CONRAD WEISER TRANSLATED FOR COLONIALS AND THE SIX NATIONS
[Above: Sketch of the elderly Conrad Weiser, from Joseph Solomon Walton’s Conrad Weiser and the Indian Policy of Colonial Pennsylvania. United States, George W. Jacobs & Company, 1900. public domain.]
CONRAD WEISER was a significant figure in colonial America. As a youth he lived many months among the Mohawks—long enough to learn their language and their ways. As a man, his diplomatic skills and ability to translate kept the Six Nations from siding with the French for twenty-five years in their contest with the English for control of North America.
This came at great danger to himself. For example, in an early venture to negotiate with the Six Nations, he almost perished. Starving and exhausted from wading through deep snow, he reported,
My strength was so exhausted that my whole body trembled and shook to such a degree that I thought I should fall down and die; I went to one side and sat down under a tree, intending to give up the ghost there.... My companions soon missed me, and the Indians came back and found me sitting there. I would not go any further, but said to them in one word: “Here I will die;” they were silent a while; at last [Shikellimy] began, “My dear companion, take courage, thou hast until now encouraged us, wilt thou now give up entirely? Just think that the bad days are better than the good ones, for when we suffer much we do not sin, and sin is driven out of us by suffering . . . when it goes badly with us, God takes pity on us.” I was therefore ashamed, and stood up and journeyed on as well as I could.
Weiser’s religious life provides a snapshot of colonial experience. First, he was wedded to his Bible and would write, “I became so much attached to my Bible that I looked upon it as my comfort, and it became my book of delight.” Second, because of lack of preachers, “Conrad Weiser was . . . often called on to preach funeral sermons, offer prayers, and lead in singing hymns over the burying of the dead,” wrote a descendant.
Third, he tried a variety of denominations and sects. Reared Lutheran, he married in a Reformed Church in New York, but became a Seventh Day Baptist in Pennsylvania, even joining their monastic commune at Ephrata. During this period, he publicly burned Lutheran and Reformed writings. Disaffected with Ephrata, he left, rejoined for a short time, and then left for good. When Moravian missionaries arrived, he was so impressed with their lives, which he thought exemplified primitive Christianity, that he served as their translator and went to great trouble to rescue Count von Zinzendorf from Shawanese who misunderstood the count’s motives. However, the Moravians turned against him. And so, near the end of his life, Weiser rejoined the Lutheran Church, influenced by his son-in-law Henry Melchior Muhlenberg.
Strangely, Weiser never allied with the Quakers, whose love of peace and justice might have created a natural affinity. In part this was because they favored the Delaware people whom he disliked and, they were unwilling to fight, whereas he would when he had to. Pennsylvania made him a colonel. He often had to defend wide areas with insufficient men and almost no powder and lead. Farmers who joined the militia fled at first sight of Indian braves. Because he could not prevent Indian attacks and because he protected Indians from White injustice, informed on unscrupulous traders, and insisted that squatters give up stolen lands, Weiser fell out of favor with Whites. Joseph Walton wrote,
His determination to see justice done to [i.e., for] the Indians brought upon him the censure of the frontier people and especially the men of Paxtang and the Susquehanna country.
Abandoned as an interpreter because of complex politics and land-hungry administrators, Weiser had little influence in his final years. He even risked loss of some of the lands granted him for his services. Death came for the long-time peacemaker on this day, 13 July 1760, at Reading, Pennsylvania, from a violent attack of colic.
The following year a Seneca leader rose during treaty discussions and presented a wampum belt, saying,
Brother Onas [Pennsylvania’s negotiator]: We, the Seven Nations, and our cousins, are at a great loss and sit in darkness, as well as you, by the death of Conrad Weiser, as since his death we cannot so well understand one another. By this belt we cover his body with bark.
Two centuries later, Weiser’s name became associated with yet another religious group when the Episcopal Church added it to their calendar.
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