The Gnadenhutten Massacre Revisited: A Response to David Barton

In his recent World article regarding our challenge to The Jefferson Lies, David Barton rejects our criticism of his treatment of Indian policy under Thomas Jefferson. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton claims Jefferson demonstrated a persistent interest in getting the Gospel to the Indians. In our book, Getting Jefferson Right (lengthy excerpt at World – still the most read article on the site), we examine various historical events relating to that claim and find that Barton does not get the facts right.
One such event is the Gnadenhutten Massacre (click the link for more on this atrocity). The reason this event is critical is because it formed the rationale for legislation Jefferson reauthorized while president. This legislation protected land ownership claims for a group of Delaware Indians converted under the mission of the United Brethren Church. Barton claims that Jefferson’s approval of the legislation authorized Christian mission work to the Delaware. Since the legislation has nothing to do with mission work but everything to do with recognizing the appointment of the United Brethren as trustees of the Indian land, we counter that the legislation was a kind of reparation triggered by the Gnadenhutten massacre and subsequent fallout from that tragedy. Barton, in his World article, talks about the massacre but fails to portray it accurately which sets the stage for an incorrect rendering of the federal government’s response.
In his World article, Barton claims that the Gnadenhutten massacre of 96 Delaware Indian converts was conducted by a group of “fanatics” who believed the Indians should be killed to follow the example of the Jews who killed the inhabitants of the land given to them by God. His source is a British writer, John Holmes, who took his account from a variety of sources. It is important to recognize that there were many conflicting accounts of the massacre at the time and the truth did not come out immediately. However, there are accounts of the massacre given by participants that make it clear that it was a group of men marching under the name of the Washington County (Pennsylvania) militia that carried out the atrocity. Apparently, this fact is important to Barton because he needs the government’s actions toward the Delaware to be a missionary effort and not a protection of their land claims based on the atrocity committed by the white man’s militia. In fact, the best sources, including the missionaries who represented the Christian Indians, attest to the involvement of members of the militia.
Barton summarizes our position as follows:

So, in these (and other) quotes, Throckmorton makes clear his view that:

  1. Congress helped the Christian Delaware only because of a specific atrocity; and

  2. Congress in general and Jefferson in particular had no interest in and were not involved with missionary or evangelistic work among native peoples, including the Delaware.

Barton changes our argument by saying that we include Congress in our scope of fact checking. This is not true. Barton’s claims in The Jefferson Lies were about Jefferson, not Congress in general. We actually do acknowledge that U.S. policy toward the Indians used religion as a misguided means of civilizing the Indians. We also argue, based on his correspondence, that Jefferson disagreed with this policy. Barton spends three pages of his World article describing evidence that the federal government supported mission work to the Indians, as if these policies are directly relevant to what Jefferson thought and did. As we document in our book, Jefferson called this mission work ineffective and did not support missionaries as a first line approach.
Barton then claims that the 1785 ordinance which set aside land for the Christian Indians was just part of government policy toward the Delaware. However, what Barton fails to tell readers is that the correspondence between the United Brethren missionaries who represented the Christian Indians and the government did mention the massacre and that the missionaries specifically asked for protection of their claims for land.
In October, 1783, Bishop John Ettwein and two other Brethren leaders wrote Congress and specifically mentioned the massacre conducted by militia men. They asked for the Congress to protect their land claims and to allow a trustee appointed by the Indians to act in their stead. This memorial to Congress set off a series of letters and actions which culminated in the 1785 Land Ordinance we describe in our book. While we did not have the memorial at the time we wrote our book, I am reproducing it below so it can be clear what ultimately triggered the legislation Jefferson signed. The original can be viewed at and I have copied it here, doing my best to read the original script.

