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Vol. 5: Out of the Wilderness

A History of the Hamlet of Bethel in the Town of Pine Plains, New York


By: Newton Duel, Elizabeth Klare, James Mara, Helen Netter, Dyan Wapnick
1996

§5 The Moravian Mission


The history of the Moravian presence in Bethel is the story of the missionary labors of the Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren), or Moravians, enacted at the Mahican Indian village of Shekomeko. While the modern hamlet of Shekomeko is presently located on County Rte. 83 in the Town of North East, the Indian village known as Shekomeko was located about two miles south of Pine Plains where the hamlet of Bethel exists today Thus, the story of their labors is set in Shekomeko, the Indian village, located in what is now the hamlet of Bethel.

The story begins when Moravian Bishop Spangenberg sent Christian Henry Rauch to New York City to preach to any Indians he could find. Rauch arrived in New York on July 16, 1740, and encountered several influential people who discussed missionary work with the Indians. It is likely that one of them shared with him an Indian prophecy which foretold the return of dwindling game supplies if the people were to improve their lives. Rauch was told that the Indians were "universally of such a vicious and abandoned character that all efforts for their improvement would be dangerous, as well as utterly in vain" (James Smith).

In New York at the same time was an embassy of Mahican Indians on business with the colonial government, probably regarding some land concerns. Rauch sought out the Indians but found them in a wild, intoxicated condition. During one sober conversation with Rauch, they came to understand that here was a white man who wanted to come to their village and teach them. Tschoop (Wassamapah), who was one of the chiefs in attendance, is said to have remarked that he frequently felt disposed to know better things than he did, but he did not know how or where to find them. The other chief, Shabash, expressed the hope that Rauch would come and be their teacher.

And so, in spite of dire forecasts and because of the great opportunity for missionary work, Rauch was to begin his labors among the Mahican Indians. On August 16,1740, Rauch arrived in the Dutchess County area and took up temporary residence with the Rowe (Rau) family. This colonial Palatine family lived near Halcyon Lake and was close to the Indian village. They were conversant in the Indian language, and in return for their help in learning the language, Rauch assisted in the family's education. Because of this, he is credited with being the first schoolmaster in what would become the Town of Pine Plains, and in addition to the spiritual well-being of the settlers, he also ministered to their physical well-being as best he could with the limited medical knowledge of the period.

The little tract of land inhabited by the Mahicans was referred to by the white settlers as the "Wigwam." it was part of a large field which yielded herbs, beans, and corn, in that part of the field where it dips to a little stream and on a south bank from which rose a thickly wooded slope, they had built a group of about sixteen crude shelters, which housed about sixty individuals*

*The Indians' name for their village and the nearby creek, Shekomeko, has been translated variously as "place of eels" and "little mountain".
. The country around them was claimed and cultivated by white settlers and traders, many of whom regarded the Indians with utter disgust and complete neglect, except to profit from them through the sale of alcoholic beverages. A notable exception was the Rowe family living near the Wigwam.

On the day of his arrival, Rauch went immediately to the Indian settlement. Tschoop and Shabash had prepared their people for his coming, and he was received courteously and was listened to attentively Succeeding visits were different. His efforts were met with scorn and derision, but he persisted, even after his life was threatened. It had not been long before this that a white man had been kidnapped and scalped in a nearby Connecticut settlement. Rauch's efforts bore fruit after much courage, patience, meekness, hard work, and a little luck. An interesting account of a timely observation reveals what might have been the hand of Providence at work.

It seems that one day Rauch fell asleep in the dwelling of Tschoop, who was greatly astounded that this white man would sleep so soundly and trustingly under an Indian's roof. Tschoop concluded that such a man must be worthy of hearing. This change of heart cleared the way for Rauch to gain ground in his preaching.

Today many of us might feel a little uncomfortable with an often one-sided, brutal portrayal of the Indians at Shekomeko before they became Christianized. However, a couple of things must be taken into consideration. First, many of the Indians here had probably succumbed to the ravaging effects of the alcohol so eagerly supplied to them by their white neighbors. Second, we must remember that most of what we are left with are the writings of white, Protestant men, and we do not know too much about the Mahicans at Shekomeko except what these men have written about them. However, one thing is certain. In their current circumstances, there was little quality of life, and the future, which they must have contemplated, must have looked very dim indeed. If nothing else, the Moravians gave the Shekomeko Indians hope for a better life for their people.

