Susanne Weicht Nitschmann

1721-1756

Of many ships that crossed the Atlantic after Columbus, none carried a group of passengers more intriguing than the Irene, sailing from London in the early spring of 1749. A ship dedicated to Christ’s peace, the Irene belonged to the Unity of Brothers. And of a group of eighty-seven passengers on board—many of whom stood along its rails for their last sights of Europe as the ship glided out of the English channel—sixty-two young men and women had just found out who they would marry.

Before leaving Germany for America, these young people had surrendered their lives and wills to Christ. In a celebration of the Lord Christ’s betrothal to the church, the young men had selected a piece of paper with the name of one of three sisters suggested as a suitable companion, from a wooden box. Then, thirty-one new couples had rejoiced in their betrothal with the whole congregation.

For Susanna Weicht, travelling on the sisters’ side of the Irene (the brothers had divided the ship, like their meetinghouses, into distinct half-sectors) these events in 1749 threatened to end everything familiar she had known. At the great meeting she had given her consent to become the wife of Martin Nitschmann, a young refugee from Moravia, as the lot had directed. She also consented to leave the community at Herrnhut—as she had left her home at Rösnitz in Schlesien eight years earlier—to set out for a new life across the ocean.

From Funchal in Madeira, where the German emigrants saw citrus and palm groves for the first time, the Irene sailed into the open sea. Captain Nicholas Garrison, a converted West Indian trader, steered the ship. The young men helped him with the sails and kept watch. Every morning and evening the entire See Gemein (Sea Community) met to worship, while small groups continued in prayer, night and day. Then, after eighty-one days on board they docked at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia.

Brothers and sisters of the new “Moravian” congregation at Bethlehem, north of the city, met them. Preparations began at once, and by July 15, 1749, everything stood prepared for the wedding of the thirty-one couples. On long tables the sisters set fresh bread and the best food their wilderness gardens had produced. Choral groups sang, and after a solemn ceremony, all the couples received their new “residences”—so many rooms in the new Gemeinhaus (community house) and the buildings surrounding it at Bethlehem.

Martin and Susanna Nitschmann settled with happy anticipation into the life of the Lord’s new congregation in the wilderness. Under the sound of axes, saws, and stone mason’s hammers, more buildings took shape as the surrounding woods opened up to become beautiful fields and pastures. Every month more “pilgrims” left to visit pioneer settlements and every month more returned with stories of seeking souls who found rest in Christ.

Within a year many babies blessed the new couples at Bethlehem. Martin and Susanna’s first son, named for his father, died of smallpox. But their second son, Johann, soon took his place in the little boys’ choir, and by that time a new challenge stood before them.

As a result of the Moravian pilgrims’ work in New York and Connecticut, a significant number of native Americans had become followers of Christ. Like the settlers at Bethlehem, they had begun to live quietly and simply, dressing in plain clothes, working hard and sharing their possessions. They also met for daily worship meetings, and from their Christian villages messengers went out to contact seekers everywhere. This bothered the English and Dutch Protestants who passed oppressive laws and persecuted the “Christian Indians”—Mohicans and Wampanoags—until they all left their homes to seek refuge in Pennsylvania.

At first the Indian refugees lived along the Monocasy Creek outside Bethlehem. But they missed their home in the deep quietness of the woods. They longed for a place where they could fish and hunt along secluded trails like they had known before. So the brothers at Bethlehem found a place for them. On the far side of the Blue Mountains, where the Mahoney Creek runs into the Lehigh, they laid out a new village above the spectacular “water gap.”

European and native American brothers worked together to build a new Gemeinhaus and a circle of log structures around a protected yard. They called it Gnadenhütten (Shelters of Grace). They built a sawmill and a gristmill there. They built a Saal for worship meetings, and soon after the birth of Martin and Susanna Nitschmann’s second child, they asked them to live among the brothers and sisters in the new community.

Martin and Susanna began at once to learn the Indians’ language and felt at home in Gnadenhütten. But rumours of danger in the woods, known to them before they left Bethlehem, did not grow less. They increased. 

From west of the Susquehanna River came reports of Shawnee and Lenni Lenape warriors falling on outlying settlements. Some believed they did so with the knowledge and support of the French, stationed further west and in Canada.

Did this mean war?

No one knew for sure, but after massacres in the Path Valley and at Penn’s Creek (Selinsgrove), droves of settlers deserted their farms and fled. In the Lebanon valley, Indians carried off five children while their parents, Peter Wamplers, were out making hay. In the Northkill Amish settlement Indians scalped and killed some, while the community at Bethlehem grew ever more crowded with refugees, and tensions mounted.  

Unconverted native Americans did not like the brothers’ communities. “You turn our own people against us,” they said, “and by teaching those who join you not to fight, you weaken us.”

At the same time, Scotch and Irish settlers in Pennsylvania liked the brothers’ communities no better. Because the brothers, following Christ, refused to take up arms against the Indians they accused them of treason and threatened to kill them.

