The Gnadenhutten Massacre Revisited: A Response to David Barton

In his recent World article regarding our challenge to The Jefferson Lies, David Barton rejects our criticism of his treatment of Indian policy under Thomas Jefferson. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton claims Jefferson demonstrated a persistent interest in getting the Gospel to the Indians. In our book, Getting Jefferson Right (lengthy excerpt at World – still the most read article on the site), we examine various historical events relating to that claim and find that Barton does not get the facts right.

One such event is the Gnadenhutten Massacre (click the link for more on this atrocity). The reason this event is critical is because it formed the rationale for legislation Jefferson reauthorized while president. This legislation protected land ownership claims for a group of Delaware Indians converted under the mission of the United Brethren Church. Barton claims that Jefferson’s approval of the legislation authorized Christian mission work to the Delaware. Since the legislation has nothing to do with mission work but everything to do with recognizing the appointment of the United Brethren as trustees of the Indian land, we counter that the legislation was a kind of reparation triggered by the Gnadenhutten massacre and subsequent fallout from that tragedy. Barton, in his World article, talks about the massacre but fails to portray it accurately which sets the stage for an incorrect rendering of the federal government’s response.

In his World article, Barton claims that the Gnadenhutten massacre of 96 Delaware Indian converts was conducted by a group of “fanatics” who believed the Indians should be killed to follow the example of the Jews who killed the inhabitants of the land given to them by God. His source is a British writer, John Holmes, who took his account from a variety of sources. It is important to recognize that there were many conflicting accounts of the massacre at the time and the truth did not come out immediately. However, there are accounts of the massacre given by participants that make it clear that it was a group of men marching under the name of the Washington County (Pennsylvania) militia that carried out the atrocity. Apparently, this fact is important to Barton because he needs the government’s actions toward the Delaware to be a missionary effort and not a protection of their land claims based on the atrocity committed by the white man’s militia. In fact, the best sources, including the missionaries who represented the Christian Indians, attest to the involvement of members of the militia.

Barton summarizes our position as follows:

So, in these (and other) quotes, Throckmorton makes clear his view that:

  1. Congress helped the Christian Delaware only because of a specific atrocity; and

  2. Congress in general and Jefferson in particular had no interest in and were not involved with missionary or evangelistic work among native peoples, including the Delaware.

Barton changes our argument by saying that we include Congress in our scope of fact checking. This is not true. Barton’s claims in The Jefferson Lies were about Jefferson, not Congress in general. We actually do acknowledge that U.S. policy toward the Indians used religion as a misguided means of civilizing the Indians. We also argue, based on his correspondence, that Jefferson disagreed with this policy. Barton spends three pages of his World article describing evidence that the federal government supported mission work to the Indians, as if these policies are directly relevant to what Jefferson thought and did. As we document in our book, Jefferson called this mission work ineffective and did not support missionaries as a first line approach.

Barton then claims that the 1785 ordinance which set aside land for the Christian Indians was just part of government policy toward the Delaware. However, what Barton fails to tell readers is that the correspondence between the United Brethren missionaries who represented the Christian Indians and the government did mention the massacre and that the missionaries specifically asked for protection of their claims for land.

In October, 1783, Bishop John Ettwein and two other Brethren leaders wrote Congress and specifically mentioned the massacre conducted by militia men. They asked for the Congress to protect their land claims and to allow a trustee appointed by the Indians to act in their stead. This memorial to Congress set off a series of letters and actions which culminated in the 1785 Land Ordinance we describe in our book. While we did not have the memorial at the time we wrote our book, I am reproducing it below so it can be clear what ultimately triggered the legislation Jefferson signed. The original can be viewed at and I have copied it here, doing my best to read the original script.

To the Honourable the United States of America in Congress

The Memorial of John Ettwein, Andrew Hubner, and Hans Christian DeSchweining of Bethlehem in the County of Northampton in the State of Pennsylvania, agents for the Mission of the United Brethren Church to the Indians of America.

