Conrad Weiser

Conrad Weiser


Conrad Weiser was many men: Pennsylvania’s Indian Agent, a farmer, owner of a tannery, one of the founders of Reading, Pennsylvania, a colonel during the French and Indian War, a faithful husband and father of fourteen children, a monk at Ephrata, a pillar of the Lutheran Church, a promoter of Moravian missions, a hymn-writer, traveler, statesman, linguist, diplomat, and woodsman. Because his entire biography is much too vast to relate, I’d like to write about a small phase of his life-his friendship with Chief Shekilammy and the Indians.

At the age of seventeen, Conrad lived with his Indian neighbors. After his marriage he lived on land adjoining that of his Indian friends. He learned their language, religion, and social customs. Because he was a good neighbor, the Indians learned to love and trust him.

Shortly after Weiser and his family moved from the Mohawk Valley of New York to the Tulpehocken Valley of Pennsylvania, the powerful Six Nations of Indians sent Shekilammy, chief of the Oneidas, to rule over the Delawares. He made his home on the Susequehanna River at Shamokin, which is now Sunbury.

An old tradition has it that Conrad Weiser first met Shekilammy while hunting in the woods of New York. The Indian was pleased to find a white man who could speak his language and understand Indian traditions, ceremonies, and problems. They became fast friends. Shekilammy knew of Weiser’s settlement on the Tulpehocken, and as early as 1731 paid Weiser a visit. From then on he was frequently a guest at the Weiser home.

The great chief selected Weiser to go with him to Philadelphia for all negotiations with the provincial officials, to whom the chief introduced Weiser as his brother and interpreter. The Governor and Council, realizing the value of Weiser’s services, in 1731 placed him in charge of all Indian affairs.

In 1737, accompanied by Shekilammy, Conrad braved flood and famine to carry peace proposals from Virginia to the Six Nations. The journey, which proved Weiser’s courage and good will, impressed the Indians so much that they named him Tarachiawagon (The Holder of the Heavens), after the chief duty of the Iroquois.

Weiser and Shekilammy made a good team. Conrad had no trouble with the many Indian delegations he escorted through the province as long as Shekilammy was alive. He felt himself bound by a double loyalty to the Six Nations and to Pennsylvania.

An old story says that Shekilammy once went to Weiser, saying, “I had a dream. I dreamed that Tarachiawagon gave me a new rifle.” Conrad, who owed much of his success to the strict observance of Indian etiquette, answered the dream with a rifle. Some days later Weiser said to the chief, “I too had a dream. I dreamed Shekilammy gave me a large and beautiful island in the Susquehanna.” The old chief, we are told, matched Weiser’s politeness, but then said, “Conrad, let us never dream again.”

As Shekilammy grew old and feeble, Conrad Weiser gave him assistance in various ways. Five years before the chief’s death Weiser went to Shamokin with eight German carpenters to build a house for his friend. He also saw that the council gave him a present of six pounds to help him through a rugged winter. During the winter of 1748, the scarcity of food in Shamokin overcame Shekilammy, and he died in rags.

Weiser continued his work with the Indians, negotiating every Indian treaty from 1732 until near the close of the French and Indian War. He was the man who convinced the Six Nations to take no part in the quarrels between the French and the English.

Conrad Weiser died on July 13, 1760, at the age of 63. George Washington, commenting on Weiser’s extensive activities, said: “This departed man rendered many services to his country in a difficult period, and posterity will not forget him.”

Today his homestead at Womelsdorf is the site of the beautiful Conrad Weiser State Park. As a remembrance of his great friendship with the Indians and especially with Shekilammy, today the park contains an impressive statue commemorating the great chief.

(EDITORS NOTE: The foregoing article was prepared by the author, a student in Reading High School, for delivery on the “Showcase” radio series of 1957-58 over WEEU.)

This article originally appeared in the Spring 1959 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.