Historical Fiction: The Paxton Boys wanted gold, not revenge in their Massacre of the Conestoga

On December 14, 1763, a vigilante group of Scots-Irish frontiersmen known as the Paxton Boys attacked what remained of the Susquehannock tribe at Conestoga Indian Town. The Paxton Boys claimed that these Indians—locally referred to as the Conestoga—had secretly provided aid and intelligence to the hostile Indians who had actually raided Paxton homes, killing men, women, and children.

While revenge has always been an excellent motivator for murder, there’s one thing that motivates better…gold.

As the conflict between France and England escalated in the mid-1700s, calls went out for volunteers and militia. As with all the wars of our country, Lancastrians were always among the first to respond. With the promise of a regular paycheck, three of the remaining Susquehannock Indians—locally referred to as the Conestoga—now living in Conestoga Indian Town (outside present-day Millersville) volunteered to serve as scouts and guides.

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Somewhere on the western frontier trail, this forward unit came across a squad of French soldiers transporting a payroll wagon. With the combined advantage of surprise and the high ground, the group of colonials and Native Americans deftly eliminated the French leaving the treasure free for the taking. The men including the Indians divided the shares equally.

Among them was Colonel Matthew Smith. Smith, a native of Lancaster County, went on to be a hero of the French and Indian War as well as a distinguished officer of the Revolution. In 1763, he became a member of the Paxton Boys.

As the conflict wind down, the men returned home with their riches.

Smith loved to tell stories from the French and Indian War. He talked of the Conestoga Indians who served as guides and how one of them was the tallest man he’d ever met at seven-foot. But his favorite tale was the ambush of the French payroll wagon.

One night after several rounds at the local tavern, a friend asked what the Indians had down with their shares of the spoils. By all reports, the Conestoga Indians were still living on land ceded to them by William Penn in the 1690s. They bartered handicrafts with their neighbors and living on food given to them by the Pennsylvania government and from hunting. These were definitely not the actions of rich people.

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As far as these men could figure, the Indians had done nothing with their share of the treasure. This was true. While the Conestoga Indians had never been ones to pursue the accumulation of gold and silver, they had been living in proximity to European settlers long enough to recognize the power and influence it had. It was the hope of the Indian scouts that the newfound wealth could one day be used to provide a better life for the last of the Conestoga. But at present, the tribe’s leadership was not open to the idea so the treasure was hidden.

Soon Smith and his tavern friends invented a revenge story. One that would recruit men to their cause without having to disclose the mission’s true intent. For years, these Scots-Irish immigrants had been encroaching on Native American land often in blatant violation of previously signed treaties. In retaliation, Indians—but not the Conestoga—had raided Paxton homes, killing men, women, and children. Smith and his cohorts claimed via military contacts that it was the Conestoga who had secretly provided aid and intelligence to the hostile Indians.

Smith and his cohorts also knew that simply stealing from a group of Indians, many of whom were now Christian, who had lived peacefully with their neighbors for decades would undoubtedly invite serious repercussions from the peace-loving Quakers who governed the region. However, a group of settlers seeking frontier justice was very different.

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

At daybreak on December 14, 1763, the Paxton Boys attacked Conestoga Indian Town. It quickly became clear that none of the Conestoga knew anything about the treasure. As a result, all six were scalped. The men searched the village and after being unable to find the treasure they set the cabins ablaze.

The Paxton Boys fled the area. Most felt vindicated having killed the Indians they believed to be responsible for the death of their friends and family. However, the core group felt very differently as they left empty handed.

What the thieving vigilantes did not know was that more than half of the Indians including the ones that knew the treasure’s location were absent. A majority of the Indians had traveled into the town the day before to trade for supplies but a snowstorm had delayed their return.

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Lancaster prison. The Fulton Theater now sits on the location.

Before being relocated to the Lancaster prison (where the Fulton Theater now sits) under the guise of protective custody, the seven-foot-tall Indian hid the treasure in the hills near Safe Harbor not far from the Conestoga River. This area had long been sacred with its view of the nearby petroglyphs in the middle of the Susquehanna River. The Conestoga had lived and died in the area for generations. Many of their noblest ancestors had been buried there.

After several days, word reached the Paxton Boys that 16 Conestoga Indians lived. The inner circle of Paxton Boys was invigorated to learn that the treasure could still be theirs. It took little convincing to muster the men to return to Lancaster and finish the job.

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In this 1841 print of The Paxton Boys Massacre, the artist put the Paxton Boys in 19th-century dress. He did, however, capture the horrible violence of the episode, when an armed mob hacked to death a party of unarmed Indian men, women, and children in the streets of Lancaster.

Almost two weeks later on December 27, the Paxton Boys broke into the prison meeting no resistance from local officials to stop them. The ring leaders quickly located the seven-foot-tall Conestoga that Smith talked about at the tavern. The Indian said he would tell the men where to look if they promised to spare everyone’s life. The leaders agreed. The Indian made the men swear it saying that if they broke their word his spirit would guard the treasure forever moving it making it impossible to find.

Confident of the treasure’s location, the Paxton Boys broke their promise killing, scalping, and dismembering the Indians. They again fled home. This time the Pennsylvania government offered a reward of $600 for the capture of anyone involved, but the attackers were never identified. No one was ever brought to justice.

Once news of what became known as the “Conestoga Massacre” died down, the ring leaders traveled to the Safe Harbor area to search for the gold. But upon their arrival, locals were already telling stories of a seven-foot-tall “Indian Spirit” seen walking in the woods.

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True to the Indian’s words, the men never found anything, and more than 100 years later their ancestors still hadn’t.

Perhaps you can.

Disclaimer

What you just read is a work of historical fiction. Everything is historically accurate, but more in the sense that the movie National Treasure was historically accurate. The people, events, and dates are real but like the film, there’s no actual treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Various historical events have been connected via wild conjecture to create this story but it was all done in the spirit of good-natured fun and adventure.

There is no evidence to support that the Conestoga Indians ever came in possession of any French gold nor is there evidence to suggest the Paxton Boys attacked the Conestoga for that treasure.

If you want to learn the actual record of the events surrounding the Paxton Boys, I would suggest reading Jack Brubaker’s book, Massacre of the Conestogas

Uncharted Lancaster: Haunted Indian Gold Adventure

If you aren’t afraid of a seven-foot-tall Native American ghost, click here to start the Haunted Indian Gold Adventure. If you want to learn more about the buried gold hidden in Safe Harbor as well as several other lost treasures from the French & Indian War before starting the adventure, click here. Plus, if you would like to read the original newspaper articles detailing the Safe Harbor’s treasure hunters and the “Indian Spirit” that moves the treasure nightly, click here

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