Tschoop became one of Rauch's first converts. He renounced his grandmother's leather idol, abandoned his brutal ways, and became a devoted Christian until his death from smallpox in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The change in character of Tschoop from that of the most inveterate drunk and reckless ruffian caused a great sensation. His example caused Shekomeko to become the scene of a great revival. Apparently, even the "wildest" of the Shekomeko Indians became model converts.

Shabash was the next to convert. For several years he remained a staunch example of the Christian spirit in action. Unfortunately he became a war captain of the Mahican Indians, and in 1754 he seceded from the congregation, dying in Wyoming, Pennsylvania in 1762. Two other Shekomeko Indians, Seim and Kiop, soon joined the list of Rauch's converts.

Then, in 1742, Gottlob (Gottleib) Buettner (BŁttner) came from Bethlehem to Shekomeko and invited Rauch to attend a synod of the Brethren in Oley, Pennsylvania. Buettner spent ten days with Rauch and preached for the first time at Shekomeko on January 14, 1742. On January 22, 1742, Rauch and Buettner traveled to the synod accompanied by three of the converts, Shabash, Seim, and Kiop. After a difficult journey on foot, they arrived at Oley on February 9, 1742. On Feb. 11, Rauch and Buettner were ordained deacons by Bishops Nitschman and Zinzendorf. After the ceremony Rauch baptized the three Indians, calling them Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, respectively

Rauch's first convert, Tschoop, had been too lame to make the journey so he was baptized as John after their return to Shekomeko, on April 16, 1742. The Moravian historian Loskiel says of Tschoop: "This man who formerly looked more like a wild bear than a human creature, was now transformed into a lamb, and whoever beheld him, was amazed at so evident a proof of the powerful efficacy of the word and sacrament of the Lord." The change in all four of these Indians was so remarkable to those who saw them or otherwise heard about them that many white settlers, perhaps initially out of curiosity flocked to Shekomeko from a distance of twenty-five to thirty miles around. The mission church soon became a place of worship for whites and Indians alike.

In the summer of 1742, Count Zinzendorf visited Shekomeko and baptized six more Indians. They were Kaupaas, Kermelok, Herries, and the wives of Shabash, Seim, and Herries. They were baptized as Timothy Jonah, Thomas, Sarah, Rebecca, and Esther, respectively Zinzendorf left Rauch and the Indians at Shekomeko on September 4, 1742, and taking two unbaptized Indians with him, he returned to Bethlehem. Soon afterward, he baptized them David and Joshua. They too, died in the smallpox outbreak of 1746.

Buettner, along with a wife whom he married on September 14, rejoined Rauch at Shekomeko on November 1, 1742. He and Rauch preached with great zeal while the baptized Indians interpreted and confirmed their words with great energy both publicly and privately. Indians from neighboring towns flocked to hear the gospel. Not only did Rauch and Buettner work with the Indians at Shekomeko, but they also traveled regularly to Wechquadnach, today Indian Pond, which is located on the New York, Connecticut border. They also visited Pachgatgosh (Scaticook) in Kent, Connecticut.

By year's end, Martin Mack and his wife, Jeannette Rowe, the daughter of the friend to the missionaries, John Rowe, joined them to assist in the missionary work. By the close of 1742, the zeal of these dedicated missionaries had produced thirty-one baptized Mahican Indians at Shekomeko.

At the end of 1742, Rauch visited Bethlehem and returned in early 1743 with a wife, Ann Elizabeth Robins. He then rejoined Buettner and Mack in their missionary efforts. Soon, Christopher Pyrlaeus and Gottleib Senseman and their wives arrived along with Frederick Post. Buettner remained at Shekomeko for most of 1743, while the others journeyed to Wechquadnach and Pachgatgosh.

The labors of the missionaries continued to bear fruit in Shekomeko as many early accounts tell us. This observation no doubt means that the lives of the Indians here continued to improve and to be enriched by their contacts with the Moravian missionaries. On March 13, 1743, holy communion was administered to the group, a most significant and meaningful event for them.

