Learning More About the Massacre of the Conestoga 250 Years Later

Rick Kearns

Scholars from the U.S. and Great Britain and Native activists converged on Lancaster, Pennsylvania to share information at a symposium called “The ‘Paxton Boys’ and the Conestoga Massacre: 250 Years Later” held December 13 and 14. 

The event started with a blessing ceremony in a longhouse and ended with a theatrical presentation that included the reading of the names of the slaughtered Conestoga men, women and children who died at the hands of the “Paxton Boys” in and around Lancaster in 1763.

Most of the symposium was dedicated to presentations on different facets and consequences of the bloody episode known as the Conestoga Massacre. The series of events that lead to the atrocity included rumors in the commonwealth in 1763 that local tribes were joining Chief Pontiac’s call to attack colonists. Supposedly in reaction to that rumor, a small group of Scotch-Irish men from Harrisburg, who came to be known as the Paxton Boys, rode to the Conestogas’ village near Lancaster and killed six men, and then burned their cabins on December 14, 1763. Lancaster authorities moved the 14 Conestoga survivors to a workhouse in the city for their protection. On December 27, the Paxton Boys followed them there and laid siege to the workhouse. The local sheriff got out of their way after being threatened and the Paxtons brutally slaughtered the 14 Conestoga men, women and children.

For one of the symposium organizers—historian and journalist Jack Brubaker—the Conestoga massacre was historically important for a number of reasons.

“It marked a turning point in relations between colonists and friendly Indians in Pennsylvania,” Brubaker said. “Before the massacre, peaceful Indians thought they had a friend in Pennsylvania. Afterwards, they were frightened; some fled to other colonies. A number of books and articles have reached the conclusion that 1763 was an exceptional watershed year in the commonwealth. This is not only because of the massacre at Conestoga but because of Pontiac’s War, initiated by the Indians as a last-ditch effort to fight back against colonists. Daniel Richter, author of Facing East from Indian Country, says that Pontiac’s War and the Conestoga massacre solidified the divide between the two races in 1763.

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“The Conestogas were not the first tribe wiped out by colonists,” Brubaker added, “but the Paxton Boys’ murderous rampage was one of the most violent and successful attempts at what we today would call ethnic cleansing. And some would call it genocide.”

While this year’s symposium was sponsored primarily by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and LancasterHistory.org, for this 250th anniversary, the local Native advocacy group the Circle Legacy Center also participated and paid for a historical marker that will be placed at the site of the second part of the massacre near the Fulton Theater in Lancaster.

CLC Executive Director Sandra Cianciulli, Oglala Lakota, said that while everyone was horrified by the details of the massacre, the symposium was well attended and successful.

“Many people were also asking about where is the Native perspective,” Cianciulli noted. “While there was nothing written down by Natives at the time we are still pleased to bring this important part of American Indian history into Pennsylvania, where it always belonged.”

Several of the CLC members also participated in one of the last sessions, entitled “Ghosted Ground: The Conestoga Massacre, The Paxton Boys, and the Rise of an American Theater,” which started with a talk by author Leslie Stainton and ended with CLC members reading the names of the Conestogas who were killed in the massacre.

CLC advisor Mitchell Bush, Onondaga, one of the participants in the reading, said the presentations were very thorough but that he was left with questions about the Paxton Boys and the slaughter at the workhouse.

“They [Paxton Boys] must have come from a warrior society... they couldn’t have been farmers and leave their fields for so long,” Bush said. “I don't understand how the hosts didn’t protect them.”