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Desperation, Zeal, and Murder: The Paxton Boys

Fall 2009

Now, Sirs, I ween it is but right,
That we upon these Cananites,
Without delay should Vengeance take,
Both for our own, and the K — k's sake [sic]:
Destroy them quite frae out the Land; —
And for it we have God's Command.
The Paxtoniade, Christopher Gymnast


Conestoga Rock
Allen Kirk
The Conestoga Rock at Indiantown. A stone memorial stands at the location of the original Conestoga Indian town.

Although it bears an eerie resemblance to what could have been a creed from the Crusades, this excerpt is taken from a short poem published in Philadelphia in 1764. The Paxtoniade is just a part of the surge of published pamphlets, essays, and poems that are a direct result of the Paxton Boys’ rebellion. Their massacre of 20 peaceful Indians from a Conestoga village followed a series of battles during which hundreds of frontiersmen and American Indians were killed. Death in colonial Pennsylvania was unavoidable. Yet, these killings were different. The deaths of peaceful and friendly native men, women, and children had a colossal impact on every Pennsylvanian from the uncharted Allegheny mountains to the city of Philadelphia and everywhere in between. And, like lines from the poem, the crimes perpetrated by the Paxton Boys illustrate the fundamental ideological divide between western, Protestant frontiersmen and the city-dwelling Quakers who dominated the government of the time.

The Paxton Boys began as a small group of mostly Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who lived in Dauphin County (then called Paxtang) in the later half of the 18th century. Angered by previous frequent raids by Indian tribes bordering English settlements, members of the gang that formed in Paxton during the winter of 1763-64 had become weary of even the friendly Conestoga Indians who had been living and trading with settlers for generations. Rumors quickly grew that the Conestogas had been seen collaborating with hostile Indians bearing weapons. The mere idea of this (as if rumors count as evidence) seemed to be too much for the Paxton Boys, who marched to the Conestoga Indian town on the morning of December 14, 1763, and swiftly murdered six Conestogas while 14 others escaped.

John Wimer's Massacre of the Indians at Lancaster
Wikimedia Commons
In John Wimer’s Massacre of the Indians at Lancaster by the Paxton Boys in 1763, the vulnerability of the American Indians, who are unarmed and barely clothed, is emphasized and contrasted with the formality of tomahawk-wielding Paxton Boys.

The Paxton Boys, unsatisfied, continued to pursue the Indians who had fled to Lancaster and were locked up in a guarded jailhouse for protection. The local Lancaster sheriff, John Hay, was in no way capable of handling the angry Paxton mob that had traced the Conestogas to Lancaster. Sheriff Hay later wrote that any attempt to restrain the boys would have been a “Danger of Life to the Person attempting it,” and that he, the coroner, and many others had indeed put themselves in danger by opposing the mob. On December 27, the Paxton Boys completed their strike on the defenseless Indians in the most inhumane way imaginable. William Henry, a resident of Lancaster, commented on the atrocities that he witnessed unfold. “This man’s hand and feet had been chopped off with a tomahawk. In this manner lay the whole of them, men, women and children spread about the prsion yard; shot, scalped, hackled and cut to pieces.” From the beginning there had never been proper justification for the annihilation of the last of these helpless Conestoga Indians, but with this disgusting treatment of the fallen Indians it became apparent that not even a wildly-construed argument of preemptive self-defense could be raised to justify these acts. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania was stunned.

The underlying causes of the Conestoga Massacre can be traced back to over a decade of increasingly violent clashes between American Indians and English settlers. They were both fighting, above all, for land. Ever since William Penn had signed land agreements with the various Indian tribes over a century prior, there had been disputes resulting from colonial expansion. Many American Indians felt that their end of the agreement was not being upheld. The seemingly unending influx of the white settlers meant a constant expansion of Pennsylvania’s borders westward. Indian raids on white settlements became so common that the pressure to raise a state-funded militia for protection could no longer be avoided by Pennsylvania’s governing body. On April 14, 1756, all out war was declared on the Indians.

Warfare continued for many years, and reached its apex with the formation of Pontiac’s Rebellion during the first half of 1763.  The Ottawa Indians launched a devastating campaign against British forts and settlements in the back country. From June to July, six British forts were captured by the Ottawas, who were eventually halted just outside of Fort Pitt. As Lancaster’s Prothonotary Edward Shippen, founder of Shippensburg, wrote to his son, “Savages will soon make inroads through the whole Province, burning, & destroying everything as they go.” Under these conditions, the Paxton Boys were formed. The killings were the result of fear and desperation taken to extremes.

After the Paxton boys had finished with the murder of 20 innocent Conestoga Indians, they headed straight for Philadelphia. The group was now gaining momentum, both in size and in public attention. The Paxton Boys now numbered over 250 strong, and their infamy grew evermore as they traveled eastward. They had heard that 140 Indians in the regions surrounding Paxton had fled to Philadelphia for sanctuary. The Paxton Boys’ dramatic entrance into Germantown (then a town independent of Philadelphia) was a landmark event. It was the first physical standoff between the citizens of what was becoming an increasingly divided state. The frontiersmen and women found themselves pitted against the eastern Pennsylvanians, who generally supported a peaceful approach toward dealing with Indian conflicts. Frontier Pennsylvanians like the Paxton Boys had been pleading for additional government protection from the natives for over a decade, and finally their voices, albeit the most radical ones, were being united and made known.

Edward Hicks' painting The Peacable Kingdom
Edward Hicks/
In Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom series of paintings, whites and natives are seen living together without fear. The Quaker pacifist ideals are symbolized by the wild animals and children playing together in the foreground.

