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The Gnadenhütten Massacre

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                     


In the year 1779 the congregations of Moravian Indians living at Gnadenhütten, Salem, and Schonbrun, on the Muskingum River, were compelled by hostile Indians to forsake their villages and go northward to the Sandusky River. This movement was instigated by the English, who had become suspicious that the influence of the Moravian missionaries was thrown on the side of the colonies, and that there villages were safe centers of information and supplies. These Indians having taken no part whatever in the war, there was no pretext for open interference with them; but the English agents found it no difficult matter to stir up the hostile tribes to carry out their designs. And when the harassed congregations finally consented to move, the savages who escorted them were commanded by English officers.

"The savages drove them forward like cattle," says an old narrative; "the white brethren and sisters in the midst, surrounded by the believing Indians." "One morning, when the latter could not set out as expeditiously as the savages thought proper, they attacked the white brethren, and forced them to set out alone, whipping their horses forward till they grew wild, and not even allowing mothers time to suckle their children. The road was exceeding bad, leading through a continuance of swamps. Sister Zeisberger fell twice from her horse, and once, hanging in the stirrup, was dragged for some time; but assistance was soon at band, and the Lord preserved her from harm. Some of the believing Indians followed them as fast as possible, but with all their exertions did not overtake them till night."

For one month these unfortunate people journeyed through the wilds in this way. When they reached the Sandusky Creek the savages left them to take care of themselves as best they might. They were over a hundred miles from their homes, "in a wilderness where there was neither game nor provisions." Here they built huts of logs and bark. They had neither beds nor blankets. In fact, the only things which the savages had left them were their utensils for making maple sugar. It was the middle of October when they reached Sandusky. Already it was cold, and the winter was drawing near. In November Governor De Peyster, the English commander at Fort Detroit, summoned the missionaries to appear before him and refute the accusations brought against their congregations of having aided and abetted the colonies.

"The missionaries answered that they doubted not in the least but that very evil reports must have reached his ears, as the treatment they had met with had sufficiently proved that they were considered as guilty persons, but that these reports were false. That Congress, indeed, knew that they were employed as missionaries to the Indians, and did not disturb them in their labors; but had never in anything given them directions how to proceed."

The governor, convinced of the innocence and single-heartedness of these noble men, publicly declared that " he felt great satisfaction in their endeavors to civilize and Christianize the Indians, and would permit them to return to their congregations." He then gave them passports for their journey back to Sandusky, and appended a permission that they should perform the functions of their office among the Christian Indians without molestation.

This left them at rest so far as apprehensions of attack from hostile Indians were concerned; but there still remained the terrible apprehension of death by starvation and cold. Deep snows lay on the ground. Their hastily built huts were so small that it was impossible to make large fires in them. Their floors being only the bare earth, whenever a thaw came the water forced itself up and then froze again. Cattle died for lack of food, and their carcasses were greedily devoured; nursing children died for want of nourishment from their starving mothers' breasts; the daily allowance of corn to each adult was one pint, and even this pittance it was found would not last till spring.

Nevertheless, "they celebrated the Christmas holidays with cheerfulness and blessing, and concluded this remarkable year with thanks and praise to Him who is ever the Savior of his people. But, having neither bread nor wine, they could not keep the communion."

Meantime the corn still stood ungathered in their old fields on the Muskingum River. Weather-beaten, frozen, as it was, it would be still a priceless store to these starving people. The project of going back there after it began to be discussed. It was one hundred and twenty-five miles' journey; but food in abundance lay at the journey's end. Finally it was decided that the attempt should be made. Their first plan was to hide their families in the woods at some distance from the settlements lest there might be some danger from hostile whites. On their way, however, they were met by some of their brethren from Schonbrun, who advised them to go back openly into their deserted towns, assuring them that the Americans were friendly to them now. They accordingly did so, and remained for several weeks at Salem and Gnadenhutten, working day and night gathering and husking the weather-beaten corn, and burying it in holes in the ground in the woods for future supply. On the very day that they were to have set off with their packs of corn, to return to their starving friends and relatives at Sandusky, a party of between one and two hundred whites made their appearance at Gnadenhutten. Seeing the Indians scattered all through the cornfields, they rode up to them, expressing pleasure at seeing them, and saying that they would take them into Pennsylvania, to a place where they would be out of all reach of persecution from the hostile savages or the English. They represented themselves as "friends and brothers, who had purposely come out to relieve them from the distress brought on them on account of their being friends to the American people.

The Christian Indians, not in the least doubting their sincerity, walked up to them and thanked them for being so kind; while the whites again gave assurances that they would meet with good treatment from them. They then advised them to discontinue their work and cross over to the town, in order to make necessary arrangements for the journey, as they intended to take them out of the reach of their enemies, and where they would be supplied abundantly with all they stood in need of."

They proposed to take them to Pittsburg, where they would be out of the way of any assault made by the English or the savages. This the Indians heard, one of their missionaries writes, "with resignation, concluding that God would perhaps choose this method to put an end to their sufferings. Prepossessed with this idea, they cheerfully delivered their guns, hatchets, and other weapons to the murderers, who promised to take good care of them, and in Pittsburg to return every article to its rightful owner. Our Indians even showed them all those things which they had secreted in the woods, assisted in packing them up, and emptied all their beehives for these pretended friends."

