Paxton Boys

The Paxton Boys were a group of banditti allegedly lawless frontier settlers from central Pennsylvania. Violence between the native peoples and colonists on Pennsylvania’s frontier spun out of control in 1763. In December of that year, the Paxton Boys went on a rampage, massacring twenty peaceful Native Americans at Conestoga and Lancaster.

In early 1764, the now 500-man-strong Paxton Boys marched on Philadelphia to kill 140 Moravian Indians who had taken refuge there and to make their grievances known to the Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania government. In February, Benjamin Franklin and nearly 700 troops and militiamen stopped the Paxtons’ march at Germantown, just outside the city, after officials pledged to hear the marchers’ grievances and grant amnesty for their actions. By the early 1750s, British colonists had begun expanding into western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley. British expansion worried the native peoples and the French, who claimed the region as their own. The Great War for Empire which included the French and Indian War (1754–1763), also known as the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) erupted in this milieu of competing empires, colonial settlers, and concerned Native Americans when Virginians led by George Washington tried to destroy the French Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River in 1754.

By 1760, the victorious British were laying claim to the entire trans-Appalachian West and Canada. British authorities failed, however, to make a permanent peace with the various native tribes and nations, halt colonists’ encroachments on Native American lands, or stop aggression against the native peoples. Furthermore, the war started a cycle of indiscriminate violence between European settlers and Native Americans in the Pennsylvania backcountry, dissolving already weak relations between the two. In the spring of 1763, natives launched Pontiac’s Rebellion, a series of attacks on British forts and colonial settlements across the entire trans-Appalachian frontier.

The settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier, many of whom were Scots-Irish Presbyterians, responded by escalating their attacks on any Native American who happened to cross their path. After a few minor skirmishes in the woods and an attack on native peoples in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania, the Paxton Boys grew frustrated at their inability to stop native attacks. The refusal of the Quaker-dominated colonial government to send troops to western Pennsylvania to assist the settlers in their war against the native tribes infuriated central Pennsylvanians even further.

In December 1763, fifty or so armed settlers from Paxton, Pennsylvania (present-day Harrisburg), turned their fury against a peaceful band of Conestoga Indians living on a small reservation outside Lancaster. After the Paxton Boys slaughtered six natives on their reservation, colonial officials locked fourteen remaining Conestogas in the Lancaster jail to protect them from further violence. The jail and colonial officials proved no match for the infuriated Paxtons, who broke into the jail and murdered the Conestogas. Their outrage against the native peoples and colonial officials who had failed to provide for frontier defense was not yet spent.

In early 1764, a force of some 500 Paxton Boys began their march on Philadelphia. In Philadelphia were two groups whom the Paxton Boys targeted for their vengeance: Quakers and Native Americans. The Quakers were the politicians, who refused to provide money for backcountry defense, while sponsoring the “Friendly Association,” a Quaker organization that protected Native American lands and defended native rights against white settlers. That colonial officials were allegedly sheltering 140 Moravian Indians in the city outraged the Paxtons.

Panic ensued when reports of the Paxton Boys’ march on Philadelphia reached the city. In order to protect the city from the “Christian white savages,” Benjamin Franklin organized a militia company for the city’s defense and headed to Germantown to meet these “lawless people.” The Paxtons backed down in the face of 700 troops and militia, along with promises that colonial officials would work to restore order to the frontier. The Paxton affair signified the near-total collapse of native-colonial relations in the period between the Great War for Empire and the American Revolution. As colonial settlements continued to push westward into Native American lands, colonial and imperial officials proved unwilling or unable to meet the demands of the native peoples that the settlers be removed and frontier banditti be punished for violence against natives. Similarly, tribal chiefs proved unable to restrain younger warriors, who insisted on attacking white settlements so as to halt white expansion and exact revenge for violence committed against their people. After 1760, the Pennsylvania backcountry became the scene of intense, indiscriminate violence.

The Paxton affair also reflected the growing religious, ethnic, regional, and political rifts in late colonial Pennsylvania. Distrust between Scots-Irish Presbyterians in central Pennsylvania and Quakers in eastern Pennsylvania grew after 1740, erupting during the Paxton affair. This event also had important ramifications for the American Revolution in Pennsylvania. Native peoples in western Pennsylvania sided with the British, who pledged to halt white settlement and expansion, while hostilities between the Scots-Irish and the Quakers became the defining force in Pennsylvania politics during the American Revolution. John Craig Hammond See also: Native American-European Conflict; Ohio Country; Pennsylvania. Bibliography Dunbar, John, ed. The Paxton Papers. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1957. Merrell, James H. Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. Vaughan, Alden T. “Frontier Banditti and the Indians: The Paxton Boys’ Legacy, 1763–1775.” Pennsylvania History, 51:1 (January 1984): 1–29.

 

Paxton Boys

 

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