Paxton Boys’ Massacres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Growing tensions between Pennsylvania backcountry settlers and Native Americans resulted in the massacre of defenseless Susquehannocks. The massacres began a chain of events that resulted in Pennsylvania’s declaration of war against several Native American tribes.

Summary of Event

The French and Indian War (1754-1763) French and Indian War was a particularly difficult time for settlers in the Pennsylvania backcountry. By the early 1750’s, the harmony that had characterized the relationship between Native Americans and the colony since the time of Penn, William William Penn had ended. American Indian-American conflicts[American Indian American conflicts] American-American Indian conflicts[American American Indian conflicts] Led by the Six Nations Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy Iroquois Confederacy, various Pennsylvania tribes, encompassing numerous Native American villages throughout the region, fought to limit future European expansion onto ancestral lands. The struggle engendered much bloodshed and carnage on both sides. [kw]Paxton Boys’ Massacres (Dec. 14 and 27, 1763) [kw]Massacres, Paxton Boys’ (Dec. 14 and 27, 1763) [kw]Boys’ Massacres, Paxton (Dec. 14 and 27, 1763) Paxton Boys’ Massacres (1763)[Paxton Boys Massacres] American Indian-American conflicts[American Indian American conflicts] [g]American colonies;Dec. 14 and 27, 1763: Paxton Boys’ Massacres[1740] [c]Colonization;Dec. 14 and 27, 1763: Paxton Boys’ Massacres[1740] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 14 and 27, 1763: Paxton Boys’ Massacres[1740] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 14 and 27, 1763: Paxton Boys’ Massacres[1740] Elder, John Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin;Paxton Boys’ Massacres [p]Penn, John

During the war, the Pennsylvania Assembly, influenced by pacific Quakers Quakers, pursued a policy of negotiations rather than resorting to armed confrontation. Despite pleas from embattled backcountry residents for military assistance, provincial leaders steadfastly refused to organize or outfit an official militia. As a result, western residents were left to fend for themselves. By the 1760’s, the Quaker policy had produced some minimal results. Pennsylvania authorities were able to reestablish peaceful relations with a few villages. Cooperative tribes were promised land rights, commercial opportunities, and protection from their enemies. However, many villages questioned the sincerity of the offers and remained at war. This put backcountry residents in a particularly difficult situation. It was virtually impossible for them to differentiate between peaceful and hostile natives, a distinction that could become a matter of life or death. Therefore, many homesteaders chose simply to label all of the indigenous population as hostile until all had agreed to a peace.

On the morning of December 14, 1763, the tensions generated the first of two massacres. A band of approximately four dozen angry Pennsylvania backwoodsmen attacked an unsuspecting Conestoga village situated approximately 50 miles northwest of Lancaster. The village was inhabited by fewer than two dozen Susquehannocks Susquehannocks. A month earlier, in a petition to Governor John Penn, these same Susquehannocks had promised to maintain the peace that they claimed they had always honored. Nevertheless, the Pennsylvanians, who called themselves the Paxton Boys, complained that villagers were assisting and sheltering Native American warriors. Several of the warriors were believed to have murdered nearby settlers. In the assault, the Paxton Boys struck quickly, burning the village’s huts and killing three Susquehannock men, two women, and a child.

Panicked by the raid, fourteen Susquehannock survivors fled to the safety of provincial authorities in Lancaster. Upon their arrival, the refugees were placed under protective custody and held in the town jail. It was there that the Paxton Boys found them on December 27, and it was there that the backwoodsmen committed a second massacre. Enraged that local officials would shelter the natives, a force of about one hundred well-armed Paxton Boys rode up to the jailhouse. They burst into the building, seized the keeper, and then shot and tomahawked the defenseless Susquehannocks. A few minutes later, with their task accomplished, the backwoods raiders rode off to their homes, satisfied that they had taken an important step toward easing the Native American threat within the region.

News of the two attacks created a flurry of activity in Philadelphia. Governor Penn immediately issued a proclamation instructing western magistrates to apprehend those involved in the massacres. Colonial officials, fearing additional assaults, rounded up 125 friendly Native Americans, many of whom had converted to Moravianism, and brought them to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the colonial Assembly asked New York authorities to provide a sanctuary for the refugees. However, the New York governor denied the request. Instead, a regiment of British regulars was assigned to escort the “Moravian Indians” to a military barracks on a Delaware River island and to defend them against all potential assailants. The Assembly’s precautions were not popular in the backcountry. John Elder, a Presbyterian minister and militia colonel who was alleged to be the Paxton Boys’ organizer, warned that “the minds of the inhabitants are so exasperated against the Quakers” that western residents were ready to confront the Assembly and take matters into their own hands.

