Geo-History: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

The grave site for the 96 Moravian Christian Indians who were murdered at Gnadenhutten on March 8, 1782. Photo by Vagabond Historian

June 25, 2022

Vagabond’s Note: This story is the final installment in our four-part series following the interactions between American soldiers and the Lenape or Delaware Indians during the time of the Revolutionary War.

In this entry, I describe one of the saddest events to occur in the history of our country – the murders of 96 Native American men, women and children by members of the Pennsylvania militia: the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

The Vagabond Historian is a scholar of local history, specializing in knowledge of early American history. Popular as a speaker, he has graciously agreed to contribute his column to Pickerington Online.

As a historical researcher, I try to understand the mindset of people who lived at the same time as the events that I document. Within the span of a few years militiamen and soldiers from western Pennsylvania and Virginia murdered peaceful Native Americans. In this story I will explain how those men developed so much hate.

The Gnadenhutten Massacre took place on March 8, 1782 – seven years after hostilities between the Americans and the British began in 1775. During that time, the British employed Indian agents like Simon Girty and Alexander McGee to convince the Native American people to support their side during the war. (Girty and McGee had defected to the British in the spring of 1778.)

The agents succeeded in convincing many Indians to raid the homes of Continental Army soldiers in western Pennsylvania and Virginia. The British aimed to demoralize Washington’s army by forcing the` men to desert to protect their families.

The tactic worked. When news of the brutality reached Washington’s army, a large number of
desertions were recorded in Valley Forge. By 1782, just about everyone who lived in western Pennsylvania and Virginia had lost friends or family members to Native American raids.

Universal hatred for the Indians spread amongst the American soldiers and militiamen. Families in Pennsylvania and Virginia wanted the Indians completely eradicated from their region.

Girty and McGee used alcohol and other enticements to recruit young men from tribes, but the booty gained from raids was the biggest draw. The Draper Manuscript Collection held by the Wisconsin State Historical Society includes a record of an early 1800’s interview with an elderly Native American who had participated in raiding parties as a teenager. Each raid, eight to ten young men would target multiple homesteads. His descriptions of what they did to the families are too graphic to retell in this story.

After overcoming any defenders, the raiding party took everything that they could carry, including livestock, cookware, clothing, cloth, sewing materials, tools – anything that could be useful back home. The man told how happy his mother became when he presented her with an iron skillet.

After the raids, they often went back home by way of the Red Front Trading Post, located on the Beaver River a few miles north of where it flowed into the Ohio. There, they would trade booty for booze or other items. A few miles west, they would camp at a spring around which there was plenty of grass for the livestock, soft sand for a bed and plenty of water. Today, the spring located near Beaver, PA has been dammed to create Brady Run Lake.

The Gnadenhutten Massacre

One of the darkest days in American history was March 8, 1782. On that date, 96 innocent Christian men, women, and children at Gnadenhutten in Ohio were brutally executed by members of the Pennsylvania militia under the orders of Lieutenant Colonel David Williamson. This is a somewhat detailed version of the story of that massacre and the events leading up to it.

Reverend David Zeisberger and John Heckewelder
Public Domain Drawings

The story begins with the arrival of David Zeisberger in the vicinity of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania around the late 1760’s. Zeisberger was born in Moravia around 1721. At the time, Moravia was part of Bohemia which was located just east of the modern-day Czech Republic.

Zeisberger was a member of the Church of the Unity of the United Brethren which was usually referred to simply as the Church of the United Brethren. When he arrived in central Pennsylvania, Zeisberger began ministering to the Lenape (Delaware) Indians in that region. His flock quickly grew and around 1762, a young English missionary named John Heckewelder joined Zeisberger in his mission work with the Indians. However, tensions developed between the Christian Indians and the other inhabitants of the region.

