04 Nov The Wickedest Deed In Our History
The Wickedest Deed In Our History by William Dean Howells
The Wickedest Deed In Our History
The Indians despised the white men for what they thought their stupidity in warfare, when they stood up in the open to be shot at, as the soldiers who were sent against them mostly did, instead of taking to trees and hiding in tall grass and hollows of the ground, as the backwoodsmen learned to do. Smith tells us that when Tecaughretanego heard how Colonel Grant, in the second campaign against Fort Duquesne, outwitted the French and Indians by night and stole possession of a hill overlooking the post, he praised his craft as that of a true warrior; but as to his letting his pipers play at daybreak, and give the enemy notice of his presence, so that the Indians could take to trees and shoot his Highlanders down with no danger to themselves, he could only suppose that Colonel Grant had got drunk over night.
The savages respected the whites when they showed cunning, and they did not hate them the more for not showing mercy in fight; but we have seen how fiercely they resented the crime of horse stealing in Kenton’s case, though they were always stealing horses themselves from the settlers; and any deed of treachery against themselves they were eager and prompt to punish, though they were always doing such deeds against their enemies. Still, it is doubtful whether with all their malignity they were ever guilty of anything so abominable as the massacre of the Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten, by the Americans; and if there is record of any wickeder act in the history not only of Ohio, but of the whole United States, I do not know of it. The Spaniards may have outdone it in some of their dealings with the Indians, but I cannot call to mind any act of theirs that seems so black, so wholly without justice and without reason. It is no wonder that it embittered the hostilities between the red men and the white men and made the war, which outlasted our Revolution ten years, more and more unmerciful to the very end.
The missionaries of the Moravian Church were more successful than any others in converting the Indians, perhaps because they asked the most of them. They made them give up all the vices which the Indians knew were vices, and all the vices that the Indians thought were virtues when practiced outside of their tribe. They forbade them to lie, to steal, to kill; they taught them to wash themselves, to put on clothes, to work, and to earn their bread. Upon these hard terms they had congregations and villages in several parts of Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, which flourished for a time against the malice of the disorderly and lawless settlers around them, but which had yielded to the persecutions of white men and red men alike when, in 1771, the chiefs of the Delawares sent messages to the Moravians and invited them to come out and live among them in Ohio. The Lenni-lenape, as the Delawares called themselves, had left the East, where they were subject to the Iroquois, and they now had their chief towns on the Muskingum. Near the place where the Tuscarawas and Walhonding meet to form the Muskingum they offered lands to the Moravians, and in 1772 the Christian Indians left their last village in Western Pennsylvania and settled there at three points which they called Schoenbrun, the Beautiful Spring, Lichtenau, Field of Light, and Gnadenhutten, the Tents of Grace.
It was in the very heart of the Western wilderness, but the land was rich and the savages friendly, and in a few years the teachers and their followers had founded a fairer and happier home than they had known before, and had begun to spread their light around them. The Indians came from far and near to see their fields and orchards and gardens, with the houses in the midst of them, built of squared logs and set on streets branching to the four quarters from the chapel, which was the peaceful citadel of each little town. It must have seemed a stately edifice to their savage eyes, with its shingled roof, and its belfry, where, ten years before any white man had settled beyond the Ohio, the bell called the Christian Indians to prayer. No doubt the creature comforts of the Christians had their charm, too, for the hungry pagans. They were not used elsewhere to the hospitality that could set before them such repasts as one of the missionaries tells us were spread for the guest at Gnadenhutten. A table furnished with “good bread, meat, butter, cheese, milk, tea and coffee, and chocolate,” and such fruits and vegetables as the season afforded could hardly have been less wonderful in the Indian’s eyes than red men with their hair cut, and without paint or feathers, at work in the fields like squaws.
Their heathen neighbors began to come into the Moravians’ peaceful fold, and the three villages grew and flourished till the war broke out between the colonies and Great Britain. Then the troubles and sorrows of the Moravians, white and red, began again. They were too weak to keep the savage war parties from passing through their towns, and they dared not refuse them rest and food. The warriors began to come with the first leaves of spring, and they came and went till the first snows of autumn made their trail too plain for them to escape pursuit from the border. The Moravians did what they could to ransom their captives and to save them from torture when the warriors returned after their raids, but all their goodness did not avail them against the suspicion of the settlers. The backwoodsmen looked on them as the spies and allies of the savages, and the savages on their side believed them in league with the Americans.
