Translated Moravian mission records describe Cherokee tribal life

Winston-Salem, North Carolina (AP) 9-09

Documents describing tribal life among the Cherokee in their original homeland are being translated from an archaic German script thanks to funding from the tribe.

Hundreds of diaries, letters and other papers that recorded about 100 years of history between the Moravian missionaries and their Cherokee hosts are the only known account of daily life in the Indian nation before the U.S. government uprooted the tribe in 1838 from what is now North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

“They’re telling the story from within the Cherokee mission,” said Jack Baker, a Cherokee Nation tribal council member who added such detail is available nowhere else. “It’s their viewpoint, but it’s an eyewitness account to what’s happening within the Nation.”

This shared history of Moravians and Cherokees was snared in an archaic German script for over 200 years at the Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem, The Winston-Salem Journal reported Tuesday.

Translation work started in 1992 but stalled for lack of funds, said Daniel Crews, the archivist of the Moravian Church, Southern Province.


Then earlier this year, the Cherokee Nation offered $125,000 over five years to translate and transcribe the documents. Two archivists will work on the collection two days a week for the next five years, Crews said.

The Cherokee Nation is made up of the descendants of the survivors of the Trail of Tears, the tribe’s forced removal from its Southeastern U.S. homeland to what is now Oklahoma.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee has also offered to help pay for the translation project but has not announced how much it will donate, Crews said. The Eastern Band is composed of tribal members who resisted U.S. military efforts to remove them by hiding in the Smoky Mountains, where they now have a tribal reservation in North Carolina.

The Moravian records hold details about what the Cherokee ate, how they built their villages, their dress and their celebrations. In one document written May 22, 1801, Moravian missionary Abraham Steiner described a tribal meeting at a Cherokee village at Springplace, Ga., near Dalton.

“In front of the house stands a long, open shed covered with clapboards adequately provided with benches and other seats, as well as a raised plank for writing on. The Talk was held under this shed. At a short distance from this stands a tall pole. A designated Indian took his position at this pole with a drum, and beat the drum as a sign of the beginning of the meeting. He kept drumming until Indians were seen coming in lines. In the heat, the Indians used turkey wings in stead of fans to make a breeze for themselves,” Steiner wrote.

In one diary entry, Crews said, a missionary who complained about being kept awake all night by dancing Cherokee also described the dance.

The Cherokee showed less interest in the Moravians’ religious proselytizing than in the opportunity to learn practical skills from them, Crews said.

“They knew they had to educate their youth to compete in white culture,” he said.