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.

Pennsylvania History: The Final Exam!

PA Hall

The 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Hall, a meeting place for abolitionists

For the past decade I have been teaching a course on Pennsylvania History at Messiah College. The class meets several requirements.  Some history majors take it for a 300-level American history elective.  Other history majors take it as part of their concentration in public history.  Non-history majors take the course to fulfill their general education pluralism requirement.

I have to make this course work for all of these students.  For the public history students, we do a lot of work on the relationship between “history,” “heritage,” and “memory.”  We also feature some training in oral history. Each student is required to do an oral history project in which they interview and interpret someone who can shed light on a particular moment in Pennsylvania history.  As a pluralism course, Pennsylvania History must address questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and social class in some meaningful way.

This year, I split the class into four units:

After several tries, I think I have finally found a pedagogical formula that works.   The students take their two-hour final exam on Friday.  Here are the questions they are preparing:

In preparation for the exam, please prepare an answer to one of the following questions:


In each of our four units this semester, we spend considerable time talking about the idea of race and race relations in Pennsylvania History. How do issues related to race play out in the following periods and places in state history:

  • Early 19th-century Philadelphia
  • The Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s and 1760s.
  • The way the Civil War has been interpreted at Gettysburg
  • The City Beautiful movement in Harrisburg
We often use the past to advance particular agendas in the present. Consider this
statement in the following contexts:
  • The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia (1876)
  • The Paxton Boys Riots
  • Gettysburg as a “sacred” site
  • The portrayal of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward by reformers affiliated with the City Beautiful movement.

Good luck! Or as I like to say to my Calvinist students: “May God providential give you the grade you deserve on this exam.”

Digital Paxton


William Fenton is the founder of Digital Paxton, a critical edition of the pamphlets and documents related to the December 1763 massacre of  20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Over at the blog of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Fenton writes about some new additions to the site.  Here is a taste:

Over the past 18 months, Digital Paxton has grown to accommodate artworks and engravings from the Library of Congress and Philadelphia Museum of Art and letters, diaries, and other manuscript materials from the American Philosophical Society, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections, and Moravian Archives of Bethlehem. With each new partnership, the project has grown more diverse in its materials and expansive in its scope, furnishing students and scholars with the resources they need to locate the 1764 Paxton pamphlet war in a longer crisis of colonial governance that emerges during the Seven Years’ War and extends through the American Revolution.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with Patrick Spero

frontiercountryPatrick Spero is the Librarian and Director of the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia. This interview is based on his new book, Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Frontier Country?

PS: Frontier Country began with my fascination with the Paxton Boys’ Rebellion. The conflict began in December 1763, when a group of frontiersmen massacred the Conestoga Indians in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  A larger group of colonists from the frontier counties of Lancaster, York, and Cumberland then marched to Philadelphia in what was likely the largest political mobilization in colonial Pennsylvania’s history.  I wanted to know what led these men to commit this heinous act and to figure out what the larger significance of the event was for the coming of the American Revolution.  As I dug deeper into archives, I soon discovered a number of important related events, like a border war between Maryland and Pennsylvania, that preceded this event, and began to see how the legacies of this earlier history shaped the Paxton Boys’ movement and how these events also helped inform the coming of the American Revolution.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Frontier Country?

PS: Frontier Country argues that the imperial crisis on Pennsylvania’s frontier, which was marked by rebellions, open violence, and apparent anarchy, only makes sense if you understand the profound political disagreement that was happening between self-described “frontier people” and those who governed them over the location of frontiers and the government’s responsibility to such zones.  To fully understand the coming of the American Revolution in western Pennsylvania, I suggest we must understand what frontier meant to colonists and governing officials living in early America.

JF: Why do we need to read Frontier Country?