In July 1743, a new chapel was finished and dedicated at Shekomeko. Twenty by thirty feet in size, it was of permanent construction but finished with a bark veneer, appropriate to its setting. The congregation grew to sixty-three by year's end, not counting those driven out of Pachgatgosh by malevolent white settlers. However, at this time, the troubles for the Moravians were just beginning.

With the outbreak of the French and Indian War only ten years away many atrocities followed. White settlers accused the Moravians of working to turn the Mahican Indians against them. Only John Rowe had the courage to defend the Moravians and speak on their behalf. But he was one man against many So many worrisome falsehoods circulated regarding the missionaries and the Indians that the white settlers became greatly alarmed; some left their farms while others armed themselves for defense. The civil authorities were urged to intervene.

On March 1, 1744, Justice Hegeman of Filkentown (now Mabbettsville in the Town of Washington) approached Brother Mack in Shekomeko and questioned him regarding the Brethren's views. Supposedly he acknowledged to Mack that the most "savage of the heathens" had been greatly changed and that he and many other Christians were put to shame by their good conduct and conversation. Hegeman left satisfied. His view is presented here as another testimony to the good effects that the missionaries had wrought upon the Indians at Shekomeko and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, political persecutions began to increase in frequency and intensity The Moravians were repeatedly summoned to appear before local courts, required to exercise with local militia, and expected to take oaths of allegiance to the King of England. Since it was against their beliefs to bear firearms or to swear any type of oath, they refused to do these things. They were regularly detained and harassed, but were repeatedly exonerated and released. It must have been very difficult for the Moravians to continue their missionary work with these continual interruptions, and yet they did so for as long as possible.

A law was eventually passed on September 21, 1744, forbidding any person to reside with the Indians in order to Christianize them. The Moravian Bishop A.G. Spagenberg visited Shekomeko to see if there was still some way they could carry on their work there, but he left after only two weeks without solution. Soon after, the white settlers began to keep a watch to prevent further visits from Bethlehem, thereby cutting the missionaries and their converts off from any help that might have come from the outside. On October 27, the governor ordered the Moravian missionaries to "desist from further teaching and depart the province." Then, on February 23, 1745, Gottlob Buettner died at Shekomeko, probably of tuberculosis, and was buried there. This was an event that caused much grieving among his loyal Mahicans, and it marked the beginning of the end of the Moravians' work here.

In 1746, worried settlers actually demanded a warrant authorizing the killing of the Shekomeko Indians, lest they band together and ravage the countryside. Fortunately, this was not granted them. However, with word of the request, the exodus from Shekomeko began. Ten families, forty-four persons in all, left Shekomeko to seek refuge elsewhere. In the words of Isaac Huntting, "They scattered, some to Wechquadnach, some to Pachgotgach, some to Bethlehem. There they found 'huts of peace' and 'huts of grace' and a name only was left at Shekomeko."

The story of the Mahican village at Bethel comes full circle with Tschoop, the Indian chief who was one of Rauch's first converts. Tschoop left Shekomeko for Bethlehem and it was there in 1746 that he died of smallpox.

It is ironic to note that in 1749, the British Parliament declared the Moravian Church to be a legitimate Protestant sect whose members were exempt from taking oaths and from military duty This came too late for the Moravians at Shekomeko. However, in 1753, eight years after the demise of the mission and a year before the start of the French and Indian War, a Moravian from Bethlehem, Abraham Reinke, was invited to come and preach at the Round Top Church in Bethel. Given all the events of not even a decade before, this act shows how time and the change of circumstances had healed many wounds.

What was the effect of the missionary work upon the Mahican Indians at Shekomeko? The impact of the Moravians upon the Mahicans was indeed singular due as much to their own uniqueness as to their diligent work. Unlike others, these missionaries conversed in German but acquired various Indian tongues. They traveled from settlement to settlement without any local license to preach. Their priests wore common clothing, planted corn as the Indians did, built no parsonages, demanded no tithing, and took no salary

This good example and their missionary labors became readily visible in the lives of the people. There is certainly adequate testimony to the change in Tschoop, Shabash, and others, sixty-three in all. The growth in the Shekomeko congregation attests to the zeal of the Brethren.