Then came the evening of November 24, 1755.

Martin and Susanna Nitschmann, Gottlieb and Johanna Christina Anders with their baby, Joachim Sensemann (whose wife was sick, upstairs), Georg and Susanne Luise Partsch, with several young people sat around the supper table at Gnadenhütten on the Mahoney. It had just grown dark and the dog seemed restless. Joachim stepped outside to make sure the door to the Saal was latched. The others kept on eating. Then they heard pounding footsteps, dogs barking furiously, and Joseph Sturgis rose to open the door.

A roar of gunshot and painted warriors burst into the room. A bullet grazed Joseph’s face and Susanna saw Martin, her husband, drop to the floor. Shots in quick succession struck John Lesley, Johann Gattermeyer and Martin Presser.[1] Susanna herself was struck by a bullet and while the others scrambled up steps to the loft she slipped and fell into the arms of an almost naked Indian who dragged her out the door, surrounded by war whoops, tomahawks, knives, and guns.

From the single brother’s house, Peter Worbas (who had been fasting that evening) looked on with horror as he heard continual gunshots through the floor into the loft to where the others had fled. Then he saw flames and Joseph Sturgis leap from an upstairs window. Following him Susanne Luise Partsch also jumped out and ran, followed by Georg Fabricus who got struck down by a tomahawk and scalped on the spot.[2]

For fifteen minutes Peter listened to shots and yells. He saw one sister run from the burning building to a cellar nearby. Then something momentarily distracted the warrior posted in front of his door, and he also jumped out and ran. The last he heard were the screams of Johanna Christina’s baby above the roar of the flames.

On the other side of the yard, Susanna Nitschmann could not run. In great pain, and under the eye of her captor, she saw the Indians setting fire to one building after another: the kitchen and bakery, the single brother’s house, the Gemeinhaus, the Saal. . . . From the burning barn, the cows, still tied in their stalls, bellowed in distress. Then, for several hours, the Indians feasted on goods from the community storehouse.

Around midnight, the twelve warriors and Susanna began a brisk march north, across the mountains in the direction of the Wyoming Valley. They left a blanket and a hat behind on a stump, with a knife sticking through them.

The night was freezing cold. Susanna, with no over clothes and losing blood arrived in the Wyoming valley almost dead. There an Indian woman who had been baptised as Sara—the wife of Abraham the Mohican—recognised her and threw up her hands. With another woman, baptised as Abigail, she cared for her and Susanna met three Höht sisters, captives from a small Moravian settlement north of Nazareth. But the care was temporary.

As soon as she had partially recovered, Susanna’s captor prodded her up and forced her to march with him to Tioga, an Indian settlement far to the northwest. For several months she lived there in a dazed condition. The Indians abused her shamelessly and taunted her with the question, “Where is your Bethlehem God now? Look, he is not able to save you!” Then the day of her initiation came and the men lined up for her to run the gauntlet.

She did not make it. In great agony and almost beside herself with grief she could not co-operate. For this the men dragged her out in front of the houses at Tioga and clubbed her to death.

On the morning after Susanna’s capture and the massacre of Martin Nitschmann, Anna Katherine Senseman, Gottlieb and Johanna Christina Anders with their baby Johanna, Johann Gattermeyer, Georg Fabricus, Georg Schweigert, Martin Presser and John Frederick Lesley, a silent group met at Bethlehem for worship and prayer. (Brother David Zeisberger had arrived on horseback, before dawn, with the news.)

For some time August Gottlieb Spangenberg stood before the people, not certain what to say. Then he read the watchword for the day: “Joseph . . . made himself strange unto them and spoke roughly to them” (Genesis 42:7).

“It is like this today,” August Gottlieb told the stricken congregation. “Like Joseph’s brothers found it hard to recognise him under the temporary disguise of a harsh exterior, it is hard for us to recognise our Lord when he deals roughly with us and makes himself strange. But we know his heart. We know he allows nothing to happen to us, but what is for our good.”

A trite ending to a tragic tale? Nothing but a classic Christian evasion of reality?

Susanna Weicht Nitschmann’s story is hardly that of a heroine. She managed no miraculous escapes. She did not survive. Neither is it exactly that of martyrdom. She was only one of countless civilians to lose their lives in the violence of the French and Indian war.

Some would say her life of submission—to Christ, to the brotherhood, and to her husband—contributed little of lasting value. But for believers everywhere, Susanna’s life and death stand as shining evidence for Christianity itself.

No matter what happens to his followers, Christ will not be discredited, for like Joseph he shows us that we may give up, yet win. We may lose, yet gain. And as members of his body we may suffer and die, only to live forever with him.

Main source: Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society, Volume   , An Account of the Massacre at Gnadenhuetten, PA.


[1] Martin Presser, not immediately killed, managed to drag himself off to the woods where his body was found several days later.

[2] Georg’s body, riddled with bullets and mutilated, was found the following day, still guarded by his faithful dog.

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