Richard Benyo: Articles and Columns

The Times-News

December 7 & 14, 1968

The Gnadenhutten Massacre, part 1

Lehighton Began With Moravian Mission

When overpopulation threatened to decrease the usefulness of the Bethlehem mission settlement for Indians, under Moravian direction, land was secured in Carbon County and Gnadenhutten was founded.

The initial settlers in the Carbon County [Pennsylvania] area, as in so many other areas in America's history, were religiously inspired.

In the 1740s Moravians had settled solidly in the Bethlehem area, establishing a settlement in which the Christian religion was taught to the redman. The settlement also served to house the Indians of the area during and after their conversion to the Christian faith, providing them with food, clothing, medical supplies, and the like to supplement the inspirational supplies that the early missionaries were bestowing upon them.

Count Zinzenderf, a mid-European aristocrat who was very instrumental in settling missionaries in the New World, traveled up the Lehigh River with two Indian guides in the summer of 1742, seeking land on which to build a sort of 'overflow' settlement for the converted Indians at Bethlehem.

He traveled up through the Lehigh Valley territory without incident, the missionaries by that time having brought some semblance of peace to the Mohegan Indian tribes. Zinzenderf arrived at what is now the southwest corner of the borough of Lehighton. Upon his return to the Bethlehem area he made the proper arrangements to secure the land for the Moravian missionaries and in 1745 some 500 Mohegans, under the direction of Christian Rauch and Martin Mack, the first missionaries to strike northward into the Lehigh Valley, arrived on the 120-acre tract and established the settlement known as Gnadenhutten, or translated, Tents of Grace, more commonly known today as Mercy Huts.

The land was divided up, much as land developments are today, and each Indian family was assigned to one of the plots. Thereupon they built their homes, crude to be sure, but quite comfortable for Indians who were used to the hardships of open-forest living.

The first extra-community project that the Moravians undertook was to build a road connecting the new settlement with the Bethlehem home-grounds. The road was petitioned in 1747 and constructed in 1748.

The traditional Thanksgiving motif entered into the new settlement, too, and it is recorded that on August 18, 1746, Gnadenhutten celebrated its first Thanksgiving by gathering fruits from the fields and game from the woods, and conducting a feast to celebrate the successful establishment of the new settlement.

A regular schedule of prayer meetings, services, and devotion had been set up in the settlement on its inception, and was faithfully followed through the early years of the establishment.

The new town prospered for nearly a half decade, growing rapidly and living in peace with both the countryside and the wandering Indians who would occasionally pass the settlement.

In September of 1749 Bishop Johanned von Wattwille visited the settlement to lay the foundation for the permanent church structure.

The situation began to change, though, and in 1754 part of the Indians in the settlement were led to desert the mission.

Some of the more hostile tribes in the area at the time - among them the Shawanese and the Delawares of the Susquehanna River area - were wavering in their allegiance to England, looking forward to the day when the English would not hold sway in America that they [then] did and when the Indians could begin making raids on local settlements again. Toward this end, these tribes began building in force by recruiting as many converted Indians as they could manage, hoping to have sufficient numbers when the time came to have their way with the land.

It was thought at that time, and still is today, that these converted savages were led astray by the mighty Teedyuscung, known as the Delaware King, who himself left the settlement in 1754 and took up the hatchet.

The year 1754 seemed to be a very important one, too, in other ways. In that year the mission was removed to the northeast side of the Lehigh, upon the [current] site of Weissport. The new village was called New Gnadenhutten. The operation of moving an entire village at that time was not an easy one, and the mission was helped in the move by congregations from Bethlehem, Nazareth, Christianbrunn, and Guadenthal. By June 4 of that year the first 20 houses in the new settlement were inhabited.

Always in the religious tradition, the cornerstone for the chapel was laid on June 11, 1754.

By this time other Indians had been incorporated into the Moravian congregations, and many of the new converts, mostly Delawares, were sent to the New Gnadenhutten settlement. The new settlement was established so as to retain specific tribal customs and cultures, the Moravians putting the Mohegans (or Makikaws) on one side of the main street and the Delawares on the other.

From August 6th to the 11th in 1754 a Synod was held in the new village and the chapel was consecrated.

In was hoped by the settlers and by the converted Indians that things would continue to go as well in the village as they had been, but a dark cloud was on the horizon in 1755, as a subtle change was noticed in the attitude of the surrounding Indian tribes.

French intrigue ran wild in this area, as the French colonial government forces hoped to gain sway in the Ohio valley, and toward that end were making alliances with the Delawares and other lesser tribes in the Lehigh Valley area.

The French intervention in the politics of the tribes began to play more and more a part in their everyday affairs, and a feeling of foreboding began to prevail in the Gnadenhutten area - a foreboding that even the Indians' new religion could not push back.

The Gnadenhutten Massacre, part 2

Pair of Massacres Hit Gnadenhutten

Two massacres hit the Lehighton-Weissport settlements within two months of each other.

The rebel Indians became very agitated over the fact that some of their number elected to remain at the Gnadenhutten settlements, and decided to cut them off from the more developed settlements in and around Bethlehem and Easton.

The uncertainty in the rebel Indian movements was erased with Braddock's defeat, and they became bolder in their ventures into white-oriented settlements.

The neighbors of Gnadenhutten met in an effort to establish their feelings about the peril that was encircling them. They held several of these meetings and decided to make a covenant among themselves and to remain, as far as able, undaunted by the adverse situation.

