Michigan Historical Collections. Collections and researches made by the Michigan pioneer and historical society ... Reprinted by authority of the Board of state auditors. Volume 10 1900-13

History of the Moravian Settlement

One of the most obscure episodes in the annals of the northwest, so little noted that Judge Cooley's recent history of Michigan (in the "American Commonwealth," series) has not the least reference to it, is, yet fraught with the highest interest to the reader of heroic and daring deeds, undertaken for civilization and christianity. It illustrates grandly the devotion, courage, endurance, and missionary enterprise of the Moravian brethren, who, next to the indefatigable "black robes" were the first emissaries for Christ among the savages of the new world. TheUnitas Fratrum, otherwise called the Moravian or Bohemian brethren, trace their origin back of the Reformation to the time of John Huss. Early in the last century his disciples were expelled from Bohemia and Moravia by their fierce persecutors. Among their sympathizers in the neighboring state of Saxony was the noble Nicholaus Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf, the youthful son of a Saxon minister of state, and already eminent for his piety. He admitted a small party of the Hussites to reside upon his estate, organized them and the refugees and converts who joined them in considerable numbers into a church, and so became the founder of the Moravian brotherhood. Beginning to preach the gospel he presently devoted his entire property and energies to the propagation of the faith. In 1736 he was banished from Saxony, and five years later came to America and established the Moravian church at Bethlehem, Pa., where its chief seat in this country still remains. After nearly twenty years' service among the savages and the people of his native land, to which he was allowed to return, he died upon his ancestral estate, May 9, 1760. He left more than 100 works of his authorship in prose and verse, some of which, used as hymn books by the pious Moravians, are said to be characterized remarkably by indecent figures and allusions.

No christian church, nor even the Roman Catholic, has been more distinguished for zealous missionary spirit in the face of tremendous difficultiesthan the Moravian. From the Cape of Good Hope to Labrador and Greenland, and from the steppes of Asiatic Russia to the deep forests of the new worlad, their mission stations have been planted with astonishing success. From Bethlehem the missions, principally among the Delaware Indians, were pushed rapidly westward into the tangled wilderness, during the latter half of the eighteenth century, until in 1771 they paused for a time in the fertile valleys of the Tuscarawas and the Muskingum. Here were founded stations of some permanence, bearing the beautiful names of Schonbrunn, "The Shining Spring;" Lichtenau, "The Pasture of Light;" Salem, "Peace." and Gnadenhutten. "The Tents of Grace." The last was a favorite designation among the Moravians, no fewer than five of their American stations bearing it, including that founded in Michigan.

In the Ohio country the founder and continuing head of the mission was the Rev. David Zeisberger, for sixty two years a most devoted and energetic servant of the church among the aborigines. He was born at the hamlet of Zauchtenthal, Moravia, April 11, 1721, and ended a career of great usefulness in his 88th year, at Goshen, in the Tuscarawas valley. He was the founder of New Gnadenhutten, near Mr. Clemens, Mich., and thus has place among the heroes of our state history. His biographer, Bishop de Schweinitz, describes him as of small figure, but well proportioned; his face pleasing and cheerful, but seamed by endless care and the exposures of his long life among the savages; his dress neat and plain. He had become taciturn as an Indian, and often spoke in terms rather befitting the council house than a christian church. This quality proved of eminent service to the patriot cause at a Critical period of the revolution, and there was one eventful moment when the single voice of Zeisberger, pleading successfully before the council of Delaware braves against alliance with the British, possibly saved American independence. He had been adopted into the tribe of the Onondagas by a name signifying "On the Pumpkin," and had great influence with most of the tribes which he encountered.

