1782: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

3 comments March 8th, 2014 Headsman

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 William Henry Harrison in 1810

This date in 1782 marks one of the more appalling single atrocities in the United States’s long destruction of indigenous Native Americans — the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.

After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:

  • Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
  • Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.

European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.

By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*


Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.

Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).

The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.

In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.

As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.

Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.

Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.

The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.

Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.

After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.

Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.

one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & 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. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)

Ah, Crawford’s campaign.

Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.

This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.


“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782”: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.

* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier’: The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).

** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.

† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ohio,Put to the Sword,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1782: William Crawford, expeditioneer

2 comments June 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1782, Col. William Crawford was burned to death by Delaware Indians after being captured leading a punitive expedition to Ohio’s Sandusky River.

Originally an Atlantic coast peoples — “Manhattan” is a Delaware word, although “Delaware” itself isn’t — the Delawares or Lenape had with other native peoples removed to an Ohio territory supposed to be reserved against white settlement. It was the fruit of a deal that kept them on the British side (or at least, off the French side) in the Seven Years’ War.

But staying out of it would be a nonstarter during the American Revolution, because said territory was situated right between the British in Detroit and the westward American settlements in the Ohio Valley. Our man William Crawford was on hand to sign the colonists’ 1778 Treaty of Fort Pitt making nice with the Delawares: it’s the first written treaty between the United States and any Native Americans, and like most of that genre it didn’t last long.

The Delawares were okay with letting colonists march through their territory to attack Detroit, but when the U.S. pushed for them to get into the fight themselves — and when frontiersman murdered the pro-neutrality chief — it pushed many Delawares over to the British side. Opinion among their neighbors, the Shawnee, Wyandot and Mingo, likewise tended to range from “hoping to stay out of it” to “allying with the British,” and the latter sentiment was further encouraged by a kindling sentiment among peoples all along the frontier that uniting their efforts was their only hope of holding back imminent Anglo expansion.

Back east, the colonists beat the British at Yorktown in October 1781, more or less clinching independence. Hostilities around the eastern seaboard settled down in the run-up to the war’s formal diplomatic conclusion in 1783.

“Quite otherwise,” said M.M. Quaife in a 1930 address to Ohio’s Wittenberg College* “was the situation west of the Alleghenies. In this area the war was prosecuted with increased vigor and fury throughout 1782, which thereafter acquired the significant designation, the Bloody Year.” It was not a clean fight by any party.

In March of 1782, an expedition by colonials hunting settler-killing Indian raiders resulted in the Gnadenhütten massacre, the wholesale butchery of a settlement of noncombatant Delawares — Christian converts, no less.

In May of that same year, finding Indian raids not deterred, the Crawford Expedition finally set out: a party of officially-blessed volunteer frontiersmen whose object was “to destroy with fire and sword (if practicable) the [Delaware] Indian town and settlement at Sandusky, by which we hope to give ease and safety to the inhabitants of this country; but, if impracticable, then you will doubtless perform such other services in your power as will, in their consequences, have a tendency to answer this great end.” (General William Irvine)

Crawford had come out of retirement for this great end. And he made out his will before he departed.

The expedition came to grief within days, as an attempt to fall back by nightfall from a spot called Battle Island (actually a copse of trees in an open space, not an island in a river) deteriorated into a disordered rout. And though most of the expedition was able to flee safely back to their point of departure, Crawford himself and a few subalterns became separated, and lost.

When Indians picked them up, with Gnadenhütten still on their minds … well, Crawford made out that will for a reason. Most of the lesser prisoners were simply tomahawked and disposed of, but Crawford and a Dr. John Knight were reserved for more fearful treatment.

