Johann Conrad Weiser lived in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s and is mostly known for his role in shaping the history of colonial America through his work as an “Indian affairs agent.” He lived quite a busy and remarkable life, although perhaps everyone who crossed an ocean to live on a continent entirely unknown for most of their culture’s history is worth marking more than once.
His father was part of a group of German immigrants to North America who swore loyalty to the English crown, a fealty that Weiser would enthusiastically maintain. When he was 16 his father made an agreement with a local Mohawk chief and sent young Conrad to spend a winter with the tribe, learning their language and customs. Weiser would later move to Pennsylvania and begin working for a series of governors, in theory as an Indian affairs agent, helping to prevent violence between Native tribes and colonists and brokering land “sales,” but in reality doing much more. During the French and Indian War (or the North American part of Seven Years War, depending on your geographical perspective) he was a lieutenant. He commanded an underfed but fierce militia of colonists while still maintaining diplomatic relations with the Six Nations, a united group of Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras). He also helped to found Reading, Pennsylvania and Berks County, and was Berks County’s chief judge from 1752 until 1760. In addition to his civic duties, he was a teacher and minister in the Lutheran Church, although he spent a few years living at the Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County.
Now that I’ve introduced you to Conrad Weiser, I’ll let some of his records speak for themselves.
This notebook appears to contain notes that Weiser kept during a meeting with Six Nations representatives sometime around 1750. The handwriting — he was usually much neater — suggests that he was writing this as it happened or shortly thereafter. He was one of the first (or possibly the first) colonist to recognize the importance of wampum belts in strengthening diplomatic relationships, and here he describes being presented with one:
We give you this belt of wampum to wear about your neck as a token that you are our friends that have been at our counsel fire. (Vol 1, Page 22)
In this item, Weiser argues to his friend and secretary to the governor of Pennsylvania, Richard Peters, that all tribes should be given warning long before their land is sold and be given adequate time to leave it before European settlers move in. But ideally, he adds, land should only be bought and sold during visits from the Six Nations’ chiefs and only with their consent. These opinions seem less than moderate to us, but his sympathy for the local tribes would eventually lead to accusations of disloyalty and of his being a traitor to the English crown. Throughout the correspondence in this collection, Weiser makes references to lies and rumors being spread about him, and is eventually forced to defend himself against charges of disloyalty and in one instance, against an armed mob.
(Vol 1, Page 19)
In this account of a hostile meeting between Weiser and a gathering of townspeople, he describes how they react when he first escorts a party of Native men safely to lodgings for the night (guarding them from a large, angry throng) and then tries to draft volunteers for a militia. The townspeople are riled after hearing rumors that a colonist was murdered by a Native American man, so the meeting quickly escalates to threats of violence.
They began, some to curse the Governor; some the Assembly; called me a traitor of the country, who held with the Indians, and must have known this murder beforehand. I sat in the house by a low window, some of my friends came to pull me away from it, telling me some of the people threatened to shoot me. (Vol 1, Page 34)
Given Weiser’s staunch support of the English crown, the final item in the collection was a bit of a surprise to me. This letter was written well after Weiser’s death, from James Biddle, a friend of the family to Weiser’s son, Samuel Weiser. The letter is unfortunately damaged and missing some of its right hand side, but the sentiment comes through clearly. Biddle is warning Samuel Weiser that Great Britain is no longer the trusted, benevolent protector that it was only decades ago.
- Our old parent Great Britain seemes bent upon treating us rather like slaves than child[ren] and has thrown aside all affection & love for us. They are bent upon making us hewers of wood & drawers of water… (Vol 2, Page 213)
Biddle closes his letter with a final warning: “… Sammy if there is a cloud gathering about America… unless our different legislature in America all join and keep constantly on the watch. It is a dangerous time and all America must be watchful of Great Britain as they certainly want to make slaves…”
This collection offers a surprisingly varied view into this period in Pennsylvania history. In addition to correspondence, it also includes muster rolls, lists of men who died in conflicts with French forces, receipts and expenses for diplomatic trips, and depositions for cases Weiser heard as a Berks County judge (including testimony of domestic violence, accusations of slander, and a colonist alleging that a Nanticoke man sexually assaulted his daughter).
These papers document a period of time in United States history from which relatively little written material survives. But more interestingly, they describe the interactions between colonists and Native peoples from the point of view of a man who was sympathetic to but complicit in their systematic exploitation. Weiser’s papers surprised me with their sincerity — the genuine respect that he has for the Native men and women and the seriousness with which he takes his responsibility to them come through in his letters. This is undoubtedly one of the most historically and socially important collections that I’ve had a chance to work with as a processing archivist, and I’m especially glad that because it’s part of the DCA2 project, it will soon be available online to more users than could access it through the Historical Society’s reading room.
[November is Native American Heritage Month. For more information, images, audio and video resources, and materials for teachers, visit http://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov]