Reading about Native Americans has always been enjoyable to me, which is why I was drawn to the Revolutionary War-era, nonfiction story of The
Bell Keeper. Set in Gnadenhutten, a village built along the mellow Muskingum River in the central eastern portion of Ohio, the story centers on Sophia, a young Indian girl, in the year 1781. Her family and most of the others in the area were Christians, thanks to Moravian missionaries. Central to their beliefs were pacifism, the value of families, and love.
The tale starts much like other stories of happy children, with Sophia and friend Thomas skipping flat stones on the river. Their carefree play is cut short by the arrival of Munsee Delaware braves who are decorated with colorful war paint. The reader quickly learns that this serene village was ironically situated in middle of opposing sides in the Revolutionary War--between the not-so-peaceful Delawares, who were allied with the British, and the Americans, who were fighting for freedom from the British. It's a side to the Revolutionary War that I had never considered.
After much discussion and prodding, Sophia's people, along with the missionaries, were escorted by the weapon-toting Delawares to a temporary settlement with other Moravian Christians. Subjected to harassment and unfounded accusations of aiding the enemy, their days were lived in quiet submission, trying to stay below the radar of the Delaware tribe. The "short-term" stay dragged on to the following spring. With supplies running low, some of the people from Gnadenhutten traveled back to their village to load up on stashed supplies of food, clothing, etc. Sophia was left behind to take care of her ailing mother. Unfortunately, none of the provisions made it back to the settlement. Horrifically, nearly all of those who traveled back to their village were massacred (96 in all, including 27 women and 34 children), and the village was burned to the ground. Sophia's friend, Thomas, barely made it out alive. He was able to relate the chilling details of the slaughter led by Colonel Williamson and his American soldiers.
What is the significance of the bell? Under the cover of darkness, Sophia and Thomas secretly stowed the bell from the mission house and packed it in a barrel of corn so that it could be transported and used at the new, temporary settlement. It represented the importance of their faith and their unity as a community.
This book is obviously well-researched and includes relevant photos of places and things, including a photo of a replica of Sophia's cabin, copies of pages from school books the missionaries provided for the Indian children, and a memorial statue at Gnadenhutten. There is also a helpful map and a listing of the "First Laws of Ohio," which were laws agreed upon by the Christian Indians of the Moravian settlements in Ohio, in August 1771.
Because of the violence of the main event, I would suggest that this book be read by middle schoolers and above. Of course, if the book is being read to younger kids, certain descriptions could be edited without much trouble. The Bell Keeper could be used to supplement a history unit on the Revolutionary War or on American Indians or on Christianity in America. It is not designed as a complete curriculum but as a story that is worth sharing with children and adults alike.
Pros: This slim book was a quick read, and it really made me think about Native American history in a new light. It piqued my curiosity about the Moravian missionaries and how they spread Christianity in our new country. I am also appalled at the realization that our fight for freedom from England left so many innocents dead. That too makes me want to learn more about what really happened here in the late 1700s.
Cons: While its brevity made it easy to consume, The Bell
Keeper almost seemed too short. I want to know what happened to Sophia after she learned of the massacre. What did it mean to her faith and to the faith of her family? What about the peaceful Moravian missionaries and the controlling British-sympathizing Delawares?
I will include The Bell Keeper in our Revolutionary War studies this fall and will look for other, perhaps lesser-known stories that will help my four kids (ages 7-13) to see a better, more realistic picture of a very important time in our country's history.