When talking about family history, my mom would sometimes tell me the story of an Indian massacre. A distant ancestor of ours had been murdered by a neighboring Indian tribe. She couldn’t remember many details, and I’d always assumed her story was a myth. But while tracing a branch of my family tree back to the 1700s, I learned that Mom was right. And the story contained enough drama to fill several Hollywood blockbusters.
The Early Days of an Amish Settler
The Hochstetler Massacre is named after my 7x great-grandfather. Few records exist of his early life. Ship logs show that Jacob Hochstetler immigrated with his family to Philadelphia in 1738. Like other Amish Mennonites, he was likely drawn by the promise of religious freedom.
Once in Philadelphia, the Hochstetler family settled near Northkill Creek. They lived there alongside other Amish pioneers for more than a decade. Then tensions erupted between the French and British colonists. The Indians, upset at their displacement by the British, sided with the French. The ensuing conflict would become known as the French and Indian War.
Tragedy Strikes the Northkill Settlement
One fall evening in 1757, the Hochstetlers found themselves in the heat of the fray. Reverend Harvey Hochstetler captures details of the night in his 1912 book, Descendants of Henry Hochstetler:
“The family retired and just about as they were sound asleep the dog made an unusual noise, which awakened the son, who opened the door to see what was wrong, when he received a gunshot wound in the leg.”(1)
Despite his injury, the son managed to shut and locked the door. The other family members heard the commotion and rushed to help. Through the window, they saw nine Delaware Indians gathered around a bake oven. They begged Jacob to take up arms against them. But Jacob, a devout pacifist, refused: “He told them it was not right to take the life of another even to save one’s own.”(2)
The Indians used embers from the oven to set the house ablaze. The family took refuge in the cellar, dousing the flames with cider. When they thought the Indians had left, they tried to escape through a window. But the portly mother and injured son slowed the family down.
A young Indian who’d stayed behind to gather fruit from the orchard saw them and raised an alarm. In moments the Indians had the Hochstetlers surrounded. They scalped Jacob’s wife and two of his children. Then they took Jacob and his sons Christian and Joseph captive.
A Daring Escape, and a Bittersweet Homecoming
The papers of Colonel Henry Bouquet detail Jacob’s eventual escape, a full three years after his capture:
“I got the liberty for hunting one morning,” Jacob told the colonel. “Traveling east for six days from there, I arrived at the source of the west branch. I marched for four days further till I was sure of it. There I took several blocks, tying them together until I got a float. I floated myself down the river for five days where I did arrive at Shamokin, living all the time upon grass, I passed in the whole for 15 days.”(3)
Once home, Jacob petitioned the Governor for help in finding his missing sons. But the boys wouldn’t return until fall of 1764, when the Indians signed a treaty agreeing to release their British captives.
According to Reverend Harvey Hochstetler’s account, Christian arrived home to find his family eating dinner. They didn’t recognize him, but offered him some food. Christian took the food outside and ate on a stump, talking with an Indian. Even after his family realized his true identity, Christian resisted coming inside the house. He’d become loyal to his captors, and had a hard time forsaking them to resume his old life. Similarly, Joseph continued to hunt and fish with the Indians long after his return.
The Hochstetler Homestead Today
Today, a small blue placard marks the spot of Jacob Hochstetler’s former homestead. Its inscription gives only a few details of its bloodied past:
Northkill Amish. The first organized Amish Mennonite Congregation in America. Established by 1740. Disbanded following Indian attack. September 29, 1757, in which a Provincial soldier and three members of the Jacob Hochstetler family were killed near this point at Roadside America.
Despite the humble sign, Jacob’s unwavering faith continues to inspire new generations. Many Amish view his former homestead as a place of pilgrimage. And many more people find kinship in his family’s story.
Jacob’s present-day descendants include actress Katey Sagal, who starred in the TV shows Married … With Children and Sons of Anarchy. In the TLC show Who Do You Think You Are?, Sagal traveled across Pennsylvania to learn about her Amish ancestors. She joked about buying a buggy, but was genuinely touched by Jacob’s pacifism.
“What strikes me the most is the nonviolent part of their belief system,” she said. “He wouldn’t kill another person. I understand the overriding faith. But in the actual face of it, it’s easier said than done. Theoretically, do I believe in a nonviolent way of life? Absolutely. However, that being said, I don’t know that I wouldn’t defend my children to the death. I can’t say that a hundred percent.”(4)
Jacob’s story is unusual in both its drama and level of documentation. But fascinating as it is, it’s only one of countless stories in my family tree. Each branch contains volumes of tales about love and heartbreak, war and peace, savagery and compassion. Finding them takes research, and requires an open mind about strange family legends.