“You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?”
— Tecumseh to Gen. William Henry Harrison
The American Legends Podcast is a worthy exploration of the 18th Century Frontier, largely focused on the region that would become eastern Tennessee. In the most recent episode, podcaster James Nelson ventures north of the Ohio River to take on one of the darkest blots on American history: the Gnadenhutten Massacre.
The Ohio Valley frontier of the late 18th Century saw a murderous tit-for-tat war of atrocity and retaliation. Border ruffians drunk on rum and racial hatred committed heinous crimes of rape and murder upon the Indians, and there was no effective law to stop them. Indians’ tribal concept of punishment led to reprisal attacks that did not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. Often as not, their tomahawks fell in revenge on some random, vulnerable settler or hunter who had done them no harm and committed no crime. Such attacks — to the settlers’ eyes unprovoked — stoked white rage and fed their perception of the Indians as murderous fiends.
In March 1782, Pennsylvania militia penetrated into the Ohio country and took over a village of peaceful Moravian Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten. Convinced that the villagers were providing aid and comfort to hostile tribesmen, the militiamen tomahawked and bludgeoned to death 96 men, women and children.
Nelson does an excellent job of sketching in the background of the Moravian mission and of describing the knife’s edge these people lived on — caught both culturally and geographically between warring peoples in a conflict that grew increasingly savage and deadly. As Nelson recounts, the British-allied Indians came close to killing the Moravians themselves.
The Gnadenhutten Massacre stands out among the litany of horrors that characterizes much of Frontier Partisan warfare because it was so extraordinarily cold-blooded, as you will hear Nelson recount. Perhaps the most soul-searing explication of the terrible cycle of violence on the frontier is found in the plaint of a militiaman who sought to slake his thirst for vengeance upon the Moravian 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.”