Upon the low bluff on the south side of the Clinton river (a century ago called the Huron), a little outside the southwest corner of the corporation of Mr. Clemens, and only twenty miles from Detroit, a slight depression in the open field a few rods from the residence of Mr. Henry E. Steevens, and perhaps a few aged fruit trees, are the only visible memorials of the Moravian occupation in Michigan. The history of the events precedent to the settlement, of the settlement itself in July, 1782, and its abandonment four years after, has many points of interest, but must be briefly told in these columns. Fortunately for our narrative, however, as well as for the future historian, new and important light is now thrown upon the record by the recent translation and publication in two goodly octavo volumes, of the diary of Zeisberger, which has lain in the original German and in manuscript for nearly a hundred years. With the invaluable aid of this the story is newly compiled.

During the revolutionary struggle the Delaware nation had suffered terribly from both sides for their persistent neutrality. The christian Indians in the river valleys of Ohio lived directly upon the war path traversed by the Wyandottes and other tribes in alliance with the British, and the hardy borderers of Pennsylvania and Virginia; and so were between two fires. In the fall of 1781, under orders from Detroit, the British headquarters in the northwest, they were forcibly deported from their peaceful and prosperous villages and left utterly destitute upon the Sandusky plains, from which they were forbidden to return. A winter of awful cold and hunger had been passed in a wretched cluster of huts a few miles below the present Upper Sandusky, and when, in March following, a hundred of the miserable exiles had been allowed to go back to their towns to gather the standing corn, they were seized, brutally murdered and scalped by a party of frontiersmen, who wrongly held them responsible for some of the fresh atrocities in the settlements. The feeble remainder had been peeled and plundered, persecuted and threatened, scattered like partridges upon the mountains. Zeisberger and his pious associates were stripped of even the clothes they wore; and several months after, when summoned to Detroit, they were still in a state of abject raggedness and destitution.

It was in October, 1781, that the British commandant at Detroit, Major De Peyster, of generally happy memory, sent for the missionaries in Ohio to answer before him the charges made against them of sympathy and complicity with the American cause. The summons was answered by Zeisberger, Heckewelder, Sensemann, and Edwards, with five of the christian Delawares, The second of these, although not so long in the service as Zeisberger, became the most famous of the Moravians in America, partly by his writings on the Indians, which are still highly esteemed, and partly from his superior qualities. The historian Hildreth says: "In disposition he was like the Apostle John, while his companion, Zeisberger, partook of the spirit of St. Paul." He was English born, but son of a German refugee, and died at Bethlehem Jan. 31, 1823, aged 80 years. Although much associated with Zeisberger in Ohio and elsewhere, he was not a founder of the mission on the Clinton, but several times visited and labored there, and should have honorable mention in the story of its brief career.

The little party was but poorly equipped for the journey to Detroit, and had a painful time struggling on horseback through "the deep swamps and troublesome waters" of northwestern Ohio. Somewhere near the present site of Toledo Zeisberger records: "We met today, as indeed every day as far as Detroit, a multitude of Indians of various nations, who were all bringing from Detroit horse loads of wares and gifts, and in such number that one would think they must have emptied all Detroit." Arriving at the River Rouge, which he calls the "Rush," they could not get over for want of a boat, and "had to pass the night three miles from the city, under the open heaven, but had nothing more to eat. We could see very plainly," he adds, "the city and the whole country round about, on both sides the river, which is about a mile wide." The next day they crossed in a canoe, and "came at once to Detroit, after we had first passed through the settlement this side of the city, which is thinly settled, and is built like a village along the river." They were at first rather cavalierly received by De Peyster, but after considerable detention and much questioning, were fairly vindicated, when his demeanor changed, they were kindly treated and allowed to return to their Indians on the Sandusky. Zeisberger's diary, however, does not quite bear out the tale usually told of absolutely cruel and oppressive treatment accorded them there. He speaks always well of De Peyster, to whom the mission on the Clinton was afterwards much indebted. His notes of the visit and of a brief residence here the next year, awaiting the arrival of the christian Indians, include many interesting memoranda of the Detroit of more than a century ago. A minor problem of local history is solved by his mention of "Yankee hall," a building near the fort, so called from the occupation by the American prisoners brought in by the Indians. This has heretofore been known in our local literature only by the corrupted name of "Jakey hall." Mention is madeof "the palisades in the shipyard," which lay near the foot of Woodward avenue. Long afterwards, upon a Lake Erie island, Zeisberger observed "much red cedar timber," quantities of which were taken to Detroit for ship building. The "upper end of Germantown," a locality in or near Detroit, not yet identified, was the scene of the baptism of four children by the missionary.