Your Memorialists beg Leave to remind Your Honours of that dreadful Massacre and Robbery which on the 7th and 8th days of March, 1782 at a place called Gnadenhutten on Muskingum River were committed by a Company of Men upon the Bodies and Property of a number of Indian Natives converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Event has been anounced (sic) by Several Hands in the Public News Papers. Some have blamed and some have praised the Perpetrators of the Deed.  The Assemblies of Pennsylvania and Virginia as it is said have ordered Inquiries to be made on that subject but your Memorialists never heard or saw any report made on these Orders or on either of them. In the Month of May last, your Memorialists dispatched live Messengers who by the way of Albany, Oswego, etc., went to Detroit and from thence to the River Huron where the Remnants of these Christian Indian Congregations lately flourishing on the Borders of Muskingum are now grubbing up the Wilderness and intend to form a new Settlement. Your Memorialists have since by a Return Messenger from Huron River received a number of Letters and Account of the dreadful Catastrophe that befell this Christian Congregation of Indians and especially the Journal kept by the Reverend David Zeisberger, first a Missionary of the United Brethren Church among the American Indians from July, 1781 to August, 1783. A copy whereof translated from the German Language in which it was originally written, they beg leave to present to Your Honours – This a piece of History which it may be permitted to lye on Your Table and be compared with the Results of the Inquiries by the States of Pennsylvania and Virginia ordered to be made may throw some light upon the dark Transactions of the 7th and 8th of March, 1782. Its Author maintains the Character of a true Historian while he mentions the Sources from which he has taken his Accounts and has connected (?) with this awful and solemn day of Murder and Rape the Facts precedent and consequential , a Day of which the Reader of American Annals will say with Thuanas

Excidat illa Dies Aevo nec Posteri credant etc.*

We further beg leave to represent to Your Honours on behalf of the Christian Indians lately on Muskingum now on Huron River:

1. That the said Indians, unoffensive and friendly to the White People and having many Years since been a Barrier and the means of averting the Indian Hatchet from the Neck of the Frontier Inhabitants, are in good Policy intitled (sic) to the Protection of the United States of America.

2. That such atrocious acts of Murder and Robbery by a lawless Band of Men going out under the respectable Name of the County Militia but in fact without any lawful Order or Commission are Insults on the Authority of the United States and of the State in which these Murderers and Robbers are resident. And that the Killing and Plundering the rightfull (sic) Owners of Land gives no Title to the Murderers and Robbers to hold the Land and Tenements of the deforced (?) Proprietors thereof.

3. That the Mission of the United Brethren among the Indians has been carried on with good Labour and Expence (sic) these Forty Years and upwards and is to this day notwithstanding the Obloquy and Persecution of a number of Zealots and Enthusiasts an Honour to the Confession of the Christian Religion and the Public Weal. And is therefore well deserving the Countinance (sic) and Protection of the United States of America.

And Your Memorialists in behalf of the remaining Christian Indians on Huron Rover and the Mission of the United Brethren Church most humbly beseech Your Honours to take their case into Your consideration and if it shall appear to you that these Indians and the Missionaries among them ought to be protected in their Freedom, Lives, and Property and that no Person or Persons has any right or Title to the Lands and Tenements from which they have been driven but that their three new towns Gnadenhutten, Schoenbrun, and Salem by them built at Muskingum and a Reasonable District of circumjacent land should never be disposed of or seated on by any Person or Persons without making a purchase thereof with your certain knowledge from the Christian Indians now on the Huron River or such Trustees as they shall appoint, then to declare the Rights of the same Indians and Your Resolves concerning them in such manner as in Your Wisdom shall be judged proper.

Philad… 28th, October, 1783

John Ettwein

Andrew Hubner

Hans Christian DeSchweining

On the last page, someone (probably Charles Thomson) marked the memorial with a referral to a committee of Congress.

