Native Resistance to Conversion
The Wyoming Valley’s indigenous resistance to Christianity is perhaps one of the most important pieces of the native history of the valley. This resistance had a monumental impact on the history of the United States and especially on the unfolding of all native history in North America. The lasting impact is still felt strongly today. This resistance is seen in a place and a person. Namely, the town of Wyoming, inhabited by Munsee and the later ethnogenesis known as the Wyoming Delaware natives, and the man Neolin.
It may be surprising to many people today that the town of Wyoming was perhaps the most significant native settlement in the Wyoming Valley. However, upon closer inspection it makes perfect sense. The land was flat and fertile due to flooding. The flat land would have made it easier to hunt for game, which would be naturally drawn to the land due to the abundant and fertile plant life from flooding. The fertile soil would also make it easier for natives to practice small scale farming. Further, flooding would not have posed as much of an issue for these natives as they could easily move camp if the threat presented itself. Finally, the town was situated on the Susquehanna River, a major artery that allowed for ample trade and interaction with outsiders.
Over time, however, the inhabitants of Wyoming became leery of white people. The interconnected destabilizers of war, trade, and disease ravaged these people just as they did all native people. Their response was simply to fix themselves in location and resist outside influences. On numerous occasions, the natives at Wyoming made it clear to Moravian missionaries that they wanted nothing to do with Christianity. Several Moravian missionaries’ journals described Wyoming as a place “unfit for a mission” due to the hostility of the inhabitants. This hostility did not just extend to white Christians. Christian natives, or “praying Indians,” who shared kinship ties with the inhabitants of Wyoming were told that they could resettle in Wyoming only if they did not bring ministers or attempt to convert the existing population. Christianized kin would not be totally cut off, but they would be kept at a distance to prevent spiritual conversion of more of the tribe. One quote attributed to a sachem at Wyoming perfectly sums up Wyoming's feelings toward Christianity. In response to Presbyterian minister John Brainerd's desire to travel to Wyoming and establish a church community, the sachem replied, "the minister must not come, because he was a white man; that, if one white man came, another would desire [their land], etc., and so by-and-by they should lose their country."
It makes sense that out of this hostility came a man whose impact on American history was and still is tremendous, yet is unfortunately overlooked – the prophet Neolin.
Neolin was born in Ohio but lived much of his life in and around the Wyoming Valley. He was of Lenape descent. Like many of the inhabitants of Wyoming, Neolin was very resistant to the advances of Christianity. In fact, he became the spiritual voice against it. In 1761, Neolin had a vision in a dream in which he was visited by the Master of Life. In this vision, the Master of Life – the chief spirit who rarely intervenes in the physical world in the Lenape spiritual system – told him that the great sin of native peoples was allowing white people to settle the land in the first place. The Master of Life told Neolin that natives of all nations must come together to drive European settlers out of North America. If they were to do so, the Master of Life would restore the land to the beautiful state it was in before white arrival. The Master of Life also communicated his dissatisfaction with natives straying from their traditional way of life. He condemned alcohol and ordered that natives should abandon using European goods. Further, he urged a return to the bow and arrow and abandonment of guns for hunting and warfare. Despite all this, the Master of Life’s message to Neolin was not entirely inspired by traditional native beliefs. Several Christian elements can be found in the vision. First, the conception of sin. Understanding allowing white people to arrive as the great sin of native peoples is a Christian influenced idea. Sin is not a native concept, at least in the sense that it is understood in the vision. Further, the Master of Life also called for an abandonment of polygamy and shamanistic healing practices that were parts of native culture – to some degree – prior to white arrival. Therefore, this vision is a Christian influenced expression of native spirituality, which points to the degree to which native ways of life were permanently fractured as a result of European colonialism. Finally, this vision called for a drastic course of action – holy war to drive out Europeans.
Neolin’s message made huge waves across what is now the eastern and midwestern parts of the United States, as well as southern Canada. Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa nation was particularly inspired by Neolin. Using Neolin as his spiritual inspiration, Pontiac traveled to various tribes in North America inspiring natives to join him in a coming holy war against Europeans. As one could imagine, Delaware warriors from Wyoming were among those who joined him. Ultimately, Pontiac’s famous war would fail, but its significance is still felt today.
Pontiac’s rebellion was the first significant expression of pan-Indianism – the idea that native peoples all share something in common. Prior to this, native peoples did not typically see each other as similar. In fact, dozens of tribal names translate to “the people.” The idea behind “the people” is that members of a specific tribe are real people, endowed by the Creator, and outsiders are not real people. In some cases, outsiders were even seen as not human but rather just evil spirits in human form. With this understood, Pontiac’s ability to rally troops from across all different tribes is even more amazing. This expression of pan-Indianism can be seen as the first time natives came to see themselves as belonging to one group – one race even. They recognized their shared experiences and perhaps adopted the racial point of view of their oppressors.
Pan-Indianism had further impacts on American history through such events as Tecumseh's resistance against American expansion and participation in the War of 1812. Further, pan-Indianism exists to this day. Many pro-native movements like the Keystone Pipeline protests were born out of pan-Indian beliefs. Neolin, a man with roots in the Wyoming Valley, can be thought of as a philosophical father of the Pan-Indian school of thought.