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1781 Heckwelder

John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder (1743-1823) was a Moravian missionary to the Indians of Ohio. He went to the mission in 1771. In 1781 he and all his companions were made prisoners by a company of English and Indians and taken to Upper Sandusky where they were held as prisoners of war on the charge of being American spies. Heckewelder was summoned to Detroit and arraigned before the commandant of the post. He, and all the prisoners, were finally allowed to return to Ohio.

At that moment, we were mounting our horses to depart, an Indian express from Pipe's town, came riding at full speed, sounding the "alarm yell," when every Indian present, able to walk, moved on to hear the news, and which turned out to be a report brought by a runner to Sandusky, "that our brother Shebosh, who with some of the Indian Brethren, had some days before gone to Shonbrun to fetch corn, for their suffering families, had with them been taken by a body of Americans, and killed, and that a large body of Americans were, at this present time, on their march to Sandusky for the purpose of surprising the settlements at that place."

It appeared that these reports caused a great commotion among the Indians assembled here, some of whom became very much enraged, and we taking advantage of their confusion, departed; yet, it was with heavy hearts, that we were proceeding in an opposite direction from where we had left our families; and had no other alternative left us, but to go to Detroit. - The vessel containing the goods for the Indians, we saw sailing up the bay.

We found the roads round the head of the lake (Erie) in many places most intolerable for travelling; such indeed, as we had never before seen. Mires, and large swamps, not sufficiently frozen over to bear our horses, who were continually breaking through, and sometimes sinking belly deep into the mire, which frequently obliged us to cut strong poles to prize them out again. Deep creeks, (here called rivers) were another obstacle to travelling, we having to swim our horses across, and where we could not meet with a canoe for ourselves, we had to cross on rafts, made of poles put together. - Bleak prairies, in some places for miles in length, over which the cold west, or north west wind was blowing in our faces, so that we could scarcely stand against it, and having but few clothes on our backs, to preserve us from perishing with cold, we would frequently walk, driving the horses before us. The only comfortable hours we had during this whole journey, were, with the exception of the last, the nights when we could get into the woods, and make large fires. At Brownstown, (a Huron village), we stopped a short time to rest, and being informed that we might reach Detroit that day, we continued our journey. But what a disappointment! when we were within four miles of the town, which we had in full view, we came to a deep river, called Rush, (properly Rouge) and from where we hit upon it, we had no means of crossing, nor could we discover in any place either a raft for crossing nor a house. Here we now were, on a bleak point, at the junction of this with the Detroit river where not a stick of wood was to be found; and where the cold northwest wind, blowing over an extensive prairie, which lay at the back of us, came upon us with all its force, so that we had to move about the whole night, to keep ourselves alive. O how we longed to see the light of morning! and how rejoiced were we when shortly after this appeared, we saw two large boats coming down the Detroit river, and making for the river we were on, and the good people took us across. Now, after having passed a dreadful night, we were approaching a fine town, in which we hoped to be so fortunate as to meet with some hospitable person, who would furnish us an early and warm breakfast which we stood much in need of; however, we finally found, that we had failed in our calculation on this point; for being arrived at the west gate of the town, the centry would not suffer us to pass in, and we were obliged to stand on the drawbridge for a long time, until the pleasure of the commandant, (who resided at the east end of town) was known: when we were permitted to proceed; the cold wind blowing all this time with violence upon us.

It being by this time known in the town, that the Moravian missionaries were come on as prisoners; curiosity drew the inhabitants of the place into the street, to see what kind of people we were. The few clothes we had on our backs, and these tattered and torn, might have induced them to cast looks of contempt upon us, but we did not find this to be the case. We observed, that we were viewed with commisseration. After standing some time in the street, opposite the dwelling of the commandant; we were brought in before him, where, with empty stomachs, shivering with cold, worn down by the journey, and not free from rheumatic pains; we had again to stand until we underwent a short examination. - Being at length dismissed, Mr. Bawbee took us to the house of a private French family, which consisted of Mr. Tybout and wife (both elderly people,) and having no children. We were told by Mr. Bawbee, who acted as agent for the Indian department, that we might make ourselves easy for the present - and were not forbidden to walk about. We soon found ourselves in a good birth, for not only our landlord and his wife were obliging and kind to us, but we found many here who befriended us, - even among the officers themselves. In other circumstances than we at the time were, we might have felt ourselves contended and happy; but, knowing that our families, were not only suffering from hunger and cold, but were also kept continually, (on our account) between hope and fear, and being so repeatedly told by the savages, that we never would be permitted to return to them again, added to which, the report we had heard while at the rapids of the Ohio, was still kept alive, by the Indians who were daily coming in; all which produced great mental anxiety to us. Happy were we therefore, that the day had come, when our conduct whilst among the Indians was to be inquired into, in a public place; and before a council, where the accuser and the accused were to meet, face to face. These were captain Pipe, and two of his principle councelors, from whom the commandant had been long waiting and who were now arrived.

