On this day in the walk through the December labyrinth, I mark the death of six people in a small village fifteen miles from here on the other side of the river. On December 14, in 1763, a group of angry white men from the Paxtang area of Harrisburg saddled their horses in the darkness and rode to Conestoga, to a small village a couple miles from the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, where they burned the houses of the few remaining members of the Conestoga group of the Susquehannock people, and brutally murdered the six people they found there.
Fourteen residents of the village were away at the time, and escaped to Lancaster City, where they requested protection. Officials placed them in the county workhouse/jail on Water Street in the City for their protection. Two weeks later, just after Christmas, on December 27, the murderers broke into the jail and massacred everyone, men and women, elders and children.
The Paxtang Boys, as they were called, gathered reinforcements over the following days, and rode to Philadelphia, intent on murdering Native people taking refuge there. Only the forceful eloquence of Benjamin Franklin, who confronted them outside the city, kept them from continuing their murderous rampage. As far as I know, none of the men ever had to face justice for their murders. And in my research, I have found no account of anyone who tried to protect the villagers, either in their village or in Lancaster’s jail. Other than the cold comfort of locking them inside a jail cell (which proved in the end no protection at all), no one was able to offer the last remaining members of the Conestogas safe harbor.
One of my deep shadows this December is a fear of how we have let the Paxtang Boys out to ride again: white people’s rage, racism, privilege, a sense of entitlement to power and economic security, greed and grasping, fiercely protective anti-otherness. I need to keep probing this shadow, exposing my fear of today’s Paxtang Riders, so that I can be ready to stand against them, to stand between them and the vulnerable people they are intent to destroy.
Today, so many who have been seeking safe harbor within the borders of my country have been denied that safety, have been turned away to wait in squalid camps where they are in danger of looting and rape and kidnapping and murder, have been separated from their parents/children by my government and thrown into cold cells, have been forced to hide for fear of deportation. I cannot escape the irony of the modern-day name of the road where the stone marker memorializes the Paxtang Boys’ massacre of local indigenous people: Safe Harbor Road.
How shall we prepare ourselves to be Safe Harbor in days when the Paxtang Boys are riding again?
Here is a poem I wrote in 2013, after I visited the site of the stone marker at the place where the massacre occurred, at the corner of Safe Harbor and Indian Marker Roads. The names of the six who died on this day are in the poem.
Come with me now, Bright Souls
and we’ll sit in a circle together
silently a while. Then we talk.
Light six candles
for the people of the longhouse
who died that wintry dawning.
The air is filled already
with too many words.
The day carries so many mutterings
on the wind, on the wings
of the vulture, drifting
above the broken fields.
If we are to keep awake,
to live in the place
where the heart stays open,
then perhaps we must look
into the teeth of the story.
Together we gaze at those shadows.
Together we speak their names.
Together we listen for the sparrow’s call.
At the place of the great stone
I did not speak their names.
I left my shell there at that place
in the glittering sun.
Some days I cannot bear the darkness,
but I will close my eyes and sing
while you keep vigil near me.
And when you falter, too,
I will have found the strength renewed
to witness the tale while you sing to me.
Perhaps you will not believe me
when I tell you: As I drove
that road toward the River,
six deer ran across blue shadows
cast by afternoon sun on snow,
over the fields to the road.
They paused a moment to watch
the golden fish of my car approach,
then slipped across Indian Marker Road
and were gone, past the still pond
and into a fringe of wood.
(At the beginning of Advent, my pastor asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)
This week, a friend of mine who lives in Arizona wrote about visiting Casa Alitas, a program of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, which provides immediate assistance to migrants who have been released by ICE and the border patrol onto the streets without any assistance, after their grueling journeys and government processing. Sometimes as many as 240 people come to the Casa Alitas hospitality center in a day. The worker and volunteers of Casa Alitas hold a vision of a community which offer help and safe harbor to people in the direst of circumstances. You can go the Casa Alitas website and click on the donate link at the bottom of the page to help them offer safe harbor.