During the second half of the 18th century, David Zeisberger was the best known and arguably the most successful Moravian missionary in North America. As witness to remarkable events in both the Moravian Church and American history, Brother David devoted the last six decades of his life to spreading the Gospel and serving his Native American brothers and sisters in Christ. Between 1749, when he was ordained a deacon at Bethlehem in colonial Pennsylvania, and his death in 1808 at Goshen in the State of Ohio, Zeisberger established no less than 16 missions across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Ontario. Along the way he did more to document Native languages, record traditions and promote racial equality than perhaps any person of his time. The shining star of his achievements was a little village called Schoenbrunn, near a big spring, deep in the forest of the Ohio Country.
In the early twentieth century, residents of the Tuscarawas Valley of Ohio began to discuss ways to honor the missionaries and converts who had once lived there. Because the mission village of Schoenbrunn had included the first church and school buildings west of the Allegheny Mountains, reconstructing these and other village buildings seemed an appropriate monument to their memory. At that time, the Rev. Joseph E. Weinland was pastor of the Dover First Moravian Church and also president of the Tuscarawas County Historical Association. He was instrumental in research, planning and raising money for the project.
Although Schoenbrunn mission once contained over 60 buildings, by the 1920s, its location had been lost; the passage of more than 140 years and extensive farming had erased all signs that it had ever existed. Finding the site required exhaustive research at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem; many documents were studied including maps, letters and the original mission diaries written by Zeisberger while living at Schoenbrunn. Finally, after archeological excavations, the sites of the church, school and graveyard were located and the first reconstructed cabin was completed in June of 1927.
Today, Schoenbrunn Village Historic Site contains 16 reconstructed buildings, including the mission house and school. A visitor’s center with museum is at the entrance to the village. Volunteers, serving as guides and costumed interpreters, explain daily life and the importance of the missions in American history. The village has seasonal hours along with a number of special events throughout the year. These include Children’s Day, a Colonial Trade Faire and two Lantern Tours. Each year the county Moravians hold two special events for the community, a lovefeast and candlelight service during Advent and an Easter Sunrise Service, complete with a Brass Choir.
Millie and Seth are also cousins who volunteer as costumed docents at Historic Schoenbrunn Village.
We share their perspective on David Zeisberger, his deeds and his impact on early America and the Moravian Church here.
About David Zeisberger
David Zeisberger was born on Good Friday morning, April 11, 1721, in Zauchtenthal, Moravia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. When he was only five years old, his parents quietly took David and his infant sister across the Carpathian Mountains into Saxony to escape religious persecution. There, they joined other Protestant exiles on the land of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. The Zeisberger family was living in Herrnhut at the birth of the Renewed Brethren’s or Moravian Church, on August 13, 1727.
During 1736, when his parents traveled to America as missionaries in the English colony of Georgia, young David was sent to Holland to continue his education. Conditions were harsh, so Zeisberger and another teenager decided to run away; after traveling to England, David booked passage to America and rejoined his parents.
Britain and Spain were at war at this time and the conflict had spread to Georgia and the neighboring Spanish colony of Florida. The Moravians were caught in the struggle; as pacifists they refused to enroll in the colonial militia and were forced to abandon their mission work.
David, his parents and a few other Moravians migrated to Pennsylvania. Initially the group settled near present-day Nazareth before relocating to the banks of the Lehigh River at Monocacy Creek in the settlement that would become Bethlehem.
Throughout the remainder of the 1740s Zeisberger prepared for his calling as a missionary among the Indians. He studied native language, served as a mission assistant where needed and learned the traditions of the tribes along the frontier. In 1749, Brother David was ordained a deacon and received his first assignment as senior missionary at the Delaware town of Shamokin.
Over the next two decades Zeisberger established a series of missions with the Delaware. The converts included some of the most influential Delaware leaders of their day.
The Pennsylvania frontier was a very dangerous place during this time; the French and Indian War was quickly followed by Pontiac’s Uprising and many settlers lost their lives to war parties. David himself narrowly escaped death in 1755 when French allied warriors attacked and killed eleven converts and missionaries at Gnadenhutten mission near present day Lehighton, Pennsylvania. As time went on, the Moravian missions in Pennsylvania faced danger not only from other tribes, but also from whites in nearby towns and villages. Years of frontier raids led settlers to distrust all Indians, often taking revenge with little concern over guilt or innocence. Zeisberger realized that only moving the missions far from other settlements could bring a measure of safety.
