Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform

Christian Indians

The armed frontiersmen who marched to Philadelphia in February 1764 planned to murder 140 Indians gathered in barracks in the city’s Northern Liberties. Most of these Indians were Christians, having lived in the Moravian mission towns of Nain and Wechquetank in Northampton County. Provincial authorities decided to “order the Moravian Indians down to Philadelphia” in November 1763, as Governor John Penn wrote, because “the people of Northampton County … were determined to cut them all off” (John Penn to Richard Penn). These individuals were joined by other Native Americans from Wyalusing, an Indian town on the Susquehanna River. Except for their leader, John Papunhunk, who had been converted by Moravian missionary David Zeisberger, the Wyalusing Indians were neither Moravian nor Christian. The Paxton Boys’ Declaration and Remonstrance clearly identified the different groups gathered in Philadelphia: “Some of these Indians now in the Barracks of Philadelphia are confessedly a part of the Wyalusing Indians, which Tribe is now at War with us; and the others are the Moravian Indians, who [are] living amongst us under the Cloak of Friendship.”

By the 1760s the Moravian Church had a far-flung mission enterprise that stretched from Greenland to the West Indies in the Western Hemisphere. Moravians aimed to establish mission towns populated only by converted Indians and their “teachers,” typically one or two missionary couples. These towns would be separate from, but often nearby, a larger Indian community from which the converts they had come and where they still had family. The Moravians’ earliest mission efforts in colonial America—the first in Georgia in 1735, the second at Shekomeko (present-day Dutchess County, New York) in 1740—failed due to the hostility of colonial authorities. The converted Indians at Shekomeko moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the center of all Moravian activity in North America. They lived in a small Indian village called Friedenshütten until Moravian authorities decided in 1746 to re-settle them, along with their teachers, across the Blue Mountains, about thirty miles northwest of Bethlehem (at present day Lehighton). This mission town, called Gnadenhütten, flourished until November 14, 1755, when hostile Delaware Indians destroyed it and murdered eleven white missionaries. The native peoples who populated the mission towns of Nain, established in 1758 a mile or so west of Bethlehem, and Wechquetank, founded in 1760 about 25 miles north of Bethlehem, were refugees from the 1755 massacre at Gnadenhütten.

These Christian Indians were confined at the Philadelphia barracks and on Province Island from November 1763 until March 1765. Many prominent citizens visited them, including Governor John Penn and Anthony Benezet, and mobs threatened them. They tried, as much as possible, to live as a congregation as they had in Nain and Wechquetank. Moravian missionary couples, Bernhard Adam and Margaret Grube and Johann Jacob and Johanna Schmick, lived with them. The diaries kept by these missionaries record regular services, communions, lovefeasts, births, and baptisms. Sadly, these diaries are also filled with deaths and burials. Fifteen Indians died in May and June 1764, and twenty more died the next month: in all, fifty-five Moravian Indians were buried in 1764 in Philadelphia’s Potter’s field. The Paxton Boys did not reach the Christian Indians in February 1764, but the confinement that their threats precipitated turned out to be more deadly than their guns and sabers.

The Indians confined in Philadelphia learned in February 1765 that they could not return to Nain because Pennsylvania officials were unwilling to tolerate a village of Native Americans so close to white settlements. (Moravian authorities shared similar concerns in Bethlehem.) They were allowed, however, to settle further up the Susquehanna. In March 1765, the Indian congregation from Philadelphia established a Moravian mission town at Wyalusing, which they named Friedenshütten (the second mission with that name). That mission town was eventually abandoned in 1772, when John Ettwein relocated the congregation of Christian Indians to the Ohio Country.

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