Burn Bridle Press – Bucks County History

Oliver Paxson on the Ethics of Settling Indian Land

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Oliver Paxson's house is marked as #29 in this map from WWH Davis' History of Bucks County

Oliver Paxson’s house is marked as #29 in this map from WWH Davis’ History of Bucks County

Oliver Paxson was a prominent member of the Religious Society of Friends, and was one of the first residents of New Hope. His home, known as Maple Grove, still stands in New Hope immediately to the east of the New Hope-Solebury school complex. He also operated a stable and a salt store, now Hearth restaurant around the corner from Farley’s Bookshop.

In this letter, published in the first volume of Friends Miscellany (1831), Paxson considers the issue of settling land that has been expropriated from the Indians by force. Paxson presents a surprisingly nuanced and empathetic perspective on the conflict between Indians an European settlers. He believes that Indians own the land they lived on, and that Europeans who want to rightfully occupy that land must purchase it from the Indians on mutually agreeable terms. This stands in sharp contrast to the view of many of his contemporaries, who believed that Indians didn’t actually own the lived on because they didn’t use it properly (“wasting” it as hunting grounds, etc.) and that Europeans farmers were therefore justified in appropriating it. Paxson also believes that capturing land in war or compelling Indians to sell their land through force of arms does not bestow a legitimate right of ownership. When the government has taken Indian land by force Quakers still have an ethical obligation fairly compensate the rightful owners. Otherwise, they’re complicit in the theft of native property.

To support his argument, Paxson cites instances in which Europeans appropriated native land by force resulted in violent reprisals and outright war, and compares that violent outcome to the peaceable outcome that occurred when Quakers made agreements with the Indians to purchase their land on fair terms. William Penn knew that his royal grant did not absolve him of purchasing the land from its true owners, and when a group of Quakers settled in Virginia on land that hadn’t been fairly purchased, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting raised money to compensate the Indians, “which had a good effect among the tribes.”

He then cites the biblical precedent in the story of Naboth. In that story, the Jews had a different theory of land ownership than the Baalist king. Naboth owned his farm by right of inheritance, and was required by Jewish law to pass it on to his own heirs in turn. Ahab demanded to purchase it as one would purchase an alienable commodity. Because Naboth couldn’t sell his land, Ahab murdered him and stole it, and the prophet Elijah brought God’s wrath upon his family. Quakers, Paxson implied, should not go the way of Ahab.

The letter probably dates to 1802.

TO JOHN SIMPSON OHIO.

New Hope, 5th of 4th mo.

DEAR FRIEND,

I have had a share of thy kind remembrance, with many other friends in the place of thy nativity, which I have no doubt has been gladly received by all the friends thou hast written to; and I thought I felt under some obligation to answer thee. But alas! what shall I say? When I think of writing a letter of social friendship, there is a subject that more or less, for fifty years, hath exercised my mind, and greatly so, of latter times:–that is, the situation of the Indians, unto whom this great and populous country once belonged.

Thou hast often heard and read of the wars in New England and Virginia, in conquests over them, and taking their lands. Not so, when William Penn came to Pennsylvania:–a man who had learned his Master’s lesson, “to do unto all men as he would they should do unto him.” This made his name honourable among the Indians, and it remains so to the present time. But after some time one of his successors, not keeping strictly to this rule, overreached them in a purchase in an extraordinary (or shall I say extravagant) day’s walk, and they revenged it many years afterward, when an opportunity offered, by killing and taking into captivity, many of the white inhabitants. Thou and I can remember these things. How our very ears were made to tingle!

Well, time passed on, till the revolutionary war began. The poor Indians hardly knew what part to take, fearing they should lose all their country in the quarrel between nations of white people; especially if it should turn in favour of the United States (as it finally did) and some of the Seneca Chiefs addressed General Washington near the close of the war, made their submission, and remain peaceably on their reservations in the State of New York.

What comes next to be considered is the state of the country thou livest in. About this time, the white people near the Ohio river went over and made settlements on their lands. They complained of their land and game being taken from them, and found no redress. At length they took up the hatchet, and skirmishing on both sides of the river ensued. The President by this time, thought it his duty to endeavour to put a stop to it, and appointed commissioners to treat of peace, and purchase their land. They met, divers Friends attending, viz. John Parrish, Joseph Moore, Jacob Lindley, and some others. The Indians appeared in a hostile, angry mood, and told the commissioners, they would sell them no land;–but required them to remove the white people that were already settled over the river. The treaty broke up, without doing any thing, and hostilities continued: in consequence of which, the President ordered an armed force to defend the frontiers, and bring the Indians to terms. Sinclair their general. About this time the Meeting for Sufferings was sitting, and a heavy exercise came over the meeting on this account, and a committee was appointed to wait on the President, to intreat him to stay the sword:–which they did in a solemn manner, but all in vain. The expedition was pursued. Sinclair defeated, and many fell in battle. But it did not stop here. A greater force was raised, and a general appointed, more skilful in fighting the Indians, and effectually subdued them; and many of the rightful owners of the country, fell down slain in battle, in defending their just rights:–terms of peace were offered, which they declare, they were forced to accept, it being a price very inadequate to its value.

I do not mean by this, to arraign the government. The United States is a warlike nation;–and conquests made by the sword, are commonly applied to the account of the conquerors. So that in this view of things, it may be considered as an act of generosity in the government to pay the Indians twenty thousand dollars, for a country worth an hundred times that sum. But this wont do for thee nor me, who profess to be redeemed from the spirit of war, so as not even to buy a coat, if we know it to be a prize article. Thou may remember the concern brought on our Yearly Meeting by a few families of Friends in Virginia, who were settled on land not fairly bought of the Indians, and a sum of money was finally raised by Friends in Philadelphia, as a compensation, which had a good effect among the tribes.

I must close this singular epistle, by just observing, that when thou wast concerned some years ago, to publish the glad tidings of the Gospel of peace and salvation to the inhabitants of Ohio, my heart went with thee. And had that been thy sole concern when thou went last, I could again have said Amen. But when I took a view of thy wife and children, going with thee to settle in the country, to buy and sell, and get gain, I was not able to go thy pace. My heart is, nevertheless, filled with tender affection and sympathy for thee, thy dear wife, and her children; and I am persuaded, thou hast not seen the thing in the light I view it, or thou would hardly have taken so much pains to induce Friends to settle, in such numbers, in a land obtained in the manner I have mentioned. Naboth must die, because he refused to sell his inheritance to Ahab; though Ahab offered to give him the worth of it in money, or give him a better for it; yet he would not sell it.1 Mark the sequel. If the Province of Pennsylvania must be visited with the horrors of an Indian War,–many of its inhabitants slain, and many carried into captivity–for one man’s offence, in overreaching the Indians in the purchase of land from them;–what may we then expect in the instance before us? The Indians did refuse to sell their inheritance, till many of them were slain, and they were compelled to it. And would it be a strange thing, if an opportunity should offer for the Indians to revenge their wrongs–if the earth, that hath opened its mouth to receive the blood of the rightful owners of the soil, should again open its mouth to receive the blood of white inhabitants? Which judgment may be averted by acts of righteousness, is the sincere desire of my soul. From thy friend,

OLIVER PAXSON.

1In the Old Testament, Naboth owned a small vineyard next to the palace of King Ahab, who wanted to buy the land. Naboth was forbidden from selling the land by Jewish law. After his offer was rebuffed, Ahab had Naboth killed in order to seize his land. As a result, the prophet Elijah prophesies Ahab’s destruction as punishment for murdering Naboth and stealing his land. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naboth)

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Written by Moses Doan

October 8, 2013 at 12:52 pm

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