Memorial of J. Etwein

A. Hubner

H.C. DeSchweining

Respecting the Indians late of Muskingum 

Recd Nov. 7 of 83

Referred to M. Williamson

W. Lee

?. Osgood

It should be clear from this petition that the eventual protection of the lands in Southeastern Ohio for the Christian Indians was done in response to this memorial which raised the Gnadenhutten massacre as a reason to protect those claims. Furthermore, the Brethren memorialists raised the possibility that a trustee (the Brethren) would be needed to act on behalf of the Christian Indians.

We lay the rest of this out step by step in our book and I encourage skeptics to read it. You will find much that Barton doesn’t want you to see.


*Latin for “Forget that day or next time they…” from the Latin poet Silvae (translation from Google)

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  • JR

    When will your rebuttal to Barton’s article be published at World?

    • We are working on it now and hope to have it there perhaps mid-next week.

  • Tom Van Dyke

    I can’t believe you’re losing to this guy.

    Jefferson saw the social utility of religion, and that’s just the truth. The “Christian Indians” were given special if not unique consideration and reparations because they were Christian and not troublesome savages,

    1. That the said Indians, unoffensive and friendly to the White People and having many Years since been a Barrier and the means of averting the Indian Hatchet from the Neck of the Frontier Inhabitants, are in good Policy intitled (sic) to the Protection of the United States of America.


    an Honour to the Confession of the Christian Religion and the Public Weal.

    The early American republic seldom did what was “right,” only that which was useful.

    This whole discussion is a mess—the original pre-constitution 1783-85 Indian treaties and laws passed under the Articles of Confederation government are sloughed in with the Jefferson government’s re-authorization of them in the 1800s, two different time periods, officially, two different US governments, the Articles gov’t and the US Constitution gov’t that elected GWash its first president and TJeff its 3rd.

    Your debate with Barton here—again my taking no side in the substance—is reduced to your quotes and his:

    We actually do acknowledge that U.S. policy toward the Indians used religion as a misguided means of civilizing the Indians.

    David Barton would be happy—or at least wise—to accept this statement by you as a win, a surrender on your part, to his greater thesis. The US gov’t gospelled the Indians. Even though Jefferson wasn’t a supporter, neither did e go to the mat against it. Your war with barton has been about backing the other into the most absurd or indefensible claim, but bartom write at World in reply, and in an ultimate victory for his greater thesis:

    Jefferson wanted a greater separation between church and state than many Founders, but even he did not advocate the complete and utter separation favored by contemporary organizations such as the ACLU. Given the many jurists, academics, and popular authors who claim that he did, it is a shame that Throckmorton misses this larger argument and instead strains at gnats.

    The rest is indeed the battle of the meaning and interpretation of this factoid or that, straining at gnats.

    “Let me close this section by pointing to one of the most strained arguments in Throckmorton’s book. He suggests that the “Indians” mentioned in the title of the 1804 abridgement might actually refer to Jefferson’s “political opponents.”[cviii] Really? Thomas Jefferson abridged the Bible for the use of John Adams, John Marshall, and other Federalists? This paragraph alone should raise red flags for anyone who thinks that Throckmorton is engaged in dispassionate historical analysis.

    Actually, I agree with you & Prof. Coulter on this completely, that Jefferson’s reference to “Indians” was more smoke screen than sincerity. But Barton taking Jefferson literally about a “gospel to the Indians” is at least arguable.

    I can’t believe you’re losing to this guy. You dragged him into the tall weeds but it’s he who’s beating the crap out of you.

    “Jefferson wanted a greater separation between church and state than many Founders, but even he did not advocate the complete and utter separation favored by contemporary organizations such as the ACLU….it is a shame that Throckmorton misses this larger argument and instead strains at gnats.”

    See, David Barton is right about that. And me, that’s my interest in this whole mess. I have no doubt that David Barton has argued Jefferson and religion not only to the point of straining, but of breaking. But in the end, even if the hedgehog knows one thing and one thing only, Barton is not wrong about the one thing he knows.

