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How a Pennsylvania Race War Gave Birth to White America

1,540 words

Peter Silver
Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008

The colony of Pennsylvania was unique. In was developed as a socio-religious scheme by a British Lord named William Penn to provide a place of religious toleration for all comers, run by Quakers. On the surface, a society founded on religious liberty will lead to social peace. But it did not. Pennsylvania in 1750 was rife with ethnic and religious strife, and mistrust among its whites. In 1750, Pennsylvania’s elder statesman, James Logan (1674–1751), a Quaker from Ireland, could only look at the descendants of the earliest colonists, from the New Sweden Colony, with fear. Mark L. Thomas writes:

Ninety-five years had elapsed since the fall of New Sweden, and nearly seventy years had passed since the founding of Pennsylvania, yet the old provincial politician was still uncertain about where the Swedish settlers’ loyalties lay. The Swedes were “much Anglified,” but they were still not English.[1]

There was even mistrust between the English and Welsh Quakers. David Hackett Fischer writes:

So suspicious were these two groups of one another that the English majority deliberately drew the county boundaries of Pennsylvania so as to split the Welsh settlements. The townships of Haverford and Radnor were made part of Chester County, while Merion was placed in Philadelphia County. This was done to keep the Welsh Quakers from controlling an entire county – the earliest instance of gerrymandering in American history.[2]

The colony was also filled with Germans, and this group was internally divided between different sects. The Moravians caused a great deal of concern within the German community; Lutherans in particular disliked them. There were also a series of Yankee-Pennamite wars between Connecticut Yankee settlers and mostly Scots-Irish Pennsylvanians around the area of Wilkes-Barre. While the Quakers liked the Germans, Yankees such as Benjamin Franklin did not. He famously wrote, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them . . .”

All of this strife between very similar groups of whites eventually ended. Today it is not uncommon for a white American from Pennsylvania – or from any part of the Middle West – to be a mix of German, Northern Irish, English/Welsh Quaker, and New Swedish ancestry. How this group came to think of itself as white is described in Peter Silver’s Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. This book is not a gripping, page-turning narrative – although it could have been. Instead, it is an academic study of how two terrible Indian wars impacted Pennsylvania’s diverse culture. To put the bottom line up front, Pennsylvania’s different populations of Protestant Europeans fused, to a degree, and became white when they were all being attacked as whites by a non-white group.

Of all the colonies, Pennsylvania was late in getting a big Indian war. Virginia had troubles with the Indians from the start, and there was a massive Indian uprising in 1622. The 1622 massacre of whites by Indians remains the largest single case of mass murder in Virginia history. Massachusetts had a severe conflict in 1675 called the King Philip’s War. On a per capita basis, King Philip’s War remains the bloodiest in American history. The war affected every family in New England.

In Pennsylvania, white settlement in the form of the New Sweden Colony started in 1638, but it wasn’t until the 1750s that a large-scale Indian war broke out there. Indian warfare was late coming to Pennsylvania for two major reasons: first, the local Indians were less inclined to fight, and second, the Quaker political elite were pacifists. However, there is always a reckoning. Every year, Indian attitudes hardened towards the Pennsylvanians as the result of a pan-Indian social movement. In what is now western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Country, Indians gave up their specific tribal identities and began to identify primarily as Red Men. When a global war broke out, which is called the French and Indian War in America, the Indians were quick to strike across the Pennsylvania frontier.

In reading about the Indian attacks of the time, one is struck by how similar these attacks and their social impact were to today’s Global War on Terror. For example, most whites didn’t personally witness any Indian attacks. Instead, they were described in the print media. Indian attacks were every bit as savage as those of ISIS or al-Qaeda terrorists, and just as in the immediate post 9-11 period, when the National Guard was called up to secure every American airport and to conduct lengthy vehicle inspections at the gates of military installations (even in cases where the passengers were elderly retirees), the Pennsylvanian response to Indian attacks was every bit as overblown and clumsy.

Pennsylvania whites normally detected an Indian war party by spotting smoke rising from a white farmstead, often accompanied by the sound of gunfire. Nearby whites would spread the alarm by messenger. Upon receiving word, whites in the area would retreat to a central, fortified, or built-up area and organize for defense.

The whites who retreated to these safe areas after an Indian attack were of different ethnic groups. On the frontier, white groups consisted of a significant number of the older Anglo settlers (English/Welsh Quakers or New Swedes), but there were usually many more Germans or Northern Irish (the latter merely called Irish by contemporaries.) This collection of Europe’s children would come together and organize into militia companies of poor offensive effectiveness. The people would gradually return to their homes as the fear slowly evaporated. The militias posted to forts rarely patrolled or ventured outside at all, usually remaining behind the walls. One thing to note about these ad hoc militias, as well as soldiers posted on the Pennsylvania frontier, is that although these settlers had come from military cultures not far removed from the bloodbaths of Europe’s wars of religion, most whites lacked military experience. Additionally, for ideological reasons, the state of Pennsylvania didn’t provide any training or organization. At the same time, every Indian was a warrior.

