Letters Received

Letter from Patrick Griffin

August 2, 2010

Dear Karen,

I write to support the campaign to save the Smith house.  The Smith house speaks as much to our past as Independence Hall.  It reveals a vision of our Revolution that has been lost in the mists of time.  Common men and women on the frontier struggled against wealthy speculators, British frontier policy and imperial ideology, as well as eastern indifference.  On one level, the story of the house and Black Boy group associated with it is a simple tale of American v. British, frontier v. east, and poor v. wealthy.  But the Smith house also stands as a reminder of a complex and troubling past.  These same settlers were also fighting Indians and refused to allow goods to go to what they considered an implacable enemy.  Both of these are American stories, and they must be remembered.  For these reasons alone, the house must be saved.  It is a part of who we are as a people.


Patrick Griffin was named the Madden-Hennebry Professor in 2008.  He is the author of The People with No Name:  Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World (Princeton, 2001) and  National Bestseller American Leviathan:  Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier (New York, 2007).  Patrick Griffin is a Professor of History at Notre Dame University.

Letter from Nathan Kozuskanich

To Whom It May Concern,

I write to support the campaign to save the Justice William Smith house.  The history of the American Revolution has in many respects been a history of ideas, and so it is a treat indeed when we get the opportunity to see, touch, and walk through the places where ideas became action.  The reason places like Independence Hall are so popular is because they make the past more tangible and provide the physical setting for the ideas that shaped the American past.  It is one thing to read the Declaration of Independence and its assertion of unalienable rights, but it is quite another to walk the halls where independence was debated and actually declared.

Our historical memory of Pennsylvania’s role in the Revolution and early republic has largely been confined to an eastern and urban perspective.  So, we know about Thomas Paine and Common Sense, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Jefferson and the signing of the Declaration, and the Grand Convention of 1787, but apart from a few Pennsylvania historians and some locals the names of William and James Smith are largely unknown.  And yet, these men were tied to key events that shaped Pennsylvania’s road to the Revolution, and they discussed and acted upon ideas no less important than those in Philadelphia.

For example, the Smiths and the story of the Black Boys can help us understand the right to bear arms in early America.  Pennsylvania was unique as the only British colony without an official militia, in part because of the pacifism of Quaker leaders in the Assembly, and in part because of the Penn’s refusal to pay a tax on the proprietary estate to help fund a militia.  Before the Revolution, western Pennsylvanians largely relied on voluntary military associations for defense, particularly since 1747 when Benjamin Franklin drew up a plan of association after condemning the Assembly for putting their religion before their duties as representatives of the people, and suggesting that they relinquish their power during wartime. As he argued in a pamphlet titled Plain Truth, “protection is as truly due from the government to the people, as obedience from the people to the government.”

The violence on the frontier during the French and Indian War solidified the belief that government should protect its people, and that the people themselves needed to contribute to providing that defense.  Quaker pacifism and western militarism clashed in February 1764 when the so-called Paxton Boys, after murdering the Conestoga Indians living under government protection, marched fully armed to Philadelphia to decry Quaker policy that gave safe haven to Natives while neglecting a militia law.  “The far greater part of our Assembly were Quakers,” the Paxtonians complained in an apology explaining their actions, “some of whom made light of our sufferings & plead conscience, so that they could neither take arms in defense of themselves or their country.”

James Smith and his cousin, William, were equally galled that during the French and Indian War “the frontiers received no assistance from the state.”  One month after the Paxton Riots, Smith and his Black Boys were ambushing and burning west-bound wagon trains laden with goods for the Indians, among them tomahawks and scalping knives.  Smith considered the Indian trade to be treasonous since it conflicted with the safety of the frontier, and thus saw fit to seize and destroy others’ property for the sake of the common defense.

The problem of a lack of a militia law was solved with the drafting of a new state constitution in 1776, a document that Smith had a hand in as a delegate from Westmoreland county.  No more could the government neglect the safety of the people, nor could the people neglect contributing to the common defense.  The Declaration of Rights acknowledged “that every member of society hath a right to be protected in the enjoyment of life, liberty and property, and therefore is bound to contribute his proportion towards the expense of that protection, and yield his personal service, when necessary, or an equivalent thereto.”  In order to accomplish this, the constitution also guaranteed the people “right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state.”