To the Honourable the United States of America in Congress
The Memorial of John Ettwein, Andrew Hubner, and Hans Christian DeSchweining of Bethlehem in the County of Northampton in the State of Pennsylvania, agents for the Mission of the United Brethren Church to the Indians of America.
Your Memorialists beg Leave to remind Your Honours of that dreadful Massacre and Robbery which on the 7th and 8th days of March, 1782 at a place called Gnadenhutten on Muskingum River were committed by a Company of Men upon the Bodies and Property of a number of Indian Natives converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Event has been anounced (sic) by Several Hands in the Public News Papers. Some have blamed and some have praised the Perpetrators of the Deed.  The Assemblies of Pennsylvania and Virginia as it is said have ordered Inquiries to be made on that subject but your Memorialists never heard or saw any report made on these Orders or on either of them. In the Month of May last, your Memorialists dispatched live Messengers who by the way of Albany, Oswego, etc., went to Detroit and from thence to the River Huron where the Remnants of these Christian Indian Congregations lately flourishing on the Borders of Muskingum are now grubbing up the Wilderness and intend to form a new Settlement. Your Memorialists have since by a Return Messenger from Huron River received a number of Letters and Account of the dreadful Catastrophe that befell this Christian Congregation of Indians and especially the Journal kept by the Reverend David Zeisberger, first a Missionary of the United Brethren Church among the American Indians from July, 1781 to August, 1783. A copy whereof translated from the German Language in which it was originally written, they beg leave to present to Your Honours – This a piece of History which it may be permitted to lye on Your Table and be compared with the Results of the Inquiries by the States of Pennsylvania and Virginia ordered to be made may throw some light upon the dark Transactions of the 7th and 8th of March, 1782. Its Author maintains the Character of a true Historian while he mentions the Sources from which he has taken his Accounts and has connected (?) with this awful and solemn day of Murder and Rape the Facts precedent and consequential , a Day of which the Reader of American Annals will say with Thuanas
Excidat illa Dies Aevo nec Posteri credant etc.*
We further beg leave to represent to Your Honours on behalf of the Christian Indians lately on Muskingum now on Huron River:
1. That the said Indians, unoffensive and friendly to the White People and having many Years since been a Barrier and the means of averting the Indian Hatchet from the Neck of the Frontier Inhabitants, are in good Policy intitled (sic) to the Protection of the United States of America.
2. That such atrocious acts of Murder and Robbery by a lawless Band of Men going out under the respectable Name of the County Militia but in fact without any lawful Order or Commission are Insults on the Authority of the United States and of the State in which these Murderers and Robbers are resident. And that the Killing and Plundering the rightfull (sic) Owners of Land gives no Title to the Murderers and Robbers to hold the Land and Tenements of the deforced (?) Proprietors thereof.
3. That the Mission of the United Brethren among the Indians has been carried on with good Labour and Expence (sic) these Forty Years and upwards and is to this day notwithstanding the Obloquy and Persecution of a number of Zealots and Enthusiasts an Honour to the Confession of the Christian Religion and the Public Weal. And is therefore well deserving the Countinance (sic) and Protection of the United States of America.
And Your Memorialists in behalf of the remaining Christian Indians on Huron Rover and the Mission of the United Brethren Church most humbly beseech Your Honours to take their case into Your consideration and if it shall appear to you that these Indians and the Missionaries among them ought to be protected in their Freedom, Lives, and Property and that no Person or Persons has any right or Title to the Lands and Tenements from which they have been driven but that their three new towns Gnadenhutten, Schoenbrun, and Salem by them built at Muskingum and a Reasonable District of circumjacent land should never be disposed of or seated on by any Person or Persons without making a purchase thereof with your certain knowledge from the Christian Indians now on the Huron River or such Trustees as they shall appoint, then to declare the Rights of the same Indians and Your Resolves concerning them in such manner as in Your Wisdom shall be judged proper.
Philad… 28th, October, 1783
John Ettwein
Andrew Hubner
Hans Christian DeSchweining

On the last page, someone (probably Charles Thomson) marked the memorial with a referral to a committee of Congress.

Memorial of J. Etwein
A. Hubner
H.C. DeSchweining
Respecting the Indians late of Muskingum 
Recd Nov. 7 of 83
Referred to M. Williamson
W. Lee
?. Osgood

It should be clear from this petition that the eventual protection of the lands in Southeastern Ohio for the Christian Indians was done in response to this memorial which raised the Gnadenhutten massacre as a reason to protect those claims. Furthermore, the Brethren memorialists raised the possibility that a trustee (the Brethren) would be needed to act on behalf of the Christian Indians.
We lay the rest of this out step by step in our book and I encourage skeptics to read it. You will find much that Barton doesn’t want you to see.
*Latin for “Forget that day or next time they…” from the Latin poet Silvae (translation from Google)