In 1772, Zeisberger, Heckewelder and 200 or so of the Christian Indians moved into the Ohio country to escape the increasing persecution by the white settlers and the non-Christian Indians. They built the towns of Gnadenhutten and Schoenbrunn on the upper Tuscarawas River. As unrest between the British and the Americans rose in the region, Chief Killbuck of the Lenape Turtle Clan told the missionaries to move their followers to the main Delaware town of Goschachgunk (Coshocton) where he could protect them. In 1776, Zeisberger, Heckewelder and eight Christian Indian families established a new town just south of Goschachgunk on the Muskingum River which they called Licteneau (German for “Meadow of Light.”).

Lictenau Historical Marker in Coshocton, Ohio
Photo by Vagabond Historian

By the spring of 1780, Heckewelder and Zeisberger decided that they would be better off back
at their old homes at Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten. However, in April Heckewelder and several of the families stopped about six miles south of Gnadenhutten and established a new town which they called Salem.

By 1780, over 400 Christian Indians were living in the area around the three towns along with ten white missionaries and teachers. On July 4, John
Heckewelder married Sara Ohneberg at Salem with Reverend Adam Grube presiding. Their daughter was born the following year.

When the Revolutionary War had broken out, many of the Ohio Indian tribes chose to support the
British. However, most of the Delaware and the Moravian Christian Indians remained neutral (although Zeisberger and Heckewelder kept the American commanders at Fort Pitt informed about some of the Indian activities in Ohio). Some of the letters that the missionaries sent to Generals Hand and Broadhead at Fort Pitt are in the Draper Manuscript Collection.

Fort Henry Historical Marker
Photo by Vagabond Historian

During the summer of 1777, Zeisberger learned that Indians were planning an attack on Fort Henry which was located at Zanesburg (AKA Wheeling, VA). Starting in the middle of June, 1777, Zeisberger sent a series of letters to General Hand at Fort Pitt notifying him of the impending attack. Hand responded by calling up five militia units and sending them to reinforce the fort and then sending Major Andrew Swearingen down the river from Holliday’s Fort (Near modern-day Weirton, WV) with provisions for the enlarged garrison. The attack on Fort Henry came on September 1, 1777.

In the spring of 1778, Simon Girty and several others left the service of the Americans at Fort Pitt and travelled to Fort Detroit where they defected to the British side. Girty knew of the spying activities of the two missionaries and he lobbied for the British to destroy the Moravian Indian towns and remove the missionaries. He thought that the missionaries should be hanged for treason.

Some of the Indians supported Girty’s desire to remove the Moravian Indians and the missionaries from the towns on the Tuscarawas River. However, British authorities at Fort Detroit continued to issue orders that the Christian Indians were not to be harmed. By the summer of 1781, Chief Half King (Pomocon) of the Wyandots had grown impatient with the lack of action by the British in regard to the Moravian missionaries. He sent a letter to the commandant at Fort Detroit, Major Arent Schuyler DePeyster, demanding that the British take action against the missionaries “or else I will do so.” (Implying that he would kill the missionaries.)

Historical Marker Photo by Vagabond Historian

In late August in response to Half King’s threat, Major DePeyster sent Captain Matthew Elliott and Simon Girty, along with a group of soldiers, to relocate the Christian Indians to an area on the Sandusky River near the Wyandot Village known as “Half King’s Town.” Chief Pomocan and around 200 Wyandot and Delaware Indians accompanied Elliott’s men to the Christian Indian towns on the Tuscarawas. Heckewelder’s diary describes Pomocon reading the letter from DePeyster informing the missionaries that they were to move to the Sandusky River region and stating that he was authorized to use force if they refused. (Some sources state that Simon Girty jumped onto a chair then he read the letter. However, Girty was illiterate and Heckewelder’s Diary clearly stated that Pomocon read the letter. Pomocon was fluent in several languages.)

DePeyster’s instructed that the missionaries were to be treated with respect and not mistreated in any way. However, Half King’s warriors ignored DePeyster’s orders. They stripped the missionaries and pillaged their homes. Heckewelder’s diary
describes the Indians wearing the stolen clothes. Some of the Christian Indian women prevailed upon Half King to allow them to give the missionaries something to cover their nakedness. Pomocon allowed them to give the missionaries some ragged dresses.

