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Fairfield, the First Moravian Village on the Thames


A CENTURY before the Protestant Reformation began, John Hus was martyred for his faith. His followers called themselves the Unitas Fratrum, or United Brethren, but their more common name of Moravians was derived from their country of origin. In 1741 the exiled Count von Zinzendorf established at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the first church of this sect in America. Half a century later a group of Christian Delaware Indians, under the leadership of their Moravian missionaries, founded on the River Thames the first and only Moravian settlement in Canada. The first village on the reserve was on the north bank of the river, in the township of Zone, Kent County, and was called Fairfield. It was destroyed by the American troops in 1813. Two years later New Fairfield was built on the south side, nearly opposite. The mission buildings here still stand, but are deserted, and the present Moraviantown has developed about a mile farther to the south-east.

The United Brethren had early devoted themselves to missionary work among the heathen Indians, and various settlements of converts were made throughout the American colonies. In Ohio these were at Schoenbrunn, Gnadenhütten, Salem, and Lichtenau. During the American Revolutionary War, situated as they were along the river valleys of Ohio, these stations were in the path of the western Indians who travelled to attack the settlers on the borders of Pennsylyania and Virginia. Despite their neutrality and abhorrence of war, the Moravian Indians were regarded with suspicion by both sides. In the fall of 1781 the British forced them to leave their villages and remove to Upper Sandusky; but the following March a hundred of them, returning to harvest the standing corn, were massacred by a party of American frontiersmen at Gnadenhütten. The remainder removed to the Clinton river in Michigan, and founded a settlement near the present city of Mt. Clemens. Five years later they were forced to leave because of the hostility of the Chippewas, who claimed the land. They returned to Ohio, but by 1791 again found themselves in grave danger from the warfare being waged between the Indians and the American militia. In May of that year they were permitted to settle near the mouth of the Detroit river, on the Canadian side, in full view of Lake Erie, Here they were annoyed by threats from Indian tribes who tried to induce them to fight against the Americans, and they began to negotiate for a grant of land on the Thames river where they would be removed from the border, and safe within undisputed British territory.

In the spring of 1792 the Moravian colony secured permission from the Indian agent McKee to remove to the Thames, or La Tranche, as it was then called. He did this on his own responsibility because it was necessary for them to get fields cleared and planted so they might have provisions for the coming winter, and it would be some time before a grant could be secured from the Canadian government. On the morning of the 12th of April the Moravian Indians set out, led by the four missionaries, David Zeisberger, Gottlieb Senseman, Michael Jung, and William Edwards. Zeisberger and Senseman were married, and were accompanied by their families. Jung and several of the Indian brethren went overland driving the cattle. The rest proceeded in a transport and several canoes by way of the Detroit river and Lake St. Clair. After a tempestuous voyage, marked by delays and hardships, the little fleet reached a settlement of squatters on the river below the present city of Chatham. Here they remained until the 27th, when, being joined a few days before by the party driving the cattle, they continued up the Thames. At this time there were no habitations between this lower settlement and the Indian villages of Monsey and Delaware far up the river. It was in the wilderness, remote from neighbors, that the Moravians wished to settle.

After going a considerable distance above the present village of Wardsville, the band retraced their steps and chose a town-site on the north bank of the river beside a deep ravine running into the Thames. Here, on the 9th of May, 1792, they began to build the village which they later named Fairfield. As soon as the rich bottom lands, mostly across the river, were cleared, corn was planted. The village was laid out as a double row of houses along a single street parallel to the Thames. Its eastern end terminated at the ravine. A plan of the village, dated August, 1793, shows thirty-eight houses. The church occupies the fifth lot from the ravine on the side farthest from the river.

Just west of this is Zeisberger’s home. Directly opposite it is the house occupied by Edwards and Jung; next to them is Senseman’s house, and then the schoolhouse, extending down river. The remaining houses were occupied by the Indians, whose names are given in the plan. The graveyard, on a little elevation called Hat—hill, is almost directly opposite the lower end of the village. Some distance behind the church is a small field belonging to Zeisberger, which he used for pasture and turnips. One of the Indians, named Ignatius, had a large wheat field on the eastern side of the ravine, extending across the present Longwoods road. Twenty years later, when the town was burned, it had grown no farther westward, but there were several houses across the ravine, which had been bridged. There were also some houses on a cross street which ran back some distance from the main street, just east of the chapel.

The settlement was fortunate in having a good spring of water at the head of the ravine, which fed the little creek running into the Thames. They were fortunate, too, in having a salt spring on the bank of the river less than half a mile away, which supplied them with this otherwise expensive necessity. Not far off was a petroleum spring, the product of which had long been valued for its supposed medicinal qualities ; but there is a notation on McNiff's plan of the village site in 1794, that the Moravians burned it in their lamps.

