The Other Matter at Detroit: John Heckewelder, Revolutionary Spy

Barbara Mann (University of Toledo)

Presented at the 11ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 81-85).

Copyright © 1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Reverend Johann Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder (1743-1823) was the Moravian missionary source from whom James Fenimore Cooper extracted much of the spirit, and most of the gore, of his Leather-Stocking Tales. This much has long been established. But how many literary critics know what Cooper surely did by 1820 — a solid year before the publication of The Spy — that from at least 1778 until 1782, at risk of his own life, Heckewelder had acted as a spy for General Washington in Ohio during the American Revolution? The story of Heckewelder’s spy activities was fairly well known by 1820, informing large sections of his very popular History, Manners and Customs (1818, 1819, 1820) and Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren (1820, 1822).

It was not uncommon for colonial governments to commission missionaries to render secular services to their countries. Whereas the French and the Spanish never made any bones about the stately status of their missionaries, Britain and the later United States did hedge about their use of missionaries as double agents. Nevertheless, the British and U.S. governments regularly if quietly appointed missionaries as Indian agents, surveyors, spies and even agents provocateurs, seeing these chores as logical extensions of the missionary call to “civilize and christianize” the Indians.

The Moravians were in the thick of this trend, with Heckewelder, as usual, in the thick of the thick. Indeed, his very first assignment to Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”) Pennsylvania was in the company of Moravian missionary Frederick Post, who was regularly tapped for government service, and not infrequently, as an agent provocateur. In 1758, for example, the British in Pennsylvania colony commissioned Post to break the peace between the French and the Ohio Haudenosaunee 1 and negotiate a replacement treaty with the English, instead. 2 In 1759, Post was covertly sent out again, this time to renew the treaty with the Ohio Haudenosaunee and negotiate one with the Shawnee. 3 In 1762, Post led Heckewelder up the Susquehanna only to strand his young charge deep in Iroquoia at the sudden behest of the Governor of Pennsylvania: Post “had promised” the British “to do his best” to lure France’s Native allies away from her as the French and Indian War drew to its close. 4 Post was Heckewelder’s mentor and role model. It is not surprising, therefore, that Heckewelder, too, should be drawn into espionage.

His self-contradictory choices reflected an ambiguity at the root of Brüdergemeine [Moravian] beliefs. On one hand, the Moravians were firm passivists while, on the other, stood the Moravians’ conceit that their missionaries were “warriors.” 5 Once the Revolutionary War shifted into gear, Heckewelder put this philosophical contradiction into literal effect; at once a furious partisan and an official neutral, he involved himself in everything short of physical combat, swiftly transferring his loyalties from England to the colonies and rebuking the British as heatedly as he had once defended them. Since the Seneca and Wyandot of the Haudenosaunee Western Door (Ohio) where Heckewelder was stationed were decidedly on the British side during the Revolution, Heckewelder felt and acted as though he were surrounded by “enemies.”

Heckewelder was particularly quick to finger those “enemies.” He personally knew, and avidly exposed, British agents in his neck of the woods, fixating obsessively on the trio of Simon Girty (the Wyandot war chief Katepakomen 6), Captain Matthew Elliot and Colonel Alexander McKee. 7 Partisan hatred of these three chorused into a regular mantra in the Revolutionary East, their names being spat out with loathing for as long as any Revolutionary veteran survived, well into the nineteenth century.

In 1779, alerted by the League-allied Delaware war chief Hopocan (“Tobacco Pipe,” trivialized into “Captain Pipe” by the Europeans 8), Girty set his sights on the Moravians, for too much military intelligence was wafting back from their camps to the Americans at Fort Pitt. Heckewelder recounted the upshot of Girty’s suspicions twice, once in his History and again in his Narrative. It was a fraught scene of peril and rescue, reminiscent of dramatic moments Cooper was to replay many times over in the Leather-Stocking Tales.

Having identified Zeisberger as pivotal to the Moravian enterprise in Ohio, Chief Girty felt that removing him from the scene would close all the Moravian missions, effectively plugging the leak from wherever it originated in the Moravian camps. Accordingly, Girty and his war party, whom Heckewelder slurs as “his murdering band of Mingoes, nine in number,” approached Zeisberger coolly, without betraying their purpose,

[82] on the path leading from Goschacking to Gnadenhutten; their design was to take that worthy man prisoner; and if they could not seize him alive, to murder him and take his scalp to Detroit. They were on the point of laying hold of him, when two young spirited Delawares providentially entered the path at that critical moment and in an instant presented themselves to defend the good Missionary at the risk of their lives. 9

Actually, the fact that Girty waited until 1779 evinced considerable restraint on his part, while the fact that he targeted Zeisberger instead of Heckewelder implied some regard for Heckewelder besides. At the outbreak of the Revolution, when the British assigned McKee, Elliot and Girty as their Native liaisons in Ohio, the trio almost immediately began to suspect that the leak sprang from Salem, i.e., Heckewelder’s mission, not Zeisberger’s. Girty was soon enough convinced that Heckewelder, for all his pretensions of neutrality as a Moravian, was covertly spying for the Americans — as indeed he was.

During the Revolutionary War, starting in 1776, perhaps less than officially, but certainly under the highest orders from 1778 until 1782, Heckewelder acted as a spy for General George Washington, keeping his commanders at Ft. Pitt informed of League operations in Ohio. Colonel Daniel Brodhead, Washington’s longtime commander at Ft. Pitt, specifically admitted this on January 14, 1799, when he wrote:

I do certify that I have been acquainted with the Reverend John Heckewelder since the year 1778. That he resided on or near the Muskingum River as Missionary from the United Brethren to the Delawares & other tribes of Indians during my command in the Western Department and discovered a decided and firm attachment to the cause of the United States giving me every possible information or intelligence of the enemies [sic] parties approaching our Settlements or posts, by which many of them were defeated and destroyed. 10

General Edward Hand, who as Colonel Hand had commanded at Ft. Pitt in 1778, 11 confirmed Brodhead’s statement on February 14, 1800, acknowledging that “In 1778 the United States were indebted to the active and patriotic zeal of Mr. John Heckewelder” in their western campaigns. 12 In the late 1950’s, historian Paul A. W. Wallace found both of these attestations in the Moravian Church archives at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

In his own documents, Heckewelder was coy about admitting the extent of his agency during the Revolution but it is incontestable that, as historian Wallace put it, “Heckewelder acted as an intelligence agent” 13 who “kept the American authorities at Pittsburg informed 14 of enemy (British) activity throughout the Revolutionary War. On at least four occasions in his published works, he admits to having acted directly to benefit the patriot cause. In 1776, after being “supplied with a passport to Pittsburg” by rebel officials, Heckewelder set off as an emissary to the Haudenosaunee. 15 Like his old mentor Post, he was acting as an infiltrator, countering British stories (mostly true in 1776) being spread by Girty, Elliot and McKee of “the American armies all cut to pieces by the English troops” and “General Washington killed.” 16 Then again, in March, 1781, Heckewelder admitted receiving, “by Indian express, a few lines written by col. Broadhead [sic]” requesting both provisions from Heckewelder and “a visit by me at his camp,” during which Heckewelder supplied him with strategic information on Haudenosaunee troop movements. 17 On the third admitted occasion, in August of 1781, despite being closely watched — and knowing he was — Heckewelder surreptitiously sent information to the American forces at Pittsburgh concerning British activities out of Detroit by way of “two of the Christian Indian brethren” who inexplicably turned up “missing” from Salem. 18 At this juncture, as Paul Wallace too-succinctly quips of the nerve-wracking events to follow, “Captain Pipe stopped him.” 19

In a major action that began September 3, 1781, and consumed the next three months, Hopocan closed down Washington’s Ohio spy ring, rounding up Heckewelder, along with all other Moravian missionaries operating along the Muskingum River. 21 Heckewelder and his Moravian boss, David Zeisberger, were taken to British-held Detroit where they were put on trial for treason, a capital offense. The trial opened November 9, 1781. 21

