The Paxton Boys and the Conestoga Massacre of 1763

December 1763–January 1764

The Conestoga Massacre took place near Lancaster, Pennsylvania in December 1763, during Pontiac’s Rebellion, when a group known as the Paxton Boys carried out a series of attacks on the Conestoga Tribe, a group of peaceful Indians living in the area.

Paxton Boys and Conestoga Massacre, Paxton Expedition, Illustration

This illustration depicts the defenses of Philadelphia following the Conestoga Massacre. Image Source: Digital Paxton.

Paxton Boys and Conestoga Massacre Summary

In December 1763, colonists living in the village of Paxton on the Pennsylvania frontier carried out a raid on a settlement of the Conestoga Tribe in Lancaster County. Six Native American Indians were killed and 14 were taken as prisoners and held in jail, only to be murdered about two weeks later by the so-called “Paxton Boys” — a group of men from the Lancaster area. The situation escalated when the Paxton Boys marched on Philadelphia, but Benjamin Franklin and others convinced them to return to their homes.

Paxton Boys and Conestoga Massacre Facts

  1. The Paxton Boys were a group of Scots-Irish immigrants living in the area around Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
  2. The Conestoga were a group of Indians living at Conestoga Town, near Lancaster.
  3. When Pontiac’s Rebellion started, Pennsylvanians were concerned about Indian attacks.
  4. The Paxton Boys were unable to provide adequate defense for settlers.
  5. The Pennsylvania government refused to provide aid to settlers living on the frontier or to allow the Paxton Boys to take action against the Indians.
  6. The Paxton Boys attacked Conestoga Town and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and killed at least 20 Conestogas.
  7. Afterward, the Paxton Boys tried to march on Philadelphia to attack more Indians.
  8. Benjamin Franklin organized the city’s defenses and then negotiated peace with the Paxton Boys.
  9. The incidents involving the Paxton Boys are known as the Conestoga Massacre, the Paxton Boys Uprising, and the Paxton Riots.
  10. The violent action of the Paxton Boys increased tension between Indians and Americans living along the Western Frontier.
Benjamin Franklin, Portrait, 1762, Chamberlin
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Mason Chamberlin, 1762. Image Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Paxton Boys and Conestoga Massacre History

The Conestoga Massacre was a series of violent attacks the Paxton Boys carried out against the Conestoga Indians near the end of 1763.

Scots-Irish Immigrants in Pennsylvania

The majority of the Paxton Boys were Scots-Irish immigrants who had settled along the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1720s. Some of them had connections to local militia groups in Lancaster County and Northampton County, located west and north of Philadelphia. In the 1750s, the men who eventually formed the Paxton Boys were actively engaged in battles against hostile Delaware and Shawnee tribes who attacked isolated frontier settlements. 

The Conestoga Indians

In the late 1680s, a small group of Susquehannock people, who had previously been living among the Seneca tribe, decided to return to their ancestral homeland in the lower Susquehanna River Valley. They established a village near the confluence of the Conestoga River and the Susquehanna River. 

Over time, their town grew as several Seneca families also joined them, along with members of the Cayuga and Oneida tribes. Collectively, they were referred to as the “Conestoga” and the settlement was called “Conestoga Town.” The region they lived in was known as “Conestoga Manor,” and covered roughly 16,000 acres. 

In 1701, William Penn signed a treaty with leaders of several tribes, including the Conestoga. This was a follow-up to the 1682 Treaty of Shackamaxon, which established perpetual peace between the people of Pennsylvania and the Indians and set aside the land for Conestoga Manor.

Conestoga Indian Town, Historical Marker, HMDB
Conestoga Indian Town historical marker. Image Source: Historical Marker Database.

Dispute Over Conestoga Manor

In 1718, James Logan, the Provincial Secretary of Pennsylvania had Conestoga Manor surveyed, which would allow the Penn Family to sell the land if needed. As immigrants moved from Europe to Pennsylvania, new settlements were established, including Lancaster, which was founded in 1729 by James Hamilton.

In 1730, a group of Scots-Irish settlers squatted in Conestoga Manor, arguing it was “against the Laws of God and Nature that so much Land Should lie idle while so many Christians wanted it to labour on and raise their Bread.”

The squatters were quickly removed, but the Penn Family started selling off portions of Conestoga Manor. Over time, the Conestoga people were left with less than 500 acres of the original 16,000. 

Despite the reduction of their land, the Conestoga were able to peacefully co-exist with their Pennsylvania neighbors. However, by the time the French and Indian War came to an end, fewer than 25 people were living in Conestoga Town, which was surrounded by farms owned by Quakers and Swiss-German Mennonites.

French and Indian War

During the French and Indian War, Indians allied with the French had launched attacks on settlements, including the town of Paxtang, north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In these attacks, some settlers were killed, and homes were burned.

