December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
Indian violence against white settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier had reached a frightening pitch. Gruesome tales circulated of scalping, torture, and wholesale slaughter. Many wanted to strike back, and, for some, any group of Indians would do.
On the morning of December 14 a group of about fifty rangers, scouts, and sturdy backwoods types from the town of Paxton and vicinity closed in on a tiny village of Conestoga Indians near the town of Lancaster. The Conestogas were peaceful, and the charges against them ludicrous (one of the raiders claimed an Indian had melted down his pewter spoons), but the vigilantes were out for blood. They killed the six Conestogas who were there, including a small boy, and set fire to the settlement.
Fourteen terrified survivors, who had been out foraging and trading during the massacre, fled to Lancaster and were put in the town jail to protect them from further violence. The lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, John Penn, issued a proclamation condemning the slaughter. But the “Paxton Boys,” as they had become known, were not deterred. The government may have been against them, but God, they believed, was on their side. They rode into Lancaster on December 27, stormed the jailhouse, and massacred the rest of the Conestogas.
The next month Benjamin Franklin wrote an uncharacteristically impassioned diatribe against the Paxton Boys, whom many regarded as heroes. “O ye unhappy Perpetrators of this horrid wickedness!” wrote Franklin. “Reflect a Moment on the Mischief ye have done. . . . Cowards can handle Arms, can strike where they are sure to meet with no Return, can wound, mangle and murder; but it belongs to brave Men to spare, and to protect.”
As the specter of genocide loomed, Franklin had several hundred Moravian Indians brought to Philadelphia under armed escort. The Paxton Boys, their ranks now grown to hundreds, rode to Philadelphia to spill more Indian blood.
Lancaster had offered little resistance; Philadelphia was a different story. Even the city’s Quakers took up arms, and thousands of men stood ready to meet the raiding party. The Paxton Boys turned around and went home. Although thwarted from committing further slaughter, they were never apprehended or punished for their deeds.