The importance of the Pennsylvania constitution and the influence of calls for a militia law from people like the Smiths was recognized in the landmark Second Amendment case, Heller v. District of Columbia.  In affirming an individual right to bear arms, Justice Scalia appealed to Pennsylvania’s “defense of themselves” language to support the majority opinion.  Justice Stevens, in his dissent, disagreed with Scalia’s interpretation but still used the Pennsylvania language, in part, to do so.

It is obvious that Pennsylvania is key to understanding important elements of the political and constitutional foundations of the American past.  The William Smith house, while not as impressive as Independence Hall, was nonetheless an important focal point on Pennsylvania’s road to the Revolution.

Nathan Kozuskanich
Assistant Professor
Nipissing University

Letter from Kevin Kenny

Boston College
Department of History, 140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
617-552-1196; kennyka@bc.edu

May 24, 2010

Dear Sir or Madam:

I write in support of the campaign to preserve the William Smith House in Mercersburg. By doing so we have an opportunity to commemorate a relatively unknown episode in Pennsylvania’s history that, in its own distinctive way, provided an important precursor to the American Revolution. I do not mean to intrude on the present-day concerns of the community, especially with regard to the vital matter of safety, but I urge the fire department not only to give further time for excavation but to take measures to preserve the Smith house permanently as a historic site.

In March 1765, at a place called Sideling Hill in what was then Cumberland County, a region newly settled by colonists from the northern Irish province of Ulster, a group of men attacked a wagon train en route from Philadelphia to Fort Pitt loaded with goods for the Indian trade. This region had borne the brunt of Indian attacks during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion, and the settlers wished to ensure that the goods being sent west would not be used against them. Their suspicions proved justified when the wagons turned out to include not only blankets, shirts, and beads, but also tomahawks and knives. Known as the “Black Boys” because they painted their faces black for anonymity, the raiders were led by the former Indian captive, Colonel James Smith, whose cousin William, a local Justice of the Peace, cooperated with the Black Boys and made his tavern available as their meeting place.

The Black Boys later engaged in several skirmishes with the 42nd Highland (“Black Watch”) Regiment stationed at Fort Loudon; apprehended a number of British soldiers, including the commandant, Lieutenant Charles Grant; and eventually attacked the fort, forcing the removal of the hated Black Watch regiment. The Black Boys resurfaced briefly in the spring of 1766 and again in 1769, when they attacked more traders engaged in Indian commerce and stormed Fort Bedford to free some of their comrades being held prisoner there.

What is the significance of the Black Boys in history? The year 1763, which saw the end of the French and Indian War and the beginnings of Pontiac’s Rebellion, is a familiar turning point in America history, marking the beginning of the Revolutionary era. The standard narrative runs from the first Peace of Paris in 1763, through the familiar events of the Stamp Act crisis, the Boston massacre, Lexington and Concord, and the glories of the American Revolution, to the second Peace of Paris twenty years after the first. Yet a different and less familiar narrative unfolded in the west, a story about land, Indians, and violence that also terminated in the Revolution, and it is to this story that the Black Boys belong.

The Black Boy episode was one key moment in the western path toward revolution that began in 1763. In that year the notorious “Paxton Boys” exterminated the Conestoga Indians, and shortly afterward they marched on Philadelphia. The Paxton Boys went entirely unpunished, giving carte blanche to other western settlers who battled Indians and coveted their land. 1763 was also the year when the British drew a proclamation line on western settlement, seeking (in vain) to prevent colonists such as the Black Boys and the Paxton Boys from settling on Indian land, and provoking these colonists into ever more daring acts of defiance against British authority.

