Banner, art from Ghost River
Banner, art from Ghost River
Banner, art from Ghost River
Banner, art from Ghost River

Introduction to Ghost River

Will Fenton

This is a story about the Paxton massacres of 1763. However, as the title suggests, the Paxton vigilantes associated with this tragedy are peripheral to our story. Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga introduces new interpreters and new bodies of evidence in order to foreground Indigenous victims and survivors in ways that eighteen-century printed records – with their attendant focus on colonial elites – cannot do alone. In doing so, this project confronts several challenges that accompany studies of early America. How, with only an incomplete set of records written by Euro-Americans, can we tell difficult stories that don’t reproduce past assumptions? Can we recollect tragedy without eulogizing it? And how can acts of artistic reinterpretation reveal the fluidity of history, memory, and collective mythology?

The massacres that give rise to this story unfolded in rapid succession and with far-reaching ramifications. In December 1763, a mob of settlers from Paxtang Township, not far from what is today Harrisburg, murdered 20 unarmed Conestoga Indians in Lancaster County. A month later, hundreds of these so-called “Paxton Boys” marched on Philadelphia to menace refugee Lenape and Moravian Indians who had been taken under the protection of the Pennsylvania government. The Paxton mob was halted in Germantown, just six miles north of the city by a delegation led by Benjamin Franklin, who persuaded their leaders to disband and publish their grievances in the preferred media of the day — a pamphlet.

Inexpensive and quick to produce, pamphlets answered pamphlets as Paxton critics and defenders rushed to battle in print. The “pamphlet war” that followed was not so different from the social media wars of today. Defenders accused  the Conestoga people of colluding with the other groups who had attacked settlers on Pennsylvania’s borderlands during the Seven Years’ War (1754- 63), a charge predicated upon the racist assertion that the Conestoga—like other Indigenous peoples in the colony—were “savages” who could not be trusted and whose presence could not be tolerated. Critics accused the Paxton mob of behaving more “savagely” than the Native Peoples they had killed. Pamphleteers waged battle using pseudonyms, slandering opponents as failed elites or racial traitors. At stake was much more than the conduct of the Paxton murderers. Pamphleteers staked claims about westward settlement, representation, and white supremacy in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania.

This rich print debate is well-preserved at places like the Library Company of Philadelphia, which was founded by Franklin decades before the Paxton massacres as the first subscription library in the American colonies. Printed materials include dozens of pamphlets, large sheets (also called broadsides), newspapers, and political cartoons. Given that Philadelphia was the center of the colony’s print media, these records give outsized voice to Philadelphians. Notably, such records barely mention the Conestoga people, their traditions, or their vital history in the mid-Atlantic region.

The Conestoga people lived peacefully alongside settlers at Conestoga Manor (sometimes referred to as “Indiantown”), on a tract of land set aside by William Penn at the founding of the colony. From the beginning, Conestoga Manor was an ethnically heterogenous community comprised of Susquehannock and Iroquois peoples, including Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora. Many of those residents were Christian, spoke English, wore English clothing, and had English names. But long before the Paxton murders, disease, and displacement had diminished the number of people living at Conestoga Manor. To categorize the Paxton massacres, however, as a “genocide” is misleading, insofar as the term fails to account for the resiliency that this community had achieved through relocation, assimilation, and intermarriage. As local Indigenous peoples at Circle Legacy Center repeated during our research trips to Lancaster, “we are still here.”

Those words have served as my lodestar as editor of the book from which this site is drawn. As the script of Ghost River has evolved through drafts, thumbnails, pencils, inks, and colors, our team has consulted regularly with individuals who identify as Delaware, Haliwa- Saponi, Lenape, Munsee, and Oglala Lakota. We’ve visited their meeting space. We’ve spoken on the phone. We’ve broken bread together. Ghost River is not a eulogy for some lost tribe; it’s an act of active and ongoing recollection sustained by and responsible to living, breathing people.

Giving voice to historical figures and contemporary survivors has demanded acts of both critical and creative reinterpretation. On a critical level, we had to look beyond the materials that researchers traditionally consult. That is, as the inhabitants of Conestoga were largely absent from the pamphlets synonymous with the Paxton debate, we had to look elsewhere. This included drawing upon contemporary scholarship (a bibliography of which is included in the Further Reading section of the print edition of Ghost River) and revisiting historical materials that were hiding in plain sight, such as Benjamin Franklin’s account of the massacres, treaty records from the Seven Years’ War, and Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania. In keeping with Marisa Fuentes’s idea of “reading along the bias grain,” I prioritized fragments — manuscript records such as letters, diaries, and account books — which speak to the lived experiences of the Conestoga people and the settlers the Paxton mob claimed to represent. Alongside dozens of pamphlets, engravings, and political cartoons, I collected more than 175 handwritten records scattered across 20 different archives and libraries. Some of those records were reproduced in the accompanying gallery exhibition held at the Library Company of Philadelphia, and all of the sources that we have consulted are freely available through the Library Company’s digital history project, Digital Paxton.

As important as collecting obscure or overlooked materials was to the completion of this project, it would not exist unless we asked new questions of known records. Rather than partnering with another scholar, I sought out an author and an artist with decidedly different vantage points on colonial history. To that point, this narrative was written, illustrated, and published by Indigenous peoples: Dr. Lee Francis 4 (Laguna Pueblo) wrote the script; Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva) brought it to life through hand-drawn and hand-painted artwork.

