Moravian missionary records offer insight into Cherokee history

By: Will Chavez

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Since 2009, the Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have funded a book project to bring to life Cherokee history from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Beginning in the mid-1700s Moravian missionaries from Salem, N.C., began ministering to the Cherokee people and lived among them in Georgia. Missionaries kept records of their interactions with Cherokee people and recorded their observations of Cherokee culture, society, customs and personalities. Those records are now being translated for a book series.

Volume 5 of “Records of the Moravians Among the Cherokees” was recently released and provides insight into the years between 1817-21, which were years of great change within the CN. Volume 1 of the book series covers the years from 1752 to 1802 and tells of the missionaries’ initial contacts with the Cherokee during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, exploratory visits and the founding of missions up to 1802.

The diaries and letters are giving the Cherokee people an “eyewitness account of the Cherokee Nation” in the 18th and 19th centuries, said At-Large Tribal Councilor Jack Baker, who is also a teacher of Cherokee history.

The records are also a “treasure trove” of genealogical records because of the descriptions of Cherokee families who interacted with the missionaries, Baker said.

Author and archivist Daniel Crews for the Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem, N.C., has been working on the books along with fellow author and archivist Richard Starbuck. The men are translating missionary diaries and letters from German into English for the books.

“They’re handwritten manuscripts in the old German alphabet,” Crews said. “All Moravian ministers were required to keep a daily diary of what went in the churches and things going on around them. So we have diaries from the missions. We have letters that they wrote back here (Salem) to governing boards and individuals. We have other reports that they sent in, and we have a few letters from Cherokees that had joined the mission or had gone to the mission school.”

He said there are not a lot of people who are able to read and translate the old German alphabet into English. The texts Crews and Starbuck are translating and editing have never been published.

“It’s just a fascinating chronicle of life in the Cherokee Nation from 200 years ago,” Crews said. “Most of it, of course, they (missionaries) are concerned about church matters, but they do report a good bit about the Cherokee customs, family structure and sometimes games and dances.”

Crews said the missionaries did complain in their writings that the Cherokee people preferred to attend their games and dances rather than go to church, and the two cultures sometimes clashed over cultural differences, but he said he admires the courage of the Cherokee people and missionaries found in the records.

The difficulty of translating a written record depends on the handwriting of the individual, Crews said.

“Even some of the bad handwriting, once you’ve worked with a while, you get used to it,” he said.

Also contained in the written Moravian records are accounts of the negotiations and discussions that took place regarding the removal of the Cherokee from their Southeastern homelands.

“(Principal Chief) John Ross, on his way to Washington, would stop in Salem and catch our leaders up on what had gone on in the talks,” Crews said.

Crews said one thing he appreciates about the Cherokee people from reading the documents is that they remained determined to hold on to their culture and land despite enormous odds.

“They’re striving to maintain their own culture in the face of realizing they are going to have to make some accommodations to the encroaching white society around them and trying to find the best way to maintain their own integrity and yet survive,” he said.

Crews anticipates carrying the Moravian story through the forced removal (1838-39), the re-establishment of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory, the Civil War years and the reopening of the Moravian mission following the Civil War.

“That’s going to be another four or five volumes. It’s hard to tell until we actually get into it,” Crews said. “We’re just beginning to get towards the removal era. Of course there will be a lot there of great interest to everybody.”

Baker said those who read the books will gain an insight to the missionaries’ point of view when the Cherokee people faced removal from their lands.

“They were on the side of the Ross party, opposed to removal even though the Ridges and the Waties (Ross’s opponents on removal) were active in their church,” Baker said.

The Moravian church gave money to the Cherokee people to help fight removal, he added.

“The real wealth is we’re getting these accounts that we’ve never had before,” Baker said. “Daniel Crews told me there’s fantastic a letter describing a family being removed from their home by the soldiers. That’s an eyewitness account we don’t have anywhere else.”

Baker said the CN and the EBCI councils are each providing the Moravian Archives $25,000 a year to pay for the translations.

“We very much appreciate the interest and support of the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians…and their financial assistance they are giving to make the project possible,” Crews said.

The books may be ordered from the Cherokee Heritage Center. Cherokee National Historical Society members receive a 10 percent discount from the $50 retail cost. There is a $10 shipping and handling charge and $5 for each additional book. All five volumes are also on sale in CN gift shops.

Orders may be mailed to Cherokee National Press, P.O. Box 515, Tahlequah, OK 74465. To order by phone, call 1-888-999-6007.