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.
Inspired by Quaker principles, Penn had founded his colony in 1682 as a "holy experiment" in which Christians and Indians could live together in harmony. He drew the model of his colony from the "Peaceable Kingdom" envisioned in the Book of Isaiah. That dream proved surprisingly resilient. In fact, the nineteenth-century Quaker artist Edward Hicks produced a series of paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom in which he always included Penn's legendary meeting with the Delaware peoples under the elm tree at Shackamaxon, in present-day Philadelphia. In pursuit of his vision, William Penn treated the native peoples in his province with uncommon respect (John Penn to James Harrison).
Yet for all his popularity, Penn's holy experiment always rested on colony-building foundations. There would have been no Pennsylvania, after all, had he not received a gift of 29 million acres from King Charles II in 1681—a gift that made him the largest individual landlord in the British Empire. Within this immense territory, Penn purchased land from native peoples and, by his understanding, fairly. But he did so because he needed to get clear title to their land so that he could sell it to settlers and try to make a profit from his colony.
The myth of the Peaceable Kingdom, already in decline by the time of William Penn's death in 1718, disintegrated gradually over the next few decades. Penn's son and principal heir, Thomas, cast off the Quaker faith and converted to Anglicanism. He and his brothers continued to negotiate with native peoples but they did not hesitate to use fraud and intimidation. In 1737 they swindled the Delawares out of a huge tract of land in a transaction known as the "Walking Purchase." For the Delawares, the measure of this land was how much a man could walk in a day and a half. The Penns, however, sent out a team of relay runners who marked out a tract almost as big as Rhode Island. Most of the Delawares who lived there were forced to move west of the Susquehanna River, which at that time marked the western boundary of European settlement. The "Walking Purchase" remained their primary grievance when they went to war against Pennsylvania twenty years later.
Immigrants from the province of Ulster, in the north of Ireland, also posed a threat to Pennsylvania's native peoples. These settlers began to arrive in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the eighteenth century and set up as squatters along the frontier, ignoring the land rights of the native peoples and the Penn family alike. They claimed the land by "tomahawk right"—marking trees at a distance from one another with their axes, and declaring the territory between these trees as their own. As early as 1730, a generation before the Paxton 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" (James Logan to John, Thomas, and Richard Penn).
Conflict between western colonists and native peoples intensified during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Expelled from their lands in eastern Pennsylvania, most of the Delawares and Shawnees west of the Susquehanna River sided with the French as the lesser of two evils and launched devastating raids on frontier settlers. The colonial government in Philadelphia responded by declaring war on the Delawares and, for the first time, establishing a militia. A handful of strict Quakers remained true to William Penn's pacifist vision, but the Peaceable Kingdom had come to an end. Frontier settlers did most of the fighting during the war and, from their perspective, both branches of the government in Philadelphia—the Quaker-dominated Assembly and executive branch, run by the Penn family—seemed indifferent to their wishes.
No sooner had the British defeated the French in 1763 than Pontiac's War, the largest Indian war in colonial American history, erupted. Delawares and Shawnees once again launched raids east of the Susquehanna River. Frontier settlers re-lived the nightmare of the Seven Years' War. It was in this context, in December 1763, that the Paxton men carried out their massacre.
The Paxton Boys arose directly out of a local militia created by the colonial government in response to frontier demands for defense in the summer of 1763. Colonel John Armstrong of Carlisle commanded a unit west of the Susquehanna River and the Rev. John Elder, the "fighting pastor" of Paxton Presbyterian Church, commanded a unit to the east. These two units were supposed to be strictly defensive, but Elder and Armstrong used them to launch raids against the Delawares. When raids failed, the Paxton Boys, led by Lazarus Stewart and Matthew Smith, attacked the Conestoga people instead.
At the end of January 1764, a month after the massacres, reports reached Philadelphia that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Paxton Boys were marching eastward, threatening to sack the city unless their grievances were met. They also demanded the right to "inspect" 140 Lenape and Moravian Indians who had been removed from the frontier and placed in protective custody. Given what the Paxton Boys had done to the Conestogas, the residents of Philadelphia could only imagine what this "inspection" might entail.
When several hundred Paxton Boys reached Germantown, just six miles outside Philadelphia, they were met by a delegation led by Benjamin Franklin, who persuaded them to write down their grievances. Their spokesmen, Matthew Smith and James Gibson, submitted a Declaration and a Remonstrance for consideration by the colonial government, and what followed was a war of words instead of a war of weapons. Presbyterian supporters of the Paxton Boys in alliance with the Anglican faction surrounding the Penn family battled Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker party in print. 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 governed.
Despite Franklin's efforts, the Paxton murderers went unpunished. Nobody was investigated, let alone arrested or prosecuted. As a result, like-minded settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier felt free to behave in similar ways. The result was wave after wave of violence on the frontier, culminating in total war against indigenous peoples during the American Revolution. In Pennsylvania, the Paxton Boys' brutality was the exception as late as 1763, but during the Revolution it became commonplace.
Ironically, Benjamin Franklin and the Paxton men ended up supporting the same side in the American Revolution. But that is because there was more than one revolution going on—the familiar struggle for lofty principles of liberty and equality in the east, and a lesser-known struggle involving land and American Indians in the west. Some historians have seen the Paxton Boys as frontier democrats fighting against the privilege of the Penn family who extended their fight for democracy into the revolutionary era. John Elder, Matthew Smith, John Armstrong, and Lazarus Stewart all rallied to the patriot cause, to be sure, but they were fighting for the same thing as they had fought for in the 1760s—access to land, personal security, and vengeance against indigenous peoples.
In their Remonstrance, the Paxton Boys had demanded greater political representation for the western counties in the Pennsylvania Assembly, but that was only one of nine grievances; all of the others concerned the "savages" in their midst. The American Revolution did more than destroy the privilege of the Penn family; it doomed the region's native peoples. During the Revolutionary War, American patriots enacted the brutal logic of the Paxton Boys on a devastating scale.
This essay is based on Kevin Kenny, Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment (Oxford University Press, 2009).
- "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.