A famous Ohio Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, once said: "War is hell." Although he would say that almost 100 years later, it's meaning would be most appropriate in describing what became known as the Gnadenhutten Massacre, a truly horrific event that happened during the Revolutionary War, committed by American militia, against a group of innocent Native Americans.
Before the Revolution began, a small group of missionaries that called themselves Moravians, or the Unity of Brethren, had come to America in order to bring Christianity to as many Native Americans as would accept their beliefs. They had built permanent communities in Salem, North Carolina and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. What made the Moravians distinct from other missionaries in North America, was their belief that the word of God should be brought to everyone in "their own language." This meant that the Moravian missionaries had to know the language of the people they were addressing and when they spoke to them it was in that language and not through a secondary interpreter.
One of those missionaries was Reverend David Zeisberger who had come from what is today the Czech Republic at an early age. He had made it his life work to interact with as many Native Americans as would listen to him, and take up the following of Christianity. His work had become quite successful, especially among some members of the Delaware (Lenape) tribe.
When the Revolution broke out in 1776, Zeisberger had a fairly strong contingent of Christian Delawares living in Pennsylvania. Just prior to the war, a number of them had moved to the Muskingum and Tuscarawas valleys in the eastern Ohio territory. The growing number of American settlers moving into Pennsylvania to avoid the coming conflicts put increasing pressure on the Delawares.
Zeisberger and his follow missionaries, who had the blessings of the home church, had set up missionary villages at Schoenbrunn, Gnadenhutten, Lichtenau, Salem and Goshen in eastern Ohio on lands provided as a gift from the Christian Delaware leader . Each of these villages were inhabited by small groups of missionaries along with a much larger contingent of mostly Christian Delaware. The missionaries provided guidance on providing order to the daily living patterns in the village. Tasks were assigned so the entire village could survive the sometimes extremely harsh winters of northeast Ohio. Crops were planted first, and then cabins were constructed along with a church and schoolhouse.
Several things were happening in 1781 that came together for the destruction of Gnadenhutten. First, the War of Rebellion was going poorly for the British. They needed additional pressure on the Americans to divert more of their forces away from real conflict going on along the east coast. Second, a number of Native Americans were unhappy with the success of the Christians converting their fellow brethren. Primarily this was perceived as a threat by the Six Nations (also called the Iroquois Confederacy). It was this group, along with the guidance and support from the British, that sought the destruction of the missionary villages in the Tuscarawas Valley. Together they hatched an ingenious plot that was only partly foiled by friends of the missionaries.
A small group of British gathered up a small contingent of Native Americans that were primarily Wyandotte and Shawnee. With this group they planned to capture the Moravian missionaries in the Tuscarawas valley while at the same time setting into motion an uprising between the Native Americans in the Ohio territory against the Americans. Gnadenhutten became the focal point of the plot.
The village of Gnadenhutten had begun to fall away from the Moravian way, and according to Zeisberger, they "had begun to take up again the old heathenish customs and usages..." It was a village that had become openly divided between the believers and non-believers thanks in great part to outside influences from non-believers to turn them away from what the missionaries were trying to accomplish. They even tried to infiltrate the village and take control of the entire village in order to subvert the missionaries. This division made it the perfect target for the plot to take aim.
In August a small group of Wyandot warriors along with a few British, arrived at Gnadenhutten, starving and in need of help. The missionaries and Native Americans living there openly provided them much needed food. After regaining their strength, they departed and proceeded into Pennsylvania. The plot was to attack settlers in Pennsylvania, and blame it on the Native American Christians in the Ohio territory. But things didn't go exactly as planned.
After raiding the American settlers in Pennsylvania, the warriors and British returned to Gnadenhutten. This time they came in with force, rounding up the white missionaries, forcing them into one cabin and taking all of their clothes. Some of the Christian Natives tried to protect the captives and gave them small bits of food and a few pieces of clothing. But they were too afraid of the warriors to do anything else.
Once the missionaries of Gnadenhutten were captured, word was sent to the other villages ordering them to Gnadenhutten or else the captives would be executed without mercy. A small group of warriors that had brought the message ravished Schoenbrunn, looting and destroying everything they could before escorting the missionaries back to Gnadenhutten.
There were members of the warriors that wanted to execute the group immediately, but some felt uncomfortable with this. They instead convinced the majority to take their captives back to Detroit and allow the British to decide their fate.
With most of the missionaries in captivity and in the hands of the British in Canada, and most of the Christian Natives dispersed, the villages in the Tuscarawas Valley were mostly deserted. Having gone through a hard winter, food was at a premium for those still living in the area. Hunger convinced a group of Christian Natives to return to Gnadenhutten in search of corn that may still be in the unharvested fields from the following summer.
It was at this time that a militia group from Fort Pitt that had been in search of the warriors that had attacked American settlers and the Moravian missionaries the previous summer came upon the Christian Natives seeking food in the deserted village. The militia rounded up the group that consisted of 60+ men, women and children. Seemingly convinced that they were not those responsible for the attacks, the militia made plans to move on when one of the men recognized a dress one of the Indian girls was wearing as belonging to one of the Pennsylvania settlers that had been killed in the attack. In a moment, this discovery changed everything.
Instead of leaving the Indians alone and moving on, the placed them in captivity. During the night the militia talked about what to do with them, and it was decided by the majority that the entire group should be executed. And that is what they did the following morning. Every living soul was bludgeoned to death, one after another, as they knelt in prayer. In all 96 men, women and children were clubbed to death. It is thought that two boys escaped the massacre by hiding underneath the cabins floorboards.
Several months would pass before the horrific scene was discovered as returning missionaries found their village of Gnadenhutten burned to the ground and in the charred timbers, the remains of the Christian Natives.