Print and Place in the Paxton Crisis

Scott Paul Gordon

The Paxton crisis was one of the most explosive media events in early America. More than five dozen pamphlets and nearly a dozen cartoons appeared in print after the Lancaster county murders. These pamphlets were read throughout Pennsylvania and beyond: Londoners could learn about the crisis in The London Chronicle in April and in The Gentleman’s Magazine in July 1764. The sheer volume of print in this “pamphlet war” has kept historians of the Paxton crisis occupied (Kenny 159-202).

In eighteenth-century America, as today, the “media” were concentrated in urban areas: Boston, Philadelphia, New York. The urbanity of print has skewed the materials that survive. Most of the Paxton pamphlets were printed in Philadelphia and they offer a Philadelphian point of view. The vigorous, back-and-forth squabbling in these pamphlets creates the impression that the debate included all perspectives. But as varied as these perspectives seem, they were actually limited. The pamphlets did not capture issues that were pressing for the backcountry settlers, and they certainly did not capture issues that concerned the Conestogas.

The murders in Lancaster county prompted these pamphlets, but urban pamphleteers mobilized these murders to influence the provincial politics that they cared about. They changed the subject with an eye toward October 1764 elections. Were Quakers fit to govern? Were Presbyterians a disorderly and violent people? Should Pennsylvania become a royal colony? How should representation be proportioned in the provincial legislature? Philadelphia pamphleteers weaponized the Lancaster County murders to wage arguments about race, religion, gender, and politics to adjust power in Pennsylvania (Olson; Smolenski; Camenzind). These issues were vital for urban Philadelphians. But did they matter to, or motivate, the backcountry settlers who murdered the Conestogas in December 1763?

Focusing on this urban pamphlet war limits our ability to see what mattered to the backcountry settlers. One way to correct this oversight is to look at manuscript sources produced in the backcountry. Manuscripts are not in themselves more authentic than print. But certain perspectives are more likely to appear in print than others, and perspectives that may not have made their way into print nevertheless survive in manuscript. Local and state archives possess many diaries and letters produced in Lancaster county. Some of these materials were written by elites in Lancaster and others in backcountry communities. Others were written by ministers in Lancaster and in nearby Lititz.

Attending to manuscripts, rather than to print, sheds new light on these events and their causes. We can see this by comparing the printed Remonstrance published in Philadelphia with a manuscript version produced in Lancaster county. The printed Declaration and Remonstrance combined two documents: the Declaration defended the Paxton Boys’ murders of December 1763 and then the Remonstrance itemized a series of grievances. The first grievance demanded for backcountry counties an “equal Share … in the very important Privilege of Legislation.” The prominence of this demand in the printed Remonstrance has given rise to a view of the Paxton Boys as “frontier democrats” whose “fundamental grievance” was “inadequate representation” and who were determined to claim a voice in provincial politics (Hindle 186; Kenny 166; Kozuskanich 21; Spero 154).

A manuscript entitled “Petition by the Inhabitants of Lancaster County” was probably a draft of the Remonstrance. But this “Petition” hardly mentioned the issue of inadequate representation. The topic appeared in the “Petition” only as a strategy to counter the more serious threat of laws that would try backcountry settlers in Philadelphia courts, rather than on the frontier by their peers: if western counties had “an Equal number of Representatives” as eastern ones they might “prevent the Enaction of any Such Law.” The remark was buried in the seventh grievance of the “Petition.” The printed Remonstrance promoted the issue of representation as its first grievance, expanding and reformulating the brief mention in the draft into a 460-word essay on the “Privileges” of “Free-Men and English Subjects.”

The printed Remonstrance over-wrote the sentiments expressed in the manuscript petition. The “Petition” focused narrowly on plight of the frontier, on injuries inflicted upon on settlers and the needs of that population. Demanding protection and insisting that Native people must be eradicated from Pennsylvania, this manuscript echoed the concerns of the Declaration that the men who rode to Philadelphia to murder the gathered Indians carried with them. Absent from the “Petition” was the elevated language of rights and freedoms, as well as extensive knowledge about colonial politics, that turned up in the printed Remonstrance. The concerns of urban politicians replaced the concerns of backcountry settlers.

These manuscript materials, then, can expose backcountry perspectives absent from printed sources. They reveal traces of local relationships of deference and patronage that had become strained, if not broken (Gordon). Backcountry settlers believed that Lancaster elites owed them protection from frontier violence, and they murdered the Conestogas to challenge these elites publicly for defaulting on this responsibility. These settlers rode to Philadelphia, similarly, to use deadly violence to compel elites to attend to their demands. Historians relying on printed texts have cast the attack on Philadelphia as a “march,” an anticipation of revolutionary efforts to demand democratic participation in political processes. Manuscript sources, however, establish the Lancaster County murders and the attack on Philadelphia as conservative, backward-looking events whose violence aimed to restore relations of deference and patronage.

Surviving manuscripts may even allow us to hear the voices of the Conestogas. In November 1763, Conestoga leaders dictated a letter, full of worry, that they sent to the newly-arrived governor, John Penn. Whoever helped the Conestogas produce the letter may have influenced its content, and to a degree that is difficult to determine. However, Conestoga leaders took ownership of the letter’s sentiments with three totem signatures. (Notably, one signer, Sheehaes, was murdered by the time the letter entered the Minutes of the Provincial Council.)

Texts that offer the Conestogas’ perspective, even in mediated form, are exceptionally rare. The powerful, it has been said, “leave behind the fullest records” (Moglen 155). The less powerful, who often have little access to literacy let alone print, leave fewer traces. With innovative methods to re-imagine the past, however, we can recover and amplify these voices that the written record, print and manuscript, usually failed to hear or record.

Further Reading