Moravians at War
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French and Indian War: Lighting the Fuse
(Photo courtesy of Don Troiani)
In the early morning of May 28, 1754, in the backcountry of western Pennsylvania, Lt. George Washington ordered his men to attack 36 sleeping French soldiers, capturing or killing all but one man. Among the dead was a French ambassador. The French viewed Washington’s slaughter as an act of war and sent a large force after him, lighting the fuse of three major wars that would sweep across the colonies: The French and Indian War (1754-1763), The Cherokee War (1758-1761), and Pontiac’s War (1763-1766). The upheaval in the region delayed construction of the central town of Salem, which allowed Bethabara to grow into a much more substantial town than the originally envisioned “house of passage.”
By September of 1755, 29 men, women, and children had been killed, six wounded, and 12 captured by French-allied Natives in southwest Virginia. Some of the attacks were within a three-day walk to Bethabara. On May 18, 1756, the Moravians had their first encounter with the indigenous group they would come to meet often, the Cherokee. Even though the Cherokee were British allies, the tension is evident in these passages from the Bethabara diary, recorded in May of 1756:
“Br. Jacob Loesch, who had ridden out early in the morning to get oil, came home in the evening and reported that he had met 11Indians [likely Cherokee]…They wanted to take his horse and repeatedly ordered him to dismount, but he refused to do it. They asked if he had rum in the keg which he had taken for the oil;—he said no, and struck the keg to show that it was empty. Then they again told him to dismount, he refused and said he needed the horse, that he could not travel afoot…and he then asked them whether they were hungry, and told them to come to his farm, twelve miles away, and he would fill them full of food…Then they went on their way and he on his, filled his keg, fed his horse, and set
out on his return.”
—Bethabara Diary, May 18, 1756
“[A refugee] was sent to the mill, and hardly reached there when a party of eight Indians [Cherokee] also arrived there. Our Brethren went quietly on with their work; Br. Jacob Loesch went to them, spoke to them kindly, asked who they were, where they came from, and whither they were going, all of which they answered politely…We gave them a few clay pipes, for which they were grateful, and went gravely from one to the other of us shaking hands. Then we gave them food, and they camped in the woods near our mill, spending the night very quietly. Perhaps we were too many for them, for there were several at the mill, and other Brethren went over to see them; twelve Brethren stayed at the mill all night, on guard.”
— Bethabara Diary, May 25, 1756
Bethabara on the Frontier
In the early spring of 1756, Captain Hugh Waddell, commander of Fort Dobbs, negotiated a treaty between the Catawba and Cherokee — two Nations that had historically been at war — and the British government. Waddell promised that North and South Carolina would protect allied Native settlements with forts and equip them with supplies if they sent warriors north to fight the French and their Native allies. French-allied Native groups included the Shawnee, Mingo, Seneca, Wyandot, Ottawa, and Lenape. Most often, the Shawnee attacked settlers in the Wachovia region, while other groups operated further north. Waddell’s negotiation was successful and the alliance between the Cherokee, Catawba, and British seemed secure.
A few months later, the Brethren held a tense meeting in the Gemeinhaus. Christian Henrich shared a rumor that “the Cherokees, hitherto [their] friendly neighbors, had joined the French.” Although the accusation later proved false, it raised concern with the Brethren. He also noted that families to the west “were leaving their farms and retreating,” while Bethabara remained “on the frontier, and therefore likely to be the first point of attack.” In response, construction of a defensive palisade around the town began the next day, with men assigned to felling trees and digging trenches. All other work, with the exception of harvesting, was put on hold until the palisade was completed. The Brethren finished construction in 18 days and, by August, they had completed another fort around the mill.
After the palisades were completed, refugees flooded into Bethabara from the New River Valley and southwest Virginia, fleeing attacks from French-allied Native warriors. Along with the influx of refugees, large numbers of Cherokee stopped at Bethabara on their way to fight for the British in northern Virginia. In 1758 alone, more than 565 Cherokee stopped for food and shelter in Bethabara.
The Seasons of War
In early May 1759, more than 120 refugees fled to Bethabara’s palisades amid reported attacks along the Yadkin and Ararat Rivers. Sheriff Edward Hughes, who lived 15 miles west of Bethabara in the Bryan Settlement, was surrounded by a party of Cherokee warriors on May 9. A rescue party from Bethabara drove the warriors away. The refugees returned to their homes at the end of the month, only to come back four days later when one man was killed and another wounded.
By summer, attacks in North Carolina had become less frequent. The only hints of war were the occasional North Carolina Provincial soldiers patrolling the frontier and the exchange of supplies between Bethabara and Fort Dobbs.
Fall was quiet aside from the traveling Provincial soldiers and supply exchanges. The Cherokee fought an invading army from
South Carolina. The Moravians faced a deadly typhus outbreak.
The winter saw a resurgence of refugees who heeded warnings that large numbers of Cherokee warriors were headed their way from Salisbury. Repairs to the mill palisade were made, powder arrived from Fort Dobbs, and a watch was set at the mill and in the town in preparation for an attack. On March 4, news arrived of the February 27 Cherokee attack on Fort Dobbs.
On March 8, a wounded man stumbled into Bethabara, relating that two people he had been traveling with were killed on
the west bank of the Yadkin. A party sent to bury the dead were driven back by a large party of Cherokee warriors. The following days proved the bloodiest. Over 20 people in and around Wachovia were killed or wounded, some just outside of the walls of the mill fort. On March 16, the single worst day of bloodshed, the Moravians woke to see their neighbors’ houses engulfed in flames. By the end of the day, they received word that 15 of their neighbors had been killed.
American Revolution 1775-1783
Word of the April 19th Battles of Lexington and Concord, which sparked the American Revolution, reached Wachovia on May 17, 1775. By August, North Carolina was requesting supplies from Moravian settlements, and by October the first Continental soldiers marched through Bethabara. Because the Brethren were pacifists, their neighbors viewed them with suspicion, some believing they were on the side of the Tories, others the Whigs. Between 1776 and 1778, the Moravians were required to pay fines for refusing to join the North Carolina militia, until a bill was passed exempting the Moravians, Quakers, Dunkards, and Menonites (all pacifist groups) from military service.
Although they did not fight, the Moravians of Wachovia provided provisions and shelter for both armies. Sometimes the Brethren were paid for these provisions, but more often they were not. In 1780, Bethabara’s 69 men, women, and children witnessed more than 2,000 soldiers from both sides sweep through, demanding food and shelter. On October 15, following the Battle of Kings Mountain, Bethabara residents provided for several companies of soldiers. The following day, “…nearly six hundred men were asking bread and meat from us, and there was also stealing or demanding a tithe of swine, chickens, sheep, ducks, and geese, and the spring-house was emptied of all the milk and the small amount of butter.” Tory prisoners of war and their Whig guards also descended upon the town, stressing resources.
News of the Treaty of Paris reached Wachovia on June 11, 1783. The Moravian Records reveal the relief felt by this news, noting “He has given to us and to all congregations in America, yea to the whole land, the gift of honorable peace, for which we have sighed during the eight years of the stress and threat of war.”
North Carolina’s Governor Alexander Martin declared July 4th to be the day to celebrate American Independence. The celebration is related in the Bethabara Diary: “July 4. This being the appointed day for the Peace and Thanksgiving Festival the first service was held at ten o’clock. First the Proclamation was read, then the portion of the litany referring to the government of the land was prayed standing, then on our knees we thanked the Lord of Lords for His gift of peace.”