It is worthwhile to note that the Delawaresvdid not participate in any of the violence against the missionaries. Although the Wyandots plundered the missionaries, they permitted the Christian Indians to take livestock and some other belongings. The Wyandots led the villagers north along the Muskinghum River to Coshocton. From there, they followed the Walhonding River to the northwest, then traveled overland until they reached the Sandusky River several miles south of Half King’s Wyandot town.

There, Half King and his warriors abandoned the Christian Indians, telling them that they were free to build new homes anywhere in that region. The trip was especially difficult for John Heckewelder’s wife since she had recently given birth and was nursing a newborn baby. Since the October winds were already blowing, they immediately set about the task of building cabins for winter shelter.

Following the tradition of the Delawares, the women went out every day to dig wild potatoes for food. Because of the scarcity of suitable grazing land, the milk cows soon dried up, so babies and children went hungry. (Vagabond’ note: The wild potatoes eaten by the Delawares were actually wild sweet potatoes which we would recognize as morning glory plants.)

Wild Potatoes AKA Sweet Potatoes or Morning Glories in Bloom
Photo by Vagabond Historian

In late February, Simon Girty arrived from Fort Detroit with orders to bring Zeisberger and Heckewelder to the fort to stand trial for treason. Since Girty was joining the Wyandots for an excursion against the Virginians, he assigned a Frenchman named Mr. Lavallie to take the missionaries to Fort Detroit. Girty instructed Lavallie to “Drive them like cattle.”

As Lavallie and the missionaries proceeded downriver on the trail along the Sandusky, he observed that Zeisberger had some difficulty walking due to his rheumatism. Lavellie gave Zeisberger his own horse while he walked instead. When they arrived at the lower Sandusky near Lake Erie a
gentleman named Mr. Robbins offered the missionaries the hospitality of his home.

Lavallie sent a letter to Fort Detroit asking for a boat to transport the missionaries to the fort from the mouth of the Sandusky River. After they had been at the home of Mr. Robbins for some weeks, a boat from Fort Detroit arrived to transport them to the fort. A company of British Rangers arrived on the boat with orders from Commandant DePeyster. DePeyster’s orders instructed Lavallie and the rangers to bring the missionaries to Fort Detroit. The letter stipulated that the missionaries were not to be harmed.

The same day that the boat arrived with DePeyster’s orders, Simon Girty also arrived in the area. When he learned that Lavellie had ignored his instructions to drive the missionaries overland like cattle to Fort Detroit, he was extremely angry. Heckewelder’s diary describes Girty threatening the missionaries with his tomahawk and then spending the night in a drunken rage. However, the rangers protected the missionaries while they waited for the weather over the lake to calm down so that they could depart for Detroit.

Upon their arrival at Fort Detroit, Commandant DePeyster forced the two poorly-clad missionaries to stand in the cold for several hours before ordering them into his presence to face charges. Some of the Indian leaders were also in the room. When
DePeyster asked Chief Pipe for his testimony about the spying charges against the missionaries, Pipe spoke in defense of the missionaries. DePeyster declared that the missionaries were cleared of the charge of treason. He then ordered that they be fed, clothed and supplied with provisions to take back to their families on the Sandusky River.

The winter of 1781-82 was very harsh and the relocated Christian Indians had not harvested their crops before they were forced to leave their homes. Frozen ground prevented the women from digging wild potatoes and heavy snow prohibited the animals from grazing. By February, the Christian Indians and missionaries were surviving by eating the decaying flesh of their livestock.

When the weather broke at the end of February, about 150 of the Christian Indians obtained permission from Half King to return to their old homes on the Tuscarawas to harvest corn to bring back to their families at the Sandusky. The unusually warm late February weather also led to an early rash of Indian Raids from the Ohio country into Virginia and Pennsylvania.

