It’s Christmas Eve 2019 and Bethlehem is packed with visitors. Some are there to honor the anniversary of the birth of Christ at stately Central Moravian Church. Others simply want to have a good time at the Hotel Bethlehem’s crowded, festive bar. But probably very few, even if they knew where to look, planned a stop the next day at the historic Nain-Schober house. It is a plain structure that once housed Native American converts to the Moravian Church, part of the missionary dream of Bethlehem’s founder Count von Zinzendorf. But it was a dream without a happy ending. Caught up in the frontier horror of the French and Indian War of the 1750s, it bears witness to a Pennsylvania that turned from mutual co-existence between whites and Native Americans to a bloody hatred that created the pattern of relations between them that was only to end over 100 years later at Wounded Knee.
It is a great historical weight to place on the Nain-Schober house’s little shoulders, but it is one that is worth remembering. By the 1740s, relations between Native Americans and whites in British North America had been anything but peaceful. In the 17th century New England’s Puritan settlers had been engaged in several horrific wars with Native Americans. America was a howling wilderness, their ministers told them, and its inhabitants the devil’s own agents. Usually there was no reason to search Holy Writ for explanations to make war against the country’s original inhabitants. When a group of pious settlers asked a Board of Trade member to send over a Church of England bishop for the health of their souls, the official exploded. “Damn your souls,” he is said to have shouted. “Grow tobacco!” If native Americans were on land that whites wanted to settle on, no other explanations were needed to get them off of it.
William Penn of course had a different approach. Planning a colony that was designed to welcome all faiths, he also wanted it to be one where the rights of Indians were respected. He made treaties and agreements with them that his Quaker followers also adhered to, saying they would not be removed from their land. It was this reason that attracted the Moravians to Pennsylvania. Count Von Zinzendorf shared with many in Europe that Native Americans were remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. So, he established Bethlehem and other Moravian communities to be bases for missionaries to the Native Americans. Any other tasks that were performed there were to be subordinate to that.
It was in 1742 that Zinzendorf, on his first visit to Pennsylvania, revealed his plan for establishing his joint mission networks. Traveling along the Susquehanna River, along with admiring the beauties of the fall foliage and the difficulty in finding a decent place to ford the river because of its high banks, he envisioned it.
In 2012 Professor Katie Faull explained it like this:
“He focuses on five places where he knows both the Native leaders, Moravians and Europeans sympathetic to the plan who are already in the area, and the potential for these to belong to a structured world of Moravian missions.”
A network of Native American villages, some Christian and some not, would stretch into the Ohio River watershed and others would have a missionary outreach into the tribes of New England. And Bethlehem was to be the center of missionary activities. Zinzendorf, like many religious leaders before and since, was visionary. In his mind the plan seemed perfect and logical. What he could not envision was the vast distances that the New World had were not anything like the settled areas of Europe. They could not run smoothly as they might have in the count’s region of Saxony. “Whereas some of these ambitious plans to organize the mission effort among the Native populations of the woodlands Indians were realized, most notably the mission at Shamokin and that of Gnadenhutten,” says Faull, "others did not."
The first realization probably came home to the Moravians on a hot, dry July day in 1755 when a King’s messenger rode into Bethlehem with the news that the British military force of General Edward Braddock had been wiped out not far from the French Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh. The French and Indian War had begun, and the frontier was defenseless. The French had very few troops in America and so depended on their Native American allies to do the fighting for them. Soon the frontier was in flames. Anything that was left of Penn’s Indian policy was in tatters. In many cases the actual perpetrators of attacks on isolated frontier settlements slipped back into the forest before they could be confronted. So, the white settlers tended to take out their fury on any Indians they could find, and, in many cases, it was the Moravian Christian Indians. So, it was decided in Herrnhut to gather in all the Moravian Indians to Bethlehem itself.
In 1758 work began on Nain, named after the village in the Bible where Christ raised a young man from the dead. This plan did not go without questioning. “Brother Martin Mack (who had worked with the Native Americans for years) argued, Zinzendorf’s plan showed no awareness of the cultural needs of native people,” Faull writes, “to have good hunting grounds close to their settlements." The Indian villages of the converted Moravians were planned out following a European model with kitchen gardens, domestic animals and separate family houses. Where would the inhabitants of an Indian village on the Monocacy be able to hunt in an area of quite dense Euro-American settlement, traversed by the turnpikes that carried wagons and goods to and from Philadelphia, Lancaster and Reading? But as a product of a European culture, the count was deaf to these arguments.
Beginning in the winter of 1758 the lumber and fence rails were gathered, and the site of the new buildings, a thousand acres adjacent to the Burnside Plantation that belonged to the wealthy Quaker Benezat family, was selected. Native Americans worked beside whites on the buildings. Work progressed rapidly in May and June and eventually by 1762 14 houses had been erected. By that time a thriving community farm was giving the Moravian farmers bountiful crops, and everything was going as planned.
The fighting of the French and Indian War ended in 1759 with a British victory in Quebec. But it had not ended in the hearts and minds of many of the white settlers. Despite the peaceful nature of their lives, the Indians, Christian or not, were still Indians and in their minds the only good Indian was a dead Indian. This all broke into the open in December 1763 when a largely Scots-Irish group known as the Paxton Boys brutally murdered the peaceable Susquehannock Indians living on Conestoga Manor, land given to them by the Penn family. Faull notes that it was suspected that the Paxton Boys wanted to wipe out Nain village first, but it was too well protected.
But the Nain Indians were to have no peace. Rounded up by the colonial officials who were convinced they were behind some murders at a Northampton County inn, they were taken to Philadelphia. Here they were placed on an island in a “pest house” where many of them died- nearly half of them children- from small-pox and other diseases to which they had no immunity. Moravian leaders concluded that Nain could no longer be continued without making Bethlehem a target of attacks. In 1764 it was decided to dismantle Nain and sell off its houses. The survivors from Philadelphia came by and collected their remaining goods and went to another Moravian Indian village further west. Today some of their descendants live in Canada.
The Nain house of today was removed piece by piece in 1765 and rebuilt one mile from its original location by Andreas Schober, a mason, at the corner of Heckewelder Place and Market Street. It was moved to its current location at Heckewelder Place in 1905 and restored in 2012. Today it is the only extant 18th century building built and lived in by Native Americans in eastern Pennsylvania.