By Will Fenton
In December 1763, following years of gruesome warfare, a mob of backcountry settlers in the Paxton Township—just outside what is today Harrisburg—murdered twenty unarmed Conestoga Indians along the Pennsylvania frontier. Soon after, hundreds of these “Paxton Boys” marched on Philadelphia to menace a group of Moravian Indians who had, in response to the violence, been placed under government protection. Though none other than Benjamin Franklin helped to diffuse the confrontation, the incident ventilated long-festering religious and ethnic grievances, pitting the colony’s German and Scots-Irish Presbyterian frontiersmen against Philadelphia’s English Quakers and their indigenous trading partners. Supporters of the Paxton Boys and their critics spent the next year battling in print: in fact, the resulting public debate constituted about one-fifth of the Pennsylvania’s printed material in 1764.
That “pamphlet war” was not so different from the Twitter wars of today. Entwined in that debate were fears of a native “other,” anxieties about borders, distrust between urban and rural populations, and the proliferation of what we might today call “fake news.” In fact, the Conestoga massacre gains new urgency in today’s political environment.
To provide historical context and encourage critical thinking, Digital Paxton seeks to introduce both academic and non-academic audiences, especially students and young adults, to the Paxton pamphlet war as a means to foster dialogue about polarized, zero-sum views of race, class, and cosmopolitanism. As an open-access digital collection, scholarly edition, and teaching platform, Digital Paxton provides the primary-source and contextual materials necessary to explore Pennsylvania’s 1764 pamphlet war and to situate that debate in a wider crisis of representation that stretches from the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) to the Northwest Ordinance (1787).
Digital Paxton’s digital collection comprises all known pamphlets, including alternate editions and German-language translations, as well as hundreds of pages of broadsides, political cartoons, and correspondence. Pamphleteers mobilized anonymity and pseudonyms to amplify talking points, discredit opponents, and boost legislative allies, while Paxton supporters forged unlikely coalitions by stoking fears of renewed racial violence and promising security. Surviving documents feature a trove of genre experimentation, from songs to satires. Such forms illuminate a print culture whose multiplicity enabled innovation, fragmentation, and slippages of meaning.
Meanwhile, manuscript material gives voice to indigenous perspectives, embracing what the editors of the Yale Indian Papers Project have called as a “common pot” a communal space that is neither wholly indigenous or colonial. At present, Digital Paxton features 47 rare manuscripts from the Friendly Association Papers, including letters between Quaker leaders and their native partners, accounts of diplomatic conferences, and the writings of Wyalusing leaders.
Digital Paxton also supports interpretation and analysis with the latest historiography and conceptual frameworks. The project features historical overview essays from leading scholars, including Kevin Kenny and Jack Brubaker, who wrote two major books on the Paxton massacre. The project’s interdisciplinary imperative is embodied in the conceptual keyword essays, which feature contributions from historians, literary scholars, and community leaders. Each of these essays is thoughtfully researched and carefully edited to ensure accessibility to high school and undergraduate students.
To support integration into secondary and postsecondary classrooms, Digital Paxton is expanding to support educational resources that collapse the distance between historical records and contemporary interpretation. At present, educators at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and faculty at Loyola University Chicago, Shepherd University, and the University of Georgia have contributed lesson plans. While each of these lessons makes innovative use of the project’s digital collections, there is more work yet to do.
As I expand this project as an educational platform, I hope to draw upon the collective generosity and expertise of the Organization of American Historians. I humbly request two forms of feedback. First, I invite you to use Digital Paxton in your education and research. I look forward to hearing what works and what doesn’t, what is intuitive and what isn’t. I may not be able to address all suggestions (I am relying upon a third-party publishing platform), but I will do what I can to address your questions and suggestions. Second, I solicit your lesson plans. I am eager to collaborate on innovative approaches to the Paxton corpus. For example, the Loyola-Shepherd University assignment emerged from a collaborative transcription project. Any lesson plans developed for Digital Paxton will be made publicly accessible with credits to the creator(s). Should you wish to contribute in either capacity, please do not hesitate to email me or connect via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Thank you for your consideration, and, hopefully, your feedback. There was nothing inevitable about the Paxton massacre or the template it provided for nineteenth-century colonization. Rather, this is the story of how a small group of vigilantes upended Pennsylvania’s peaceful settlement policies and created a precedent for indigenous dispossession and westward conquest. In foregrounding this overlooked historical incident, Digital Paxton seeks to underscore that history, and more broadly the project of historiography, is itself contested, and that everyone has a place in our collective memory and everyone has a role in shaping how history is presented. Thank you for your interest.
Will Fenton is the Elizabeth R. Moran Fellow at the American Philosophical Society and a doctoral candidate at Fordham University where he specializes in early American literature and the Digital Humanities. His dissertation, Unpeaceable Kingdom: Fighting Quakers, Revolutionary Violence, and the Antebellum Novel, bridges the religious and transnational turns in early American literary studies through the study of historical, political, and theological representations of the Society of Friends.