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The Conestoga Massacre

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                     


When the English first entered Pennsylvania messengers from the Conestoga Indians met them, bidding them welcome, and bringing gifts of corn and 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."

The records of Pennsylvania history in the beginning of the eighteenth century contain frequent mention of the tribe. In 1705 the governor sent the secretary of his council, with a delegation of ten men, to hold an interview with them at Conestoga, for purposes of mutual understanding and confidence. And in that same year Thomas Chalkley, a famous Quaker preacher, while sojourning among the Maryland Quakers, was suddenly seized with so great a "concern" to visit these Indians that he laid the matter before the elders at the Nottingham meeting; and, the idea being "promoted" by the elders, he set off with an interpreter and a party of fourteen to make the journey. He says: "We travelled through the woods about fifty miles, carrying our provisions with us; and on the journey sat down by a river and spread our food on the grass, and refreshed ourselves and horses, and then went on cheerfully and with goodwill and much love to the poor Indians. And when we came they received us kindly, treating us civilly in their way. We treated about having a meeting with them in a religious way; upon which they called a council, in which they were very grave, and spoke, one after another, without any heat or jarring. Some of the most esteemed of their women speak in their councils."

When asked why they suffered the women to speak, they replied that "some women were wiser than some men." It was said that they had not for many years done anything without the advice of a certain aged and grave woman, who was always present at their councils. The interpreter said that she was an empress, and that they gave much heed to what she said. This wise queen of Conestoga looked with great favor on the Quakers, the interpreter said, because they " did not come to buy or sell, or get gain;" but came "in love and respect" to them, "and desired their well-doing, both here and hereafter." Two nations at this time were represented in this Conestoga band-the Seneca and the Shawnee.

The next year the governor himself, anxious to preserve their inalienable good will, and to prevent their being seduced by emissaries from the French, went himself to visit them. On this occasion one of the chiefs made a speech, still preserved in the old records, which contains this passage: "Father, we love quiet; we suffer the mouse to play; when the woods are rustled by the wind, we fear not; when the leaves are disturbed in ambush, we are uneasy; when a cloud obscures your brilliant sun, our eyes feel dim; but when the rays appear, they give great heat to the body and joy to the heart. Treachery darkens the chain of friendship; but truth makes it brighter than ever. This is the peace we desire."

A few years later a Swedish missionary visited them, and preached them a sermon on original sin and the necessity of a mediator. When he had finished, an Indian chief rose and replied to him; both discourses being given through an interpreter. The Swede is said to have been so impressed with the Indian's reasoning that, after returning to Sweden, he wrote out his own sermon and the Indian's reply in the best Latin at his command, and dedicated the documents to the University of Upsal, respectfully requesting them to furnish him with some arguments strong enough to confute the strong reasoning's of this savage.

"Our forefathers," said the chief, "were under a strong persuasion (as we are) that those who act well in this life will he rewarded in the next according to the degrees of their virtues; and, on the other hand, that those who behave wickedly here will undergo such punishments hereafter as were proportionate to the crimes they were guilty of. This has been constantly and invariably received and acknowledged for a truth through every successive generation of our ancestors. It could not, then, have taken its rise from fable; for human fiction, however artfully and plausibly contrived, can never gain credit long among people where free inquiry is allowed, which was never denied by our ancestors. Now we desire to propose some questions. Does he believe that our forefathers, men eminent for their piety, constant and warm in their pursuit of virtue, hoping thereby to merit eternal happiness, were all damned? Does he think that we who are zealous imitators in good works, and influenced by the same motives as we are, earnestly endeavoring with the greatest circumspection to tread the path of integrity, are in a state of damnation? If that be his sentiment, it is surely as impious as it is bold and daring.

Let us suppose that some heinous crimes were committed by some of our ancestors, like to that we are told of another race of people. In such a case God would certainly punish the criminal, but would never involve us that are innocent in the guilt. Those who think otherwise must make the Almighty a very whimsical, evil-natured being. Once more: are the Christians more virtuous, or, rather, are they not more vicious than we are? If so, how came it to pass that they are the objects of God's beneficence, while we are neglected? Does he daily confer his favors without reason and with so much partiality? In a word, we find the Christians much more depraved in their morals than we are; and we judge from their doctrine by the badness of their lives."

It is plain that this Indian chief's speech was very much Latinized in the good Swede's hands; but if the words even approached being a true presentation of what he said, it is wonderful indeed.

