor’s breach of traditional decorum demonstrated his disregard for his subjects.

From early on, European colonists who wished to negotiate with native peoples learned that, in order to do so, they would have to participate in Indian diplomatic traditions. As Daniel Richter has described at length, among these ceremonies, rituals tied to grief for the dead were among the most important and widespread. Although grief rituals had originated with Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian) groups, they had become common among many native peoples in the Pennsylvania region by the latter half of the eighteenth century. Attempting to comprehend the meaning of Indian expressions of grief in the context of diplomacy, Euro-Americans had long labeled these Indian practices “condolence ceremonies.” But this very term should alert us to the culturally incommensurate understandings of mourning that Euro-American and Native Americans brought to rituals of grief.

Euro-Americans regarded the expression of condolences as a ritual mark of respect that paid homage to high-ranking people. Records of treaty negotiations held in Pennsylvania frequently noted that “compliments of condolence for the deaths of persons of distinction [were] exchanged” (Members of the Pennsylvania Council 274). This now-obsolete phrase, the “compliments of condolence,” indicates the role such expressions of shared sorrow played in the Euro-American context (“Condolence”). First, only persons of high rank deserved to be honored with the “compliment of condolence.” Second, the mere expression of shared sorrow did not signify that the person offering condolences was experiencing any inner feelings of grief or sadness, merely that they were paying respect by offering an “outward expression of sympathy with the grief of others.” Euro-Americans made public declarations of grief only when they wished to confer a mark of status on a person of public importance. Whatever private inner experience of sorrow the death of a subordinate member of Euro-American society might generate among family or friends, only leading men were regarded as acceptable candidates for public expressions of mourning. Likewise, showing public deference at the death of a noteworthy man did not necessitate inner emotional sorrow; it simply required an outward tribute.

For the settler colonists at Paxton, the idea that deaths among their members had been quickly covered over during diplomatic meetings, rather than made an occasion for ceremonial mourning, was insulting in the extreme. Their letter complained that “exorbitant presents and great Servility…paid to Indians, have long been oppressive Grievances we have groaned under.” From the Paxton perspective, all Euro-Americans should be regarded as superior to all Native Americans and thus deserving of the “compliments of condolence” from Indians. When Governor Penn “tamely covered” the settlers’ dead without demanding condolences from Indians, he as much as said that he did not regard frontier settlers as worthy of such honorary tribute.

Borderlands colonists assumed that Indians too intended to send a signal of disrespect by not expressing grief. As one pro-Paxton pamphlet writer demanded, “Did we hear any of those Lamentations that are now so plentifully poured forth for the Conestogoe Indians?— O my dear Friends! Must I answer No? The Dutch and the Irish are murdered without Pity.” Backcountry settlers repeatedly complained that colonial leaders’ emotional comportment conveyed more respect for Indians than for their fellow Europeans. They believed that the governor’s omission of the expression of grief at the deaths of their countrymen amounted to an insult to the dignity and value of their lives.

In reality, the native peoples of Pennsylvania brought a very different set of social expectations and cultural understandings to the ceremonies of grief that they made central to their diplomatic practices. Native American diplomatic protocol relied on many opening ceremonies that were designed to bring participants at treaty conferences into a harmonious state of mind before negotiations began. For Indians, the shared experience of grief was a way to create a community of feeling that could unite former enemies. Indians expressed grief at the deaths of all people, regardless of the rank of the deceased. The point of mingling tears and then wiping them away was to merge disparate peoples together as a unified whole.

Expressions of mutuality were a key element of Native American condolence rituals. As a Native American leader known as, “The Belt,” said in 1756, “kind Expressions of condolence” indicated that Indians and English had “experienced a common Loss [that] affected you as well as us, thereby signifying that we were one people and our Cause the same” (Old Belt 1). For Euro-Americans, subjective feelings of sadness were far less important than statements of tribute that demonstrated the respect in which the deceased was held; the very definition of condolence specified that it involved the ceremonial outward expression of sympathy on the occasion of a death rather than any great inward experience of sorrow. By contrast, Indian grief rituals were supposed to create a deep inner communion between peoples. For more on condolence ceremonies, reference White, Shannon, Gustafson, and Sayre).

Fundamentally, then, the Euro-American term “condolence ceremony” redirected and misrepresented the Indian tradition. First, Euro-Americans were interested in ceremonial performance, not emotional experience. Secondly, whereas Euro-Americans regarded a successful demand for condolences as an effective display of dominance, native peoples regarded a genuine sharing of grief as a means of sweeping away divisions among peoples, a key element in the resumption of peaceful relations.

When Governor John Penn “tamely covered” the settler dead at the December treaty conference, he did so with the primary goal of smoothing over frontier tensions and returning the colony to peace and stability. Far from seeking to melt away distinctions between Indians and Europeans in a flood of shared tears, Penn wanted to strengthen and secure his colony’s boundaries. But neither did he hesitate to skip the Indian custom of grieving for all deceased people. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War, Penn was much less concerned with affirming the lives and fortunes of the colony’s frontier inhabitants, than with moving past lingering Indian issues and on to pressing domestic policy concerns. Of course, such a statement made sense in diplomatic terms; if statements of grief constituted calls for action, then the decision to omit demands for condolences underscored the governor’s desire to dampen the spread of Indian conflicts in favor of a quick and uncomplicated peace.

The tragedy of the truncated condolence ceremony in December of 1763 is that the assembled Indians likely intended to follow Penn’s lead and to relinquish grief in favor of peace, not to further provoke the colony by conveying disrespect for the settler dead. Yet, in part because condolences were not asked or offered, backcountry settlers exacted revenge on their Christian Indian neighbors, undercutting the very peace that the Indians had sought to ensure. Their action did little to force respect from Governor Penn, much less from the Indians. Yet, by the following July, it did result in a new official policy allowing “that there shall be paid…to all and every person…premiums and Bounties for the prisoners and Scalps of Enemy Indians that shall be taken or killed within the Bounds of this Province.”

This essay draws upon research from two chapters of Nicole Eustace's bookPassion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (UNC Press 2011). To learn more about Nicole Eustace, visit the Creators page.

Further Reading

This page has paths:

Contents of this tag:

This page references: