The First White Child Born in the Ohio Settlement Learns the Art of Spatchcocking by Scott Navicky
Settled in October 1772, Gnadenhutten is Ohio’s oldest settlement. The town also proudly proclaims itself to be the site of the first white child born in the Ohio territory. John Lewis Roth was born on July 4th, 1773 to Maria and Johann Roth. A clergyman, Johann was overwhelmed with joy at the prospect of becoming a father until the actual moment of birth when he recoiled in horror at the sight of his son and spat The boy ain’t mine. I ain’t purple! While it’s impossible to know exactly what was going through Johann’s mind at that moment, it’s pretty safe to assume that, due to the child’s reddish purple hue, he suspected his wife of Indian infidelity. Thankfully, the potentially explosive situation was immediately diffused by the laughter of one of Maria’s midwives, an elderly Lenape Indian, named Sparrow’s Fall (Christian name: Lisa) who whooped with such glee that even young John Lewis stopped wailing momentarily. HHHAAAAAA! All chestnuts purple until the Father paints them! And with that, Sparrow’s Fall scooped up the infant and handed him to Johann, motioning for him to hold the small soft bundle against his chest in a way that pressed skin-to-skin, flesh-to-flesh. And sure enough, when Johann removed the child a moment later, the purple was gone and the boy was a screaming reddish white.
The adorable screaming of young John Lewis Roth, “Yan Louie” as the name was pronounced by many of the Lenapes, became a welcomed addition to the otherwise quiet daily existence within the Peaceful Valley. The Moravians chose the location because of its seclusion along the fertile banks of the Tuscarawas River. The Moravian emblem is the Lamb of God and the early missionaries were peaceful people who only wanted to be left alone to practice their faith. Gnadenhutten was meant to be a tabernacle of log cabins and, for a while, it was. The Moravians were fervent missionaries and, over time, Gnadenhutten and the neighboring settlement of Schoenbrunn swelled to over four hundred Lenape (Delaware), who were known as Christian Indians.
The first thing everyone noticed about the newborn was how quickly he grew a full head of curly blond hair, which his mother would gently run her hands through as she repeated the Moravian motto In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, love in a soothing motherly singsong voice as he slept. Yan Louie’s curly locks made many Moravians believe that perhaps the child really was the Lamb of God, but these beliefs were banished once the boy reached the age of two.
Yan Louie was a wildchild. He woke before the cock crowed with excessive high energy: asking questions, stomping around the Roth’s cabin, and making loud chirping sounds until Johann was forced to push the child out the door just to secure a moment’s peace. Once outside, Yan Louie would run screaming between the log cabins. While the eastern sky was still pinched with pink, handfuls of walnuts would cascade through unsuspecting windows, plums would be plucked from the trees that adorned both Plum Street and Plum Alley and chucked at doors, livestock would be bombarded with attention – and other things – and chased around their pens, and arcane profanity would be shouted across Heck’s Grove just for practice.
Being the first parents in the Ohio territory wasn’t easy for Maria and Johann Roth. They were both pretty clueless about parenting strategies, but they were disciplined and dedicated, and thus they spent the majority of the daylight hours poring over the Bible in search of the kind of tips and guidance that today is easily found within books like What to Expect While Expecting and The Mayo Clinic’s Guide to Your Child’s First Year and Working Mother Magazine. Having two parents who were constantly reading the Bible meant Yan Louie spent a great deal of time wandering the countryside, throwing other people’s belongings into the Tuscarawas River, mudpie-ing doorways, and popping the pious on top of their heads with a clenched fist as they knelt down in prayer.
Eventually, Johann decided that he had no other recourse but to place his faith on the Protestant Work Ethic. This was a logical decision seeing how the Moravian faith predated the Reformation and could be considered the first real Protestant church. So one blustery afternoon, Johann Roth took his son’s tiny forearm in one hand and his axe in the other and together they walked through the village. If the scene reminded Gnadenhuttens of the biblical story of Jacob and Isaac, no one said so or stepped in to stop the event (in their defense, most of them were rudely awoken that morning by the sounds of metal cooking pots clanging against the walls of their cabins). Father and son walked to the communal chicken coop, where Johann scooped up an unsuspecting chicken and patiently demonstrated the gruesome particulars of chicken husbandry. The sound of the sharp axe THUD-ing into the beheading board sent the coop into a loud frenzy; chickens cried in a strange mixture of fear and fury as their beheaded brethren scampered through their congregation and young Yan cried right along with the chickens. Yes, young Yan wailed at the sight – he considered many of these chickens his friends – but Johann kneeled down, his face and hands still covered in chickenblood, and comforted the crying child by explaining how this was God’s work and God was good. He then passed the axe to his son and motioned with his head for him to snaffle his first chicken, press his body to the board, and severe his head from his plumb corporeal being. And young Yan did. And it was good.
