History's Headlines: Drums along the Lehigh: 250 years ago troubles between Indians and Whites boiled over into violence at John Stentson's Frontier Tavern in Northampton County
“Now at last the King can get some rest,” Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of France’s ruler Louis XV sighed when she heard on February 10, 1763, that the treaty ending the Seven Years War with England, known in America as the French and Indian War, had been signed.
Fought on battlefields in Europe, America, Africa and Asia, it turned Canada and much of France’s overseas empire over to England. Britain’s victory also set the stage for the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. But that was still in the future.
Far from the silken cushions of the Pompadour’s Versailles boudoir, the Pennsylvania frontier smoldered in anger and resentment. Native American tribes, who in 1758 had signed a treaty in Easton (a copy of which is on display in the Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society’s Sigal Museum), switching their allegiance from France to Britain- a move that had assured the victors of their victory- felt betrayed.
The promises of better trade goods and regular supplies of gunpowder, which the Native Americans needed for hunting, were going unfulfilled. And despite British pledges, colonists were taking more and more of their land. With the French gone they went from being a valued ally of Britain to a subject people.
A French army officer, Captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville, knew from experience it could be fatal to anger the Indians, especially for frontier settlers. “What can one do against invisible enemies who strike and flee with the rapidity of light?” he wrote in his journal. “It is the destroying angel.”
With all these factors in play it should have surprised no one when warfare broke out in western Pennsylvania in May, 1763. It would run until late 1764, leaving eight forts destroyed and hundreds of colonists killed or captured. Its most prominent figure was the Ottawa chief Pontiac, thus history has given it the name Pontiac’s War.
It was against this background in August, 1763, that a group of friendly Indians who were known to the Moravians were returning from conducting a trade deal in Bethlehem. After traveling eight miles to the north they stopped to spend the night at the tavern owned by John Stenton. He was not at home and his wife was presiding over the tavern’s barroom.
Mrs. Stenton, for unknown reasons, took offense at the Indians’ presence. Moravian missionary Rev. John Heckewelder, who claimed to have spoken to one of those Indians many years later, described the encounter this way:
“The landlord not being at home, his wife took the liberty of encouraging the people who frequented her house for the sake of drinking, to abuse those Indians, adding that she would ‘freely give a gallon of rum to any one of them that would kill one of these black devils.’”
Throughout that night the Indians, who understood English, heard people coming in and out making threats against them. And the next morning they discovered that some of their most valued trade goods were missing.
When the Indians complained they were told to leave. Returning with a legal document from a local magistrate ordering that their goods be restored to them, the Indians were told again if they valued their lives they would leave, which they did. But in the quiet of their village they laid plans.
On October 8, 1763, the destroying angels visited Stenton’s tavern again. A group of local militia was there, commanded by a Captain Jacob Wetterholt. Early that morning Wetterholt asked his servant to get his horse. On opening the door the man was shot dead. Another shot mortally wounded Wetterholt. A sergeant was also wounded.
An Indian spotted John Stenton as he was getting out of bed and shot him. According to a contemporary account he was able to escape and run a mile before he dropped dead from loss of blood. His wife and children were safe in the basement.
Though wounded, Wetterholt was able to shoot through a window at an Indian attempting to set the tavern on fire, killing him. With that the Indians fled. Over the rest of the day at least 23 local people, who had nothing to do with Stenton’s actions against them, would be killed by the Native Americans before they left the region. Wetterholt was taken to Bethlehem’s Crown Inn where he later died.
The Indian raids threw the Lehigh Valley into chaos. Fearful farmers and their families were convinced that they were about to see a repeat of the French and Indian War. They flocked into Allentown, disrupting the service being held at a log church located where Lehigh County’s parking garage is today. Bethlehem was also besieged by refugees.
Calls were made to Governor James Hamilton and he ordered 800 militia troops raised. But it was all for naught, for the Indians never returned. And apparently no one thought it was worthwhile to chase them. The Valley’s Indian “troubles” were over.
The events did help fuel a reaction by settlers in the western part of Pennsylvania who were known as the Paxton boys. That December, they massacred some peaceful Christian Indians in Conestoga jail where they had sought protection. They based their action on testimony by Mrs. Stenton that a Moravian Indian, Renatus from Bethlehem, had plotted the attack on the inn. Renatus was later tried and released.
Only the actions of Benjamin Franklin kept the Paxton Boys from trying the same thing in Philadelphia. “If one Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that injury on all Indians?” he asked them. Franklin’s question was to haunt relations between whites and Indians until the official end of the frontier 130 years later in 1893.
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