Sunday, January 15, 2017

Conrad Weiser

Conrad Weiser Statue
Conrad Weiser is one of the most remarkable and influential figures in colonial Pennsylvania history. Beginning at the age of 17, he served variously as a diplomat and interpreter for his fellow Germans and the Indians, Pennsylvania’s Indian agent, and colonel of the militia. A close friend of powerful Indian and colonial leaders, he was also a faithful husband and father of 14 children, a farmer, a tanner, a founder of the town of Reading, a monk at the Ephrata Cloister, a leader in the Lutheran Church, a promoter of Moravian missions, a hymn-writer, and a woodsman. He appears several times in Northkill and the forthcoming The Return, Books 1 and 2 of the Northkill Amish Series, coauthored by me and Bob Hostetler. I’ve been fascinated by Weiser since I first discovered him while researching the series.

Conrad Weiser was born November 2, 1696, in the German principality of Wurttemberg. After his mother’s death, his father, Johann Conrad Weiser, migrated to America in 1710 with his children and settled on the New York frontier. At the age of 15, Conrad went to live with their Mohawk neighbors at the Indian Castle at the mouth of the Schoharie River in order to learn the language of the Iroquois so he could serve as a go-between for the German community. Under the guidance of the Mohawk chief, Quagnant, Weiser acquired a keen knowledge of the Iroquois language, religion, and social customs and was soon in almost constant demand as an interpreter and negotiator.

Weiser married Anna Eva Fegg on November 22, 1720 and in 1729 moved his family to the Tulpehocken Valley in present-day Berks and Lebanon counties in Pennsylvania, where many Germans from New York were migrating. After they settled on 200 acres near Womelsdorf, Weiser soon became a close friend of Shikellamy, a powerful chief of the Oneidas who had been sent to the area by the Iroquois to rule over the Delaware and Shawnee nations. Shikellamy became a frequent guest at the Weiser home and insisted he serve as interpreter for all negotiations with the provincial officials.

Weiser's signature
Recognizing Weiser’s value, in 1731 the governor placed him in charge of all Indian affairs for the colony. Weiser worked closely with Shikellamy to keep the frontier peaceful and was deeply involved in the implementation of Pennsylvania’s Indian policy, which recognized the dominance of the Iroquois over all other Indian nations in the colony. Weiser was predominantly responsible for negotiating every major treaty between the colonial settlers in Pennsylvania and the Iroquois Nations from 1731 until 1758. He convinced the Six Nations to take no part in the quarrels between the French and the English. This long-standing friendship eventually resulted in the other Indian nations withdrawing their allegiance from the French as well, which contributed greatly to France’s eventual defeat. Weiser’s courage and good will impressed the Iroquois so much that they named him Tarachiawagon, Holder of the Heavens.

When war first broke out along the frontier, Weiser was chosen to be the commander of the local militia. Pennsylvania soon formed a provincial militia and built a line of outposts, and in 1756 Weiser was commissioned as lieutenant colonel in command of the 1st Battalion, Pennsylvania Regiment, which was responsible for manning the line between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers. He held this post until he retired 1758. That same year General John Forbes’s expedition to Fort Du Quesne forced the French to abandon and burn this great stronghold. Weiser was instrumental in negotiating the 1758 Treaty of Easton, which ended the great majority of Indian raids in eastern Pennsylvania.

Ephrata Cloister
Anna Eva bore Weiser 14 children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. Although a Lutheran, Weiser joined the monastic community of Ephrata Cloister between 1735 and 1741, intermittently withdrawing from family and political life to live there. He eventually became disillusioned with the Cloister’s leader, however, and returned to the Lutheran Church. He helped found Trinity Church in Reading, and his daughter Maria married Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, a leading minister of the Lutheran Church in Pennsylvania. Weiser also actively promoted the missions the Moravian Church established to the Indians in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Conrad Weiser Homestead
A major landholder, farmer, tanner, and businessman, Weiser remained active in local affairs until the end of his life. He served as a magistrate for Lancaster County and helped to found the town of Reading in 1748 and Berks County in 1752, which he served as its first justice of the peace. He established a general mercantile in Reading, the first in the community, and built a home there in 1758 after turning the management of his farm over to 2 of his sons. He died at his farm on July 13, 1760, at the age of 63.

Weiser’s influence was so great that after his death relations between the colonists and the Indians rapidly began to decline. The most fitting tribute to this remarkable man was given by an Iroquois leader speaking to a group of colonists: “We are at a great loss and sit in darkness … as since his death we cannot so well understand one another.” How different might the relations between the new United States and the Native Americans have been if he had lived long enough to serve through the Revolution!

Unfortunately, no known portaits of Weiser survive. However, you can visit the Conrad Weiser Homestead at Womelsdorf, managed by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, which interprets his life and preserves the restored structures and graveyard. The park contains statues of Weiser and Shikellamy as a memorial to Weiser’s great friendship with the Indians.

What is your favorite era in history to read about, and who is your favorite real-life hero of that era?

J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 INDYFAB Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, releases in Spring 2017. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.