(photos available at http://lersarm.xanga.com/photos)
Who would believe that one of our ancestors from the 18th century is a household name among many of the Amish and Mennonite of the United States. According to Chapter One in John Sharp’s new book, Gathering at the Hearth: Stories Mennonites Tell, “One of the often-told tales among the Amish is the story of the Indian attack on immigrant Jacob Hochstetler’s family in 1757” (15). Our real-life title character, “Indian John” Miller, or “Hannes,” short for the German Johannes, was also a victim of that incident, what came to be called “The Hochstetler Massacre.” For a more “scholarly” history of the life and times of Indian John, his family, and community, read Gordon W. Miller’s account in the January 2014 Mennonite Family History, reprinted with permission. Other historical fiction versions have become available, including Ervin R. Stutzman’s fascinating trilogy that began with Jacob’s Choice in 2014.
We’ll retell the account in a minute, but by way of contextualizing, the Hochstetlers1 and Millers2 were part of the first Old Order and Conservative Amish-Menonnites to arrive in eastern Pennsylvania from Germany as early as 1720.3 The Northkill settlement, just off present day Old US Rt. 22 in Berks County, is regarded as “the first organized Amish settlement in America” and was thriving by 1740. The some 200 families who resided there at its height are remembered today by a Pennsylvania Historical Commission marker. Howerver, virtually all of these anabaptist families began to consider “greener pastures” shortly after the Fort Stanwix Treaty (1784) with the Indians officially opened Western Pennsylvania to white settlement. On my wife’s paternal side, for example, the Joseph “Yost” Miller, Sr. (born c. 1725) family, also from Berks County, emigrated to east-central Somerset County at that time. They were Lutherans. (See “The Invasion of the Millers.”4)
To use my son Matthew Pearce’s history/physics metaphor, there was a significant “Push-Pull” for all immigrants to move westward. (See “Exodus from Germany: German Emigration to America.”) The Push was the overcrowding by the new arrivals from Europe, and the Pull was to claim the cheap land in the West before it was all gone. The Amish were not immune to these forces. Hepburn says, “The Amish-Mennonite settlements in our Somerset County were populated by more Hessian (Germans from the region of Hesse) Amish from eastern PA than any other area” (primarily 1830-1860). They settled in three portions of the County5, but ironically, the Springs, PA-Grantsville, MD, community where Christian Miller put down roots, along with other Northkill Amish families, including other Millers, is the only Old Order Amish community still in existence in the county today. (See “The Many Christian Millers.”) Christian Miller goes back eleven generations from my children. It’s his great-great grandson Hannes “Indian John” Miller, believed to have been born in Europe, around whom this story centers.
So, let’s go back to 1757 and the Northkill community to find out how “Indian John” got his name. The Northkill is a creek in north-central Berks County, and the Scots-Irish term “kill” has several meanings: first, a channel of water; and second, the place of a lime kiln, where fire is used to separate earth from limestone, the stone later being pulverized for use in farming. The Amish were well-known for choosing well-watered land, rich in limestone, and the Northkill certainly met all their requirements. That land east of the Blue Ridge Mountains was supposed to have been safe, according to agreements between Indians and Whites, but the years 1754-1763 had the Native Americans aligning with the French against the English and German settlers. In the early autumn, September 19 to be exact, the youth of the community had gathered at the home of Amishman Jacob Hochstetler for a “frolic,” a work party – specifically a “schnitzing,” a time to peel, core, and slice apples for drying – to be used throughout the winter months for pies and schnitzels. After the young people had gone home by lantern and buggy and the six Hochstetlers had gone to bed, all God’s children seemed at peace.
