Moravians in the Middle: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

The War Years (1775-1783)

February 6, 2018
by Eric Sterner Also by this Author


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In 1782, six months after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, Patriot militiamen committed one of the most heinous war crimes of the Revolutionary War. On March 8, between 100 and 200 militia and frontiersmen from western Pennsylvania slaughtered nearly 100 peaceful Indians at the small village of Gnadenhutten, on the Tuscarawas River in present day Ohio.[1] The Indians, largely Delaware and Munsey who adopted the pacifist Christianity preached by Moravian missionaries, had struggled to navigate the political currents of violence on the American frontier for years. To the west, British authorities at Detroit sought to mobilize the Ohio tribes (Miami, Shawnee, Huron, Wyandot, Delaware, and Mingo) to raid across the Ohio River into the American settlements in Kentucky, western Virginia, and western Pennsylvania. To the east, Continental, state, and local officials based at Fort Pitt struggled to resist the Indian raids by building frontier forts and conducting punitive raids against Indian settlements. The Moravian Indians were stuck squarely in the middle, trying to appease both sides. Ultimately, their attempt at neutrality led both sides to resent their presence in the no-man’s land of eastern Ohio. Both sides resolved to do something about it, destroying the Moravian community on the Tuscarawas in the process.

Moravian missionaries started working in North America in the early eighteenth century and began their sustained work west of the Appalachians when John Heckewelder began preaching on Beaver Creek in April 1770.[2] David Zeisberger, an experienced missionary, arrived in March 1771, having determined that his flock in eastern Pennsylvania could only be safe when removed from the evils of broader society.[3] By May, 1772, Zeisberger had established a community of Christian Delaware and Munsey, founding a town named New Schoenbrunn (Fine Spring) on the Tuscarawas River in Ohio. More followed from Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River in the summer and then Heckewelder led his group to the Tuscarawas the following spring. Within a year of its founding, New Schoenbrunn had grown so crowded that many of the Indians flocking there established a new town downriver, naming it Gnadenhutten.[4] The settlements flourished as more converts joined from the Delaware tribe nearby, which also afforded them a degree of protection from Indian raids.

Unfortunately, Dunmore’s War (1773-1774) between Virginia and the Ohio tribes did not leave the neutral Moravians and Delaware untouched.[5] Shawnee, Wyandot, and Mingo raiding parties fighting the Virginians often hovered around New Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten, where they might find vulnerable traders, or perhaps missionaries.[6] Wrote one nineteenth century historian, “During its continuance the settlements scarcely enjoyed a single day of rest. As the savages were greatly inflamed against the white people, the missionaries themselves were often in danger of their lives. Numerous troops of warriors marched through the settlements, –some upon murdering expeditions; others returning with scalps and prisoners, – often threatening that both places should soon be surprised, and burned to the ground.”[7] The pattern would cause difficulty for the Moravians again.

Isolated from the early months of the American Revolution, the Moravians continued to flourish and established a third town, Lichtenau, closer to the new center of Delaware power at Goshochking (Coshocton) in April 1776.[8] Zeisberger and Heckewelder both moved there to better conduct their mission to the Delaware, a rich source of new converts. As the year progressed, American Indian commissioners sought to maintain neutrality among the Indians. British commissioners, however, sought to enlist the Western tribes and the Iroquois nations of upstate New York in their cause. While the Iroquois inclined toward war, the Western tribes (Wyandot, Mingo, Huron, and Shawnee) hesitated and the Delaware (unsuccessfully) sought to maintain peace west and north of the Ohio River. When Delaware peace delegates were turned away at Detroit, they and the Moravians found themselves squarely in the middle, but as yet unassailed by either side.[9]

Neutrality was a difficult position to maintain. Indian raiding parties and white traders occasionally passing through made both sides suspicious.[10] American militia and frontier settlers suspected the Moravians might be sustaining Indian raiders; the British and western tribes suspected the Moravians were feeding intelligence to the Americans at Fort Pitt. Both were true, but reflected a Moravian policy of appeasement rather than duplicity. In 1777, reports reached the Moravian villages that the western Indians around Detroit would no longer accept neutrality and that those Indians who did not take up the hatchet against the Americans would be viewed as siding with them.[11] For their part, the Delaware nation blamed Indian aggressiveness on the British at Detroit, and threatened to go to war against if they did not stop pushing the Wyandot, Huron, Mingo and Shawnee Indians to go to war against the Americans.[12]

Tensions grew so bad on the frontier, that in 1777 and 1778 the Moravians abandoned both New Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten for greater safety in Lichtenau, closer to the seat of Delaware power.[13] Unfortunately, and inadvertently, this only drew them into the politics of war. For example, in 1777, a Wyandot war party arrived in the Delaware capital, reportedly intent on raiding Lichtenau and either seizing or killing the missionaries there. Rather than fighting, the pacifist Moravians responded by attempting to appease the Wyandot with a feast. Meanwhile, anti-American agents had been circulating in the towns, seeking to incite individual Moravians to join them in raids and finding a receptive audience among some until the missionaries intervened.[14] In 1778, the Delaware signed a treaty with the Americans, promising neutrality, causing internal splits between war and peace factions in the tribe. Nevertheless, in 1778-1779, Wyandot and Mingo war parties continued moving through areas near the Moravian settlements, often purposely passing through the villages.[15] Moravians were well aware that such acts would not dispose the Americans kindly toward them and rumors of an American attack on the Moravians circulated as readily as rumors of potential attack by the Wyandot or Huron.[16] At the same time, the Moravians notified the Americans at Fort Pitt when war parties stopped in their towns and occasionally forwarded intelligence useful to the American war effort.[17] But, the policy of neutrality satisfied no one. Pro-war factions on the British and Indian side blamed the Moravians for constraining their efforts to mobilize the western tribes, while American settlers blamed the Moravians for sustaining cross-river raiding parties. Meanwhile, raids across the Ohio continued, only further inflaming passions on both sides and exacerbating hostility toward the Moravian villages among frontier settlers.[18]

For the next few years, groups of Moravians drifted in and out of New Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten, which, after all, contained tilled fields, homes, storehouses, and the like, only to hastily abandon them upon the rumor that an Indian or American war party had set out to destroy them. In 1780, even Lichtenau became insecure and the Moravians abandoned it for a new settlement near Gnadenhutten, which they named Salem.[19] Meanwhile, a portion of the Delaware war faction, led by “Captain Pipe,” as he was known among whites, left its capital and settled in Upper Sandusky, considerably closer to British power at Detroit.[20] Pro-peace Delaware began to seek the protection of the Continental Army at Fort Pitt. As the Delaware split into more explicitly pro-war and pro-peace camps, their protection of the Moravian settlements dissipated.

Things did not improve in 1781. With the collapse of Delaware cohesion, the Moravians found themselves increasingly isolated and operating in a no-man’s land between the western Indians and the Americans. Raiding parties continued to travel in and around their towns on raids, solidifying the enmity and suspicion Americans felt toward them. In the spring of 1781, Colonel Daniel Brodhead, the Continental commander at Fort Pitt, led a punitive raid west responding to a major Indian raid earlier that year and ostensibly aimed at the Delaware, whose split had caused the collapse of the 1778 Treaty.[21] The idea of a raid appears to have arisen with the militia, which then prevailed upon Brodhead to lead it. The Colonel had just led a campaign up the Allegheny River and now led 150 Continentals plus 134 militia toward the Muskingum and Tuscarawas.

When the force arrived outside Salem, Brodhead faced a dilemma. The militia wanted to destroy the town, but Brodhead opted instead to send a note to the missionaries asking a representative to join him in camp. Heckewelder went. Brodhead informed the missionary that he was conducting operations against hostile Indians at the forks, meaning the old Delaware capital at Coshocton. The Colonel wanted to know whether there were any Moravians about, as it was his wish to avoid conflict with them.[22] After facing down a group of militia determined to destroy the Moravian towns, Brodhead proceeded to Coshocton and destroyed Indian crops there. The Christian Indians had dodged a major attack, but just barely and only through the determination of a Continental colonel whose troops outnumbered the militia.

In August 1781, a large war party of western Indians (Huron, Wyandot, Pipe’s Delaware, plus a few Shawnee, Mohegan, and Ottawa) in company with a British officer arrived at the Moravian towns, attempted to persuade the Moravians to move to the Detroit area and demanded that the missionaries be turned over to them.[23] Eventually, on September 2, Wyandots with the party seized several of the missionaries, including Heckenwelder and Zeiseberger.[24] The British officer eventually released them, but continued to pressure the Moravians to depart as the warlike Indians from the northwest despoiled crops, livestock, and possessions at will. As a group, the Moravians finally submitted to pressure and agreed to emigrate, abandoning “Schoenbrunn, Gnadenhutten, and Salem, with much heaviness of heart and great regret, leaving in them the larger portion of their possessions.”[25] Captain Pipe and his band of Delaware, who had already emigrated west, were the designated escort on the long journey to the Wyandot area along the upper Sandusky River, in western Ohio.[26]

The Moravians arrived on October 11 and began to put up huts and houses for the winter, while scrounging supplies for the winter and to feed those livestock they had managed to drive from the Tuscarawas River. Though they had promised a secure and bountiful home along the Sandusky, the western Indians made no provision to feed or house the Moravians, who faced a desperate situation and the prospects of starvation over the winter. The lack of food caused some disorder among the flock, although Zeiseberger was somewhat cryptic about its nature.[27] In all likelihood, British agents and their Indian allies continued earlier efforts to recruit warriors from the Moravian community. By the end of the month, the British commander at Detroit, Major Arent Schuyler De Peyster, summoned the missionaries there, splitting them from their congregation.[28] At Detroit, De Peyster examined them about their relationship with the Continental Congress, then allowed them to return to the Sandusky. In their absence, Indians from the local tribes (Wyandot, Huron, and Pipe’s Delaware) appeared to make progress among the missionaries’ converted Indians. Zeiseberger wrote, “Satan rages … not only from without, but also from within. For in the church there were people who upheld them in their false dispositions and applauded them, who wished to establish by force that wicked life of his and heathenism. If we oppose them they become angry and set on the wild Indians against us … Such a change has now come in the Indian church that the bad, wicked people can not be cast out, but they wish to be there and to cause harm in the church, for they in the wild towns have occasion enough therefor and no one would say any thing to them about their sinful life.”[29]

Back on the Muskingum and Tuscarawas, the militia finally set out to do what Colonel Brodhead had prevented them from doing in the spring, namely, destroying the Moravian presence on the Tuscarawas. Pennsylvania militia under Col. David Williamson arrived at the now abandoned Moravian towns intent on either driving the Moravians farther from the Ohio river and American settlements, or making the entire lot prisoner and removing them to Fort Pitt.[30] So, it came as something of a surprise when they found the towns abandoned. Williamson rounded up the few Indians he could find in the area and took them to Fort Pitt, from which they were eventually released.

Throughout the winter of 1781-1782, the Moravians on the Sandusky suffered under poor conditions. Groups of Moravians made their way sporadically back to the towns they had abandoned on the Tuscarawas, namely to gather crops they had sown the previous spring and collect supplies and possessions they had been forced to leave behind when removed in October.[31] In general, they planned to collect corn in the fields and then store it underground in the forest nearby, from where it might be drawn as needs demanded. Originally, they had planned to camp well away from the towns, but, believing them relatively safe, moved closer and lived among their old homes while they worked.

Unfortunately, as the season progressed, the job of shuttling back and forth between the Sandusky and Tuscarawas grew increasingly risky. In the late-winter and early-spring, the Native Americans launched several raids across the Ohio, north and south of the fort at Wheeling. Everywhere, the pattern was the same: isolated settlements and houses would be struck and the occupants killed or carried off, while the responding militia could only briefly pursue a raiding force and determine that “Indians” had done it, without necessarily distinguishing among the tribal affiliations of the raiders. According to one historian writing early in the nineteenth century:

The early period in the spring at which irruptions were frequently made by the savages upon the frontier, had induced a belief, that if the Moravian Indians did not participate in the bloody deeds of their red brethren, yet that they afforded to them shelter and protection from the inclemency of winter, and thus enabled them, by their greater proximity to the white settlements, to commence depredations earlier than they otherwise could. The consequence of this belief was, the engendering in the minds of many, a spirit of hostility towards those Indians; occasionally threatening a serious result to them. Reports too, were in circulation, proceeding from restored captives, at war with the general pacific profession of the Moravians, and which, whether true or false, served to heighten the acrimony of feeling towards them, until the militia of a portion of the frontier came to the determination of breaking up the villages on the Muskingum.[32]

The Moravians gathering and storing crops at Gnadenhutten had some awareness of the ongoing Indian raids. Back on the Sandusky, the missionaries noted at least one war party leaving the area in February.[33] As the work party toiled at Gnadenhutten, a small war party from the Sandusky had crossed the Ohio and raided local settlements in Pennsylvania.[34] In February, the war party had attacked the homestead of the Robert Wallace family and was returning westward. It camped near Gnadenhutten where warriors informed the working Moravians that they had captured a woman and a child, who they had impaled on stakes on the western side of the Ohio River.[35] A prisoner with them warned the Moravians that the militia would pursue them and pass through Gnadenhutten.[36]

