David Zeisberger was a Moravian missionary in the Ohio Country during the American Revolution and the early years of the new nation.
Zeisberger was born in Moravia in 1721 and immigrated to British North America in the late 1730s. He joined the Church of the Unity of the Brethren, commonly known as the Moravian Church. He eventually settled near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and became a missionary to various Native American groups in Pennsylvania and New York. As a missionary, Zeisberger emphasized how Christianity could be beneficial to the natives. However, his work often led to the end of the traditional ways of life of the American Indian converts.
During the 1760s, Zeisberger lived with the Lenape (Delaware) in Pennsylvania. As the colonial population grew and the need for more land arose in British North America, the Lenape (Delaware) were forced westward, reaching Ohio in 1772. Upon their arrival in Ohio, Zeisberger established the village of Schoenbrunn, located near modern-day New Philadelphia. The missionary intended this village to be a refuge for so-called "Christian Delaware" as well as a location from which further outreach efforts could be made.
At Schoenbrunn, the Lenape (Delaware) lived lives similar to those of Anglo settlers in the region -- planting crops, serving as skilled craftspeople, attending school, and participating in religious services. The Moravians required the Delaware to abandon much of their traditional heritage. They could no longer engage in war or the ceremonies associated with it, such as painting their faces. They were urged to obey the Moravian missionaries and to follow European social customs. The new practices included monogamous marriage and the adoption of new Christian names. Schoenbrunn and its cultural assimilation scheme was such a success that the Moravians built additional towns at Gnadenhutten and Lichtenau.
Zeisberger found many converts among the Lenape (Delaware) in eastern Ohio. But, some Delaware rejected this forced imposition of dramatic changes in their lifestyles that the Moravians required them to make. Among the Moravians' early supporters was the Lenape (Delaware) chief Netawatwees (Newcomer). As the American Revolution began, the Moravians and their Christian converts found themselves in a difficult position. Neither the American colonists nor the British and their Indian allies felt that they could trust them. In 1781, the British so feared Zeisberger and his influence among the Ohio Delaware that they arrested him, along with his assistant, John Heckewelder. Charged with treason, the two men convinced British authorities of their neutrality and were released.
Throughout the revolution, Zeisberger's followers also faced opposition from other Lenape (Delaware) who had retained their traditional belief system. Fearful for their lives, the Christian Indians had abandoned Schoenbrunn in 1776. Zeisberger then concentrated his efforts on Gnadenhutten, but after its destruction in 1782 due to a brutal militia attack which killed upwards of 96 Lenape (Delaware), the missionary moved his attention to new villages in northern Ohio and Michigan. He never again attained the level of success as he had at his original settlements of Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten. But he continued his work with American Indians until his death in 1808.
- Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.
- Zeisberger, David. Schoenbrunn Story: Excerpts from the Diary of the Reverend David Zeisberger, 1772-1777, at Schoenbrunn in the Ohio Country. Columbus: Ohio History Connection, 1972.