American Carnage in Penn’s Woods: A Historical Parable


The Paxton Expedition, Henry Dawkins, 1764

by Ed Simon

This essay originally appeared in Red State Blues, edited by Martha Bayne and released by Belt Publishing.


Were they not suspected of hostile designs? Had they not already committed some mischief? Some passenger, perhaps, had been attacked, or fire had been set to some house? On which side of the river had their steps been observed or any devastation been committed? Above the ford or below it? At what distance from the river?
—Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (1799)

He sees where blows with Rifle-Butts miss’d their marks, and chipp’d the Walls. He sees blood in Corners never cleans’d. Thankful he is no longer a Child, else might he curse and weep, scattering his Anger to no Effect… What in the Holy Names are these people about? … Is it something in this Wilderness, something ancient, that waited for them, and infected their Souls when they came?
—Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (1997)

Pennsylvania’s frontier in the decade after both the Seven Years War and Pontiac’s fearsome Indian rebellion was a paranoid place. In the 1760s, Pennsylvania was not yet even a century old, but the settlers had feared the howling wilderness since they laid the first red brick of Philadelphia. As it was in New England and Virginia, here in the middle colonies fear of not just nature but the Indian Other would be the birthright of these new Americans. King Charles II—that drunken, womanizing, dandyish monarch—granted a proprietary charter for the colony to that stolid, sober Quaker William Penn, in recognition of naval service that the latter’s father had performed in the 1650s, which resulted in Great Britain acquiring Jamaica.

Penn was on fire with that Inner Light of the Society of Friends, and he believed in Christ’s prophecy that swords would be beat into ploughshares, and though Penn took the injunction that “Though Shalt Not Murder” as absolute decree of the Lord, yet his new experiment in utopianism on the shores of the Schuylkill and Susquehanna is intimately tied to the blood-soaked success of his father on those warm Caribbean sands. After all, “Pennsylvania” was named by the King after the father, not the son, as many have assumed.

Though the colony was generously defined by an incredible diversity in religion, ethnicity, and language, there were also deep fissures that developed in the decades after Penn’s death. Tensions between white and Indian, English and Scots-Irish, Quaker and Presbyterian, east and west, and as always (and still) between urban and rural. For in what would be the largest private land owning in human history, this combustible combination would alight in terrifying, unprovoked violence one winter day in 1763, when innocent blood stained new snow red.

Right as dawn broke on December 14, a crisp, clear winter morning when winters were still cold, a masked group of vigilantes snuck into a Conestoga Indian village not far from where Millersville is today and killed six Susquehannock men, women, and children as they lay sleeping. The militia – prefiguring the posses that would later define America’s violent history – was composed mostly of settlers with Scots-Irish background from the borderlands on the western frontier of Pennsylvania. The Conestoga Indians they attacked hadn’t just laid down their arms; they had never picked them up to begin with. For if the shivering settlers at Fort Pitt had feared Chief Pontiac arriving from the west to cut their throats while they slept (and in turn decided to ameliorate their fears by inventing biological warfare, as the forks of the Ohio was the first place where smallpox blankets would be distributed amongst the natives), these murdered Conestoga at Millersville were good Christians who posed no threat to the men who killed them.

The theoretician of this murderous crew – who heard Iroquois war cries in their nightmares even when the Iroquoian spoken in Millersville was more often than not offered up in Christian prayer – was a minister named John Elder. Charmingly referred to as the “Fighting Pastor,” as if he were the mascot of some sleepy Christian liberal arts college’s football team, Elder was in reality by every definition of the word a genocidal war criminal guilty of ethnic cleansing. Elder preached his sermons in a town called Paxtang, and from a bastardized, Anglicized pronunciation of that place-name his gang would come to be called the Paxton Boys. In those frosty years after the French and Indian War, the Paxton Boys marauded through the backcountry, massacring innocent Indians and murdering those they viewed as white race traitors. Settlers on the western frontier had suffered mightily during that war, and they sometimes did not receive the resources or assistance that they could have from the colonial government. But the Paxton Boys departed from mere martial logic and embraced the totalizing reasoning that justifies genocide.