The February raids triggered a quick response from the Pennsylvania militia, which understood that Moravian Indians had been returning to their towns. Simply put, militiamen collectively decided to act on their 1781 intentions to destroy the Moravian presence along the Tuscarawas.[37] Subsequent historians argued that their intentions were much as Brodhead’s had been: destroy the villages and crops, then remove the Moravians from the region by bringing them as prisoners to Fort Pitt.[38] (Ostensibly, the militia would remove the Moravians for their protection from warlike Indians farther west; the mirror image of the rationale that the western tribes had offered for removing the Moravians in the fall of 1781!) Some 160 men gathered in western Pennsylvania, mounted on their own horses and bearing personal arms, then formally mustered at Mingo Bottom, on the Ohio River just below present-day Steubenville. As earlier, they elected David Williamson to command as their colonel. The expedition set out for the Moravian villages on March 4, 1782, arriving on the Tuscarawas on March 5 and camping for the night.[39]

At Fort Pitt, Gen. William Irvine had replaced Daniel Brodhead and then departed the fort to seek assistance for the frontier in Philadelphia, leaving his deputy, Col. John Gibson, in command. Gibson, learning that the militia was marching on the Moravian villages, dispatched a messenger to warn the Indians there. He arrived too late.[40]

On the 6th, Williamson divided his forces into two columns. One would cross the river and attack from the west, from which it could also prevent escape. The other would divide into three parts and approach the town through the woods, striking it from north, south, and east.[41] Williamson’s dispositions made the militia highly vulnerable to attack, suggesting that he did not fear such military measures from the Christian community. For their part, the working Moravians were confident of their innocence in the attacks across the Ohio and did not fear the oncoming militia.

The first column lacked canoes to cross the river. One man volunteered to swim it and recovered a sugar trough, which the group used to begin crossing men. Several stripped and swam, placing their clothes, weapons, and powder in the trough, and then pulling it along with them.[42] When a small group had crossed, sixteen strong by most accounts, it encountered Joseph Shabosh, who was out searching for a horse, and promptly killed, then scalped him.[43] Sources disagree whether he was shot first, or simply bludgeoned to death. The most popular story is that he was initially shot in the arm, breaking it, and then executed by gunfire afterward.[44] This group then encountered Indians working in the cornfields west of the river, hailed them as friends, and escorted them to them to the town, telling them they would be taken to Fort Pitt as prisoners, but where they would be fed. Not fearing for their safety, the Moravians working in the fields went along peacefully.[45] On the west side of the river, John Martin and his son, both Christian Indians, observed the party returning to Gnadenhutten. Martin sent his son to Gnadenhutten, while he went to Salem to apprise the Indians working there of events.[46]

Meanwhile, the second column, which had divided into three parts and remained on the east bank of the Tuscarawas, arrived at Gnadenhutten.[47] On the way, his group encountered Indians using a canoe on the Tuscarawas and killed them.[48] Jacob, Joseph Shabosh’s brother, saw this murder from a distance and promptly fled.[49] They also found Joseph Shabosh’s wife hiding at the river’s edge and killed her.[50] The group then approached the town proper and began mingling in a reasonably friendly fashion with the Indians there.

John Martin made quick time to Salem, where he informed the Indians there that he believed their wants would be satisfied by the Americans around Fort Pitt. They appointed two men to travel to Gnadenhutten with Martin to collect further information. Friendly mingling among the Indians there seemed to confirm Martin’s belief.[51] Williamson sent Martin back to Salem with his compatriots and a militia detachment in order to retrieve the work parties there and assemble the entire body at Gnadenhhutten.[52] After that party left, the militia deprived the Moravians in town of any dangerous implements (weapons, farm tools, etc.), seized, bound, and herded them into two buildings, men in one, women and children in the other.[53] The militia sent to Salem also received a welcome, behaved as friends, disarmed the Indians there, and moved the entire group back toward Gnadenhutten.[54] Upon their arrival, the Salem party discovered blood by the side of the river, but it was too late to turn back. The militia bound them and confined them to the two houses as well.[55] Realizing their peril, the Moravians began to pray and sing hymns.[56]

With the towns secured and the Moravians locked up, the militia did two things, although the order in which they occurred is less clear. First, the militia held a sham mob trial, perhaps trying to justify the action some of its members contemplated, work up the courage to do so, rationalize taking the Indian property that they seized, or some combination of all three. Basically, the militia pointed to the Indian property, such as horses, farm implements, and cooking utensils, and accused the Moravians of obtaining them on Indian raids.[57] Explanations and pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears.

