Review: Anatomy of a Massacre


February 15, 2021
by Megan King Also by this Author


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Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782 by Eric Sterner (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2020)

Eric Sterner’s Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782, offers readers a deeply insightful illustration of one of eighteenth-century America’s most tragic incidents of frontier violence. Concisely written and incredibly rich in primary research, this work supplies a variety of first-person accounts to demonstrate how competing groups observed and experienced life on the rapidly expanding frontier, as Sterner explains the causal factors of Gnadenhutten from four unique perspectives, including those of Moravian missionaries, Native Americans, white settlers, and British officers. Sterner outlines the precursors for brutality, highlighting a series of catalytic anxieties and uncertainties which ultimately led a group of Pennsylvania militiamen to slaughter nearly one hundred unarmed Native Americans at the Moravian settlement of Gnadenhutten. As the Gnadenhutten Massacre is simultaneously often mentioned and often ill-defined across the existing scholarship, Anatomy of a Massacre fills a critical academic void. This concise and thoroughly researched work proves to be a meaningful contribution to the bookshelf of any late modern historian.

Although some historical accounts previously minimized the Gnadenhutten Massacre to what Sterner describes as a “simple morality play”, the author makes it clear from the start of this compelling narrative that the 1782 mass slaying was the product of decades of race-based antagonism and dehumanization. Sterner traces the origins of Gnadenhutten from the Conestoga Massacre of 1763. Indeed, just as the case had been twenty years earlier in the Susquehanna Valley, geographical boundaries, cultural foundations, and social hierarchies turbulently intersected along the banks of the Muskingum, demonstrating that this heartbreaking and haunting attack upon non-combatants was hardly a one-off incident of racially motivated violence in early America. Recalling the Paxton Boys’ brutal slaughtering of peaceful Susquehannocks in Lancaster County, Sterner illuminates the steady escalation of racial violence amongst early Pennsylvania’s “shifting fault lines” and explains the Paxtonian viewpoint that settlers could justifiably take matters into their own hands when they felt that certain civic boundaries had been crossed.

The true originality of Anatomy of a Massacre lies in Sterner’s ability to dissect the specific implications of an expanding settler presence for individual frontier groups. With extensive westward migration came widespread competition for acreage, resources, and income opportunities. Such a rapidly evolving landscape consequently yielded extensive political maneuvering amongst white settlers, Native tribes, missionaries and Christianized Indians, and both British and Continental officials. Sterner expertly explains the before and after of Gnadenhutten through the eyes of frontier dwellers, delving deep into the personal diaries and correspondence of Moravian missionaries David Zeisberger and John Heckewelder. Likewise, the author’s thorough primary analysis highlights the Native American experience, with specific focus on the effects of the French and Indian War upon the traditional procedures and structures of the Lenape and Delaware tribes. Amongst white settlers, positions hardened in the months prior to the massacre. While the Pennsylvania militia placed the blame for their violent action upon fear of further Indian raids, Sterner makes it clear that the Gnadenhutten Massacre cannot be reduced to merely a revenge killing. Rather, the author explains that the dehumanization of frontier tribes began long before 1782, leaving white settlers with a profound and indiscriminate hatred for America’s Native populations.

In a premeditated and gruesomely executed attack, militiamen under the command of Capt. David Williamsonwere the perpetrators of what can only be classified as domestic terrorism. Sterner recounts how Williamson’s men took Christian Delawares as captives, observed as they spent the night praying and singing hymns, and actively decided to brutalize an entire settlement. Following a series of events between the various frontier communities, including many which are often overlooked in the contemporary historiography, more than ninety people were murdered in the Destruction of Gnadenhutten. Not unlike the Paxton Boys two decades prior, the militia organized to theatrically murder and mutilate peaceable Native Americans whose whereabouts were evident.Using Gnadenhutten as a case study for deepening historians’ understandings of frontier violence, Sterner’sAnatomy of a Massacre vividly and unpretentiously unpacks this culmination of backcountry fears, frustrations, and racism.

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