History of the Kansas Munsee (Prehistory to 1830)

Posted By BrokenClaw on January 10, 2007

Indigenous People

The Munsee (also spelled Monsey, Muncey, Muncie, Munsie, Muncee) were originally part of the Delaware (Lenape) Indians of the Mid-Atlantic coast. The Munsee are often described as the northern division of the Delware, but that designation seems to be solely geographic, not cultural or social. They inhabited the area where present-day Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York meet. The first recorded European contact occurred in 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would bear his name. The name of Manhattan was penned by Hudson’s second mate, from a Munsee phrase describing the land, although its exact meaning is subject to debate.

Within a few decades, ninety percent of the Munsee who inhabited the shores of the Hudson River were gone, victims of the diseases brought by Hudson’s men and their successors: smallpox, malaria, and influenza. Their subsequent history throughout the colonial period is well-documented. During the 1700s, the Munsee, like other Delaware tribes, were forced to move from one place to another, establishing villages in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio Territory. In each case they had to settle relationships with neighboring tribes.

The Christian Munsee in Ohio

Monsey PlateDuring this period one group of Munsee began to follow the teachings of the Christian order of Moravians, a German Protestant denomination based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who first came to colonial America as missionaries. The first mission villages were established in New York and Pennsylvania. However, by 1772, it became evident to David Zeisberger, the Moravian missionary, that in order to protect his Munsee converts from the hostilities between natives and settlers, their best option was to move the Munsee mission far west to the Ohio Territory. They settled in the valley of the Muskingum River (now known as the Tuscarawas River) in northeast Ohio. Much of what we know about these Munsee comes from the archived journals of Zeisberger and his successor, Benjamin Mortimer.

The merits and morality of Christian evangelism in general, and Moravian evangelism in particular, will not be addressed here.

The most well-known, and certainly the highest ranking, Delaware Indian convert was Gelelemend, son of John Killbuck and grandson of the great Unami Delaware Chief Netawatwes. When Gelelemend was baptized, he took the name William Henry, and his Moravian brethren called him Billy. Historically he is known as John Kilbuck, Jr. His descendants would continued to use the surname Kilbuck, a name that became synonymous with the Kansas Munsee.

Gnadenhutten MonumentDespite their desire to remain neutral, the mission Munsee were constantly caught in the cross-fire, both figuratively and literally, between the British forces and the Colonial forces, and between the settlers who were moving across the Allegheny Mountains and other Indians, particularly the Shawnee and Ottawa, who opposed the encroachment of settlers from the new United States.

Perhaps the most grievous massacre of innocent native Americans was perpetrated by the forces of Col. David Williamson in 1782 at the Moravian village of Gnadenhütten, where ninety innocent men, women, and children were beaten to death. The only survivors were two grown boys, whom Zeisberger mentions in his report of the incident. [One of those survivors was Jacob, whose sister, Esther, would later bear a son, Caleb, the progenitor of the Caleb family of the Christian Munsee in Kansas.] For decades afterward, the word Gnadenhütten would come up in every discussion of peace negotiations between the Munsee and the United States.

Move to Ontario

After ten more years of strife, in 1792, most of the Christian Munsee followed Zeisberger to southeast Ontario, Canada, where they established the community of Schönfeld (Fairfield), also known as Moraviantown, along the Thames River. After a few years, Zeisberger returned to the Muskingum Valley where he and some of his followers built his last mission at Goshen, but most of the Munsee stayed in Ontario, where they lived in relative peace for twenty years. They supported themselves with their farming and industry, including beekeeping, trapping raccoons, building dugout canoes, and selling nut products and surplus corn.

But once again they became unwitting victims of war, when American soldiers burned their village to the ground during the War of 1812, Battle of the Thames. The battle is known historically as a victory for General William Henry Harrison, and for the death of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, but the utter destruction of Fairfield is little more than a footnote. The Munsee fled into the wilderness for safe haven until hostilities ceased, then returned to build a New Fairfield.

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