On February 8, a small raiding party killed John Fink in Pennsylvania not far from Buchanan’s Fort, on the upper Monongahela River. A couple of days later, a small raiding party took a young man named John Carpenter captive from near Buffalo Creek in Northwestern Virginia (now Brooke County, WV). Some of the Indians who captured Carpenter spoke Dutch which led him to believe that they were Moravian.

The raiding party crossed the icy waters of the Ohio River, then bedded down for the night and put the horses out to graze. The next morning, the Indians put John to work rounding up the horses. He was able to escape and make his way to Fort Pitt where he reported that his home had been raided by some of the Moravian Indians.

On February 15, a raiding party struck the home of Robert Wallace on Raccoon Creek, several miles west of Pittsburgh. Robert had left early that morning to take corn to the mill. When he returned home that evening, he found that his cabin had been burned to the ground, his livestock had been shot dead or stolen and the Indians had pillaged whatever they could carry.

Mrs. Wallace along with the couple’s ten-year-old son, two-and-a-half year old son, Robert, and infant daughter had been taken captive. Wallace rounded up his neighbors and they headed out in pursuit of the Indians at first light the next morning. Unfortunately, several inches of snow had fallen during the night, so they soon lost the trail.

Meanwhile, not long after crossing the Ohio River, the raiding party grew weary of Mrs. Wallace and her baby slowing their progress. The Indians decided to tomahawk the mother and daughter. Just beyond a bend in the trail, the Indians cut off and sharpened two small saplings upon which they impaled the naked corpses. They positioned the bodies to face the direction from which any pursuers would be coming.

The Indians took Wallace’s ten-year-old son and their two-and-one-half year-old son with them. The ten-year-old died in captivity from disease and malnutrition a year or so later. The toddler Robert Wallace survived and was adopted into an Indian family. When he was around ten years old, he was returned to the white community, but had forgotten the English language.

Back at Fort Pitt, the Americans had learned that raiding parties were using the abandoned buildings at Salem, Gnadenhutten and Schoenbrunn as stopover points to and from their villages in Ohio the homes they raided in Pennsylvania and northern Virginia. In late February or early March of 1782, General Gibson at Fort Pitt organized a force of 160 Pennsylvania militiamen under the command of Lieutenant Colonel David Williamson to burn the three abandoned towns.

After failing to trail the raiding party which had taken his family, the elder Robert Wallace rode to Fort Pitt. He arrived just as the Williamson’s expedition was leaving for the Ohio country, so, he joined them. A few days into the journey, the militiamen rounded a bend in the trail and were greeted by the gruesome sight of Mrs. Wallace and her baby. To say that the militiamen were enraged with hatred towards Indians would be an understatement.

Gnaddenhutten Historical Marker Photo by Vagabond Historian

The next day, the army arrived in the vicinity of Gnadenhutten. After crossing a swollen stream, the militia encountered a man named Joseph Shebosh who was half Indian and half white. As Shebosh begged for his life, a militiaman named Charles Bilderback killed him with a tomahawk and scalped him. Colonel Williamson and his men were expecting the Moravian towns to be vacant, so they were surprised to discover a large number of Indians working in the fields.

Williamson sent detachments of militiamen to Schoenbrunn and Salem to bring back any Indians who were there. The Indians at Schoenbrunn had learned of the presence of the militiamen and fled before the detachment arrived. However, the militiamen that went to Salem returned with several Indians families.

The militiamen demanded that the Indians give up their arms and the peaceful Moravians complied. In the village, several of the militiamen spotted items that they believed had been pillaged from the homes of friends and family who had been killed. So, Colonel Williamson ordered the militia to take all the villagers to Fort Pitt to face trial for their participation in the raids. They confined the Indians to two cabins with men in one and women and children in the other.

It was at this point that Robert Wallace noticed a teenaged girl wearing the same dress that his wife had been wearing on the morning that he left for the mill. He had watched his wife make that dress with her own hands. Some accounts say that the dress was still stained with the blood of Mrs. Wallace, but that is unproven. The girl claimed that a visiting Indian had gifted her the garment in gratitude for food that she had provided, but the enraged militiamen did not believe her.

