On the cusp of Gnadenhutten, Ohio, a sign greets visitors: “Welcome to Historic Gnadenhutten.” Yet it isn’t immediately clear what makes the village, located 40 miles south of Canton, so historic.
It’s beautiful, no doubt. The streets, surprisingly bustling for a town of just over 1,200, offer no shortage of quaint homes and inviting local businesses. A red-brick Moravian church stands sturdy and proud. And a few steps away winds the tranquil Tuscarawas River.
But it isn’t until you reach the end of West Indian Street that the history of Gnadenhutten begins to unfold. There, the Gnadenhutten Historical Park and Museum tells the story of the town’s Indigenous founders. It’s one of unthinkable injustice and unlikely community.
The park, really a small field, contains two log cabin reconstructions, an homage to the 60 structures that once occupied the land, including a school and church. Mohican and Munsee settlers, numbering around 40, began building the site in October 1772, when they split off from Schoenbrunn to the north.
Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten both were overseen by the Moravian missionary David Zeisberger, but the latter settlement’s daily affairs were led by a Christian Mohican named Joshua. Joshua ran a shop in town, where he sold wooden buckets and barrels.
Part of Joshua’s tombstone — the oldest memorial in Ohio — is preserved at the museum. When Joshua died in 1775, the community he helped found was, by the standards of the day, booming.
A documentary shown at the museum explains that the villagers, many of them skilled artists and craftsmen, enjoyed a rich musical tradition and often played host to inhabitants of neighboring settlements. They built complex dwellings featuring glass windows and basements. And in the fields, men and women labored alongside one another to produce robust crops each year. The population steadily grew, eventually surpassing 150.
But all that changed in 1781.
In September of that fateful year, a Wyandot contingent commanded by the British during the Revolutionary War ambushed Gnadenhutten. The British-allied force kidnapped the villagers as well as Zeisberger and another Moravian missionary, John Heckewelder.
Zeisberger and Heckewelder, suspected of colluding with the American revolutionaries, were taken to Fort Detroit, where they were tried for treason and ultimately acquitted. The Indigenous residents of Gnadenhutten, meanwhile, were left behind in Captive Town, near the Sandusky River.
Food was scarce in Captive Town, and in February 1782, the majority of the Gnadenhutten residents were allowed to return home temporarily to finish the harvest and collect more rations. It would prove a fatal expedition.
On March 4, an outfit of 160 Pennsylvania militiamen commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David Williamson happened upon Gnadenhutten. The Indigenous settlers, under the impression that the militia came in peace, provided food and shelter and even relinquished their hunting weapons.
Unarmed, the Native Americans — who by all accounts were pacifists and held no allegiance in the war — could do nothing as Williamson’s men bound them and accused them of participating in military incursions in Pennsylvania, for which they would be executed.
The villagers spent the night of March 7 segregated into two buildings — men in one, women and children in the other — praying and singing hymns. In the morning, the soldiers summarily killed them. 90 died. Only two boys survived to tell the tale.
The militia then burned Gnadenhutten to the ground along with the other Moravian settlements in the area. This included Schoenbrunn, which by then had been evacuated.
In 1798, John Heckewelder returned to the site and refounded Gnadenhutten. His first act was to bury the remains of the original settlers in a hallowed mound, which remains over two centuries later.
The new town emerged as a successful trading outpost, becoming an important commercial hub for Tuscarawas County with the construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal during the 1820s and 1830s and a railroad stop in the 1850s. A new graveyard appeared adjacent to the burial mound.
In 1872, 100 years after Gnadenhutten’s founding, the town erected a shrine in memory of the massacre’s victims. It stands as the Historical Park’s centerpiece.
“When I came down here, I knew about this place,” said Mary Schworm, one of eight volunteer staff at the park. “I thought, ‘Why should I sit in my apartment and just be there? I got to do something.’”
Schworm moved to Gnadenhutten from Cuyahoga Falls six years ago. Now, she oversees the museum’s collection, which includes hundreds of artifacts found within a 15-mile radius of the town, including the foundation stones from the original settlement.
Schworm also helps coordinate a host of events to memorialize the massacre, chief among them an annual day of remembrance. Every March, Indigenous Americans from near and far congregate in Gnadenhutten to honor the lives of the settlers.
“I’ve learned so much history by just listening to other people,” Schworm said.
For her, the park plays a vital role in ensuring that the first founders of Gnadenhutten — the innocent victims of a war fought over stolen land — are not relegated to the ash heap of history.
“We just come here because we were called to do this,” she said. “We were called to say, ‘Hey, remember these people. It was a tragedy what they went through. They did no wrong, and yet they were punished.’”
Thank you for this beautiful piece. I’m marking the Gnadenhutten Historical Park and Museum on my list to visit and learn more. Keep the story of the Midwest going, Sam & team!