Ohio’s Oldest Existing Settlement and Greatest Frontier Infamy.


It’s pronounced ‘NAYD-uhn-huh-ten’. I had it right from a villager, and that’s the final word on that. As for Tuscarawas County, I’ll leave that one alone.

Gnadenhutten is German for ‘huts of grace’. Settled originally in 1772 by German-American Moravian missionaries and Lenape (Delaware) Native American converts, this is the oldest existing settlement in Ohio. Today, it consists of under 1,300 residents and is a classic little town in eastern Ohio.

Being the oldest existing settlement in Ohio is quite interesting in and of itself, but there’s also another thing Gnadenhutten is known for- the most infamous massacre of Native Americans by settlers in the Old Northwest Territory.

The above two photos were taken at the Fort Ancient Museum in Lebanon Ohio (which deserves a whole post for itself in the future). Fort Laurens (you’ll remember from the last blog post) during the Revolutionary War was aided by the Moravian missionaries that had created three settlements for their Native American Christian converts. Now, a few years later when the fort was in ruins 20-odd miles to the north, settler militias were fending off British-encouraged Native American attacks in the Pennsylvania territory.

The British had taken the Christian Native Americans to ‘Captives Town’ and took two missionaires to Detroit for trial (they suspected them of aiding the Colonial Army at Fort Laurens). Some of the converts were allowed to return to Gnadenhutten to gather supplies they needed. Here is the grim story:

In early March 1782, the Lenape were surprised by a raiding party of 160 Pennsylvania militia led by Lieutenant Colonel David Williamson. The American militia rounded up the Christian Lenape and accused them of taking part in raids into Pennsylvania. Although the Lenape denied the charges, the militia held a council and voted to kill them. Refusing to take part, some militiamen left the area. One of those who opposed the killing of the Moravian Lenape was Obadiah Holmes, Jr. He wrote:

“one Nathan Rollins & brother [who] had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, …& Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all”.

After the Lenape were told of the American militia’s vote, they requested time to prepare for death and spent the night praying and singing hymns. They were held in two buildings, one for men and one for women and children.

The next morning on 8 March, the militia brought the Lenape to one of two “killing houses”, one for men and the other for women and children. The American militia tied the Indians, stunned them with mallet blows to the head, and killed them with fatal scalping cuts. In all, the militia murdered and scalped 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children. Two Indian boys, one of whom had been scalped, survived to tell of the massacre. The militia piled the bodies in the mission buildings and burned the village down. They also burned the other abandoned Moravian villages.

The site of the massacre is on the National Register of Historic Places, next to an historic cemetery. There is a small museum and cabins built like they were at the time. The above-pictured structure is a replica of a mission building. Monuments and historical signs are on the grounds.

This 37-foot tall monument was dedicated in 1872.

I visited the place during a calm quiet early afternoon in September last year. I had some car trouble and the gentleman who ran the museum, a Mr. Miller, graciously helped me out with contacting AAA. While I waited for help, he gave me a tour of the museum.

A few years after the massacre, one of the missionaries collected the remains of the slain and buried them here.

Public opinion was divided on the massacre. Many condemned it, some supported it due to the ferocious attacks upon their settlements. No one was ever officially brought to justice for the massacre. The Moravian settlements were abandoned.

The museum was modest but packed with interesting exhibits.

This is a mannequin of David Zeisberger, Moravian missionary and founder of the Gnadenhutten settlement.

A fragment of the oldest stone tombstone in Ohio- the curator said that someone else claimed it was actually the second oldest. Either way, very interesting!

I want to thank Mr. Miller for his help and impromptu tour of the museum. He represented everything good about small-town Ohio and amateur historians in general. I had a great time talking to him.

Back to our story- I mentioned that no one was officially brought to justice for the massacre. But the story doesn’t end there. One of the militiamen who participated in the massacre was later slain by a Lenape. The officer in charge, Lieutenant Colonel Williamson, died in poverty many years later.

In 1889, future president Theodore Roosevelt called the atrocity “a stain on frontier character that the lapse of time cannot wash away”.

One other person paid for this incident with his life. Ironically, he had nothing to do with the massacre. This will be the topic of my next blog post. See you in January!


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