Pontiac’s Rebellion

Following the conclusion of the French and Indian War, Indian tribes living in the Great Lakes Region and the Ohio Country organized an uprising that targeted British forts and settlements along the Western Frontier. The uprising was likely organized by Pontiac, a chief of the Ottowa tribe, and Kyashuta, a chief of the Seneca tribe.

Pontiac, Illustration
Illustration of Chief Pontiac by John Mix Stanley. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The uprising started in May 1763 when Pontiac led an attack on Fort Detroit. One of the targets of the Indian forces was Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania, which alerted people living throughout Pennsylvania, especially those living along the Western Frontier of the British Colonies, near Indians, including Paxton. 

Another town that was threatened was Lancaster, roughly 60 miles west of Philadelphia. Conestoga Town was about 7 miles south of Lancaster.

Paxton Rangers, Paxton Boys, and Hickory Boys

The Paxton Boys came from the regions northwest of Lancaster and across the Susquehanna River in Cumberland County. They lived on farms that were isolated and scattered throughout the region and had been targeted during the French and Indian War by Indians allied with the French.

As Pontiac’s Rebellion spread, Reverend John Elder, the minister of Paxtang, Pennsylvania, organized the “Paxton Rangers” to defend the frontier farms from potential attacks by the Lenape and Shawnee. Elder was known as the “Fighting Parson,” because he kept a rifle with him in his pulpit during his sermons.

Elder’s group included roughly 110 men. However, he knew it was not large enough to effectively defend against a widespread attack, so he decided to mount an offensive against hostile Indians. He asked the Pennsylvania government for permission, but the request was denied.

The group that is commonly identified as the “Paxton Boys” was a faction of the Paxton Rangers that was commonly known as the “Hickory Boys” in the Lancaster area. They were given that nickname because Lancaster was originally referred to as “Hickory Town.”

Hostilities and the Proclamation Line of 1763

In August, a group of Paxton Boys was scouting for hostile Indians was attacked. Four of the Paxton Boys were killed and 10 were wounded. Later, in October, a British settlement in the Wyoming Valley was attacked by Indians and wiped out.

The British government tried to end hostilities and restore peace when King George III issued a proclamation establishing the Proclamation Line of 1763. The proclamation reserved lands west of the Appalachian Mountains for the Indians to use as hunting grounds. Most of Central and Western Pennsylvania were east of the Proclamation Line.

Rumors of Will Sock Aiding in Pontiac’s Rebellion

Another complication arose between the Pennsylvanians and the Indians. A rumor spread through the Lancaster area that Tenseedaagua — a Conestoga whose English name was Will Sock — was helping the Lenape and Shawnee. 

A small group of men, led by Matthew Smith, went to Conestoga to scout for activity of hostile Indians. When they returned, Smith reported he had seen armed Indians at Conestoga who were not residents of the village.

Although Revered Elder asked Smith and the others to refrain from violence, they planned an attack on Conestoga Town.

Massacre at Conestoga Town

On the morning of December 14, most of the residents of the village were gone. According to most sources, they were either working on farms in the area or at the local markets trying to sell their handmade goods. 

However, others indicate they were at the local markets on December 13 and were unable to return to Conestoga Town due to a snowstorm. Because of this, they stayed the night at the farm of a Mennonite family in the area.

Regardless, on the morning of the 14th, only three men, two women, and a boy were there when the Paxton Boys attacked. All six of the Conestogas were killed and the village was burned to the ground. 

One of the men, Shebaes, had been involved in the treaty the Indians signed with William Penn in 1701.

Lancaster Offers Shelter to the Conestogas

When government officials in Lancaster were informed of the attack, they gathered the surviving Conestagas, including Will Sock, in the town and offered them protection. The Conestogas took shelter in a large brick workhouse that had just been built.

Massacre at Lancaster

When the Paxton Boys found out where the remaining Conestogas were, they organized an expedition of somewhere between 50 and 100 men.

Around 2:00 p.m. on December 27, the Paxton Boys, led by William Smith and Lazarus Steward, rode into Lancaster and approached the workhouse. The town’s sheriff and coroner were standing guard but moved aside to let the Paxton Boys enter the building.

In less than 15 minutes, the Paxton Boys massacred the Conestogas, including Will Stott. When they were done, they mounted their horses, rode through the town shouting and firing their weapons, and then returned to their homes.

Following the second massacre, John Penn, Governor of Pennsylvania, issued a proclamation, ordering the Paxton Boys to be apprehended. A reward was offered for the capture of anyone involved in the massacres, but no one came forward.

Paxton Boys and Conestoga Massacre, 1763, Old Jail, HMDB
This historical marker is for the Old Jail in Lancaster. Image Source: Historical Marker Database.