In another of Paul Wallace’s classic understatements, he notes that at the trail, Hopocan “steals the show.” 22 Indeed, Hopocan’s performance is so memorable that Heckewelder records it four separate times: once in his manuscript “Captivity and Murder;” again, in a five-page passage of his Narrative; and twice in his History, dwelling at length on his eloquence and its impact on his listeners, Native and European. 23 Calling the speech “sublime,” Heckewelder marveled at “the admirable way in which it [wa]s prepared,” adding:

I wish I could convey to the reader’s mind only a small part of the impression which this speech made on me and on all present when it was delivered. 24

Certainly, part of the impression it made on Heckewelder’s mind had to do with Hopocan’s impassioned plea to the British to spare his life. Hopocan — on whose evidence he was being tried in the first place — brilliantly addressed the [83] Crown’s tribunal, denouncing imperialist wars being conducted on Native soil and calling for an end to the slaughter of innocents, among whom he included the Moravian missionaries:

Nevertheless, I did not do all that I might have done. No, I did not. My heart failed me. I felt compassion for your enemy. Innocence had no part in your quarrels; therefore I distinguished — I spared. I took some live flesh. ...

FATHER! I hope you will not destroy what I have saved. 25

Hopocan was not merely speaking for himself, but presenting the official statement of the Six Nations, vital British allies in Ohio. The Commander at Detroit, Major De Peyster, could not afford to alienate the Six Nations. Thus in the end, perhaps as shamed as moved by the unexpected Haudenosaunee move, the British were willing to call the evidence against the Moravians circumstantial, and “declar[e] us acquitted of the charges laid against us.” Despite De Peyster’s newfound expressions of sympathy and respect — he now claimed to feel a “great satisfaction and pleasure, in seeing our endeavours to civilize and Christianize the Indians” — the British remained wary enough of the Heckewelder party to remand them into the strict custody of Hopocan, with the consent of the Delaware, till the close of the war. 26

The fourth documented occasion of Heckewelder spying for the Americans occurred in the Spring of 1782 — immediately after the British tribunal bad acquitted him of the 1781 spy charges! Heckewelder was once more caught red-handed, supplying Ft. Pitt with intelligence, now for Washington’s planned offensive through Ohio, against Niagara. This time, Chief Girty stopped him by placing him under arrest on March 2, 1782, for illicit communications with Ft. Pitt which, according to Girty, occurred like clockwork, every ten days. 27 With Washington already invading Ohio, Girty was in no mood to coddle Heckewelder as he and Hopocan had in 1781. Moreover, a strong conflict had erupted between Heckewelder and Girty — part personality conflict, part political acrimony. Girty correctly blamed Heckewelder’s ill-fated spy mission for the eventual genocide against the Delaware-Mahicans of Ohio, a position Heckewelder was only belatedly to come, ruefully, to acknowledge as true. It was Heckewelder’s information that Colonel Williamson used, on an official mission out of Ft. Pitt, on March 8, 1782, to murder ninety-six starving Delaware-Mahicans as they innocently harvested their fields along the Muskingum 28 — the true story of “the last of the Mohicans” that Heckewelder presents in such agonizing detail in his Narrative. 29

Although Heckewelder’s appreciation of his own pivotal role in the demise of his friends would not dawn on him until it was too late, Girty grasped the situation instantly. It therefore showed immense restraint on Girty’s part that he did not personally dispatch Heckewelder on the spot when runners arrived with the grim news from Muskingum, although he was sorely tempted to do just that. 31 Instead, Chief Girty observed due process, taking Heckewelder prisoner, back to the British at Detroit. 31 This time considered too dangerous to release, Heckewelder was detained by the British until the close of the war.

George Washington was certainly aware of, and dismayed by, these developments. In the opening paragraph of his March 8, 1782, “Instructions to Brigadier General William Irvine” — his newly appointed commander of Ft. Pitt by action of the Continental Congress 32 — Washington ordered Irvine:

to keep yourself informed of the situation at Detroit and the strength of the Enemy at that place. 33

Heckewelder’s arrest was part of “the situation at Detroit.”

