Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Indian Policy in 1763

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Indian Policy in 1763

By Jared Sparks (1789–1866)

[Born in Willington, Conn., 1789. Died at Cambridge, Mass., 1866. From The Works of Benjamin Franklin. With a Life of the Author. 1836–40.]

IN the month of December, a tragical occurrence took place in Lancaster County, as revolting to humanity, as it was disgraceful to the country. At the Conestogo manor, resided the remnant of a tribe of Indians, which had dwindled down to twenty persons, men, women, and children. Their chief, a venerable old man, who had assisted at the second treaty held with the Indian tribes by William Penn, more than sixty years before, had from that day lived on terms of friendship with his white neighbors, and he and his people had ever been distinguished for their peaceable and inoffensive behavior. The little village of huts, which they occupied, was surrounded in the night by fifty-seven armed men, who came on horseback from two of the frontier townships, and every individual then present was massacred in cold blood. The old chief was murdered in his bed. It happened, that six persons only were at home, the other fourteen being absent among the surrounding whites. These Indians were collected by the magistrates of Lancaster, brought to the town, and put into the workhouse as the place of greatest safety.

When the news of this atrocious act came to Philadelphia, the Governor issued a proclamation, calling on all justices, sheriffs, and other public officers civil and military, to make diligent search for the perpetrators of the crime, and cause them to be apprehended and confined in the jails, till they could be tried by the laws. In defiance of this proclamation, fifty of these barbarians, armed as before, marched into the town of Lancaster, broke open the door of the workhouse, and deliberately murdered every Indian it contained; and, strange as it may seem, the magistrates and other inhabitants were mute spectators of this scene of horror, without attempting to rescue the unhappy victims from their fate. Not one of the murderers was apprehended, the laws and the Governor’s authority being alike disregarded.

Such an outrage upon humanity, and so daring a violation of all laws human and divine, could not but kindle the indignation of every benevolent mind, and fill with alarm every friend of social order. To exhibit the transaction in its proper colors before the public, Franklin wrote a Narrative of the late Massacres in Lancaster County; usually called the Paxton Murders, because many of the rioters belonged to a frontier town of that name. After a brief and impressive relation of the facts, he cites examples from history to show, that even heathens, in the rudest stages of civilization, had never tolerated such crimes as had here been perpetrated in the heart of a Christian community.

Appealing to the inhabitants, he says: “Let us rouse ourselves, for shame, and redeem the honor of our province from the contempt of its neighbors; let all good men join heartily and unanimously in support of the laws, and in strengthening the hands of government; that justice may be done, the wicked punished, and the innocent protected; otherwise we can, as a people, expect no blessing from Heaven; there will be no security for our persons or properties; anarchy and confusion will prevail over all; and violence without judgment dispose of everything.” The style of this pamphlet is more vehement and rhetorical, than is common in the author’s writings, but it is characterized by the peculiar clearness and vigor which mark all his compositions.

But neither the able exposure of the wickedness of the act, nor the eloquent and passionate appeal to the sensibilities of the people, contained in this performance, could stifle the spirit that was abroad, or check the fury with which it raged. The friendly Indians throughout the province, some of whom had been converted to Christianity by the Moravians, were alarmed at this war of extermination waged against their race. One hundred and forty of them fled for protection to Philadelphia. For a time they were kept in safety on Province Island, near the city. When the insurgents threatened to march down and put them all to death, the Assembly resolved to repel them by force. The fugitives were taken into the city, and secured in the barracks.

There being no regular militia, Franklin, at the request of the Governor, formed a military Association, as he had done on another occasion in a time of public danger. Nine companies were organized, and nearly a thousand citizens embodied themselves under arms. The insurgents advanced as far as Germantown, within six miles of Philadelphia, where, hearing of the preparation that had been made to protect the Indians, they thought it prudent to pause. Taking advantage of this crisis, the Governor and Council appointed Franklin and three other gentlemen to go out and meet them, and endeavor to turn them from their purpose. This mission was successful. Finding it impossible to carry their design into execution, they were at last prevailed upon to return peaceably to their homes.

Two persons were deputed by the rioters, before they separated, to be the bearers of their complaints to the Governor and the Assembly. This was done by a memorial to the Governor in behalf of the inhabitants of the frontier settlements. Divers grievances were enumerated, particularly the distresses they suffered from the savages, who had murdered defenceless families, and been guilty in numerous instances of the most barbarous cruelties. Much sophistry was used to extenuate, or rather to defend, the conduct of those, who, driven to desperation, had determined to make an indiscriminate slaughter of the Indians. It was alleged, that the friendship of these Indians was only a pretence; that they harbored traitors among them, who sent intelligence to the war parties and abetted their atrocities; that retaliation was justifiable, the war being against the Indians as a nation, of which every tribe and individual constituted a part.

With such reasoning as this the multitude was satisfied. Religious frenzy suggested another argument. Joshua had been commanded to destroy the heathen. The Indians were heathens; hence there was a divine command to exterminate them. Another memorial, with fifteen hundred signatures, was sent to the Assembly. They were both referred to a committee, but, the Governor declining to support the measures recommended, no further steps were taken.

The character and result of these extraordinary proceedings show, in the first place, that the criminal outrages were approved by a large party in the province; and next that the government, either from want of intelligence and firmness in the head, or of union in the parts, was too feeble to execute justice and preserve public order. Great credit is due to the agency of Franklin, in stopping the tide of insurrection and quieting the commotions. By his personal exertions and influence, as well as by his pen, he labored to strengthen the arm of government, diffuse correct sentiments among the people, and maintain the supremacy of the laws.