Second, Williamson turned the fate of the Indians over to his men. Two nineteenth century accounts agree that the militia officers were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to make the decision themselves.[58] It’s also possible that Williamson and his officers knew what would happen given the mood of the frontier communities and sought to absolve themselves of responsibility for the consequences. Williamson had the militia form a line, directing those men who were “inclined to mercy” to step forward. Of more than one hundred militiamen, only sixteen or eighteen stepped forward.[59] Finding themselves in a small minority, they left, although Williamson’s whereabouts are unclear. One account has a woman with the community pleading with Williamson for their lives, only to be told he could do nothing.[60] There is some hint that Williamson was not popular with the militia due to his restraint in the towns the prior autumn and may have deferred to the armed body in order to restore it.[61]

The remaining militiamen commenced the work of murder. They began by separating several men supposed by the militia to be warriors and marched them out of town, planning to kill them at its edge. Two attempted to escape, but were killed in the process.[62] Back in town, the militia began braining the bound Moravians with a mallet in the houses in which they had been imprisoned, taking turns as each militiaman wearied. Then, they scalped their victims, left the houses, eventually returned to finish off any they found alive, and burned the buildings.[63] In this fashion, between the murders outside town and in the town, the frontier militia killed ninety-six unarmed people. Sixty-two were adults; the remaining thirty-four were children.[64] Their work completed, the militiamen looted the towns, investigated New Schoenbrunn, packed up, and set out to return to the Ohio.

As with most massacres, there were survivors. One young man named Thomas reportedly survived his scalping, hid among the dead bodies, crept out, then hid until darkness enabled him to make his way to the Sandusky trail. Similarly, a young boy imprisoned in a house with the women hid briefly in a cellar, then managed to escape through a window as the house burned around him. A young boy with him got stuck in the window and burned to death. The two survivors fell in with the work party from New Schoenbrunn, already on its way back to Sandusky.[65] Most of the story of what happened in town comes from these two boys. It circulated among the communities along the Sandusky and was re-told by Heckewelder and Zeisberger, from whom most subsequent accounts drew their narratives.

Additional information about the movements of the militia comes from two messengers that the Moravians on the Upper Sandusky had sent to recall the work crews from the Tuscarawas. De Peyster had summoned the missionaries at Sandusky back to Detroit. One of their flock had sped eastward to recall the Moravians working the abandoned towns to say goodbye. As they packed and began departing, the New Schoenbrunn Moravians sent messengers to Gnadenhutten. Those messengers saw signs of a large body of mounted men in the area—the militia—and encountered Shabosh’s body where the militia had left it. They then joined their friends, who were already west of the river for the night, reported what happened, and went back to New Schoenbrunn the next day while the main party continued westward. Seeing militia at New Schoenbrunn, the messengers finally caught up with their party on the way back to Sandusky.[66]

In addition to these witnesses, the returning militiamen themselves were, of course, aware of what they had done. Among some communities that had suffered at the hands of raids from the Sandusky area, the result was “highly gratifying to many,” and the militiamen opposed to the murders did not announce their opposition upon returning home.[67] A third-hand account of Williamson’s attitude quotes him as saying, “Should it be asked what sort of people composed this band of murderers, I answer, they were not all miscreants or vagabonds; many of them were men of the first standing in the country. Many of them had recently lost relations by the hands of the savage, and were burning with revenge. They cared little on whom they wreaked their vengeance, [just] so they were Indians.”[68] The quote itself is suspect, but may reflect Williamson’s attitude toward his fellow militiamen in his latter years.

Even if news of the massacre found a receptive audience among some settlers in western Pennsylvania, it was not well received at Fort Pitt. Brig. Gen. William Irvine, who had replaced Colonel Brodhead in command at Fort Pitt, was disgusted with the whole affair. Returning to the fort in late March, he wrote Commander-in-Chief George Washington, “things were in greater confusion than can well be conceived. The country people were, to all appearance, in a fit of frenzy. About three hundred had just returned from the Moravian towns, where they found about ninety men, women and children, all of whom they put to death, it is said, after cool deliberation and considering the matter for three days. The whole were collected into their church and tied when singing hymns.”[69] He then relayed information about a militia plot to kill his deputy, Col. John Gibson, and the murder of two friendly Delaware Indians who had sought safety near the fort. When the militia launched another raid on the Indians in May, this time aimed at reaching the Sandusky and the tribes actually raiding across the Ohio, Irvine was clear to the commander, Col. William Crawford, who was not present at Gnadenhutten, that “it will be incumbent on you especially who will have the command, and on every individual, to act, in every instance, in such a manner as will reflect honor on, and add reputation to, the American arms—always having in view the law of arms, of nations, or independent states.”[70] Irvine likely had the Gnadenhutten massacre in mind and wanted to avoid a repeat. In distant France, Benjamin Franklin wrote a correspondent in England, “the abominable Murders committed by some of the frontier People on the poor Moravian Indians, has given me infinite Pain and Vexation. The Dispensations of Providence in this World puzzle my weak Reason. I cannot comprehend why cruel Men should have been permitted thus to destroy their Fellow Creatures.”[71]

