Gnadenhutten Massacre Revisited: An Extended Response to David Barton

In his World article (No, I’m not wrong), David Barton claims that we are incorrect about the motivation for legislation including a reference to the Society of United Brethren for the Propagating of the Gospel Among the Heathen. Read on…

There were actually five different Gnadenhuttens. Brethren missionary David Zeisberger’s biographer Edmund De Schweinitz provided this summary on page 706 of his book about Zeisberger:


In his World article, Barton provides information about the first Gnadenhutten and mixes it with the fourth one. Admittedly, the source he uses seems to mix up the two as well. In this post, when I speak of the Gnadenhutten massacre, I am referring to the the murder of 96 Christian Indians at the village in Ohio near where present day Gnadenhutten stands.

Here is what Barton says about the Gnadenhutten massacre:

Moravian missionaries began working with the Delaware Indians around 1740, and by the early 1780s a sizeable percentage (albeit a definite minority) of the Delaware tribe had become Christian. Unfortunately, as reported by Moravian Bishop John Holmes, in 1782 a group of local “fanatics” arose and “demanded the total extirpation of all the Indians, lest God’s vengeance should fall upon the Christians for not destroying the Indians, as the Israelites were commanded to do in the case of the Canaanites.” [xxix] This group approached the Christian Delaware, presenting themselves as friends sent to protect and move them to a place of safety. Although other local whites warned the Delaware about this group, those warnings were disregarded and the Delaware instead “cheerfully delivered their guns, hatchets, and other weapons” to their apparent Christian protectors.[xxx]

The source Barton uses for his quote about the “fanatics” (they “demanded the total extirpation of all the Indians…”) comes from an 1827 book by John Holmes. As a source, the book by Holmes is not the best. He wrote from Dublin and Leeds based on second hand sources. He did not use the first hand accounts of David Zeisberger or John Hecklewelder. His sources may explain why he did not single out the Pennsylvania militia as the murderers. About this point, there is no dispute. As I will show, eye witness testimony implicates David Williamson and a group of PA militiamen as the perpetrators of the massacre.

The quote about “fanatics” actually refers to people around the first Gnadenhutten in Pennsylvania. On pages 140-142, Holmes describes the settlement at Gnadenhutten, Pennsylvania that was burned to the ground by Indians on November 24, 1755. Holmes wrote:

But God had otherwise ordained. Late in the evening of the 24th of November 1755, while the missionaries were at supper, their attention was suddenly roused by the continual barking of dogs which was followed by the report of a gun. On opening the door of the mission house, they observed a party of hostile Indians standing before the house with their pieces pointed towards the door. On its being opened, they immediately fired and Martin Nitschman was killed on the spot.

Barton takes his quote from the following paragraph on page 143 of Holmes book about  the Moravians:

After the destruction of GNADENHUETTEN [in 1755] a few of the Indian converts fled to Wayomik which place they reached in safety but the greater part flocked to BETHLEHEM where they were lodged clothed and fed with brotherly kindness. But this very circumstance rendered the situation of our Brethren there peculiarly critical. The savages on the one hand insisted upon their taking up arms against the English threatening to murder them in case of refusal. On the other hand, a set of fanatics arose who demanded the total extirpation of all the Indians lest God’s vengeance should fall upon the Christians for not destroying the Indians as the Israelites were commanded to do in the case of the Canaanites. These people were greatly incensed against BETHLEHEM on account of the protection and assistance which were there granted to a race of beings whom they considered accursed The inhabitants of BETHLEHEM therefore looked upon themselves as sheep ready for slaughter and never knew when going to bed at night whether they would rise the next morning.

The Bethlehem in this account is Bethlehem, PA. Note the quote in bold print. Barton takes some of the Pennsylvania story which occurred in the 1750s and applies it to his narrative for the Ohio massacre (1782). The people were incensed against the Christian Indians who had “flocked” to  Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not Gnadenhutten  in Ohio.

Barton may not have meant to do this as it appears that Holmes gets the account of the Ohio massacre confused with the events in Pennsylvania. When Holmes described the account of the Gnadenhutten massacre, he seems to mix up the two accounts because he refers back to the PA story (see pages 178-181). However, they are not related. It is certainly possible that some of the militiamen believed the Indians should be wiped out as a religious act but the Ohio massacre was not merely a local band of religious fanatics. Instead, a group of militiamen under the command of Col. David Williamson perpetrated the massacre.

While he may not have meant to make that mistake, there really is no reason to be confused about the Gnadenhutten (Ohio) massacre. The historical narrative was preserved by the missionaries closest to the Christian Indians, David Zeisberger, John Hecklewelder and John Ettwein.

Using Zeisberger’s account, Ettwein petitioned Congress in 1783 to preserve the lands around Gnadenhutten for the Christian Indian converts. You can read the petition here; this petition started the process which eventually led to Congress, in 1788, placing the land in trust with the Society of the United Brethren for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen. According to the Brethren this was done as an “act of indemnity” in response to the Gnadenhutten, Ohio massacre.