As historian Fred Andersen writes, “The message of all these losses, for the colonists, could be reduced to the syllogism that lay behind the Paxton Boys’ plan… if good Indians did not harm white people, then the best Indians must be those who could do no harm, for all eternity.” Something occult had indeed developed in the backcountry. Surprise in Philadelphia can only be accounted to their not paying attention, and their not understanding their own relationship to men like the Paxton Boys, who would soon turn and threaten the city as well. As the violence spread, Rev. Elder refused to identify which of his congregants had blood on their hands from cut Indian throats or who had scalps affixed to their belts as if they were animal pelts. For that the minister was relieved of his manse by the Presbyterian Church, who didn’t countenance the mutilation of praying Indians.

In the wake of the Conestoga massacre, Governor John Penn offered a reward for the capture of the Paxton Boys and ordered that the surviving Susquehannock be placed in protective custody at a prison in Lancaster. On December 24, Elder’s clan broke into the prison, and there they murdered and then mutilated the remaining Indians who had seen their friends and families killed by these same men only ten days before. Six adults and eight children were killed on Christmas Eve. Jesus may have loved the little children, but his minister broached no such affection, for an Indian infant was still first and foremost an Indian.

Participants in the lynching were never identified, but as one witness to their attack, William Henry, recorded, the posse of some two dozen were “well mounted on horses, and with rifles, tomahawks, and scalping knives, equipped for murder.” After the Paxton Boys had departed from their crime, Henry was able to take stock of the hideous scene. He came upon the corpse of Will Sock, beloved among whites and natives alike, “on account of his placid and friendly conduct.” Next to the old Indian and his wife were two children “of about the age of three years, whose heads were split with the tomahawk, and their scalps all taken off.” He saw the corpse of a man, “shot in the breast,” whose legs and hands were chopped off, and who was finally shot in the mouth with a rifle, “so that his head was blown to atoms, and his brains were splashed against, and yet hanging to the wall, for three or four feet around.” There had been peace with the Indians for a decade, and these Susquehannock, who lived among the men and women of Lancaster in a spirit of mutual affection, had endured their illusory protection in that prison cell by singing psalms and reading their Bibles. And yet the Paxton Boys – and the demagogue who had inspired them – indulged in this orgy of supposedly preemptive violence to protect the safety of the white settlers on the western horizon.

Elder responded to the latest atrocity by washing his hands of it. The minister saw the tomahawking of a friendly old man, the scalping of toddlers, and the decapitation of an innocent Indian not as his fault, even if he’d been preaching a scripture of cleansing atrocity for months now. Rather, it was the fault of those elite city-dwellers off in distant Philadelphia, those rootless cosmopolitans who didn’t understand the reality of life in the backcountry. He wrote to the governor that “Had Government removed the Indians, which had been frequently, but without effect, urged, this painful catastrophe might have been avoided.”

Elder implored, “What could I do with men heated to madness? All that I could do was done.” Furthermore, the Philadelphians didn’t understand that the Paxton Boys aren’t violent men, for “in private life they are virtuous and respectable; not cruel, but mild and merciful.” Though the massacre was “the blackest of crimes,” Elder justified the tomahawking of children as simply one of those “ebullitions of wrath, caused by momentary excitement.” Really, Elder informed Penn, you had to kind of be there to get it.

The Paxton Boys took aim not just at the Indians but at their fellow white colonists as well. Literary scholar Scott Paul Gordon explains that they reserved just as much opprobrium for who we might think of as “liberal” whites, writing that the “Paxton Boys targeted whites, English Quakers and German Moravians, when they believed that these groups, too, jeopardized the security of the backcountry.” Elder had triggered a culture war. Educated, worldly, sophisticated inhabitants of a city like Philadelphia, used to hearing not just English but German, and Swedish, and Dutch, and indeed the Algonquin and Lenape languages of the Indians, were horrified by the atrocities to the west. Shortly after the New Year, a popular pamphlet titled A Narrative of the Late Massacres, in Lancaster County was read from Walnut Street to Rittenhouse Square, in taverns and coffee shops and church yards. The writer, a revered printer named Benjamin Franklin, feared not the Indians, who had lived in peaceful coexistence with settlers since Penn’s original commission, but rather the “white savages from Peckstang and Donegal.” Placing their trust for protection with the “good” whites, the Indians found themselves slaughtered by the savage ones. The author’s lament is that the natives “would have been safer, if they had submitted to the Turks; for ever since Mahomet’s Reproof to Khaled, even the cruel Turks, never kill Prisoners in cold Blood.” Pennsylvania may be where the lamb was to lay down with the lion, a peaceable kingdom, but in Lancaster those “poor defenceless Creatures were immediately fired upon, stabbed and hatcheted to Death!”

