Remembering the Gnadenhutten Massacre

In the Book of Judges, the seventh book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, there is a story centered around use of the word shibboleth as a military password. The tale states that the word was chosen by the victorious Gileadites since their enemies could not pronounce the word correctly. Therefore, any infiltrators who crossed over the Jordan River could easily be revealed upon failing this test and swiftly put to the sword. It was an obstacle specifically designed to be insurmountable. The establishment of a similarly impossible to overcome barrier would deployed on the frontier of Ohio in 1782 amid the musket smoke and raging fire of the American Revolution. Amid a war for independence between colony and empire, a force of frontiersmen would look upon their perceived enemy and decide their fate horrifically when the allegorical password they constructed could not be passed.

The root of this atrocity lies in the work of Moravian Church missionaries who converted members of the Lenape or Delaware Indians who had relocated to the Ohio Territory. Many of these Lenape were the converts of clergyman David Zeisberger, who worked to convert the indigenous since 1745. However, the Moravian pacifist ideology eventually caused the missionaries and their Lenape fellows to become caught between the opposing forces of revolution. According to historian Milo Quaife, in September 1781, an operation overseen by Captain Matthew Elliot of the British Indian Department forcibly removed the Moravians from their missionary village to the town of Upper Sandusky in northwestern Ohio.1 University of Wisconsin’s Rob Harper would later describe this event being carried out by the Wyandot or Huron Indians on the British’s behalf due to confirmed covert assistance the Moravians provided to the Continental Army.2

Either way, the operation was carried out in order to keep the officially neutral pacifists from being in contact with the Americans. When starvation struck in the winter, a select number of Lenape returned to the missionary village of Gnadenhutten to harvest the corn that the British forced them to leave behind.3 It was this return that eventually brought them into contact with those who would destroy them. That contact came on March 7th, 1782 when two-hundred thirty-seven years ago when one-hundred sixty militiamen based out of Western Pennsylvania arrived at Gnadenhutten under the command of Lieutenant Colonel David Williamson. They were dispatched to the Ohio Territory to investigate attacks on white settlements by Wyandot and Shawnee raiders that, in tragic coincidence, occurred at the same time the Christian Lenape were returning to their home. The militia initially offered the indigenous safe passage to Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh, but this offer was withdrawn by popular vote among the armed Americans.

This change of plans can be entirely attributed to the weakness of Williamson himself. It was his social standing that bought him a position among the militia but that had the classist consequence of him lacking control over the men under his command. Therefore, he turned to what Fordham University’s Saul Cornell referred to as “plebeian populism”. Therefore, in order to avoid drawing his men’s ire and harming his reputation, he left the choice of what to do to his men. With a vote, they would decide between two options: Escort almost a hundred Indian prisoners a hundred miles back Fort Pitt or kill them all in the village. Ultimately, the militia voted to massacre the Christian Lenape. Aside from the bullying culture of plebeian populism that targeted dissent, there were other reasons that Harper considered as possible influences for the vote in favor of mass murder.4 They included:

[U]nwillingness to challenge men seeking vengeance for the loss of their families, doubts about the Moravians’ innocence, the unpleasant prospect of escorting nearly one hundred captives to Pittsburgh, the desire to share in the loot from the missions, or the belief that Indian lives were less worthy of protection than white ones.5

There, in these justifications, we see the shibboleth of the early American frontiersman. It did not matter that these Lenape were peaceful, unarmed, and Christian. The unchanging fact that they were Indians was the obstacle that could not be surmounted in the eyes of the Americans. The Lenape were considered too much of a bother to escort as prisoners and were sentenced to death on the false charge of aiding the raiders.

What occurred in Ohio at the tail end of American Revolution is openly at odds with the popular, laymen myth of American-Indian relations. In that sense, the phrase “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” (popularized by Richard Henry Pratt in 1892 and associated with the genocidal agenda of Indian boarding schools) is thought to be what was expected of the indigenous within the United States. They were to Christianize, modernize, and assimilate in roughly that order. That was how you became American. Therefore, one might think that, the Lenape of Gnadenhutten should have been spared. They adopted the faith and the lifestyle of Protestant Europeans who converted them, yet they were still deemed unworthy of life by a populist death squad. This, as history would repeat itself, is a very similar case to the tragedy that would strike the Cherokee and their fellow tribes of the Southeast who, despite modernizing, were still removed and subjected to a death march simply for being Indians.

