Moravian Artisans and their Wives in the Colonial Pennsylvanian Backcountry Katherine Faull, Bucknell University

In August 1747, at a conference held at the confluence of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River, the Moravian married couples, Johannes and Anna Hagen and Anton and Catharine Schmidt sat down to discuss the pragmatic details of how the blacksmith’s shop that was to be established there, should be run. Their first concern was directed towards the Moravian Sisters: “When the Indians bring something for our Sisters to sew, they will accept it with thanks, and willingness and require nothing as payment.” (MAB 121.9.3) Five months later, when the Moravian missionaries were joined by the married couple Joseph and Martha Powell, this same article appears as the first item of business in their conference. The Sisters are to accept sewing from the Indians and require nothing in return.

While this might seem like a small incidental detail in the larger artisan economy of the Pennsylvania Backcountry,  the skills of the Moravian wives who came with their husbands to the “frontier” country of Pennsylvania in the first half of the eighteenth century were central to the Moravian and Indian understanding of an exchange of services and goods, whether it be sewing, blacksmithing, shoe or mocassin making, grinding corn and baking, and that husbandry skills of farming and raising crops was kept deliberately as a secondary focus. This emphasis on female participation in an artisan economy, as that which maintained inhabitants of the Backcountry in the period prior to the French Indian War, challenges the long held notion that women’s role in this early settlement period was primarily as part of the “household economy” where women were employed in the raising of crops, production of food and clothing, within a more auktarkic economy of the log home.

The presence, skill, and influence of Moravian artisans in the Pennsylvania backcountry of the Colonial period has already been the focus of study in Pennsylvania history to some extent. Whether gunsmiths, such as Daniel Kliest, millers, such as Frederick Oerter, or blacksmiths such as Anton Schmidt, Moravian brothers served “Christ’s Plan” in the hybrid communities of the “frontier.” Their mission included mending flints and axes for the Iroquois, milling flour for the Euro-American settlers, and surveying and mapping the land for the Moravian missionary project.  As Kate Carte Engel and Scott Gordon, among others, have shown, the task of propagating the Gospel and extending the kingdom of God embraced the very practical and middle class realm of trade, craft, and negotiation.  But, because of the Moravian notion of the “marriage militant,” many of these Brothers took their Sisters (wives) with them into the backcountry.  This is a brief examination of the tensions, harmonies, and insights that being married to the job brought with it in the Moravian artisan world of the Colonial period.

Within Pennsylvania history, the figure of the artisan has traditionally been seen as lending insight to a history of the American labor movement. Many histories of artisans focus more densely populated areas in urban areas; however, very few studies to date have been done on the role of artisans in a rural population in the Backcountry of 18th century Pennsylvania.  The Moravian mission in Shamokin, Pennsylvania (1747-55)  was set up primarily as a blacksmith’s shop to serve the Iroquois and their protected tribes, the Delaware, Tutelo, Conoy, and Shawnee. The Moravian mission at Shamokin was established because of the usefulness of its artisans to the Six Nations, and, as such, its presence at the confluence of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River, the intersection of eleven Indian paths, presents us with an interesting and anomalous micro-study of the artisan in the backcountry and the central role that women’s work played in it.

The Moravian presence in Shamokin represents a unique compromise between the missionary impetus and the artisanal need in the group’s mission to the Native Americans that fundamentally affected the nature of contact and activity that both men and women, Native and non-Native, experienced there. Already in 1742 the leader of the Moravian church, Count Nicholaus von Zinzendorf had recognized the strategic importance of Shamokin and visited the seat of Shikellamy, the Vice-Regent of the Iroquois. Initial attempts to establish a mission, undertaken by Christian and Agnes Post in 1743 and Martin and Anna Mack in 1745 were difficult in that Shamokin was a crossroads of trade and Native cultures.

Moravian Blacksmith's tools from the excavation at Hunter House, Sunbury

Moravian Blacksmith’s tools from the excavation at Hunter House, Sunbury

However, the near failure of the mission was averted through an agreement with Shikellamy and the Five Nations, and approved by the Colonial government in Philadelphia, that the Moravians would establish a blacksmith’s shop in Shamokin to service the needs of the Iroquois. On May 5th 1746 a request was sent to the Governor of Pennsylvania, stating that a blacksmith at Shamokin was urgently needed.[1] Eager for a response, the Quaker Charles Brocken met with Governor Thomas about the smithy; but it was made clear that there could be no assurances that the smithy would be built until the outcome of the Treaty of Albany between the Iroquois and the British was known. In November , a chance meeting between John Okely and the Governor on the street in Philadelphia provided the opportunity to ask again. Finally the Governor responded, “The Five Nations of Indians have taken up the Hatchet against our Enemies. Therefore you may write to Mr Spangenberg that he may send People among the Indians when he will.”[2] Now that it was clear that the Five Nations were siding with the British and not the French, approval was given to establish a forge at Shamokin.

Seal of Agreement for the Smithy

In a conference with Brother Martin Mack in April of 1747, Shikellamy (or Swatane) explicitly outlined his expectations of how the smithy would be run. Of primary importance is the stipulation that when the Five Nations were travelling down the river to their war with the Catawba, any work done at the smith for the Five Nations should be without charge. He says, “I desire, T’girketonti (Spangenberg’s Iroquois name) my brother, that when something is done to their flints that it is done for free, because they have nothing with which to pay. However, when they return, and they have something done, then they would have to pay for it.”[3] All other Native American customers to the smithy had to pay for their services: in skins, deer, fox, and racoon, primarily. Indians and Moravians were not permitted to trade in anything else. Again, in the conference held after this agreement with Shikellamy was made, it was stipulated that the Moravians were not permitted to sell flour or milk. They were not traders, they were not to befriend traders, they were not to favor traders in the execution of work for them in the smithy. The primary purpose of the Moravian presence at Shamokin was to honor the agreement that their artisans would work for the Iroquois.