Yes, perhaps by today’s standards of appropriate parenting giving a child a sharp axe and instructing him to behead a chicken is frowned upon, but things were different during Ohio’s frontier era. And guess what? Young Yan Louie was good with an axe, scary good. Soon, the entire Moravian settlement was stopping by to wonder at how quickly the boy had picked up the subtleties of chicken husbandry. They would stare amazed at the sight of the child, covered in chickenblood, gleefully swinging his axe this way and that while headless cooks ran in every direction before finally toppling over, their chests heaving in headless despair. Before a swing, Yan Louie would raise the axe above his head and yell: God is good! The boy’s intention was for this call be the final thing the doomed bird would hear, and this idea was just and kind, but in with his tiny voice and childish penchant for mispronunciation, not to mention the confusing mixture of German, English, Munsee, and Unami that was constantly heard around Gnadenhutten, his cry sounded less like God is good! and more like God hiss blood!
And that’s what the villagers woke to every morning: the sound of a flurry of frightened feathers mixed with frenetic shrieks as chickens scurried around their coop desperately seeking some kind of non-existent sanctuary while a bloodsplattered boy yells God hiss blood!
[More feathers flurrying and inhuman shrieks]
And a few minutes later: God hiss blood!
[Further frightened flurrying and shrieking]
And a few moments after that: God hiss blood!
Yes, the way Yan Louie wielded an axe at such a tender age was nothing less than miraculous; he was so proficient, in fact, that he was soon showing the Native American children how to behead, de-feather, and de-frock a chicken. Every morning, four-year-old Screech-Owl-Who-Never-Sleeps (Christian name: Caroline) would be waiting at the chicken coop with her younger brother Wobbles-Like-Turkey-When-Walks (Christian name: Theodore, often called Teddy) and their cousin Hungry-Coyote-Trapped-In-Teepee (Christian name: Edward) and together the four of them would greet each other and skip into the chicken coop to begin their daily fowl bloodbath.
God hiss blood!
The headless body of the chicken plummets to the ground, rights itself, and races around the chicken coop, scattering the rest of its beaked brethren, Caroline gleefully shouts Run, Chicken, Run! and Edward chimes in Chicken’s don’t get no life after death!
When the daily husbandry was done – sometimes five were butchered, sometimes more – the group would walk around the coop, scooping up the remains of both body and brain, and they would begin spatchcocking. Atop the lifeless body of a brown hen, Caroline rudely shoves the head of a reddish bird; young Yan Louie does the same with the reddish hen’s body and the brown bird’s head and this spatchcocking sends the group into a fit of giggles, except poor Teddy who instantly becomes terrified at the sight of such an unnatural creation and starts crying and this prompts Caroline and young Yan Louie to chase the waddling, crying toddler around the coop, calling out Pray! Pray! Pray to the ChickenHead! as if the strange creation is some kind of terrible new deity. Edward joins in with the body of a nightblack bird and the head of a brownwhite bird and all three of the children are now clucking and chuckling and running after Teddy yelling Pray! Pray! Pray to the ChickenHead! and Teddy is crying and crying and crying until the spatchcocked birds are finally discarded and Caroline snatches up her little brother and scolds him God loves all his animals because God is in every animal even the ChickenHead and then she tenderly wipes his tears away and kisses his cheek.
The spectacle was so unbelievable – a boy no more than three-years-old and three young Christian Indians daily slaughtering enough chickens to feed the entire community – that David Zeisberger himself is called down from Schoenbrunn to witness it; and when he sees it, a tear escapes his eye and he is moved to give an impromptu sermon.
I have on several occasions told you, my brethren, he begins, that there are only two kinds of people in all the nations of the world… GOD HISS BLOOD! Namely children of the world and children of the Savior and we are all children of God… THUD! [a feathered flurry and loud, inhuman shrieking] whether our skin is white, brown, or black and our mission of uniting Christians and savages… RUN, CHICKEN, RUN! is achievable and smiled upon by heaven and this smile means we shall continue live and work… CHICKNES DON’T GET NO LIFE AFTER DEATH! together, white man and savage, in peaceful harmony. For if these children can thrive together… GOD HISS BLOOD! under God’s grace so too can we all… THUD! [feathers, shrieking] Take heed of this beautiful lesson, my brethren… RUN, CHICKEN, RUN! God’s love and blessings touches each and every heart… CHICKEN’S DON’T GET NO LIFE AFTER DEATH! and through this love we shall create a sanctuary here in this wilderness… GOD HISS BLOOD! where Christian and savage, man and woman, father, mother, and child… THUD! [good god, those feathers! That godawful shrieking!] shall live together and love together… RUN, CHICKEN, RUN! and be warmed by the soft safety of God’s grace… CHICKENS DON’T GET NO LIFE AFTER DEATH! Thank you Lord, for the wonderful scene that you have shown us here this morning… PRAY! PRAY! We are truly blessed… PRAY TO THE CHICKENHEAD! Amen.
Scott Navicky is currently writing A Boozehound's Guide to Ohio (as compiled by the New Zealand Appreciation Society of Southeastern Ohio), a spatchcocking of a guidebook to Ohio and a creative misreading of Samuel Beckett's novel Murphy. His debut novel Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking is a creative misreading of Voltaire's Candide that begins in the Midwest and his second book, 3Essays on Imagereality, is a collection of photography theory essays that also function as humorous short stories. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.
Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Scott on the Orson’s Publishing blog.