THE PAXTON BOYS
The massacre of 20 Susquehannock (Conestoga) indians in the winter of 1763 must be considered among the most unfortunate events in Pennsylvania history. As a moment of history, however, the story should be told so as not to forget.
The following is an abridged version of an article written in the fall of 2009 by Andrew Kirk.
The Paxton Boys began as a small group of mostly Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who lived in Dauphin County (then called Paxtang) in the latter half of the 18th century. Angered by previous frequent raids by Indian tribes bordering English settlements, members of the gang that formed in Paxton during the winter of 1763-64 had become weary of even the friendly Conestoga Indians who had been living and trading with settlers for generations. Rumors quickly grew that the Conestogas had been seen collaborating with hostile Indians bearing weapons. The mere idea of this (as if rumors count as evidence) seemed to be too much for the Paxton Boys, who marched to the Conestoga Indian town on the morning of December 14, 1763, and swiftly murdered six Conestogas while 14 others escaped.
The Paxton Boys, unsatisfied, continued to pursue the Indians who had fled to Lancaster and were locked up in a guarded jailhouse for protection. The local Lancaster sheriff, John Hay, was in no way capable of handling the angry Paxton mob that had traced the Conestogas to Lancaster. Sheriff Hay later wrote that any attempt to restrain the boys would have been a “Danger of Life to the Person attempting it,” and that he, the coroner, and many others had indeed put themselves in danger by opposing the mob. On December 27, the Paxton Boys completed their strike on the defenseless Indians in the most inhumane way imaginable. From the beginning, there had never been a proper justification for the annihilation of these helpless, peaceful Conestoga Indians, but with this disgusting treatment of the fallen Indians, it became apparent that not even a wildly-construed argument of preemptive self-defense could be raised to justify these acts. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania was stunned.
After the Paxton boys had finished with the murder of 20 innocent Conestoga Indians, they headed straight for Philadelphia. The group was now gaining momentum, both in size and in public attention. The Paxton Boys now numbered over 250 strong, and their infamy grew evermore as they traveled eastward. They had heard that 140 Indians in the regions surrounding Paxton had fled to Philadelphia for sanctuary. The Paxton Boys’ dramatic entrance into Germantown (then a town independent of Philadelphia) was a landmark event. It was the first physical standoff between the citizens of what was becoming an increasingly divided state. The frontiersmen and women found themselves pitted against the eastern Pennsylvanians, who generally supported a peaceful approach toward dealing with Indian conflicts.