PS: Frontier Country tells some remarkable and largely unknown stories that, together, I hope tells a history of colonial and revolutionary Pennsylvania that will seem new to historians and Pennsylvania history enthusiasts.  For instance, the book includes a chapter on a war Pennsylvania fought with Maryland in the 1730s and a chapter on the wars the colony later fought with Virginia and Connecticut.  These episodes have often been studied on their own, but I hope by putting them together in a single history, colonial Pennsylvania itself will look very different.  I like to say it is a history of Pennsylvania as told from the perspective of the west.  By doing so, we can have a greater understanding of the politics in Pennsylvania, especially the way in which the interplay between western settlers, eastern elites, and Native Americans created a dynamic and explosive situation in the 1760s and 1770s in the Middle Colonies.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PS: I discovered what I wanted to do as an undergraduate at James Madison University.  I always liked history.  I remember reading the Diary of James Cook as, I think, a fifth grader for a book report.  But it was in a research seminar at JMU that being a historian, rather than a student of history, really clicked.  In that course, I was given the freedom to find a topic to write a paper on, to use primary sources to come to my own conclusions, and then use these sources to make an argument all my own.  It was an extraordinarily liberating experience – to research and write on my own and to try to say something new about the past that other people could read and respond to. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to figure out a way to keep doing it.  Reading primary sources and giving them meaning, which is what I consider is the work of a historian, remains one of the most exciting things to do.

JF: What is your next project?

PS: I have just completed a manuscript tentatively titled 1765: The Struggle for Independence on the American Frontier which builds on my first book by focusing on the Black Boys Rebellion, which was a frontier rebellion in 1765 that is relatively understudied, and the figures that collided during this event.  The Black Boys, so called because of the charcoal frontiersmen used to hide their identity, destroyed a pack train of goods intended for a peace treaty with Native groups who had been at war with Great Britain.  They then laid siege to a British fort and created an inspection regime that searched all travelers in the area.  Meanwhile, imperial officials were desperately trying to squash the rebellion and establish peace with Native groups.  It is a very dramatic event that, as I hope to show, reveals a great deal about the origins of the American Revolution on the frontier.  I could only use a small amount of the material I came across on the Black Boys in my first book.  I hope this second project will be a “popular” book, which is to say shorter than my first book and potentially of use to undergraduates in their courses and of interest to educated but casual readers of history.

JF: Thanks, Patrick!

Sunday Morning at Derry Presbyterian Church

Presbyterians established a congregation at Derry, Pennsylvania (present day Hershey) in 1724.  The congregation is celebrating its 290th birthday this year and gearing up for a gala 300th anniversary celebration in 2024.  Yesterday, as part of the 290th anniversary festivities, I was invited to give a lecture on the links between Presbyterianism and the Conestoga Massacre of December 1763.  Much of the lecture drew from research I had done for talk I gave in December 2013 at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies Paxton Boys/Conestoga Massacre conference, although I spent much more time at Derry discussing the local history of the Derry Presbyterian Church, the Paxton Presbyterian Church, and their two 18th century clergymen–John Roan and John Elder.  (Once again, I apologize to those in attendance for constantly referring to Roan as “Doan”).

After the lecture I took a tour of the church facilities with Jack Henderson and Megan Talley of the church heritage committee.  I had met Jack at the Paxton conference, but it was especially good to see Megan, a former Messiah College history major.  Megan is working as an administrative and programming coordinator at the M.S. Hershey Foundation.  According to her LinkedIn page, she organizes tours and travel groups who want to visit Hershey Gardens, handles ticket ordering for special events, educates children on field trips “about plants, bufferflies, and Pennsylvania history,” and coordinates the Hershey Gardens volunteer program.  It was great to learn how Megan is putting her history major to good use.
Thanks to Debbie Hough, minister of Christian education, for inviting me back to Derry.
Here are a few pics:
18th-century Derry Presbyterian Church graveyard in the shadow of the Hershey smokestacks  A striking contrast
The Derry Presbyterian Church “Session House” (18th century).  The protective display house was commissioned by Milton Hershey

Pennsylvania Presbyterians and the American Revolution at Geneva College

Last night I had a great time giving a public lecture at Geneva College on some of my work related to Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  I am guessing that about fifty or so students and faculty came out to John White Chapel on the Geneva campus to learn more about the relationship between Presbyterians, the Paxton Boys, and the American Revolution.  Thanks to Geneva College history professor Greg Jones for inviting me, introducing me, and organizing the lecture.  He has been a great host.

I spoke about the way in which Pennsylvania Presbyterians used the tragic events of the Conestoga Massacre to gain political power in the Pennsylvania assembly and eventually lead the colony into the American Revolution.  Since Geneva College is a Presbyterian college (Reformed Presbyterian) I got some great excellent questions from the audience, some of which I have never fielded before.  The questions surrounded the relationship between Presbyterian post-millennial theology and Enlightenment progress, the connections between the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Presbyterian involvement in the Revolution, and the role that the legacy of the English Civil War played in the so-called “Presbyterian Rebellion.”  One of the questions was asked by the president of Geneva College.  College presidents rarely show up for my lectures!

