On the Hochstetler farm, which in September 1757 sat like an oasis of orchards and fields below the dark forests of the Kittochtinny Hills in eastern Pennsylvania, there was a rhythm to the seasons, and for the young people of the surrounding German community, ebbelschnitz time was one of the highlights of autumn.
The apple trees, planted almost twenty years earlier, hung ripe with fruit—a testimony to God’s mercy, which, having brought these followers of the Mennonite elder Jakob Ammann out of persecution in Germany and Switzerland, led them to this new land of Pennsylvania, William Penn’s “holy experiment” of religious tolerance. Never mind that their neighbors—English, Welsh, Scots-Irish, even their fellow Germans, the Lutherans and Reformeds who worshipped together at the union church down the Tulpehocken Valley—were not always the most welcoming, calling them “Amish” or looking askance at their pacifist ways in these troubled times of war. The Amish community along Northkill Creek—the first of its kind in the New World—was strong and growing. Jacob Hochstetler knew they were blessed every time he looked at his wife, his children, and their prosperous farms.
It was harvest time in the orchards. The best apples would be picked with gloved hands—never letting skin touch skin, which would cause the fruit to spoil—then be carefully packed in boxes of straw to be stored away in the cool, dry root cellar, alongside the potatoes and carrots. In the middle of winter, the fruit would be portioned out, like treasures, crisp and dripping juice as though straight from the tree. The other, lesser apples would be ground into sauce or boiled in great iron kettles to make creamy apple butter, while the tartest (along with the windfalls) would be home-milled and pressed for cider, stored in casks that went into the root cellar, too.
But enormous piles of apples lay ready this day for gedadde schnitz, dried apples that, when soaked in water, would plump up to make fillings for pies and tarts. In the morning, all the children and teens from the surrounding farms—the Yoders, Hertzlers, Nues, Glicks, Zoogs, and other Amish families—gathered at the Hochstetlers’ to help with the chore, as did the Hochstetlers’ grown children, John and Barbara, who lived on neighboring farms. Working steadily but happily—with a lot of joking and, among the older ones, whatever discreet flirting they could manage—the kids pared and sliced the apples with sweet-sticky fingers, cutting them into translucent half-moons that Frau Hochstetler and the women laid out on clean sheets to dry in the warm September sun. The smallest children, too young to be trusted with knives, waved switches to chase away the flies. By dusk, the once immense heaps of red, green, and yellow apples had dwindled to nothing but cores. A feast of a meal had been served, and the older folks kept a cautious but sympathetic eye on the happily chatting teens. A “frolic” was part of the bargain at ebbelschnitz time, and they had been young once, too.
The conversation that flowed through the darkening evening was almost entirely in German. If Jacob Hochstetler closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he was back in the old country. One tongue he had probably heard only rarely, however, was the swift-tumbling syllables of Lenape, the Algonquian language of the Natives he and the other settlers knew as Delaware Indians. In Lenape, the hills that began just a couple of miles to the north of the Amish farms were keekachtanemin, “the endless mountains.” The valley itself was tülpewihacki, “the land abounding with turtles,” and it had been especially beloved by the Lenape. But they’d lost it, just as they’d been forced from the bottomlands along the Delaware River; then from the lower Schuylkill as English Quaker, Irish, and Welsh settlers crowded in; and at last from tülpewihacki itself. Now the anger that had been growing among the Lenape for decades had finally led to war.
Like all the inhabitants of the “back parts” of the province, as the frontier was known, the Hochstetlers and their neighbors were nervous. The Delaware, Shawnee, and other tribes of the far Ohio country—refugees from lands in the east, including the Tulpehocken Valley—had renounced their alliances with the British and lifted the hatchet on behalf of the French. Throughout the previous year, the Endless Mountains had not been merely a boundary between settled lands and the wolf-haunted wilderness; they had been a menacing presence, out of which could come an attack at any time. The militia stationed at small frontier blockhouses such as Fort Northkill—a slapdash stockade of ill-fitting logs surrounding a small cabin not far from the Hochstetler farm—hadn’t prevented a spate of killings and kidnappings the previous winter and spring. The summer of 1757 had been fairly quiet, though, so perhaps, everyone hoped, the worst was over.
It was long after midnight when the last of the crowd left—a rare reprieve from the to-bed-with-the-sun schedule of a farm family, and the Hochstetlers slept happily but heavily. Toward dawn, one of their dogs began to fuss, and one of the Hochstetler boys, Jacob Jr., sleepily opened the door to investigate.
In the predawn darkness, there was a brilliant orange flash from a musket and a ripping pain in the boy’s leg as the round lead ball slammed into it. Somehow he pushed the door closed, dropping the bar, as the family fell from their beds in confusion and fear. Peering outside, they could see eight or ten Indians near the round dome of the bake oven. The two older sons, Joseph and Christian, snatched up their hunting rifles, powder horns, and shot pouches. But their father had not given up his old life in Europe and come halfway around the world to abandon his principles. The Bible said, “Thou shalt not kill,” and he forbade his sons—who were skilled hunters and excellent shots—to fire on their attackers.
By now, the house was burning, so Hochstetler herded the family into the cellar. As the fire began to eat through the floorboards, they desperately splashed cider onto the wood to slow the flames. Daylight was coming, and the attackers, worried that they would be caught, began to slip off into the woods. One, a young Indian known by the English name Tom Lions, stopped to pick up a few peaches. He saw the Hochstetlers, choking from smoke, crawl out a small ground-level window, having thought the Indians were gone. Mrs. Hochstetler, “a fleshy woman,” was stuck partway out.
Within minutes, it was over. Mrs. Hochstetler was stabbed and scalped, and young Jacob and his sister were killed with tomahawk blows; their father and brothers Joseph and Christian were taken captive. As they were herded away from their burning home, Herr Hochstetler told his sons to fill their pockets with peaches, of all things. Then the raiders uncoiled ropes of braided rawhide or buffalo hair, their ends brightly decorated with tassels and dyed quillwork. Tying these “slave cords” around the necks of the three captives, they marched the men into keekachtanemin.
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I see keekachtanemin every morning when I look out my window. The Kittatinny Ridge, or Blue Mountain, is the first range of the old Kittochtinny Hills, which slant across Pennsylvania from northeast to southwest. There may be no more placid countryside in America than this quiet, Pennsylvania Dutch farmland—a long valley of cornfields and woodlots, bank barns and Holsteins—hemmed in by low-slung Appalachian ridges that fade to blue in the distance. It is the very image of settled, domestic peace.
But the story of Jacob Hochstetler is a reminder of a wilder, darker history here, hiding in plain sight. It is one that harks back to the days when the East was contested ground—fought over by empires and bled for by people who, regardless of their language, color, or birthplace, saw it as their own and worth dying for.
The Indians led the Hochstetlers north into the mountains, avoiding the line of militia forts, such as Northkill and Henry, that had been hurriedly built under the frantic eye of Benjamin Franklin two years earlier, as well as the mountaintop lookout at Fort Dietrich Snyder, on the ridge just a few miles south of where I now sit. They avoided, too, the main footpaths, such as the Tulpehocken Trail, which linked the settlements of Pennsylvania with the council fires of the Six Nations of the Iroquois in New York, and along which the province’s Indian diplomat, Conrad Weiser, often traveled. They may have rested their first night in what the locals called the Red Hole, an isolated valley just north of here, accessible through a high notch in the ridge and from which French, Lenape, and Shawnee parties could make lightning raids.
Those warriors crept beneath tall stands of hemlock, pine, and chestnut, their passage observed by bull elk moving like pale ghosts through the shadows, by wolves and mountain lions, lynx and fishers. It was autumn, when sun-blotting flocks of passenger pigeons roared through by the billions, shattering tree limbs with their aggregate weight when they settled down for the night and thickly carpeting the ground with their droppings like snow.
This valley, where in the autumn the sound of passenger pigeons has been replaced by the rumbling of combines, is not unique in the East. Wherever you set foot—on a street in Manhattan as you dodge traffic; on the soft, freshly turned earth of a Hudson Valley farm; on the kelpy tide line below a Maine cottage; or in the pine woods and palmetto thickets of the Carolina Low Country—do not forget that this was once frontier.
