The Black Boys and Blurred Lines

Reshaping Authority on the Pennsylvania Frontier

In: Journal of Early American History
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  • 1 Lehigh University

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.

  • 5

    John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Rights (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 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.

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  • 6

    John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: Abridged Edition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 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.

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  • 8

    Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: Abridged Edition, 51–58; Reid, ­Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority to Legislate, 6.

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  • 9

    Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Rights, 27–39.

  • 11

    Greene, Peripheries and Center, 70–76.

  • 12

    Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Rights, 7–8. 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.

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  • 13

    Jack P. Greene, The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution (New York: ­Cambridge University Press, 2011), 50–51, 116–121.

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  • 14

    Gregory Evans Dowd, War 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 Pennsylvania, 2009), 258n.

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  • 16

    Eleanor Webster, “Insurrection at Fort Loudon in 1765: Rebellion or Preservation of Peace?” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 47, no. 2 (April 1964): 125–139 at 137, 139.

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  • 17

    Stephen Cutcliffe, “Sideling Hill Affair: The Cumberland County Riots of 1765,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 59, no. 1 (January 1976): 39–54 at 42, 45, and 49.

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  • 19

    Dowd, War under Heaven, 203–204.

  • 20

    Spero, “Creating Pennsylvania,” 221.

  • 21

    Griffin, American Leviathan, 74–78; Patrick Griffin, America’s Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 84–85.

  • 22

    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.

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  • 23

    Smith, Scouwa, 123; Deposition of Robert Allison, 10 March 1765, Gage Papers, phmc.

  • 31

    David Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac’s Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), 223.

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  • 32

    Matthew Ward, Breaking the Backcountry: The Seven Years’ War in Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1754–1765 (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 256–258.

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  • 36

    Johnson to Gage, 22 March 1765, Papers 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.”

  • 40

    Smith, Scouwa, 124.

  • 45

    Smith, Scouwa, 124.

  • 47

    Smith, Scouwa, 124.

  • 51

    Spero, Creating Pennsylvania, 262, 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. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp (accessed 10 March 2014).

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  • 59

    Gage to Johnson, 15 April 1765, pwj, 4:717.

  • 68

    Spero, “Creating Pennsylvania,” 265.

  • 88

    Smith, Scouwa, 125.

  • 89

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

  • 92

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

  • 99

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

  • 102

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

  • 103

    Johnson to Croghan, 4 April 1765, pwj, 4:707.

  • 104

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

  • 116

    Smith, Scouwa, 127.

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