To help illuminate the scale of this disadvantage, consider the following: the New Englanders, who did have a militia, suffered considerable early losses in King Philip’s War. Towns such as Lancaster, Massachusetts were conquered and destroyed, and entire militia companies were wiped out in different locations. The Yankees rallied, but they already had a good idea of what to do. The Pennsylvanians had to learn the maneuvers in the Ranger Handbook on the fly, while facing a highly competent enemy already in the field.

During this time, newspapers played a considerable role in uniting Pennsylvania’s various European groups. Prior to 1750, newspapers had references to Dutchmen, Irish, and so on. As the race war that was the French and Indian War and the subsequent Pontiac’s Rebellion played out, the term “white” became the only way to accurately describe the people being targeted in these attacks. Often, English Pennsylvanian military patrols or other sorts of parties would discover Germans or Irish captured by the Indians. The story of such an event was best described in the news using the term “white.” And indeed, Indians didn’t ask any of their white victims if they were German, Irish, or something else.

Another thing which occurred during this time was that the Quaker political elite was exposed as being, at best, out of touch, or of being hypocritical, empty virtue-signalers at worst. Pennsylvania’s political elite became ex-Quakers. While there is much to admire about the philosophical framework of a pacifist, tolerant Quakerism, a pacifist ideology must be protected by pragmatic people willing to use force.

It is remarkable that a white Pennsylvanian identity emerged at all. Assimilating groups such as the Germans, English, Swedish, and Northern Irish together was quite difficult. Indeed, even today, Northern Ireland is rife with white-on-white violence. One can speculate as to how Pennsylvania whites made this happen. After reading Our Savage Neighbors and other books about the colonization of the Delaware River Valley, one concludes that Colonial Pennsylvania was lucky in that its major metapolitical driver, media leader, and statesman of the time was none other than Benjamin Franklin.[3] The media was thus run by people who were not hostile to Pennsylvania whites as such, unlike today’s Jewish media. Furthermore, Protestant leaders such as the Presbyterian Irish minister Gilbert Tennent began altering their sermons to say that the covenant people were not just those of Ulster Protestant background, but all Pennsylvania whites. And the Quaker philosophical framework influenced other white religious leaders. Likewise, Pennsylvania military units were multi-ethnic: Germans, English, and Irishmen all worked together to keep their communities safe, and nothing survives in the record to indicate that all the groups did not pull their own weight in the struggle. And thus, the American white identity was born.


[1] Mark L. Thomas, The Contest for the Delaware Valley: Allegiance, Identity, and Empire in the Seventeenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), p. 203.

[2] David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 591, 592.

[3] While it has been claimed that it was written by someone other than Franklin, this document on the Jews is still worth a read.


  1. Ronald Blake
    Posted May 27, 2019 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    And it was whites, the French, who so often led Indian attacks against fellow European settlers, women, and children.

  2. margot metroland
    Posted May 27, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    This is a good review of a book that looks well worth the time.

    I think too much can be made of people being identified as Dutchmen, Irishmen, etc., in mid-18th century Pennsylvania. A large proportion of these were in fact recent arrivals or first-generation natives. If Franklin and others worried about the numbers of Dutchmen (Germans) filling up Pennsylvania, this was almost entirely due to their insularity and their need to live and trade among their own kind. And religious denomination, too, which tends to be overlooked.

    It should be noted that Pennsylvania was the only colony (apart from Maryland in its early days, and very briefly, New York) with fair tolerance of religion. So you could be Catholic, Lutheran, or Anabaptist—or Quaker—and actually set up a church or meeting-house. This latitude came partly out of William Penn’s own political beliefs and history as a Quaker (he had entered the Society of Friends as a young man in County Cork, where his family owned estates) and partly out of his family’s friendship with the Stuart monarchs.

  3. Ovidiu
    Posted May 27, 2019 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    “To put the bottom line up front, Pennsylvania’s different populations of Protestant Europeans fused, to a degree, and became white when they were all being attacked as whites by a non-white group…And indeed, Indians didn’t ask any of their white victims if they were German, Irish, or something else.”

    Yes but why it did not work as well the other way and result in the unification of the Indian tribes in a single Indian nation ? They also were treated by the whites without much concern for the subtle differences between the tribes and for sure their collective, community oriented, mindset was stronger than in the case of the more individualistic white Europeans.

    • threestars
      Posted May 28, 2019 at 1:38 am | Permalink

      It’s mentioned in the 1,540 word article that they did.

      • Ovidiu
        Posted May 28, 2019 at 4:12 am | Permalink

        But they didn’t. Forming temporary coalitions to go to war is not the same with forming a single nation. The Indians remained, well into 19th century, divided in different nation-tribes which preyed upon eachother when opportunity offered itself instead of uniting and acting as a unit against the obviously ever incoming white tide.

        Maybe forming a nation requires more than the the would be common blood and a common enemy. It requires a unified culture (collective consciousness) and it also requires means of rapid communication and dissemination of this culture in order to keep the people together.
        The whites had the printing press and educated people willing to use it promote this national ideology. It may have mattered more than the guns.

