The Amish came to America because of severe persecution in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries due to their insistence on believers’ baptism and opposition to military service. They were drawn to Pennsylvania by William Penn’s assurances of religious freedom and economic opportunity denied them in Europe. The Northkill Creek area in Berks County was opened for settlement in 1736, and that year a couple of Amish families settled there, with others following the next year. My great-great-great-great-great grandfather and grandmother, with two small children, were part of a group that landed at Philadelphia on November 9, 1738, aboard the ship Charming Nancy.
Bishop Jacob Hertzler arrived to provide leadership for the growing congregation. The earliest known organized Amish church in America, it included nearly 200 families at its height. It remained the largest Amish settlement in America into the 1780s, when it slowly declined as families moved westward in search of better farmland.
The Northkill settlement lay at the foot of the Blue Mountain, the legal boundary of English settlements according to treaties with the Native Americans. However, white settlers persisted in crossing the mountains into territory claimed by the French and their native allies. Hostilities finally broke out in 1754, with the French enlisting the Indians to attack the border settlements. During the French and Indian War over 200 settlers were killed in Berks County alone. The Indian attack against my ancestors’ farm early on the morning of September 20, 1757, was one of those horrific incidents.
On Monday, September 19, the Hochstetler family hosted an apfelschnitzen (apple cutting) frolic for the young people of the church. The youth traditionally stayed late into the evening to enjoy games and courting, but their guests finally left and the family went to bed. In the dark hours of Tuesday morning, the oldest son still living at home, Jacob Jr., roused when the family’s dog set up a clamor. When he opened the door, 17-year-old Jacob was shot in the leg by a member of a war party composed of Delaware and Shawnee warriors who surrounded the house.
The family managed to barricade themselves inside. Because the Amish hold fast to the commandment not to kill, Jacob made what must have been a truly wrenching decision that they wouldn’t shoot at their attackers despite the hunting rifles at hand and his sons’ desperate pleas. When the Indians set fire to the house, Jacob, his wife, three sons, and a young daughter were forced to take refuge in the cellar. During the terrifying hours that followed, they repeatedly beat out flaming embers while the house burned above their heads.
|Artist's Depiction of Attack on Hochstetler Farm|
The mother, the wounded son, and the young daughter were killed and scalped. Jacob and two sons, Joseph, 15 years old, and Christian, 11, were carried away into captivity. Their journey, described in a remarkable deposition preserved in the papers of British Colonel Henry Bouquet after Jacob’s dramatic escape, will be the subject of book 2 of the series, The Return. It will cover the captives’ lives among the Indian clans the French gave them to, Jacob’s harrowing escape and his efforts to find his boys, Joseph and Christian’s forced return home after the war, and their difficulty in assimilating into a culture they had largely forgotten, while reestablishing a relationship with the father whose decision had torn apart their lives.
The story of my ancestors is a deeply moving account of obedience, hope, and endurance, and of God’s unfailing faithfulness to His people even in the worst of trials. In the centuries since the attack, our family has been extraordinarily blessed. Jacob’s descendants have spread throughout the world and their accomplishments span a wide range of endeavors. My ancestors’ example daily inspires me to faithful discipleship, and my hope and prayer is that it will equally inspire readers in their walk with the Lord.
For more information, visit my Northkill blog.