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. Photo courtesy of David Buck.

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.


Christmas at the Confluence

Today, a Moravian Christmas conjures up images of Herrnhuter stars, carols and candlelit midnight services. But what was Christmas like back in the days of the missions in Pennsylvania, 270 years ago? How did the missionaries celebrate this season of birth and light in the bleak midwinter on the Susquehanna River?

The first Christmas at the Shamokin mission for which we have records was celebrated in 1747 by Martin and Anna Mack and Anton and Catharine Schmidt. In the mission diary, Martin writes of the peace at the confluence on December 25, 1747 where their thoughts are directed towards the congregation in Bethlehem, Pa. At noon on Christmas Day, the four missionaries hold a little love feast for which they had baked bread rolls in the ashes of their fire. In the evening Anna Mack visits Shikellamy’s daughter-in-law, a Mohican woman who was one of the first people around the confluence who truly accepted and loved the Moravians (other than Shikellamy himself). She asks Anna if today were Sunday because the Moravians are so quiet; to this Anna replies, no, it is Christmas Day. The Mohican woman is quite surprised because “the white people usually have a lot of fun on that day. You are definitely a very different kind of people from the white people we know.” Anna agrees with her that the Moravians are very different, with their interiorized mediations on their community and their Savior, in contrast to the carousing of the white traders who live nearby down the river. However, the giving of gifts belongs very much to the Moravian tradition, and that evening Martin and Anna along with Anton and Catharine make a present of turnips to Shikellamy and his family who gratefully receive them.

The peace of the Confluence at Christmastime is however not repeated. A year later, the Macks and Schmidts have left, the Sachem, Shikellamy, has died a few weeks earlier, and Brothers Zeisberger and Rauch are now in charge. Zeisberger writes in the diary of the many visitors to the smithy on the day after Christmas, people from the Delaware and Iroquois nations, as well as Shikellamy’s son, Logan and his family. All are seeking refuge from the drunken people who have invaded their own homes. Also desirous of some peace, they are looking for a place to cook their food. And the Moravian mission house provides just that place!

Christmas at the Confluence 2013
Christmas at the Confluence 2013

The last Christmas the Moravians spend at Shamokin in 1754 is a time of joyful reunion as Heinrich Frey and Gottfried Rösler are on their return to the mission from their trip to Bethlehem via the Wyoming Valley. Christmas Eve is spent under the stars about 20 miles upriver from Shamokin not far from Lapachpeton’s village at the mouth of the Catawissa Creek. Unable to sleep because of the rain, Frey and Rösler meditate on the meaning of the day under the tent they have made out of their blanket. On Christmas Day, they arrive amid much rejoicing at Shamokin.

As the missions grew along the Susquehanna River, so too did the celebrations of Christmas. Just ten years later, in 1765, at the mission church in what was to become Friedenshütten, the  diary records 120 people attending the midnight service.  The story of Christ’s birth is read from the Harmony of the Gospels that has been translated into Delaware and the congregation listens intently.  The service ends with the congregation kneeling and praying at the Nativity scene that stands in the church.  The next year there are 170 at the midnight Christmas Lovefeast. The following year a new musical instrument that has been built at Friedenshütten accompanies the voices at the Christmas Eve service.  The next year, candles are distributed to the children at the service for the first time, and thus things begin to look a lot like today’s service at Central Moravian in Bethlehem (with the major caveat that the children are all Native Americans.)  By 1770, these same children are all excited at having Christmas vacation off school and being the center of the Christmas service.

In just over 15 years, the celebration of Christmas at the Moravian missions on the Susquehanna had changed from a quiet contemplative night of prayer and sharing of plain food with Native people to a complex midnight service with vocal and instrumental music, candles, and nativity scene, where the readings from a Delaware Gospel  might have been the only sign that this was a congregation not of European origin.

More than a point on a map…

At the Howland Preserve meeting on Thursday, Dave Buck reminded me of the question he posed back in 2006 at the first River Symposium.  I had just given a short paper on “Europeans and the Susquehanna River” that quoted the opening lines of a poem by the famous German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Nicht am Susquehanna, der durch Wüsten fließt.”  At the time, I had just begun my work on the Shamokin Diaries and was immersing myself in the world of the Moravian missions in Pennsylvania.  He asked if I had ever heard of “Friedenshütten,” a mission on the North Branch near Wyalusing.  I replied that I had but was not that familiar with it.  Dave, in his usual dogged fashion, pursued me after the session and explained where the mission was supposed to have been and that it was linked to one slightly further up the North Branch, Sheshequin.  And so my curiosity was piqued. Continue reading “More than a point on a map…”