The Jacob Hochstetler Story




Jacob Hochstetler (also sometimes spelled Hostedler) immigrated as one of twenty-one Amish families. He had sailed to Philadelphia on November 9, 1738, aboard the ship called the Charming Nancy. The voyage was recorded an extremely difficult one, but Hochstetler, age 26, survived the journey. He traveled west through the Pennsylvania countryside to Northkill, there to raise his family, enjoy a quiet life, and practice his Amish faith.


The account of what happened to the Jacob Hochstetler family has become a legend. The well-worn story is taught in Amish schools today. Although there are some discrepancies in published accounts – including the actual date -- the details of what happened reveal the dangerous and vicious circumstances of living in the untamed Pennsylvania frontier during this violent period of American history.


When William Penn had received his charter, he realized that Indians held much of the land – over 45,000 square miles. Penn learned they would expect some form payment in exchange for a quitclaim to the land. After payment, they would vacate the territory, allowing Penn to sell it. The tribe he would have to deal with most often was the Delaware, also known as the Leni Lenape. Penn was a Quaker, and not surprisingly, had no military ambitions. Penn even refused to fortify his new settlement of Brotherly Love, the city he called Philadelphia. Penn’s only practical and legal way to get the Indian’s land and secure their friendship was by treaty.


The treaty also established Penn’s lawful claim to the land to his investors, who would have been much less interested in buying it from him without the clear title. Penn had done just that – made treaties with the Delaware, purchased the land, and resold it to settlers. Penn and his agents bought large land tracts from its Native holders. They were various Delaware chiefs, and not as legend often has it, the Iroquois.


When Penn died, his sons and heirs, John and Thomas Penn, were more dubious in acquiring the land they were reselling. The Walking Purchase, which they engineered, is often described as a great land swindle of an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania’s Quaker government had mostly managed to sustain peaceful relations with the Indians until about 1755.


Under pressure from the British citizenry, Pennsylvania’s government has established a chain of forts along the magnificent Blue Mountains. Although isolated, the bucolic Northkill settlement became vulnerable to an international conflict between the British and the French. Both empires sought to extend their control over America’s vast inland regions. When the French and Indian War finally broke out, it turned the cheap land of the Pennsylvania frontier into a killing zone. The productive, pastoral Amish settlement along the Northkill Creek became one of the many victims of the brutal war.


The French and Indian War was raging. Nevertheless, the Amish had maintained friendly relations with the Lenape Indians, who now lived on the other side of the mountains at the Northkill Amish settlement. During the past year, white settlers had been murdered or captured and carried off to captivity. Cabins were burned. The inhabitants of the frontier house were scalped. There was nothing stolen, a sure sign of a war party.


So far, the Amish that had settled and lived quietly on the edge of the frontier had not been harassed. The Indians had seemed friendly enough. Many times, the Indians had come to the Amish houses asking for food or clothing.


On the late summer evening of Monday, September 19, 1757, the young Amish that lived near the Hochstetler home had gathered there to assist in paring and slicing apples in preparation for drying. Known as a schnitzings, their communal work that night would provide the household with dried apples over the coming winter months. It also gave the younger Amish a chance to socialize during the cooler evening. They probably played some games when the work was done. It had been a most pleasant evening. After the neighbors had left, the Hochstetlers went to sleep.


All that activity, the teenage laughter, the happy times, the apple paring – part work, part play -- near the log cabin, had been closely observed. A French and Indian war party stood silently in the edge of the woods, camouflaged by the brush and the trees. Their faces were painted. They intensely watched the smoke from the comforting fire that quelled the cool evening air. They were also patient. They would strike, but only when the time was right.


Now hearing the barking of the dog, Jacob Hochstetler, Jr. opened the door to see what was wrong. The farm dog was barking so intently. In the frontier, dogs were useful tools to warn of pending danger.


There was the instant crack of gunfire, and the younger Jacob immediately realized he was shot in his leg. Indians were attacking and he managed to slam and bolt the cabin’s door before they could enter.


Instantaneously, the family jumped to their feet. The war party, consisting of about ten Indians accompanied by three French scouts, were intent on forcing the Hochstetler family from their land. The French had employed the Indians to drive off the frontier settlers.


Although there was no moon that pre-Autumnal night, the Hochstetler’s could see their attackers standing near the outdoor bake oven. As there was no light in the house, those outside could not see the Hochstetlers inside.


There were several hunting guns and plenty of ammunition within the Hochstetler’s cabin. The other two sons, Christian and Joseph, picked up those guns to defend the family. Two or three of the attackers could be shot and the guns reloaded before the Indians could enter the cabin, they reasoned. But their father Jacob would not allow them to shoot. Jacob Hochstetler ordered his sons to put the weapons away.


As a devout Amish man and a believer of his faith, his commitment to no retaliation and Jesus’ teaching to ‘turn the other cheek’ would not allow him to permit either of his sons to resort to violence. Firmly believing in the doctrine of nonresistance and remaining faithful to the teachings of his faith, Jacob Sr. could not and did not give his consent for defense.


