Lancaster (Pa.) Meeting’s Public Apology to Native Americans

The year 2010 marked the 300th anniversary of the first permanent European settlement in what was to become Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Arguably the most significant event in the yearlong commemoration occurred on October 9, when about 30 Native American leaders from around the country (representing the Shawnee, Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Delaware, Lakota Sioux, Tuscarora, and Susquehanna nations) gathered to hear a public acknowledgement and apology for the wrongs done to Native Americans over the course of our local history. Representatives of Presbyterian, Mennonite, and Quaker congregations, as well as local government officials, participated in the two-hour event, which was attended by over 300 Lancaster residents.

The public apology was particularly apt, as Lancaster was the site of the infamous Conestoga Massacre of 1763. A remnant of the once numerous Susquehannock Indians, who were subjugated by the Iroquois, ravaged by disease and famine, and harassed by settler militias in Maryland and Virginia, had eventually settled along the Conestoga Creek near Lancaster, on land granted to them by William Penn himself in a 1701 treaty. Their numbers had dwindled to less than two dozen, and despite the fact that they had always lived peacefully with their European neighbors, their position became precarious when hostilities along the frontier resumed in 1763.

In the early morning of December 14, 1763, an armed mob known as the Paxtang (or Paxton) Boys (Scots-Irish Presbyterian settlers from near present-day Harrisburg) descended on Conestoga Indiantown and murdered the six adults they found there. The remaining Natives were taken into Lancaster city and placed in protective custody, but on December 27, the mob returned in broad daylight and—with no resistance from local authorities—brutally murdered and then mutilated the bodies of the remaining 14 Conestoga Indians— three married couples and six children. Despite the fact that the identity of at least some of the perpetrators was well known, the murders went unpunished. The Conestoga Massacre came to symbolize the eventual failure of William Penn’s "Holy Experiment."

As one of the Quaker representatives at the apology event, I was given the challenging assignment to introduce the day’s events by explaining the historical background of the Quaker relationship with the Native American people of Pennsylvania. How was I to explain something about Quakers and convey some sense of the rich history of colonial Pennsylvania to an audience that knew little about either—all in the allotted three minutes? What follows is the "historical vignette" that I offered. The sidebar gives the text of the actual Apology, minuted by Lancaster Meeting. The Mennonites and Presbyterians offered their own separate apologies.

"A major tenet for Quakers is the Light Within, our belief and our experience that there is a universal light within us all, which, when honestly attended to, can show us right from wrong. When George Fox, the Quaker founder and mentor to William Penn, traveled to America in 1672, he had no trouble demonstrating to himself that this Light was present in the Native Americans whom he met, from which he concluded that they were nothing less than full members of the human family.

"King Charles granted to William Penn land that was not his to give, but Penn was determined to negotiate with and give fair compensation to the Indians for that land. Penn envisioned his Commonwealth as a "Peaceable Kingdom" founded on the twin principles of religious freedom and fair treatment of the Natives. But Penn’s descendants renounced his Quaker principles and treated the Commonwealth as their private commercial venture, ignoring treaty obligations to the Indians whenever it was convenient.

"Already by the time of Penn’s visit to the Conestogas in 1701, Quakers were a minority in the colony. Over time, the Quaker commitment to live in peace and harmony with the Native population came to be clouded by commercial concerns and colonial politics. Still, there were several decades of relative peace with no need for a militia, but by the 1750s, great power politics and pent-up Indian grievances conspired to bring war to the Pennsylvania frontier. Quakers, constituting no more than 20 percent of the population but with political control of the Assembly, found their position increasingly untenable. In 1756, events forced Quakers to choose between political power and their historic Peace Testimony, and the majority of Quaker legislators resigned rather than prosecute the King’s war. The unintended consequence was to leave the local Indians even more vulnerable.

"Even out of political power, Quaker concern for the Native Americans continued. In June of 1763, with war again threatening, the Quaker reformer and abolitionist John Woolman had a leading to visit the Delaware Indians. ‘Love was the first motion,’ he later wrote in his Journal, ‘and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them.’ After a long and dangerous journey, he finally reached the Indian town of Wyalusing in the upper Susquehanna, where he was warmly welcomed. After several mostly silent Quaker-style meetings with Indian elders, he felt satisfied that even at this late date it was possible to rekindle something of the respect and mutual affection of previous generations. Remarking on these meetings where so few words were spoken, the Indian leader Papunehang was overheard to say, ‘I love to feel where words come from.’"

"Today, we will hear many words, words of apology that at times will feel inadequate to our task. Our hope and prayer is that, in the spirit of Woolman and Papunehang, we too will be able to feel where the words come from."

Minute of Acknowledgement and Apology, Offered in Love and Humility to the Native American Community

Lancaster Friends Meeting, Lancaster, Pa., October 9, 2010

One function of the universal Inward Light of which Quakers speak is to show us Truth, primarily the truth about ourselves. That truth can be difficult and painful, but healing and forgiveness can come only if we start by acknowledging the truth. We acknowledge that the history we have told ourselves for the last 300 years has been incomplete, because it has largely omitted an account of the overwhelming catastrophe that overtook Pennsylvania’s Native People as the result of the European settlement. We have been quick to remember how Penn’s "Holy Experiment" began with such promise, but we must also acknowledge that in the end the experiment failed, with disastrous consequences for Native Americans here.

We acknowledge that the Quaker community did not always live up to Penn’s vision. As the years passed, our commitment to live in peace and harmony with the Native community often took second place to the continued economic prosperity of our community. Treaty obligations were not always enforced, fraud was at times perpetrated, squatters were increasingly tolerated. New immigrants, who did not necessarily share our beliefs, were encouraged to settle on the frontier, creating a buffer between our communities. We further acknowledge that from colonial times to the present, all European Americans have benefited in material ways from the unjust expropriation of Native lands, even as we have also suffered immeasurable loss from our collective neglect of Native wisdom regarding respect for the land and the sanctity of all creation.

In 1756, most Quakers chose to leave the government of Pennsylvania to others, rather than compromise our commitment to nonviolence. But we acknowledge that what from our perspective was a principled act of conscience, from your perspective was a breach of the long-held trust between us. Nonviolence usually comes at a price; in effect, Quakers chose nonviolence, and Native Americans paid the price. We also acknowledge that as Friends struggled with how to honor their Peace Testimony in a time of war, they often provoked the animosity of other colonists, animosity that eventually came to be directed at you.

For all this and more, we express our sorrow and regret, and ask for forgiveness. It is beyond our power to change what has happened; mere words cannot right historical wrongs. We can, however, pledge to remember: remember with you what really happened, everything that happened. We can renew our ancient vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, and rededicate ourselves to the task of creating a society that honors the Inward Light of God in all people, that we might live together in peace and harmony. We pray that the events of today may bring some measure of peace and healing to your community.

Thomas Gates

Thomas Gates is a member of Lancaster (Pa.) Meeting, where he is active on the Peace and Social Concerns Committee.