Similarities to Bacon’s Rebellion

There is speculation that residents of the area were sympathetic to the Paxton Boys because the Pennsylvania Government had refused Elder’s request to take action and attack hostile Indians. Because of this, they believed the Paxton Boys were their only protection.

The inaction of the government, which led the people to take action, was similar to the events that led to Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677) — the first uprising against British government officials in the colonies.

During Bacon’s Rebellion, provincial forces led by Nathaniel Bacon attacked the capital of Virginia, Jamestown, and burned it to the ground.

Reverend Elder wrote a letter to Governor Penn, warning him, “The storm which had been so long gathering, has, at length, exploded. Had Government removed the Indians, which had been frequently, but without effect, urged, this painful catastrophe might have been avoided.”

A month after the attack on Lancaster, the Paxton Boys planned to march on Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania.

Bacon's Rebellion, Colonists Defending from Indian Attacks, Illustration
This illustration depicts Virginians defending themselves against an Indian attack during Bacon’s Rebellion. Image Source: Government and Social Class in Colonial America, by Don Nardo, 2010.

The Paxton Boys Target Philadelphia

A month before the Conestoga Massacre, government officials moved the peaceful Moravian Lenape and Mohican from Bethlehem to Province Island near Philadelphia for safety. After the massacre, Governor Penn ordered them to relocate to New York, but the New York governor declined to accept them. As a result, the Indians were housed in the city barracks in Philadelphia.

Benjamin Franklin Organizes the Defense of Philadelphia

In February 1764, roughly 100 Paxton Boys advanced toward Philadelphia intending to eliminate all the Indians that were living in the city barracks. Governor Penn appointed Benjamin Franklin to gather and organize the volunteer militia to prepare for hostilities with the Paxton Boys.

Franklin raised six infantry companies, one artillery unit, and two cavalry troops. Among the volunteers were a significant number of Quakers, who were typically known for being pacifists.

The Paxton Boys in Germantown

On February 5, the Paxton Boys arrived at Germantown, six miles northwest of Philadelphia. David Rittenhouse, a town resident, described the Paxton Boys, saying: “I’ve witnessed hundreds of Indians traveling through the region, and I can honestly say that the conduct of these individuals was ten times more savage and brutal than that of the Indians.”

According to Rittenhouse, the Paxton Boys paraded and moved through the streets, frightening women by sticking the muzzles of their guns through windows, using profanity, and shouting. They also attacked some men, pulling them to the ground by their hair, and pretending to scalp them.

Franklin Travels to Germantown

The Paxton Boys stopped their march in Germantown upon hearing about the substantial force waiting for them in Philadelphia. To resolve the situation, Penn asked Franklin to lead a delegation for talks with the Paxton Boys. 

On February 7, following a day of negotiations, they reached an agreement to disband and present their complaints in writing.

Two documents were presented. 

  1. A declaration that defended the killing of the Conestogas, criticized the government’s failure to engage hostile Indians and accused the government of favoring Indians over Pennsylvanians. 
  2. A remonstrance repeated these accusations and demanded a scalp bounty, asserting that the Moravian Lenape and Mohican were enemies of Pennsylvania. According to the authors, all Indians were untrustworthy and “deserving of annihilation during wartime.” 

These documents were given to Governor Penn and the Assembly. However, the only action that was taken was the implementation of a “scalp bounty” — a reward for proof of having killed a hostile Indian.

Conestoga Massacre Aftermath

Following the events of the Conestoga Massacre, there was confusion over the location of the Proclamation Line of 1763, and ongoing violence against Indians. These contributed to Robert Morris, one of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, eventually owning the land where Conestoga Town was located.

Violence Against Indians

Despite a reward being offered, none of the Paxton Boys faced consequences for the Conestoga Massacre and the government’s reluctance to prosecute them created a situation that Benjamin Franklin said promoted “the Spirit of killing all Indians, Friends and Foes…” 

One of the most notorious incidents was the January 1768 murder of ten Lenape and Mohicans, including women and children, by Frederick Stump and John Ironcutter in Cumberland County. While Stump and Ironcutter were arrested, an armed mob stormed the Carlisle jail, freeing them. Stump managed to escape to Georgia and served under Francis Marion during the American Revolutionary War.

Squatters at Conestoga Town

Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent for Indian Affairs, appointed Jacob Whisler, a Mennonite who owned a farm that was next to Conestoga Town, as the caretaker of the property.

In March 1764, Whisler wrote a letter to Johnson informing him that some of the Paxton Boys intended to settle on the land, claiming “right of conquest.” Within a month, at least two families were squatting on the land, and they threatened violence against Whisler if he tried to remove them.

William Johnson Negotiating, Illustration
Illustration of William Johnson negotiating with a Mohawk chief. Image Source: History of the City of New York by Martha Lamb, Archive.org.

Two prominent members of Philadelphia, Edward Shippen and Thomas Barton, defended the actions of the Paxton Boys, and the families continued to occupy the land. Barton, an Episcopalian rector, was openly critical of Benjamin Franklin for his criticism of the Paxton Boys.

In 1768, Joseph Galloway informed the Pennsylvania Assembly that General Thomas Gage and Superintendent Johnson were upset with the violation of the treaties with the Indians. Soon after, British officials started working on a plan to transfer Indian lands, including Conestoga Town, to the colonies.

1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix and the Transfer of Conestoga Town

The Proclamation Line of 1763 was controversial — and unmarked. Because of this and situations like the squatters at Conestoga Town, Superintendent Johnson asked the British Board of Trade if he could conduct a formal survey of the boundary between the colonies and Indian Territory. 

In 1768, the Board of Trade agreed to the survey and defined the boundary as such: The line started at Fort Stanwix, proceeded south and west to the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers, up the Kanawha River to its headwaters, and then south to Spanish East Florida.

After he received his instructions from the Board of Trade, Johnson negotiated the Treaty of Hard Labour with the Cherokee on October 17, 1768. The treaty set the boundary line from the confluence of the Ohio Rover and Kanawha River, to the headwaters of the Kanawha River, then south to Spanish East Florida.

Soon after, Johnson held a conference at Fort Stanwix in New York to negotiate with the Iroquois Confederacy. Several colonial officials joined Johnson, including William Franklin, the Governor of New Jersey — and Benjamin Franklin’s son. According to Johnson’s account of the conference, more than 3,000 members of the Iroquois attended.

On November 5, 1768, Johnson and the Iroquois agreed to a treaty that extended the boundary line along the Ohio River to its confluence with the Tennessee River. The Iroquois ceded territory east and south of the intended boundary line to Britain, extending British territory further west — even though they did not live there. The Iroquois claimed their right to the territory south of the Ohio River as part of their conquests during the Beaver Wars.

Tribes living in the area, including the Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo, lost their ancestral lands in the agreement — while the Six Nations retained theirs. Some of the tribes, notably the Shawnee, refused to honor the treaty, which led to hostilities with the colonies.

The 1768 treaty, which is also known as the Boundary Line Treaty, was adjusted several times between 1768 and 1773. However, it opened the territory to colonists for settlement in what eventually became part of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

In the treaty, the Seneca and Cayuga were given 500 silver Spanish dollars for the “Conestoga Lands,” saying that Pennsylvania “freely gave this sum as a farther Proof of the regard of that Province, for them, and of their concern for the unhappy fate of the Conostogas…” At the time, four Spanish dollars were worth one British pound.

Final Negotiations for Conestoga Town

After the treaty was signed, Thomas Barton moved to Conestoga Town and Whisler was removed as the caretaker. Barton made improvements to the land and erected buildings.

In May 1775, not long after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, a small group of Cayuga Indians petitioned the Philadephia government for ownership of some of the land at Conestoga Town. The Indians argued their ancestors had only received a portion of the money owned for the land, so the government paid the difference of 300 Spanish dollars. The Cayugas accepted the money and signed an agreement that forfeited their claims to the land.

On September 16, 1780, an official deed was created for what was left of Conestoga Town, which was a little more than 414 acres. One-fourth of it was granted to John Musser, the land agent in Lancaster, and the rest was granted to Robert Morris, the Founding Father and “Financier of the American Revolution.”

Paxton Boys APUSH Review

The Paxton Boys are part of APUSH Unit 3 (1754–1800). Use the following links and videos to study the Paxton Boys, the Middle Colonies, and Colonial America for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Paxton Boys APUSH Definition

The definition of the Paxton Boys for APUSH is a group of frontiersmen from Pennsylvania who, in 1763, engaged in violent attacks known as the Conestoga Massacre. The Paxton Boys were predominantly of Scots-Irish descent and were motivated by grievances against the Pennsylvania government’s lenient policies toward Indians during Pontiac’s Rebellion. They believed Indian attacks on settlers were not adequately addressed, leading them to massacre the Conestogas in December 1763. Afterward, the Paxton Boys marched on Philadelphia, intending to attack more Indians, but Benjamin Franklin negotiated a settlement that addressed their grievances.

Paxton Boys APUSH Significance

The Paxton Boys are significant to APUSH for the role they played in the Conestoga Massacre, which increased tension between Indians and Americans living on the Western Frontier of the British Colonies. The tension contributed to most Indians siding with the British during the American Revolutionary War.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Paxton Boys and the Conestoga Massacre of 1763
  • Date December 1763–January 1764
  • Author
  • Keywords Paxton Boys, Conestoga Massacre, Benjamin Franklin, Conestoga Town, Conestoga Manor, William Penn, John Penn, James Logan, Pontiac's Rebellion, Paxton Rangers, Hickory Boys, Will Sock, John Elder, Matthew Smith, Proclamation of 1763
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 27, 2023

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