Published on February 6, 2013 by Carol
The village of Paxton (Paxtang), a few miles east of Harrisburg in eastern Pennsylvania, became a hotbed of racial and political unrest during Pontiac`s Rebellion. Still part of the frontier in the 1760s, the area was populated by many rough-and-tumble Scots-Irish immigrants who had grown weary of the colonial assembly’s inattention to their vulnerability to attack. Requests for soldiers — or guns, powder and lead at the very least — were ignored by the legislators, many of whom were Quakers with strong pacifist convictions.
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A group of Paxton men took matters into their own hands in December 1763 and raided a small settlement of Conestoga Indians in Lancaster County. The frontiersmen`s fury was misplaced, however, since those natives had long lived in peace with their neighbors and had not participated in any way in the current uprising. Six Indians were killed in the attack and 14 taken captive; all of the prisoners were murdered several weeks later.
News of these events prompted Governor John Penn to issue warrants for the arrest of the perpetrators, but sympathetic frontiersmen refused to assist in bringing the Paxton Boys to justice.
The malcontents next singled out a settlement of Moravian Indians who lived near the town of Bethlehem. Fortunately for these peaceful Christianized natives, they managed to flee from their homes for protection in Philadelphia, which was then capital of Pennsylvania and the headquarters of a contingent of British soldiers. The Paxton Boys were outraged that the government would spend tax monies on protecting Indians, but would provide nothing for the defense of its citizenry. The Moravian Indians remained in protective custody in Philadelphia for more than a year.
In January 1764, a group of Paxton Boys began a march on the capital; the number of participants has been estimated to be between 600 and 1,500. As the mob neared Philadelphia, panic reigned. The strange spectacle of pacifists arming themselves with muskets and rolling cannon into public squares was observed. Church bells tolled the alarm. A possible disaster was averted in early February, when Benjamin Franklin and other civic leaders ventured out to consult with the mob`s leaders. An accommodation was reached in which the march was disbanded in return for the arrangement of a meeting between Paxton leaders and colonial officials. This airing of grievances occurred, but little was done for the plight of the frontiersmen.
Delivered on February 13, 1764, the “Remonstrance of Distressed and Bleeding Frontier Inhabitants,” was delivered by Matthew Smith and James Gibson on behalf of the Paxton frontiersmen. In stated, in part:
Thirdly. During the late and present Indian War, the Frontiers of this Province have been repeatedly attacked and ravaged by Skulking parties of the Indians, who have with the most Savage Cruelty murdered Men, Women, and Children without distinction, and have reduced near a thousand Families to the most extreme distress. It grieves us to the very heart to see such of our frontier inhabitants as have escaped savage fury with the loss of their parents, their children, their wives or relatives, left destitute by the public, and exposed to the most cruel poverty and wretchedness while upward of 120 of these savages, who are with great reason suspected of being guilty of these horrid barbarities under the mask of friendship, have procured themselves to be taken under the protection of the government, with a view to elude the fury of the brave relatives of the murdered, and are now maintained at the public expense.
The adventure of the Paxton Boys was important for two reasons. First, it was a measure of the hostility that had developed between frontiersman and Indian; many white settlers concluded during Pontiac’s Rebellion that the races could not live together. Removal and extinction were the only solutions. Second, the march on Philadelphia was an early example of regional and social tension. Later American history would reflect further cases of the strain between the urban and rural, the haves versus the have-nots and the newcomers against the establishment.