In the hours just before dawn the family was awakened by the unusual wail of their dog, a strange barking. Looking out the window, father Jacob identified the ghost-like figures by the outdoor oven as Indians. The boys, 16 year-old Joseph and 18 year-old Christian, went for their rifles, but pacifist Father Jacob would have none of that, ordering the boys to put their guns away before someone got hurt. Author John Sharp puts it like this:
Guns were for hunting animals, not for shooting human beings. And, yes, Indians were created and loved by God. Jacob’s anxiety for the family’s safety was overruled by the Amish conviction that Jesus’ teaching about loving ones enemies was practical, not just theoretical—even in situations like this. (16)
No sooner had father Jacob opened the door to make peace than a shot rang out and a musket ball shattered his leg. If the family wondered what would happen next, they didn’t have to wait long. The flickering of several fires was proof that the red men had set the barn and the out buildings ablaze. Soon, as the Indians set the house on fire, deadly flames and intense heat threatened the six inside. The Hochstetlers quickly climbed down the ladder to the basement, using recently pressed apple cider to douse the inferno as best they could. Whether fearing the flames inspired them to desperate action or the family simply thought the pre-dawn stillness meant the natives had gone, we’ll never know for certain. But, the truth was that, as the Hochstetlers frantically crawled up through a basement window, the Indians quickly encircled the house to prevent anyone from escaping. Accounts tell us today that three family members were killed immediately, stabbed and chopped: a young daughter, 10 year-old Jacob Jr. and buxom Mother Hochstetler, who had reportedly gotten stuck in the window casement. These three were scalped. According to Sharp, an older son, John, who lived nearby, came running when he heard and saw the commotion but could do nothing to save his family. Father Jacob and sons Joseph and Christian were all taken captive and transported across the Alleghenies where they were separated, the boys being adopted by different tribes.
State archival records indicate that Jacob was in captivity for several years, and his personal account of his escape survives today, in modern English:
I got the liberty for hunting. One morning very soon I took my gun, and finding a bark canoe on the river, I crossed it, traveling east for six days. From there I arrived at the source of the West Branch on the Susquehanna River. There, I marched for four days farther until I was sure that it was the Susquehanna. Then I took several blocks (logs), tying them together until I got afloat. I floated down the river for five days, where I arrived at Shamokin. Living all the time on grass, I passed fifteen days. (Sharp 17)
Sources say that, altogether, over 200 Whites were murdered in Berks County over that period, with virtually every homestead razed or damaged in some way. Many survivors remained prisoners of the Natives, including Joseph and Christian, until the treaty with the British was signed in 1763. Even then, Jacob had to personally petition the Lieutenant Governor for his sons’ release as part of the deal. Joseph was returned but Christian, according to Sharp, “came back on his own. Both struggled to adjust to the strange ways of their familiar culture, even schnitzing parties” (18). It seems that the lesson in this true story is two-fold: first, the early days on the Pennsylvania frontier was not the romantic picture painted by film and television of the 1950’s; and second, our Native Americans were not the innocent victims the revisionist historians of the 21st century paint them to be. However, it also seems that Pennsylvania’s early Quakers and Amish tried to avoid violence and war among the national and ethnic parties whenever possible.
Now, as we promised, here’s where our “Indian John” Miller got his name. Harvey Hochstetler, a descendant of Jacob, writes, “There is a tradition that while crossing the mountains they [the Indians and the captive Hochstetlers] passed a clearing where a man named Miller was chopping. He was shot at and hit in the hand as he raised his ax; he fled and was not pursued” (33). Many years later, after several decades of additional research, Harvey Hochstetler insists that this Miller was our “Indian John.” Other Amish-Mennonite genealogists refer to him also as “Wounded John” and “Crippled John.”
Nancy Hallberg of Penn State believes that John’s middle, or perhaps his real first name, was Hannas because one of his sons had the same name. Virgil Miller’s book celebrating “Indian John” and his family traces their history back to 17th century Switzerland, France, and Germany. His research and that of Paul Hostetler also document Hannes’ settlement on an area of Brothers Valley Township, Somerset County, known as “the Glades”:
He died as a relatively young man, at age fifty, and his two sons, Yost and David, were his executors. His name does not appear on the Somerset County plat maps. A farm on the plat map under the name of Christian Herr was really for John Miller, Sr. (22)
Tax rolls and adjacent farm ownership records corroborate this. Virgil Miller has located an older plat book in the county courthouse that lists the Herr property as originally owned by John Miller, Sr. in 1786. In addition, an old gravestone on the farm has been identified as that of his wife Magdalena Lehman Miller (1732-1817). The evidence now for the “Indian John” Miller estate is conclusive, although the identity of Christian Herr is not.
