First Moravian Settlement in Colonial North Carolina
In 1753, Moravians from Pennsylvania established the village of Bethabara in what is today the “Old Town” section of Winston Salem. Intended as an agricultural center, Bethabara became the staging center for the establishment of Salem, which would function as the chief town for Moravians in the Carolina land tract called Wachovia. Historic Bethabara is a restored village, anchored on one end by the Gemeinhaus and on the other by the community and medical gardens. Guided tours are conducted for $2.00 per person by knowledgeable guides dressed in period costume.
History of the Moravian Settlement
Although this first Moravian site contains evidence of Indian settlements that date to 700 B.C., the most recent encampment of Sauratown Indians was abandoned by the time the first fifteen settlers, all men, arrived from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. As families arrived, the settlers built Bethabara Mill which served as a sawmill, gristmill, tanbark mill, and pottery-glazing mill. Bethabara became known as a significant frontier trading center. By July 1756, the inhabitants constructed a Palisade to serve as protection from Cherokee raids, worsened by the coming of the French and Indian War. Although Bethabara was never attacked, the fort became a refuge for frontier settlers fleeing inland.
The Palisade has been restored and surrounds much of the early Moravian village including the original Gemeinhaus (meeting house for worship and schooling of children), the doctor’s house, and a variety of community structures. In 1763, Frederick Marshall led the move to Salem and Bethabara declined as a village community, producing agricultural products to feed the people at Salem.
Touring Historic BethabaraPark
The Visitor’s Center offers a 15-minute video summarizing the history of Bethabara several times a day. Visitors can then opt to explore on their own or join a guided tour. These tours are run whether you are one person or more. Since the Gemeinhaus is locked, it is worthwhile to join a guided tour that allows visitors to go inside and see the furnishings as they would have existed in the colonial village.
The largest room in the Gemeinhaus was used for religious meetings. A simple desk at the front allowed the minister to expound on the scriptures. Moravians sat by “choirs,” each choir reflective of a person’s status in the community: married men, married women, children, single people, and widows. A meeting room of the sanctuary was used as a schoolroom and to prepare the coffee and buns used in Moravian Love Feasts, a tradition still held on important religious holidays such as Christmas Eve. The Moravian Love Feast can be traced back to Count Zinzendorf’s estate, Herrnhut, (in Germany) where a revival propelled Moravians to missionary activity in colonial America. The restored Gemeinhaus also features a colonial kitchen, bedroom, and workroom complete with an early spinning wheel and 18th-century Grandfather Clock.
According to Dr. Dan Johnson’s printed guide, “the medical garden…is the oldest well-documented medical herb garden in the United States.” Maintained today by volunteers, visitors can see plants used in colonial times that were dispensed by the apothecary or physician. The first Bethabara doctor, Hans Martin Kalberlahn, was so highly regarded that people seeking cures came from distances up to eighty miles.
Moravians were superb record keepers. Their documents allow us to see the Moravians as they lived in the 18th century as well as provide authentication to the restoration projects that enabled Historic Bethabara to come back to life. Understanding the colonial Moravian presence in the North Carolina Piedmont begins with an in-depth look at Bethabara Park. It is here that their Carolina history began.
Historic Bethabara Village is open Tuesday-Friday from 10:30 – 4:30 PM and Saturday and Sunday from 1:30 – 4:30 PM.