These Paxton Boys fetishized their weapons and their masculinity and most of all their whiteness. They saw no compunction in putting innocent men, women, and children to the blade so as to preserve whatever they imagined and defined their sacred honor to be worth. They were “barbarous Men who committed the atrocious Fact…. Then mounted their Horses, huzza’d in Triumph, as if they had gained a Victory, and rode off – unmolested!” A Narrative of the Late Massacres was a furious document, which reminded its readers that “Wickedness cannot be covered, the Guilt will lie on the whole Land, till Justice is done on the Murderers. THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT WILL CRY TO HEAVEN FOR VENGEANCE.” If the Paxton Boys and their defenders were wrong about their fear of supposed, imminent Indian attack, then they were correct that the genteel inhabitants of Philadelphia were unaware that in the backcountry a malignancy was growing, not among the Indians but among the settlers, who increasingly festered in resentment against enemies imagined. And where there are enemies imagined, soon there will be enemies discovered (or invented). And then blood will be shed. The Paxton Boys had practiced on Indians, but Franklin feared that their rage would soon be turned against those whom the Paxtons believed protected the Indians. He turned out to be right. The Paxton Boys would soon march on Philadelphia.

Andersen explains that as “word spread that the vigilantes intended to kill all the Indians in Pennsylvania, their popularity and their numbers mounted fast.” By early February fully 500 had assembled to march upon the largest city in colonial America, threatening to massacre every Indian who had taken up sanctuary in Philadelphia. One of the Paxton Boys wrote “When we go there, we’ll be sure to bring back Quaker scalps.” Another claimed that after that, the Paxton Boys planned to range some seventy or so miles to the north, where “not one stone should remain upon another in Bethlehem,” as there were designs to murder both Indians and the Moravians whom the rebels saw as the former’s protectors. Gordon writes that the Paxton Boys targeted a “multiracial set of victims,” where the nativist fury of the mob could focus on not just Indians, but also “Quakers, and Moravians,” all of whom would collectively come to “define the frontiersmen’s category of ‘enemy.’” When the Paxton Boys came to Penn’s city, the potential list of victims in this planned pogrom was long.

The mob was met at Germantown by an assortment of government leaders, including Franklin, and armed guards. Franklin negotiated with the rebels for the safety of both the city and the Indians hiding within. An understanding was reached – the men would spare the second largest city in the British Empire, the largest metropolis in English-speaking America, in return for assurances that the Paxton Boys would never be charged, convicted, or punished for what they did to the innocent Indians of Lancaster.


America – one huge Indian burial ground. Pennsylvania is the story of America writ small. Historian Peter Silver explicates what he calls “the anti-Indian sublime,” the dominant mode of American culture, where what an “American” is must always be violently defined against some exoticized Other. From the Indian to the slave to the papist to the Muslim and the Mexican. We’re in part so fearful of the Other because we know precisely what it is that we did to the Indian—not just in Lancaster, but in the Pequod War of seventeenth-century New England, or the plains wars of the nineteenth-century—and we know our guilt. The very landscape heaves under the accumulated weight of so many ghostly corpses, where branches once dripped with human blood, and might yet again. Peter Silver recounts how a few years before the Paxton Boys crimes, a “raider named James Kenny passed up the Cumberland Valley from Maryland into Pennsylvania…  he found that many people thought the snow-covered landscape around them charged with the presence of the dead.” Silver also recounts how the New American Magazine of Woodbrige, New Jersey printed a poem in 1758 entitled “On the Late Defeat at Ticonderoga,” memorializing felled settlers from the French and Indian War. The poet, travels through fields of “empurpl’d bodies,” the fetid, stinking, decomposing mass of corpses, white and Indian alike, which fill the fields of western Pennsylvania. Finally the poet comes to the banks of the Monongahela River, to encounter “gore-moisten’d banks, the num’rous slain,/Spring up in vegetative life again:/While their wan ghosts, as night’s dark gloom prevails,/Murmur to whistling winds the mournful tale.”

