Visiting a Tragedy: Gnadenhutten, OH

Few places in the American Revolution evoke sorrow like Gnadenhutten, Ohio.  There, in March 1782, militia from Western Pennsylvania bludgeoned, scalped, and burned to death some ninety-six bound Indians who had adopted the Christian faith preached by missionaries from the church of the United Brethren.  Thirty-four of the victims were children.  Benjamin Franklin called the killings “abominable murders.”[1]

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The Chapel at Gnadenhutten with the 1872 memorial.  The Cooper’s Hut is to the right.  (ES Photo)

Gnadenhutten owed its start to missionaries from the Church of the United Brethren, a fair number of whom were born in Moravia, an eastern province in what today is the Czech Republic.  Arriving in America early in the 18th century, the German-speaking members of the United Brethren were known simply as Moravians.  Those Indians who adopted Christianity under the tutelage of Moravian missionaries became “Moravian Indians.”

In 1772, the missionary David Zeisberger moved his mission from Beaver Creek to the Muskingum River, establishing the small hamlet of New Schoenbrunn.  (This portion of the river has since been re-named the Tuscarawas and is a major tributary of the Muskingum, which starts further south where the Tuscawaras and Walhonding merge).  The village was successful and grew quickly, as more Indians flocked to the area.  In October 1772 a converted Mohican leader named Joshua decided to found a new town, expanding the number of Christian settlements along the Muskingum.  Zeisberger eventually named it Gnadenhutten, meaning Huts or Tents of Grace.  He wrote, “It sits on a good-sized hill on the river and the land there is nice and level.  The fields, however, are across the river from them.”[2]  Like its neighbor, Gnadenhutten flourished, despite growing tensions between white settlers to the east and more militant Native American nations to the west.

The outbreak of fighting between the Americans and Britain in 1775 radically changed the Moravian situation.  The Moravians just wanted to be left alone to practice their faith and pursued neutrality by appeasing both sides.  The British and Western Indians suspected the Moravians of preventing some Indians from joining the anti-American war effort and passing intelligence to the Continental Authorities at Fort Pitt, which was true.  American frontier settlers suspected the Moravians of feeding and sustaining hostile Indian raiding parties, which was also true.  Searching for greater safety, in 1776 the missionaries founded a new town closer to the neutral Delaware tribe at Coshocton, naming it Lichtenau, and then abandoned New Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten in 1777 and 1778 respectively.  (The departures weren’t definitive.  Moravian Indians continued to till fields and intermittently use the resources there.)  When the Delaware split into pro-war and pro-American sides, the Moravian missions were trapped in a no-man’s land on the Muskingum, with few friends on either side.  They moved again, establishing a new town named Salem close to Gnadenhutten.

The situation was intolerable and the Western Indian Tribes moved to resolve it first by forcing the Moravian Indians to emigrate to an abandoned town on the Sandusky River in Northwestern Ohio in the fall of 1781.  Though the western Indian nations had promised to take care of them, nothing had been prepared and the Moravians faced a bleak winter with the possibility of starvation.

The Moravian Indians resolved for themselves to dispatch a work party of roughly 150 men, women, and children back to the Muskingum to recover foodstuffs and other supplies that had been left behind.  In late January 1782, they informed the missionaries of their intentions and left.  The plan was to leave the women and children in the woods, while the men went into town to harvest any corn crops in the field and retrieve corn stored in holes underground specifically prepared for the purpose.[3]  When they arrived, they broke into three groups and focused on fields around Salem, Gnadehutten, and New Schoenbrunn while moving back into the towns themselves.  Unfortunately, their departure from Upper Sandusky coincided with the early dispatch of several war parties, who raided across the Ohio while the Moravians worked.

Pennsylvania militia pursuing the raiders set out for the Moravian towns on the Muskingum.  War bands were known to pass through the area and frontier settlers already held some animosity for the Moravian villages.  They came upon the work parties at Gnadenhutten and Salem, rounding them up under the guise of friendship before disarming them, binding them, and herding them into two buildings.  Once they felt secure, the militiamen held a trial of sorts, accusing the Moravian Indians of obtaining their property by raiding settler farms or supporting war parties.  Finding their prisoners “guilty,” the militiamen voted on the sentence.  The commanding officer, Colonel David Williamson, announced that those inclined toward mercy should step forward.  Only a handful of the more than one hundred militiamen did.

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Interior of the Cooper’s House.  The cellar is visible through the grate in the floor.  This building more closely follows the Moravian style of construction.  (ES Photo)

With that, militiamen escorted their prisoners into two buildings pre-selected for carrying out the death sentence.   (Both come down through history as “slaughter houses.”)  There, they took to braining their captives with a cooper’s mallet.  Then they scalped their victims and burned the buildings down.[4]  One boy survived his scalping and hid among the dead bodies before creeping out and escaping to the woods.  A second boy imprisoned with the women hid in a cellar and then escaped through a window as the house burned around him.  Meanwhile, the Indians gathering corn at New Schoenbrunn, farther upriver, had already started back toward the Sandusky and thus escaped the fate of their brethren.  Some of their messengers, however, saw bits and pieces of the drama playing out at Gnadenhutten.  Their testimony, that of the two boys, and oral tradition passed down among settlers on the Ohio frontier constitute the primary sources for the events on that fateful March morning in 1782.

In 1785, the Confederation Congress passed an ordinance setting aside Gnadenhutten, Salem, and Schoenbrunn, burned-out ruins and all, plus sufficient land to farm, for the sole use of  the Christian Indians who had initially settled there.  By 1788, the land was placed in trust vested with the United Brethren, subject to a survey against the day when the Moravian Indians might return.  But, war between the United States and the confederacy of western Indians was in the offing and it was not until 1798 that the survey was completed and President John Adams issued a patent.  John Heckewelder, who had been Zeisberger’s assistant in the 1770s, returned to Gnadenhutten in 1798 and Zeisberger himself followed, laying out a new settlement just south of Schoenbrunn, which he named Goshen.  With the influx of white traders and settlers, however, the missions did not thrive as before and the land was returned to the federal government in 1824.  The exception was a church and ten acres at Gnadenhutten and a graveyard at Goshen that contained the remains of some of the earliest Moravian settlers, including David Zeisberger.[5]

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The 1872 monument to the massacre.  (ES Photo)

During his time at Gnadenhutten, Heckewelder gathered together the scattered remains of those Indians killed in 1782 and buried them, then re-interred them in an old cellar.  The grave was lost, and then rediscovered by a local minister in 1842.  With that, the town formed an association to improve the site of the original Gnadenhutten and erect a memorial commemorating the death of those Moravian Indians killed.  It took three decades, but the fundraising project finally commissioned a marble obelisk and unveiled it in 1872.[6]  By 1882, the memorial society had set out markers identifying locations of various buildings.

In the 1970s, the town reconstructed the slaughter houses: one is configured as a chapel; the other as the cooper’s home/office.  They were built by hand, using two different construction techniques.  I visited the site with family earlier this month, mistakenly crashing the town’s Independence Day parade on July 7th.  We had to interrupt one parade watcher’s focus and ask directions to the museum and site.  She invited a friend over and they graciously gave us directions to the edge of town.  The site of the old Indian town, including the 1872 obelisk, the two reconstructed buildings, a small museum, and a mass grave, is located in the middle of a large cemetery on the hill Zeisberger mentioned in 1772.  Not surprisingly, given the Independence Day celebrations, the museum was closed when we arrived.  Nevertheless, the chapel and cooper’s house were open and we walked the grounds imagining life on the frontier during the American Revolution.  Following the Moravian style, the buildings were simple and functional.  By the time we had explored the site, the parade was over and the museum attendant (whose name I foolishly forgot to ask), had returned.

The Gnadenhutten museum is modest in keeping with the small size of the town and its dependence on donations, but contains a fascinating collection of artifacts from the area, ranging from arrowheads and simple tools that predate the 1772 settlement to farm implements and illustrations that help explain the region’s history over the last 236 years.  Nevertheless, the focus remains on the Moravian missions.  Several artifacts date from that period.  The museum attendant was quite knowledgeable and had some excellent stories to tell, not just about the events between 1772 and 1782, but about the people who had visited the area since then, including one young man paddling the Tuscarawas in a loin cloth whose canoe mysteriously climbed to the top of a nearby tree while he slept.  Apparently, he took the joke well.  Today, Gnadenhutten is a pleasant town in a pretty area that has done well to commemorate its history, particularly that of the Moravian Indians who settled the area and suffered for living in the no-man’s land of the frontier during the American Revolution.

[1]                From Benjamin Franklin to James Hutton, 7 July 1782, Founders Online.  Available at: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Moravian%20Period%3A%22Revolutionary%20War%22&s=1111311111&sa=&r=82&sr=.  Accessed January 22, 2018.

[2]                Hermann Wellenreuther and Carola Wessel, eds., The Moravian Mission Diaries of David Zeisberger, 1772-1781, (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 108.

[3]                John Heckewelder, A Narrative of the Mission of the united Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians, (Philadelphia: McCarty & Davis, 1820), 302-303; George Henry Loskiel, Mission of the United Brethren among the Indians in North America, (London: Brethren’s Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel, 1794), 171.

[4]                There are different versions of the story.  Some have the Indians being escorted from their prisons to the “slaughter houses” two at a time.  (Loskiel, 180) Heckewelder has them being brained inside the buildings in which they were held prisoner.  (Heckewelder, 320).  Loskiel’s version seems to have gotten more traction with historians, perhaps because it was published first.  I’m inclined to accept Heckewelder’s.  Although he wrote later, he had direct access to the Indian witnesses.

[5]                The History of Tuscarawas County, Ohio, (Chicago: Warner, Beers & Co., 1884), 308-312.

[6]                The History of Tuscarawas County, Ohio, 320-321.

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