According to De Schinitz (using Zeisberger’s and Hecklewelder’s accounts), the motivation for the massacre was vengence against Indians for the murder of a frontier family. De Sch wrote:

Such was the state of feeling when in the beginning of 1782, war parties [of Indians] from Sandusky appeared much earlier than usual before the last of the winter mouths was past. One of these bands attacked the farm of William Wallace, murdered his wife and five children, impaling one of the children with its face toward the settlements, and its belly toward the Indian country, and carried off John Carpenter as a prisoner. This monstrous deed roused the whole frontier and the opinion gained ground that the Christian Indians had either themselves been engaged in it, or that the savages had spent the winter in their towns. In either case, these “half way houses” must be destroyed. About ninety men, many of them mounted, mainly from the settlements on the Monongahela were collected in great haste and rendezvoused at the Mingo Bottom and thence set out for the Tuscarawas with Colonel David Williamson as their commander. (page 540)

According to this account, the motivation for mustering the men at Mingo Bottom was to avenge an atrocity. However, in their zeal, they committed an atrocity of their own which claimed many more innocent lives. We provide the rest of the narrative in Getting Jefferson Right but suffice to say that Williamson’s men tricked the Indians into giving up their weapons and murdered 96 men, women and children in cold blood.

In a biography of Obadiah Holmes (no known relationship to Bishop John Holmes), a description of the massacre is given from the perspective of Holmes’ son and a fellow soldier, Nathan Rollins. Initially, the author established that Obadiah Holmes’ son was at the Gnadenhutten Massacre:

In what is known as the Moravian campaign of March 1782 the third son, Obadiah Jr., was a soldier; it resulted in Gnadenhutten. That expedition will not be discussed here but out of the material in hand may some day have full treatment to the end that the closest possible approximation to the truth may be attained. The picture was dark enough without being shaded and further darkened by reckless and indiscriminate and sometimes absolutely ignorant denunciation of many men, the equals if not the superiors of the authors, in all that make sturdy and honorable manhood pervaded by a Christianity and morality without spot or blemish humanly speaking. Obadiah Holmes Jr on that fatal ground voted with the sixteen against the massacre and rescued at the risk of personal danger to himself from the high passions aroused in others and took home with him and reared and cared for him ten years an Indian boy of seven years of age.

The later in the book, more description is given of the militia.

In March 1782, [Col. David] Williamson went out again found a large number & in towns found some clothing of persons murdered — one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. So related Holmes Jr. who was there who was out on both Moravian campaigns & Crawford’s*.

After the atrocity, the Brethren missionaries wanted to make sure the government knew about it and hoped for some kind of response. Zeisberger’s biographers provided many details about the aftermath of the Gnadenhutten massacre. For instance, the president of PA (governor) apprised the PA General Assembly about the event. According to the Zeisberger biography:

Prior to the receipt of this letter, President Moore had sent a message to the Assembly of Pennsylvania August 14th in the course of which he said:

“We had great reason to apprehend a severe blow would be aimed at the frontiers by the Indians Our fears in this respect have been but too well justified by events that have since happened and there is reason to believe that the blow has fallen with redoubled force in consequence of the killing of the Moravian Indians at Muskingham an act which never had our approbation or countenance in any manner whatever.”

On this message a committee was appointed which reported Thursday August 15 as follows:

“Your Committee are of opinion that an enquiry on legal principles ought to be instituted respecting the killing of the Moravian Indians at Muskingham, an act disgraceful to humanity and productive of the most disagreeable and dangerous consequences.

Resolved therefore that this House will give every support in their power to the Supreme Executive Council toward prosecuting an enquiry respecting the killing of the Moravian Indians at Muskingham.”

Some newspapers, having excused the massacre and represented the victims as warriors and the Moravian Indians generally as fit subjects for extermination, the Mission Board published all the documents within its reach relating to the occurrence and thus removed unfavorable impressions from the public mind. Legal proceedings however such as had been recommended by the Assembly of Pennsylvania never took place. The fatal issue of Crawford’s campaign, and the terrible defeat of the Kentuckians at the Big Blue Lick by a large body of Indians under Simon Girty and others closed the scenes of Indian warfare in the great drama of the Revolution and soon after came the general peace. A subsequent grant of laud by Congress to the Christian Indians was the only official act of indemnity  (576-577)

Note that the protection of the lands belonging to the Christian Indians was called “an act of indemnity.”

I hope by now it is clear that the Congress had a particular motivation to write the bills including the name of the United Brethren mission society in the title of the bill. If there had not been an atrocity, there would not have been these particular bills. Barton wants to make this about some general missionary effort but in this case, there is a long sad history prior to the bills in question. If one reads the bills signed by Jefferson, one can see that there are no provisions relating to Indians or the Gospel. Rather, the bills carried a title left over from the act to respond to an atrocity on the Muskingum River.

*Crawford was murdered by the Indians in retaliation for the Gnadenhutten massacre.


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