The militia took a vote and all but 18 of the 260 members agreed to execute every villager for their perceived roles in the murders of Mrs. Wallace and her baby. The militiamen informed the Indians of the decision, then allowed the villagers to gather in the meetinghouse to pray. Throughout most of the night, the Indians sang hymns and prayed.

The 18 men who voted against the decision refused to take part in the executions and declared their intention to head back to Pennsylvania. To protect the 18 from being charged as deserters, Williamson gave the men permission to leave provided that they make camp ten or twelve miles away and rejoin the army on its return to Fort Pitt. Some historians have indicated that Williamson himself was not in favor of executing the Indians, but that he had no choice given the overwhelming results of the vote. It is worthwhile to note that many of these same militiamen had participated in the Squaw Campaign and in the Coshocton Massacre.

Gnadenhutten Massacre Drawing Circa mid 1800’s Public Domain Image

Early on the morning of March 8, the militiamen entered the chapel. An old man, who had taken the Christian name of Abraham and served as one of the congregation’s spiritual leaders volunteered to go first. Abraham had long gray hair which some of the militiamen wanted as a trophy. The Indians were taken into the slaughterhouses two at a time.

Nathan Rollins, whose his father and uncle had been killed by Indian raiding parties, stunned the victims by striking them on the head with a large wooden mallet that he had found in the cooper’s shop. Then, another militiaman slit their throats. This exact procedure was how slaughterhouses at the time dispatched livestock. After scalping the bodies, the militiamen dragged the corpses into nearby cabins to be burned.

Rollins swung the cooper’s mallet fourteen times before declaring that his arm had given out. He then sat down and sobbed. The revengeful killing spree had not diminished his grief for his father and uncle.

Two young boys slipped through a trap door in the floor to hide in a root cellar under the cabin where the women and children were being killed. When darkness fell, the militia set fire to the cabin. The boys attempted to crawl out through a small opening in the foundation. The younger boy escaped first and ran to safety in the nearby woods, however the older boy could not squeeze through the opening and he perished in the fire.

The younger boy would later tell how the blood streamed through the cracks in the floorboards as the women and children were being slaughtered above him.

Photo by Rachel Scofield

The only other survivor of the massacre was a boy named Thomas who had been bludgeoned, scalped then tossed unconscious onto a pile of bodies in one of the cabins. When he came to, he saw that his friend Abel had also survived and was attempting to sit up. Militiamen entering the cabin with yet another body, took notice of the movement and one immediately killed Abel with a tomahawk.

To avoid a similar fate, Thomas pretended to be dead by laying perfectly still until the men left. He then got to his feet, climbed over the bodies and slipped out the door. Thomas and the boy who had escaped from the root cellar were both found by a group of Indians who were fleeing Schoenbrunn and heading toward the Sandusky. Thomas survived in spite of being scalped.

All told that morning, the Pennsylvania militiamen murdered 96 innocent Christian villagers including 28 men, 29 women and 39 children.

In his diary, John Heckewelder wrote, “The loving children who had so harmoniously raised their voices in the church, at school and in the parents’ houses in singing praises to the Savior. Their tender years, innocent countenances, and tears made no impression on these white Christians. The children, together with 12 babes at the breast, were all butchered with the rest.”

Photo by Rachel Scofield

After looting the homes, the militiamen burned the towns including the cabins containing the bodies.

That killing field remained untouched for 17 years when in 1799, 77-year-old David Zeisberger along with some friends and Christian Indian companions visited the site. Searching throughout the remains of the cabins and the nearby grounds, they collected all the skeletal remains that they could find, then buried them in one mass grave. The resulting mound is still visible today and is marked with both a sign and a stone.

