Tecumseh Helped Me Find My Voice
Karin L. Huebner
My recent article in the spring 2022 JER was a long time coming. I started graduate school late in life at 39 years old. Four years in, I completed my course work, had taken several research trips east, presented at conferences, was preparing for my quals, and written 150 pages on women’s athletic culture in late-nineteenth-century women’s colleges. Then something totally unforeseen happened—I discovered a cache of photographs in my parents’ closet of my great-grandparents and my grandpa as a little boy in Hopi villages in the mid-1910s. My advisor looked through the photographs, then advised me to change my dissertation topic (that’s what advisors do, right?). Five years of work came to a halt as a master’s thesis and in 2004, at 43, I restarted my doctoral studies from scratch. It was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.
I began my dissertation research asking this question: What were my kinfolk doing in the Arizona desert among the Hopi? First, I learned my great-grandfather had been born in the Moravian village of Gnadenhutten; then I discovered that my great-grandmother descended from a revered and beloved anglicized Native American midwife/healer. These discoveries ignited a research journey that I am still walking, sometimes imperceivably, sometimes at break-neck speed.
In 2005, my dad and mom joined me on my first dissertation research trip to Gnadenhutten, Ohio, the birthplace of my father’s grandfather. I had heard about the Gnadenhutten massacre of 1782 throughout my childhood from my father and grandfather, but I had always understood it to have been a battle between warring Delaware Indians and a rival tribe. My great-grandfather, Francis Huebner, had gathered arrowheads as a boy on his family farm in Gnadenhutten in the 1870s, and we had them in an Indian basket on our fireplace hearth. I was always so fascinated by them, wondering, and romanticizing their stories as I rubbed them between my fingers. Forty years later here I was in this small Moravian village standing on the very earth where the arrowheads were collected, thinking there is a different story of the massacre that I needed to discover and tell.
As expected, the massacre was not some romanticized child’s imaginings of warring Indians. It was a genocidal murder by American militiamen during the Revolutionary War of ninety-six Native American aged women, men, and mostly children. Moravian pacifist Indians (yes, most were Delaware; that part of the story was accurate) were bludgeoned, scalped, and burned, their bodies left to rot. I spent five days on that first of several research trips to Gnadenhutten, and I could feel the grief of the village, even 240 years since the massacre had happened. The massacre weighed heavy on this village, the grief was palpable; it fascinated me and gripped me like it was my history.
Over the next five years I returned to the village several times to do research in the archives of the John Heckewelder Memorial Moravian Church. At that time, not many scholars had looked in their collections, which are breathtakingly expansive. I discovered that my ancestor Ludwig Huebner was the first pastor of a revived Gnadenhutten in 1800, eighteen years after the massacre. Two years prior, in 1798, Moravian missionaries and Native relatives of the massacre victims collected the bones and buried them in a mound, which occupies a sacred space in the village today. I discovered that it took nearly sixty years for the white Moravian community to formally memorialize their fallen brethren, not because they didn’t think about it, but because (I believe) it was too painful to think about, for reasons that were political, cultural, and spiritual.
In 1843, the church community formed the Gnadenhutten Monument Society, and formal commemorations of the massacre began in 1872, which continue today. For the 1898 Centennial Celebration, my great-grandfather Francis wrote a history titled The Moravian Missions in Ohio, which included how the memory of the massacre impacted him as a child growing up in Gnadenhutten. From these materials I wrote a dissertation chapter, then converted it to an article on the memory of the massacre from the white Moravian perspective. I opened my article with the line that “it took sixty-five years to remember the massacre” . . . thankfully the article has sat on the shelf for 10 years, because I was wrong.
Life takes unforeseen turns, and just after I received my PhD in 2009 and still working on this article, my father passed away. This necessitated my staying close to home, and so I began the adjunct professor/administrative track. Research and writing became challenging to nearly impossible. No time, minimal support, my identity as a scholar was fading. But something about the story of the massacre and its meaning just wouldn’t let me go . . .
In the summer of 2016, I took my final research trip to Gnadenhutten. I happened upon some 1840s papers that noted Tecumseh’s 1810 speech to William Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, and future president. In his speech, Tecumseh referenced a murder of Christian Indians. “After this conduct,” Tecumseh said to Harrison, “can you blame me for placing little confidence in the promises of our Fathers, the Americans?” This piqued my interest. I began to dig deeper to understand where and why and how Tecumseh appropriated this event. I tracked his life backward and discovered that during some of the most formative years of his pan-Indian and nativist sensibilities, he lived at the multi-tribal White River community among which lived many relatives of the Gnadenhutten massacre. These apostate, ex-Moravians exposed him to the horrors and broken promises of the white people. Six years later, after many starts and stops, my research culminated in my current JER article, “Brother, after this conduct, can you blame me?” The Echo of Native American Memory of the 1782 Massacre at Gnadenhutten.
The discovery of the Indigenous memory of the massacre, starting with Tecumseh, unleashed my scholarly voice, which had lay dormant for over ten years. Being an adjunct professor on the administrative track, I had little time for research or writing and yet I knew that my original posit, that there was sixty years of silence on the massacre, was wrong. But I did not know anything else—until Tecumseh spoke to me and told me otherwise.
11 April 2022
About the Author
Karin L. Huebner is academic director of programs at the University of Southern California Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study and an adjunct assistant professor in the USC department of history.