Mission journals speak across the centuries

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NAZARETH, Pa. - Early Moravian missionaries scheduled services every day but the Indians they worked among preferred gathering in the sweathouse to discuss business.

The missionaries worried that people ate when they wished, children were not restricted, and Indians continued to go off to winter hunts with the unconverted. Maize grew along with oats but while the cooperative economy succeeded for a time, cultural distinctions were maintained.

The research by Riva Berleant-Schiller, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut was published in the 2001 Architectural Anthropology "Mahican-Moravian Mission Settlements and their Built Environments, 1740 - 1772" and in Northeast Anthropology Number 63 Spring 2002 "Mahican and Moravian Missions: Pachgatgoch, Connecticut and Friedenhutten, Pennsylvania, 1742 - 1772."

It's among several current efforts at deciphering the thousands of pages Moravian missionaries left behind. At the University of Gottingen in Germany, Carola Wessel and Hermann Wellenreuther published a mission diary of David Zeisberger in the German language in 1995. "Die Herrnhuter Indianermission in der Amerikanischen Revolution. Die Tagebocher von David Zeisberger 1772 bis 1781" is currently being translated into English. Assistant Professor of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University, Rowena McClinton, is publishing a diary she translated from a mission located in Murray County, Georgia from 1805 to 1821 which will be available through the University of Nebraska Press in fall 2004.

More translations are being funded through the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Connecticut.

"The research never ends," said Mark Turdo, curator of the Moravian Historical Society in Nazareth, Pa. "The documents are so numerous, no one person can do it all."

Up two flights of stairs in the society, stacked in neat files and spilling into boxes crowded in the hallways, there are more than 10,000 documents left by missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. The papers are handwritten, in a variety of legible penmanship, with no standard spelling, no standard dialect and in an old German script that was discontinued about1941.

It is here that David Zeisberger's original Lenape vocabulary book, written in Lenape, German and English, can be held. His words in a box of letters sent to fellow missionary John Heckewelder in 1779 are still unknown.

While there are entries from Indian converts, there are no written accounts from traditional American Indians. Turdo said the Moravian philosophy of not interfering with the cultural practice of other people precluded them from teaching anyone to read and write except the converts.

The diaries were copied and sent to the home church in Germany. From there, excerpts were sent to missions around the world where papers continue to be discovered in Scotland, France, Germany and Britain.

"Indians in the Ohio Valley knew what was going on in Europe before Philadelphia knew," said Turdo.

The diary being worked on in Germany refers to the Schoenbrunn mission close to Gekelemukpechonk or Newcomer's Town, during the key period of the American Revolution.

Wellenreuther said, "In my opinion the Moravian unpublished archival material is by far the largest thus far untapped source for the history of Native American tribes in the 18th century. The material is exclusively in German and needs, since American ethnohistorians usually do not speak or read German, to be edited and translated."

The English version will be published by Penn State University Press in late 2004. An international congress on 18th-century Ethnohistory and Mission is being organized by Professor A. Gregg Roeber, chairman of the history department, to be held at Penn State to commemorate the event.

History professor Judd at Western Ontario University published her doctoral thesis through the Champlain Society as an annotated translation of the diary of the Moravian mission of Fairfield.

Schiller used Rev. Carl John Fliegel's 50,000-page index to guide her subject search of four missions occupied mostly by Mahicans but also by people from the Wampanoag, Lenape (Delaware), Sopus, Hoogland and Minisink nations.

Shekomeko was founded near the Connecticut border in Dutch County, New York. Pachgatgoch was established in Litchfield County, Connecticut. When the Moravians and Indians filtered into Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century, they established Gnadenhutten near Bethlehem, Pa. and Friedenshutten near the Susquehanna River in Bradford County, Pa.

"These settlements were not merely Moravian religious enterprises that imposed Christianity on a huddle of Mahican remnants taking shelter where they could," Schiller wrote. "The settlements were functioning bicultural communities that were adaptive for the survival of Mahicans and that operated on Mahican as well as on Moravian terms."

Established in 1740, Shekomeko was the first Moravian mission to the continent. At the time, more than 5,000 Mahicans occupied the Hudson Valley to central Vermont and Lake Champlain where the people lived under a matrilineal system, dwelling in bark covered wigwams, sometimes palisaded in two rows facing a center axis.

Friedenshutten was preceded by a Munsee village. Munsee leader Papunhank (John Papenhun) a baptized Moravian, arranged for the purchase of the land which was at the time in the Six Nations territory.

Before the mission's members migrated to Ohio in 1772, Papunhank and Joshua, Mahican, described the settlement in a letter to John Penn written about 1769, saying the people "cleared and enfenced fields of several miles in circumference in full expectation that they and their posterity should enjoy the fruits."

Schiller said by the 1750s, more log houses had replaced the wigwam, but the sweat lodge remained uncompromised. Single families dwelt in the homes, but the matrilineal lines and possession of land was continued, as was annual hunting, gathering and craft production.

By then the built environment masked the culture of its largest number of occupants, Schiller said. Converts did not often conform to missionary ideals, "and the private thoughts of those who did are unknowable."