In the mean time one of the assistants, John Martin by name, went to Salem, ten miles distant, and carried the good news that a party of whites had come from the settlements to carry them to a place of safety and give them protection. "The Salem Indians," says the same narrative, "did not hesitate to accept of this proposal, believing unanimously that God had sent the Americans to release them from their disagreeable situation at Sandusky, and imagining that when arrived at Pittsburg they might soon find a safe place to build a settlement, and easily procure advice and assistance from Bethlehem."

Some of the whites expressed a desire to see the village of Salem, were conducted thither, and received with much friendship by the Indians. On the way they entered into spiritual conversation with their unsuspecting companions, feigning great piety and discoursing on many religious and scriptural subjects. They offered also to assist the Salem Indians in moving their effects.

In the mean time the defenseless Indians at Gnadenhütten were suddenly attacked, driven together, bound with "ropes, and confined. As soon as the Salem Indians arrived, they met with the same fate.

The murderers then held a council to decide what should be done with them. By a majority of votes it was decided to kill them all the next day. To the credit of humanity be it recorded, that there were in this band a few who remonstrated, declared that these Indians were innocent and harmless, and should be set at liberty, or, at least, given up to the Government as prisoners. Their remonstrance's were unavailing, and, finding that they could not prevail on these monsters to spare the Indians' lives, "they wrung their hands, calling God to witness that they were innocent of the blood of these Christian Indians. They then withdrew to some distance from the scene of slaughter."

The majority were unmoved, and only disagreed as to the method of putting their victims to death. Some were for burning them alive; others fur tomahawking and scalping them. The latter method was determined on, and a message was sent to the Indians that, "as they were Christian Indians, they might prepare themselves in a Christian manner, for they must all die tomorrow."

The rest of the narrative is best told in the words of the Moravian missionaries: " It may be easily conceived how great their terror was at hearing a sentence so unexpected. However, they soon recollected themselves, and patiently suffered the murderers to lead them into two houses, in one of which the brethren were confined and in the other the sisters and children. Finding that all entreaties to save their lives were to no purpose, and that some, more blood-thirsty than others, were anxious to begin upon them, they united in begging a short delay, that they might prepare themselves for death, which request was granted them. Then asking pardon for whatever offence they had given, or grief they had occasioned to each other, they knelt down, offering fervent prayers to God their Savior and kissing one another. Under a flood of tears, fully resigned to his will, they sung praises unto him, in the joyful hope that they would soon be relieved from all pains and join their Redeemer in everlasting bliss. The murderers, impatient to make a beginning, came again to them while they were singing, and, inquiring whether they were now ready for dying, they were answered in the affirmative, adding that they had commended their immortal souls to God, who had given them the assurance in their hearts that he would receive their souls. One of the party, now taking up a cooper's mallet which lay in the house, saying, ' How exactly this will answer for the purpose,' began with Abraham, and continued knocking down one after another until he counted fourteen that he had killed with his own hands. He now handed the instrument to one of his fellow-murderers, saying: My arm fails me. Go on in the same way. I think I have done pretty well.' In another house, where mostly women and children were confined, Judith, a remarkably pious aged widow, was the first victim. After they had finished the horrid deed they retreated to a small distance from the slaughterhouses; but, after a while, returning again to view the dead bodies, and finding one of them (Abel), although scalped and mangled, attempting to raise himself from the floor, they so renewed their blows upon him that he never rose again. Thus ninety-six persons magnified the name of the Lord by patiently meeting a cruel death. Sixty-two were grown persons and thirty-four children. Many of them were born of Christian parents in the society, and were among those who in the year 1763 were taken under the protection of the Pennsylvania Government at the time of the riots of the Paxton Boys. Two boys, about fourteen years of age, almost miraculously escaped from this massacre. One of them was scalped and thrown down for dead. Recovering himself, he looked around; but, with great presence of mind, lay down again quickly, feigning death. In a few moments he saw the murderers return, and again bury their hatchets in the head of Abel, who was attempting to rise, though scalped and terribly mangled. As soon as it was dark, Thomas crept over the dead bodies and escaped to the woods, where he hid himself till night. The other lad, who was confined in the house with the women, contrived unnoticed to slip through a trap door into the cellar, where he lay concealed through the day, the blood all the while running down through the floor in streams. At dark he escaped through a small window and crept to the woods, where he encountered Thomas, and the two made their way together, after incredible hardships, to Sandusky. To describe the grief and terror of the Indian congregation on hearing that so large a number of its members was so cruelly massacred is impossible. Parents wept and mourned for the loss of their children, husbands for their wives, and wives for their husbands, children for their parents, sisters for brothers, and brothers for sisters. But they murmured not, nor did they call for vengeance on the murderers, but prayed for them. And their greatest consolation was a full assurance that all their beloved relatives were now at home in the presence of the Lord, and in full possession of everlasting happiness."

An account of this massacre was given in the Pennsylvania Gazette, of April 17th, 1782. It runs as follows:

"The people being greatly alarmed, and having received intelligence that the Indian towns oil the Muskingum had not moved, as reported, a number of men, properly provided, collected and rendezvoused on the Ohio, opposite the Mingo Bottom, with a desire to surprise the above towns.

"One hundred men swam the river, and proceeded to the towns on the Muskingum, where the Indians had collected a large quantity of provisions to supply their war-parties. They arrived at the town in the night, undiscovered, attacked the Indians in their cabins, and so completely surprised them that they killed and scalped upward of ninety-but a few making their escape-about forty of whom were warriors, the rest old women and children. About eighty horses fell into their hands, which they loaded with the plunder, the greatest part furs and skins, and returned to the Ohio without the loss of a man."

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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