Lancaster’s Darkest Chapter: The Massacre of the Conestoga

True Friends and Brothers

When the English first entered Pennsylvania, messengers from the Conestoga Indians met them, bidding them welcome and bringing gifts of corn, venison, and skins. The whole tribe entered into a treaty of friendship with William Penn, which was to last “as long as the sun should shine or the waters rut into the rivers.” 

'Treaty of Penn with Indians' by Benjamin West.
Treaty of Penn with Indians by Benjamin West

Little did the Conestoga Indians know that the sun would stop shining for them only 62 years later.

Conestoga Indians

In 1664, the Iroquois Nation to the North declared war on Susquehannock Indians who lived here in the Susquehanna Valley. A brutal ten-year war ensued, which nearly decimated the Susquehannocks. By 1700 only 300 remained.

In 1701, William Penn promised these Native Americans that they would be treated fairly and equally in his colony and that he and his heirs would always “show themselves [to be] true Friends and Brothers” to them.

Although called now Conestogas, they actually represented several refugee Indian groups, including Senecas. Now under the protection of Pennsylvania’s provincial government, Penn gave the Indians 3,000 acres in Manor Township. However, Penn’s sons, who assumed the proprietorship of the colony after his death in 1718, exploited the region to enhance their own wealth by whittling the property down to just over 400 acres.

This colonial-era map designates the land that the Susquehannocks, known then as the Conestoga, would inhabit.

Over the next 60 years, the Conestoga adopted the customs of many of their Mennonite and Quaker neighbors. They abandoned native clothing. They built cabins of wood planks. They hunted with imported guns and cooked in iron pots. With much of their hunting lands converted to farmland, the Indians now tended vegetable gardens and fished in a nearby stream. They wove brooms and baskets to sell to neighbors and at market. Many even converted to Christianity.

A memorial boulder designates the site of Conestoga Indian Town in Manor Township.

Their numbers also continued to dwindle until, in 1763, only 20 were left.

The Paxton Boys

The community of Paxton, just north of modern Harrisburg, had ample reason to hate Indians. In 1757, at the outset of the French and Indian War, hostile Indians aligned with the French raided Paxton, killing several inhabitants and burning their homes.

Then in 1763, “Pontiac’s Rebellion” in the Great Lakes Country spread into Pennsylvania, renewing hostilities between whites and Indians. Pennsylvanians, who had been ordered off their lands because of the Proclamation Line of 1763 prohibiting white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, sought revenge.

In August 1763, the Paxton Boys sought revenge but were mostly unsuccessful. They rode north to the Susquehanna’s West Branch, attempting to follow the enemy home. However, they were surprised by a group of Indians who killed four and wounded six of the Paxton Boys. They tried again in October only to find a Wyoming Valley white settlement butchered.

It was then that the Paxton Boys heard of the Conestoga at Indian Town. The Paxton Boys claimed that these Indians had secretly provided aid and intelligence to the hostile Indians who had actually raided Paxton homes, killing men, women, and children.

The First Attack

At daybreak on December 14, 1763, more than 50 Paxton Boys attacked Conestoga Indian Town. They dismounted their horses and fired their flintlocks at the Indian huts. They rushed inside and tomahawking survivors. They scalped everyone! The Paxton Boys proceeded to loot the village and then set all the buildings ablaze. The entire raid likely only took a few minutes. Emboldened by the successful attack, the Ranger headed home to Paxton.

In this illustration, angry settlers approach a Conestoga village, where they murder all the inhabitants. (Weshoyot Alvitre)

Little did the Paxton boys know that 13 of the Conestoga had traveled several miles from home the day before to sell their woven wares. Fearing being caught in a massive snowstorm, they spent the night at a nearby Mennonite farm.

Second Attack

As news of the attack spread, officials in Lancaster and Philadelphia began to worry that the men who murdered and attacked the Conestoga might return.

