Racial lynching, the tortuous spectacle of killing non-Whites without impunity, seems to have a unique tradition in United States. Certainly, people of color in colonial conditions all over the world have occasionally joined those in the U.S., who, without the protection of the law, have been forced to perform pain and death in public for no other crime than living among Whites. But the intensity and length of this practice in the U.S. have no rivals. Even the few late 19th and 20th centuries African states ruled by White minorities that practiced it, did so for a much shorter time.
Lynching is not the same as other racial brutalities. Differently, from what Las Casas wrote about the Spanish-Indian violence (even when exaggerating), lynching is not collateral violence that simply derives from an unfair system of labor or from social inequalities and acts of conquest. And in contrast to other forms of racial or ethnic exterminations (i.e., Nazi, Rwandan, Cambodian, Japanese), lynching is done, at most, against a handful of victims at a time and in public for the sadistic satisfaction of onlookers. Though extermination is the ultimate goal, the immediate aim is to plant terror within the non-White communities– often emasculating young males. In most cases, an overwhelmingly large-group descend on one or a few unsuspecting bystanders—a sort of super-bullying. And it shows no distinction of color, as long as the victims are not perceived as White (i.e., Indians, Latinos, Romas and Blacks).
The main reason a public performance so opposed to publicized U.S.’s religious and civic values became hence socially and culturally ingrained is because its long historical roots. The regular whipping of Blacks in plantations is a formative part of the lynching culture, as some historians have already pointed out. Mimi Sheller wrote, “A differential valuing of white and black bodies, as well as of socially acceptable forms of male and female bodies, is one of the most enduring legacies of slavery.” 1 But the violence of U.S. frontiersmen toward Amerindians is very similar to what later evolved into lynching. Indeed, it was the mob-culture mentality, sometimes mixed up with ideals of patriotic vigilantism, that gave shaped to a more pervasive and acceptable culture of lynching. Though the large majority of U.S. nationalist historians apologize for the frontiersmen by explaining they were simply reacting to Amerindian attacks, the reality is that these settlers and rangers were invading indigenous communal lands. Specific acts of “retaliatory” violence carried out against Amerindians are at the foundation of the U.S. lynching tradition. One such case, the Conestoga massacre, illustrates the argument.
On the winter of 1763-4, pressed between aftershocks of the French and Indian War, and the opening of the Pontiac insurrection, Presbyterian Scots-Irish, were in no mood for Quaker doctrines of nonviolence. Unfortunately, for the Susquehannocks, their type had become the driving force of the Pennsylvanian frontier expansion, the “peaceable kingdom” of the Quaker Penn family. More alarming was that these freshly arrived Ulster-Scots speakers, accustomed to conflict over land in the British Isles, saw no difference among Native Americans, even when they have settled along the Western frontier and should have been familiar with the diversity of Amerindian cultures. They have crossed the Atlantic as immigrants from the Irish Ulster, a zone of imperial expansion with a long history of religious and ethnic violence, where legends of massacres echoed through folk narratives. Some even descended from Border Reivers who for centuries have kept the Anglo-Scottish border in a state of low-conflict war. These were veterans of border cultures, but like the Spanish Conquistadors, who had come to the New World embodying the ethos of the Spanish Reconquista, the Scots-Irish came to conquer and control in order to better their social and economic status.
At daybreak on Wednesday, December 14, 1763, an armed mob of these Scots-Irish, who had traveled through a snowy night from northern Lancaster, showed up at the reservation-like village of Conestoga Town, what today is Millersville, PA. Witnesses put their numbers between 50 to 100 restless young and “unmarried” men. They did not come to barter or talk peacefully with the Susquehannock, who had been reduced to this location after their lands and power had disappeared, and were alarmingly dwindling in numbers— a sign of things to come for “peaceful” or pacified indigenous groups. The rangers came only to kill.
The Susquehannocks, who were part of the Iroquois-speaking network of Amerindians of the mid eastern band in North America, would not have expected this misfortune. They had lived in Conestoga for over sixty years, and held copies of the treaties signed with the Penn family— they were a living historical patrimony for the “peaceable” colony. Some even professed Christianity and played key roles in negotiations between the colonial government and other Amerindian groups. They had already begun the process of assimilation by inserting themselves into White society— albeit as a permanent underclass bartering, selling their own crafts and begging at local farms. Following its legal and moral obligations, the Penn colonial government had unwittingly extended over them a sort of welfare system that many non-Quaker White colonists resented, a social order similar to the Spanish-American “República de Indios,” which tried keeping Indians in a subservient state while offering them protection from the ravages of White Creole colonists.
The morning of the Boys’ visit, only about six Susquehannocks were in the village. The rest had stayed among White neighbors the night before while weathering the snow storm— the same one that the armed mob had walked through with a sense of urgency. What ensued was pure calamity. The frontiersmen attacked the six unarmed Susquehannocks mercilessly, not only killing them, but torturing, scalping and cutting them into pieces. Death arrived brutally, quickly and without warning or reasonable justification. The victims’ mutilated bodies, of people who simply happened to look like the combative Indians fighting for their lives on the Western frontier, laid on the floor as evidence of the Boys’ “heroic performance.”
Though a vocal minority protested vigorously, it seems that the majority’s apathy or subtle support increased the group’s resolve. The other fourteen Susquehannocks found refuge in the Lancaster’s local prison, which also served as a workhouse. Among the refugees were children and pregnant women. While they may have felt secured under the sheriff’s eye, in reality, they had only about two weeks of grace. Their location had been given away and their safety rendered useless. On December 27, the Boys, who had time to put their animus on ice, but did not, came down to Lancaster “equipped for murder.” They seemed to have represented a silent majority of colonists when they stormed, once more, into the Castenogas’ lives to perform an even more grotesque act of terror and extermination. Again, mutilated body parts laid across the prison’s yard, representing the hardening of racial divisions.
That was not the last of the Paxton Boy’s feats. They organized an even larger assembly of frontiersmen to march against the colony’s capital city, Philadelphia, threatening to kill more Amerindians if the colonial government did not give them protection against Amerindian resistances. As if holding letters of marque, they felt completely entitled to venture into and appropriating Indian land while covered by the British Majesty’s safety. Though they did not meet their economic goal, which was to acquire indigenous-owned lands, they changed politics for ever in Pennsylvania. The Penn dream of racial harmony came to a screeching halt, and Quakers lost their long-held political grip on colonial power. But, most importantly, they left a powerful precedent of justified terror and violence against the “other” non-White. The tacit support from the population at large helped explain the high level of atrocity this event reached, and how it gradually became part of folk legends and culture. The assassins never saw a day in court because they were never prosecuted (one has to question the potential implications of public memorialization of such acts).
Charles Mason, one of the two surveyors of the Mason-Dixon Line, took time away of his surveying to investigate why the people of Lancaster, with the King’s Highlanders in town, did not show much effort in stopping the violence and protecting the last of the Conestogas, as the Susquehannocks living in the Conestoga Town were called. After a mourning and investigative visit to the Lancaster jail in January 1765, to envision the acts and confirm the atrocities he had heard about, Mason wrote in his diary the following words, which represent the view of an outsider who could not make sense of the American mob-culture.
[I] left Brandywine and proceeded to Lancaster (distance about 35 miles) a town in Pennsylvania distant from Philadelphia 75 miles, bearing nearly duly west. What brought me here was my curiosity to see the place where was perpetrated last winter the horrid and inhuman murder of 26 Indians, Men, Women and children, leaving none alive to tell. These poor unhappy creatures had always lived under the protection of the Pennsylvania Government and had lands allotted them a few miles from Lancaster by the late celebrated William Penn, Esquire, Proprietor. They had received notice of the intention of some of the back inhabitants and fled to the Goal (jail) to save themselves. The keeper made the door fast, but it was broken open; and two men went in and executed the bloody scene; while about 50 of their party sat on horse back without; armed with guns, etc. Strange it was that the town as large as most market towns in England, never offered to oppose them, though its more probable they on request might have been assisted by a company of his Majesties Troops who were in the town… no honor to them! What was laid to the Indians charge was that they held a private correspondence with the enemy Indians. But this could never be proved against the men and the women and children (some in their mothers wombs that never saw light) could not be guilty. 2 (emphasis mine)
This is the Mason-Dixon Journal kept at the Library of Congress
In the perpetrators mind, Amerindians of all kinds should be distrusted. Their religiosity did not matter; neither the many years they have lived peacefully within White society, nor to which community they belonged (to the peaceful or aggressive Indians). They have been forever racialized, reduced to an unbreakable racial category, in which all the Amerindians were one single group, and thus deserving of any type of violence.
Precedents like this one were soon followed by many similar acts and thus became normal practices wherever Amerindians lived amidst fertile lands. Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, only makes sense in the context of the Conestogas Massacre. Similarly, the lynching culture, already taking shape under the whip in plantations all over the Americas, add up just after considering violent acts like the one in Conestoga. With the Amerindians gradual decline in the East, the more this sort of violence was deployed against Blacks.
The Haitian American anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote about how power relations shape the production of history, and this may lead to a silencing of the past. In bringing up the historical connections that explain the enduring power of lynching we dig beneath the tranquil surface of national timelines in search for the hidden scripts that often determine unconscious acts of violence against the racialized “other.”
1- Mimi Sheller, Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom (Duke University Press, 2012), Kindle Locations 117-118.
2- Charles Mason, and Jeremiah Dixon, The journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1969).
3- Michel-RolphTrouillot, Silencing the past: Power and the production of history (Beacon Press, 2012), 26.