Accordingly, on the 9th day of November, we were conducted to the council house, where we found the commandant with Mr. Bawbee by his side, together with other gentlemen, and a great number of Indians, with the Indian interpreters, seated, or standing in their proper places - The Indians of the different tribes were separately seated - some to the right of the commandant, and the Delawares right before him, with captain Pipe and his councellors in front. We four missionaries were placed by ourselves, on a bench to the left; a war chief, of each of the two divisions of the Indians, was holding a stick, of three or four feet long with scalps on it, which they had taken in their last excursions against the people of the United States.

The council being opened, by the commandant signifying to captain Pipe, that he might make his report: he rose from his seat, holding a stick with two scalps on it in his left hand, and addressed the commandant in a very remarkable and spirited manner, with respect to the present war; and that of their fathers (the British) having drawn their children (the Indians) into it, &c. handing him, at the close of his speech, the scalps. Having seated himself again, a war chief of the other party rose in like manner with his scalp; and after concluding his address, he also handed it to the commandant, who, as before, gave it to the interpreter, standing behind him, to put aside. This business being finished, the commandant addressed captain Pipe to the following effect, viz. captain Pipe! "You have for a long time lodged complaints with me, against certain white people among your nation, and whom you call teachers to the believing Indians, who, as you say, are friends to the Americans, and keep up a continual correspondence with them, to the prejudice of your father's interest! You having so repeatedly accused these teachers, and desiring that I might remove them from among you; I at length commanded you to take them, together with the believing Indians, away from the Muskingum, and bring them into your country; and being since informed, that this had been done, I ordered you to bring these teachers, together with some of their principal men before me, that I might see and speak to them; since that time these men, now sitting before you, have come in, and surrendered themselves up to me, without your being with them. I now ask you, captain Pipe, if these men are those of whom you so much complained; and whom I ordered you to bring before me? Pipe replying in the affirmative, the commandant continued: "Well, both the accuser and the accused being present, it is but fair, that the accused hear from the accuser, the complaints he has against him; I therefore desire you to repeat what you have told me of these teachers, and accused them of!" Pipe, standing at the time, now turned to his councellors, telling them to get upon their legs and speak; but finding them panic struck, he appeared to be at a loss how to act - once more turning to them, he endeavoured to make them sensible that this was the time to speak, and that the opportunity now granted them, for that purpose, would be lost to them for ever, if they spake not! - finally, seeing them hanging their heads and remaining mute, he boldly stood up, and defended the teachers against the accusations brought against them, saying: that "they were good men; and, that he wished his father (viz. the commandant) to speak good words for them, for they were his friends; and that he would be sorry to see them treated ill and hard." - The commandant still persisting in having the call he had made on captain Pipe, of repeating what he had told him of those teachers now present; he became greatly embarrassed, and casting another glance at his frightened, and dejected councellors, who still were hanging their heads; he did report - yet adding: "father! the teachers cannot be blamed for this; for living in our country where they had to do whatever we required of them, they were compelled to act as they did! They did not write letters (meaning speeches) for themselves, but for us! I am to blame! I caused them to do what they did! We urged them to it, whilst they refused, telling us, that they did not come here for the purpose of meddling with our affairs, but for the spiritual good of the Indians!" The commandant then asking him, what he wished him to do with us, whether he should send us out of the country, or permit us to return again to our families and congregation; he, contrary to what was expected, advised the commandant to suffer us to return to our homes.

We being now questioned by this general officer, with regard to our ordination and vocation; but particularly with regard to our connection with the American Congress - and whether we were dependent on that body? We answered: "that the Society to which we belonged, had for upwards of thirty years, laboured among the North American Indians, for the purpose of bringing them over to Christianity. - That from the commencement of our Missions, Missionaries had been continually among them, who were sent by the Bishops and Directors of our Church. - That Congress indeed knew of our labouring among the Indians, for the purpose already stated; but that they never had, either directly or indirectly, interfered with our Missionary concerns: nor prescribed rules for us to act by. "That all we knew of the American congress, was: that they wished all the Indians to be at peace and not take part in the war on either side: but, follow the example of their countrymen, the Christian Indians, and join them in becoming an agricultural, and a Christian people, &c."