The deeper undertones of this standoff marked a major shift in the ideology of the commonwealth as a whole. Pennsylvania was founded upon Quaker values and, until that point was politically controlled by Quakers. In his founding of the commonwealth, William Penn started a tradition of treating all natives fairly and decently. The land he imagined was coined the “Peaceable Kingdom,” a land where Indians and whites could coexist while contributing to each others’ societies both through goods and ideas. A famous and telling speech at an Indian ceremony honoring Penn was delivered by Opessah, a Conestoga leader, addressing the “Loving and good Friend and Brother William Penn.” In it, Penn was commended for protecting the Indians from “any Wrong from any of the People under his Government” for as long as the Sun and Moon endured. For longer than any other state’s history, those promises of peace were upheld.

But the Paxton Boys arrived in Philadelphia with a message of their own: peace was no longer an option. They represented an increasingly more prevalent view that America was a promised land for Christians, and it should be cleansed of the wickedness of the savages. The fundamental difference in ideologies of Pennsylvania’s founder and the Pennsylvanians who inhabited the west could not have been made more real than by the Paxton Boys’ steady march toward Philadelphia. As Benjamin Franklin was was heard saying after learning of the murders of the Conestogas, “It grieves me to hear that our Frontier People are yet greater Barbarians than the Indians, and continue to murder them in time of Peace.”  Franklin was surely aware that the principles upon which William Penn founded the commonwealth were based on peace and fairness. He could not believe that fellow Pennsylvanians, in good conscience, could commit an act that so blatantly violated such a legacy.

This confrontation in the city was unheard of. The presence of the mob of Paxton Boys in Philadelphia excited some and horrified many. In John R. Dunbar’s introduction to The Paxton Papers, he describes what it must have been like to witness their entrance: “Wild rumors spread: there were five hundred, two thousand, three thousand Paxton Boys; they were coming from the east, from the north; they were near, they were far, etc. Business stopped, shops remained closed, couriers charged back and forth through the streets, the citizens gathered to gape and gossip...” It soon became apparent that the demands of this angry mob were not to be taken lightly. For several weeks from January to February of 1764, all eyes were on them.

After that period of tension, the standoff ended diplomatically and not militarily. Benjamin Franklin was called in to resolve the conflict. After many hours of deliberation, a non-violent solution to the problems was reached when the Paxton Boys agreed to formally declare their grievances to the court and return home. However, their impact on society remained. The Paxton Boys’ supporters and detractors were launched into what historian Allison Olson termed, a “pamphlet war.” Never in history had so much print media been widely disseminated in the United States. As Olson writes in The Pamphlet War Over the Paxton Boys, 1764 saw a 40 percent growth over the previous year’s total number of publications.

Henry Dawkins' engraving of the Paxton Expedition to Philadelphia
Henry Dawkins/
In Henry Dawkins' The Paxton Expedition, the tense standoff is emphasized by the discipline and orderliness exhibited by the militia that was quickly organized to halt the Paxtonian advance into the city of Phildelphia.

As a result, Philadelphia overtook Boston in number of items published annually. Soon after, impressions taken from the Paxton Boys incident manifested themselves in almost every conceivable medium: songs, plays, essays, mock epitaphs, parodied speeches and prayers, caricatures, and satirical drawings. The Paxton Boys themselves were not writers; if their weapons had been pens and not hatchets, the fate of the Conestogas might have been different. What soon became obvious, however, was that the Paxton Boys had political allies all throughout the colony who had previously been mute. By bringing the issue of treatment of Indians to the forefront of politics in Pennsylvania, the Paxton Boys catalyzed a conversation between two parties that had remained in silent opposition for decades. By 1765, it seemed that a sizable portion of Pennsylvania’s voters were listening: for the first time, Presbyterian leaders held 11 of the 36 seats in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. And although Indian diplomacy soon lost the spotlight to literature focusing on the Revolution, variations of the issue carried on throughout the revolution and into the 19th century.

Sadly, there is not much left by which to remember the Conestoga Indians. With no written records and no living descendents, the history of the natives’ culture becomes blurrier with each passing year. A plaque commemorating the passing of the Conestogas rests at the site of the old jailhouse, which has long since been torn down and replaced by an opera house. Money for the plaque was raised by Jesse Nighthawk, a Cherokee from Oklahoma. The plaque’s inscription was written by Johnny Tiger Jr., a Seminole. And while people from all cultures attended the memorial service accompanying the plaque’s unveiling, there was no one who could tell the story of the Conestogas from their perspective.

Shock waves from the actions of the Paxton Boys, however, are still obvious today. As historian Kevin Kenny wrote in his book, Peaceable Kingdom Lost, “William Penn’s Peaceable Kingdom disintegrated over the course of the eighteenth century under the pressure of colonial expansion.” The murders carried out by the Paxton Boys were critical to the erosion of those principles. The unfortunate outcome of the shift away from Quaker pacifist ideals is that very little of Native American heritage remains today. Even so, it becomes all the more necessary for tragedies such as the Conestoga Massacre to be studied and to remain in the public consciousness. Although the Peaceable Kingdom was never fully realized as Penn intended, the dream itself is very much a part of our heritage as Pennsylvanians. And that is something we must never forget.


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  • Cavaioli, Frank J. “A Profile of the Paxton Boys: Murderers of the Conestoga Indians.” Lancaster County History Society Journal 87. (1983): 74-96.
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  • Olson, Alison. “The Pamphlet War over the Paxton Boys.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 123:1/2 (1999): 31-55.
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