York Town Square

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250 years ago, Paxton Boys massacred remnant of once-mighty Susquehannocks


This drawing, from a 1720 Herman Moll map, shows a Susquehannock village in York County, Pa. A remnant of the Susquehannocks, York County dominant American Indian tribe, were victims of a massacre in 1763. The 250th anniversary of the massacre of the Conestoga Indians by the a group that history calls  the  Paxton Boys will be held in Lancaster Dec. 13-14. By the way, in assessing this image, that isn’t a palm tree on the shore of the Susquehanna River near Long Level, as Yorkblogger June Lloyd explains. Her Universal York post presents this Moll art and others about the Susquehannock village. Also of interest: 400 years ago, John Smith explored Chesapeake Bay.

Journalist/historian Jack Brubaker flagged a conference this weekend marking the 250th anniversary of the killing of 20 peaceful Conestoga Indians by a Harrisburg-area mob.

He shared with us – and we share with you – information he wrote for The History Press about the massacre and the conference that will explore that well-remembered moment in Central Pennsylvania history:

Significant events in history, especially the most traumatic, prompt periodic reappraisals. The 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination is the most recent case in point.

While writing “Massacre of the Conestogas” (History Press, 2010), I was constantly aware that an important commemoration of the December 1763 event should occur in 2013. And here we are at the 250th anniversary.

Thanks to the planning efforts of historians in Lancaster and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a conference of scholars, American Indians and others interested in early American studies will be held in Lancaster Dec. 13-14.

On Dec. 14 and 27, 1763, the Paxton Boys rode from what is now the Harrisburg area of Pennsylvania into southern Lancaster County. They slaughtered 20 children, women and old men who supposedly were being protected by county officials. The dead were peaceful Conestoga Indians, the last remnant of the mighty Susquehannocks.

After the killers wiped out the tribe, a much larger mob of armed men marched on Philadelphia determined to slaughter more peaceful Indians under government protection. They met with Pennsylvania officials outside the city. Discussions averted what might have become a mini-civil war.

Most historians have concentrated on the Philadelphia aspect of this incident, which had major political repercussions. “Massacre of the Conestogas” discusses that part of the story, but concentrates on the killing of the Indians in Lancaster and the failure of Lancaster’s leaders to protect the Conestogas or to identify, arrest and try anyone for their murder.

The book also examines a bogus alternative history of the event created in the 19th century that favored the Paxton Boys and changed the way historians have looked at the massacre and its participants until recent years.

By returning to original records, I found that the fabricated narrative, including fake documents, has severely warped and obscured what really happened. “Massacre of the Conestogas” reveals who was primarily responsible for allowing the Paxton Boys to get away with murder.

December’s two-day conference in Lancaster, entitled “The ‘Paxton Boys’ and the Conestoga Massacre: 250 Years Later,” will discuss the massacre and its repercussions, as well as the largely Scots-Irish Presbyterian Paxton Boys’ political and religious motivations. The conference is being co-sponsored by The McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster County’s historical society. Those organizations are supported by the City of Lancaster and Millersville University.

A dozen scholars, historians and writers from the United States and England will present papers. I will serve on a panel that also includes Daniel Richter, director of the McNeil Center and author of “Facing East from Indian Country,” and Peter Silver, Rutgers University professor and author of “Our Savage Neighbors.”

American Indians representing Lancaster’s Circle Legacy Center will help commemorate the anniversary. The Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society will provide a tour of a recreated longhouse south of Lancaster. Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray will dedicate a new state historical marker commemorating the massacre in downtown Lancaster.

The conference is attracting a great deal of attention, not only in the Lancaster and Philadelphia region, but much farther afield among historians who focus on early America, as well as American Indians of many tribes.

All events are open to the public free of charge. Anyone can register in advance on the McNeil Center’s Web site. The site carries the program for the event, a form that will allow registrants to receive advance electronic copies of the scholarly papers to be delivered, and other information. The site can be reached at www.mceas.org. Tap on “Conferences and Events” listed in a column of items on the left side of the screen. Then select “current conferences” and the December conference.

I am thrilled to be a part of this major conference and grateful that the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of a terrible crime will provide additional notice for “Massacre of the Conestogas.”

Jack Brubaker...5.02.08. (Photo/Hertzler).
Jack Brubaker, a veteran journalist and historian. Read about one of his books in the York Town Square post: Reader taken on intriguing trips down the Susquehanna.