For their own protection, the Brethren began to suspect all Indians, even those in their own settlement. As a result, and in looking toward their own protection, they censured the natives from buying shot, powder, etc. The converted Indians had no qualms about complying with the precaution, and for a few months the settlements were relatively safe from outside disturbances.

The short period of peace was brought to an abrupt halt, however, on the evening of November 24, 1755.

A group of settlers were gathered at the home of Martin and Susanna Nitchman after the evening meal, when there was a commotion from the front of the house, the dogs barking and shouts filling the air.

Martin Nitchman opened the door to see what was the trouble, as others of the group gathered behind him. As the door opened he was confronted by a group of heavily armed Indians and was immediately shot dead, while his wife and several others were wounded.

The rest of the group closed the door and fled upstairs, barricading the door behind them.

Brother Partsch escaped the melee that followed by jumping out a window and escaping into the night.

Brother Worbas, who was convalescing from a recent illness in the next house, did likewise and escaped the savages.

After repeated attempts the Indians found that they could not force the door open and commenced to set fire to the cabin.

A boy named Sturgeons jumped off the burning roof, and was wounded by being grazed on the face by a ball from a savage musket and was burned badly all over his body, but he managed to escape, as did Sister Partsch, who jumped after him and escaped unharmed.

Brother Fabricius jumped, but was seen and shot by the Indians, two musket balls entering him and wounding him seriously. He was the only settler taken alive, but was soon dispatched by swats from the Indian hatchets, after which he was scalped.

The rest of the party was burned alive.

Brother Senseman, who went out the back door, turned back in time to see his wife being consumed in flames. Sister Partsch, who had escaped into the woods but who through fear and excitement could not get far, hid behind a tree in time to witness Sister Senseman's death. She is reported to have knelt on the ground, enveloped in flames, praying, "'Tis all well, dear Savoir. I expected nothing else."

The Indians set fire to the other buildings, burning any hay and grain they could find. They killed some of the livestock and ate while squatting about the burning settlement, melting back into the forest when they were done.

The dead from Gnadenhutten were:

Gottlieb and Christiana Anders and their child Johanna, Martin and Susanna Nitschman, Ann Catharine Senseman, Leonard Gattermyer, Christian Fabricius, George Schwegert, John Frederick Lesley and Martin Presser.

During the attack and the burning of the settlement, the settlers of New Gnadenhutten heard the shouts and howls of the savages and saw the flames shooting up into the air. They would have taken up arms and gone to the aid of the besieged settlers, but were otherwise advised by their leaders. They did not settle for complete inaction, however, and Brother Zeisberger, who had lately come up to the new colony from Bethlehem, went in search of a body of English militia who were camped some five miles away, but they could do nothing to help the settlers in the dark of night.

The flames that consumed the settlement of Gnadenhutten were seen beyond the Blue Ridge in Palmerton all the way to Bethlehem, and the missionaries there knew immediately that the young settlements were in dire need of aid against the redskins.

The settlers in New Gnadenhutten, though, being peaceful souls by nature, fled their settlement that night, and by morning some 40 of them had arrived in terror and exhaustion in the mission center at Bethlehem, telling of the horrors that had been inflicted upon their brethren, never having gotten close enough, in all truth, to be eye-witness to the slaughter.

The body of soldiers already mentioned, under the leadership of one Capt. Hay, were said to have come to a ridge overlooking what is now Parryville, on their way to help the settlers, and are reported to have fired down into the bushes, having presumably heard some movements there, still some miles from the real site of trouble. That point was later to become known as "the fire line," as a result of this body of soldiers discharging their firearms into the valley. The Fire Line Road marks the spot today.

Hay and his men were joined by Capt. Wilson of Bucks County, whereupon they proceeded to Gnadenhutten, and once there set about to protect Brethren Mills, which were still filled with grain that the Indian rampage had not touched.

The forces were not especially skilled in dealing with Indians, though, and it was their undoing, providing a second massacre, this time near Wiessport.

The body of soldiers set up a makeshift fort at New Gnadenhutten, near the river. They were quite secure in their fortifications, but became over-confident.

Some of the soldiers went skating on the river on New Year's Day, 1756, and happened to see two Indians upriver, walking across the ice. They took off in hot pursuit, confident of easily overtaking them on the unsure footing.

After having traveled for some distance, though, their plight became apparent as an ambush was sprung upon them, and they were completely outnumbered and caught unawares, all of them falling victims to the savages' hatchets and knives, many of them being scalped.

News of the new rash of killings reached the fort and the soldiers fled in panic, running back to Bethlehem, reporting a band of some 200 redskins stalking the settlement grounds. After the soldiers had left the area, the Indians overran the settlement and set fire to the buildings in New Gnadenhutten as they had done to Gnadenhutten a month previously.

As a result of their easy victories, the Indians became ever bolder, setting about scalping every white man between what is now Lehighton and what is presently Stroudsburg.

Some of the more infamous attacks upon settlers came in Pohopoko Creek and Upper Towamensing Township in Carbon County, where individual families were settled too far apart to help each other in the defense of their land, most of them falling victim to scalping parties, or, in the case of well-built homes, death by fire.

The Indian threat was to be nullified, though, as machinery toward that end had been set into motion on Dec. 12, 1755 by Timothy Horsfield of Bethlehem, who wrote to Governor Morris, requesting aid, which was sent to Carbon County through the august personage of Ben. Franklin.