Ziesberg’s Errand in the Wilderness

Editors Note– the following is a review of an excellent documentary on the Gnaddenhuten Massacre which occurred during the American Revolution (nice to know that we have been caught doing bad things in other wars). Go here for info on the doc.

There was a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee who kept a sign on her door reading, “if you haven’t offended someone today, you haven’t done your job.” Students used to complain about the sentiments of the note only to be met with the assertion that offense is often the natural result of trying to provide a balanced response to any issue. In some ways the Moravian mission of Daniel Zeisberg presents an unfortunate example of this premise. The Zeisberg mission at Gnaddenhuten shows the troubles that can occur even with well-intentioned actions. In many ways one can see definite parallels to the similarly ill-fated but well-intentioned efforts of Thomas Fowell Buxton less than 75 years later. Zeisberg meant to create a “halfway house” in which the white colonists and the native Indians could come together and live as Christian brothers each meeting the others halfway. After some initial success Zeisberg would literally be left in the cold shaking his head and stating that these Indian brothers “had never in life… felt such hurt.”

Zeisberg came to the colonies as a teen. By the time of the incident he was fluent in 5 languages and had converted 400 Delaware Indians. Like most Moravians Zeisberg taught salvationa and conversion as a long gradual process. There were many interviews, teaching sessions, and training sessions that went into the process. The Indians were asked to adopt white manners of dress, the more typical mission style of living arrangements, as well as, to accept a more regulated existence. Yet, within their homes their domestic lives remained the same. In their displays of Christ’s great love and within the natural stability of the Moravian mission, many Delawares found a tantalizing form of Christianity.

Despite this seemingly loving and stable environment of Gnaddenhuten, pressures from both the inside and outside were creating a torrid current that eventually doomed the community. A major problem for the Moravian Delawares was the fact that their fellow Delawares did not have similarly good relations with the white colonists. In fact the Delawares as a whole were considered a very hostile tribe with a reputation for defending their lands with violence. Most every member of the white colonial settlements had lost loved ones to the hands of the Delwares. In fact every member of the group that eventually committed the atrocity had lost a loved one to Indian attacks. This auora of hostility led many in the colonies to see all Indians as a whole. They saw no difference between the “good” Christians of Gnaddenhuten and the “bad” Indians that had taken their family members from them. Any settlement of Indians was seen as a settlement at odds with the “American” enterprise. That this hostility was fostered and abetted by the British troops disparate to somehow break the stalemate that was the American Revolution did not help matters any. As one commentator in the film remarked when Wallace’s family was taken from their settlement the American colonists “had just had enough.” The hatred, the hostility, the fear, the depraviation had been too much. It did not matter to Williamson and Bilderback that the Gnaddenhuten Delawares were in fact “Christian brothers” or “pagan hellhounds.” They believed in the rightness of a properly tasked “revenge mission,” and in the words of Williamson “could not help” but become savages themselves. It did not make it any more right or any less tragic, it just made it what it was.

In addition to these considerable outside pressures, Zeisberg and his converts were dealing with some considerable problems of their own. For one, Zeisberg seems to have made a mistake similar to one that Percy Miller attributes to the Puritan’s errand in the wilderness. Zeisberg seemed convinced that if he could establish a settlement of white looking and acting Indians they would be acceptable by the white colonists as brothers in Christ. In this he was sadly mistaken. Unfortunately, the white colonists of Ohio were no less appreciative of the settlement than the Cromwell had been of the Puritan errand. In a sense he accomplished was to give his converts a false sense of security around whites, much like deers all over rural America who become so sensitized to human traffic that one night they found themselves frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car, leading to the destruction of both parties. It could be argued that Zeisberg’s stubbornness in following both the dictates of his conscience and his church tradition of following the drawing of lots led him to the problems his converts suffered.

The resulting tragedy would take the lives of not only his converts, but would also claim the lives of many of its White proponents. It would cause a black eye to the colonial cause. It would also led many of the Delwares and other Indians already predisposed to hostility to redouble their concerns. It would also led Zeisberg to flee contact with White America once and for all. Which to this author is the greatest shame because had the colonists of his time learned from Zeisberg’s love of Christ, maybe some of the atrocities of the next centuries’ Indian wars could have been averted as well.


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