Washington quickly felt the loss of Heckewelder’s services, which left Irvine scrambling to fill in the blanks. In further instructions issued on March 22, 1782, Washington urged Irvine “to make yourself acquainted with the nearest and best Route from Fort Pitt to Niagara,” information he could readily have had from Heckewelder in one of his regular ten-day communications. Minus Heckewelder, the intelligence was much harder come-by. Washington suggested that Irvine apply to “Indians and Traders” for the information, but cautioned him under the circumstances to be sly about it, lest he give himself away:

In order to deceive those of whom you inquire, appear to be very solicitous to gain information respecting the distances Etc. to Detroit. The other matter you may converse upon as if curiosity was your only inducement. 34

The “other matter” at Detroit was the fate of John Heckewelder, who had set out for Detroit on March 15ᵗʰ, in the custody of Chief Girty. 35

Hopocan and Girty did not end Heckewelder’s career in espionage as expeditiously as this deeply westernized summary of events might imply. Heckewelder was suffered by the Six Nations to behave quite badly for certainly no fewer than four, and probably as many as seven years. But that is another, longer, and far more complex, story that I will reserve for another time.


1 Rev. Edward Rondthaler, Life of John Heckewelder, Ed. B. H. Coates, M.D. (Philadelphia: Townsend Ward, 1847), footnote, 35.

2 John Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles with John Heckewelder, Ed. Paul A. W. Wallace (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958), 433.

3 Rondthaler, op cit., footnote, 36.

4 Ibid., 50.

5 Craig D. Atwood, Blood, Sex and Death: Life and Liturgy in Zinzendorf’s Bethlehem, Dissertation (Princeton Theological Seminary, 1995), 208.

6 Nevin O. Winter, “The Renegades,” A History of Northwest Ohio: A Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress and Development from the First European Exploration of the Maumee and Sandusky Valleys and the Adjacent Shore of Lake Erie, down to the Present Time (Chicago & New York: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1917), 45.

7 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 196; 407; 410; 423.

8 Ibid., 432.

9 John Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States , 1820, 1876, The First American Frontier Series (New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1971), 279. Heckewelder described this same scene again, at greater length, in his Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians from Its Commencement, in the Year 1740, to the Close of the Year 1808 , 1820 (New York: Arno Press, 1971), 204-205.

10 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 133-134.

11 Heckewelder, Narrative ... , 175.

12 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 133.

13 Paul A. W. Wallace, John Heckewelder’s Indians and the Fenimore Cooper Tradition,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 96.4 (1952), 500. See also, Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 133.

14 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 165.

15 Heckewelder, Narrative ... , 174.

16 Ibid., 180.

17 Ibid., 214.1

18 Ibid., 239.

19 Wallace, “John Heckewelder’s Indians ... ,” 500.

20 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 174-184.

21 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... ,185-187; Narrative ... , 290.

22 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 185.

23 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 186-188; Narrative ... , 291-297; History, Manners, and Customs ... , 134-136, 347.

24 Heckewelder, History. Manners, and Customs ... , 136.

25 Ibid., 135-136.

26 Heckewelder, Narrative ... , 295.

27 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 196.

28 Ibid., 189-200.

29 Heckewelder, Narrative ... , 311-326.

30 Heckewelder, Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 201-202; Narrative ... , 332-335.

31 Heckewelder, Narrative ... , 304-307; Thirty Thousand Miles ... , 201-202.

32 George Washington, Letter of March 21, 1782, from Philadelphia, to the Secretary of War, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, Prepared under the Direction of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission and Published by Authority of Congress, Ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, Vol. 24, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1938), 86.

33 Washington, “Instructions of March 8, 1782, from Headquarters, Philadelphia, to Brigadier General William Irvine,” The Writings of George Washington ... , Vol. 24, 48.

34 Washington, Letter “To Brigadier General William Irvine,” Philadelphia, March 22, 1782, The Writings of George Washington ... , Vol. 24, 87.

35 Heckewelder, Narrative ... , 309.