- Amish Country
A famous Ohio Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, once said: "war is hell." He would say this almost 100 years after the Gnadenhutten tragedy. Sherman's comments could be used to describe what became known as the Gnadenhutten Massacre, a truly horrific event that happened during the Revolutionary War, a massacre committed by American militia, against innocent Native Americans.
In the summer of 1872 residents and dignitaries of Gnadenhutten dedicated a 25' tall monument of Indiana marble perched upon a 7' base to mark the site where the massacre happened. A group of an estimated 2,000 people joined in the somber occasion. In attendance were several Moravian Indians from Canada, one of whom was the great-grandson of Jacob Schebosh, the first victim of the massacre 90 years before. Ten years later a centennial memorial service was held at the monument with more than 10,000 people gathered about the monument to listen to the speakers.
Before the onset of the Revolution, a small group of missionaries called Moravians had come to America with the mission of bringing Christianity to as many Native Americans as would accept their beliefs. The Moravians first built permanent communities in Salem, North Carolina and and then Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. What made Moravians distinct from other North American missionaries was their belief the word of God should be brought to everyone in "their own language." This meant Moravian missionaries had to know the language of the people they were addressing and when they spoke to them it was in that language and not through a secondary interpreter.
One of those missionary workers was Reverend David Zeisberger who had come at an early age from what is today the Czech Republic. He had chosen to make it his life work to interact with as many Native Americans as would listen to him and in so doing, becoming followers of Christ and his teachings. Zeisberger's work had become successful, especially among some the Delaware (Lenape) tribe.
When the Revolution broke out in 1776, Zeisberger had a fairly strong contingent of Christian Delawares living in Pennsylvania. Just prior to the war, a number of them had moved to the Muskingum and Tuscarawas valleys in the eastern Ohio territory. The growing number of American settlers moving into Pennsylvania to avoid the coming conflicts put increasing pressure on the Delawares.
Zeisberger and fellow missionaries began setting up missionary villages at Schoenbrunn, Gnadenhutten, Lichtenau, Salem and Goshen in the eastern Ohio Territory on lands provided as a gift from a Christian Delaware leader. Each village was inhabited by a small cluster of missionaries that were responsible for guiding a larger contingent of mostly Christian Delawares. The missionaries provided guidance on bringing order to the daily living patterns within the village. Tasks were assigned so the entire village could survive the harsh northeast Ohio winters. Crops were planted first, then cabins were constructed then a church and schoolhouse.
Several things came together in 1781 that would lead to the massacre and destruction of Gnadenhutten and the Christian Delawares living here. In the east, the War of Rebellion had taken a turn for the worse for the British. They could no longer claim that it was going to be a short-lived rebellion among a few rebels, in fact the British were facing increasing difficulties. The British command in the east decided it was necessary to put additional pressure on the Americans to divert more forces from the east to protect from a western attack.
At the same time a number of Native Americans were unhappy with the success of the Christians converting their fellow brethren to the following of Christ. This was perceived as a threat by the Six Nations (also called the Iroquois Confederacy). It was this group, along with the guidance and support from the British, that sought the destruction of the missionary villages in the Tuscarawas Valley. Together they hatched a plot that was only partly foiled by friends of the missionaries.
In late summer of 1781, British military posted at the western end of Lake Erie assembled a small contingent of Wyandot and Shawnee and began a trek across northern Ohio toward the Tuscarawas Valley. They had a general plan to move east, attack some of the missionaries in eastern Ohio and make it appear as though there had been a Native American uprising against the missionaries. By capturing the missionaries, they hoped an uprising would happen between the Native Americans in the Ohio territory against the Americans. Gnadenhutten Village became the plans focal point.
Sadly for the missionaries, the village of Gnadenhutten had begun to fall away from the Moravian teachings, and according to Zeisberger, they "had begun to take up again the old heathenish customs and usages..." It was a village that had become openly divided between believers and non-believers thanks in great part to outside influences from non-believers to turn them away from what the missionaries were trying to accomplish. They even tried to infiltrate the village and take control of the entire village in order to subvert the missionaries. This division made it the perfect target.
That August the Wyandot warriors and a few British finally arrived at Gnadenhutten. Their trip across northern Ohio had been a long and difficult passage. By the time they arrived at Gnadenhutten, they were in desperate need of food. The Gnadenhutten missionaries and Native Americans fed them and gave them supplies. Their goal was to attack Pennsylvania settlers. The goal was to foment a rebellion of the Americans. But that plan was about to go badly.
Freshly renewed the group of British and warriors trekked on into Pennsylvania where they raided a few American settlements in which at least one child was killed in the attack. The warriors and British returned to Gnadenhutten. This time they came in with force, rounding up the white missionaries, forcing them into one cabin and taking all of their clothes. Some of the Christian Natives tried to protect the captives and gave them small bits of food and a few pieces of clothing. But they were too afraid of the warriors to do anything else.
Once the missionaries of Gnadenhutten were captured, word was sent to the other villages ordering them to Gnadenhutten or else the captives would be executed without mercy. A small group of warriors that had brought the message ravished Schoenbrunn, looting and destroying everything they could before escorting the missionaries back to Gnadenhutten.
There were members of the warriors that wanted to execute the group immediately, but some felt uncomfortable with this. They instead convinced the majority to take their captives back to Detroit and allow the British to decide their fate.
With most of the missionaries in captivity and in the hands of the British in Canada, and most of the Christian Natives dispersed, the villages in the Tuscarawas Valley were mostly deserted. Having gone through a hard winter, food was at a premium for those still living in the area. Hunger convinced a group of Christian Natives to return to Gnadenhutten in search of corn that may still be in the unharvested fields from the following summer.
It was at this time that a militia group under the command of Col. Williamson from Fort Pitt that had been in search of the warriors that had attacked American settlers and the Moravian missionaries the previous summer came upon the Christian Natives seeking food in the deserted village. The militia rounded up the group that consisted of 60+ men, women and children. Seemingly convinced that they were not those responsible for the attacks, the militia made plans to move on when one of the men recognized a dress one of the Indian girls was wearing as belonging to one of the Pennsylvania settlers that had been killed in the attack. In a moment, this discovery changed everything.
Instead of leaving the Indians alone and moving on, the placed them in captivity. During the night the militia talked about what to do with them, and it was decided by the majority that the entire group should be executed. And that is what they did the following morning. Every living soul was bludgeoned to death, one after another, as they knelt in prayer. In all 96 men, women and children were clubbed to death. It is thought that two boys escaped the massacre by hiding underneath the cabins floorboards.
Several months would pass before the horrific scene was discovered as returning missionaries found their village of Gnadenhutten burned to the ground and in the charred timbers, the remains of the Christian Natives.