Word of the massacre reached the missionaries on March 14, when an Indian returning with the Schoenbrunn party reported that the Indians at Salem and Gnadenhutten had been captured by the Americans and either taken to Fort Pitt or killed. Shabosh’s murder was reported, likely by the messengers the New Schoenbrunn party had sent to Gnadenhutten before their own departure.[72] Zeiseberger held out hope that the separated members of his flock had been taken to Fort Pitt, where they might find some measure of safety.[73] But, there was little opportunity to collect additional information, as he and his fellow missionaries set out for Detroit on the 15th per De Peyster’s earlier summons. A more complete account had to wait until March 23, when two Indians bringing supplies for the trip to Detroit relayed the tales of the two boys who had escaped.[74]

The Gnadenhutten massacre has the ingredients of a simple morality play: land-hungry and depraved settlers slaughtered innocent Indians as the latter prayed for salvation. Nineteenth century histories of the massacre were content to let matters rest there. A history prepared for the dedication of a memorial at the site referred to the militia as “blood thirsty troops” and “murderers” and the Moravian Indians as “pious and unoffending.”[75] Indeed, that was true in the main, but the massacre at Gnadenhutten represented the culmination of several antagonistic forces along the Ohio frontier and not just the work of bloodthirsty murderers: western tribes sought to provoke settler animosity toward the Moravians; Moravian attempts to appease both sides gave both sides reasons to object to their actions; poor communication between Continental authorities and the militia created tense command relationships among the Americans; frontier brutality on both sides was common and unexceptional at the time; and, the Moravians persisted in an area they knew was dangerous.

None of these factors excuse the cold-blooded mass murder of innocent people in Gnadenhutten. But, they highlight that it was not a mere spasm of inexplicable violence on the American frontier in wartime. It was the culmination of conflicting interests and decisions consistent with an intensifying pattern of brutality and violence on the frontier and a reminder that the birth of the United States had a darker side than many Americans like to admit.


[1] At the time of the Revolution, the Tuscarawas was called the Muskingum and most contemporary source material refers to the river along which the villages were located as the Muskingum. Today, however, the river is named Tuscarawas and becomes the Muskingum where the Tuscarawas and Walhonding Rivers join at Coshocton, Ohio. This article refers to the river as the Tuscarawas, but some direct quotations still use the eighteenth century name.

[2] C.C. Mitchener, ed., Ohio Annals: Historical Events in the Tuscarawas and Muskingum Valleys, and in Other Portions of the State of Ohio (Dayton, OH: Thomas W. Odell, 1876), 84. The missionary Frederick Christian Post had visited the area in 1762 but did not stay long due to the French and Indian War. But, when Heckewelder and Zeiseberger arrived, Post had already introduced local Delaware to the Moravian faith.

[3] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 83. In his history of the Moravian missionaries working among Native Americans in the mid-Atlantic states, Moravian missionary John Heckewelder noted that they were the subjects of constant persecution by colonial authorities, often suspected by their neighbors of collusion with raiders from the Iroquois Confederation. See John Heckewelder, A Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians from its Commencement, in the Year 1740, to the Close of the Year 1808 (Philadelphia: M’Carty & Davis, 1820), 17-67. See also, Thomas Verenna, “The Darker Side of the Militia,” Journal of the American Revolution, February 26, 2014,, accessed January 13, 2018.

[4] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 89.

[5] Heckewelder, Narrative of the Mission, 135.

[6] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 93-94; Samuel P. Hildreth, Contributions to the Early History of the North-West Including the Moravian Missions in Ohio (Cincinnati: Poe and Hitchcock, 1864), 93.

[7] William M. Willett, Scenes in the Wilderness: Authentic Narrative of the Labours and Sufferings of the Moravian Missionaries among the North American Indians (New York: G. Lane & P.P. Sandford, 1842), 35.

[8] Heckewelder, Narrative of the Mission, 143.

[9] Ibid., 145.

[10] Ibid., 147-149; Hildreth, Contributions to the Early History of the North-West, 99.

[11] Heckewelder, Narrative of the Mission, 151.

[12] Ibid., 154.

[13] Willett, Scenes in the Wilderness, 142-143.

[14] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 121-122.

[15] Heckewelder, Narrative of a Mission, 167, 194-195.

[16] Ibid., 160-165.

[17] Ibid., 239-240; Rev. David Zeisberger to General Hand, November 16, 1777, in Rueben Gold Thwaites, ed., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, Draper Series, Vol. III, (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1912), 164-165.

[18]Ruben Gold Thwaites, ed., Chronicles of Border Warfare, or A History of the Settlement by the Whites, of North Western Virginia, and of the Indian Wars and Massacres in that section of the State with Reflections, Anecdotes, &c. (Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd Company, 1912), 300. The original version of this book under the same title, by Alexander Scott Whithers, was originally published in Clarksburg, Virginia by Joseph Israel in 1831. The work will hereafter be cited as Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, but the pagination is from the 1912 edition annotated by Thwaites.

[19] Willett, Scenes in the Wilerness, 144; Heckewelder, Narrative of the Mission, 209; Hildreth, Contributions to the Early History of the North-West, 110-111.

[20] Heckewelder, Narrative of the Mission, 214.

[21] Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 299-300.

[22] Heckewelder, Narrative of a Mission, 213-214; Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 300-301.

[23] Hildreth, Contributions to the Early History of the North-West, 118-119; Heckewelder, Narrative of the Mission, 231-242.

[24] Eugene Bliss, translator and editor, Diary of David Zeisberger: A Moravian Missionary among the Indians of Ohio, Volume I, (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1885), 11-12.

[25] Hildreth, Contributions to the Early History of the North-West, 124.

[26] Heckewelder, Narrative of the Mission, 275.

[27] Bliss, Diary of David Zeiseberger, 54.

[28] Ibid., 29; Heckewelder, Narrative of a Mission, 285.

[29] Bliss, Diary of David Zeiseberger, 56-57.

[30] Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, pp. 313-314; Williamson, of Washington County, Pennsylvania, was lieutenant colonel, 3rd Battalion, Pennsylvania Militia, raised in the area around Donegal Township. Item 13, Militia Officers Index Cards, 1775-1800, Pennsylvania State Archives, Archives Records Information Access System (ARIAS),, accessed January 13, 2018.

[31] Heckewelder, Narrative of a Mission, 311; Bliss, Diary of David Zeiseberger, 29.

[32] Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 313-314.

[33] Bliss, Diary of David Zeiseberger, 67.

[34] Heckewelder, Narrative of a Mission, 312; James II McMechen, Legends of the Ohio Valley or Thrilling Incidents of Indian Warfare (Wheeling, WV: West Virginia Printing Company, 1887), 46.

[35] Heckewelder, Narrative of a Mission, 312; Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 319. Some sources name the family as that of David or William Wallace, understandable as they were all related. See Joseph Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783 (Pittsburgh: John S. Ritenour and Wm. T. Lindsey, 1912), 188. This is the third printing of a collection of articles printed initially in the Wellsburg, Virginia Gazzette in 1824. Doddridge settles on Robert. Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement, 200. Sources conflict about whether the militia found Mrs. Wallace’s body, but Doddridge believes they did not and dismisses the brutal slaying of Wallace’s family as a cause of the subsequent massacre. A family history indicates the Wyandot attacked Robert Wallace’s family while he was away, capturing his wife and three children, then later impaling her on a stake while killing and mutilating one infant child. See F.S. Reader, Some Pioneers of Washington County, PA: A Family History (New Brighton, PA: F.S. Reader & Son, 1902), 40-41.

[36] The History of Tuscarawas County, Ohio (Chicago: Warner, Beers & Co., 1884), 96.

[37] Ibid., 295-296.

[38] Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 321.

[39] The History of Tuscarawas County, 295.

[40] Ibid., 296.

[41] Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars, 189.

[42] The History of Tuscarawas County, 296.

[43] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 160; Willett, Scenes in the Wilderness, 182; The History of Tuscarawas County, 296. Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 322. Whithers and The History of Tuscarawas County have Shabosh being shot in the arm and then to death, which would have likely alarmed others. Whithers makes no mention of a peaceful meeting between Indians in the cornfields and this first division.