Local deputies were ordered to move the Indians into a substantial brick workhouse that stood directly north of the county jail at King and Prince Street. The workhouse had just been constructed, so the Conestoga became some of the first inmates.

An early depiction of the Lancaster County Prison at King and Prince streets shows the workhouse section where the Conestogas were housed and killed at the far right.

After several days, word reached the Paxton Boys that 14 Conestoga Indians lived. It took little convincing to muster the men to return to Lancaster and finish the job.

On the morning of December 27, between 50 and 100 Rangers once again headed south. They reached Lancaster’s snow-covered Queen Street at 2 pm. They dismounted at the Sign of the White Swan, gathered their weapons, and walked down King Street. When the Paxton Boys reached the workhouse, they encountered Sheriff Hay and Coroner Slough. However, as the Rangers approached, the two men stepped aside without protest.

The Rangers broke down the workhouse door and pursued the fleeing Indians into the yard. There they slaughtered the Conestogas. Parents were hacked to death in front of their children. Others were murdered with musket fire at point-blank range. The Paxton Boys cut the hands and feet of several Indians. Everyone was scalped.

In “Ghost River,” the massacre of the Conestoga is depicted symbolically. A wampum peace belt breaks apart, the scattered beads leaving bloody traces in the snow. (Weshoyot Alvitre)

Just 12 minutes later, the bloodied killers emerged from the workhouse. They mounted their horses and boldly rode around the courthouse, shouting and discharging their firearms. They then turned their horses north on Queen Street and headed home.

No Justice

The Pennsylvania government offered a reward of $600 for the capture of anyone involved. But the attackers were never identified, and no one was ever brought to justice.

Historical Inaccuracies

This 1842 lithograph from James Witmer’s Events in Indian History depicting the Paxton Rangers killing the last of Conestoga Indians in front of the Lancaster County workhouse (where the Fulton Theater now stands) is the most famous image of the event. Unfortunately, almost nothing pictured is accurate.

James Witmer’s 1842 lithograph ‘Events in Indian History.’

The image shows the Paxton Boys wearing nineteenth-century Victorian-era formal attire, including top hats. However, the slaughter took place nearly 100 years earlier. Despite being late December, the Indians are half-naked as if it were summer. Even the location is incorrect. The Conestogas were killed inside the workhouse yard, not on the street corner. This sole depiction of the massacre is reproduced so often that it is typically taken as fact.

The Paxton Boys’ workhouse raid was timed for Tuesday morning when most Lancastrians would be at church for a special Christmas service. As a result, there are no first-person accounts. Further complicating the matter is that it was another 15 years before any historians even documented the event. This much is true…the massacre of the Conestogas is a dark chapter in Lancaster’s history.

Also shown is a lithograph of the Lancaster County workhouse, the rear entrance to the Fulton Theater containing original foundation stones from the workhouse, and a plaque on the building commemorating the site.

The rear entrance to the Fulton Theater contains original foundation stones from the Lancaster County workhouse. A plaque on the wall commemorates the site.

Learn More

If you want to learn more about this tragic event, read Jack Brubaker’s Massacre of the Conestogas: On the Trail of the Paxton Boys in Lancaster County. You can purchase the book here. It’s likely the best resource on the subject. Another fascinating resource on the topic is Ghost River. You can purchase the graphic novel here


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11 thoughts on “Lancaster’s Darkest Chapter: The Massacre of the Conestoga

  1. Adam, you are awesome! I was searching for James witmer and your site was the first to pop up! And it’s happened twice before!

  2. A superb account of the Conestoga Massacre in its larger context has been published by Kevin Kenny, professor of history at Boston College. Entitled PEACEABLE KINGDOM LOST: THE PAXTON BOYS AND THE DESTRUCTION OF WILLIAM PENN’S HOLY EXPERIMENT, Kenny’s exhaustive research should continue to recommend his 2009 text as the definitive scholarly
    history for years to come.

  3. This article says the second massacre took place on a Sunday. This is incorrect. December 27th was a Tuesday.

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