Historical Markers
Heckewelder House Historical Marker
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Heckewelder House

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
67 W. Market St., Bethlehem

Dedication Date:
October 13, 1953

Behind the Marker

A man, seated, with hands folded in his lap poses for this painting.
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The Reverend John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder, by Jacob Eichholtz, 1823.
The German missionary listened intently to the prophets who appeared in the Indian villages up and down the Ohio Valley. Although he was dedicated to converting his Delaware friends to Christianity, he could not help but be curious about this new wave of religious revivalism among the Ohio Indians, which preached a rejection of alcohol, Christianity, and other forces of white corruption. One such prophet even carried with him a map he had drawn under the guidance of the Great Spirit, showing the sad fate that awaited those Indians who neglected the old ways and the path by which the faithful could regain all that had been lost.

John Heckewelder spent his life engaged in missionary work among the Delaware, and in doing so, became one of their most sympathetic and informed chroniclers in the new American nation. In his career as an Indian missionary and interpreter, he lived among the Delaware during a crucial period in their history, as the American Revolution pushed them beyond Pennsylvania's borders into Ohio and Ontario. His book, marker History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, first published in 1818, is a classic of American history and ethnography, and is still read today for its insights into the history and lives of Indians.
Jefferson Peace Medal, reverse.
Jefferson Peace Medal, reverse side.

Heckewelder was born in England in 1743 to German Moravian parents who moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, eleven years later. Bethlehem was the headquarters of the Moravian Church in North America, and Heckewelder grew up among fellow believers who worked as missionaries among Indians living in the Susquehanna and Allegheny valleys. His parents apprenticed him to a cooper, but in 1762 Heckewelder undertook his first missionary work by accompanying markerChristian Frederick Post on a journey into the Ohio country. Under the tutelage of Post and another Moravian missionary, markerDavid Zeisberger, Heckewelder lived among the Delaware in the 1760s and 1770s, learning their language and becoming a careful student of their culture.

But in some respects, Heckewelder was already too late. In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, colonial Pennsylvanians were impatient with efforts by Christian missionaries to convert and assimilate Indians into white society. Likewise, Indian prophets emerged in the Susquehanna and Ohio Valleys, preaching a "separate path" for Indians that would restore their strength and prosperity by abandoning white ways. The Moravian missionaries and their small communities of Delaware converts were not welcome in either of these worlds, and their situation became even more untenable during the American Revolution.

Although the Moravians proclaimed neutrality (like other German pietist sects, they were pacifists), they were suspected by each side of aiding the other. The British accused Heckewelder and Zeisberger of treason for passing information from the Indians to the American rebels. The two missionaries were forced to explain themselves before British officers in Detroit, and while they were doing so, a band of Pennsylvania militiamen murdered 96 of their Indian converts at the village of Gnadenhutten in the Ohio country. After the war, Heckewelder helped rebuild the shattered Moravian Indian communities of western Pennsylvania in Ohio, and he worked as a negotiator between them and the new United States government.

Heckewelder eventually retired from his missionary work on the Ohio frontier and moved back to Bethlehem. In his retirement, Heckewelder continued to work occasionally as an Indian interpreter and agent, but he devoted the last years of his life to writing. Between 1818 and his death in 1823, he wrote three books, using his knowledge of the Delaware to shape his opinions and descriptions of Native Americans in general. His work was highly valued by the leading scholars of the new nation, who pressed him for information about Indian languages, customs, myths, and archaeology. In this manner, Heckewelder personally bridged the gap between Pennsylvanians of his generation, who had grown up in a world populated with Indians, and those of the rising generation, who knew of Indians only through history books.
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