Frontier. The word carries the inevitable scent of the West, of sagebrush and vast prairie skies, of buffalo beyond number and a peaceful sheet of smoke hanging low over skin tipis. But before Custer, before the first Conestoga wagon creaked across the muddy Platte, before the first trappers pushed up the beaver streams of the Rockies, before Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery ascended the Missouri, there was another frontier—one that stretched from the Atlantic coast inland to the high, rugged ranges of the Appalachians, and from the Maritimes to Florida. This was the First Frontier.
In the West, the frontier still seems close to the surface. In the East, the old backcountry is buried beneath roads and strip malls, subdivisions and farms. But even here, if you know where to scratch, you can uncover the terrain of that lost world where Europeans and Native Americans were creating a new society, and a new landscape, along the tidewater and among the forests and mountains—one by turns peaceful and violent, linked by trade, intermarriage, religion, suspicion, disease, mutual dependence, and acts of both unimaginable barbarism and extraordinary tolerance and charity.
That this hybrid society was eventually washed away by the rising tide of European immigration and conquest, to be replaced by an English colonial system that gave birth, in part of the frontier, to national unity and independence, may today seem inevitable. But for two and a half centuries, beginning with the first regular contacts between Old World and New, the future was anything but preordained.
For two hundred years, Spain was the colonial heavyweight, conquering complex, urban-based chiefdoms in the Southeast and replacing them with a mission system of Indian laborers under the watchful eyes of soldiers and friars. Those missions later collapsed under the predations of Indian slave raiders working with the English colonists, who in turn were all but annihilated by a powerful alliance of tribes that rose up when the English started enslaving them. In Pennsylvania, William Penn’s fair-minded Quaker principles forged the Long Peace between colonists and Indians, showing what might have been possible—and yet Penn’s sons, who surrendered to avarice and fraud, helped bring on the backwoods war that swept up the Hochstetlers. This and other frontier wars did not break out along predictable cultural or racial fault lines; they were, in the words of one historian, violence “not between strangers [but] between people who had become neighbors, if not kin.”
It is a complex story—two and a half centuries of history about which most Americans know virtually nothing. The Seven Years’ War, the conflict in which the Hochstetlers were ensnared, may seem impossibly ancient to us, but by the time Jacob’s family immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1730s, Indians and Europeans had been regularly interacting along the eastern seaboard for almost 250 years—the same amount of time that has passed between the Hochstetlers and us.
And in truth, the first tentative engagements occurred well before that—at least a thousand years ago, when the Vikings tried to colonize eastern Canada, and the Basques surreptitiously discovered, as early as the fifteenth century, the great cod and whale fisheries off eastern Canada and New England. It’s difficult to say exactly when the tightlipped Basques first arrived; by the time the French and English showed up around 1600, they found Mi’kmaq Indians who were fluent in the Basque trading language and who skillfully sailed Basque-made shallops. One stunned Frenchman saw a Mi’kmaq glide by with an immense red moose painted jauntily on his sail. The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America looks at how these unimaginably different cultures grew steadily more similar through the centuries and yet remained stubbornly, and in the end tragically, estranged.
Part I, “So Many Nations, People, and Tongues,” explores how North America first became inhabited by humans, a story informed by groundbreaking new research and fresh discoveries, which suggest that people occupied the Western Hemisphere thousands of years earlier than anyone once believed. Instead of fur-clad mammoth hunters striding across the Bering Land Bridge, scientists using genetic testing, linguistic analysis, and other techniques are painting a picture of multiple waves of human migration into North America—perhaps by coastal mariners following the food-rich “kelp highway” east around the Pacific Rim, or, more controversially, Ice Age Europeans traveling west along the Pleistocene sea ice, hunting seals like modern Eskimos.
However they arrived, those Paleolithic immigrants eventually forged a kaleidoscope of Native societies, from immensely complex urban cultures that built monumental earthen mounds, to coastal farmers raising maize and squash, to northern hunters stalking moose and caribou. As many as a million people may have lived on the eastern seaboard at the dawn of the sixteenth century. They settled so thickly along the coasts and river valleys that some of the first European explorers wondered whether there was room for anyone else.
