15. The Susquehannocks and the Paxton Boys


The Susquehannocks were a native people occupying what is now central Pennsylvania and the river flowing into the Chesapeake Bay that shares their name. They had lived there for hundreds of years before the European arrivals. Captain John Smith of Jamestown, Virginia, encountered them in 1608 as he explored the bay’s northern end.

The Susquehannock were large-scale agriculturalists. They practiced ‘slash and burn’ farming. This involved clearing the forest by burning down trees and planting crops in their ashes, as nutrients in the soil were depleted. They moved every few decades to refresh the soil. In the late sixteenth century, they also absorbed smaller pre-existing native peoples. They were a confederacy of up to 20 smaller tribes. They were also known for fortifying their villages with log stockades. They grew powerful for a time but all but disappeared by 1776. But let’s not get ahead of the story.

They were Iroquoian-speaking, but no one knew what they called themselves. Their ancestors were likely from the Ohio Valley and migrated centuries earlier over the mountains into the headwaters of the Susquehanna River near where Pennsylvania borders New York. ‘Susquehannock’ in the tongues of their neighbors means ‘people of the flowing muddy water,’ but those near the bay at the south end were also called ‘oyster-eaters.’ and ‘Conestoga,’ after one of their last settlements.


Village on the Susquehanna River

With the Europeans’ arrival, their influence grew and became more precarious. Since they had metal tools when John Smith first met them in 1609, they had likely obtained them through fur trading with the French directly and through their Iroquois rivals to the north. Going eastward through the Lenape in New Netherland and New Sweden, they obtained firearms and training from the Dutch. They even obtained a small cannon from the Swedes.

Their location on a major river and tributaries put them at several trading crossroads. They traveled them on foot and used heavy dugout canoes on the many waterways. It also put them in a position to hijack goods meant for others, such as shipments headed westward to the Seneca on the other side of the Allegheny mountains.

During Bacon’s rebellion, those along the Chesapeake got in early trouble with the Virginians. After some Doeg Indians near Jamestown killed some Virginians, some surviving colonists crossed into the colony of Maryland and demanded a meeting with a Susquehannock village settled at a fort on Piscataway Creek, below present-day Washington, DC.

Five local sachems were immediately slaughtered when they came to the meeting. The Susquehannock then fled the area, but not without taking some revenge on surrounding settlers.

By the turn of the century, into the 1700s, their confederacy and power changed. European diseases decimated them, and violence against them by growing numbers of Scots-Irish settlers moving westward.

The broader context was rivalry between France and Britain for control of the ‘Ohio Country’—the French were being pushed out, but their native allies still fought the British. Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, formed a broad confederation to push the British troops and squatting settlers eastward back across the mountains.

The fighting, or its aftermath, reached the town of Paxtang, or ‘Paxton’ on the Susquehanna in what is now Dauphin County. It was occupied by Scots-Irish, including the first Presbyterian church in the colony.

A good number of young men called ‘the Paxton boys’ organized to retaliate. What made them stand out, however, is they didn’t care whether the natives they killed were involved in the hostilities or not, making no distinctions among tribes or whether the natives concerned were Christians or not. They slaughtered everyone, including the last remnants of the Susquehannock living in the village of Conestoga.

“At about sixty or eighty yards from the gaol, we met from twenty-five to thirty men, well mounted on horses, and with rifles, tomahawks, and scalping knives, equipped for murder,” reads an account in Wikipedia by William Henry of Lancaster. “I ran into the prison yard, and there, O what a horrid sight presented itself to my view!- Near the back door of the prison, lay an old Indian and his women, particularly well known and esteemed by the people of the town, on account of his placid and friendly conduct. His name was Will Sock; across him and his Native women lay two children, of about the age of three years, whose heads were split with the tomahawk, and their scalps all taken off. Towards the middle of the gaol yard, along the west side of the wall, lay a stout Indian, whom I particularly noticed to have been shot in the breast, his legs were chopped with the tomahawk, his hands cut off, and finally a rifle ball discharged in his mouth; so that his head was blown to atoms, and the brains were splashed against, and yet hanging to the wall, for three or four feet around. This man’s hands and feet had also been chopped off with a tomahawk. In this manner lay the whole of them, men, women and children, spread about the prison yard: shot-scalped-hacked-and cut to pieces.”

Some 140 surviving natives fled toward Philadelphia to escape the Paxton Boys, who chased them to the outskirts of the city. Benjamin Franklin organized the local militia to protect them and stopped the Paxton Boys at Germantown. He convinced them to turn their issues into the colonial legislature. But even if delayed, the Paxton Boys had staked out and clarified a new position: the real aim of ‘Indian policy’ was to be reduced to ethnic cleansing, extermination, and genocide against any and all ‘Red Skins.’ More to come.

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