Outside the Moravian and Indian community envy and fear begot persecution and harassment almost to the point of murder. Change had been brought to a time and place, and the nature of the reaction from both within and without the immediate community bespeaks the good effects of the missionary labors of the Unitas Fratrum.

Others who were closer in time have said it better. John Heckwelder once said of the Moravian influence:

Wherever the Moravians went among the Indians, they brought not only religion but also education, industry and the arts. Their success in introducing the better elements of the white man's culture did not involve the destruction of the native ethos. They did not make an assault upon the Indians' personality The Moravian purpose was to restore the morale of broken peoples, to give them enough of the white man's skills to live beside him without pauperization, in a word, to give hope to the displaced persons whom the Europeans' roaring advance across the continent had left in its wake.

[The Moravians] … sought, not to destroy the Indian ethic, which had much nobility in it, but to save the best of it from extinction (as Rauch had done among the Mahicans at Shecomeco) by giving it the Christian dynamic; and which sought at the same time to give the Indian the skills needed to enable him to hold his own in competition with the now numerically dominant white men. (Wallace).

Dr. W.N. Schwarze, president of the Moravian Historical Society speaking at the re-dedication of the monument at Shekomeko on July 1,1926, said of their missionary efforts:

Shekomeko, though as a mission it came to an untimely end, was not a failure. We think rather of that which cannot die.. .Here true men of God spent their strength that the Lord Jesus Christ might be honored. Here Christianity triumphed by peaceful means over heathenism and barbarity. Here virtue took the place of vice. Here the light of the world shone into poor darkened hearts. Here God was glorified.

The Dedications of the Moravian Monument

The only visible reminder today of the Moravian presence is a single monument. Around 1806, local schoolboys who passed by Buettner's grave on their way to and from school every day, had been playing around the tombstone and eventually succeeded in demolishing it. Such was the unknown history of this place that the grave was later searched for treasure because according to tradition it was the burial spot of an Indian warrior. Nothing of the kind being found, Buettner's remains and the fragments of tombstone were replaced but later became scattered and plowed under, and when Edward Huntting became owner of the farm, he found a significant portion of the gravestone in a stone wall on his property. The remaining inscription, which was in German, was indecipherable, so it became an object of curiosity and was apparently sold to an Indian artifact collector.

The tombstone fragment eventually came into the possession of the Poughkeepsie Lyceum, which is when it became known to Rev. Sheldon Davis. As early as 1850, Mr. Davis, an Episcopal clergyman and missionary assigned to Pleasant Valley, had begun studying the work of the Moravian missionaries in the North Precinct over one hundred years earlier. With the help of old Josiah Winans, a descendant of the former owner of the Huntting property, he was successful in determining the site of Buettner's grave, and in locating traces of the Indian village of Shekomeko and of the mission. Other pieces of Buettner's gravestone were also recovered. After the discovery of Buettner's grave, Edward Huntting kept the ground sacred and later expressed the wish that some memorial might be erected "to secure it inviolate for the future, and to keep in remembrance the resting place of a good man in a land of strangers."

The Lyceum fragment proved without a doubt what they were dealing with here. Mr. Davis was pretty sure he knew what the fragment was, but it took a little detective work, with the help of the Moravians in Bethlehem, who had the original draft of Buettner's gravestone with which this could be compared, to verify that this was indeed a portion of the gravestone. Davis' reports on his research, made quarterly to the Episcopal Convocation of Dutchess, aroused considerable interest, and in 1858 he published a pamphlet entitled "Shekomeko". It wasn't long before the pamphlet came to the attention of members of the Moravian Historical Society, which was associated with the center of Moravian activity in the United States located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Being convinced of the importance of recognition of the mission sites at both Shekomeko and Wechquadnach in Litchfield County, Connecticut, that group determined to visit the sites, no easy undertaking in the days before the automobile.

Consequently, on June 13, 1859, a party of six members of the Moravian Historical Society, one being an artist, traveled by train and North River steamer to Poughkeepsie. There they stayed overnight at the home of Benson J. Lossing, a well-known historian, where they were greatly impressed by seeing a fragment of the Buettner gravestone.