I came away from the lecture convinced that I need to talk more with Presbyterian church historians and historical theologians about this project.

Today I will be teaching Greg Jones’s class on Colonial America and Historical Thinking.  It should be fun.

Weekend in Gettysburg and Lancaster

I started off the weekend in Gettysburg where I visited the brand new (July 2013) Seminary Ridge Museum.  This is a must stop the next time you are in Gettysburg.  The museum, which is located on the campus of the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, is housed in a building that played a pivotal role on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and served as a hospital in the months following the battle.  The museum has three floors, covering the first day of the battle, the care of the wounded in the Seminary hospital, and the role of religion and slavery in antebellum America.  I am currently writing a more extensive review of this museum.  Stay tuned.

Seminary Ridge Museum
Has nothing to do with the Battle of Gettysburg, but I couldn’t pass this pic up.  It is a Lutheran seminary after all

General John Buford’s View from the cupola on the morning of July, 1, 1863

A better view from the cupola

On Saturday I was in Lancaster, PA.  My daughter was playing in the MLK Kickoff Classic, one of the largest volleyball events on the East coast.  During breaks from the games, while Allyson bonded with her teammates, I wandered around historic Lancaster.  Last December I participated in a conference on the Conestoga Indian massacre of 1763, but I did not get a chance to make it to the Fulton Opera House, the site of the jail in which the Paxton Boys killed several Indians who were being kept there under the protection of the government.  Here are few pics I snapped at the site:

Site of the second phase of the Conestoga Massacre–December 1763

On Monday, we were still playing volleyball.  Our site was moved to Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology in Lancaster.  Not much early American history here (the school was founded in 1905), but there was a cool statue of Thaddeus Stevens.

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.

Conestoga Massacre and Paxton Boys Conference

Here is the information:

The “Paxton Boys” and the Conestoga Massacre: 250 Years Later
13-14 December 2013
Lancaster, PA

December 14, 2013 will mark the 250th anniversary of the Conestoga Massacre, a horrific landmark in the history of Pennsylvania and colonial North America. In lieu of a Friday Seminar, the McNeil Center will travel to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the anniversary with a two-day mini-conference entitled “The ‘Paxton Boys’ and the Conestoga Massacre: 250 Years Later.”

The conference, which will begin at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, December 13 and conclude at 4:00 p.m on Saturday, December 14, will feature a combination of public programs and scholarly reconsiderations. Papers for two of the sessions will be precirculated. Among the presenters will  be John Smolenski, Angel-Luke O’Donnell, Judith Ridner, Jack Brubaker,  Daniel Richter, Peter Silver, Richard MacMaster, Scott Paul Gordon, John Fea, Barry Levy, and Leslie Stainton. Members of Circle Legacy Center, an American Indian advocacy organization, will also be an important  contributor to the proceedings. Sessions will be held at the Hans Herr House Museum,, and the Ware Center of Millersville University. All are free and open to the public, but registration is required.

For more information, or to register for the conference, please visit:

Paxton Paper Abstract

Here it is.

Though we would be hard pressed to claim that the Paxton Boys massacre of the Conestoga Indians in December 1763 was motivated or caused by Presbyterian Christianity, the riots, the pamphlet war, and the subsequent political struggle in colonial Pennsylvania was a “Presbyterian event.”  This paper argues that the Paxton affair was one of many moments between the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution that promoted Presbyterian unity, strength, and cultural engagement in the colonial mid-Atlantic and made the church the most important cultural institution in the region.

Off to Chattanooga!

The Paxton Boys and Presbyterianism

Philadelphia prepares for the Paxton Boys

I do not teach on Thursdays so I am trying to finish up a paper for next month’s conference on the 250th anniversary of the Conestoga Massacre and the Paxton Boys.  I will be presenting a paper as part of a panel devoted to the religious aspects of the event.  It is titled “The Paxton Riots as a Presbyterian Event.” The sponsor of the conference, The McNeil Center for Early American Studies, has not put the conference program online yet, but most of it will be held at the Lancaster (PA) Historical Society (now apparently known as on December 13-14.  The presenters will be Daniel Richter, John Smolenski, Judith Ridner, Patrick Spero, Jack Brubaker, Peter Silver, Barry Levy, Angel-Luke O’Donnell, Richard McMaster, Scott Paul Gordon, Leslie Stanton, and Rick Gray.  It also appears that there will be a dedication of a Conestoga Massacre historical marker on Saturday afternoon.

