The Paxton Boys, an early case of viral fake news witnessed from Lebanon’s Hebron Moravian Church

3 min read 62 views and 12 shares Posted October 8, 2018

Little-known today, the Paxton massacre occurred in December 1763 when a mob of settlers from Dauphin County murdered 20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians in Lancaster County. The bloodshed was in anger over the erroneous belief that the local population was colluding with Ohio Country Lenape and Shawnee warriors further west.

The massacre took place in an area called “Conestoga Indian Town” down river from Paxton.

The debate over this incident would crescendo in 1764 with a nation-scale pamphlet war and a dramatic meeting of Ben Franklin, the Quakers, and the so-called “Paxton Boys” in Germantown, outside Philadelphia.

The Paxton issue was to account for up to 25% of all the ink spilled in newspapers and pamphlets during this period, according to a new meta study by Will Fenton of the Library Company of Philadelphia, The Paxton Pamphlet War as a Viral Media Event.

The new research accompanies the launch of Digital Paxton, a digital window into colonization, print culture, and Pennsylvania just before the American Revolution.

Lebanon County hadn’t yet been incorporated out of Dauphin and Lancaster Counties, but the clergy at the Hebron Moravian Church, dedicated in 1751, where right smackdab in the middle of the controversy. (The church was located at what is now the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Moravian Street. A cemetery adjacent the building has apparently been lost to time.)

The Moravians kept detailed notes in a church diary, and the records of the 1750’s and 1760’s are fascinating for the insight they provide into what the American frontier was like at the time.

Whether you were Moravian or not, if the church was closest to you, that was probably your church, as was the case for the many thousands of German pioneers who had moved from Europe for the promised land of Pennsylvania’s rolling hills, forests, and valleys (the Allegheny Mountains forming the natural barrier to further westward expansion, for a time at least).

A party of Irish went by here. They invited my brother to go with them to Philadelphia to kill the Indians. They expect others to think the way they do.

Diary entry, Moravian Hebron Church, February 4, 1764

The returning rebels frightened several women with the news that they had killed all the Indians, five Quakers, and two Moravians in Philadelphia, and as proof, showed them the blood on their clothing.

Diary entry, Moravian Hebron Church, February 11, 1764

It was a curious sight, how not only the soldiers round about, but also the Brethren came armed to preaching.

Diary entry, Moravian Hebron Church, June 24, 1764

The man who would later be “General” Mathias Slough of Lancaster is remembered for pushing an inquest into the massacre, which occurred while he was coroner. Slough would later be acquainted with Hebron himself when his command used it to house Hessian soldiers (at the direction of Colonel Curtis Grubb, whose father ran the iron works in Cornwall and would later sell to Robert Coleman). Some of those Hessians likely stuck around Lebanon, too, as a few thousand are estimated to have stayed in America.

Although Lebanon wasn’t at the center of the Paxton drama, it was the epitome of the frontier land that the Paxton Boys felt were being recklessly endangered by tribes they felt had been given carte blanch by pacifist Quakers, an important if now overlooked chapter in early American history.

Check out Digital Paxton for more writing and imagery, or follow them on Twitter at @DigitalPaxton. By the way, Digital Paxton is actively looking for teachers to develop and share lesson plans around this content, if you are interested you can reach out to project director Will Fenton for more info.

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