The following day, having been joined by Mr. and Mrs. Davis and others, they set forth in carriages for the site of the Shekomeko mission, taking a circuitous route, probably determined by highway conditions, through the hamlet of Mabbettsville in the Town of Washington.

Reaching Pine Plains, they gathered at the home of Edward Huntting and from there the group, now numbering about twenty, embarked on an exploratory tour of the area. At the site of Buettner's grave, some words were said, and all lamented the fact that his resting place had been allowed to be so forgotten and lost. The visitors from Pennsylvania spent the night at Halcyon Hall, the home of Theron Wilber on Halcyon Lake (now Mashomack Club House), where they were served with a "sumptuous tea" and had occasion to enjoy the serene beauty of their surroundings. The following morning after breakfast at Samuel Deuel's home, they continued their journey to Indian Pond and the Wechquadnach site.

The following month, the scouting party having returned home and having made their report, the Moravian Historical Society at a meeting on July 11, 1859 enacted a resolution that monuments be erected over the grave of Gottlob Buettner at Shekomeko and near the graves of David Bruce and Joseph Powell at Wechquadnach. A committee was appointed to raise the needed funds and to superintend the erection of the monuments. Local members of the committee were Rev. Sheldon Davis, Benson Lossing, Edward Huntting, and Theron Wilber, along with twelve representatives from Bethlehem, Philadelphia, and New York City, and Andrew Lake of Sharon, Connecticut. Permission was given to erect the Buettner monument on Huntting's property, and detailed plans were drawn up for the monuments, which were to be "plain and substantial." Durability of material rather than ornamental beauty was deemed desirable, for these were to be "landmarks for future times." The total cost of the Shekomeko stone was $276.41.

The inscriptions on the monument are as follows:

North face:
"Shekomeko Mission commenced August 16, 1740 Erected by Moravian Historical Society October 5, 1859"
South face:
"In memory of the Mahican Indians Lazara Baptised Dec. 1,1742, Died Dec. 5, 1742, and Daniel Baptised Dec. 26,1742, Died March 20, 1744"
West face:
German inscription that covered the original tombstone of Gottlob Buettner.
East face: translation of the foregoing:
"Here lies the body of Gottlob Buettner, who, according to the commandment of his crucified God and Saviour, brought the glad tidings to the heathen, that the blood of Jesus had made an atonement for their sins. As many as embraced this doctrine in faith were baptised into the death of the Lord. His last prayer was that they might be preserved until the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was born December 29th, 1716,and fell asleep in the Lord February 23, 1745."

The date for the dedication of the monument was set for October 5, 1859. After careful deliberation, it was determined that the program should combine historical and religious elements, the latter to be drawn from Moravian church liturgy and to include the choral music of trombonists, an important aspect of Moravian ceremonial. On October 3, a large delegation including clergymen, singers, trombonists, and others arrived from Bethlehem and New York City, traveling this time by the Harlem Railroad to Millerton where carriages awaited to bring them to Pine Plains.

All had been put in readiness for the coming event. Among the local people assisting with arrangements for the observance and providing hospitality were Samuel and Silas Deuel, Giles Duxbury, Edward Huntting, Richard Peck, and Theron Wilber. The members of the Shekomeko Literary Association at its September meeting had resolved "to do all in their power to aid in the successful accomplishment of this praiseworthy undertaking." The opening event of the celebration was a well-attended service at the Bethel Union Church on Tuesday evening, October 4, with several lengthy addresses and special music. The next morning, a colorful procession formed at Edward Huntting's house on what is now Bethel Cross Road, including "trombonists, clergy, members of the Moravian Historical Society, the Shekomeko Literary Association, Citizens on foot and Citizens in carriages." It moved along a lane from the farmhouse to the site of the mission. It is estimated that one thousand spectators were present. Rev. Sheldon Davis introduced the program with a stirring appreciation of Gottlob Buettner and of the Moravian Church and its courageous missionaries. Liturgical music and prayers followed and an address by the Reverend Edward I. Senseman of New York City, who elaborated on the life and work of Buettner and on the tremendous difficulties faced by the Moravian missionaries, completed the ceremony The following day the visitors were taken by their new Bethel friends to Connecticut where in the presence of a large assembly the monument at Indian Pond was dedicated.

