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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1863: Mangas Coloradas, Apache leader

Add comment January 18th, 2013 Headsman

One hundred and fifty years ago, day to day,* the Apache chief Dasoda-hae — better known as Mangas Coloradas, “red sleeves” — was extrajudicially executed by U.S. Army soldiers at Fort McLane, New Mexico.

This legendary Apache statesman’s nickname was Spanish, because he’d spent the 1830s and 1840s fighting Mexicans seeking bounties on Apache scalps. Indeed, when the U.S. in 1846 attacked Mexico, Mangas Coloradas gave U.S. soldiers safe passage through Apache territory, and subsequently signed a treaty with the victorious Americans. (There’s a handy map of the scene in this pdf.)

He did his utmost to keep relations with the gigantic industrial society on his borders safely diplomatic, but over the 1850s Apaches spiraled into conflict with aggressive Anglo settlers drawn by the call of gold. In 1861 Mangas Coloradas married his daughter to another Apache chief, Cochise. These two were able to keep whites at bay with raids for a short time (and given a big assist from the resource diversion of the Civil War). But there was only one way this was going to end.

In January 1863, Mangas Coloradas — about 70 years old and still alive to the impossibility of long-term success by force of arms — arrived under a flag of truce to negotiate a ceasefire with Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West. West had him clapped in irons instead, and let his soldiers know exactly how to handle their prisoner.

Men, that old murderer has got away from every soldier command and has left a trail of blood for 500 miles on the old stage line. I want him dead or alive tomorrow morning, do you understand? I want him dead.

That night, Mangas Coloradas was tortured with red-hot bayonets and shot “trying to escape.” The Apache Wars would expand calamitously in the years to come.

The army medical officer David Sturgeon took the Apache’s scalped head (they scalped him, too), eventually bringing it to Ohio after he left the service. Sturgeon finally presented his prize to Prof. Orson Squire Fowler; Fowler examined it and published a description in his 1873 work Human Science: Or, Phrenology: Its Principles, Proofs, Faculties, Organs, Temperaments, Combinations, Conditions, Teachings, Philosophies, Etc., Etc..**

The fate of this horrid trophy after it passed through Fowler’s hands is a mystery. It’s rumored that the Smithsonian received it, and perhaps surreptitiously got rid of it; while the institution has always denied ever having the skull of Mangas Coloradas, it is a fact that the Smithsonian collected and still possesses an alarmingly enormous trove of Native American remains.

* It appears to me that Mangas Coloradas entered into army custody on January 17, and was shot just about midnight that night: the exact moment of the incident could be either the 17th or the 18th. An eyewitness account from one of the soldiers on night watch describes giving over the watch to George Lount until midnight. When the first watchman returned at that time, he noticed that “Mangas arose upon his left elbow, angrily protesting that he was no child to be played with. Thereupon the two soldiers [who had been torturing Mangas], without removing their bayonets from their Minie muskets, each quickly fired upon the chief, following with two shots each from their navy six-shooters.”

** What did the skull-measurer make of his prize? “It bulges out at its side in the region of Secretion, Caution, and Destruction, beyond anything I ever saw. Cunning is his largest organ, and far exceeds any other development of it I have ever seen, even in any and all Indian heads. It is simply monstrous. Yet Destruction also far exceeds any other development of it I ever saw …

“Conscience and Worship are unusually large, both absolutely and relatively, which coincides with the scrupulous fidelity with which he kept his promises. He doubtless thought he was but doing his duty in avenging the injuries white men had done to his tribe, by torturing and killing them. He must also have been a devout worshipper of the Great Spirit and extremely superstitious. Benevolence is very poorly developed indeed.”

(Mangas Coloradas actually was a very tall man with a very large head: a number of accounts attest to this.)

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1873: Kintpuash, aka Captain Jack

1 comment October 3rd, 2011 Headsman

It’s fitting, we think, to wrap up our long series on Americana with an entry from that realm’s first nations.

It was on this date 1873 that the Modoc leader Kintpuash, known as Captain Jack, was hanged with three comrades by United States forces after the Modoc War.

Reading from a familiar script, the encroaching whites had squeezed Modocs off their ancestral land and onto a reservation — in fact, the reservation of another, rival tribe. Jack led his people off that uncomfortable lodgings, bidding to return home in 1865 — only to be rounded up and re-confined.

A second attempt to break out would result in his execution.

When an actual fight broke out at the inevitable surrender negotiation, outright skirmishing ensued as everyone reached for their guns.

