John and Edith Kilbuck

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John Henry Kilbuck (May 15, 1861 – 1922) — sometimes spelled Killbuck — and his wife, Edith Kilbuck (née Romig; April 16, 1865 – 1933), were Moravian missionaries in southwestern Alaska in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. John H. Kilbuck was the first Lenape to be ordained as a Moravian minister. They served the Yupik people and made their language that of the Moravian Church in their area.

John was the great-grandson of the Delaware (Lenape) chief Gelelemend, who signed the Treaty of Fort Pitt (1778), the first American Indian treaty with the recently declared United States. Edith was the daughter and granddaughter of Moravian missionaries in Kansas.


John Kilbuck was born in Franklin County, Kansas on May 15, 1861, into a family of the Christian Munsee band of the Lenape (Delaware). His mother was Mahican,[1] a related Algonquian tribe. Kilbuck was the great-grandson of the Lenape chief, Gelelemend, the first American Indian to sign a treaty with the United States.

Many Munsee had relocated to Kansas after their old territory in the northeast United States and Wisconsin was taken. As a bright youth, Kilbuck was encouraged by the Moravian missionaries in Kansas to go for studies at the Moravian center of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to obtain an education, first at the Nazareth Boys’ School and later at the Moravian College and Seminary. In 1884 he was the first Lenape to be ordained as a Moravian minister.[1]

Edith Romig was born on April 16, 1865, also in Franklin County. She was the daughter of Joseph Romig, a Moravian minister among the Munsee in Ottawa, Kansas and his wife, and the granddaughter of Levi Ricksecker and his wife. Ricksecker was Romig's predecessor as minister to the Munsee in Kansas. Both Ricksecker and Romig preserved important historical information about the Munsee of that period. Edith Romig was teaching in the mission school and 19 years old when she met John Kilbuck at his return to Kansas.[1]

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1885 John and Edith married. In that same year, Sheldon Jackson invited the Moravian Church to send missionaries to Alaska. The Kilbucks volunteered and spent their adult lives in Alaska. Their four children were born there: Katie and Harry (who each died before the age of 20), Ruth and Joe.[1]

Career in Alaska[edit]

The Kilbucks went to Alaska as part of the first group of missionaries, establishing a mission at what became Bethel. They spent their adult lives in southwestern Alaska as missionaries and teachers among the Yupik people. In 1896, they were joined by Edith's younger brother Joseph H. Romig and his wife Ella.

The Kilbucks were perhaps the most influential missionaries during the period around 1900. They quickly learned the Yupik language. John developed missionary work around existing Yupik villages, rather than establishing mission stations, as had been done by Moravian missionaries in Greenland and Labrador. He adopted Yupik as the language of the Moravian Church in Alaska, a policy which continues to the present in Yupik-speaking areas.

Reverend John Hinz, another missionary, had begun to translate scripture and other material into Yupik written with Roman (English) letters. Uyaquk, a local "helper," convert and later missionary, translated some of these texts into Yupik using a script he had created to write Yugtun. Hinz and the Kilbucks supported both of these efforts. The Hinz script became the standard for writing Yupik until about 1970. It was replaced by a script developed by a group of native Yupik speakers and linguists at the University of Alaska.

John Henry Kilbuck died in 1922 in Akiak, Alaska. Edith died in 1933.

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • The Kilbuck Family Scholarship for Native Americans is awarded annually to a native American college student from Alaska or Oregon.
  • The diaries and letters of John and Edith Kilbuck provide much information otherwise unavailable about Yupik life in the late 19th century.
  • The book, The Real People and the Children of Thunder by Ann Fienup-Riordan, is about their ministry and the Yupik.
  • The Kilbuck Mountain range and the Kilbuck Elementary School in Bethel, Alaska, were named for them.


  1. ^ a b c d Ballard, Jan. "In the Steps of Gelelemend: John Henry Killbuck", Jacobsburg Record (Publication of the Jacobsburg Historical Society, Nazareth, Pennsylvania), Volume 33, Issue 1 (Winter 2006): 4-5, accessed 6 December 2011