Paxton Boys/Conestoga Massacre Conference Wrap-Up

Philadelphia awaits the arrival of the Paxton Boys

If you have been reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend, you know that I spent parts of Friday and Saturday in Lancaster, Pennsylvania at the McNeil Center mini-conference to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the massacre of 20 Conestoga Indians by a group of men known as the Paxton Boys.  You can catch up with the tweets at #paxtonconf

First, let me give a shout-out to the primary host of the conference. is the product of a merger between two historical organizations in Lancaster: The Lancaster Historical Society and the James Buchanan Foundation for the Preservation of Wheatland.  This seems like a very unique venture. has obviously taken the name of a web domain and thus has a significant online presence, but the organization is housed in a new and very impressive building with a lecture hall, exhibits, a museum store, and a research library.

The conference actually began at the Hans Herr House in nearby Willow Street, PA.  The Hans Herr House dates back to 1719. It is the oldest house in Lancaster County and the oldest original Mennonite meeting house still standing in the Western Hemisphere.  But more importantly for the purposes of the conference, the property is the home of a replica Native American longhouse.  The conference began with scholars and the general public gathering together in the longhouse to learn more about native American culture and dwelling places. Several members of the Circle Legacy Center in Lancaster and other members of the local native American community spoke to the audience from a stump in the middle of the longhouse.  It was good to share the weekend with these local native Americans.  They provided a necessary moral perspective on the murders that took place in December 1763 and they did not hesitate to let their voices be heard during the sessions.  This made the conference more than just a run of the mill scholarly event.

As a newcomer to the study of the Conestoga Massacre and the Paxton Boys, I learned a great deal at this conference.  In the first session, I was quite taken by Judith Rider’s (Mississippi State) paper on the material culture references in the pamphlet literature published in the wake of the Paxton riots.  For example, Ridner discussed how pro-Paxton writers used a reference to “The Looking Glass” to argue that the Pennsylvania Quakers, despite their claims to be plain, pious, and pacifist, were hypocrites. They refused to show mercy and love to the frontier settlers and were more than willing to take up arms to fight the Paxton Boys when it appeared that they would invade Philadelphia.

Late Friday afternoon there was a roundtable on the Paxton Boys that included Peter Silver, Dan Richter, and Jack Brubaker.  Silver discussed his Bancroft Prize-winning book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed America. In the process he expounded on the transition from his Yale dissertation to his prize-winning book.  According to Silver, the dissertation was about “fear,” but the book was about “hatred.”  He also noted that the Paxton Boys’ attacks on the Conestoga Indians mirrored what many European settlers imagined an Indian attack on whites might look like.  Brubaker, the author of Massacre of the Conestogas: On the Trail of the Paxton Boys in Lancaster County, gave a blow-by-blow account of the massacres and showed how the story of what happened in December 1763 got “fouled up” by nineteenth-century “historians” and other writers who fabricated evidence.  Richter reflected on the place of the Paxton Boys and Conestoga massacre in recent historiography.  Most of the scholarship in the past few decades has focused on race.  He lamented the fact that none of the presenters at this conference were dealing with the massacre from the perspective of the Indians.  He also insisted that the events of this tragedy must be understood as an extension of Pontiac’s War.

Despite the threat of snow, the Saturday morning session on religion went forth as planned.  In what I thought was the best paper of the conference, Scott Gordon of Lehigh University offered some minor changes to the traditional narrative of the Paxton Boys based on his reading and translation of Moravian diaries. These sources offer a “counter-weight” to a story dominated by Philadelphia and provincial politics. Gordon argued (among other things) that the Paxton Boys had less of a beef with the Quakers in Philadelphia than they did with Edward Shippen, the magistrate in Lancaster city.

My paper dealt with the Paxton Boys as a “Presbyterian event.”  I argued that it is impossible to interpret the massacres as being motivated by religion.  We just don’t know enough about the Paxton Boys or the mysterious Presbyterian minister at Paxton, Rev. John Elder, to make this case.  However, the Paxton Boys and their grievances were a catalyst for Presbyterian political organization in Pennsylvania and the role of clergy such as Francis Alison and Gilbert Tennent in this mobilization.  My paper attempted to merge the ecclesiastical history of Presbyterians with the political history of the so-called “Presbyterian interest” or “Presbyterian party” that emerged in Philadelphia in 1764.

Finally, Barry Levy, a historian at the University of Massachusetts who is best known for his book Quakers and the American Family: British Settlement in the Delaware Valleydiscussed the use of the Old Testament in the anti-Paxton pamphlets.  Levy argued that the Bible was important in this entire affair and made some connections between religion and the formation of militias.  My favorite line in Levy’s paper went something like this: “One could argue that the Paxton Boys were the worst militia group ever assembled.”

In good McNeil Center style, about an hour was reserved in each session for conversation and questions. Since most of the audience were members of the general public, the questions and comments were pretty much all over the place.  One audience member in the front row asked me to explain the “Great Awakening” to him.  (After saying it was “interpretive fiction” I went on to offer a quick explanation). Many of the members of the native American community voiced their outrage.  Some waxed eloquent in their knowledge of local Pennsylvania military history.  Others tried to portray the Scots-Irish as immigrants sent to America by force for the sole purpose of killing Indians.  (Barry Levy did not let this guy get away with such an interpretation). It only took a few minutes of discussion in the longhouse before someone said the United States Constitution was modeled after the Iroquois confederacy.  Yet, despite some of these errors, essentialist interpretations, and misconceptions, I think it is important that we have more conferences like this.  Scholars need to work harder in making their arguments accessible to general audiences.  Some of the presenters did this well.

In conclusion, here were a few of the questions/issues that seemed to dominate nearly every session:

  • Why are the identities of the Paxton Boys unknown?  Was this a massive cover-up?  
  • If the Paxton Boys were motivated by religion, we cannot prove it.  All of the religious explanations of the murders come from anti-Paxton writers like Ben Franklin.
  • If religion was not the issue, what motivated the Paxton Boys to do what they did?
  • As Dan Richter noted at one point during the weekend, this conference revealed just how much we don’t know about this event.
It was a great weekend.  I was also glad to get to hang out a bit with Drew Hermeling, a Messiah College history graduate (2006) who is now working on a Ph.D in early American history at Lehigh.

Drew asked a very insightful question during the religion session and also showed justified outrage (though not in public) about how my last name was consistently mispronounced.  I was also thrilled to see another former student, Wayne Kantz (2003), at the session on Saturday morning.  Wayne teaches history at Manheim Township High School in Lancaster County.  Finally, it was good to make a connection with Tom Ryan of and some members of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society

In the end, I left the conference inspired about the possibility of incorporating the Paxton Boys story into my ongoing research project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution. Stay tuned.

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