Monday, February 15, 2016

The Northkill Amish Settlement

I was raised Mennonite by parents who grew up Amish, which naturally gave me a great interest in all things Amish and Mennonite. Last month I posted about the origins of the Amish in America and the Northkill Amish Series Bob Hostetler and I are writing. Northkill and The Return, which releases this November, are fictional accounts closely based on the inspiring true story of our Hochstetler ancestors who emigrated from Europe and settled on the Pennsylvania frontier with other members of their church.

Northkill Creek near the former Hochstetler farm
This month, we’re going to take a look at the Northkill Amish Church, named for the creek that wound through the settlement,. It was the earliest known Amish church organized in this country. Like other Anabaptist groups, the Amish suffered severe persecution in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries because of their insistence on believers’ baptism and refusal to do military service. So William Penn’s assurances of religious freedom and economic opportunity in his colony attracted many Amish believers as well as Mennonites, the group they broke away from.

18th Century Amish Man
The Northkill Creek watershed, 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was opened for settlement in 1736. That year two Amish men, Melchior Detweiler and Hans Seiber, settled along the creek in the northwestern part of Berks County. Other members of their church followed the next year. My great-great-great-great-great grandfather Jacob Hochstetler, his wife, and two small children, joined them at the end of 1738 with more church members. The church formally organized in 1740, and when still more Amish arrived in 1742, it grew large enough to petition the Pennsylvania General Assembly for naturalization rights, which allowed them to purchase their land. Bishop Jacob Hertzler arrived in 1749 to provide leadership for the growing congregation.

The land they settled occupied a lovely part of the Great Valley. Small, rounded hills shoulder one another, and brooks meander through the little valleys between the hills. Unfortunately, the Amish chose an extremely vulnerable position. The settlement lies at the foot of the Blue Mountain, which runs along the very edge of the legal boundary of English settlements, according to treaties with the Native Americans. However, white settlers continued to pour over the mountains into territory claimed by the French and their native allies, which caused tensions between France and England to rise to the breaking point.

18th Century Amish Woman
Although the Blue Mountain hemmed the Northkill settlement in on the north, gaps in the ridge weakened this natural defense. Hostilities broke out in 1754, with the French enlisting the Indians to attack the border settlements in a conflict that became known in this country as the French and Indian War. Soon bands of Indian warriors descended through the mountain gaps, raiding the farms, burning houses and barns, driving away cattle, and killing settlers or taking them captive. The Amish, like the Quakers and the Moravians, found that their belief in nonresistance did not save them from the raids since the Indians did not take account of their enemies’ religious beliefs. Over 200 settlers were killed in Berks County alone. The attack against my ancestors’ farm early on the morning of September 20, 1757, was one of those horrific incidents.

The Northkill settlement included nearly 200 families at its height. It remained the largest Amish settlement in America into the 1780s, when it slowly declined as families moved westward in search of better farmland. Although it existed for only a brief period, this settlement was fundamental in establishing the Amish in North America. Settlers included the progenitors of many widespread Amish families, such as Yoders, Burkeys, Troyers, Hochstetlers (or Hostetlers), and Hershbergers.

My ancestor Jacob Hochstetler is the subject of Harvey Hostetler’s groundbreaking book The Descendants of Jacob Hochstetler. In addition to listing the genealogy of thousands of Jacob’s descendents, this book includes a detailed history of the religious persecution the Amish suffered in Europe, their immigration to America in the 1700s, the attack on the Hochstetler farm, and the kidnapping and subsequent escape of Jacob and his sons.
J. M. Hochstetler is a descendant of Jacob Hochstetler’s oldest son John. An author, editor, and publisher, she is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series, won ForeWord Magazine’s 2014 INDYFAB Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year. Check out her website at


  1. What a great read! Can't wait to read "The Return"!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! The Return is set to publish November 12, so be on the lookout for further announcements. :-)

  2. It's amazing that you know what happened to your ancestors over 200 years ago! Also amazing that they were part of the famous French and Indian War. My grandparents were Evangelical Mennonite, which meant they were in the branch that believed in salvation through Christ alone (the Bible way!). They were not part of the old-order Mennonites. As far as I know, we didn't have any Amish ancestors either.

    1. Donna, I'm so glad you stopped by! Your background is really interesting. I'm not very familiar with the Evangelical Mennonites. There are many different Anabaptist groups, but of course the Amish are the most well-known.

      My family truly is blessed that so much information about the attack on our ancestors' farm and the captives was preserved all these years. Much was handed down in oral accounts, and also many records were preserved in the PA Archives and other resources. So my coauthor and I have a lot of factual details to work with, which made writing their story a whole lot easier, as you can imagine.

  3. J. M., It is wonderful you have so much information about your family. I have done a bit of research in my family's genealogy but have not gone back as you have gone with yours.
    I love your book Northkill, it is one of my all time favorites and I can't wait to read the Return.

    1. Tina, I'm so glad you stopped by, and thank you for your kind words about Northkill! The Hochstetler family has been tremendously blessed to have members who value history and took care to pass down the accounts of our ancestor's experiences. That isn't the case in every family, unfortunately, and precious details get lost as older generations die off. Other branches of my family have that problem too, and I know how hard it is to dig out the facts once you get past your parents' generation. I totally admire genealogists who keep after it and trace their roots back for hundreds of years!