In 1721 His Excellency Sir William Keith, Bart, Governor of the Province of Pennsylvania, went with an escort of eighty horsemen to Conestoga, and spent several days in making a treaty with the representatives of the Five Nations, "the Indians of Conestoga and their friends." He was entertained at "Captain Civility's cabin." When he left them, he desired them to give his "very kind love and the love of all our people to your kings and to all their people." He invited them to visit him in Philadelphia, saying, "We can provide better for you and make you more welcome. People always receive their friends best at their own homes." He then took out a coronation medal of the King, and presented it to the Indian in these words: "That our children when we are dead may not forget these things, but keep this treaty between us in perpetual remembrance, I here deliver to you a picture in gold, bearing the image of my great master, the King of all the English. And when you return home, I charge you to deliver this piece into the hands of the first man or greatest chief of all the Five Nations, whom you call Kannygoodk, to be laid up and kept as a token to our children's children that an entire and lasting friendship is now established forever between the English in this country and the great Five Nations."

At this time the village of Conestoga was described as lying "about seventy miles west of Philadelphia. The land thereabout being exceeding rich, it is now surrounded with divers fine plantations and farms, where they raise quantities of wheat, barley, flax, and hemp, without the help of any dung."

The next year, also, was marked by a council of great significance at Conestoga. In the spring of this year an Indian called Saanteenee had been killed by two white men, brothers, named Cartledge. At this time it was not only politic but necessary for the English to keep on good terms with as many Indians as possible. Therefore, the old record says, "Policy and justice required a rigid inquiry" into this affair, and the infliction of "exemplary punishment."

Accordingly, the Cartledges were arrested and confined in Philadelphia, and the high sheriff of Chester County went, with two influential men of the province, to Conestoga, to confer with the Indians as to what should be done with them. The Indians were unwilling to decide the matter without advice from the Five Nations, to whom they owed allegiance. A swift runner (Satcheecho) was, therefore, sent northward with the news of the occurrence; and the governor, with two of his council, went to Albany to hear what the Five Nations had to say about it. What an inconceivable spectacle to us today: the governments of Pennsylvania and New York so fully recognizing an Indian to be a "person," and his murder a thing to be anxiously and swiftly atoned for if possible!

Only a little more than a hundred and fifty years lie between this murder of Saanteenee in Conestoga and the murder of Big Snake on the Ponca Reservation in 1880. Verily, Policy has kept a large assortment of spectacles for Justice to look through in a surprising short space of time.

On the decision of the king and chiefs of the Five Nations hung the fate of the murderers. Doubtless the brothers Cartledge made up their minds to die. The known principles of the Indians in the matter of avenging injuries certainly left them little room for hope. But no! The Five Nations took a different view. They "desired that the Cartledges should not suffer death, and the affair was at length amicably settled," says the old record. " One life," said the Indian king, " on this occasion, is enough to be lost. There should not two die.

This was in 1722. In 1763 there were only twenty of these Conestoga Indians left-seven men, five women, and eight children. They were still living in their village on the Shawanee Creek, their lands being assured to them by manorial gift; but they were miserably poor-earned by making brooms, baskets, and wooden bowls a part of their living, and begged the rest. They were wholly peaceable and unoffending, friendly to their white neighbors, and pitifully clinging and affectionate, naming their children after whites who were kind to them, and striving in every way to show their gratitude and good-will.

Upon this little community a band of white men, said by some of the old records to be "Presbyterians," from Paxton, made an attack at daybreak on the 14th of December. They found only six of the Indians at home-three men, two women, and a boy. The rest were away, either at work for the white farmers or selling their little wares. "These poor defenseless creatures were immediately fired upon, stabbed, and hatcheted to death; the good Shebaes, among the rest, cut to pieces in his bed. All of them were scalped and otherwise horribly mangled, then their huts were set on fire, and most of them burnt down."

"Shebaes was a very old man, having assisted at the second treaty held with Mr. Penn, in 1701, and ever since continued a faithful friend to the English. He is said to have been an exceeding good man, considering his education; being naturally of a most kind, benevolent temper."

From a manuscript journal kept at this time, and belonging to the great-granddaughter of Robert Barber, the first settler in Lancaster County, are gathered the few details known of this massacre. "Some of the murderers went directly from the scene of their crime to Mr. Barber's house. They were strangers to him; but, with the hospitality of those days, he made a fire for them and set refreshments before them.

