Tim Nafziger lives in the Ventura River watershed on the traditional lands of the Chumash people. He works with Carnival de Resistance <http://carnivalderesistance.com> and is a founding partner in Congruity Works <http://congruity.works>, a web development firm. Tim loves working with small groups of people working for social change and thrives on cross-pollination.
This post was originally published on The Mennonite website on December 14, 2013, the 250th anniversary of the massacre.
Early on the morning of Dec. 14, 1763, a group of warriors on horses rode into the small village of Conestoga, Pennsylvania. It was snowing. Smoke rose from the chimneys of a few small huts clustered together. Though they knew the impoverished pacifists sleeping inside would not fight back, they wasted no time. They fired their guns into the homes from the outside and then rushed inside to kill the survivors with their tomahawks. After scalping the six victims, they set all the buildings on fire and left. One survivor, named Chrisly, ran barefoot through the snow to the neighbors to sound the alarm (Brubaker, 21-23).
As you read this story, how do you imagine those warriors and their sleeping victims 250 years ago today?
The attackers were members of the Paxton boys, a Scots-Irish militia of settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier who came from 40 miles away. The victims were six Conestoga, or Susquehannock, men. The Conestogas’ neighbors included many Mennonites who had squatted on their reserve land. Though I grew up only a few miles from the massacre site, I never heard this story in the Mennonite community in which I was raised.
As we reflect on this event more than 250 years later, we have the opportunity to revisit this story and put it alongside the more familiar stories of Mennonite victimhood, such as the Jacob Hochstetler family massacre of 1757. To understand the Dec. 14 Conestoga massacre, we need to look at the story of each of the three groups involved, each made up of refugees who had been displaced from their homelands in different ways.
Mennonites had first settled the land of the Conestoga beside the Pequea creek 53 years before the Conestoga massacre. A party of 29 migrants from the Palatinate purchased 10,000 acres of land “at the head of Pequea Creek around what today is Willow Street, Lampeter and the western part of Strasbourg” (Ruth, 172). Unlike later settlers, according to Ruth, these were economic refugees motivated by the search for a better life rather than religious freedom (164).
The Mennonite farmers recognized that the large trees of the area, intimidating to other settlers to clear, were a sign of fertile farm land. One hundred years later an English visitor called it the “finest district of land in Pennsylvania” (Ruth, 176).
As in every new place we have settled in the last 488 years, Mennonites in Pennsylvania strove to prove their “benign civil character” (Ruth, 180) to their new colonial rulers. To this end, in 1712, Pennsylvania Mennonites asked Dutch Mennonites (also financial sponsors of the Conestoga settlers) to print an English version of the Dordrecht confession (181). Given that the settlers were all still German speakers, the audience for this printing would have been the English authorities. The printing could have served to justify and explain their Mennonite beliefs and to build a bridge to their Quaker and secular government officials to reassure them of the Mennonites’ civility. Mennonites were known among settlers as industrious, upright and honest. William Penn called them “a sober people who will neither swear nor fight” (Ruth, 157).
By 1763, the Mennonites were thriving on land all over Lancaster county, including much of the land that William Penn had set aside for the Conestoga. Mennonites, in contrast with Scots-Irish settlers, decisively benefited from their strong relationship with the Penn family and its agents, as well as their image as responsible, industrious farmers. The parallels with the Russian Mennonite experience with Catherine the Great are striking, but outside the scope of this article.
Image of Pequea purchase:
The new Mennonite settlement was just five miles east of a village of local Indigenous groups known as Conestoga Indian town. This community itself was also made up of those fleeing war and persecution.
The Susquehannock had left the Susquehanna valley 30 years earlier in the 1670’s to merge with the Iroquois in present day New York. This loss of their independence came after losing 95 percent of their people due to infectious European diseases and war (“Wennawoods”).
After raids by the French on the Iroquious in the 1690’s, a remnant of Susquehannock returned to the area between 1695 and 1700 to establish a trading village in the homeland where the Conestoga Creek flowed into the Susquehanna River (Jennins, 39). They were joined by Senecas and other “refugees from colonial mistreatment who took advantage of the welcome extended conjointly by the Five [Iroquois] Nations and Pennsylvania” (Jennings, 41).
In 1701, they sold the Susquehanna valley to William Penn in exchange for the promise of protection, friendship and 16,000 acres known as Conestoga manor. Penn had first tried to buy the land from the Iroquois, who had turned him down (Jennings, 40).
They were resolutely peaceful, maintaining strong personal relationships with the Penn family. Like the Mennonites, they cultivated vassal relationships with stronger groups (settler and native) in order to survive. However, by 1763 they had lost most of their hunting grounds to Mennonites and other farmers and so had become dependent on begging, financial support from the Pennsylvania government and selling crafts to settlers (Kenny, 132).
“Hans Herr House” by Wilson V. Chambers, featuring Conestoga Indians visiting Hans Herr and his family. According to family stories, the Conestoga would come by on cold nights and sleep at the hearth of the house. More information from the artist can be found here.
