One of the more brutal moments from the history of colonial Pennsylvania will be told as a comic book.
The Library Company of Philadelphia has the largest holding of material related to the 1763 massacre of the Conestoga Native American tribe in Lancaster by the so-called Paxton Boys.
With a $300,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, it has commissioned a comic book artist and writer duo to tell the story of the incident and its aftermath from the perspective of the Conestoga.
At the end French and Indian War, farmers on the western frontier of Pennsylvania were deeply suspicious of the Native American tribes with whom they fought for land. The settlers took land that had belonged to Native Americans through treaties, and some of the Native Americans attacked the settlers.
In Dec. 1763, a group of settlers called the Paxton Boys stormed into Lancaster determined to kill as many members of the Conestoga tribe as they could.
“They marched on this group because they weren’t nuanced about what natives they were upset about, after the Seven Years War,” said Will Fenton, director of scholarly innovation at the Library Company of Philadelphia. “They murdered everyone they could find.”
Some of the Conestoga fled for safety to the Lancaster jail, but were killed nevertheless. That jail is now the Fulton Theatre on Prince Street in downtown Lancaster.
The Paxton mob, numbering in the hundreds, started toward Philadelphia to root out Native Americans who fled to the city. They were stopped in Germantown.
The incident sparked a war of words as those who condemned the mob – including Benjamin Franklin – faced off against those who defended the action, saying the Quakers of Philadelphia were too ineffectual to control violence in the hinterlands.
The subsequent “pamphlet war” consumed Pennsylvania. About one-fifth of all printed materials in the commonwealth in 1764 was related to the Paxton Boys.
“We are talking about white ethnic identity, whether they are Scots-Irish Presbyterians, or English Quakers, or German Moravians,” said Fenton. “They are trying to navigate what it means to live together, and they constitute this shared identity in opposition to an indigenous enemy.”
Fenton sees parallels with Paxton Boys of yesteryear and the far-right Proud Boys of today. “It’s complicated and often ugly, but it feels very timely, unfortunately,” he said.
While the Conestoga people were at the center of the incident, their voices are absent from the historical record. While those sympathetic with the native tribe wrote about them in broadsides, articles, and letters, the Conestoga themselves produced no written material.
Two years ago, Fenton created Digital Paxton, an online, searchable database of about 3,000 pages of documents, including all of the engravings and cartoons used to argue the wisdom, or horror, of the massacre.
It gives access to high-resolution scans of the original documents to historians, academics, and curious web surfers. To drive the story further into the imagination of the public, Fenton sought out artists and writers to create a graphic novel.
He landed on Lee Francis of Native Realities comics in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Weshoyot Alvitre, an artist and member of the Tongva tribe, living in Ventura, Ca.
“We want to tell a different perspective – the indigenous perspective,” said Francis. “We’re trying to tell the story of the Conestoga people, the Lenape people, the Susquehanna, the Honniasont people, and draw those parallels of a people that have been used as props in a war between various factions.”
There is enough detail in the historical record – particularly in personal letters and minutes of Quaker meetings where the Paxton incident was hotly discussed – that Francis is able to flesh out the lives of real people, and present them as characters.
The story – still in its first draft – is rooted in history, but is told with modern techniques, with several protagonists and cutting between parallel plot lines that jump back and forth through time. Francis said he and Weshoyot, themselves, appear as characters writing the same comic being read.
Francis recognizes the parallels between the Paxton incident and the subsequent pamphlet war, and contemporary white nationalism and political misinformation published to Twitter. However, more important are parallels between the Conestoga and modern people caught unwittingly in catastrophe.
“The images of places like Syria – people who are facing the exact same type of atrocities,” he said. “We think of people that are dealing with wildfires right now in California. Diving through the fire, that family is singing to their kids in the back, and praying, because they are just trying to make it out. We understand that that’s what humanity does.”
The holdings at the Library Company of Philadelphia are also very visual. The pamphlet war of 1764 took advantage of all the persuasions available to the printed medium, including political cartoons and etchings. It’s a rich trove to draw from for Alvitre.
“There are a lot of similarities in style between engravings and political cartoons in the 1700s going up to Victorians. Comics stem from political cartoons,” she said. “The cartoons in the Library Company are very much in a vintage comic style: pen and ink, cross-notching style. I use a vintage comic style.”
Alvitre once drew superheroes for major comic book publishers, but lately has been focusing on Native American stories.
She also collects antique pens, some dating back 150 years. She both admires them as objects, and uses them as tools.
“They are beautiful pieces of manufacturing,” said Alvitre. “There’s something about being able to control the line weight with something more rudimentary. It helps me think about the era when I’m doing the work.”
The Paxton graphic novel – as yet unnamed – is expected to be published in Nov. 2019.