The Black Boys and Blurred Lines

Reshaping Authority on the Pennsylvania Frontier

in Journal of Early American History
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In 1765, frontiersmen in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania forcibly prohibited British officials and colonists from participating in the Indian trade, intercepting and destroying goods intended for Native Americans in the Ohio Country. Imperial officials and civil leaders in Pennsylvania condemned the actions of the so-called “Black Boys,” suggesting that they represented a form of insurrection. Close analysis of the Black Boys’ stated motivations, however, suggests that they did not seek an overthrow of royal rule. Instead, they sought a renegotiation of political power on the frontier, one in which local concerns and wishes tempered the exercise of imperial authority.

The Black Boys and Blurred Lines

Reshaping Authority on the Pennsylvania Frontier

in Journal of Early American History



John Phillip ReidConstitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Rights (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press1986) 1–15 229. The Black Boys employed an understanding of the older English constitution rather than Reid’s evolving British constitution; Jack P. Greene Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States (Athens Ga.: University of Georgia Press 1987) 67–68.


John Phillip ReidConstitutional History of the American Revolution: Abridged Edition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press1995) 182. Reid notes Scotland’s legal origins rested in civil law not common law and the Scottish remained sensitive to different rights that the English would not claim John Phillip Reid Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority to Legislate (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1991) 202–203.


ReidConstitutional History of the American Revolution: Abridged Edition51–58; Reid ­Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority to Legislate 6.


ReidConstitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Rights27–39.


GreenePeripheries and Center70–76.


ReidConstitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Rights7–8. Though constitutionalism and the law are separate concepts colonial constitutionalism arose due to the legal differences and customs between the colonies and England and cannot be separated. Incredibly enough Reid’s example differentiating legal and ­constitutional involves the hypothetical actions of an army officer who acts without consent from a civil magistrate.


Jack P. GreeneThe Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution (New York: ­Cambridge University Press2011) 50–51 116–121.


Gregory Evans DowdWar under Heaven: Pontiac the Indian Nations the British Empire (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 336n; Spero, “Creating Pennsylvania: The Politics of the Frontier and the State” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania2009) 258n.


Eleanor Webster“Insurrection at Fort Loudon in 1765: Rebellion or Preservation of Peace?” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine47 no. 2 (April 1964): 125–139 at 137 139.


Stephen Cutcliffe“Sideling Hill Affair: The Cumberland County Riots of 1765,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine59 no. 1 (January 1976): 39–54 at 42 45 and 49.


DowdWar under Heaven203–204.


Spero“Creating Pennsylvania” 221.


GriffinAmerican Leviathan74–78; Patrick Griffin America’s Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press 2013) 84–85.


Joseph S. Tiedemann“A Tumultuous People: The Rage for Liberty and the Ambiance of Violence in the Middle Colonies in the Years Preceding the American Revolution,” Pennsylvania History vol. 77 no. 4 (Autumn 2010): 387–431 at 409–410.


SmithScouwa123; Deposition of Robert Allison 10 March 1765 Gage Papers phmc.


David DixonNever Come to Peace Again: Pontiac’s Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press2005) 223.


Matthew WardBreaking the Backcountry: The Seven Years’ War in Virginia and Pennsylvania 1754–1765 (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press2003) 256–258.


Johnson to Gage 22 March 1765Papers of Thomas Gage phmc. Johnson copied a letter from John Penn which notes “some Merchants of this Town … design to carry on a trade with the Western Nations tho’ they have not made any application for my License which his Majesty’s proclamation requires.”


SperoCreating Pennsylvania262 265. Spero suggests that Gage and Johnson viewed the Black Boys in negative terms from the start but his citations all come after news of the acquittal of the Black Boys spread. Oddly letters about the trial’s outcome suggests news reached Philadelphia in May after Governor Penn and his party returned to the city. Thomas Wharton did not learn of the acquittal until 1 May 1765 Thomas Wharton to Benjamin Franklin 27 April 1765. (accessed 10 March 2014).


Gage to Johnson 15 April 1765pwj 4:717.


Spero“Creating Pennsylvania” 265.


James Smith to (Grant?) 19 June 1765Pa. Archives 1st ser. 4:229.


A Proclamation 4 June 1765mpcp 9:264–265.


Deposition of Thomas Romberg 1765Pa. Archives 1st ser. 4:238; Lt. Charles Grant to Gen. Gage 24 August 1765 Pa. Archives 1st ser. 4:231–232.


Johnson to Board of Trade 1765co 5/66 ff. 268–274 The National Archives of Great Britain Kew Richmond.


Johnson to Croghan 4 April 1765pwj 4:707.


Thomas Penn to John Penn 8 June 1765Penn Family Papers Penn Correspondence 8 1763–1768 nv 218 hsp.


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