Missionary Extraordinaire: David Zeisberger

Over the summer, I took a family excursion to several Revolutionary War sites in Ohio, some of which I recently wrote about.  In particular, I wanted to trace the experience of several Moravian missionaries and their congregations in the no-man’s land of the frontier.  Traveling a back road along the Tuscarawas River between the villages of Gnadenhutten and New Schoenbrunn, we stumbled across the graves of David Zeisberger (1721-1808) and several notable missionaries at the crossroads of Goshen.

Moravian Cemetery at Goshen, Ohio.  (Author Photo)

Zeisberger was one of the more fascinating characters living and working on the frontier during the 18th century.  He was born in Moravia, then in Austria-Hungary and now in the Czech Republic.  In 1726, when Zeisberger was five, his family fled for a religious colony at Herrnhut in Saxony.  There, religious refugees openly practiced their faith as members of the Church of the Bohemian Brethren, also known as Unitas Fratrum or as the United Brethren or Moravian Church in the English-speaking world.

The religious persecution that many members of the United Brethren had faced in Austria Hungary found them in Saxony as well and David’s parents left for the new English colony of Georgia when he was 14.  He followed a religiously tolerant Saxon count to Holland, but eventually left the low countries and rejoined his parents in Savannah.  After briefly joining a Moravian minister’s attempt to preach to enslaved people in South Carolina, Zeisberger’s family made its way to the new Moravian town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  Thus, as a teenager, David Zeisberger found himself situated on the American frontier and regularly interacting with Native American tribes along the southern shores of Lake Ontario.  By the age of 21, he had joined the church’s missionary work among the tribes of the Iroquois Confederation and Delaware nation.

Zeisberger Preaching to the Indians (LOC)
David Zeisberger Preaching to the Indians.  The image reflects the patronizing attitude of its day.

Zeisberger did well on the frontier, quickly demonstrating an affinity for Native American languages, the ability to navigate politics among various tribes and colonial interests, and the hardiness and skills needed to survive in the harsh American wilderness.  But, he was something of an odd duck.  A native German speaker, he would have had an accent in dealing with white political authorities and the various Native American tribes among which he traveled.  (In fact, he kept his diaries in German).

With the spread of white society, conflict between the colonies and Native Americans became inevitable and was a central component of the French and Indian War (1754-1763).  Yet, even with the end of that war, white-Indian conflict remained.  Zeisberger and his fellow Moravians were caught in the middle, focusing more on spreading their religion than choosing sides.

The war’s end found Zeisberger preaching to an Indian congregation that had formed its own town in eastern Pennsylvania.  But, that community was under constant pressure from encroaching whites and resentful non-Christian Indians.  So, in 1772, Zeisberger moved his flock to the Muskingum River valley in Ohio under the protection of a large Delaware Indian contingent that called the Muskingum home.  (Today, the eastern tributary of the Muskingum along which the converted Indians settled has been renamed the Tuscarawas.)

While Zeisberger and his fellow missionaries considered their time on the Muskingum spiritually successful, frontier politics rendered it less safe with each passing year.  The outbreak of the American Revolution only polarized frontier politics further and the Moravians struggled to maintain neutrality in the conflict.  Eventually, the situation became intolerable to the western Indians (principally the Wyandot and pro-war clans among the Delaware and Shawnee), the British, and the frontier militia.  The western Indians moved first, forcibly relocating the Moravian congregations to the Sandusky River in western Ohio in 1781.  They blamed the Moravian missionaries for the peaceful posture of the Indians that constituted their congregations and eagerly sought to separate Zeisberger and his fellow missionaries from their Indian flocks.

The British commandant at Detroit, Major Arent Schuyler De Peyster summoned the missionaries to Detroit where he interviewed them over their alleged pro-American leanings.  As the senior pastor there, Zeisberger took the lead in answering De Peyster’s questions, successfully convincing the major that their only purpose was proselytization.   De Peyster allowed them to return to their congregations.  Nevertheless, leaders of the western tribes remained hostile to the missionaries as the primary obstacle to tribal recruiting efforts among converted Indians.  Concluding the missionaries and their congregations were no longer safe on the Sandusky, in 1783 De Peyster moved them to lands north of Detroit among the Chippewa Indians.  The war had dispersed many of the converted Indians throughout the west and Zeisberger sought to reassemble them and recreate the spiritual community he had enjoyed on the Tuscarawas in the 1770s.

David Zeisberger’s grave in the small crossroads of Goshen, Ohio.  Author Photo

After the Treaty of Paris, the newly independent Confederation Congress set aside land on the Muskingum in trust for the Moravian Indians to return to, in part as compensation for a massacre Pennsylvania militia had committed against them in 1782.  Delays in surveying the tracts and conflict on the frontier prevented Zeisberger and his fellow missionaries from truly moving back to eastern Ohio until 1798.  Zeisberger founded a small settlement along the banks of the Tuscarawas branch of the Muskingum primarily for the missionaries, naming it Goshen.  Despite Zeisberger’s efforts and those of the other missionaries and Indian leaders, the reestablished communities did not thrive.  The disruptive influences that Ziesberger had fled in 1772 were already in the Muskingum valley as whites flocked to the area after the Revolution.

Nevertheless, Zeisberger—by then in his 70s—remained on the banks of the Tuscarawas writing a proper grammar of Indian languages and a history of the Native Americans in the area.   He died in 1808 and was buried in a small graveyard in the village.

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