Knight — who would escape before his own execution — left this blood-chilling description** of his compatriot’s end, under the eyes of the British agent Simon Girty. (Knight later also composed a ballad about the expedition.†)

When we went to the fire the colonel was stripped naked, ordered to sit down by the fire, and then they beat him with sticks and their fists. Presently after I was treated in the same manner. They then tied a rope to the foot of a post about fifteen feet high, bound the colonel’s hands behind his back and fastened the rope to the ligature between his wrists. The rope was long enough for him to sit down or walk round the post once or twice, and return the same way. The colonel then called to Girty, and asked if they intended to burn him? Girty answered, “Yes.” The colonel said he would take it all patiently. Upon this Captain Pipe, a Delaware chief, mae a speech to the Indians, viz., about thirty or forty men, sixty or seventy squaws and boys.

When the speech was finished they all yelled a hideous and hearty assent to what had been said. The Indian men then took up their guns and shot powder into the Colonel’s body, from his feet as far up as his neck. I think not less than seventy loads were discharged upon his naked body. They then crowded about him, and to the best of my observation, cut off his ears; when the throng had dispersed a little, I saw the blood running from both sides of his head in consequence thereof.

The fire was about six or seven yards from the post to which the Colonel was tied; it was made of small hickory poles, burnt quite through in the middle, each end of the poles remaining about six feet in length. Three or four Indians by turns would take up, individually one of these burning pieces of wood and apply it to his naked body, already burnt black with the powder These tormentors presented themselves on every side of him with the burning fagots and poles. Some of the squaws took broad boards, upon which they would carry a quantity of burning coals and hot embers and throw on him, so that in short time he had nothing but coals of fire and hot ashes to walk upon.

In the midst of these extreme tortures he called to Simon Girty and begged of him to shoot him; but Girty making no answer, he called to him again. Girty then, by way of derision, told the colonel he had no gun, at the same time turning about to an Indian who was behind him, laughed heartily, and by all his gestures seemed delighted at the horrid scene.

Girty then came up and bade me prepare for death. He said, however, I was not to die at that place, but to be burnt by the Shawanese towns. He swore by G-d I need not expect to escape death, but should suffer it in all its extremities …

Col. Crawford, at this period of his sufferings, besought the Almighty to have mercy on hi soul, spoke very low, and bore his torments with the most manly fortitude. He continued in all the extremities of pain for an hour and three-quarters or two hours longer, as near as I can judge, when at last, being almost exhausted, he lay down on his belly; they then scalped him, and repeatedly threw the scalp in my face, telling me that “that was my great captain.” An old squaw (whose appearance every way answered the ideas people entertain of the devil) got a board, took a parcel of coals and ashes and laid them on his back and head, after he had been scalped; he then raised himself upon his feet and began to walk round the post; they next put a burning stick to him, as usual, but he seemed more insensible to pain than before.

The Indian fellow who ha me in charge now took me away to Capt. Pipe’s house, about three-quarters of a mile from the place of the colonel’s execution. I was bound all night, and thus prevented from seeing the last of the horrid spectacle. Next morning, being June 12, the Indian untied me, painted me black [signaling his imminent execution -ed.], and we set off for the Shawanese town, which he told me was somewhat less than forty miles distant from that place. We soon came to the spot where the colonel had been burnt, as it was partly in our way; I saw his bones lying among the remain of the fire, almost burnt to ashes: I suppose, after he was dead, they laid his body on the fire. The Indian told me that was my big captain, and gave the scalp halloo.


Detail image (click for the full view) of an illustration of Crawford’s torture and execution. Here’s another.

Counties in both Pennsylvania and Ohio bear Crawford’s name; several historical markers in Ohio chart the course of the ill-starred Sandusky campaign … including a phallic monument at the approximate spot of the burning, just north of the tiny town of Crawford, Ohio. (Map)

* Printed as “The Ohio Campaigns of 1782” in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, March 1931.

** Here’s another description by another white eyewitness (alleged, anyway), who was taken in an unrelated raid some weeks before.

† A recent mp3 rendition of “Crawford’s Defeat by the Indians” is available for a 99-cent download.

Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ohio,Public Executions,Soldiers,Torture,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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