  • James Ferguson

    Except that comparing Jefferson’s position on religion with that of the ACLU is a bit absurd, isn’t it? We are talking about a separation of over 150 years, with an entire evangelical movement grown up in between. In Jefferson’s time there was very little resembling the kind of evangelism we see today, yet Barton consistently tries to paint Jefferson as an evangelist, right down to forming the Univ. of Virginia as a religious-based school, not a secular one. He even attacks Unitarians in the process, which Jefferson was. If he couldn’t get a few Unitarians on the staff it wasn’t because of lack of effort on his part, but because of a state that was openly hostile to Unitarians, and refused to accept Jefferson’s suggestions in this regard.

    The whole thing with Jefferson’s first “Bible” is not only breaking, but distorting Jefferson’s intended purpose of his abridged New Testament, which was for his own personal use, not for proselytizing, as Barton insists upon. Not only were there no copies ever made beyond the initial one, but he conflates this initial abridged New Testament with the comparative “BIble” he later produced, which overlaid the original Greek with Latin, French and English. Obviously, a scholarly approach, not an evangelical one.

    But, I would agree that Barton is dragging everyone into his “debate,” and ultimately he wins by getting others to take this ridiculous book of his seriously. I’m sure he would love nothing more than to draw Joseph Ellis and other historians into this as well, believing as he does that this legitimizes his work.

  • Warren

    Tom VanDyke said:

    Jefferson saw the social utility of religion, and that’s just the truth. The “Christian Indians” were given special if not unique consideration and reparations because they were Christian and not troublesome savages,

    Your last statement does not follow from your first. Yes, Jefferson saw the social utility of religion. However, it does not follow that the Christian Indians were given special consideration by Jefferson because they were Christian. As we point out in our book, Jefferson was ready to take the land back because he thought the Indians had moved to Canada. If not for John Ettwein’s constant pleading, the land around Gnadenhutten would have been claimed by the federal government. Others people were more instrumental than Jefferson in getting the legislation passed. Jefferson’s role was peripheral to the entire episode and he later simply reauthorized the policy of his predecessors. Barton wants to make this about Jefferson and we point out the facts.

    Furthermore, as we also point out in the book, Jefferson declared mission work ineffective to the civilization of the native people. Barton will never mention these letters and falsely claims Jefferson didn’t say what he said.

    In any case, interest is not in winning; it is in getting the narrative right which we have done.

    RE: Barton being engaged by historians and winning. Does winning mean having the disgrace of a book removed from publication, having your book voted as the least credible history book, your speaking engagements cancelled, and public questions about your credibility from evangelical leaders? Sounds like #winning ala #charliesheen.

  • James Ferguson

    I suppose if you look at Barton trying to reach a broader audience, then yes he has failed and failed badly. His book has been widely discredited. But, I’m afraid these criticisms feed into the paranoia in his camp. He has already dismissed you Warren as one of those lofty academics, even when you come from the same Evangelical background as he does.

    Perception is what he is after, not truth. As long as he is able to maintain the perception among his following that he is a legitimate evangelical historian, he is able to sell books, get speaking engagements and influence Republican party platforms and Texas school books. Those who follow Barton don’t read history, and certainly aren’t going to make the attempt to read your cogent posts, much less your book. Paul Harvey noted this back in June, 2012

    • James – I agree that his loyal supporters will continue to believe him no matter what. Festinger identified the psychology of a true believer in his book When Prophecy Fails. Barton has many such true believers and I don’t expect that we will reach many of them (although we have reached a few). The more general damage to education and evangelical scholarship is what I am more concerned about.

  • ken

    Tom Van Dyke says:

    February 6, 2013 at 2:25 am

    “Jefferson wanted a greater separation between church and state than many Founders, but even he did not advocate the complete and utter separation favored by contemporary organizations such as the ACLU….it is a shame that Throckmorton misses this larger argument and instead strains at gnats.”

    What you miss Tom is that Barton’s re-framing of his own arguments. Barton had (and probably still is to different audiences) been claiming that christianity got special consideration above other religions in the US (christianty is free-er) and that Jefferson supported this notion. Further, even if Barton’s original stance was that Jefferson wouldn’t agree with the ACLU of today, his mis-representations of Jefferson’s position don’t support that argument.