Following the vote, the militia allowed the Lenape a night of religious observance and prayer to make peace with their fate. The next day, they were divided up by gender into two cabins – one for men and another for women and children – that would serve as their death chambers. Wielding a copper hammer, taken from the Indians, the perpetrators stunned and killed the Lenape. This is, again, even though “they were praying, singing, and kissing” while they were being murdered.6 For the crime of being Indians, twenty-eight men, twenty-nine women, and thirty-nine children were callously murdered by frontiersmen who deemed their lives too worthless and their possessions too valuable to suffer them to live.

Following the murder, the militia seized upon the freshly orphaned property as spoils of war and burned the entire village to the ground. As one may have expected, not a single perpetrated suffered any legal consequences for their role in conducting the atrocity7. Characterized by Quaife as “incredibly stupid”, the massacre caused an uproar that drove the Ohio Indians even further against the Americans. The tribes were convinced that they would suffer the same fate that befell the denizens of Gnadenhutten even if they cooperated with the white settlers who continued to encroach.8

This continued strife on the Ohio frontier would ultimately allow for the rise of the Shawnee warrior and eventual chief Tecumseh. His opposition to the settler colonialism of a young America would be so great that the country entered his death, and the splintering of his grand indigenous alliance, into their colonial national mythology displayed in the Capital Rotunda. His demise is celebrated alongside Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean and Pizarro’s in Peru, Pocahontas saving John Smith, the Mexican-American War, and the California Gold Rush.

Speaking of memory, on June 5, 1872, a thirty-seven-foot-tall marble obelisk, including its solid stone base, weighing fourteen tons was raised at Gnadenhutten. Funded by the Gnadenhutten Memorial Fund, it was dedicated to the murdered Lenape and upon the south side of the base it was inscribed: “Here Triumphed in Death Ninety Christian Indians, March 8, 1782.”9 The raising of the monument was an aberration in American history that remains unusual to this day. A private effort to honor nearly a hundred wrongfully murdered Christian Lenape was degraded months later, in December of the same year, when the United States Army carried out the Skeleton Cave Massacre in Arizona. However, the distinctiveness of the Gnadenhutten Massacre remains due to its Christian victims and the eventual memorialization.

When considering the massacre of these innocent Lenape, I cannot help but also consider another massacre that occurred much earlier, across the ocean, sparked by a different conflict. Amid the Albigensian Crusade in 1209, Catholic crusaders sacked the city of Béziers and massacred its inhabitants. Prior to the assault, a question was asked on how the warriors could differentiate the good Catholics and the heretical Cathars. The alleged response was, “Kill them all; let God sort them out.” I wonder if any similar, sickening thoughts passed through the minds of any of the one-hundred sixty armed, belligerent Pennsylvanians as they listened to the Lenape sing and pray to the very same God the they worshiped all through the night. The banality of evil haunted Gnadenhutten as the men who chose to be murderers waited to carry out their crime all the while those they chose to murder prayed one final time.

Michael E. Carter is an independent scholar who graduated with his M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Kean University. He focuses on colonial genocide in the Western Hemisphere primarily on the destruction of the Native Americans. You can follow him on Twitter at @DeckofCarter.


[1] Milo Milton Quaife, “The Ohio Campaigns of 1782,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 17, no. 4 (March 1931): 516-7.

[2] Rob Harper, “Looking the Other Way: The Gnadenhutten Massacre and the Contextual Interpretation of Violence,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Wave 64, no, 3 (July 2007), 1.

[3] Quaife, 517.

[4] Harper, 1; 633. Saul Cornell’s The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 by University of North Carolina Press is quoted in the text as the source of “plebeian populism”.

[5] Ibid., 636.

[6] John Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles with John Heckelwelder, ed. Paul A. W. Wallace (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958), 261.

[7] Harper, 2.

[8] Quaife, 517.

[9] Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio in Two Volumes: An Encyclopedia of the State Volume II (Cincinnati: C.J. Krehbiel & Co., Printers and Binders, 1908), 687.