At first the Indians welcomed the European visitors, who brought new technologies and goods, sparking trade, intermarriage, a cross-pollination of ideas, and cooperation. Europeans also brought suspicion and discord, rapacity and ruthlessness, as well as one of the worst mass epidemics the world has ever seen. When Europeans as varied as the Swedes, Dutch, Spanish, French, and English established their first beachheads in North America, they encountered a suddenly empty land.
Part II, “Let Us Not Live to Bee Enslaved,” examines the colonial explosion of the seventeenth century, especially around Chesapeake Bay, where some of the earliest tensions between Indians and settlers (and between competing colonies) arose, and in New England, where relations began with a long period of peace and mutual cooperation but soon soured, leading to two of the bloodiest clashes ever between Natives and colonists, the Pequot War and King Philip’s War—the latter the first regional, pan-Indian uprising against the invaders.
This part also explores the experiences of captives, both white and Native, including an usually quick-witted ten-year-old named John Gyles, who survived blizzards, near starvation, and years of slavery among the Maliseet and French, and Mary Rowlandson, whose seventeenth-century narrative became America’s first bestseller. Both her release from captivity and the subsequent publication of her story owed a largely unacknowledged debt to a Harvard-educated Nipmuc, who was himself a victim of war.
Part II ends with an account of the Carolina deerskin and slave trade, which led to the largest Indian revolt in the colonial period. Almost forgotten today, this war changed the face of the South and gave birth to the antebellum plantation system.
Part III, “We That Came out of This Ground,” explores the Pennsylvania backcountry, a place where exiles from around the world, and from throughout the battered Indian nations, went in the mid-eighteenth century to start new lives. It follows the intertwined fortunes of a Scots-Irish trader, a German-born frontier diplomat, a French-Iroquois interpreter, and several Native leaders—some war chiefs, some peacemakers—all trying to navigate the increasingly dangerous clash of imperial powers, provincial expansion, and pent-up Indian fury that ignited the Seven Years’ War—the first truly world war.
In the end, the story of the frontier is the story of people—not stereotypes, but complex individuals and societies, all trying to make sense of a new kind of world with which none of them had any experience. No one had a monopoly on heroism or unprincipled behavior, which makes the story of the First Frontier at once rich, exhilarating, and heartbreaking.
* * * * *
The frontier is not gone in the East, but it can be difficult to find. The other day, I drove across the Kittatinny Ridge and turned onto Bloody Spring Road, named for another backwoods attack in 1757. When I turned off onto an unpaved lane, a cloud of dust followed me along the base of the mountain. I got out of the car and listened to the spring birdsong in the woods; this was the site of Fort Northkill, the hapless installation that did nothing to prevent French and Indian attacks on local settlements. The trees are smaller now than I imagine they were in the 1750s, but the chorus of wood thrushes and tanagers was the same that the poorly led, poorly equipped militia would have heard.
From there I drove a few miles south to what had been the Hochstetler farm, to which Jacob—after three years of captivity and privation and a harrowing solo escape through the wilderness of New France and the Ohio country—finally returned. I coasted to a stop near the state historical marker, which proclaims this the site of the first Amish settlement in the United States.
Although an interstate now cuts through part of the fields, and forest has closed in around the homestead itself (where at least one of the original eighteenth-century buildings still stands), most of the land remains a working farm, tilled each spring and harvested each autumn. Squinting a little and looking north, blocking out the rumble of the highway and focusing on the crumpled line of the Kittatinny, I could almost see the valley as it looked on that September day in 1757.
Almost. Alongside the interstate, occupying what had been part of the Hochstetler farm, is a kitschy tourist attraction. Dominating the parking lot, and directly in my line of sight, is an enormous, twelve-foot-tall Amish couple made of fiberglass, happily waving at the highway. A family was posing for a photograph just below the fake farmer’s pitchfork. What old Jacob would have made of them, I cannot even begin to imagine.
In other places, though, the frontier seems as close and vivid as if it were still unfolding. One such place is a cluster of islands on the New England coast, whose seaward shores foam with waves breaking white out of the deep blue-black water, the air empty of all but the cries of gulls. Whether one knew it as the dawn-touched edge of the coastal world of wôbanakik, at the beginning of the Grubbing Hoe Moon, or as the unexplored “maine land” shore, on June 4 in the year of the Lord 1605, the story that played out there began on a day when everything changed forever.