A Shamokin Thanksgiving

Seal of Agreement for smithy

As we gather today in the Susquehanna Valley to share our food with friends and family, we might be curious how this time of year was celebrated back in 1747, in the time of Chief Shikellamy and the beginnings of the Moravian mission at what was then called Shamokin, today Sunbury.

1747 had been a very busy and important year in the history of Shamokin. The project of establishing a forge at the Confluence of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River, first requested by the Six Nations in 1745 and not approved by the Colonial government in Philadelphia until 1747, had finally been achieved. Moravians and Indians had met in conference in the spring of that year to discuss exactly how the forge would be built and the conditions under which the Six Nations and their emissary, Shikellamy, would permit the European missionaries to live at the confluence. Shikellamy and his sons had helped to construct the mission house and smithy during the summer months and the Moravians had already cleared land around their house to plant corn, beans, and squash. By the end of July the smithy was ready for business, with the preferred customers being the Indians of the Six Nations (for whom account books were kept); and traders being just tolerated. The wives of the Moravian missionaries, Anna Mack and Catharine Schmidt were already participating fully in the economy of the smithy and mission as they took in sewing from the Indians, mending Shikellamy’s shirts on a regular basis.

But the hard work of setting up the smithy and mission house had already taken its toll on one of the Moravians. After a long trip down river to collect supplies, Brother Hagen succumbed to the prevailing fever and, in September of 1747, was buried in a plot just beyond the turnip field, accompanied by a beautiful service of song.

That November was cold. The charcoal fire in the forge had been started, and many Indians passing through Shamokin stopped at the smithy to have work done to their weapons and to keep warm. The last full week of November was marked by the sadness that prevailed at the death of Shikellamy’s two year old grandchild. Anna Mack and Catharina Schmidt sewed, as requested, a death shroud for her out of a piece of linen brought to them by the Indian women, and then visited the dead child before burial.

But amid the sadness there was kindness and hope. The sharing of dried cherries and bread between a Mohican woman (Shikellamy’s daughter in law, the wife of his eldest son) and the Moravians; the sharing of Moravian bread with a cold tired and hungry Delaware man from the Wyoming Valley. The last Thursday in November 1747 brought a woman trader to the mission with much rum, much to the dismay of the Moravians. They neither wanted alcohol in Shamokin nor traders, whether male or female.  The Moravian Sisters spent “Black Friday” chopping and fetching wood, while their husbands were working in the smithy or repairing shoes.

That Saturday, the rum the woman trader had brought to town had clearly been exchanged for skins and the population of Shamokin was drunk. Order returned with Shikellamy though, who had been absent on Colonial business and arrived that evening from Tulpehocken and Conrad Weiser’s house with letters and news for the Moravians. He had also brought a piece of beef for Catharine Smith and the others from her mother who lived close by Conrad Weiser’s.

The relations between Shikellamy, his family and the Moravians were clearly warm and loving. His daughter in law, the Mohican, was worried about the fate of the dead child, for example. Would the child be with God even though it wasn’t baptized? Yes, said Anna Mack, she will be, because we are all loved by God, regardless of whether we are baptized or not. And as a sign of fellowship the Moravians bring Shikellamy his favorite, turnips.

Looking back at these records from nearly 270 years ago the picture we can see of relations between the Native peoples and the Moravian missionaries is clearly not the one that is popularly depicted with turkeys and pies and pumpkins. However, what we can see is a time of mutual aid, kindness, and significant intercultural understanding. True, the Moravians are not like all “white people”, a comment often made by the Indians who witness their quiet love. The outside forces of the traders and Colonial policies have their effect on the population around Shamokin, in that rum is all that Indians can trade their goods for. But the last Thursday of November in 1747 is marked by shared food and warmth. A true Thanksgiving.

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