In the late spring of 1747, missionaries Nathanael Hagen and Johannes Powell arrived in Shamokin and discussed the blacksmith project in a conference with the chief Shikellamy and his advisors. Impressed with Hagen’s linguistic prowess and the good intent of the Moravians, the Iroquois chiefs agreed that work could begin. June and July 1747 saw the erection of the forge and the mission house, and by the end of July the forge was opened, much to the joy of Shikellamy (who helped in the hauling of lumber). The arrival on July 23 (o.s.) of the first blacksmith, Anton Schmidt and his wife Catharina was the occasion of celebration. The diary entry for that day states, “It was as though a king had arrived, even Shikellamy was very happy.” He was so happy, in fact that he gave Schmidt an Iroquois name, “Rachwistonis” and, as promised, immediately accompanied him and Hagen down the river to Harris’ Ferry to collect the rest of the tools for the blacksmith’s shop.

shikellamy conference 1747

Conference with Shikellamy, 1747

In August 1747, another conference is held at Shamokin to set down the conditions of the establishment of the smithy there. The Moravians are to maintain themselves there “Auf Indianisch Art” as Spangenberg describes it. That means that only the Three Sisters can be planted, no wheat, rye, or oats, and nothing that would make the place seem like a European plantation. All accounts are to be held by Brother Hagen or Brother Powell, with whom the blacksmith Anton Schmidt must meet at the end of each day to review the transactions of the day. The price of services must be set so that one Indian does not get charged more than another, and the accounts must be sent on to the Sozietät für die Heyden, the Society for the Heathen, that is paying for the blacksmith’s supplies.

Towards the end of the existence of the mission at Shamokin, five years after the death of Shikellamy in period 1753-5, the picture of the place has changed. The Moravians now have livestock, cows and calves, and are thinking about getting a bull.   A new mission house has been built further from the river and closer to a spring. Letters between Shamokin and Bethlehem talk of the need for sugar and tea (for the Moravian Lovefeasts), of wine and bread for communion; new trousers and shirts; the skins received in payment (racoon and deer) are being transported back to Bethlehem through intermediaries, such as Michael Schäffer, a shoemaker who lives 5 miles down the Tulpehocken Path. Shikellamy’s sons have grown used to having the smithy in Shamokin and would very much like to keep it for themselves, even though the Indians’ path is no longer passing through the confluence, has shifted from north to south, to east to west. Conrad Weiser is measuring up the land for himself, intending to lay claim to it as promised by the Proprietors back in the 1730s. The missionaries watch in consternation as his line passes right in front of their house, Logon (Shikellamy’s son) watches this marking out of territory also and wants to talk to the Moravians about what to do, but they do not have the language skills to communicate with him.

The women have gone. Anna Mack has died; Catharina Schmidt has moved with Anton back to Bethlehem, as has Martha Powell with her husband. The mission has become a plantation, it services the flints of the traders and white settlers and its original purpose has been lost. Spangenberg wonders if they shouldn’t just shut up shop, sell the house and its contents that are no longer needed to Conrad Weiser, slaughter the livestock and sell the meat. In October 1755, mere days before the Penn’s Creek massacre 13 miles downstream from Shamokin, the remaining blacksmith Daniel Kliest who is there without a wife, drives the livestock up the North Branch to Paxinous so that he, in exchange for three blankets from the mission, can take them to Gnadenhütten. The remaining Indian corn is offered to John Shikellamy, who refuses it, and given instead to the Indian, Schafman.

These last gifts at Shamokin bear a profit. As the Western Delaware move up the Susquehanna River from Penn’s Creek both Schafman and one of Paxinous’ Indians come to protect the remaining smith, Kliest and guide him up the North Branch, away from the conflict for now, back to Bethlehem. But the artisan economy of both the Sisters and Brothers that maintained the mission and blacksmith’s shop in the 1740s has long gone, and now only distrust, division, and destruction are traded in the Backcountry.


[1] . Conrad Weiser was instrumental in the negotiations between the Governor, the Six Nations, and the Moravians. Having met with Shikellamy in May 1746 he writes to Spangenberg to say that, “I explained the difficulties of transporting the blacksmith’s tools up there, and he promised to have the same picked up from Joseph Chambers’ place by water in a canoe. Joseph Chambers lives on the Susquehanna River seven miles above John Harris’ ferry.” Furthermore, Weiser had already negotiated the use of a small block house next to Shikellamy’s house that can serve as a smithy. The Indians have promised to put a new roof on it for the Moravian smith. (Conrad Weiser to Spangenberg May 5, 1746, MAB Box 121.8.1) This is interesting as rather than supporting the common notion that the Native populations were passively waiting for help from the Moravians, here this letter shows the willingness of the local population to provide the place for the smithy and roof it for them before the smith comes.

[2] Letter from John Okely to Spangenberg November 9, 1746 MAB Box 121.8.4.

[3] April 21st 1747, “Mack’s Account of his visit to Shamokin” MAB 121.9.2.