It was 1782 and America had been at war with the British for several years as a part of their claim for independence. Caught up in this conflict were tribes of Native Americans, particularly along the Ohio river and into Ohio Country. These tribes consisted for the most part of Shawnee, Delawares. Mingos and Wyandots. For some years previously, as part of the Border conflict, there had been a series of raids on frontier settlements, by bands of aggressive Natives opposed to the expansion of the American colonists territory at the cost of native land. The resulting tension manifested in raids where small parties of natives would enter settlements and on occasion civilians from frontier families were killed, including women and children.
As the Revolutionary war intensified and dragged on, a large number of tribes were unsure of how to proceed, particularly those based around the Sandusky plains. With the Americans facing them to the far side of the Ohio river, and the British encamped to the rear, towards Detroit, their position was tenuous, and the natives often found themselves caught up in the fighting. Several bands had moved on North and West with the intent on continuing their aggression towards the Americans, particularly in areas of modern day Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Other natives felt their better prospect would be to join the British forces. The majority chose to remain neutral in the hope that they would be able to bargain their way into retaining the new areas of Ohio Country that they had settled as a Native state, and a peace treaty was proposed to this effect – the Treaty of Fort Pitt (1778). Sadly, White-Eyes, the Chief who negotiated the deal, died, allegedly of smallpox, before the agreement was ratified and the new US Congress let the matter drop. In a letter to Congress some years later, American diplomat for the natives, George Morgan stated that White Eyes had in fact been murdered by American militiamen.
Following the demise of White Eyes, and the choice of natives to fight or remain neutral, several had chosen to remain in the area of Coshocton, in small villages. Amongst them were tribes of Christian converted Native Lenape, ministered by Moravian missionaries, David Zeisberger and John Heckewelder, amongst others. Hostile natives from the village of Coshocton were forced out by an expeditionary force led by American Colonel Daniel Brodhead in April 1781. Several were killed and survivors abandoned the village. Brodhead persuaded his men to leave the “friendly” Moravian Christian natives in peace, however Coshocton was razed to the ground.
If all this inter-fighting wasn’t enough, the American forces had an extra issue to deal with, in that the regular Continental Army the majority of whom were seasoned officers from the East, and the American Militiamen with whom they were united, were for the most part untrained civilian volunteers from the West, didn’t follow the same rule book when it came to rules of engagement. Couple with the American’s new policy of recruitment amongst the natives, many of whom were from tribes who were responsible for raids and deaths amongst the settlers in the west, whose family members they now fought alongside, and it wasn’t difficult for the militiamen to forget who was friendly and who was not. They viewed all the natives with the same mistrust and hate.
In September 1781, Native Americans fighting on the side of the British, moved into the area under orders and moved all the Lenape Moravian Indians Northwest to Sandusky to a compound village, Captive town. The missionaries, Zeisberger and Heckewelder were taken under guard to Detroit to answer charges of supplying intelligence information to the Americans, which they denied. They were subsequently acquitted. In their absence, the Indians were beginning to starve, due to lack of rations. By February of 1782, over 100 of the Moravians had decided to return to their former homes in the area of Gnadenhutten, in order to gather the harvest and other supplies that they had been unable to take with them.
After just a few short weeks, in early March, a raiding party of 160 Pennsylvanian Militiamen led by Lt Col. David Williamson, entered the village and took the Christian natives by surprise. They were quickly rounded up and accused of joining enemy natives allied to the British, in raids on American settlements, causing wounding and death to civilians. The natives of course denied the charges but faced a mock trial nonetheless where the majority of Pennsylvanians voted to put them to death. A number of the militia, horrified at the proceedings, refused to take part, and left the region. Obidiah Holmes Jr was one of those who refused to take a part in the injustice against the Lenape. Later in life as a minister himself, he wrote of his family’s part in the Revolution, and made mention of the events at Gnadenhutten.
“one Nathan Rollins & brother [who] had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians […] 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”
After being advised that they had been condemned to die, the Natives were led to two huts for the night, to prepare for their execution the next day. The men were locked in one, and the women and children in the other. They spent the night praying, singing hymns and comforting one another. The next morning, March 8th, 1782, the militia tied them up, forcing them to kneel, then set to work with mallet blows to their heads. Most also had their throats cut with a sharp blade. Several were scalped. In all, 96 were murdered, 28 men, 29 women and 39 children. The militia then looted all their belongings, taking whatever they thought they could use, sell or trade, weighing down several horses with the plunder.
They then piled up all the bodies in the missionary building where just nine years earlier on July 4th 1773, the first white child to be born in Ohio, had been birthed in and set the building on fire. They went around and burned all the other buildings, in an attempt to remove all traces of the existence of the natives. They continued their fiery justice into the other villages in the area, the aim being to make it difficult for any to return. Two young native boys however, survived the massacre and after quietly escaping, reached safety where they told the horrified greeters the story of the murders. The news of the massacre soon spread. Several frontiersmen received the news with glee, however most settlers were disgusted at the actions of their countrymen against innocent women and children, and were of course terrified of retaliation.
It would be a few years before John Heckewelder was able to return to Gnadenhutten, but when he arrived, he set to work and gathered as many of the remains as he was able to find, carrying them to the South side of the village, where he buried them in a mound as was custom of the time. A monument to the massacre victims was erected in June 1872 where the centre of the village once stood. Some buildings have been reconstructed, the entire area is preserved and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. No criminal charges were brought against Williamson and his command, despite it being common knowledge that they were responsible for the massacre. George Washington was forced to issue an official warning to the American armies to avoid being captured alive at all costs. The British Lenape had vowed vengeance….