September 19, 1757, was a terrible, terrible day for the Jacob Hochstetler family in Northkill, Pennsylvania. A new trilogy of historical novels brilliantly tells the story of the massacre that occurred then and the long-lasting repercussions of that tragedy.
As the roadside marker indicates, the first Amish-Mennonite congregation in the U.S. was established by 1740 near Northkill Creek in Berks County, Pennsylvania, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia. (For some inexplicable reason the date seems to be off by ten days.)
The home of Jacob Hochstetler and his family in Northkill was attacked by a band of Delaware and Shawnee Indians on the night of Sept. 19, 1757. It was an unspeakable tragedy for the family. Jacob's wife, whose name is not known, and two of the children were killed; Jacob and two sons, Joseph and Christian, were taken as captives.
Several months later, Jacob was able to escape from the Indian settlement and to return home. Joseph was 15 when captured and while completely resistant to his captors at first, he gradually assimilated into the Indian community and was reluctant to return to his Amish home when he had the chance to do that several years later.
Christian was captured when he was 11. He had the hardest time going back home when freed and becoming a member of the Amish community again.
Ervin Stutzman is the author the “Return to Northkill” trilogy, consisting of Jacob’s Choice (2014), Joseph’s Dilemma (2015), and Christian’s Hope (2016). They are engaging historical novels by an author who comes from the Amish tradition.
On the first Sunday I attended Rainbow Mennonite Church in 2011, I met Clif Hostetler and he has been a good friend (and soon became a Thinking Friend) ever since. Jacob Hochstetler was Clif’s 5th great-grandfather. (The original German name was shortened by many of Jacob’s descendants.)
(Clif loaned me Stutzman’s books, and I enjoyed reading all three of them between April 2016 and January of this year.)
Author Stutzman (b. 1953) was born into an Amish home in Iowa and was baptized in an Amish community in Kansas. He later joined a Mennonite church. Stutzman, who earned a Ph.D. at Temple University, has been the executive director of Mennonite Church USA since 2010—and he is also a descendant of Jacob Hochstetler.
There is room to mention briefly only two of several “lessons” that can be learned from the Hochstetler massacre and its repercussions.
(1) The choice referred to in the first book of the trilogy is primarily about whether Jacob and his sons would use firearms to shoot the attacking Indians. The sons thought they should. Jacob’s choice was to remain true to the Anabaptist teaching of nonviolence.
In Stutzman’s novel, Jacob tells God in prayer before the attack,
This farm belongs to you. My family belongs to you. And if people come to take them from me, I will not take up arms against them. I will be faithful to you as my Savior and Lord. You alone are my defense (p. 72).
Clearly, that choice resulted in the tragic slaughter of Jacob’s wife and two of his children. Many would say it was a foolish choice. But if he had killed some of the Indians then, it is quite likely that a later raid would have resulted in him and all his children being killed.
(2) The Indian way of life is attractively narrated. Far from picturing the Native Americans as “savages,” Stutzman portrays Indian culture in an appealing way that fosters harmony rather than animosity. These books promote deeper understanding of, and harmony with, others (“the other”) as well as nonviolence.