The Delawares had promised the Moravian teachers that if they settled among them, the Delaware nation would take no part in the war, and the most of ‘them kept their promise. But some of the young men broke it, and the nation would not forbid the Wyandots from passing through their country to and from the Virginia frontier. It was true that the Moravians held thousands of Delaware warriors neutral, and that our American officers knew their great power for good among the Indians; but the backwoodsmen hated them as bitterly as they hated the Wyandots. Their war parties passed through the Christian villages, too, when they went and came on their forays beyond the Ohio, and at one time their leaders could hardly keep them from destroying a Moravian town, even while they were enjoying its hospitality.
This situation could not last. In August, 1781, a chief of the Hurons, called the Half King, came with a large body of Indians flying the English flag and accompanied by an English officer, to urge the Christians to remove to Sandusky, where they were told they could be safe from the Virginians. They refused, and then the Half King shot their cattle, plundered their fields and houses, and imprisoned their teachers, and at last forced them away. When the winter came on, the exiles began to suffer from cold and hunger, and many of their children died. To keep themselves and their little ones from starving, parties stole back from Sandusky throughout the winter to gather the corn left standing in the fields beside the Muskingum.
In March a larger party than usual returned to the deserted villages with a number of women and children, all unarmed, except for the guns that the men carried to shoot game. But in February the savages had fallen upon a lonely cabin and butchered all its inmates with more than common cruelty, and the whole border was ablaze with fury against the redskins, whether they called themselves Christians or not. A hundred and sixty backwoodsmen gathered at Mingo Bottom under the lead of Colonel David Williamson, who had once disgraced himself among them by preventing them from killing some Moravian prisoners, and who now seems to have been willing to atone for his humanity. They marched swiftly to the Muskingum, where they stole upon the Indians in the cornfields, and seized their guns. They told them at first that they were going to take them to Fort Pitt, and at the vote held to decide whether they should burn their prisoners alive or simply tomahawk and scalp them, there was really some question of their transfer to Pittsburg. This plan was favored by the leaders, and it is believed that if Colonel Williamson could have had his way, it would have been carried out. But there is no proof of this, and the rest, who were by no means the worst men of the border, but some of the best, voted by a large majority to kill their prisoners.
They gave them the night to prepare for death. One poor woman fell on her knees before Williamson and begged for her life, but the most of them seem to have submitted without a word. They spent the night in prayer and singing, and when their butchers sent at daybreak to know if they were ready, they answered that they had received the assurance of God’s peace. Then the murderers parted the women and children from the men and shut them up in another cabin, and the two cabins they fitly called the slaughterhouses. One of them found a cooper’s mallet in the cooper’s shop, where the men were left, and saying: “How exactly this will answer for the business,” he made his way through the kneeling ranks to one of the most fervent of the converts, and struck him down.
While the Indians still prayed and sang, he killed twelve more of them, and then passed the mallet to another butcher with the words: “My arm fails me. Go on in the same way. I think I have done pretty well.” Among the women and children the slaughter began with a very old and pious widow, and soon the sound of the singing and the praying was silenced in death.
The victims were scalped as they fell, and when the bloody work was done, the cabins were set on fire and the bodies burned in the burning buildings. Two boys who had been scalped with the rest feigned death, and when the murderers had left them they tried to escape. One stuck fast in the window and was burned, but the other got safely away and lived to tell the awful tale.
The backwoodsmen themselves seem not to have been ashamed of their work, though it is said that Williamson could never be got to speak of it. The event was so horrible that it killed the Moravians’ hopes of usefulness among the Ohio Indians. The teachers settled with the remnant of their converts in Canada, but the Christian Indians always longed for Gnadenhutten, where they had lived so happily, and where ninety-six of their brethren had suffered so innocently. Before the close of the century Congress confirmed the Delawares’ grant of the Muskingum lands to them, and they came back. But they could not survive the crime committed against them. The white settlers pressed close about them; the War of 1812 enkindled all the old hate against their race. Their laws were trampled upon and their own people were seen drunk in the streets.
Some of the Christians had fallen back into heathen savagery. One of these, who was found in a war party, painted and armed like the rest for a foray against the whites, said to a Christian brother: “I cannot but have bad thoughts of our teachers. I think it was their fault that so many of our countrymen were murdered in Gnadenhutten. They betrayed us…. Tell me now, is this the truth or not?” He had lost his children and all his kindred in that fearful carnage, and yet he could not believe his own accusations against the Moravians. He added mournfully: “I have now a wicked and malicious heart, and therefore my thoughts are evil. As I look outwardly, so is my heart within. What would it avail, if I were outwardly to appear as a believer, and my heart were full of evil?”