[44] Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars, 189n1. According to Doddridge, Charles Bilderback of Virginia fired the fatal shot and scalped Shabosh. Indians later captured him and his wife, took them to the site of Shabosh’s murder, and executed Charles there in 1789.

[45] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 161.

[46] Ibid., 161.

[47] Ibid.

[48] The History of Tuscarawas County, 296. One may have been Shabosh’s wife. Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 322.

[49] The History of Tuscarawas County, 296-299; Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 160.

[50] Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars, 192.

[51] The History of Tuscarawas County, 299.

[52] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 161.

[53] The History of Tuscarawas County, 299.

[54] Ibid., 299; Bliss, Diary of David Zeiseberger, 79.

[55] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 61. Willett, Scenes in the Wilderness, 183-184.

[56] Bliss, Diary of David Zeiseberger, 79.

[57] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 161; Willett, Scenes in the Wilderness, 184; The History of Tuscarawas County, 300.

[58] Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 323; Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 162.

[59] Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 323; Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 162. Doddridge identifies sixteen men, who apparently did not announce their opposition to the death sentence when they returned home for fear of “public indignation.” Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars, 202n1. He also includes a missive from a descendent of one man present, which claims that his grand uncle opposed the death sentence. Counting him and Williamson, that would bring the total opposed to eighteen. Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars, 202-203n2.

[60] Bliss, Diary of David Zeiseberger, 79-80.

[61] Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars, 199.

[62] Ibid., 192.

[63] Mitchener, ed., Ohio Annals, 162; Willett, Scenes in the Wilderness, 186.

[64] Willett, Scenes in the Wilderness, 187.

[65] Mitchener, Ohio Annals, 163; Willett, Scenes in the Wilderness, 189.

[66] Willett, Scenes in the Wilderness, 190-191.

[67] Whithers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 327.

[68] McMechen, Legends of the Ohio Valley, 48-49. The quote is nearly identical to an earlier account by Doddridge, who said he was acquainted with Williamson in the former’s childhood, and is clearly Doddridge’s conclusion and not a quote from Williamson. For a general overview of the changing attitudes of frontier settlers toward the native tribes along the frontier, see Darren R. Reid, “Anti-Indian Radicalisation in the Early American West, 1774-1795,” Journal of the American Revolution, June 19, 2017,, accessed January 25, 2018.

[69] Irvine to Washington, April 20, 1782, in C.W. Butterfield, ed., Washington-Irvine Correspondence: The Official Letters Which Passed Between Washington and Brig.-Gen. William Irvine and Between Irvine and Others Concerning Military Affairs in the West from 1781 to 1783 (Madison, WI: David Atwood, 1882), 99.

[70] Irvine’s orders to the expedition commander, who was as yet to be determined when he wrote them, are contained in Irvine’s Instructions, May 14, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 118-119n1. After the failed May raid on the Sandusky, the story circulated that the militia intended to finish killing off the Moravians who had fled west. Participants denied that was their intention. Given that the Sandusky was the heart of power for many of the hostile Indian tribes and the fact that completing the work of destroying the Moravians would not provide additional security for the border, the story seems unlikely.

[71] Benjamin Franklin to James Hutton, July 7, 1782, Founders Online,, accessed January 22, 2018.

[72] Heckewelder, Narrative of a Mission, 287.

[73] Bliss, Diary of David Zeiseberger, 73.

[74] Ibid., 78-80.

[75] A True History of the Massacre of Ninety-six Christian Indians, at Gnadenhutten, Ohio, March 8th, 1782 (New Philadelphia, OH: Gnadenhutten Monument Society, 1870), 9.


  • Excellent article putting in perspective a dark chapter in the history of the trans-Allegheny West. It resonates with a current major project I am working on. If you are interested in getting into the tall grass of primary sources and sharing views with me concerning this episode, immediate region and time period, please contact me @drsamforman or via my website

  • Thanks. I’ll take a look the website and drop you a note. I’m spending more time of late studying events west of the Ohio. The stories are fascinating, but separating legend from fact is no mean task and I’d appreciate your insights.


  • Well done, Mr. Sterner. I was at the Gnadenhutten site in 2016 when there was construction on the main road, and took a winding route through the countryside to get to its back entrance. It would be worthy of a national historic site designation

    1. Thanks. I’m hoping to get out there this summer. New Schoenbrunn is nearby, as is Fort Laurens. (If you need a break from the Revolutionary War period, the baseball Hall of Fame and William McKinley’s home are in nearby Canton and Cleveland is about 60/90 minutes north of that, IIRC. I grew up in Cleveland. Tons to do there. )

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