In 1907, Walter W Law of Briarcliff Manor purchased over three thousand acres of property in the Towns of Pine Plains and Stanford to establish Briarcliff Farms. Several of the farms were in the Bethel area and one of these was the Edward Huntting farm, site of the monument erected in 1859.

On the advice of local attorney Frank Eno, Mr. Law left the monument undisturbed. However, in 1918, Briarcliff Farms was purchased by Oakleigh Thorne of Millbrook, who came to an agreement with the Moravian Historical Society to have the monument moved in order to facilitate the cultivation of the land and to make the monument more accessible to the public. The monument was thus moved to its present site at the intersection of the Pine Plains-Stanford highway (now Strever Farm Road) and Bethel Cross Road. Mr. Thorne agreed to convey by deed to the Moravian Historical Society title to the land on which the monument was to be re-erected. In a copy of a quarterly meeting of the Moravian Historical Society held on August 9, 1926, it is reported that on June 22 "twenty-six persons from Bethlehem and Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and Brooklyn, New York, had gone to Shekomeko, NY" where they were met by the president of the Dutchess County Historical Society, Dr. William Platt Adams, and other interested people. The Rev. Dr. WN. Schwarze, president of the Moravian Historical Society, delivered a dedicatory address, a copy of which is in the files of the Little Nine Partners Historical Society, and others including Dr. Adams took part in the re-dedication. There were prayers, and true to the Moravians' love of music, several hymns were sung. The minutes further state that following the exercises, Mr. Thorne served an elegant buffet lunch to the group, after which a trip was made to Indian Pond, Connecticut, where the Wechquadnach monument was found to be in good condition.

The stated purpose of the Little Nine Partners Historical Society, organized in 1962, is to preserve and record the history of the Town of Pine Plains and to protect its landmarks. There is no more significant event in that history than the establishment of this very effort on the part of the Moravian Church to send missionaries to the little Indian village in the wilds of the North Precinct.

At a meeting of the Executive Board of the Society in November 1989, Dyan Kilpatrick (now Wapnick), then president, noted that the year 1990 would mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of the mission. She expressed her hope that the Little Nine Partners Historical Society would observe this event appropriately The Board members responded positively, and at subsequent monthly meetings a steering committee was appointed, a tentative date in October was chosen, ways of involving the community were explored, and contacts with the Moravian Historical Society at its headquarters in Nazareth, Pennsylvania were developed.

The observance began with an informational meeting for Society members and townspeople on September 25, at which Board members presented background material on the Indians and their village, the Moravian Church and its widespread missionary endeavor, and the erection of the monument in 1859. The actual celebration of the 250th anniversary took place on Sunday October 21. Early in the afternoon, 40 people from Bethlehem and Nazareth arrived by chartered coach at the Harris-Husted House, where they were joined by 50 or more town and county residents. A guided tour of the Bethel hamlet included sites of the Quaker Meeting House and school, the sites of the Union Church and Lutheran churches, the burying grounds, and the original location of the Moravian monument and of Shekomeko, the Indian village.

picture - click to enlarge
The Moravian monument in its present location

At the conclusion of the tour, all those attending gathered at the monument at the intersection of Strever Farm and Bethel Cross Roads. There they were welcomed by Scott Chase, Supervisor of the Town of Pine Plains and an officer of the Little Nine Partners Historical Society. Robert Pharo, a member of the historic sites and monuments committee of the Moravian Historical Society addressed the group, and the Rev. Henry Williams spoke on the history of the Shekomeko mission after which he re-dedicated the monument. The celebration continued at the nearby Mashomack Club House, where Mr. Williams further enlarged on his earlier remarks concerning the history of the Moravian Church and its missionary work among the North American Indians. Refreshments were served and a social time enjoyed by all present. It is interesting to note that in 1859, the club house was the residence of Theron Wilber, where those who took part in the first dedication were entertained at the "sumptuous tea," and that this was also the site of the buffet lunch served at the rededication in 1926.


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