        • Wyatt A. Wake
          Posted May 30, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

          You seem to have answered your own question there. Whites, while biologically predisposed to more individualistic views that most other races, also had the benefit of ideological manipulation (as noted in the article, the deliberate emphasis on whiteness and deemphasis on particularities between the competing white groups) and written communication to spread these views. Pontiac, Tecumseh and others were prominent evangelists for the pan-Indian cause, and won over many hearts and minds. Pan-Indianism was the predominant threat before the war of 1812, and William Henry Harrison was recognized with a short lived Presidency for having contributed to its destruction. At the time (late 18th C to the war of 1812), America had conducted treaties with these tribes that gave certain privileges to the elders that cooperated with the federal govt in keeping down insurrectionist sentiment in the unincorporated Indian territories. These men were known by the derogatory title ‘annuity chiefs’ implying that they were bought and paid for by the (foreign, to them) American govt and traitors to their own cause. Tecumseh more notably than the others, railed against the annuity chiefs and told the various tribes that if they rejected the convenience of American annuity payments (shipments of things like salt, finished goods) and focused their strength on the rising paleface aggression on their eastern territories, they could succeed. The truth is that because of white agricultural practices and Tecumseh’s desire to return to a pre-contact lifestyle involving the return of hunting and gathering over agricultural work ultimately meant that they would always lose. Whites had the ability to muster and train soldiers, and to formally strategize a takeover of the Ohio Valley, whereas the demographically weaker Indians of that region had highly decentralized govt structure, a society averse to authoritarianism (Tecumseh was rejected as a potential autocrat upstart by a Creek chief) and no formal tax system. Just like the presence of the red man made the differences between whites seem less important than their common whiteness, the presence of the white man made the differences between the redskins seem less important than their common ‘redness’. Their primary difficulties were that they were more diverse than the whites (as many as 20 different languages were spoken in the air at Tippecanoe, or Prophetstown, compared the predominately English speaking groups in the east) and an economic and social lifestyle that could not compete with aggressive whites bent on conquest. In theory, had the US govt had no plan to invade the Ohio Country in order to expand (needed to give land in lieu of pensions for Revolutionary War veterans), then Tecumseh’s Indiana might have succeeded, but it would have to have reformed by adopting agriculture to raise their population, increase centralization and authoritarianism at the expense of the power of annuity chiefs and village elders, and a levelling of ethnic and linguistic diversity among the various tribes. Tecumseh was religiously devoted to preserving the ways of his ancestors (hunter gatherer lifestyle instead of mass agriculture of the whites, which he thought was feminine), the annuity chiefs were stubborn and unwilling to relinquish parochial interests, and I imagine that the average Indian was so attached to his own ethnicity and language that he wouldn’t really like to become Shawnee or relinquish the interests of his tribe. Thus, even had the US govt not been as aggressive, it is unlikely that Tecumseh’s Indiana would have sufficiently adapted to compete with and defend agains the advances of the Fourteen Fires (as the US was known before Ohio became a state).

          I recommend you read Sugden’s biography of Tecumseh if you are interested in this bit of American history. If we do not adopt the same feverous drive and indomitable spirit as he had before Harrison struck him down, we too will go the way of the redskin.

          • Ovidiu
            Posted May 30, 2019 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

            @ Wyatt A. Wake – Thanks for the reply, it is an informative and well argued reply.

            Yes it is a complicated issue indeed, no simple explanation can be given, there were many factors at play which led finally to the Indians’ failure while the whites succeeded. For instance it may have also helped the whites the fact that they were all people already uprooted, dislocated and alienated from the native countries, environments/lands and cultures, and thus -without ‘home-support’- easier to mix and mold together into a new nation.

            “If we do not adopt the same feverous drive and indomitable spirit as he had before Harrison struck him down, we too will go the way of the redskin.”

            We may be in a similar predicament as the Indians were with their doomed hunter-gatherer lifestyle which you mentioned as one of the reasons.
            We face a new economic system, global capitalism, which erodes and dissolves the state-borders (it dissolves the national communities) and which, through its economic logic, strongly incentives individualism and the disappearance of collective-national loyalties.
            Maybe, if nothing else, Trump will crash the whole global economy and we will see an end of globalization and the return of the nation-state hard borders. We will see the return of the international trade based on national-interest, not based on the principle of “free-trade” which means the principle of free movement across borders of everything : goods, capital (investment) and people (migration of labour). This would re-legitimize, and make viable again, the collective-identity based associations.

            An interesting article about this :

  4. Steven W
    Posted May 28, 2019 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting seeing white people come to be due to being put in proximity to non-Europeans. I agree though with the other commenter, the distinct conflict between the Pennsylvanians was due to/held up by insulation of wealthy/power and 1st generation German immigrants.

    Today whites fight with each other so much because the propaganda machine is so against them. But historically so many simply came together as not to have to associate with Africans and other foreign groups not even threat of violence. That in a sense is biology winning over on culture but also biology creating culture.

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