Selling History in Browntown, PA: LNG Plant Plans to Cut Through the “Jewel of the Susquehanna”

Back in 2013, I wrote a short piece about the site of the Moravian Indian mission town of Friedenshütten which is in what is today known as Browntown just off Route 6 outside Wyalusing, PA. In that blog, I tried to explore the problems of making invisible history visible to local people in the face of the growing fracking industry in North Eastern Pennsylvania. At that point, the major concern was the rail traffic trundling past the site of the Moravian Indian town that had been dubbed “The Jewel of the Susquehanna” by contemporary luminaries and had inspired the world-famous German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to write a poem about these banks of the Susquehanna River, even though he had never been to America.

Today the threat to this jewel is far more immediate. The land on which the site lies has been sold to New Fortress Energy as part of a proposed LNG plant in Browntown, a plant that will bring huge amounts of truck traffic to the site, both while the plant is being constructed, and beyond, as the liquefied natural gas is transported out of town for export. Currently under public comment, partial plans have been posted to the PA Bulletin by the DEP, and show the extent to which just one of the natural resources (water) in this area will be impacted (see PA Bulletin for May 4, 2019 here). The summary statistics in the report state that the project “will result in 203 linear feet of permanent stream impacts, 18,449 ft2 (0.42ac) of permanent floodway impact, 2,427 ft2 (0.06ac) of temporary wetland impacts, and 28,615 ft2 (0.66ac) of permanent wetland impact.” The original (December 2018) planning application that also lists projected air pollution amounts can also be found on the DEP website.

Anyone who has kayaked this part of the river knows its beauty. Hills rise up on either side of the Susquehanna, eagles circle overhead, and in late summer the current carries you over the riffles of the river bend, downstream towards Laceyville. However, soon this glorious landscape will be overshadowed by the steam (and other less pleasant) gas emissions, truck traffic, and profile of a huge LNG plant (for an interactive overlay map of the site, click here). Since December, when the plan was put before the public, some local citizens have expressed their deep concern about the environmental effects of the plant, the direct destruction of Native American and Colonial American historical sites, and the lack of transparency in the permitting process. This concern has been met with an unwillingness on the part of Fortress Energy to discuss openly these issues.

Golkowsky’s 1768 map of Friedenshütten, near Wyalusing. From the Unity Archives, Herrnhut TS 213.13. All rights reserved. An interactive version can be found by clicking here.

Part of the land on which this plant will stand was once the Moravian Indian town of Friedenshütten, a thriving, busy, and strategically important village from 1765-1772. But like any site where material traces of human culture have been erased, it is difficult to imagine the life that was lived in this place, an enterprise that brought together European settlers and Native Americans (Mahicans, Lenape, and members of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee) in the confusing and tumultuous period around American independence. Manuscript diaries kept by the Moravian missionaries reveal many details that help paint a rich picture of life on that field. From its beginnings in the spring of 1765, when food was scarce and the bears were not, to its dissolution in the summer of 1772, the town supported itself with its gardens of produce, and seasonal hunting and shad fishing.  It hosted numerous parties of visiting Indian nations, some very large and very hungry, many coming for a political parley, some coming to visit their family members who had converted to Christianity. Reading the mission diaries that still exist only in manuscript form, a picture emerges of a vibrant community with a multi-lingual school, a Gemeinhaus (church) complete with oil paintings and a bell, log houses with glass windows, bark houses for those who preferred them, fertile kitchen gardens, and canoes tied up along the river bank.

As we look at the empty field today, it is hard to envisage the multilingual and multicultural celebrations that took place here. The Moravian Indians who came here had already endured terrible hardships, as we can read in the detailed account by the missionaries Johannes Schmick and David Zeisberger, now published in the Journal of Moravian History. In the very first year of the mission, 1765, in this soon to be destroyed field, as many as 120 people attended a midnight Christmas Eve service at which the gospels were read in the Lenape language to an attentive congregation.  For the next seven years, Christian feast days were celebrated with liturgies in the Lenape language, beeswax candles, and musical accompaniments.

Staking out the drainage ditch at Friedenshütten, May 13, 2019.

The building in which these remarkable occurrences took place stood at the point at which today we see the historical monument, dedicated to the memory of the Moravian Indian village. As we look westwards, we might have seen a street lined with those log houses and Indian bark dwellings, in which men and women and children lived, and worked, and prayed, and slept. Yesterday, as I walked through the misty rain, I saw the stakes already planted in the ground to mark off the edges of a 50′ wide trench to drain stormwater from the site. This ditch will cut straight through the site of the historical village (for a detailed map, click here).

So why should we care about what looks like just a point on the map, an empty field with a simple obelisk in the middle, marking the site of this Moravian Indian village from the last half of the 18th century? First, history matters. An important part of what makes us human is our ability to learn from the stories of the past, to read and listen to the memories of others, to think about the lives that they led, perhaps to better understand our own. And when those people are no longer here to tell us these stories themselves, our communities need to curate and incorporate them into an understanding of where we are from. If we erase those places and their narratives, we are in danger of not only flattening the land around us but also diminishing our understanding of ourselves.

Moravian Historical Society monument in Browntown, PA. Photo courtesy of David Buck.

Second, the Native Americans who lived here both before the Moravians came and while they were here have descendants among the current day Lenape nations in Canada and Oklahoma. Tracing one’s roots back several generations is notoriously difficult for displaced peoples, as anyone who has explored their ancestry knows. Destroying this site will further erase the past of Native peoples who were pushed out of Pennsylvania by Sullivan’s march, the final military act of forced removal of Indians from this state. Mach’wihilusing (the Indian village’s name) and Friedenshütten mark the place of people’s pasts, of their lives and in some cases their deaths. Recognized by the state’s historical commission, this is a place we must work to preserve, this Jewel of the Susquehanna. If we care about the past, a past that brings together settlers from Europe and Native American nations, in order to build a better future, then we need to make our voices heard and write to the newspapers, write to our political representatives, write to the DEP, and demand that a full historical site survey be carried out on this important place in American history.

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