His sons desperately pleaded and begged him to allow them to defend the family. Nevertheless, he remained resolute. He told them it was never right to take the life of another, even to save one’s own life. The family remained barricaded in their rustic, darkened house.


Rather than fight their attackers, the family acted out their nonresistant pacifist faith by hiding in the cabin’s cellar. The Indians, still determined, eventually torched the cabin. Hot embers rained down on the huddling Hochstetlers. They stayed in the cellar below the smoky pyre, beating the dropping embers. They poured bottled cider on the falling, burning coals.


As the sun rose that next morning, the Indians began leaving, except one that had lingered to eat peaches. His name was Tom Lions. Through a small window, the Hochstetlers watched the Indians disappearing into the woods. Sensing it was safe, and realizing they could not stay in the basement much longer, they began their escape.


Tom Lions watched the Hochstetlers begin climbing out the narrow cellar window and attempting to escape the remaining flames, heat, and smoke. Tom Lions shouted to his companions, and they quickly returned. Mrs. Hochstetler, a larger stout woman, became stuck in the window opening. The Indians easily captured the Amish family. The war party cruelly and brutally stabbed, tomahawked, and scalped Hochstetler’s wife, daughter, and son, Jacob Jr. One of the Indians raised his deadly tomahawk over Christian’s head but, at the last possible moment, changed his mind, and took him prisoner along with his father. Another older son of Hochstetler, John and his family lived on the hill close to this homestead. John Hochstetler hid helplessly in the heavy underbrush and watched the whole affair. Jacob Hochstetler, along with his two sons Joseph, 13, and Christian, 11, were forced to quick march west through the Pennsylvania wilderness deep into French territory as prisoners. Their hands were bound. Somewhere along the rugged trail, they had managed to pick up and save some peaches.


Knowing they would be forced to run a gauntlet when they eventually arrived at an Indian village somewhere deep in the Blue Mountains, Hochstetler, and his sons presented their saved peaches to the chief. The elder sachem was pleased with that humble but significant gesture. He spared them from the cruel suffering of the gauntlet other prisoners were forced to undergo.


From that remote wilderness village, Hochstetler and his sons departed on another long, exhausting march to a French fort located on Presque Isle, near modern-day Erie. French soldiers gave the three Amish captives to Indians from three different villages in northwestern Pennsylvania. Before his sons were yanked away from him, Jacob implored them to remember always the Lord’s Prayer. “If you are taken so far away and kept so long that you forget the German language, do not forget the Lord’s Prayer,” he instructed his sons.


The following spring, Hochstetler was permitted to hunt for food alone and, on one of the days he was foraging for game, he used the opportunity of his limited freedom to escape his captivity. After two weeks of hard travel, he managed to get to a point on the Susquehanna River near modern day Sunbury.


Using a raft he constructed from found materials, he had drifted past Fort Augusta, located at the confluence of the east and the west branches of the Susquehanna River. British soldiers stationed at the fort observed the exhausted and soaked Amish man barely clinging to the raft. They plucked him from the rolling river.


The British soldiers transported Hochstetler by horseback to Carlisle, where he was interrogated by Henry Bouquet about the locations and activities of the French. Bouquet loathed the Amish, because of their unwillingness to fight and defend their lives, family, and property. Hochstetler was released by the British and traveled to Fort Harris, now Harrisburg, and from there, he finally returned to an Amish community


There is more to the Hochstetler legend. Years later, following the end of the hostilities between the French and British, Jacob Hochstetler petitioned the governor of the Pennsylvania Province for the return of his sons. Jacob signed the petition on August 13, 1762. Following lengthy negotiations with Indian tribal leaders to secure the return of all the white captives, Joseph was returned to Jacob in 1763 or 1764.


Hochstetler’s son Christian had become a full-fledged member of the tribe, adopting their language and customs. After seven years in captivity, he returned to the Amish community in the summer of 1765. Dressed in his full Indian garb, his father did not immediately recognize him. Only when he spoke in German, and said, “my name is Christian Hochstetler” did the elder Amish man know his son. Another version of this story is that Jacob Sr. only recognized his son when he recited “The Lord’s Prayer” in the German dialect.


For the rest of his life, Joseph visited his Indian family to hunt and to join in their sports. Around 1806, Joseph moved to a new Amish settlement in what is now Juniata County in central Pennsylvania. Christian had great difficulty rejoining his community, but eventually, he married and joined the Church of the Brethren. In his later years, he became a preacher.


All 32 of Jacob Hochstetler’s grandchildren eventually left Berks County. Some of them moved to other areas of Pennsylvania, but many headed west to Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.


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Special Note:


Amish Wisdom is an ongoing feature of various entries about the Amish on George Sheldon's website and blog. Written and produced by George, it is intended to provide information about those of the Amish faith.