The Gnadenhutten Massacre of Christian Indians

The following is taken from The Whiskey Rebellion by Thomas P. Slaughter, 1986, by Oxford University Press:

The Pittsburgh militia was frustrated and angry in March 1782. Each year its members organized an expedition into the Ohio country to subdue hostile Indians, but seldom found the warriors who periodically swept down upon their homes. Even less frequently were they able to exact revenge for such acts as the recent murder and impaling Of a woman and child. Many understood the popular biblical allusion that portrayed all Indians as Canaanites. If the analogy were apt, it was their duty as Christians to wipe the heathens from the face of the earth and redeem the promised land for God's chosen race.

But what about the "Moravian" Indians on the Muskingum River? They were Christians and Indians. They dressed like white men, wore their hair like the white settlers, were an agricultural people, appeared pacific, intermarried with whites, and seemed to live moral lives. All the more reason to be suspicious, the frontiersmen reasoned. No doubt the missionized Indians were merely advance parties-spies-for the murderous savages who inhabited the wilderness. When it came to a contest of loyalties, the frontiersmen believed, you could always count on an Indian-Christian or heathen-to side with his racial brethren. Word of the militia's intentions to act on this line of thinking reached the Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten in early March. The Indians discredited the information. White men were their friends, co-religionists, and brothers in the eyes of God. Indian warriors supported by the British were the white men's real enemies. If the militia was marching toward the Muskingum, it must be to rest among friends before a more arduous journey into the Ohio Country.

On March 6 a party of about 160 whites appeared on the trail to Gnadenhutten. About a mile from the town they spotted a lone Indian walking toward them. They fired several shots at Joseph Shabosh, who fell to the ground with a broken arm. Shabosh did not try to escape, still assuming that the party had mistaken him for someone else. He told the men that he was the son of a white man, the missionary John Shabosh; that he was one of the Christian Indians living in the nearby village; and that he was their friend. Finally, Shabosh realized that the attack was no mistake. He begged for his life. A number of the whites seized young Shabosh and chopped him to pieces. Joseph's brother-in-law watched the entire episode from about 150 yards away, had time to warn the village of its danger, but fell into a state of shock and hid himself in the forest throughout the day and night.

Another Indian who may have witnessed the scene was murdered in his canoe. The militia moved on. Most of the Indians-men and women- were working in the cornfields. The whites hailed the laborers as their friends and brothers, told the Indians that they came to save them from the dangerous Indian allies of Great Britain, and to move them closer to their friends at Pittsburgh. The Indians were still not suspicious. They left their work and walked with the white men into the village. There the whites told the Indians to pack their belongings for the journey. A number of the frontiersmen moved on to the town of Salem, where they prepared the Indians of that town for the same trek to Pittsburgh. All were to rendezvous at Gnadenhutten. The Indians of both villages freely gave up their arms-guns, axes, and knives-to their "protectors." Once all the Indians of both villages had gathered at Gnadenhutten the trap was sprung. No longer did the militiamen commend the Indians as good Christian people. No longer were the Indians promised better homes, more teachers, and attractive churches nearer to their white friends. Now the militia called them "warriors," not Christians. Now the white men accused them of stealing all the horses found in the villages; contended that all their axes belonged to white people; and insisted that pewter basins and bowls, tea-kettles, cups and saucers, and pots found among their effects were stolen property as well. How did the whites know these items were pilfered? Someone had branded the horses with initials, a practice unknown to Indians. The axes had names written on them and Indians did not write on axes. Indians used wooden bowls and spoons, not pewter. In other words, the militiamen used all signs of the Indians' acculturation to a white world as evidence of their "Indianness"-their barbarity, duplicity, and general depravity. The fact that the Indians appeared more "civilized" by Anglo-American standards than the settlers themselves was an irony that perhaps had a profound inspirational effect upon the horror that followed. Clearly, the whites felt that racial characteristics transcended cultural or religious integration. The visitors announced their intentions to kill their Indian hosts. All Indians must die so the whites could claim the land and material goods that they believed were rightfully theirs. No amount of pleading could alter this logic. The Indians-about forty-two men, twenty women, and thirty-four children-became resigned to their fate and asked for a slight reprieve to prepare their souls. Their captors granted the request and the Indians knelt down and joined together in communal prayers. The whites withdrew to consider the manner of execution. Some suggested burning the Indians alive in their homes. Others favored death by scalping. A final group expressed some doubt about the enterprise. Perhaps it would be wiser to take the Indians as prisoners or even to let them go.

When the militiamen returned with their verdict, one of death by bludgeoning and scalping, the Indians were singing hymns. The whites separated their victims into two groups-men in one, women and children in the other-and led them to the huts or "slaughterhouses" where they would die. In no case did the captives resist. One woman named Christiana fell to her knees before the militia captain and begged for her life. He assured her that the situation was out of his control. The others went to their deaths, bound in pairs, without a word of protest. Christian education had prepared these devout people to suffer martyrdom passively.

A man named Abraham was the first to fall at the blow of a cooper's mallet found in the execution hut. The first woman to die was Judith, an elderly widow. The same pioneer who felled Abraham dealt apparent death-blows to about thirteen others before his arms wearied. All ninety- six Indians were scalped, many while they were still alive. Frenzied whites mangled some bodies with hatchets.

Of the approximately one hundred people in the two villages only four survived. One was John, the man who witnessed the murder of Joseph Shabosh and hid in the woods. An eight-year-old boy named Benjamin was adopted by a member of the militia. Two other youths escaped from their executioners. Thomas was about fifteen years of age and was, therefore, brought to the men's execution hut. He was beaten on the head, scalped, and left for dead. Regaining consciousness, he feigned death and thus narrowly avoided the executioners who returned to admire their handiwork. At dusk he crept over the dead bodies to the door of the hut and then into the forest. Another boy escaped from the women's execution hut by raising a plank used as a trap-door and hiding in the cellar. He waited there, amid the blood streaming through the floor, until dark, when he left his hiding place and climbed through a window in the hut. Another youth, who was with him in the cellar, could not fit through the window and was burned alive the next morning when the militia set fire to the "slaughterhouses." The two escaped boys saved the village of Schoenbrunn by warning the inhabitants of impending doom before the militia arrived.

Some of the dead Indians had been among those protected by the Pennsylvania government from the Paxton Boys during 1763 and 1764. Some of the militianmen participating in the massacre had been Paxton Boys. Later, others would be Whiskey Rebels as well. Not everyone in the region endorsed the slaughter of peaceful Christian Indians, but there was little protest. The force of communal values endorsing these events was too strong to resist. Indeed, no apologies for the massacre ever emerged from the West. Reports of the murders scandalized some eastern politicians, but the perpetrators were never punished. Laws of the states and nation certainly did not extend to the protection of Indians on the frontier, at least not in 1782.

Bradford House Main Menu
Back to the Whiskey Rebellion