Moravian Mission Archives

Posted By BrokenClaw on January 12, 2007

Much of what we know about the early history of the Munsee comes from the records of the Moravian missionaries. Unlike other Christian sects and denominations who came to America for religious freedom, one of the main reasons that the Moravians came to America was to minister to the native population. Their first efforts started in Georgia in 1735, but within five years they had shifted the center of their operation to Pennsylvania, where they founded the town of Bethlehem.

Early on they recognized the value of establishing mission villages beyond the frontier, rather than trying to get the settlers to accept the natives in white culture. As a result, the Moravian missionaries were often the first Europeans to live and interact with native peoples where they lived. The Moravians conversed with several different tribes, but it wasn’t long before their work was concentrated among the Delaware. Early missions were naturally located in Pennsylvania and New York.

The Missionaries

In 1772, David Zeisberger ventured with his native converts into the Ohio Territory where they established the village of Schoenbrunn along the Muskingum (now Tuscarawas) River. Zeisberger was the most famous of the Moravian missionaries, and he has been the subject of many books. Until his death in 1808, he never wavered from his mission to the Delaware and specifically the Munsee. Of course there were other missionaries as well, including Benjamin Mortimer, John Heckewelder, John Schnall, and Christian Denke. Mortimer served as Zeisberger’s assistant and scribe in the later years and succeeded him when Zeisberger died.

Heckewelder was perhaps the most scholarly of the missionaries. He wrote extensively of his experiences with native culture and became a member of the American Philosophical Society. Denke fit into the history of both the Munsee and the Chippewa long before they converged in Kansas. In 1801, the Mission Board assigned him to start a mission among the St. Clair Chippewa. Over the next few years, Denke tried unsuccessfully to establish a mission, but he had considerable dealings with the Chippewa Chief Nangi and his successor, Chief Macounce, who was the father of the Kansas Chippewa patriarch, Francis McCoonse.

The number of Munsee converts was never very large. Although they lived in several villages over the next half-century, the total congregation was never more than a few hundred at any one time. Nevertheless, by the time they moved to Ohio, the Moravian converts and their families were recognized as a distinct group, known interchangeably as the Moravian Indians, the Moravian Munsee, the Christian Munsee, or simply the Christian Indians. Zeisberger often distinguished our Indians from the wild Indians. For example, when he was writing about an impending move to another location, he expressed the need to move in spring, so that they would have time to plant their gardens. He wrote that “wild Indians” could survive solely on hunting, but “our Indians” were accustomed to eating vegetables.

The Archives

The missionaries kept meticulous records of their work. The Moravian immigrants were German, so the majority of the documents were written in German script, a style of writing that today requires a trained eye. In addition to the church register and the letters and reports they sent to the elders in Bethlehem, they also kept a journal of day-to-day activities. The journal, or diary as it was called, would recount all sorts of happenings related to life in the village, such as visitors, harvests, hunting, sickness, problems, and decisions. The sum of all these ongoing papers amounts to over 50,000 pages of handwritten text which is held in the archive library of the Moravian Church in Bethlehem, PA.

Obviously, these papers offer a wealth of information, but most of it is hidden within the boxes upon boxes on library shelves. In recent years, several efforts have been made to translate (into modern German and into English) portions of the documents and to make them more accessible, often driven by the impetus of local historical societies and researchers. Modern anthropologists sometimes lament the fact that the Moravian records, while replete with insight into daily life of the missionaries and converts in the mission village, offer relatively little insight into the native culture that was all around them. One of the earliest systematic efforts to catalog the records was undertaken by Reverend Carl John Fliegel, a research assistant at the Moravian Archives, in 1952. Fliegel decided to read the original documents in search of evidence of the Walam Olum.

The Walam Olum, which means “Red Score” or “Painted Record”, is a cryptic book of origins attributed to the Delaware which narrates how the native Americans crossed (what is now) the Bering Strait and populated the continent. It first appeared in the 19th century, but was claimed to be an ancient text. The man who “discovered” the book was a European-born naturalist and author named Constantine Rafinesque. Since the Moravians had been conversing with the Delaware for nearly a hundred years before that, Fliegel correctly reasoned that surely there would be at least cursory references to the Walam Olum in the missionaries’ writings about their dealings with the Delaware and teachings about Creation. Fliegel spent the rest of his life reading the mission documents, and he probably got through about half of them before he died in 1961, but he found no mention of the Walam Olum. Although it may contain some ancient stories, much of its content has a decidedly European bias. Many scholars today believe that the Walam Olum was either an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Rafinesque or a narrative originating with Delaware Indians long after Eurpean contact. Certainly the absence of evidence from Fliegel supports those conclusions.

Fliegel’s Indexes

However, the importance of Fliegel’s work is much larger than his original intention. Carl John Fliegel was a precise researcher. As he read the documents, he created an index card file on various subjects that he found in the documents. On each card he recorded the location, by box number and folder number, as well as a brief desciption of what he read. The card index grew to tens of thousands. Even without access to the actual documents, researchers find an abundance of information in the Fliegel indexes. Over the last forty years, they have been typed, microfilmed, printed in book form, and finally digitized. The particular index that is important for this genealogy project is the Indian Individuals Index, what Fliegel labeled in Latin as Personalia.

The missionaries recorded births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths, but from a genealogical standpoint, the difficulty is that the Munsee Indians were given a single Christian name, without a surname, into the 1800s. Nevertheless, Fliegel assigned an index number to each native convert, more or less in the order that they were baptized, to distinguish, for example, one Anna Maria from another Anna Maria. In the footnotes of the genealogy database, I include the Fliegel Index number, e.g. Caleb [F1505] and Rachel [F922]. The capital letter F is my own device; Fliegel would never have been so pretentious as to use his own initial. The Fliegel Index has no entries after 1821, so there are no direct references to the group that left in 1837 to become the Kansas Munsee.


2 Responses to “Moravian Mission Archives”

  1. Luke C. Ryan says:

    Hi. Your website is truly fascinating. And it mirrors research that I have been doing, in part, over the last several years while writing my dissertation on Indian Kansas during the 19th century. Please write me so that we can make an introduction and communicate. I know a great deal about the records related to the Christian and Munsee who moved from New Fairfield on the Thames. Best regards, Luke.

  2. The Monrovian recording of the Walam Olum was one of the outstanding actions of EurAmericans. I have found Algonquin words for each set of Walam Olum sounds and have been surprized that the English translation is fairly consistant. Besides being enjoyable historical fiction, the Frozen Trail to Merica novels also solve the mysterious disappearance of the Norse from the Western Settlement of Greenland in the 1300s, and explain the Delaware (Lenape) Indian history, the Walam Olum, which was first spoken in Old Norse.

    The plot of Frozen Trail to Merica is based on Chapter 3 of the Walam Olum, a creation of picture sticks with associated memory verses. After reading the eBook, Frozen Trail to Merica, Hal Sherman, Adopted Shawnee historian, wrote “I … had always felt the Walam Olum to be a true, historical document and your story erases all my doubts.”


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