"While they warmed themselves they inquired why the Indians were suffered to live peaceably here. Mr. Barber said they were entirely inoffensive,-living on their own lands and injuring no one. They asked what would be the consequence if they were all destroyed. Mr: Barber said he thought they would be as liable to punishment as if they had destroyed so many white men. They said they were of a different opinion, and in a few minutes went out. In the mean time two sons of Mr. Barber's, about ten or twelve years old, went out to look at the strangers' horses, which were hitched at a little distance from the house.

"After the men went the boys came in, and said that they had tomahawks tied to their saddles which were all bloody, and that they had Christy's gun. Christy was a little Indian boy about their own age. They were much attached to him, as he was their playmate, and made bows and arrows for them."

While the family were talking over this, and wondering what it could mean, a messenger came running breathless to inform them of what had happened. Mr. Barber went at once to the spot, and there he found the murdered Indians lying in the smoldering ruins of their homes, "like half-consumed logs." He, "with some trouble, procured their bodies, to administer to them the rights of sepulture."

"It was said that at the beginning of the slaughter an Indian mother placed her little child under a barrel, charging it 'to make no noise, and that a shot was fired through the barrel which broke the child's arm, and still it kept silent."

The magistrates of Lancaster, shocked, as well they might be, at this frightful barbarity, sent messengers out immediately, and took the remaining Indians, wherever they were found, brought them into the town for protection, and lodged them in the newly-erected workhouse or jail, which was the strongest building in the place. The Governor of Pennsylvania issued a proclamation, ordering all judges, sheriffs, and "all His Majesty's liege subjects in the province," to make every effort to apprehend the authors and perpetrators of this crime, also their abettors and accomplices. But the "Paxton Boys" held magistrates and governor alike in derision. Two weeks later they assembled again, fifty strong, rode to Lancaster, dismounted, broke open the doors of the jail, and killed every Indian there.

"When the poor wretches saw they had no protection nigh, nor could possibly escape, and being without the least weapon of defense, they divided their little families, the children clinging to their parents. They fell on their faces, protested their innocence, declared their love to the English, and that in their whole lives they had never done them injury. And in this posture they all received the hatchet. Men, women, and children were every one inhumanly murdered in cold blood.

The barbarous men who committed the atrocious act, in defiance of government, of all laws, human and divine, and to the eternal disgrace of their country and color, then mounted their horses, huzzaed in triumph, as if they had gained a victory, and rode off unmolested. The bodies of the murdered were then brought out and exposed in the street till a hole could be made in the earth to receive and cover them. But the wickedness cannot be covered, and the guilt will lie on the whole land till justice is done on the murderers. The blood of the innocent will cry to Heaven for vengeance."

These last extracts are from a pamphlet printed in Philadelphia at the time of the massacre; printed anonymously, because "so much had fear seized the minds of the people" that neither the writer nor the printer dared to give " name or place of abode."

There are also private letters still preserved which give accounts of the affair. A part of one from William Henry, of Lancaster, to a friend in Philadelphia, is given in " Rupp's History of Lancaster County." He says, "A regiment of Highlanders were at that time quartered at the barracks in the town, and yet these murderers were permitted to break open the doors of the city jail and commit the horrid deed. The first notice I had of the affair was that, while at my father's store near the court-house, I saw a number of people running down-street toward the jail, which enticed me and other lads to follow them. At about six or eight yards from the jail we met from twenty-five to thirty men, well mounted on horses, and with rifles, tomahawks, and scalping-knives, equipped for murder. I ran into the prison-yard, and there, oh, what a horrid sight presented itself to my view! Near the back door of the prison lay an old Indian and his squaw, particularly well known and esteemed by the people of the town on account of his placid and friendly conduct. His name was Will Soc. Around him and his squaw lay two children, about the age of three years, whose heads were split with the tomahawk and their scalps taken off. Toward the middle of the jail-yard, along the west side of the wall, lay a stout Indian, whom I particularly noticed to have been shot in his breast. His legs were chopped with the tomahawk, his hands cut off, and finally a rifle-ball discharged in his mouth, so that his head was blown to atoms, and the brains were splashed against and yet hanging to the wall for three or four feet around. This man's hands and feet had been chopped off with a tomahawk. In this manner lay the whole of them-men, women, and children-spread about the prison-yard, shot, scalped, hacked, and cut to pieces."

After this the Governor of Pennsylvania issued a second proclamation, still more stringent than the first, and offering a reward of $600 for the apprehension of any three of the ringleaders.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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