Day of Remembrance highlights Moravian Delaware perspective

Day of Remembrance highlights Moravian Delaware perspective
Teri Stein

Containers of tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass are ready for the ceremony. The fragrant plants are added to the fire for purification.


Gerard Heath is happy to be a high school history teacher for the day when students from Indian Valley High School visit the Day of Remembrance at the Gnadenhutten Historical Park. The students have been in attendance at the ceremony and throughout the day for the past three years.

This year marked the 238th anniversary of the Gnadenhutten Massacre, where 96 Christian Delaware Native Americans were killed on March 8, 1782, by the Pennsylvania Militia. The memorial service was held on March 9 so the students could attend.

“I look forward to giving them a slant on history I know they haven’t heard. They’ll hear a Native slant on American History. It’s important, especially since this is their town and such an unbelievable thing happened here,” said Heath, a member of the Delaware Nation. “It’s necessary that people remember. Education is the key. These things happen, and they will continue to happen without education.”

Heath has been coming to Gnadenhutten for the past 10 years to honor his ancestors after he read a book by Elma Gray called “Wilderness Christians: The Moravian Mission to the Delaware Indians.”

“What happened 238 years ago yesterday, the Pennsylvania Militia men came riding into town on a revenge mission,” Heath said. “They thought that these native people had killed other people, which they had not. They were pacifists, and the people who killed them knew it, but that didn’t matter.”

The militia told the natives they were going to be taken to Fort Pitt for protection, and the natives gave up their weapons as a sign of good faith.

“As soon as that happened, the treachery was revealed, and they told them that they were going to kill them the next day,” Heath said. “In the cabins you see behind me, they spent the night praying and singing hymns, knowing that when the sun rose, they would be sent to the Creator.”

The scene could not have been more gruesome. When sunrise came, the Natives were killed with a wooden Cooper’s mallet to save ammunition before the victims were scalped.

“Then they set fire to the buildings,” Heath said. “I want you to imagine just for a moment 238 years ago everything behind me was on fire and 96 men, women and children are laying in the grass dead.”

It would be 15 years before the victims were given a burial by Rev. John Heckewelder. “He gathered them up and put them in this mound that you see before me. This is my family, how direct we don’t know, but it’s all family. People of the same names are still in Canada that were here at that time,” Heath said.

Christian Moses Stonefish, a multiple-great-grandfather of Heath, dedicated the obelisk memorial at the Gnadenhutten Memorial Park 90 years after the massacre when he traveled from Canada to the village, and 147 years afterward in 2019, Heath was pleased to dedicate a large wooden cross that stands near the burial mound.

Heath is supporting a project to redesign the area to cordon off the mound and cross area with fencing, moving a parking lot away from the mound to make it more private. There also are plans to cordon off the cabin area where the massacre took place.

“When you walk into the area, you’ll have to walk through an opening. You’ll get the sense that something is different about this area. We are going to interpret the park from the Moravian Delaware perspective,” Heath said.

Tax-deductible contributions may be made by marking the donations for the cross project and sending to John Heil, 156 Spring St., Gnadenhutten, OH 44629. Make checks payable to the Gnadenhutten Museum.

Heath is grateful for the help of the Gnadenhutten Museum’s volunteer curator. “John Heil has been an exceptional friend to the Delaware people. He’s making sure this day and these people are remembered,” he said.

Chief Denise Stonefish of the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown, Canada opened the program in the Lenape language to start the memorial service and then repeated it in English.

“We give thanks to the Creator for giving us this day. We give thanks to the Earth whose back we are on for as long as we are here. Help us to speak the truth and to walk a good path in the light as long as we live,” Stonefish said.

Stonefish later distributed tobacco, which is meaningful to the Delaware, and encouraged visitors to say a prayer and place the tobacco on the mound.

Theresa Johnson of Moraviantown, Canada also spoke to the crowd. She and her husband Larry came to the area the first time about 20 years ago to see where their ancestors lived.

“I was shocked because I had been working on my family tree. My family is there. I have an uncle, grandfather and cousins buried there. I just broke down and cried,” she said, adding she and her husband have committed to coming back every year for the memorial.

Joe Bonamico, a 40-year member of the outdoor drama, "Trumpet in the Land," which tells the story of the Moravians and Delaware people, read some passages from the show’s script that illustrated the spirit of cooperation between the Delaware and the Moravian missionaries.

“I would be remiss if I did not recognize the strength and intestinal fortitude that these brave men and women showed to the world on that day,” Bonamico said. “What the Delaware ancestors sacrificed when they stood here that day and believed in is without parallel.”

“None of us know how strong our faith is until it is tested. What the Delaware achieved here at Gnadenhutten is a powerful and illuminating beacon to learn from and to follow. The Delaware here at Gnadenhutten gave us the strongest example of valor that has been seen to date,” Bonamico said.

Two moving performances completed the program. Larry Wonderley of Midvale played a wooden Native American flute, and Larry Johnson played a drum and sang a song in memory of the victims.

The program was meaningful for all who attended. “A lot of our people don’t know our history. That is something our community is trying to change to let our young people know who they are and where they came from. You can’t move forward until you know where you have been,” Stonefish said.

Loading next article...

End of content

No more pages to load