By late January, 1764, reports about an impending attack by the Paxton Boys swirled through Philadelphia. One letter to Governor Penn claimed that fifteen hundred well-armed backwoodsmen, a force three times larger than the British regiment guarding the Native Americans, were planning to march on the city and go door to door until they had found all the Native Americans in Philadelphia. The westerners intended to burn down the houses of those who resisted. The letter ended with a prediction that the backwoodsmen would fight to the death, if necessary.

The rumored march became a reality in early February. Although considerably smaller than most reports had forecast, a force of two hundred backwoods residents, comprising primarily Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from the lower Susquehanna River region, began a hike toward the provincial capital. Armed with muskets, tomahawks, and pistols, they announced that they were coming to Philadelphia to rectify the various abuses directed at them by the Assembly.

Intercepting the westerners at Germantown, five miles northwest of the city, Benjamin Franklin led a delegation appointed by the governor. Matthew Smith and James Gibson, two militia officers, presented Franklin with a petition that identified nine specific grievances. Surprisingly, the primary complaint had nothing to do with the colony’s Native American policy. Instead, the Paxton Boys protested that the four western counties had significantly less representation in the Assembly than did the three eastern counties. If this inequity were rectified, the backwoodsmen claimed that the other eight complaints, all of which dealt with policies concerning Native Americans, would be remedied.

While Franklin conferred, other Philadelphians prepared for an attack. Some local residents insisted that the force in Germantown was simply an advance unit of Paxton Boys and that hundreds more would soon arrive. To defend the city against the “Lawless Party of Rioters,” the Assembly swiftly enacted emergency legislation. Six companies, each with one hundred volunteers, were hastily organized. Cannon were pulled into defensive positions around the courthouse. Shops were closed. The roads and ferries leading into the city were blockaded. The British regiment guarding the Native American refugees was placed on alert.

Aided by the city’s impressive mobilization, Franklin’s deliberations proved fruitful. The westerners agreed that if their petition were promptly delivered to the governor and Assembly, they would return home. In a gesture aimed at compromise, the Philadelphia delegation announced that the Paxton Boys had been misunderstood and were, in fact, “a set of worthy men who laboured under great distress.” The delegation then accompanied about thirty backwoodsmen into the city. The following day, one of the visitors was permitted to inspect several Native Americans to determine whether they had been involved in recent attacks upon settlers. They had not. Several days later, the westerners’ petition was presented to the legislature.

Significance

In July, 1764, the Pennsylvania Assembly responded legislatively to the Paxton Boys’ demands. Pennsylvania formally declared war against the Lenni Lenapes Lenni Lenapes and Shawnees Shawnee tribes. A bounty for Native American scalps, another of the westerners’ demands, was enacted. Money also was appropriated for the creation of an official provincial militia, something the Quaker government had steadfastly refused to do, even during the French and Indian War. The colony’s search for the Paxton Boys involved in the two massacres had ended months earlier, with no arrests made.

Pennsylvania felt the impact of the Paxton Boys’ activities for years to come. Most important, the crisis initiated an ongoing dispute about fair and equitable representation for western counties. It was a contest in which political power eventually shifted away from Philadelphia Quakers and toward a diverse and democratic coalition of political leadership. Ultimately, the crisis surrounding the Paxton Boys’ massacres served as an initial step toward the political divisions that generated an independence movement within the colony.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franz, George W. Paxton: A Study of Community Structure and Mobility in the Colonial Pennsylvania Backcountry. New York: Garland, 1989. Focuses on the political and socioeconomic development of the Paxton community.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hindle, Brooke. “The March of the Paxton Boys.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 3 (October, 1946): 461-486. Still one of the best narrative accounts of the massacres.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobs, Wilbur R. The Paxton Riots and the Frontier Theory. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967. A brief booklet that includes many primary documents produced during the episode.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelley, Joseph J., Jr. Pennsylvania: The Colonial Years. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980. Includes a general description of the Paxton Boys episode.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merritt, Jane T. At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. An examination of the interactions between Native Americans and white settlers in eighteenth century Pennsylvania. Both groups initially were tolerant and cooperated with each other; but by the 1760’s, Indians and whites were divided by racial differences, resulting in the animosity and hatred that was evident in the Paxton Boys’ Massacres.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pencak, William A., and Daniel K. Richter, eds. Friends and Enemies in Penn’s Woods: Indians, Colonists, and the Racial Construction of Pennsylvania. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. Collection of essays describing how and why relations between colonial settlers and Native Americans degenerated between 1682 and the Paxton Boys’ Massacres in 1763.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Sally.“A Mixed Multitude”: The Struggle for Toleration in Colonial Pennsylvania. New York: New York University Press. 1987. A general history that describes the various tensions within colonial Pennsylvania and how the colony dealt with them.

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