The Hochstetler Story

 

In 1738, along with other members of their church, twenty-six-year-old Jacob Hochstetler, his wife, whose name is unknown, and a young son and daughter, John and Barbara, undertook the arduous journey from their home in Europe to Britain’s American colonies. They were part of a tidal wave of German immigration stretching over the following century that included many Amish and Mennonites who sought sanctuary from religious persecution in Europe and the freedom to live and worship according to their Anabaptist beliefs, including the doctrine of nonresistance.

 

Their ship, Charming Nancy, arrived in Philadelphia on November 9. By early 1739 the family had settled with other members of their church who had come before them near Northkill Creek, for which their community was named. This settlement lay at the base of the Blue Mountain along the western frontier of the British colonies bordering Indian country in what became Berks County, Pennsylvania. They built a substantial log home and barn near a spring of fresh water, cleared the land for farming, and planted crops and fruit trees. The following year they helped to establish the first Amish church in America.

 

For eighteen years the settlement lived at peace with the Delaware Indians—the Lenni Lenape—who inhabited a large portion of Pennsylvania. Members of the tribe often visited and traded with the settlers in the Northkill area, and they were generally received with hospitality. Over time some even became believers in Christ through the work of Moravian missionaries along the borderlands. Peace was shattered in 1754, however, when France and England went to war over control of the territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. After the defeat of British General Edward Braddock by a combined French and Indian force in 1755, many of the native tribes allied with the French began to attack the border settlements in Pennsylvania and New York to drive white settlers out of their ancestral lands.

 

Between November 1756 and June 1757 a number of settlers in the Northkill area were killed and others were carried away as captives. But the summer of 1757 was comparatively quiet, although tension hung over the valley. Jacob and his wife, their sons Jacob, Joseph, Christian, and a young daughter were living at home. Barbara and John were by then married and lived on nearby farms. On the evening of September 19, 1757, the young people of the church gathered at the Hochstetler farm an apfelschnitzen, helping prepare apples for drying. Afterward they stayed to visit and play games until late. When their guests had finally gone, the family went to bed.

 

They were roused in the middle of the night when their dog set up a furious clamor. Alarmed, young Jacob was the first to the door. When he opened it, he was hit in the leg by a gunshot, but managed to bar the door before the attackers could force their way inside. It was a moonless night, and barricaded inside the dark house, the family could barely make out the shadows of a band of about fifteen Indians gathered near the outside bake oven, evidently conferring about what to do. Several guns and an ample supply of ammunition used for hunting were at hand in the house, but in spite of Joseph and Christian’s desperate pleas, in obedience to Jesus’ prohibition against killing, Jacob refused to allow them to take up arms against another human being even to defend their lives.

 

With dawn coming on, their attackers set fire to the house. The family was forced to take refuge in the cellar beneath their blazing home. When the fire threatened to burn through the floorboards, they staved off certain death by dousing the flames with the cider stored there. Choking on thick smoke and scorched by the conflagration above their heads, they endured until the light outside strengthened enough for them to see through a small window that the Indians were withdrawing into the woods. Flames and smoke made it impossible to stay in the cellar any longer, and the instant their attackers were out of sight, the parents and their children began to crawl out through the narrow window. The mother was a large woman, and it took considerable effort to drag her through the constricted opening. With his wounded leg, young Jacob also needed help to climb through. But at last everyone was free of the smoldering ruins.

 

Unknown to them, concealed among the trees, a young warrior known as Tom Lions had lingered in the orchard to gather some of the ripe peaches. He saw the family emerging from the cellar and immediately alerted the rest of his party. As the marauding band returned to surround his terrified family, Joseph outran two pursuers and hid behind a fallen tree on the hill above the house, unaware that one of the Indians had noted his hiding place. The Indians tomahawked and scalped young Jacob and his little sister. According to legend, some years earlier the mother had refused to give the Indians food and had driven them away. Evidently motivated by a desire for revenge, the Indians stabbed her through the heart with a butcher knife, a death they considered dishonorable. Christian was about to be tomahawked as well, but family tradition maintains that he was spared because of his bright blue eyes, along with his father, Jacob.

 

Dawn was just breaking when the oldest son, John, who lived on the adjoining farm, awakened to the horrifying sight of his parents’ home surrounded by Indians and consumed by flames. He hastily concealed his wife and young children in a dense thicket at a distance from their house, then watched helplessly from concealment as the Indians prepared to carry off his father and brothers. Outnumbered and alone, he could do nothing to save his family. Other neighbors gathered at the edge of the meadow surrounding the farm but were equally helpless to intervene against the armed Indian band.

 

Taking the father, Jacob, and Christian with them, the Indians returned to Joseph’s hiding place and took him prisoner as well. As they were being led away, Jacob received permission to pick as many ripe peaches as he could carry as provision for their journey. Then they were forced to a rapid march northwest across the mountains. When they came to an Indian village several days later, Jacob saw that they were going to be forced to run the gauntlet. Accompanied by his two boys, he approached the village chief and offered him the peaches he carried. The chief was so pleased by this gesture that he spared them from the cruel ordeal most captives were forced to undergo.

 

After a long, exhausting march of approximately 370 miles, the captives arrived at the French fort at Presque Isle near modern-day Erie, Pennsylvania. There they were separated and given to three different Indian clans in northwestern Pennsylvania. Before his sons were taken away from him, Jacob pleaded with them to remember the Lord’s Prayer even if they forgot their German language. Jacob was then taken to the Seneca village of Buckaloons. Custaloga, a Delaware chief who lived most of the time in Custaloga’s Town near present-day Meadville, Pennsylvania, took one of the boys. Where the other boy was taken is unknown.

 

According to oral tradition, Christian was initially adopted by an old Indian who died several years later, while Joseph was adopted into a family. Jacob became a slave of the Seneca, and although he pretended to be content, he never grew reconciled to the natives’ life. In early May, 1758, allowed to go hunting alone while the warriors were gone on raids, he managed to escape. Fervent prayers for guidance sustained him on an arduous journey through the wilderness until he finally came to the Susquehanna River. On the verge of starving, he built a raft and floated downstream, more dead than alive. When his raft passed Fort Augusta at Shamokin, he was spotted and pulled from the river by British soldiers. The commander, Colonel James Burd, took him to Camp Carlisle, a few miles south of Fort Harris, now Harrisburg, where the British commander, Colonel Henry Bouquet, interrogated him about the activities and locations of the French, then released him to find his way home.

 

At the end of the French and Indian War, the peace treaty with the Indian tribes specified the return of all white captives to their families. Little came of this agreement, however, and on August 13, 1762, Jacob petitioned the governor for the return of his sons. After considerable negotiation with Indian tribal leaders to secure the return of all the white captives, Joseph was returned to his father in 1763 or 1764. Christian did not return until the autumn of 1765 after Jacob again petitioned for his release.

 

As was common for white captives who were adopted into Indian families, both young men were initially reluctant to return to white society, especially Christian, who had been the youngest when captured, and who lived among the Indians the longest. Both married soon after their return, however, which helped them to reintegrate into the life of their Amish community. Joseph joined the Amish church, but tor the rest of his life he continued to visit his Indian family in order to hunt and join in their sports. Christian eventually converted and joined the Church of the Brethren, eventually becoming a minister in that denomination. Their families joined in a steady westward migration that spread Amish communities into the lands the captives had crossed and far beyond.

 

This account is adapted from the historical introduction by William F. Hochstetler early in the 1900s, published in The Descendents of Jacob Hochstetler (copyright © 1977 by Eli J. Hochstetler), and from Our Flesh and Blood: A Documentary History of The Jacob Hochstetler Family During the French and Indian War Period 1757—1765, 2nd ed., compiled and edited by Beth Hostetler Mark (The Jacob Hochstetler Family Association, Inc., Elkhart, Indiana, © 2003).

Copyright © 2015 by Sheaf House Publishers.

Contact Joan M. Shoup at jmshoup@gmail.com.