The commandant next stepping up to us, declared us acquitted of the charges laid against us, assuring us, at the same time "that he felt great satisfaction and pleasure, in seeing our endeavours to civilize and Christanize the Indians, and would cheerfully permit us to return again to our congregation!" - All which being interpreted to captain Pipe and his party, he next turned to the national assistants, expressing his satisfaction also in seeing them; admonishing them to continue to obey their teachers, and not meddle with wars, and taking them by the hand, promised that they should be furnished with some clothing. Finally having intimated that we should be furnished with clothes and other necessary articles - and offering his services whenever we should stand in need of them, or his advice and assistance, he concluded by saying; that henceforth, we should have free access to him at his house, whenever we were desirous of seeing him.

On retiring from the council house, we were congratulated by many respectable Inhabitants of the place on our happy acquittal; and the prospect of our again returning to our families. Even captain Pipe himself, after asking our Indians, how they were satisfied with what he had said: observed, that he knew he had spoken the truth, and adding: "I never wished your teachers any harm, knowing that they love the Indians; but, I have all along been imposed on and importuned to to what I did, by those who do not love them; and now, when these were to speak, they hung their heads, leaving me to extricate myself, after telling our father things they had dictated - and persuaded me to tell him."

Whilst the taylors was making clothes for us, we were invited by our friends in town, to visits. One merchant, shortly after our arrival at this place, returned some new clothes belonging to us, which he had purchased of one of the Indian warriors who took us. Another trader who had purchased of those warriors four silver watches, belonging to us, had to deliver them up to the commandant, who satisfied him, and gave them to us again. This generous officer, also sent a barrel of pork, with some flour, to Sandusky for us.

We were, upon the whole, thankful, that since God had permitted the savages to lay hands on us, he also had so directed their ways, that we did not fall a sacrifice to their vengeance, and that the disigns of those who thought they were sure of seeing us banished out of the country, - (and with us the preaching of the gospel, also;) were defeated from the very source they had calculated on, that their wish would be effected. The commandant had, in our opinion, done nothing in this affair but what his duty required. With prudence, justice, and humanity for his guide - a wish providence seemed to support him. On a nearer acquaintance with this general officer, we found him an admirer and well wisher t religious undertakings. He sympathised with us for our sufferings, which were contrary to his orders, and declared that we were engaged in a good cause. The passport given us by him, at our departure, purported that we were "permitted to perform the functions of our office among the Christian Indians without molestation."

Being now well supplied with warm clothes and blankets, both for ourselves and fellow labourers at home, we took leave of our benefactor, Arent Schyler de Peyster, major of the king's 8th regiment and commandant of Detroit and its dependencies, &c. Intending to set off early the next morning, we had the mortification to find that the horses we had rode from Sandusky to this place, were missing, though but the evening before they were seen, together with the horses our Indians had rode on. The supposition was, that some person or persons, inimical to missions among the Indians, had put our horses out of the way, to prevent our returning to the Indian country again; as the Indian's horses had not been taken off. Be this as it may, the lost horses were never recovered; the commandant, however, obligingly furnished us with horses to travel home with.

On the 14th of November we left Detroit, the weather was cold, and the ground hard frozen, - meeting Indians from Sandusky, on the road, they repeated the report of our people, who had gone to Shonbrun to bring corn, having all been murdered by the Virginians, which however was not the case; for captain Biggs, the generous and humane officer, commanding the party, on finding that they were not of the enemy, but Christian Indians, did not suffer one of them to be molested; but took them to Pittsburg, where they were kindly treated, and left to return to their homes when they pleased.


See Also:

Dictionary of American Biography

Rondthaler, Edward. Life of John Heckewelder. Philadelphia: T. Ward, 1847.

Trepp, Annette D. The Churchmen and the Indians: The Role of Missionaries in the Indian War (1790 - 1795). Queen City Heritage 1990 48 (1): 20-31.

Wallace, Paul A. W. ed. Thirty Thousand Miles with John Heckewelder. Pittsburgh: University of Pittusburgh Press, 1958.