In 1771, Netawatwees, the head chief of the Delaware, offered Zeisberger land in the Ohio Country to relocate the missions. The chief had long been a friend of the mission work, seeing that the missions benefited his people; he also saw the need to move them to a more secure area. The land, along the Tuscarawas branch of the Muskingum River, was near the Delaware capital at present day Newcomerstown, Ohio. There, deep within the wilderness and in the heart of the Delaware homeland, they could find safety.
In 1772, after much prayerful discussion, the missions began moving to the Ohio Country. On May 3, 1772, David Zeisberger, John Heckewelder and five Delaware families arrived at a big spring along the banks of the Upper Muskingum; the place was known as Wilhik-Thupeek by the Delaware. This spot, which had been suggested by Netawatwees, would be called Schoenbrunn (beautiful spring) in German.
The first of many to follow, this small group had traveled nearly 350 miles from Friedenshutten on the Susquehanna. Temporary shelters were constructed, fields were marked out and cleared and crops were soon in the ground. The converts next turned to building. A church and a school, the first in what would become Ohio, were closely followed by permanent cabins. The village was laid out in regular lots with two main streets in the form of a tee. The church and school were at the intersection of the streets, with missionary cabins adjacent and other homes beyond. As with previous missions, Schoenbrunn was governed by the missionaries and a National Helpers Conference.
During October of that year, another mission was begun about eight miles downstream. This village, which was led by a convert and helper named Joshua, Sr., was for Mahican converts and was called Gnadenhutten in memory of the earlier mission in Pennsylvania. As the two villages continued to grow, additional “teachers” came to serve the congregations. Missionary couples like the Jungmanns and Rothes were assisted by national helpers in the villages. These included Nathanial Davis, John Papunhank, Esther, Anton and Isaac Glikhikan. Young John Heckewelder served as Ohio’s first school teacher at Schoenbrunn. True to Moravian tradition, the school served both boys and girls.
The Ohio missions grew quickly, adding new converts and reaching a combined population of over 400 just as the first shots of rebellion echoed in 1775 at Lexington and Concord. Unfortunately, their location between the British in Detroit and the Americans at Fort Pitt brought both trials and tragedy to the Moravians. This turbulent time saw Schoenbrunn abandoned while new missions were established at Lichtenau and Salem.
Late in 1781, the British forced the missions to relocate closer to Detroit. This was followed by charges that the missionaries had supported the Revolution. While Zeisberger and the others prepared for trial at Detroit, a group of converts returned to collect food at Gnadenhutten. The converts were taken prisoner by a Pennsylvania militia and accused of supporting British allied raiding parties. A mock tribunal found them guilty and sentenced them to death. The Moravian converts sang hymns and prayed throughout the night; at dawn, the militia brutally murdered 96 innocent men, women and children.
Cleared of the treason charges, David would collect his scattered flock and go on to guide the Moravian Delaware for the next quarter century. Finally, he returned to the Tuscarawas Valley and ended his travels at Goshen. There, in the graveyard of his final mission, Brother David rests surrounded by some of his most beloved Delaware brothers and sisters.
David Zeisberger and John Heckewelder kept detailed diaries which captured current events, cultural details and even observations about local plants and wildlife. These journals allow us a rare glimpse beyond the frontier during the second half of the 18th century as well as a window on life in early Moravian missions. In addition, Zeisberger compiled a dictionary of the Delaware oral language. This book, which documented the language for the first time in written form, is still in use today.
The Moravian mission work in Ohio is an often-ignored part of American history; the Tuscarawas Valley has many sites and activities that allow us to connect with these important events. Ohio’s oldest outdoor drama, “Trumpet in the Land,” is a theatrical retelling of the Ohio mission story. Schoenbrunn Village and Gnadenhutten Historic Park allow us to walk the very ground where the missions experienced both great success and unspeakable tragedy.
Ohio’s Tuscarawas Valley is a very important part of our Moravian Heritage. ■
This article is a collaborative effort of Millie Weston, Schoenbrunn Community Moravian CHurch and Seth Angel, Fry’s Valley Moravian Church. Millie and Seth are cousins who volunteer as costumed docents at Historic Schoenbrunn Village. Schoenbrunn phots by Seth; historical images courtesy of the Northern Province Archives, used with permission.