The missionaries received a fraternal call from the French priest (Father Peter Simple), "quite an old man, with whom, however, we could not speak, for he knew no English." In various parts of the diary, Detroit morals receive but doubtful compliments, as the following: "It is wonderful here, and pleasant, if any one is found who shows a desire for God's word, for the place here is like Sodom, where all sins are committed." The merchants reported of the christian Indians "that they have paid their debts to the last penny, saying it could well enough be seen that they were an honorable people, and better than all the inhabitants around Detroit, who do not like to pay their debts, and add thereto." Many well known or totally unknown citizens of Detroit at that time come into the narrative, as Elias Schmidt (baptized by Zeisberger, June 23, 1782), Isaac Williams, the Indian trader, and his companion, Cassedy "Homes" and his wife, "some gentle people," who went in sleighs over the ice on the lake to visit the mission, McKee and Elliot, the famous (or infamous) British agents and traders, a "merchant from Detroit," who had his two children baptized respectively John and Mary, and others. "A man by the name of Halse" was found living near the mouth of the Detroit river, whose child Heckewelder baptized. Baptisms had been conducted here, it seems, with considerable looseness: "As there is no ordained preacher of the Protestant church in Detroit, the justice baptizes the children also, or the commandant, if it be asked of him; but to many this is not satisfactory, and they are scrupulous about it." Hence the Moravians are often resorted to for this ordinance, and occasionally for marriage.

A period of great scarcity of food in Detroit is noticed July 18, 1784. One of the Indians had just returned to the mission and reported "nothing to be had for cash. With his own eyes he saw a Spanish dollar offered a baker for a pound of bread and refused. A hundred weight of flour costs £7 13s, and is not to be had." At another time, the same summer, two Frenchmen from Detroit brought word that "in the settlement there is a very bad outlook. They said that most people there had no bread and lived from the weeds they cooked and eat."

March 1, 1782, another summons was received by Zeisberger and his companions on the Sandusky, this time that "the teachers and their families" should be brought to Detroit. It was now the intention of De Peyster, whose mind had again been poisoned by the Wyandottes, to keep the missionaries here or send them away to Bethlehem; but after a time he consented that they should found a new mission station in the vicinity of Detroit, and send for their christian Indians. Under the depressing influences of another removal, but particularly of the horrible massacre of their brethren and sisters on the 7th and 8th of March, in the Tuscarawas valley, the Delawares slowly arrived, and on the 20th of July Zeisberger and John G. Jungmann, with their wives, Wm. Edwards and Michael Young, who were unmarried, and four Indian families, in all but twenty five persons, set out in a sail boat for the Clinton river, on whose banks, at the site already indicated, a small tract for a mission had been procured from the Chippewas. "Three miles from the city we came to an island where we took aboard our two pilots, who were to conduct us to the appointed place." It was evening of the next day before the devious windings of the little river had been traversed for a few miles, and the destined point reached. Here, among much excellent forest, the diarist noted "wild cherry trees, which had a fine red wood, of which in Detroit the most beautiful cabinet work is made." The place was evidently the site of an old Indian town, of which many "corn holes" and other indications were observed.

