David Zeisberger, a Moravian missionary whose Native American converts were slaughtered by Pennsylvania militiamen in the Gnaddenhuetten Massacre of 1781, is born in Zauchental, Moravia, near Ostrava, in what is now the Czech Republic, on this day in 1781.
The Zeisberger family moved to Herrnhut, Saxony, to join a Moravian community there in the late 1720s. In 1736, David’s parents left for the Moravian settlement in the new colony of Georgia, leaving their son to complete his schooling in Herrnhut. Zeisberger joined his parents in 1738 and traveled with them to Pennsylvania, where they settled in 1740. Although he was slated to return to Germany in 1743, leading Moravian Bishop David Nitschmann noticed the young man’s reluctance to depart and convinced him to remain in Pennsylvania.
Zeisberger then began learning the languages essential to his future role as a missionary among Native Americans. Beginning with Delaware and Mohawk, Zeisberger eventually mastered Onondaga, Cayuga, Mahican and Ojibwa, as well as a second dialect of the Delaware language.
The Moravians pacifism placed them and their Native American converts in a difficult position during the violent second half of the 18th century. In 1781, David Zeisberger was taken to Detroit for questioning by the British. Although he was eventually released, the Indians he had converted and offered shelter at Gnaddenhuetten, Ohio, were murdered by members of the Pennsylvania militia in his absence.
Tension between Euro-Americans and Native Americans in the Ohio Valley forced Zeisberger and his followers to mover further north into Michigan and Ontario in the late 1780s and early 1790s.