A land grant was not received by the settlement until July 19, 1793, when an Order—in—Council gave them about 50,000 acres, "on a width of 6 3/4 miles about their village, extending twelve miles back on the south side, and northward to the purchase line." So that their village might be in the centre of the reserve, the width of the third township (Camden on the north of the river and Howard on the south) was reduced by six lots, and these were added to twelve that the surveyor McNiff now laid out through their lands. Thus their township, as well as the third, was made eighteen lots in width instead of the regulation twenty-four.

The activities of the Moravian Indians were largely confined to agriculture and maple sugar making. Corn was the principal crop, though later winter wheat was also sown. Pumpkins were grown among the corn; and in their gardens they planted tobacco, and vegetables such as turnips, beans and potatoes. They planted apple trees, but until they were ready to bear made frequent trips to the lower settlement and Detroit for this prized fruit. There was but little time for hunting, although some deer, bears, turkeys and other game were shot at various times to help out the food supply. Fish were caught in great quantities in the spring by the children and older people, by means of a "bound" or fish dam in the river. During the summer the women picked and dried berries; and in the autumn they gathered great quantities of chestnuts and walnuts. One of the Indians had brought with him from Ohio a hive of bees, and soon the village was plentifully supplied with honey.

The peaceful sedentary life of Fairfield was often disturbed by bands of Indians from the Monsey and Delaware towns on the upper Thames, by the Mohawks from the Grand River, and by the Chippewas who wandered about the country. The Thames was a well travelled highway between Niagara and Detroit, used by Indians and whites alike, and Fairfield was a stopping place for all. Rarely was the village without bands of these troublesome neighbors who camped on the river bank, sometimes for weeks at a time, drumming and dancing and drinking, and leading the young men astray. The Chippewas were the worst nuisance, for they stole what they could, and frequently danced their beggar-dance through the street, begging from door to door.

The most distinguished white visitor was Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe, who travelled through from Niagara to Detroit in the winter of 1793 and again the following year. From 1795 on, Zeisberger notes in his diary that "white people arrive almost daily." Some of these were passing through to Detroit or Niagara, many others were looking for land on which to settle, or driving cattle through to their farms. Nearly all stopped for a meal or for the night at Fairfield. Traders came frequently, usually staying for several days while they bartered their goods for corn, sugar, cattle, pelts, and baskets. Abiah Parke, Matthew Dolsen, and John Askin’s clerk came most during the early years. French traders passed through often, but were dis- -liked by the missionaries because they sold rum to their Indians.

The connections of Fairfield with the settlers on the Thames below them were close. The river front as far as their township had settled very rapidly after the issuance of certificates of location in 1792 and 1793. During their first winter the brethren had gone to the lower settlement, at that time below the forks at Chatham, for corn, but were able to get little because "the settlers are new beginners and have little." Often afterwards, however, the Indians worked among the whites to earn corn and flour. They traded at Matthew Dolsen’s store a few miles below Chat-ham, and took their grain to be ground at Cornwall’s mill about seven miles down river from Fairfield. The missionaries found much to complain about from this association, for their Indians frequently came home drunk. "This is a godless people on this river," Zeisberger writes, "and if they can lead our Indians astray they do so gladly." Many of the white settlers were jealous or suspicious of the Moravian Indians and accused them of stealing. The missionaries suspected that the whites wished to drive them away so they could get possession of their lands.

Nevertheless the Moravians had many friends, and the mission was the religious centre of the Thames for years. Nearly every Sunday white people came from the lower settlements to attend services in the chapel at Fairfield. Soon the missionaries were called upon to extend their work outside the town. Senseman was much occupied with marrying couples and baptizing children. Sometimes this was done at Fairfield, but more often in the settlements. Often he went down to preach, or to visit the sick, and rarely left without baptizing several children. He was so beloved that in 1796 the inhabitants of the river wanted to choose him as their representative to the assembly, but this he declined. For years, beginning in February, 1796, Michael Jung preached every alternate Sunday at the house of Francis Cornwall, seven miles away. Like Senseman, he frequently baptized children and conducted funerals. The demands on the missionaries were so great that they had to decline a request from a new settlement far up the river, that one of them should preach there.

In the summer of 1798 Edwards and Zeisberger left for the Tuscarawas valley in Ohio, accompanied by some forty or fifty Indians, to found a colony. Fairfield at this time had three hundred acres of land under cultivation, and each year produced and sold 2000 bushels of corn and 5000 pounds of maple sugar. Two years later Gottlieb Senseman died and was buried at Fairfield. Michael Jung remained until after the burning of the village in 1813. He was assisted until 1804 by Haven and Oppelt, who in the summer of that year led out another colony and began the enterprise near the site of New Salem; also by John Schnall who came soon after the departure of Zeisherger. In the spring of Christian Frederick Denke and his wife arrived to found a mission among the Chippewas. After two attempts had failed, first on Harsen’s Island, then on the River Sydenham below Florence, Denke returned to Fairfield in December 1806. Here he remained until 1813.

News of the war between Great Britain and the United States was received at Fairfield on July 1, 1812. On the 15th a detachment of soldiers from Hull’s army at Sandwich, under Colonel McArthur, penetrated as far as McGregor’s mills at Chatham, on a foraging expedition. The Moravian Indians, fearing they would come farther up the river, took refuge in the woods. Ten days later, when they were assured the Americans had gone back, the Indians returned. For the next twelve months they were filled with alarm and wished to move away, but could not agree among themselves where to go. On September 10, 1813, they heard the sound of guns from Lake Erie, where the British fleet was defeated by Perry. Late in the month General Harrison’s army landed at Fort Malden, and the British and Indians under Procter and Tecumseh began their retreat up the Thames. The church and the schoolhouse at Fairfield were used as hospitals for seventy sick and wounded British soldiers who arrived on the 2nd of October. A day or so later these were hastily removed to Delaware, along with Procter’s family. By the 5th, when the Battle of the Thames was fought about a mile and a half below, Fairfield was deserted except for Jung, who was ill in bed, and Schnall and his family. Denke and his wife, and the Indians, had hid in the forest.

Procter fled with his staff at the beginning of the battle. They were pursued by some of the enemy cavalry along the road through Fairfield and far beyond, but eventually escaped. Johnson’s cavalry occupied the village, while the rest of the American army encamped on the battlefield. That night and the following day the town was given over to plunder, despite Schnall’s protests to General Harrison.

Rafts were built and loaded with valuables to be floated down the Thames. The missionaries were roughly used, being suspected of hiding some English officers and their possessions. After a thorough search they were permitted to leave with their personal property. John Dolsen, who had come to Fairfield just before the battle, loaned them his wagon and team of horses. They left on the 6th of October, and the following day the whole town was burned to the ground. The reason given for this destruction was that the Indians had been hostile to the Americans and that some had fought on the English side. The petition of the Moravian Society for compensation was refused by the United States Congress on the same ground. Some time later, however, the Canadian authorities made an appropriation to cover part of the loss. This was paid in installments, the last in 1836.

Schnall and his family, with Jung, eventually made their way hack to Pennsylvania, but Denke and his wife remained to care for the fugitive Indians. After nearly two years spent at or near Burlington Heights, the band returned to the site of Fairfield in August, 1815, the war having ended. They lived in huts there until September, when they moved to the opposite side of the river, in Orford township, where the village of New Fairfield was founded. In 1818 Denke went back to Bethlehem, and Schnall returned to the mission to take his place, dying there the following year. The later history of New Fairfield can not be told here. Suffice it to say that on April 1, 1903, the mission was merged with that of the Methodist Church in Canada, whose workers had been invited to the reserve about forty years before.

The ruined basements of Fairfield remained as an object of curiosity to travellers until near the end of the century. One family of Indians named Jacobs continued to live on this sidle of the river, but across the ravine. By 1536 the Moravian Indians had been induced to surrender all their lands north of the Thames to the Government. The Jacobs were not disturbed, however, and continued to live there for many years. In 1889 George Yates received a Crown grant of "lot lettered B north of the Longwood's road, township of Zone," which contained most of the village site. The Indian burying ground, about one half acre in extent, was reserved by the Government. It is now neglected, and only one broken gravestone remains, that of Simon Jacobs, who died in 1864. Those of the missionaries were removed to Bothwell cemetery soon after 1900, where they may still be seen. Most of the burials after 1813 were in another cemetery across the river, near the New Fairfield church. This has been largely destroyed by the falling away of the bank, and a third is now used, not far from the present Moraviantown.

The site of Fairfield is today marked only by the course of the river, the ravine, the clump of trees covering the old graveyard, and a number of apple trees, degenerate descendants of those planted by the Moravians before the village was destroyed. Just a century and a quarter ago, Schnall and Jung on their way down the Thames saw the smoke arising from this very spot. "Even if the town is destroyed," Schnall said, "the flames will not burn up the prayers which we have offered in behalf of the mission, in the church, the gardens, the fields and the woods, and the Lord will surely in his own good time re-establish his work here." Neither could they erase the influence which the town had had on the spiritual and economic life of the settlements on the River Thames.

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