Retelling the Conestoga Massacre with Native Voices

Ghost River

I was in graduate school during the heyday of the so-called New Indian History.  Historians were rewriting native American history, and American history more broadly, from the perspectives of Indians, not Europeans.  I still assign James Merrell’s 1984 article  “The Indians’ New World: The Catawba Experience” in my U.S. History survey course.  It is hard to find a better piece to reorient how first-year college students think about the way European colonization changed Native American life in North America.  In my colonial America course, I have made good use of Dan Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country.

Last year when I reworked my Pennsylvania History course I decided to include a unit on the Conestoga Massacre and its aftermath.  I assigned Kevin Kenny’s excellent book Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment.  This book tells the story of the December 14, 1763 murder of six Conestoga Indians from the perspective of the Scots-Irish frontier-dwellers known as the Paxton Boys. But how did the Conestoga experience this massacre?  I am not sure we can answer this question, but a new graphic novel has tried to imagine what it must have been like.  The title is Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga. Here is a taste of an interview with author Lee Francis and artist Weshoyot Alvitre at the NPR website:

This project was supported by the Library Company, one of the oldest libraries in the country. We know who has historically had access to certain kinds of records and histories, so how did you approach collaborating with this institution?

Francis: Too often we’re brought in at the end of projects to greenlight things. Like, “Hey, I’ve got some Native characters and we just want to make sure everything’s OK.” And sometimes it’s not OK. Sometimes it is OK. But the not OK usually is like, “Hey, there’s some things we need to change, some things you need to work on. And that tends to ruffle some feathers. And at the end of the project, we can’t really make a lot of changes. So Will [Fenton] wanting to draw us in at the beginning of the project and have myself and Weshoyot and, you know, Native writers, Native illustrators, Native publisher all the way across the board, was something that was refreshing for me.

Alvitre: From the very first field trips we went on, the very first meeting we had with the Library Company, [Will] introduced us to the building and the archive material. Some of his employees up in the print archive documents center pulled a selection of all the original cartoons that we were referencing from Day 1. So we got to see these old, archival, historical political cartoons, and we could literally touch them in the papers. And just to lay that out for us in such a respectful way, and it’s not something that you get often.

Read the entire piece here.

Learn more about Ghost River (including an exhibit at the Library Company of Philadelphia) here.