David Zeisberger is by no means a name many people recognize from their history books. Unfortunately, his important role in the founding of Ohio goes largely unnoticed. The late 18th century brought unjust bloodshed to the Native Americans who converted to Christianity and attempted to live peacefully in Ohio. Ohio was considered the frontier at this time, with land ideal for farming and natural resources in abundance. However, the peaceful Christian settlements, consisting of both Native American and European inhabitants, saw little peace or permanence. Zeisberger founded the first settlement in Ohio, and unfortunately had to see the great horrors that came upon the Native Americans he tried to help...
Zeisberger was born in Moravia (Which is now a part of the present day Czech Republic) on April 11th, 1721, and came to the British colonies in the 1730s. Moravian Christians began establishing settlements on the frontier in Pennsylvania, in order to preach to Native Americans in places untouched by Europeans. It was here that Zeisberger found his calling. Before coming to Ohio, he lived with Delaware, Mohawk, Iroquois, and other Native American groups in Pennsylvania. The rights of Native Americans were argued through Zeisberger's tongue, as he became fluent in the languages of different tribes.
Delaware natives and Moravian missionaries first came to Ohio in 1772, due to weakening relations with colonists in Pennsylvania. Colonists were beginning to assert their independence from Britain, and their were also asserting claims on lands that had belonged to tribes for generations. Pennsylvania was becoming more divided, as natives took sides, and it became a dangerous place to live, with frequent raids and conflict. The first Moravian/Delaware settlement in Ohio was Schoenbrunn, meaning 'beautiful spring' in German. Schoenbrunn was home to the first school and church in Ohio, and it began to thrive. At its most populous point, Schoenbrunn was home to nearly 400 men, women, and children. As the American Revolution began, and many Native Americans sided with the British, the soon-to-be Americans began to wonder if the Moravians were plotting against them in their settlement, alongside the Delaware natives they considered their neighbors. Zeisberger and his fellow missionaries and converts left Schoenbrunn in 1777, moving closer to present day Coshocton, in order to quell suspicion that they were conspiring with the British. The British arrested Zeisberger in 1782 at Fort Detroit in Michigan and held him for treason, since he often reported the movements of the British to colonial forces, It seemed that the strife in Pennsylvania had followed them to Ohio, and it was during this time that the Gnadenhutten Massacre occured.
Colonists grew even more suspicious of the Delaware natives Zeisberger converted and lived alongside. Delaware natives who did not live alongside Moravian missionaries often fought against the colonists, and too often there was no differentiation between the Christian natives and other Delaware groups. The Christian Delaware natives were accused of leading raids against settlers in Pennsylvania, which they vehemently denied. Pennsylvania militiamen, angry over the raid led by another group, wanted revenge. They voted to kill the Christian natives (It is rumored that a bloody dress was planted in one of the cabins of the Christian natives, so a guilty verdict could be jusified and achieved). The Delaware natives spent the night before their execution in prayer and sang hymns to soothe their children.
On March 8th, 1782, the Delaware natives were led to their deaths in present day Gnadenhutten. Two "killing cabins" had been set aside; one for men, and one for women and children. Death was brought to nearly 100 natives by means of blunt force trauma and scalping. After the murders, their corpses were piled in the cabins and set on fire. Relations between natives and Europeans was never the same, with much killing taking place on both sides.
After Zeisberger was released from British custody, he took many of his native converts to Michigan to start new settlements, since Ohio was now a place of massacre and fear. Ohio continued to call to Zeisberger, and he eventually came back and established a new mission near present day New Philadephia/Goshen Township. It was here that Zeisberger died, on November 17th, 1808. As he lay on his death bed, witnesses stated in their diaries that native converts sang hymns to Zeisberger, bringing him comfort in his final hours. He was laid to rest by European and native settlers who had a feast in his honor after his death.
The cemetery in which David Zeisberger was laid to rest is modest and peaceful. Delawares and Europeans rest side by side, and Zeisberger himself rests next to Chief Killbuck, who has a small town in Holmes County named after him.
Schoenbrunn Village is just a few miles away from the cemetery, as is Gnadenhutten. I encourage you to learn more about this incredibly interesting and perilous time in our history!