This concludes our four-part series about the interactions between the American military and the Delaware people, but it is not the last of our historical stories. One of the individuals mentioned in this story and the story of the siege of Fort Laurens was Simon Girty. Many historians consider Girty to be a traitor since he defected from the American army at Fort Pitt to
the British at Fort Detroit in 1778. Our next Geo-History installment will tell his story.


Each of the following sets of GPS coordinates will take you to a historic marker or historic site related to one of the locations where events described in the above story took place. If you are unable to travel to those locations and visit them in person, copy the coordinates and paste them into the search box on Google Earth. Then, Use the Google Street View to take a look at the location. Have Fun!

Lichtenau Historical Marker
Coordinates: N 40° 14′ 46.69″, W 81° 52′ 14.54″
The marker is located on the southeast corner of a busy intersection. If you decide to pay a
visit, turn east onto Clow Lane and park at the apartment building a few hundred feet from the intersection.

Salem Mission Historical Marker
Coordinates: N 40° 18′ 24.21″, W 81° 32′ 14.54″
This is on Rte. 36 out in the country. You will find a nice turnout where you can stop for a photograph.

Schoenbrunn Historical Marker
Coordinates: N 40° 28′ 01.98″, W 81° 24′ 48.05″
The marker is located at the entrance to the Schoenbrunn Village Historic site. Visit in the summer because the historic site is not open during the winter months.

Gnadenhutten Historical Marker and Site
Coordinates: N 40° 28′ 01.98″, W 81° 24′ 48.05″
The marker is located near the burial mound at the site of the Gnadenhutten massacre. The marker is not visible from a Google Earth street view. While the site is open year around, the visitor center is only open during the summer months.

Site Red Front Trading Post
Coordinates: N 40° 43.764″, W 80° 18.543″
The exact location of the trading post is unknown, but it was within a short distance of these coordinates. There is no historical marker. This location is within the city of New Brighton, PA.

Raccoon Creek near the site of the raid on the home of the Robert Wallace family.
Coordinates: N 40° 30.557″, W 80° 21.528″

Buffalo Creek near where Robert Wallace was taken captive.
Coordinates: N 40° 12.445″, W 80° 33.218″
The exact location of the Wallace homestead is unknown but it was in the vicinity of what is now Bethany, WV.

Brady’s Run Lake
Coordinates: N 40° 43.832″, W 80° 21.295″
Native Americans camped at the spring here. It was later dammed to form a lake near what became Beaver, PA.


For my history buff friends, here are some of the sources of information for this story. Some of these resources may be accessed for free online at

Life of John Heckewelder
by Rondthaler, Edward & Coates, Benjamin Horner
Publication date 1847
Publisher: Philadelphia – T. Ward

A Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians.
by John Heckewelder, John Gottlieb
Publication date 1820
Publisher: Philadelphia – McCarty & Davis

History of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Indians in North America
by Loskiel, George Henry, Christian Ignatius, & John Adams
Publication date 1794
Publisher: The Brethren’s Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel

Diary of David Zeisberger
by David Zeisberger
Publication date 1885
Publisher: R. Clarke & Co

The Life and Times of David Zeisberger: The Western Pioneer and Apostle
by Edmund De Schweinitz , Edmund Alexander De Schweinitz
Publication date 1871
Publisher: J.B. Lippincott
Scanned and posted online by:

A True History of the Massacre of Ninety-Six Christian Indians, at Gnadenhuetten, Ohio,
March 8th, 1782.

by Gnadenhutten Monument Society
Publication date 1870
Publisher: New Philadelphia, Ohio, Printed at the Ohio Democrat Office

Thanks for taking time to read my story. Please contribute your comments! – VH

Please also check out previous installments of this series:
Geohistory: Flint Ridge
Geohistory: USS Shenandoah
Geohistory: Sears Mail Order Houses
Geohistory: 135th Ohio Infantry at Andersonville Prison
Geohistory: The Squaw Campaign
Geohistory: Treaty of Fort Pitt, McIntosh Expedition & the Siege of Fort Laurens
Geohistory: The Coschocton Massacre