A gothic story, no? But then the story of America’s settling has always been a gothic tale. That anonymous poet of 1758 might as well have written in prophecy, his visions are that of Ezekiel in the desert. And like Ezekiel’s dry bones, those water logged corpses in the Monongahela would surely rise and walk again, haunting and compelling us in that cycle we dare not escape from. The poet’s narrative of defeated pioneers hacked to death by some unseen barbaric force served only to instigate men like the Paxton Boys as the American frontier continued to stretch ever westward.

Our stories haunt us, even if we don’t specifically know or even quite remember the shape of their narrative. And yet, those corpses – Indian and white – can’t help but “Spring up in vegetative life,” just as surely as Ezekiel’s field of dry bones would stand “upon their feet, an exceeding great army.” The Paxton Boys remain an exceedingly great army. They march on Lancaster and Philadelphia still. Whatever their new names be, wherever the new Lancasters and Philadelphias are. Nor are we innocent, ensconced as we are, surrounded by the comforts of our diversity and our education. Just as the Quakers let those low church pioneers fortify that boundary between civilization and its discontents, so too have we turned a blind eye to the distasteful and uncouth Paxton Boys of our own era, who brutalize whomever they deem the Other of today.

Herman Melville wrote of a “metaphysics of Indian hating” which defined the American experiment: a rancorous, poisonous worldview that now and again infects the body politic. In America, the Indians were only the first of many to be hated, and there are always and forever new Indians. Perhaps an argument could be made that large gatherings of diverse people affect a certain herd immunity to the worst of that disease, but that’s a secondary observation, for the Paxton Boys can live in any city, any neighborhood. They can live next door to you, drink coffee at Starbucks, shop fair-trade at Whole Foods, and hate you while they do it. The Paxton Boys wear khakis and drive nice cars. They part their hair. The Paxton Boys aren’t out there; there is no frontier, and there never has been. Only the vagaries and contradictions of the human heart. If you pay attention, you can meet the Paxton Boys even today, forever marching on the city, forever drawing closer. Too often we look the other way and let them scale the fortifications, where those whom we’ve promised to protect dwell. A promise of security for only so long. If the time comes, will you be willing to name every one of the Paxton Boys, or will you let them slink away, their victims not remembered, their crimes unnamed?

I never heard about the Paxton Boys until I went to get my PhD, but I still somehow knew the story. Not just because I’m a Pennsylvanian through and through, and am thus as privy to those ghosts as any other, but more importantly because I am an American, and that haunted gothic tale is all of our sinful inheritance whether we choose to collect or not. One could reduce an analysis of the contradictions of a place like Pennsylvania to that old joke about it being two big cities with Alabama in the middle, which I suppose is sociologically true, though equally accurate about all states and the country as a whole. Yet this parable should not be read as a reductionist allegory about urban versus rural, or town versus country, or liberal versus conservative. That some of that is in there, no doubt, would be accurate. But it’s not the whole story. Nor should it be read as being in the mode of the ever-popular white working class ethnography, where some coastal liberal makes condescending apologies on behalf of people with hateful beliefs by recourse to some misguided, sentimentalized class politics which is actually anything but. No, if anything this parable should make clear what’s incomplete about that particular genre, for those threatened and killed by the Paxton Boys were often working class, just as the good Rev. Elder was a distinguished, wealthy graduate of the University of Edinburgh. And as Gordon makes clear, the supreme irony is that many of the frontier Quakers and Moravians threatened by the Paxton Boys had previously been threatened by Indian attack during the Seven Years War.

What is most important to take from this parable is that there have been many Conestoga massacres. Being blind to those ensures that there will be many more in the future. While there are no Conestoga left to remember the names of those who died in December 1763, we remember those murdered in the hope that someday, somebody will remember us. And we pray that we can somehow exorcise the land of these ghosts, the hateful vigilantes and the tortured innocents alike.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, at his author website, and on Twitter @WithEdSimon