Jack’s forces broke away, now with the U.S. Army in earnest pursuit. They fell back to the rough volcanic terrain at present-day Lava Beds National Monument in northern California — and specifically to a defensible natural fortification that now bears Captain Jack’s name.


Modoc firing position within Captain Jack’s Stronghold. (cc) image courtesy of Eric Hodel.

From Captain Jack’s Stronghold, the Modoc held off a larger army assault.

Dee Brown relates the tragedy of the fruitless monthslong aftermath, of “peace” negotiations under a gathering siege, in the classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

[Indian Affairs superintendent Alfred] Meacham* replied that the Modocs could not stay in peace in the Lava Beds unless they gave up the men who committed the killings on Lost River …

“Who will try them?” Jack asked. “White men or Indians?”

“White men, of course,” Meacham admitted.

“Then will you give up the men who killed the Indian women and children on Lost River, to be tried by the Modocs?”

Meacham shook his head. “The Modoc law is dead; the white man’s law rules the country now; only one law lives at a time.”

“Will you try the men who fired on my people?” Jack continued. “By your own law?”

Meacham knew and Captain Jack knew that this could not be done. “The white man’s law rules the country,” the commissioner replied. “The Indian law is dead.”

You gotta look forward, not back.

In the Modoc camp, militants like Hooker Jim were gaining sway, and by disputing his leadership and even his manhood eventually persuaded/forced Captain Jack to ambush the U.S. general in charge during one of their interminable parleys.

Far from striking a decisive blow at the head of the enemy, this anathematized Captain Jack and triggered a massive, and this time successful, army incursion. Jack persisted on the run for a few months, but he was finally captured wih the help of Modoc turncoats — including that former radical Hooker Jim, who induced him to kill the general in the first place.

“You intend to buy your liberty and freedom by running me to earth and delivering me to the soldiers. You realize that life is sweet, but you did not think so when you forced me to promise that I would kill that man, [General] Canby … I thought we would stand side by side if we did fight, and die fighting. I see now I am the only one to forfeit … Oh, you bird-hearted men, you turned against me.”

-Jack to Hooker Jim

Captain Jack was hanged at Fort Klamath, Oregon after a perfunctory trial all in English, with no lawyer to plead their case. (And the gallows being built outside during the trial, to complete the scene.) The executed Modocs’ corpses were shipped back to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (rumor had it that they appeared for a time as circus attractions), and only returned to the Modoc in 1984.


Image (c) Matthew T. Ravenhouk and used with permission.

* Meacham wrote a history of the Modoc War that’s available free online.

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1858: Felice Orsini, Italian revolutionary

4 comments March 13th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1858, Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini calmly lost his head for the nation.

Something of a celebrity revolutionary, Orsini joined the independence movement of Giuseppe Mazzini and embarked on a generation’s worth of conspiracy, covert operations and prison spells and prison breaks which he himself voluptuously recounted in hot-selling autobiographical tomes.

Orsini became convinced that French ruler Louis Napoleon* was the chief obstacle to Italian unification, and accordingly chucked a bomb at the dictator’s carriage on January 14, 1858.

Ever theatrical, the condemned Orsini addressed a letter to Louis Napoleon while awaiting execution. In it, he urged the emperor to take up the Italian cause.

Whether mindful of the prospect of another Orsini waiting for his carriage, remembering his own youthful plotting with the Italian carbonari, or simply for reasons of French statecraft, Napoleon did just that. His alliance with the Piedmont state in northwest Italy (for which France received Savoy and the French Riviera in exchange) helped it absorb most of what now constitutes the Italian state.

Within three years of Orsini’s death, only a reduced papal enclave around Rome and the Austrian holdings around Venice separated the peninsula from unification.

In life, Orsini had been a prominent advocate of the Italian cause and played to packed houses in England. In death, he was felt further afield than that.

Tacking to a moderate stance on slavery abolition ahead of his presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln condemned the late radical abolitionist John Brown as another Orsini — “an enthusiast [who] broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.”

Among Lincoln’s officers in the coming Civil War would be Charles DeRudio, the anglicized name of Orsini co-conspirator Carlo di Rudio.

Di Rudio had drawn a death sentence himself for the Orsini plot but was spared (pdf) by the clemency of his intended victim. He would go on to fight in the Battle of the Little Bighorn where he once again managed to cheat death.

* aka Napoleon III. He was the grandson of Josephine’s guillotined first husband.

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