I am trying to churn out my paper so that it can be pre-circulated to the registered conference attendees.  It explores some of the ways we can, and cannot, interpret the Paxton Riots through a religious lens.  The paper will be built on some of the pamphlets produced in the wake of the massacre (with particular focus on Isaac Hunt’s A Looking Glass for Presbyterians), Presbyterian ecclesiastical developments in the 1750s and 1760s, and the political implications of the massacre on Presbyterian politics in Pennsylvania.  Since I want to have a Paxton Boys chapter in my ongoing project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution, I am hoping that this will be a good place to try out some of my ideas and learn from the scholars and audience members in attendance.

Stay tuned and keep the coffee flowing.

In Search of John Elder

My summer of research got underway this week with two afternoons at the Dauphin County Historical Society in Harrisburg, PA.  Along with my research assistants Megan and Brianna, I am spending the next few months exploring the relationship between Presbyterians and the American Revolution for my current research project.

This week we examined the papers of Rev. John Elder, a Presbyterian minister who was probably one of the ring-leaders of the so-called Paxton Boys, a group of Scots-Irish Presbyterians who, in December 1763, massacred twenty Conestoga Indians in Lancaster County, PA.

Megan and Brianna are reading and transcribing select Elder letters written in the years surrounding the massacre and I was trying to make sense of Elder’s prayer and sermon books.  In addition to the Elder stuff, I found a few useful documents in the papers of Rev. John Roan, the minister of the Derry Presbyterian Church in what today is Hershey, PA.

We are off to a good start.  I will try to use the blog to keep you up to date on our progress.  Also stay tuned for the next edition of the Virtual Office Hours, which will be devoted to our research experience at the Dauphin County Historical Society and will feature me standing alongside Front Street in Harrisburg facing down rush-hour traffic and yelling into the camera.

Here are a few pics:

Megan trying to make sense of an Elder letter

Brianna intently reading one of Elder’s letters from the 1760s
Manuscript Collection 070
Elder to Joseph Shippen, 1 Sept., 1763

Project Reading

Here are my continued thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I recently reread Kevin Kenny’s Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment.  It is a wonderful introduction to the Paxton Boys story and I highly recommend it.  While Peter Silver interprets the Paxton saga through the lens of race, and Patrick Griffin interprets it through the lens of British liberties, Kenny argues that the Paxton Boys were motivated largely by a desire for land, personal security, and vengeance.  As he writes on p. 231: “Their concerns remained, as ever, resolutely local.”

Kenny spends more time than Griffin and Silver exploring the Paxton Riots in the context of Presbyterianism, but religion is not his primary interpretive lens.  After reading Peaceable Kingdom Lost I think I can put together a pretty good narrative chapter on the riots as a Presbyterian event so I decided to submit a proposal to this conference.  I typed it up in a hotel room in Indiana, PA the night before one of my daughter’s volleyball tournaments and submitted it with an hour to spare before February 1 (the deadline for submissions) came to an end.  (The next morning my daughter told me she was mad at me for not getting this done sooner as she needed her rest for the tournament.  I felt much better after they won the tournament!). 

I am still trying to figure out how and if to explain the Paxton Riots in the context of the American Revolution.  Contrary to many nineteenth and twentieth-century historians, Kenny makes it clear that the Paxton Boys were not harbingers of the American Revolution in the sense that they fought for “liberty and equality for all.”  While they fought against propriety privilege in colonial Pennsylvania, they were more concerned with self and local interests.

For Kenny, the Paxton Boys were harbingers of the American Revolution in the sense that their harsh treatment of native Americans reached “fruition during the American Revolution, when exterminating the Indians became an act of patriotism.”

From reading Silver, Griffin, and Kenny I have collected a nice list of primary sources that I need to read.  I am putting together a comprehensive list of Paxton-related pamphlets and will soon be making the ten mile trip to the Dauphin County Historical Society to read the papers of John Elder.

Stay tuned.

Project Reading

Here are my continued thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I want to continue with my thoughts on Patrick Griffin, The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764.

