GNADENHUTTEN -- Two hundred thirty-three years ago, it was a time the Revolutionary War was in its final stages. American Indians, from all tribes, were being sought as allies on both sides.
The Ohio Valley, home of both the Delaware and Mohican tribes, lay between the Americans (at Pittsburgh) and the British (at Detroit). Both sides suspected the Indian tribes of aiding the opposing side. Savage raids on white settlers by various Indian tribes at that time antagonized feelings of hatred and distrust among the early settlers on the frontier.
Some of the first white inhabitants of the Tuscarawas Valley were Moravian missionaries and their families. Among those was the Reverend David Zeisberger, a man extremely devoted to his cause.
Zeisberger, sent out on his mission by the Moravian Society, was attempting to propagate the Christian religion among the American Indian tribes, and convert them as brother and sister missionaries.
In the Indian Village of Gnadenhutten, hundreds of Indian converts (Christian missionaries) dwelled there among a group of devoted missionaries, brothers and sisters in peace under the superintendency of Zeisberger. Gnadenhutten was the Indian word which translated to the meaning tents of grace.
Ohio at this time was under the British government. Following a conference held with the governor at Detroit, Zeisberger and John Heckewelder, an agent for the Moravian Society, began circulating their opinion that a man by the last name of McKee was falsely providing information to the governor by eluding that the Christian missionaries were partisans of the American cause, and were engaging in correspondence with American officers (in Pittsburgh). This caused much fury among the British government.
It was later determined by the governor that he should rid himself of the perceived troublesome, dangerous neighbors. An expedition, sworn to secrecy, was planned with the intent to drive the missionaries from the Ohio Valley, starting at Gnadenhutten. The expedition was held for ten days (in August, 1781), but the missionaries were not easily inclined to accept any advice of those involved in the expedition. Threats and violence eventually convinced the missionaries that the British government were serious in their effort.
On Sept. 3, 1781, the Christian missionaries were assaulted, robbed, and turned outdoors, their homes having been ransacked and destroyed. Although the original intent of the British expedition had been not to disturb the Christian missionaries, the excited expedition warriors soon forgot all distinction. While there was no actual blood-shed at that point, Gnadenhutten was the scene of intense fear. The missionaries were eventually then taken prisoner, being held in a village known as Captives Town, located along the Sandusky River, near Detroit.
After suffering hunger and cold during the winter of 1781-82, a total of 96 of the Christian missionaries (the majority being from Gnadenhutten) were given permission to return to the Tuscarawas valley to produce a harvest. Once back in their own familiar surroundings, the place they called home, the Christian missionaries divided into three congregations, going to the three primary Indian villages (also known as stations) in Gnadenhutten, Schoenbrunn (in New Philadelphia), and Salem (located between Newcomerstown and Port Washington).
It was shortly after their return that an Indian war party camping near Gnadenhutten warned the Christian missionaries there that they should flee Gnadenhutten at once as there were a group of American militiamen being led by Colonel, David Williamson that were intending to destroy the Christian missionaries.
The missionaries later talked among themselves, meeting at Salem on March 5, concerning the earlier advice of the Indian war party and decide that they would remain in the Tuscarawas valley a few more days to better prepare for their departure. That decision to stay until March 7, 1782, sealed their fate.
On March 7, 1782, a total of 16 American militiamen from Washington County, Pa., along with Col. Williamson moved into the Tuscarawas valley on horseback, with rifle in hand. The militia's arrival was much sooner than they had perceived.
The missionaries were found working in their cornfields that early morning. At first, the militiamen approached them in a friendly manner, persuading them that they had come to take the missionaries to a place where they would be protected. The militiamen advised the Christian missionaries to return with them to Fort Pitt. Some of these same missionaries had been taken to Fort Pitt previously, and had been treated very well by the American governor, so they readily surrendered their arms.
An Indian messenger had been sent to Salem to inform the other group of Christian missionaries residing there of the new arrangement for them to go to Fort Pitt, but found that group had already surrendered their arms, and were on their way to Gnadenhutten.
Upon their arrival at the Gnadenhutten village, the men and women missionaries were separated and taken prisoner in two guard houses. A council was later held by the militiamen to determine the fate of the Christian missionaries.
The decision needing a resolution was to take the missionaries prisoner to Fort Pitt, or put them to death immediately. The militiamen asked that those who were in the council (of nearly 100 persons) that were in favor of saving the lives of the Christian missionaries to step forward to indicate their choice. Only 18 members of the council stepped forward as advocates of mercy. The majority of the council were in favor of execution. The mode of execution later decided was to tomahawk and scalp each captive.
The terror stricken missionaries had foreseen the reality of their situation after they had previously been disarmed, and were taken prisoner in the two moderate-sized guard houses. The captives consisted of 29 men, and 27 women, along with 34 youths and infants. They began to prepare for their impending deaths, singing their hymns and praying to God, the Savior of Men.
The death work began until the guard houses turned to slaughter houses. It progressed till not a sigh nor moan was heard to proclaim the existence of human life within. Two of the youths, namely Jacob and Thomas, aged 14, escaped the death scene, immediately fleeing to Upper Sandusky. One of the boys had been partially scalped, but survived.
After the barbarous act was committed, Williamson and his men moved the bodies in to the Mission house, and the cooper's house, setting both structures on fire. Williamson and his men then returned to Pennsylvania. The scalps of the dead missionaries were later atrociously displayed at Fort Pitt (at Pittsburgh).
The band of militiamen quickly disbanded to cover their tracks of their vile deed. To this day, several of those militia men have been identified, a few positively, by historians who were born, and raised in Washington County, Pennsylvania where the expedition originated.
Fifteen years after the massacre, May 11, 1797, Rev. Heckewelder, David Peter, and his party returned to Gnadenhutten and gave a proper burial to the remains of their fallen brother and sister missionaries.
It was on Oct. 7, 1843, that several Gnadenhutten townsmen organized a society to preserve the memory of the slain Christian missionaries. Rev. Sylvester Wolle, a Moravian minister was selected as president of the society; Jacob Blickensderfer, as vice-president, Edward Peter, as treasurer, and Lewis Peter as secretary. Isreal Ricksecker, Christian Blickensderfer and Charles Peter were selected as the directors of the society.
In 1871, the Gnadenhutten Monument Fund contracted to have a monument constructed by R.S. Miller of Logansport, Ind., at a cost of $2,000. The monument was shipped via railroad from Logansport to Gnadenhutten.
The 35-foot, white limestone obelisk shaped monument was dedicated on June 5, 1872. Over 10,000 persons attended the dedication ceremony.
The mission house and cooper's house were re-constructed to represent the original structures. The mass grave site of the Christian missionaries is located several feet south of the monument.
While the tragic Gnadenhutten massacre history has continued to be passed on from generation to generation of the local families, the former Indian village site is a peaceful area, surrounded by lofty pines, sycamores, and locust trees.
The recreated structures echo the past life of its former Moravian Christian inhabitants.