Religious services were held the same evening around the bivouac fire, for which the Moravian text of the day seemed specially fitting: "For ye shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace." Tents were pitched, but in a few days huts were erected, which in due time became substantial cabins. Only two rows were built, one on each side of a street, "full four rods wide," each lot having a front of three rods or fifty feet, very nearly. Accounts vary as to the number ultimately erected, from twenty to thirty. A rude chapel, not much larger than the other buildings, was first occupied on the 5th of November. There was no blockhouse or stockade, but the little church was slightly fortified.

This Moravian station appears to have existed during several months of its short life, without a name. It is not mentioned by Zeisberger by the favorite name of Gnadenhutten until Sept. 4, 1783, and it was not until Loskiel wrote his history of the Moravian missions that it received the designation by which it has since been known as New Gnadenhutten. The settlement was founded under auspices that well entitled it to be called "Tents of Grace." Everybody at first was kind. Major De Peyster had supplied the infant colony with unusual liberality. "He said," Zeisberger wrote, "we must not think he had put us where we must suffer want; he wished to supply both us and our Indians with food until we ourselves had a harvest and could supply ourselves." In a single issue from the government stores he provisioned the colony for six months. Shortly after this De Peyster was superseded by "the Lord George Hay," as Zeisberger in his simplicity calls him, who was also favorable to the mission, and showed it many kindnesses. The diary enables us to fix almost to a day the time of Governor Hay's death, which occurerd here, since by these memoranda he was buried Aug. 2, 1785.

The merchants of Detroit were similiarly hospitable. "When we came into the city we were welcomed everywhere, people were glad to see us, gave us good wishes and showed themselves serviceable to us. There were some people who offered us on credit or upon payment to provide our Indians for fishing, with flour, corn and all materials in the winter when the lakes were frozen--an important matter for us, and one that always interested us." Hunting and fishing in the vicinity of the village were excellent, and the second summer their humble crops began to be available. The characteristic feebleness of Indian agriculture, however, had not greatly improved under the influence of the missionaries, and but twenty five to thirty acres had been improved when the station was broken up.

Besides their modest husbandry, the hunting and fishing, sugar making in the season, and frequent religions service at all times of the year, the Indians made canoes, baskets, brooms, bowls, ladles and other simple articles, for which ready market was found in Detroit. A salt lick was found somewhere in the back country, from which the Indians returned, "having boiled a good lot of excellent salt, which is just the thing for them, salt being here a scarce thing." In the spring of 1783 "some Indian brethren went to the mouth of the river to help block out his house for a white man, who wishes to settle there and invited them "the first note, we believe, of civilized settlement in Macomb county, elsewhere than at New Gnadenhutten. As before hinted, visits of Detroiters to the mission were frequent.

December 19, 1785, some of the Indian brethren went "to lay out and make a new and straight road to Detroit." This, when finished, became the famous "Moravian road," the first wagonway made in the interior of Michigan. It was "twenty three and one half miles from our town to Detroit, straight through the bush."

The annals of the four years at New Gnadenhutten are comparatively uneventful. The winter of 1783--4 was terribly severe. The "gentle people" from Detroit who visited the station January 10th, "simply to see our town." reported "that by the thermometer it has not been so cold for twenty eight years as it is now, it being seven degrees lower than in the whole time." On the 24th. Zeisberger makes entry: "This week it snowed several days in succession, and the snow was now three feet deep, so that it was hard to get firewood." And a few, days later: "It has snowed nearly every day, and the snow gets ever deeper. Our Indian brethren, about whom we are most anxious, and distressed, have many of them, nothing more to eat.

No one had thought there would be such a winter. Old settlers in Detroit say that as long as they have lived there the snow has never been so deep." Within three days, however, by the help of snow shoes, more than a hundred deer were shot, which removed all the present fear of famine. But the streams were frozen hard, and out upon the lake, a mile from the shore, the ice was three feet two inches thick, and did not go out till May. The snow was finally five feet deep, and remained till late in the spring. Most of the season was spent in a struggle for comfort, if not for life.

