Haunted Lancaster: Massacre of the Conestoga

History Brief

On December 27, 1763, vigilantes broke into the Lancaster County workhouse—now the Fulton Theatre—to massacre the defenseless Conestoga. Locals buried the murdered Native Americans on the future Duke Street parking garage grounds, where people have reported seeing shadowy figures darting around inside.

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

Background

To understand the 1763 slaughter, you have to travel back six years to 1757 and the outset of the French and Indian War. During this time, hostile Native Americans aligned with the French raided the community of Paxton, just north of modern-day Harrisburg, 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 indigenous people. 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 began looking for revenge but mainly were unsuccessful. They rode north to the Susquehanna’s West Branch, attempting to follow the enemy home. However, they were surprised by Native Americans 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 this group had secretly provided aid and intelligence to the hostile Native Americans who had 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, firing their flintlocks at the huts. The Paxton Boys then rushed inside the homes, tomahawking survivors. They scalped everyone! They proceeded to loot the village and then set it ablaze. The entire only took a few minutes. Emboldened by the successful attack, the Rangers 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 was that 14 of the Conestoga had left home the day before to sell their woven wares. Fearing the approach of 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 Native Americans into a substantial brick workhouse directly north of the county jail at King and Prince Street. The workhouse had just be constructed, so the Conestoga became some of the first “inmates.”

After several days, word reached the Paxton Boys that 14 of the Conestoga 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.

The White Swan was located on the southeast corner of Penn Square.

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 Conestoga into the yard. There they slaughtered them. 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 from several. 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 tracks 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.

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

The rear entrance (shown above) to the 1852 Fulton Theater contains the original foundation stones from the old Lancaster County workhouse. A plaque on the wall commemorates the site. You can find the entrance at 2 North Water Street, Lancaster, PA. Here are the GPS coordinates: 40°02’16.9″N 76°18’30.8″W.

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.

Burial

The murdered men, women, and children were buried outside a Mennonite cemetery close to the intersection of Chestnut and Duke Street. Their remains were moved in 1833 to make way for a railroad. Today the location is home to the Duke Street Garage.

You can find the Duke Street Garage on the corner of Chestnut and Duke Street at 50 N Duke St, Lancaster, PA. Here are the GPS coordinates: 40°02’28.6″N 76°18’15.5″W.

Haunting

Both the Fulton Theatre and the Duke Street Garage are said to be haunted. Some reports say that you can still hear the piercing screams of the Conetogas echoing through the building. But that isn’t the only tragic tale to occur there. Between 1834 and 1851, three men were hung inside its walls while operating as the county jail when public executions were made illegal. Not to mention, the Fulton briefly served as a hospital for wounded soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg. More on all that in a future #HauntedLancaster tale.

At the Duke Street Garage, people claim to see shadowy figures darting around the various floors.

Learn More

Click here to read more about Lancaster’s Darkest Chapter: The Massacre of the Conestoga.

If you would like 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 buy the graphic novel here

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