It was “Indian John’s” youngest daughter, Elizabeth (b.1770) who married Joseph Christoph Speicher (b. 1768). Their granddaughter Laura (1859-1919) married Thomas “Tommy” Lee’s (1816-1900)6son Christian (1858-1906) to produce my wife’s Amish grandmother, Annie Lee (1885-1971). Annie then left the Amish sect to marry a Lutheran from nearby Cove, MD, Charles Krause (1884-1973) who produced my wife Susan’s mother, Hilda (1921-1997) who also married a Lutheran, the aforementioned descendant of middle Somerset County’s Quemahoning Township, Joseph “Yost” Miller. I guess where Millers are concerned, what goes around comes around. And to think that my paternal great-great-grandfather, the Englishman Richard Pearce (1782/5-1861), the first of that part of the family to arrive in American (1820), was, according to our family narrative, “a miller by trade.” (See “The Pearce-Austen Original Family Narrative.”) How ironic!
Blackburn, and Wefley. History of Bedford, Somerset, and Fulton Counties. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1906.
Brown, Sue. “Re: Indian John.” Ancestry.com posting. 10 July 2005. 20 April 2010
Hallberg, Nancy Welsh. “Indian John or Wounded John Miller.” Witches, Madames, and Turncoats. Weblog. 2009. 20 April 2010
Hepburn, Carol. “Amish-Mennonite History.” Somerset County, PA, Genealogy. 22 April 2010
History of Bedford, Somerset, & Fulton Counties. Chicago: Waterman, Watkins, & Co., 1884.
Hochstetler, Harvey. Descendants of Jacob Hochstetler. Reprint. Unknown: Gospel Book Store, 1912.
Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee & Archives. “Northkill Amish Settlement, Berks County, PA.” 20 April 2010
Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. I, A-C. Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1956.
Miller, Gordon W. “John ‘Hannes’ and Magdalena Miller: Our First Positively Known Miller Family in America.” Mennonite Family History. January 2014
Miller, J. Virgil. Anniversary History of the Family of John “Hannes” Miller, Sr. Morgantown, PA: Masthoff Press, 1998.
“Northkill Amish Settlement.” Wikipedia.com. 20 April 2010 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northkill_Amish_Settlement.html
Pearce, Matthew C. “”Exodus from Germany: German Emigration to America.” A paper submitted for partial completion of graduation requirements at the University of Pennsylvania, 1992.
Roddy, Jill. “Magdalena Lehman m. ‘Indian John’ Miller.” GenForum posting. 30 June 2001. 20 April 2010
Sharp, John E. Gathering at the Hearth: Stories Mennonites Tell. Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee & Archives. 20 April 2010
Last revised 2/21/18; E-mail address revised 3/25/22 to LRYPEARCE@GMAIL.COM
- Today spelled “Hostetler,” our modern Mennonite neighbors provided the Super Bowl XXV winning quarterback for the New York Giants, Jeff “Hoss” Hostetler (b. 1961), who was a former student of my wife, and Spook (b. 2007), the prolific father of my flock of sheep, raised by Mrs. John Hostetler of Hollsopple.
- Although several persons with this surname emigrated at this time, we believe Christian Miller’s (1642- ) great grandson Christian Daniel or Jacob (1705- ), “Indian John’s” father, was my wife Susan Kay Miller’s (1949- ) maternal progenitor. (See “Our Christian Miller Family Tree”.)
- Some researchers believe that the ship Charming Nancy carried the boy “Indian John” (youngsters were not listed), his father Christian Daniel or Jacob, and possibly an uncle from Germany in 1737. Other believe it could have been a later ship, in 1742 or 1749.
- The family genealogical articles and trees referred to in this paper are available at E-gen.info or by contacting the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The North, in and around present day Johnstown and Conemaugh Township; the South-Central, or the Berlin-Brothersvalley area; and the South, what today is Salisbury, Springs, and Elk Lick Township around the Casselman River.
- The Lee surname is probably Irish, and we know from the 1906 History of Bedford & Somerset Counties that there was an Irish settlement in early Elk Lick Township called Paddytown. Our Lees were from nearby Milford Township, and Thomas, Sr. married Catherine (yet another) Miller, this one from West Virginia, just across the Mason-Dixon line. Tommy’s mother Catherine held a deed to property near there after they moved from Eastern Pennsylvania. We don’t know much about her husband except that he disappeared from Census records after 1830, and young Tommy was probably apprenticed to an Amish family to learn basic farming skills and even his trademark spinning wheel manufacturing technique. Amish Bishop Benedict Miller was the contractor. By 1876, Thomas Lee’s farm is listed in the Beers Atlas for the area, amid the Amish, of course.