John G. Heckewelder

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John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder was a Moravian Missionary in the Ohio Country in the American Revolution and the early years of the new nation. He was born in Bedford, England in 1743. He spent his early years attending Unity of Brethren (Moravian Church) schools in England as well as in Pennsylvania after his parents immigrated to British North America in 1754. Heckewelder's father apprenticed him to a cooper in 1759, but the young man dreamed of becoming a Moravian evangelist. In 1762 missionary Christopher Frederick Post granted this wish, asking Heckewelder to assist him with the so-called "Christian Delaware" located in western Pennsylvania. He spent the next eight years serving as a messenger for Post and David Zeisberger, another Moravian missionary.

In 1772, Heckewelder accompanied Zeisberger to eastern Ohio to establish a village designed to convert Ohio's Lenape (Delaware) to Christianity. The village, Schoenbrunn, prospered, and the missionaries quickly founded other communities, including Gnadenhutten and Lichtenau. During the American Revolution, the Moravians and their American Indians converts faced persecution from both the British and the Americans, neither of whom believed the Moravians' declarations of neutrality. British officials arrested both Heckewelder and Zeisberger in 1781 for treason. Taken to Detroit for trial, the two men eventually convinced the authorities of their innocence. While the two men were absent from their missions in eastern Ohio, a detachment of Pennsylvania militia killed ninety-six Christian Delawares in a brutal incident that became known as the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

In 1786 Heckewelder retired from his missionary activities. He hoped to spend the remainder of his life with his wife, Sarah Ohneberg Heckewelder, whom he had married in 1780 in Salem, Ohio. They were the first white couple to marry in Ohio. Heckewelder's knowledge of American Indian customs and languages forced him out of retirement, as the newly formed United States enlisted his aid in negotiating several treaties with America Indian nations in western Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan during the 1790s and the first decade of the 1800s. In 1810, Heckewelder began to write of his experiences with American Indians in the Ohio Country, dedicating the remainder of his life to recording his knowledge of American Indian customs. His writings made an important early contribution to what would become folklore, ethnography and anthropological studies in the late 19th century. Heckewelder died in 1823.

See Also


  1. Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.
  2. Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The First Description of Cincinnati and Other Ohio Settlements: The Travel Report of Johann Heckewelder (1792). Lanham: MD: University Press of America, 1988.
  3. Wallace, Paul A.W. Thirty Thousand Miles with John Heckewelder: The Travels of John Heckewelder in Frontier America. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.
  4. 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.