The Black Boys were not Indian killers of the Paxton Boy variety (though some of them, including James Smith, had earlier fought against Indians and some would do so later as well). But, like the Paxton Boys, they believed that the provincial government and the imperial authorities were too partial to Native Americans and had little concern for the frontiersmen who provided the first line of defense when the Indians attacked. In the 1750s and 1760s, the legislative and executive branches in Philadelphia had squabbled endlessly over money and prerogative as the frontier burned. The Black Boys intervened against the government in 1765 to protect themselves. Yet, if the Black Boys differed from the ferocious Paxton Boys in their tactics, it must be acknowledged that both groups were part of an aggressive vanguard of settlement that could only have the effect of pushing the Indians ever westward. This process of settlement and displacement reached its bloody conclusion during the American Revolution, when American forces launched campaigns of extermination against the Iroquois in New York and the Delawares in Pennsylvania. This is the larger, long-term context in which the story of the Black Boys unfolded.

The story of the frontier in this bloody era does not make for pleasant reading. The Smith house offers an opportunity to commemorate not simply an isolated outpost of western settlement surrounded by Indian country in the late colonial era, but also the site of an important milestone on the road the American Revolution. The Revolution, and the Black Boy affair that preceded and helped initiate it, contained elements of both the heroic and the tragic – the early stirrings of American nationalism alongside the westward expulsion of Indians. These two processes were inevitably intertwined. Their complex story is part of our American heritage and I urge the people and government of Mercersburg to do everything in their power to keep that heritage alive

To preserve the Smith house is to preserve an essential aspect of our history.

Sincerely, Kevin Kenny, Professor of History

Kevin Kenny is a Professor of History at Boston College, where he teaches the history of North Atlantic migration and labor in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  He is the author of Peaceable Kingdom Lost:  The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment (Oxford University Press, 2009), The American Irish:  A History (Longman, 2000), and Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (Oxford University Press, 1998), and contributing editor of New Directions in Irish-American History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) and Ireland and the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 2004).  His current research is on the general significance of immigration as a theme in American history from the colonial era to the present.

Letter from William Pencak

January 5, 2010

Dear Sir or Madam:

I recently learned that some citizens of Mercersburg are trying to save the house of Justice William Smith.  It is not only the most important historical site in Mercersburg, but probably the most important historical site related to the American Revolution in Pennsylvania west of the Susquehanna River.

Why do I say this?  Here, the Black Boys met in 1765 to prevent the British from supplying the Indians with trading goods, which included weapons that could be used to attack the frontier.  They eventually drove the British out of Fort Loudoun and later Fort Bedford in the first military resistance against the Mother Country prior to the American Revolution.

We don’t remember the Black Boys because unlike Lexington and Concord, their actions did not lead to widespread support from all the colonies.  But we should.  In 1775, the Pennsylvania riflemen who comprised the Black Boys would be among the first men recruited by Congress to aid the New Englanders as they camped outside Boston following the Battle of Bunker Hill.  General William Thompson, commander of the Pennsylvania Rifles in the Revolution, was a leader of the Black Boys as well.  Not only were the frontiersmen who met at Mercersburg the first to rise up against the British, they were among the first, and the best, who participated in and won the Revolution.  Their experiences at the Smith House explain why they were so prominent in the cause of America.

Yes, the Smith House has undergone significant changes.  So has Mount Vernon, which is much larger than the house inhabited by George Washington.  A few buildings are all that remain of the real colonial Williamsburg: most of the town was  built with Rockefeller money in the 1930s and later.  And while we are not 100 percent sure this is the  Smith House, the initials WS in the cornerstone and  the presence of a large house dating from this era are pretty good evidence. Much better, for instance, than for the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, which no one paid attention to until her descendants opened it as a tavern to make money during the Centennial Exposition of 1876.  Once the house is preserved, it can be restored, as occurred with Independence Hall.

What surprises me the most is that the Mercersburg Fire Company is the group  that wants to demolish the building.  If anyone in modern America can be compared to the Minute Men of 1776, it is the volunteer firemen who come to aid their communities in times of distress.  They are the successors of the Black Boys, and ought to be at the front of the effort to preserve, not to obliterate, their memory.

William Pencak

William Pencak is Professor of History at the Pennsylvania State University. For eight years he edited the journal Pennsylvania History. He has written and edited several books on Pennsylvania history including two on Pennsylvania and the American Revolution.