Conrad Weiser, a German immigrant but one of America’s great early Indian interpreters and a key figure in the development of colonial Pennsylvania, died 250 years ago today. One of many important missions took him west into the Ohio Valley to meet several Indian tribes who were in conflict with Pennsylvania over the interpretation of a treaty signed four years earlier, and during that journey he kept a diary which is freely available online.
Weiser was born in 1696, in the Duchy of Württemberg, now part of Germany. By 1709, the people in that area were suffering from French invasions as well as from disease. His mother died from the fever, and his father soon took the family to England as refugees. There they joined three thousand other Germans on ten ships, paid for by the English Crown, to cross the Atlantic and live in camps in the New York colony. After a few years, though, Weiser and his family moved 50 miles north in the colony to settle in the Schoharie Valley.
Young Weiser, aged only 15 or 16, volunteered to live with the Mohawk indians further along the valley, and thus learned much about their language and customs. In 1720, he married a German girl, and in 1729 they moved to build a homestead near the present town of Womelsdorf, in Pennsylvania, which became a centre of hospitality both for Germans and visiting Indians.
From the early 1730s, Weiser became the official interpreter for Pennsylvania, and was involved in every important Indian transaction for several decades. He was a key player, Wikipedia’s biography says, in treaty negotiations, land purchases, and the formulation of Pennsylvania’s policies towards Native Americans, especially the Iroquois. Indeed he helped keep them allied with the British as opposed to the French, thus contributing to the continued survival of the British colonies and the eventual victory of the British over the French in the French and Indian Wars.
During the second half of the 1730s, Weiser became enamored of a Baptist preacher and went to live on a monastic settlement away from his wife and children, leaving only for visits to his family and for diplomatic missions. In 1741, though, he returned home and to the Lutheran church. Otherwise he was a busy man of considerable talents, not least as a farmer, merchant and tanner. He helped plan the new town of Reading, founding a church there, and to establish Berks County. He was appointed as a colonel during the French and Indian Wars, during which he planned and established several forts. He died 250 years ago today, on 13 July 1760. There is plenty of information about Weiser online, not least at the websites of Berks County and the Conrad Weiser Homestead museum.
One of Weiser’s deeds was to act as interpreter for the Treaty of Lancaster, between representatives of the Iroquois and the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia in 1744. But, in the years that followed, colonial officials in Pennsylvania (and Virginia) acted as if the Iroquois had sold them settlement rights to the Ohio Valley; the Iroquois believed otherwise.
In 1748, Pennsylvania sent Weiser to Logstown, a trade village on the Ohio River, where he held council with chiefs representing 10 tribes, including the Iroquois, and negotiated a treaty of friendship. Weiser kept a diary of that journey, but it was not published until 1904, when The Arthur H. Clark Company included it in its first volume of Early Western Travels, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites - Conrad Weiser’s Journal of a tour to the Ohio; August 11-October 2, 1748.
Here are a few entries from the early part of the diary. The full text - including many interesting and useful footnotes - can be read at Internet Archive. (One note is worth reproducing, about wampum, the traditional, sacred shell beads: ‘The importance of ‘wampum’ in all Indian transactions cannot be over-estimated. It was used for money, as a much-prized ornament, to enforce a request . . , to accredit a messenger, to ransom a prisoner, to atone for a crime. No council could be held, no treaty drawn up, without a liberal use of wampum.’)
24 August 1748
‘Found a dead Man on the Road who had killed himself by Drinking too much Whisky; the Place being very stony we cou’d not dig a Grave; He smelling very strong we covered him with Stones & Wood & went on our Journey; came to the 10 Mile Lick, 32 Miles.’
‘Crossed Kiskeminetoes Creek & came to Ohio that Day, 26 Miles.’
‘Hired a Cannoe; paid 1,000 Black Wampum for the loan of it to Logs Town. Our Horses being all tyred, we went by Water & came that Night to a Delaware Town; the Indians used us very kindly.’
‘Sett off again in the morning early; Rainy Wheather. We dined in a Seneka Town, where an old Seneka Woman Reigns with great Authority; we dined at her House, & they all used us very well; at this & the last-mentioned Delaware Town they received us by firing a great many Guns; especially at this last Place. We saluted the Town by firing off 4 pair of pistols; arrived that Evening at Logs Town, & Saluted the Town as before; the Indians returned about One hundred Guns; Great Joy appeared in their Countenances. From the Place where we took Water, i.e. from the old Shawones Town, commonly called Chartier’s Town, to this Place is about 60 Miles by Water & but 35 or 40 by Land.
The Indian Council met this Evening to shake Hands with me & to shew their Satisfaction at my safe arrival; I desired of them to send a Couple of Canoes to fetch down the Goods from Chartier’s old Town, where we had been oblig’d to leave them on account of our Horses being all tyred. I gave them a String of Wampum to enforce my Request.’
‘The Indians sett off in three Canoes to fetch the Goods. I expected the Goods wou’d be all at Chartier’s old Town by the time the Canoes wou’d get there, as we met about twenty Horses of George Groghan’s at the Shawonese Cabbins in order to fetch the Goods that were then lying at Franks Town.
This Day news came to Town that the Six Nations were on the point of declaring War against the French, for reason the French had Imprison’d some of the Indian Deputies. A Council was held & all the Indians acquainted with the News, and it was said the Indian Messenger was by the way to give all the Indians Notice to make ready to fight the French. This Day my Companions went to Coscosky, a large Indian Town about 30 Miles off.’
‘I went to Beaver Creek, an Indian Town about 8 Miles off, chiefly Delawares, the rest Mohocks, to have some Belts of Wampum made. This afternoon Rainy Wheather set in which lasted above a Week. Andrew Montour came back from Coscosky with a Message from the Indians there to desire of me that the ensuing Council might be held at their Town. We both lodged at this Town at George Croghan’s Trading House.’
‘Sent Andrew Montour back to Coscosky with a String of Wampum to let the Indians there know that it was an act of their own that the ensuing Council must be held at Logs Town, they had order’d it do last Spring when George Croghan was up, & at the last Treaty in Lancaster the Shawonese & Twightwees have been told so, & they stayed accordingly for that purpose, & both would be offended if the Council was to be held at Coscosky, besides my instructions binds me to Logs Town, & could not go further without giving offence.’