On my first day back to work after the holidays, I ran into a student in the hallway who had taken one of my Native American history classes a couple of years ago. He said, “Who’d have thought the Paxton Boys would come back on Jan. 6?” “Wow,” I said, “I hadn’t thought of it like that, but you’re right.”
The Paxton in question, also called Paxtang, was a small settlement in colonial Pennsylvania which is now a suburb of Harrisburg. To understand the movement that started there in 1763 we have to - you guessed it - have context.
1763 was a pretty important year. In February, a treaty had been signed in Paris that ended the French and Indian War, and a large part of France’s territory in North America was transferred to the victorious English. English colonists in the back-country of Pennsylvania, many of whom were of Scots-Irish descent, had very harsh feelings toward indigenous peoples after this war. Friction was increased by the fact that settlers were pouring into areas that technically were reserved for the local tribes, most of whom had not sided with the French and who had been living peacefully with their white neighbors for decades.
When the English took over “possession” of the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River - the northern part of which, the Great Lakes region, was known collectively as the Ohio Country - the tribes there did not like the heavy hand that the English took with them (compared to the French, with whom they had gotten along). The result -within months - was the start of a new war in that territory. Several tribes united and attacked English forts and settlements. One of their principal leaders was an Ottawa chief named Pontiac (yes, the town is named after him, and therefore the car), so the conflict was known as “Pontiac’s Rebellion” or “Pontiac’s War.” It was a very bloody war, but it did not extend into Central Pennsylvania. However, the settlers there were unnerved by the knowledge of it and that it was relatively close to them, after having just spent years fighting Indians. This was heightened by the fact that many settlers wanted the peaceful Indians in their area removed so they could have their land.
An angry mob formed in Paxton. There were no hostile Native Americans anywhere nearby, but one Native was the same as another to them. They attacked a small group of Conestoga Indians, most of whom were Christian converts and had never taken up arms against colonists. They killed several. Local authorities put the remaining Conestogas - numbering 16 - in jail for their own protection, but the mob broke into the jail and killed all the adults, scalping and mutilating them. They then started roaming the countryside, looking for more Natives to vent their wrath on, gathering more and more followers from other towns as they went. They eventually numbered about 250, calling themselves “the Paxton Boys.”
The colonial government condemned their actions - so they marched on Philadelphia to vent their wrath on the government. They were met outside the city by a group of city leaders who tried to calm them down. One of those leaders was Benjamin Franklin, who gave a stirring speech that did, in fact, calm them. The city leaders agreed to read the rioters’ pamphlets and consider their complaints, and the mob dispersed and went home.
When I learned about this in school and when I have taught about it afterward, it has always been presented as a dark point in our history and a lesson in the dangers of mob rule - as a national embarrassment.
The insurrectionists of Jan. 6 apparently never learned this lesson, and there was no Ben Franklin there to calm them down. If there had been, they would doubtless have beaten him with flagpoles and perhaps brained him with a fire extinguisher, because “freedom.”
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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