Historical Markers
David Zeisberger Historical Marker
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David Zeisberger

Allegheny National Forest Region


Marker Location:
PA 49, 11 miles Northeast of Coudersport near Raymond

Dedication Date:
August 22, 1947

Behind the Marker

This unadorned oil on canvas portrait of Zeisberger captures the simplicity of Moravian dress and manners, as well as the earnestness of Zeisberger's character
David Zeisberger, by John Valentine Haidt, 1771.
Tensions were high in Philadelphia on a mid-November day in 1763, when a terrified and bedraggled band of more than one hundred Christianized Indians led by Moravian missionary David Zeisberger arrived in the city on foot. They were being hotly pursued by a murderous band of frontiersmen from Lancaster and Reading, who were rumored to be right outside the city. So the city fathers dispatched the militia and sent Benjamin Franklin to negotiate with the vigilantes. Public opinion in Philadelphia was largely sympathetic to the white settlers, some of whom had been attacked by Indians, though not by the Moravian converts now in their city. Only the stalwart intervention of the city's pacifist Quaker leadership prevented more bloodshed.

In the eighteenth century, the Moravian church in America considered missionary work among non-Christian people a high calling. Many young Moravian men engaged in missionary service in the wilderness areas of the American colonies during the decades before the War of Independence. David Zeisberger, a prolific writer and excellent translator of Indian languages, was widely regarded as the greatest of the Moravian missionaries to the Delaware Indians.

Zeisberger was five years old when his parents took refuge on the estate of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf in Saxony, joining other dissenting Moravians who sought a community where they could practice their faith without persecution from Lutheran church authorities. When he was a teenager, the family immigrated to the American colony of Georgia, where Zeisberger threw himself into spreading the Christian message to the Creek nation. A bright young man, Zeisberger learned Indian languages quickly, a skill that helped him in his chosen work.
Oil on canvas of Zeisberger preaching.
Power of Gospel, by Charles Schussele, 1862.

In 1740, at the age of twenty, Zeisberger moved to the Moravian community of Bethlehem, in eastern Pennsylvania, where he entered the Moravian's Indian school and learned the Delaware and Onondaga languages. Five years later, he embarked on his life's work-missionary service among Native Americans in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Traveling west into the wilderness, Zeisberger was welcomed in many Indian communities, and he helped establish Christian communities among Indians at Shamokin in Pennsylvania and Onondaga in New York. But in 1763, a coalition of Senecas, Shawnee, Delaware and other tribes west of the Appalachians took up arms to drive white settlers out of tribal lands. Fearing for their lives, Zeisberger and other Moravian missionaries returned home to Bethlehem.
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Left hand page from David Zeisberger's Delaware Indian and English Spelling...

With brutal swiftness, British soldiers and colonial vigilantes suppressed "Pontiac's Rebellion," as the Indian resistance became known. In 1770, Zeisberger returned to minister to the Delaware in the Tuscarawas Valley of Ohio. At the time smallpox was ravaging the Native population, and Delaware medicine men were unable to halt its spread. As fortune would have it, the smallpox outbreak subsided soon after the missionary's arrival, and the Indians credited this miracle to Zeisberger. More welcome than ever, Zeisberger settled at a site he named Schoenbrunn or "beautiful stream," where in the spring of 1771 he and his Christianized Indian followers constructed a village. It soon became so populated that they constructed another village nearby, called Gnadenhutten, or "huts of mercy." For a time, these missionary outposts thrived in peace.

The outbreak of the Revolutionary War spelled doom for the two villages. Fleeing the advance of both British troops and unfriendly Indians, the residents of Schoenbrunn resettled in the territory of Ohio. Fearing that Zeisberger was spying for the Americans, the British briefly imprisoned him in Detroit, but then released him after finding insufficient evidence to convict him of treason. The Indians of Gnadenhutten were not so fortunate. Frustrated frontiersmen, eager to avenge the murders of white settlers on the western borders of Pennsylvania and Virginia by marauding Indians, decided that the Christianized Indians at Gnadenhutten were a choice target. In March of 1782, an angry group of settlers rounded up the peaceful Indians of the village, tried and convicted them of murder and theft, then killed more than ninety Christianized Indian men, women, and children.

Undeterred by the atrocities that his converts suffered at the hands of other Christians, Zeisberger continued his missionary work and produced a trilingual dictionary in Delaware, English, and German. In 1798, he established a mission at Goshen, in Ohio, where he passed away in 1808, at the age of eighty-seven. Today, Zeisberger's manuscripts and published works contain valuable information about life on Pennsylvania's eighteenth-century frontier.
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