The Hochstetler Attack: Life on the Frontier

Hochstetler Northkill Homestead Jacob Hochstetler homestead in the Northkill settlement of Berne Township, Berks, Pennsylvania (click for Google Maps).

One of the most well-known anecdotes in Amish and Mennonite history is the story of Jacob Hochstetler and the tragedy his family underwent at the Northkill Settlement in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Though shortlived, Northkill was the first major Amish settlement in America, and it played an important role in furthering Amish immigration.

The elements of the Hochstetler story remain timely, as the story intermingles several social factors still in play today: the practice of non-violence, religious persecution, forced relocation of Native Americans, and war.

Jacob was the great grandfather of Sharon (née Weaver) Vitter's 4th great aunt Elizabeth (née Keim) Weaver. The Hochstetler name can be traced back to 1290 A.D. in Germany and Austria, where there were people of that name who were prosperous merchants and businessmen. The root of the name means "high place." In Switzerland, the family name is associated with the Bern canton. There are farms and hamlets there called "Hostet" and "Hostett," and in the 15th century when family names were widely adopted, those coming from those regions were called Hochstetler or Hostetler. Originally Catholic, many Hochstetlers joined the Anabaptist movement in the 1600s, and as described in the history on Sharon's family's Mennonite roots, they were persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Jacob was born in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mains (known as Markirch in German) in the Alsace region of what is now France. In 1738 he and his wife Anna Barbara Bürki of Lorentz and their young family emigrated from Switzerland via the Netherlands to Pennsylvania on the ship Charming Nancy to escape religious persecution. He established a homestead in the Northkill settlement in Berks County, Pennsylvania on former Native American land. Not surprisingly, the displaced tribes allied with the French against the British, who oversaw the settlements, in the French and Indian War that took place during 1754–1763.

The following account of the tragedy that ensued comes from the Jacob Hochstetler Family Association, a group formed to study the genealogy of Jacob's roughly 1 million descendants:

On the evening of 19 September 1757, the young people of the neighborhood gathered at the home of Jacob Hochstetler to assist in paring and slicing apples for drying. It was the custom of the young people to have a "social" to frolic after the work was done and sometimes it continued well into the night.

Hochstetler Attack Depiction of the tragic "Hochstetler Attack" (often called "Hochstetler Massacre" in the popular literature) during the wee hours of 19–20 September 1757 (click photo for more info on Northkill Settlement).

After the folks departed and the family had retired, their dog made an unusual noise which woke up the son Joseph, who opened the door and received a shot in the leg. He realized in a moment that they were being attacked by Indians and managed to lock the door before the Indians could enter. In an instant the family were on their feet. The Indians, seven to 10 in number with three French scouts, were seen standing near the outdoor bake oven in consultation. There was no moon that night and since there was no light in the house, those inside could not be seen.

There were several guns and plenty of ammunition at hand. The two sons, Joseph and Christian, picked up their guns to defend the family. Two or three could be shot and the guns reloaded before the Indians could enter; but their father, firmly believing in the doctrine of nonresistance and remaining faithful in his hour of sorest trial, could not give his consent for defense.

In vain his family begged him but he continued to tell them it was not right to take the life of another even to save one's own life. What a night of horror this God fearing family must have spent the last hours …. At daybreak the birds began singing their songs of peace but for the Jacob Hochstetler family there was no peace.

Afterwards Joseph claimed the family could have been saved had his father given consent, as he and his brother were both good marksmen (their father was also) and the Indians never stood fire unless under cover.

At daybreak the house was set afire and the family fled to the cellar throwing cider on the burning spots. Finally, the Indians left one by one and the family felt that they could no longer remain in the smoke filled cellar. They quietly proceeded to climb out through a small window, but one warrior, Tom Lions, who had stayed behind eating some peaches saw the mother, who was a fleshy woman, having difficulty getting out and he sounded the alarm. The others quickly returned to find that he had stabbed her in the back with a butcher knife. Besides killing and scalping the mother, they killed her daughter and her son Jacob Jr. and captured Joseph, Christian, and Jacob Sr.

Rumor has it that the Native Americans bore a special animosity to Jacob's wife because she reportedly refused them food during an earlier encounter, which may have contributed to the way she was killed.

The eldest son John lived nearby and saw the attack from afar. His two younger brothers Joseph and Christian, along with their father Jacob, were captured by the Native Americans. The captives were taken on a 17-day, 300-mile trek diagonally across the state to the Native American settlement in Northwest Pennsylvania. Upon arrival, quick thinking by Jacob enabled them to avoid the dangerous fate of "running the gauntlet": Jacob gained the good favor of the Native American chief by offering him some of the food they had brought with them.

The family was assimilated into the Native American community, and the boys were essentially brought up as Native American. Jacob was allowed wide latitude during captivity, including carrying a gun to hunt, and one day about eight months after capture, he decided to escape and journeyed several days back to his family settlement.

Jacob Hochstetler capture and escape routes The dotted lines show the route Jacob Hochstetler and his sons Joseph and Christian were taken on by their Native Americans captors in September 1757. The solid lines show Jacob's escape route eight months later (click photo for more info).

Altogether roughly 200 settlers were killed in Native American raids in Berks County. Hostilities finally ended by treaty on 8 May 1765, and Jacob's sons were released. When Christian arrived back at Northkill, he wasn't recognized and was thought to be Native American. He was given food but felt uncomfortable to sit inside the house and instead ate outside. He finally told the family in broken German that he was in fact the son Christian, and celebration ensued.

Christian and Joseph went on to be stalwart members of the Amish community, but still spent much time during the remainder of their lives with their Native American brethren.

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