While Francis and Alvitre brought a wealth of experience and a keen sensitivity to this story, as members of Western tribes they needed the support of historians and local Indigenous community members. As the convener of this project, the Library Company of Philadelphia is committed to ensuring that this narrative is faithful to both the historical materials and the recollections of living relatives: we have assembled an advisory board, which includes prominent academics and representatives from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and the Lenape Center; we organized research trips around Philadelphia and into Lancaster County before developing the narrative; and we have consulted regularly with members of the Circle Legacy Center as we revised the narrative and artwork. While dozens of individuals have contributed to this project, the Circle Legacy Center, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and empowering Native Americans, has proven a particularly generous partner. MaryAnn Robins (Onondaga Nation) arranged a potluck lunch for our creative team at the Lancaster Mennonite Church; Barry Lee (Munsee Nation) advised us on historical dress; Sandi Cianciulli (Oglala Lakota) arranged interviews in conjunction with programming for Jim Thorpe Sports Day in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; and Darvin Martin, special advisor to the Circle Legacy Center, took our team on a tour of local burial grounds and the historical site of Conestoga Manor. As a small gesture to our gratitude for this group’s expertise and hospitality, we identify the individuals with whom we consulted in the Acknowledgements.

In addition to the support of the Circle Legacy Center, we have relied upon both our advisory board, most especially Curtis Zunigha and Daniel Richter, as well as outside readers, including Michael Goode, Scott Paul Gordon, and Jack Brubaker. In some instances, the changes may not be readily apparent in the graphic novel. For example, Francis and I had a lively exchange about how to refer to the Indigenous people at the center of this story. Ultimately, we adopted “Conestoga” because it’s widely-adopted and draws an explicit connection to a contemporary place (Conestoga Township); however, we have preserved our discussion in the annotated script, included in the back of the printed volume. In another instance, Scott Gordon helped us to localize where Lenape were interned in Philadelphia (Province Island and the Barracks) and to identify specific individuals. While those may be small details in the context of this narrative, the context surrounding those choices is well-documented in the annotated script.

The most substantive change that we made concerned the massacre of the Conestoga people at the Lancaster workhouse. Although Francis originally envisioned this scene unfolding in a basement, in consultation with Jack Brubaker, we revised the scene to occur outside in the yard behind the workhouse. Initially, none of us welcomed the change. Alvitre used the late change to reimagine the scene, transporting it from the physical to the metaphysical. As the falling snow absorbs the scene, figures transform into the loose beads of a broken wampum belt, the symbol of European-Native American diplomacy. A recurring visual metaphor, wampum beads are paralleled by colonial brickwork, which Alvitre renders meticulously—almost oppressively—throughout the narrative.

In shaping and reshaping Ghost River, Francis, Alvitre and I have labored to be faithful to historical materials and the recollections of our partners, but we have also sought to leverage the unique affordances of the graphic novel. For example, although historians know that the Conestoga people had a wampum belt commemorating the 1682 Shackamaxon Treaty—the same one commemorated in Benjamin West’s famous painting, Penn’s Treaty With The Indians—we don’t know precisely where it was kept and when it was taken from their possession. (By all accounts, it was collected by a county sheriff.) We have chosen to dwell in the gaps in historical records, to “imagine what might have happened,” in the words of Saidiya Hartman. By placing the wampum in the ashes of Conestoga Manor, we seek to emphasize the Paxton murderers’ betrayal of Penn’s peaceable principles and to challenge the mythology that West had sought to promote just five years after the Paxton murders.

As the editor of the printed volume, I opt to identify Ghost River as a graphic novel rather than, say, a visual history, to foreground the novelistic features of this story. Whereas a visual history might dwell on historical actors and incidents, a graphic novel allows us to particularize and humanize, to entertain different ideas of temporality, and to forge new connections across time and space. The Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvaniawhich name the 20 victims of the Paxton mob, have been widely available since the early-1800s. But reading a list of names fails to convey the human cost of this tragedy. For example, Sheehaes wasn’t some historical figure: he was a parent, an elder, and a source of fortitude in his community. The form of the graphic novel allows him to exist in the same form—pictures—that we reserve for loved ones.

The structure of Ghost River also serves to make the past present. On one page, the reader waits in the barracks with interned Lenape; on the next, they examine the historical records of internment with the creative team at the Library Company. Time itself mirrors the meandering Susquehanna River, carrying the reader backward and forward between past and present. Much of that past is documented in history books, such as an almost cinematic scene in which traditionally pacifist Quakers take up arms to defend Philadelphia. Other moments chafe against our very sense of historical time. It’s no mistake that Ghost River opens with an origin story, as narrated by the Lenape elder named Tantaque.

On this website, you will find everything you need to navigate Ghost River. In addition to an annotated digital edition of the graphic novel, you will find a host of interpretative materials. Under Essays, you will find artist statements from Weshoyot Alvitre and Lee Francis as well as brief essays on graphic representations of Native Americans (Michael Sheyahshe), the rich visual materials available to researchers (Judith Ridner), and the handwritten records that give voice to both settlers and Indigenous peoples (Scott Paul Gordon). The Historic Materials section collects reproductions of historical materials implicitly or explicitly referenced in Ghost River, with many more resources available on Digital Paxton. Educators seeking to integrate this project in classes will find a dozen lessons, keyed to Common Core standards in Lesson Plans. Finally, Acknowledgements makes visible the many contributors who made this project conceivable, including, notably, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, without whose support this project would not be possible.

In a recurring voiceover, Francis cautions, “History is complicated. Violence is simple.” History is complicated, not only because there are many facts to learn, but because the past is continually written and rewritten. With each successive generation, we decide who we want to be by asserting who we were and who we are. In this sense, history is neither neutral nor contained, but a self-consciously political act of negotiation and renegotiation. Just as the future unfolds through a series of actions, history ought to be understood in the present perfect tense: past events have present consequences. Thank you for helping us to imagine new futures born of the histories in this project.