The mission grew only by natural increase and the immigration of christian Delawares formerly in Zeisberger's flock. It was started, we have seen, with but nineteen Indian souls, including children. On Christmas, 1782, he writes: "There were together fifty three of us, white and brown." Many of the converts came from the Shawanese towns in Ohio the next May, and in his last entry for the year he says: "Twenty six brethern have this year been absolved and sixteen reädmitted to the holy communion." Natural increase in 1783 did not quite keep pace with death--five against six. Among the births was Susanna, daughter of Richard Conner, born Dec. 16th, and baptized the Sunday following.

But one new communicant was received in 1784. one woman baptized, eight children born, three couples married, two adults died. At the end of 1785, the last entire year spent at New Gnadenhutten, Zeisberger was able to record only the baptism of two adult women and two girls, as many persons admitted to the communion, one child dead during the year. "The inhabitants here on the Huron [Clinton] river are 117 Indian souls." There were probably no more when the removal occurred, less than four months afterwards.

No impression whatever had been made upon the heathen Chippewas, none of whose villages were in their vicinity. Friendly relations were maintained, and there is no account of Indian alarm at the settlement, a remarkable thing for a pioneer town. But when the Chippewas heard that the war of the revolution had closed, and the chief claiming the land on the river had died, they began to suggest the removal of the mission whose heads were formally warned by a deputation of the heathen in the middle or January, 1786. A few weeks afterwards they were advised by the governor of Detroit to comply with the wishes of those whose hospitality they had so far peacefully enjoyed and on Thursday, the 20th of April, the congregation betook itself to the chapel for the last time, and, after solemn service of thanksgiving, loaded their canoes, and in the afternoon paddled sorrowfully down the river. At Detroit they took two sailing vessels for the Cuyahoga, upon whose banks they settled in poor shape for a time, and, after some further wanderings, a remnant of them finally located at Fairfield, a few miles beyond Chatham, Canada, and near the battle field of the Thames, where Tecumseh was killed. Their improvements on the Clinton were purchased by Maj. Ancrum, the British commandant at Detroit, and John Askin, the trader, for a total sum of $450. Some of the cabins were occupied by tenants for a number of years, but all long since disappeared, leaving no trace except the cellar of Richard Conner, indicated near the beginning of this narrative.

"None of us all remained behind," says Zeisberger, "save Conner's family, who himself knew not whether to go nor what to do." He was the sole Moravian layman who had been allowed to settle there. Richard Conner (originally O'Conner) was a native of Ireland, but had migrated from Maryland to the wilderness west and married a white girl who had been a captive among the Shawanese. After Lord Dunmore's campaign against the Ohio Indians (1764), they settled in Pittsburg, but went to the Moravian town of Schonbrunn to seek their son, who was now himself a captive. Here they so commended themselves that, against Moravian usage, they were permitted to remain. June 14, 1782, they followed the missionaries to Detroit in a ship from Sandusky "on account of the unrest caused by war," but did not go to the mission till the last of March, 1783. The rest of Conner's life was spent at the Moravian site, where he died April 17, 1808. He left four sons, James, John, William, and Henry, who became somewhat notable in the pioneer days of eastern Michigan, and are well remembered by a few of the old citizens of Detroit. The last named, called Wah-be-sken-dip by the Indians, was renowned for his great strength, and was a superior interpreter and trader among the savages. He fought with Harrison in the battle of the Thames, and was present at the death of Tecumseh. Richard Conner's only daughter, Susanna, was born at the mission Dec. 16, 1837, the first child of white parents born within the limits of the present Macomb county. She married the late Judge Elisha Harrington, whose farm covered the site of the old mission. A part of the tract was subdivided in 1837, during the internal improvement mania, to form the village at the beginning of the, Clinton & Kalamazoo canal, at first called Casino, but later known as Frederick. A few ruinous houses are all that now remain of it.--Detroit Tribune.

Contributed to our site byDavid Thomason
and we thank him for it!

Return to Macomb County