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. Continue reading “The Gnadenhutten Massacre Revisited: A Response to David Barton”