The Paxton Boys
The roots of the Dec. 14 massacre by Scots-Irish Presbyterian militia lay decades earlier in the settlement patterns of the region. A key figure in land distribution was James Logan, agent of the Penn family, investor and political operator. This passage from Ruth lays out how he used both Mennonites and Scots-Irish to further his own wealth and the Pennsylvania settlement project:
Back at Philadelphia, James Logan was quietly pulling strings to allow some Mennonists, who he knew were a good investment, to buy pieces of tracts he himself had secretly bought in speculation; he was allowing other Mennonists to get unto the [Conestoga] manor itself… Ironically, he was trying to keep his own countrymen, the Scots-Irish, off the manor; they were the type of settlers, he complained, that would sit down anywhere with or without leave [or payment] on any spot that they think will turn out Grain to afford them a maintenance.
Logan was aware that the Five Nations Indians were not happy to see so much Susquehanna land settled by Europeans. Two years after the manor was surveyed, he saw to it that militant settlers were directed onto less fertile land farther north and closer to Indian hunting land at Paxtang. Here Scots who had readily fought for living space in northern Ireland could serve as a buffer between the pacifist Mennonists and the frontier (Ruth, 197-198).
In the 1730, Logan ordered the eviction of Scots-Irish, who he called “panel of Disorderly People” from the Conestoga manor where they, along with Mennonite setters, had been squatting. Thirty Scots-Irish cabins were burned. However, Logan allowed the Mennonites, wealthier than the Scots-Irish, to remain on the Conestoga reserve and to eventually purchase the land (Brubaker, 129-130). Ruth says that these evictions of the impoverished Scots-Irish “was still causing resentment [towards Mennonites] years later” (227).
The seeds Logan had sown bore fiery flower in the summer of 1763 when Pontiac’s war led to raids by Delaware and Shawnee warriors in Cumberland county. The Pennsylvania Assembly authorized the formation of militias for defensive purposes. Paxton Presbyterian Church was the main institution of the Scots-Irish scattered in western Lancaster county, Logan’s buffer for the Mennonites. Their pastor, John Elder, formed the Paxton Boys militia in western Lancaster County with the intention of it being an offensive force that could punish Indian raids (Kenny, 125). Through the late summer and fall of 1763, they were frustrated by their inability to find and kill hostile Indians and demoralized by their discovery of massacre sites by hostile Delaware warriors. It was in this context that the small group of twenty Conestoga living peacefully in Indian town provided an easy and politically attractive target.
Leaving the Massacre
On their way out of town after the massacre, the Paxton Boys ran into a neighbor of the Conestoga, who told them the government was protecting the Indians. The militia men replied that the government did not have “a right to protect the heathen. Joshua was ordered to drive the heathen out of the land. Do you believe the scriptures?” (Ruth, 297).
The Paxton boys’ massacre of the Conestoga was a political act. It was borne of the frustration at their own ineffectiveness, but more importantly from their outrage with the kind treatment of friendly Indians by Quakers, who were still influential in the Pennsylvania Assembly (and supported politically by Mennonites). As their remarks after the massacre indicate, they did not recognize the distinction between friendly and hostile Indians. Their goal was to both intimidate other Indians and the government who they hoped would stop protecting peaceful Indians and better fund settler militias (Brubaker, 107).
To use contemporary language, the massacre was an act of terrorism. Quaker peace scholar Ron Mock defines terrorism as “lawless violence directed at non-combatants to spread fear as a means to a political goal” (Mock, 36). Yet to simply focus on the terrorism of the Paxton boys would be to avoid the multiple layers of violence that underlie this history. It can be easy to disregard my people’s part in the story as Mennonite settlers and pacifists. However, a deeper analysis calls us to reckon with the preferential treatment our people received when it came to fertile land access and eventual property ownership. Mennonite settlers reaped the benefits as Indigenous peoples’ lands were taken out from under them, and as other refugee groups like the Scots-Irish served as strategic buffers. Indeed, the Paxton boys’ very acts of violence may have further insulated Mennonites from the brunt of hostilities arising from their occupation of Native lands.
Looking back at this history, I hope we can see how overt acts of terrorism like the Conestoga Massacre can mask deeper layers of violence. In this work of dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery, I think that only by peeling back those layers can we live more fully into our identity as people of peace today.
Brubaker, John H. Massacre of the Conestogas: On the Trail of the Paxton Boys in Lancaster County. Charleston, SC: History, 2010. Print.
Jennings, Francis. The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy: An Interdisciplinary Guide to the Treaties of the Six Nations and Their League. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1985. Print.
Kenny, Kevin. Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Mock, Ron. Loving without Giving In: Christian Responses to Terrorism & Tyranny. Telford, PA: Cascadia Pub. House, 2004. Print.
Ruth, John L. The Earth Is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2001. Print. “Wennawoods Publishing Book Store.” Wennawoods Publishing Book Store. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.