    What Warren (et. al) has been doing is showing that Barton is distorting history for his own ends. And that Barton’s distortions aren’t limited to Jefferson’s postion on christianity.

  • James Ferguson

    Warren – if your work forces the Texas state school board to reassess some of the decisions it has been making then it will be a job very well done. This is my biggest worry, since as Texas goes so too does the rest of the country as far as school books are concerned,

  • Chris Rodda

    Hey Warren … one thing that should be clarified: By the time Jefferson was president, the legislation had nothing to do with the Delawares’ land — not even in the sense of it having to do with the United Brethren being trustees of the land. Everything in the original act of 1796 regarding the Delawares’ land grant had been completed by 1798, before Jefferson was president. The only reason the United Brethren trust had been in the 1796 act in the first place was because the Delawares’ land grant was in the area of the military land grants, so it was ordered to be surveyed at the same time as the military land grants. The acts signed by Jefferson were only to extend the time for the claiming of military land grants. The United Brethren were still in the titles of these acts, but that was only because they were extensions of a part of the original 1796 act so the title of the act didn’t change even though there was nothing whatsoever in them about the United Brethren trust.

  • Dan

    The men of the Washington County militia were true Christians. They believed in the Bible and they lived their Biblical values. That is why they killed all those people.

  • ken

    You know dan, your constant “christian baiting” says more about you than it does christians.

  • Tom Van Dyke

    In any case, interest is not in winning; it is in getting the narrative right which we have done.

    Actually, you’ve done your share of opinionating, elevating differences in interpretation of some historical events into subastantive differences over the facts. Further, as Ms. Rodda illustrates, quite a muddle has been made of this whole affair, where the original 1786 accommodation of the Christian Indians is jumbled in with Jefferson’s routine re-authorizarion of the facts on the ground.

    But in the end, for Barton, this isn’t about Jefferson, it’s about Everson, about the 21st century, not the 18th.

    Daniel Dreisbach [who incidentally is seldom mentioned as party to the Texas Textbook Massacre] is quite an able and accredited academic, with a doctorate from Oxford and a law degree from UVa. Baton’s larger thesis is highly derivative of Dreisbach’s

    When historical truth becomes the real priority instead of punking an amateur like Barton, Dreisbach awaits.

    “No metaphor in American letters has had a more profound influence on law and policy than Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” Today, this figure of speech is accepted by many Americans as a pithy description of the constitutionally prescribed church-state arrangement, and it has become the sacred icon of a strict separationist dogma that champions a secular polity in which religious influences are systematically and coercively stripped from public life.

    In our own time, the judiciary has embraced this figurative phrase as a virtual rule of constitutional law and as the organizing theme of church-state jurisprudence, even though the metaphor is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the United States Supreme Court was asked to interpret the First Amendment’s prohibition on laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” “In the words of Jefferson,” the justices famously declared, the First Amendment “was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State’…[that] must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”

    In the half-century since this landmark ruling, the “wall of separation” has become the locus classicus of the notion that the First Amendment separated religion and the civil state, thereby mandating a strictly secular polity.

    What is the source of this figure of speech, and how has this symbol of strict separation between religion and public life come to dominate church-state law and policy? Of Jefferson’s many celebrated pronouncements, this is one of his most misunderstood and misused. I would like to challenge the conventional, secular myth that Thomas Jefferson, or the constitutional architects, erected a high wall between religion and the civil government.”

    In the meantime, Barton’s concern is indeed the ACLU, not the Huffington Post, people who hate him anyway. Now it’s true you’ve rocked his world enough that he’s gone to the pro-evangelical World magazine to make a rare defense of his work. However, the quibbles do not amount to a refutation of his larger argument vs. Everson, and they’re not 100% airtight either [for example, y’d have to show a number of pagan tribes getting treatment as good as the Christian Indians did], so this is why he’s slipping your noose.

