Paxtang Boys and Proud Boys

Today is a weighty day, a day with heft.

  • Here, in PA, we’ve got a wintry mix, clouding the sky and filling the air, adding a mood both festive and anxious.
  • Here in the US, we are rolling out a hopeful new vaccine for a viral pandemic that is currently killing more of us daily than the number killed on 9/11.
  • Here in the US, our Electoral College will cast their votes for a new president in an election more volatile than any since that of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Here in the US, many of us are still gasping in the wake of a seditious attempt by several states, the sitting president, and 126 elected House Republicans to destroy our democracy, an attempt thwarted by our judicial branch, in a display of the importance of multiple branches of government creating checks and balances on the abuse of power.
  • Here, on the planet, we gaze in awe at meteor showers and planets in conjunction, and a total solar eclipse visible from our southern hemisphere. Some of us are even now commemorating the stories and legends of sky-portents in the days of the coming of the Child of Light.
  • Here in PA (and in the US), we remember the murderous ride of the Paxtang Boys at dawn on this day in 1763, when they massacred six of the last remaining Susquehannock people in cold blood.
  • Over the weekend, we watched their heirs and legacies–Proud Boys and others–bellowing in the streets of our capital, attacking historically Black churches and desecrating Black Lives Matter flags. Will we stand up to them, this time?

Here is something I wrote last year about the Paxtang Boys’ ride and the ways in which we have loosed them again upon the innocent. Today, when the Proud Boys are marching, it feels more grimly apt than ever. At the end, I’ve included a poem I wrote after visiting the site of the massacre on this day in 2013:

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.

Sheehays, Wa-a-shen,
Tee-kau-ley, Ess-canesh,
Tea-wonsha-i-ong,
Kannenquas.

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.

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