Griffin offers a slightly different interpretation of the Paxton Riots than Peter Silver does in Our Savage Neighbors. As I discussed in a previous post in this series, Silver’s interpretation of the riots is focused almost entirely on race.  Griffin, while not ignoring that race was a factor, interprets the riots through British rights language.  In other words, the Paxton Boys believed that they had legitimate grievances against the Pennsylvania Assembly. They did not feel that they were being represented by the provincial government and thought that the government was not doing enough to deal with the Indian problem on the frontier in the wake of Pontiac’s Rebellion.  The riots were a manifestation of their fight for the rights afforded to all British subjects. Griffin writes:

But the [Indian] wars had revealed as never before their [Scots-Irish] marginal status in Pennsylvania and their impotent voice in an empire that they believed they had a significant hand in fashioning and defending.  

And this:

…for these people holed up in small forts in times of dangers on a bleeding frontier or fleeing east from dispossessed Indians, British liberty took on new, troubling meanings.  Britishness underscored a right to life and property, a liberty that negligent government officials alienated at their own peril.  For frontier settlers, however, the unifying logic of such concepts could also justify the slaughter of Indians both hostile and friendly.

Griffin’s book has me more optimistic about the possibility of a religious (Presbyterian) interpretation of the Paxton riots.

Project Reading

Here are my continuing thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I just finished re-reading Peter Silver’s award winning Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America.  It is an excellent book, certainly worthy of the 2008 Bancroft Prize.  Silver argues that the diverse population groups of the Middle Colonies solidified into a single people during the Seven Years War when they began to define themselves as white people over and against the native American populations on the frontier.

I was particularly interested in Silver’s treatment of the Paxton Riots and the pamphlet wars that came in their wake.  He does not give much credence to the idea that the rioters were motivated by religion, but he does not ignore the fact that many of the rioter’s opponents believed that Presbyterian faith had something to do with their violent behavior toward the Conestoga Indians.

Silver writes:

…besides being European savages, they were also certainly “aw Presbyterians,” who had stupidly understood what they did as “fetching the Lord’s Battles” against Old Testament enemies.  It became a truism that the killers had seen themselves as the predestined elect and their victims–real and potential, Indian or European–as heathens.  The idea had no detectable documentary basis, but contemporaries felt strongly that it made sense….

Silver may be correct when he writes that there is “no detectable documentary basis” for believing that the riots were religiously or theologically motivated, but he fails to say much in this section about John Elder, the Presbyterian minister who may have organized the rioters (probably because we do not know much about him). I need to dig deeper on this front.

After reading Silver’s book I am beginning to think that a religious interpretation of the Paxton Riots may be more difficult than I originally thought it would be.  If I remember correctly, Kevin Kenny’s Peaceable Kingdom Lost: the Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment may have more to say on the matter.  Patrick Griffin’s The People With No Name is also in the queue.  Whatever the case, I have decided against writing a proposal for this conference, but there is a good chance that my mind will change in the next few days.

Silver’s book also reminded me just how much the Presbyterian interest in Pennsylvania was driven by anti-Quakerism.  I am still trying to sort out if this was a religious anti-Quakerism or a political anti-Quakerism.  Probably a little bit of both.

Stay tuned.

Paxton Boys Conference

This looks good.  I am working on some stuff on Presbyterianism and the Paxton Boys, but I am not sure it will be “good to go” in time for this conference.  Having said that, I do hope to attend.

The “Paxton Boys” and the Conestoga Massacre 250 Years Later

December 13-14, 2013, Lancaster, PA

Paper proposals are invited for a mini-conference commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Conestoga Massacre, to be held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, December 13-14, 2013. Co-sponsored by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and, the conference will provide a scholarly component for a broader program of public events at the newly renovated and expanded Lancaster Campus of History at the Lancaster County Historical Society and at related sites in the city of Lancaster.

The conference organizers seek proposals for papers of approximately 15 pages in length from scholars whose work explores the causes, immediate consequences, and long-term legacy of the events of December 1763. We are particularly interested in papers that focus on the Conestoga  Indians, local Lancaster history, Native American relations with Pennsylvania, and the broader political implications of the massacre. Interdisciplinary work from historical, archaeological, and literary perspectives is particularly welcome.

Please submit proposals of approximately 500 words, along with curriculum vitae, to no later than Friday,February 1, 2013. Accepted panelists will be notified by March 15. Papers will be due for pre-circulation no later than November 1, 2013. Some support for participants’ travel and lodging will be available.