  • Zoe Brain


    Barton’s claim :

    “I have searched and in the founding era I think I’ve only ever found two gun accidents, and everybody was hauling guns back then.

    That may very well be true – that he’s only found two.

    BECK: “Kids did not shoot each other.”

    BARTON: “Oh no. No, no, no. Again, two accidents I have seen in two hundred years of everybody having guns. It just didn’t happen.”

    Ok, so let’s just look at gun accidents involving children. And only in a period of 6 years, not 200.

    From the Massachusetts Spy, Worcester, Massachusetts, October 1, 1789:

    “At Capeelizabeth, on Saturday the 5th inst., James Mayo, a child of two years old, was shot through the head by his brother, a boy about 12, who was playing with a loaded musket — The jury were of the opinion that the child’s death was accidental.”

    From the Herald of Freedom, Boston, February 2, 1790:


    “We learn from Shaftsbury, in Vermont, that a number of small boys were lately hunting there when one of them, named Ebenezer Bottom, was pushing a wad into his gun with his finger at the same time that another boy was priming it, the gun discharged, by which accident Bottom was badly wounded in the hand, and John Welsh, son of Mr. Ebenezer Welsh, of Norwich, was shot in the body and died in a few days after. — This affords a melancholly caution to parents not to trust their children with guns till they have discretion to know how to use them.”

    There’s the two, I assume.

    From the Litchfield Monitor, Litchfield, Connecticut, August 17, 1791:

    “PORTSMOUTH, July 27.

    “Saturday last, the following melancholy accident happened in the parish of North-Hampton. — A son of Mr. John Page, about 12 years of age, went into the house of a negro family, in his father’s neighbourhood, (the negro man and his wife were absent, and had left three or four children at home, the eldest about 7 years old) and observing a loaded gun in the corner of the room, he immediately took it into his hands, cocked it, and drew it by the muzzle to the door, when by some accident it went off, and discharged its contents of powder, shot, and wadding into his breast and out at his back, which put an immediate period to his existence.

    “We hope the above will serve as a caution to parents how they leave implements of destruction in the way of their children.”

    From the Weekly Register, Norwich, Connecticut, March 13, 1792:

    “The following accident happened in this city last Saturday — A loaded musket being left standing in the corner of a room in the house of Mr. Charles Jeffry, jun. a neighouring boy came in and took the musket to the door, where he discharged it; a girl of Mr. Jeffry’s about seven years old, at the same instant coming in the door, the charge went through her arm, which took it off.”

    From the Litchfield Monitor, Litchfield, Connecticut, May 1, 1793:

    “Winchester, April 10, 1793:

    “On Tuesday the 9th inst. William Case, aged 18, son of Mr. William R. Case, of this town, died of a wound received in his right arm by the accidental discharge of a musket. The Wednesday preceding his death, the deceased, in company with a young man of the neighbourhood, went in pursuit of ducks: On their way to the pond, the unfortunate, being forward of his companion, whose gun unhappily went off, the contents was lodged as above; and notwithstanding every means and effort of the faculty and his friends, he died a few days after the accident. He was a promising youth, much endeared and lamented by his parents, and all his acquaintance. — It is hoped that this accident, among others, will be a lesson of caution to those who either for sport or exercise make use of fire arms.”

    From the Rising Sun, Keene, New Hampshire, October 6, 1795:


    “Last week, at Chesterfield, a young man by the name of Johnson, about 16 years of age, was handling a loaded musket, it accidentally went off and discharged the contents into his throat, which killed him instantly.”

    From the Philadelphia Gazette, September 12, 1795:


    “On Tuesday last, a daughter of Mr. Thomas Davis, formerly of this place, was at a Mr. Strutton of Amherst, near Buffaloe river, and no person being present but children, a little son of Mr. Strutton, took up a loaded rifle, and while handling the piece, unfortunately discharged the ball through the head of Mr. Davis’ daughter, at which instant she fell, and lay a considerable time before any grown person arrived. — A lesson to the incautious heads of families.”

    etc etc etc.

    So much for his extensive research.