Saturday, September 5, 2009

David Zeisberger's History of the Northern American Indians

As I mentioned earlier, in August I visited my parents in upstate NY. My dad is a big history buff. His main interest is 18th century America. I enjoyed looking through the many history books on his shelves. He picks them up from the gift shops at historic sites in New York and Pennsylvania. Among them is a the History of the Northern American Indians, by David Zeisberger. His copy is a paperback reprint published by Wennawoods Publishers. When I got home I requested the book through interlibrary loan, and received an old 1910 edition.

A Moravian missionary, Zeisberger lived in the Western Pennsylvania and Ohio wilderness with the Delaware Indians between 1766 and 1781. His journal describes their day to day life. He discusses their landscape, the many plants and animals, hunting, societal roles, customs, language, economy, clothing, sex, methods of war, religion, politics, and their relations with other Indian nations and with the Europeans (colonists). The English translation (he wrote in German) is engaging and easy to follow.

Zeisberger was highly regarded by the Delaware themselves. I'm sure this was in part to the Moravian method of evangelism—leading by good example, rather than confronting and condemning others. I should note that the term, "Delaware" is a European name applied to the tribes that originally lived along the Delaware river, but were pushed west by encroaching settlers.

The whole account was fascinating, but I found several points to be especially enlightening.

1. Trading buckskins was the primary method of dealing for European (and local American) goods. Zeisberger explained that the coat of a deer changes with the seasons."The best time for the chase is in the fall when the game is fat and the hides are good. Hense, they commonly in September and October go hunting with their families, remaining afield until the New Year or longer, though after that the skins can not be used."

2. I enjoyed his three-page description for preparing maple syrup and maple sugar.

3. In the Delaware language there were no swear words: "If women or men would berate each other... they direct words and speeches at one another which would not not be considered terrible by other people but are very seriously taken by the Indians."

4. The conduct of their war. Zeisberger explains their use of small war parties, the preparation for the raid, the vast distances traveled, the importance of prisoner-taking (to replace tribe members lost in previous battles), and the forced march home.

David Zeisberger's journal is considered by many to be the best description of 18th century life of the Northeastern Native Americans. Naturally his perspective was skewed to that of a Christian white man. However, his first person account of the Indians is as accurate and objective as you will ever find for this period.

No comments: