Amish on the Frontier


As a small boy growing up in our community, I often heard stories about the past. One of the most frequently told stories was about an incident that happened in 1757. As a boy I supposed the story had occurred in the woods behind our house. Such is the case with stories from the past. They often have an influence much greater than one realizes.

I would shiver with fear as I hurried between house and barn after dark when I thought of the stories, and I was born 212 years after the story had occurred. That is the strength of collective memory as we recall the stories of our people. If I felt fear, imagine what a little child or even an adult would have felt in the 1750s as Indian attacks grew and stories, some true, many not, were spread on the frontier.

While stories often collect strength and legends as time passes by, what we know for certain is that, like in Europe, the Amish who settled in America had their faith tested during this time of war. The story is set in the context of the French and Indian War, which was fought between the British and French in the American colonies. But the war had “spilled over” into America as these two European “superpowers” fought for power and domination in the world scene of that time.

Indian tribes were often influenced to fight for one or the other of these powers, and in that way the war was brought home to Berks County, Pennsylvania and the small Amish community that had settled there. It was brought even nearer home to the Jacob Hochstetler family, who had settled near the edge of the community.

Jacob Hochstetler and his wife had emigrated to America from Europe and had cleared a homestead where they intended to clear the land and raise a family. In 1757 Jacob Hochstetler lived in their small cabin with his wife, three sons and one daughter. One daughter had already married and settled with her husband on their own farm.

What had happened in the Hochstetler’s clearing earlier that morning is relatively well-documented. Indian raids, instigated by the world conflict, increased on the fringes of the settlements along the frontier. In the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 19 or 20, 1757, the Hochstetlers were attacked in their cabin by a small group of Indians. The senior Hochstetler forbade his sons to defend the family by using their hunting rifles because of their faith. The family slipped into the small fruit cellar underneath the main part of the cabin, which had been set on fire. They used the cider stored there to keep the space from burning completely.

When the Hochstetlers thought their attackers had left, they crawled out of the small window that gave some air and light to the space. Mrs. Hochstetler, because of her size, became stuck in the space. The Indians saw the commotion and returned, capturing the family. Mrs. Hochstetler, an injured son and the only daughter were killed. Two other sons and Mr. Hochstetler were taken captive.

After burning the cabin, the small band of Indians, who were led by a French military officer, took the father and two sons and fled westward into the Blue Mountains. Joseph Hochstetler, the oldest son, was 13 years old, and Christian Hochstetler was 10 or 11. The Indians most likely limited the movement of their captives for the next approximately 24 days as they moved nearly 430 miles westward to the south shore of Lake Erie near present-day Presque Isle, Pennsylvania.

One wonders what thoughts these three experienced as they watched, walked with and were fed by the very men who had killed their family. How traumatic to lose family in this way and then be forced to see them victoriously wave the scalps of your spouse, children, mother and siblings as trophies!

The three were separated and taken to other villages where they were carefully watched and monitored. Jacob Hochstetler escaped the following spring (May 1758). He found a river and made a raft that he used to float down river until, nearly dead, he was rescued by a group of soldiers and taken to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he was interviewed and then allowed to return to his home. One wonders what he felt as he returned to the farm and met his living children and grandchildren. What was it like to see the blackened ruins where so much pain lay in the ashes of a previous life?

Meanwhile the two sons were more fully integrated into Indian life. Both were in their formative years as early teenagers, and as is often the case, they were able to adapt to this difference better than adults. Yet Jacob Hochstetler did not forget his sons. In 1762 he wrote a letter of petition to the then governor of the colony, Gov. Hamilton. In it he asks for the Colonial agents who were negotiating prisoner releases and exchanges with the Indians to inquire about his sons. But it was several more years before Christian and Joseph Hochstetler were released in an exchange of prisoners.

One wonders what they felt as they approached their familial homestead. Both likely looked and acted more Indian than Amish or even white. Both had been trained to hunt and live the Indian life. Particularly for Christian Hochstetler, who had spent all his teen years with his Indian family, this transition back to his birth family and church was difficult.
Both eventually married, Joseph Hochstetler marrying and remaining Amish. Christian Hochstetler married and later joined the Dunkard church. But the stories of history inform us that both struggled to fit into this world. Both loved to hunt and struggled with land ownership and traditional farming methods.

As we look back at the story from our vantage point, there are several things that become obvious. First, with the father and three sons it is quite possible that if they had chosen to, the Hochstetlers may have been able to hold their attackers at bay until help arrived. The band of Indians was far from their villages and in hostile territory. It is not likely they would have pressed their attack much after daylight. If that was the case, they may have been able to hold on long enough to survive.

What is it that caused Jacob Hochstetler to not only not shoot back at the Indians, but also to not allow his sons to do so? To not fight back or defend themselves is a part of the story of the past that people like the Hochstetlers would have heard about or sung about every Sunday church service. It is in fact this shared history and memory of martyrdom and suffering for their faith that caused them not to fight back.

It is not only the stories of Europe and persecution that show us what the Amish and Mennonites believed was the way of Christ, but also it is the stories of the American frontier and our own families that force us to face whether we are truly ready to give our life but not take life.

When we look back at these stories of history, we must never glorify or vilify them with our “modern” perspective. This was a hard time. Losing one’s traditional lands and family is traumatic and life-shaping. We must consider that in not being willing to fight back, these people were martyrs, and we must allow their story to speak to us today.

A recent set of books on these events by author Ervin Stutzman give life to this piece of our history. While fictionalized, they give strength to the ideas that shaped their world and especially the difficulty in the losses and the trauma of separation. They also, like the stories of the martyrs from our history, help shape our beliefs today.

If you would like to learn more about this story or our history or purchase the above-mentioned books, call or plan a visit to the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The center offers guided tours of “Behalt,” a 10-by-265-foot cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland to the present day. Behalt means “to keep” or “remember.”

The center is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located near Berlin at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg. Call 330-893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour.