Our Ancestor’s Life Experiences in the 1700's

Posted by Lois Ann Mast on

by J. Lemar and Lois Ann Mast

   Upon arrival in present-day Berks County, Pennsylvania, what was life like for our Amish ancestors? Did they stand in awe among the tall trees and lush brush—the land that they would soon own?
   What a relief these immigrant families must have exprienced after remembering the long difficult journey from their homeland that took more money from them than they had planned! It included passage fares on the boat down the Rhine River past 26 different toll stations where they were required to pay a sum to the municipalities on their way to Rotterdam. And then the fare to board the ship with one’s family drained their finances as they endured the rough and even dangerous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean! Not to mention the upcoming experience at the Philadelphia Courthouse where they were asked to take an oath of allegiance to the King of England—was this yet again more persecution?
According to Bishop David Beiler (born 1786) who wrote his memoirs in 1862, many of our Amish immigrants were poor by the time they arrived in Philadelphia. Understandably, it was financially difficult to gather the few tools and basic staples and cloth to last through the winter—all necessary to tackle and survive in the wilderness.
    One wonders that when they first saw this suitable land in Pennsylvania with its’ large oak trees amidst fresh-flowing water streams and overflowing sparkling springs—indicators of very fertile soil—that they would reach down, brush the leaves and grass aside, pick up the fertile soil, hold it in their hands, and bow in humbleness before God giving thanks for arriving thus far.
    Reflecting on their recent journey . . . especially those families who lost a family member and buried them at sea on the journey across the ocean. Nevertheless, they still gave thanks and asked God’s blessing on their future in this land of free worship—a land they could worship God as their conscience dictated.
    Amidst their thankfulness, there were also  fears as they settled into life here in a “New World.” The dangers of felling trees and moving logs. And, what new wildlife pranced through these virgin forests? What about the poisonous snakes, wolves, mountain lions, wild cats?
    And what about the Natives who were already living here on land that we were taking from them? How might they react to us? Would they be friendly? Could they be trusted? In Berks County, the Natives were called the “Lenni-Lenape” with Lenni meaning genuine or original, and Lenape meaning Indian or Man.
    As it turned out, these Lenni-Lenapes were friendly, at least at first. Trade with these Natives for furs was important for the early settlers. The Natives’s tools, weapons, and household equipment were all made from stone, wood, and bark. Transportation was on foot or by canoe. Houses were made of bark and clothing from the skins of animals.
    But it was not long until the Natives were misled by the French, and then allied with them to overtake the English land resulting in the French and Indian War fought from 1754-1763.
    Many settler families’ homes along the Blue Mountains in northern Berks County were attacked including the Jacob Hochstetler family which took place on September 29, 1757, where the mother and daughter and son died, and the father and two other sons were taken captive. A neighbor, John Miller, was wounded, and received the nickname of “Indian John Miller”/”Crippled John Miller”/”Wounded John Miller.”

Pioneer Life

    The process of converting the forest land into farmable land was certainly a long laborious process. One could find maple, walnut, poplar, oak, pine, ash, beech, and linden trees throughout Pennsylvania’s forests. And then there were sassafras, sycamore, weeping willow, and balsam fir trees. Tools were simple-using axes, hatches, knives, grubbing hoes, and shovels.
    The first task for these early pioneers was to clean the land, cut the timber, and sort it for the future dwelling and barn. This also included fencing the temporary dwelling which Bishop David Beiler refers to as “huts.”
    As portions of the land was cleared, the crops were planted among the stumps. It was also important to split rail and fence posts and erect fences around the field to protect the crops not only from their cattle and horses, but also from their neighbors’ livestock as well because all animals freely roamed to feed on the native plants. Even gardens were surrounded by fences to keep the livestock out.
    After the crops were planted in hopes of a bountiful harvest, it was time to give serious thought to more substantial buildings in order to provide protection from the on-coming winter.
    Usually, two log structures were constructed—a log cabin and a barn for the livestock to store hay, straw, and grain. Most families worked hard to build their barn by the fall harvest and especially before winter.
    After the harvest season, it was time to travel to Philadelphia to make an application for the land. The first interior road from Philadelphia was the “Great Conestoga Road” that opened in 1741 and linked Philadelphia with Lancaster. Indian trails in western Pennsylvania were developed into roadways with a thoroughfare to Pittsburgh completed in 1758.
    When our ancestors traveled to Philadelphia to make an application for their land, it was not an hour-long ride from Berks County like it is today. This application was an oral request to claim their land. The next step was to receive a warrant which was a written request for an official survey of the property. The return of the survey included a complete description and diagram of the property.
    With this completed, the new owner then received a patent—the first written title of the property granting legal ownership to the person who submitted the application. All future transfers of the property were called “deed transfers.”
    This process could take several years, and there were times that some immigrants never completed the process until the time of their death or the sale of the property to another person.
    Although William Penn was granted all the land in Pennsylvania by the King of England, he chose not to grant or settle any part of it without first buying the claims of Indians who lived there. This meant that it was not until 1768 that all of Pennsylvania (with the exception of the northwestern third) was purchased.
    Philadelphia was the main port of entry for most of our Amish immigrants. It was a hub-bub of economy! In fact, it became one of the most important centers in the Colonies to conduct foreign trade! By 1776, Phildelphia had become the largest English-speaking city in the world next to London! Pennsylvania’s imports and exports were worth several million dollars—shipped from the port of Philadelphia! This would amount to about 60 million dollars today—$1 in 1776 = $29 today!
    In the first years of settlement, it was important for the family to work together because the farming operation was vitally essential for survival. Why? Because most of the work had to be done by hand, and because there were few other jobs available in this wilderness land.
    The farming tools of those pioneer days were very simple, a grubbing hoe, a shovel, a sickle, a scythe, a fork, and a garden hoe. Horse-drawn equipment included a plow made entirely of wood. You see, many of these tools had to be made on-site by the farmer. Plows were not very effective in turning a furrow, but merely scratched the soil three or four inches to loosen it up. A wooden harrow may also been been constructed to be pulled by a horse. Everything else was done by hand.
    Planting was done by sowing or by hand. Weeding was done using a garden hoe.
    The grain was cut with a sickle. Sheaves were bundled by hand and stored in the barn and in the cold of the winter were threshed on the barn floor with flails or trampled by horses or oxen. To loosen the grain from its’ head, the grain was winnowed by hand to remove the chaff before it was stored in the granary. Hopefully, there was enough to feed the family and still have left-over seed for next year’s crop.
    Pennsylvania’s fertile lands helped to make Pennsylvania a productive region for the commercial farming of flax, hemp, wheat, corn, and other grains—especially in southeastern Pennsylvania. In fact, this area became known as the “Breadbasket of North America.”
    Our ancestors worked hard to farm this land. Another nickname that evolved during this time was: “Pennsylvania was the best poor man’s country in the world.”
    The first dwellings for these early family were very simple, often times the kitchen floor was simply tramped-down earth. There was little furniture other than a table an a cupboard to store utensils. There was a time when a Kurtz family did not even have a table. Bishop David Beiler’s memoirs record that the family held their dish of food on their laps to eat.
    Can you imagine no sofas, lounge chairs, or bureaus, or not even rag carpets? Many times, one’s shoes were made of wood because leather was too expensive (according to Bishop David Beiler’s memoirs). Dishes were plain and clothes were simple with no frills and certainly not store-bought. Clothes came from the garden and the pasture in the from of flax and wool.
    In those early years of pre-1740, our ancestors were truly pioneer or subsistence farming families relying on each other in times of need. Only a few items were imported into the area and generally received through bartering, like salt, iron products, glass, and spices.

    Because coins were scarce in the early New World settlements, our immigrant ancestors used a variety of substitutes for money. Musket balls were early assigned specific monetary value, and the Colonists also adopted “wampum” used in trade by many Natives. Wampums were beads made from clam, conch, or similar light-colored shells. The beads were drilled so they could be strung on a leather thong for easy handling.
    Then there was the “Commodity Money” that was known as “Country Pay.” It usually consisted of hunting, construction, or farm products. A bushel of wheat might be valued at four farthings (a farthing is a quarter penny), a bushel of Indian corn at three shillings, and a barrel of pork at three pounds. Hunting products were beaver pelts and deer skins while construction products included iron nails and lumber or a day’s labor. Coins were so scarce during the Revolutionary War that Commodity Money was still widely used during the late 1770s and the early 1780s.
    But when you think about it, where do you spend coins in the wilderness? Coins certainly meant nothing to the Natives.
    In 1750, Gottlieb Mittleberger traveled to Pennsylvania and wrote that, “provisions are cheap in Pa., but everything that is brought into the country is three or four times as costly as in Germany, with the exception of wood, salt, and sugar. Nevertheless, the people live well, especially on all sorts of grain which thrives very well because the soil is wild and fat. They grow chiefly rye, wheat, barley, oats, corn, flax, hemp, fruit, cabbage, and turnips. They also have good cattle, fast horses, and many bees. The sheep which are larger than the German ones, have generally two lamps each year. Hogs and poultry, especially turkeys, are raised by almost everyone.”
    He went on to write: “Even in the humblest and poorest homes, there is always meat with every meal. No one eats bread without butter or cheese. I don’t think there is any country in the world which more meat is eaten and consumed than in Pa. Market is held twice a week in Philadelphia; it always attracts a great concourse of people. Beggers are nowhere to be seen, for each township cares and provides for its poor. Throughout the whole province, no shepherd or cowherd is needed because all cattle and sheep are let run at large in the fields where they find plenty of food. It is quite surprising how dense the forests are, and what beautiful, smooth, thick and tall trees they contain.”
    “One of the beauties of Pennsylvania are the fire-flies that fly about so plentifully by night in the summer time, that it seems as if it were snowing fire. Some years ago a newly-arrived German man was badly scared by them; for as he was working in the field late one evening, and some fire-flies, which were totally unknown to him, were flying about him, this honest man named Hans was so frightened that he dropped everything and ran hastily home. As he came in fear and trembling to his family, he said: ‘O God, shield and protect us! How many fiery spirits fly about in this country! O God, would I were back in Germany again!’”
    It was common among our ancestors to borrow from each others. A poor family would borrow a bushel of corn or a barrel of flour from a wealthier neighbor.
    As time moved on, each year got better and the living conditions improved. The region, in general, began to flourish with industry and improved agriculture. Grist mills, saw mills, and fulling mills began using the power of the numerous streams. Iron ore was mined and furnaces and forges were started making Berks County the leading iron producer in Pennsylvania!

    The Pennsylvania long rifle was an adaptation of a German hunting rifle developed in Lancaaster County and certainly used by our ancestors. Its’ superiority was so well recognized that by 1776, gunsmiths were duplicating it in Virginia, George, North Carolina, and Maryland.
    The big item in agriculture was a wheat boom which started in the 1730s and really took off in the 1740s, peaking in the late 1760s. By the 1770s, wheat accounted for 69% of the value of Pennsylvania’s exports with at least one-third of the crop sent abroad. It was shipped as far away as New England, Europe, and the West Indies. Pennsylvania became known as the BREAD BASKET of the Colonies!
      Obviously, the local community had established a very stable economy in regards to agriculture because farming was our ancestors’ living—especially in growing wheat! The stage was set for a great and prosperous future in spite of the French and Indian War troubles.

Migrations To Other Areas

          In spite of a prospec-tive future, the Amish com-munity in northern Berks County faded away. It failed.
        There are a number of theories as to why it failed. We have been told through the years that it was because of the Indian attacks during the French and Indian War. And, certainly that was part of the issue. A number of the families did leave in the late 1750s and early 1760s for the Conestoga Valley in southern Berks County.
       Colonel Jacob Morgan who lived in southern Berks County (later Morgantown) was stationed at Fort Northkill where he learned to know the Amish settlers and their non-resistant beliefs. He encouraged them to relocate away from the Indian troubles. Actually, there were many fertile Welsh farms available near where he lived in southern Berks County, so Hertzler, Lapp, Mast, and Reichenbach families did move!
    Many Amish families also chose to stay. Bishop Jacob Hertzler who lived only a two-and-a-half hour walk from where the Hochstettler Massacre site occurred, lived and died in this area. In fact, he died here 30 years later in 1786.
    In the late 1760s and early 1770s, a number of Amish families began another migration southeast to the Chester Valley. These included the Lapp, Reichenbach, Zug, Kurtz, Kauffman, and Fike families, to name a few. The reasons why they left northern Berks County, are not known. Since they left several years after the French & Indian War ended, we can rule out fear regarding Indian attcks.

    The Conestoga Wagon pictured above was developed in the mid-1700s to transport goods across the Allegheny Mountains. This vehicle, capable of carrying as much as four tons, later became the prime means of transport for all of our Amish ancestors who moved westward from Berks County.
    Other families left for present-day Lancaster County. Historians Christian J. Kurtz and Joe Beiler felt that these families left Berks County for better farmland and to join other family members. The farmland in northern Berks County is fairly good, but does contain shale which does not do well in dry weather.
    Beginning in 1773, more families left Berks County and relocated to southwest Pennsylvania in the Brothers Valley and Casselman River areas. Here again, we have no documentation regarding exactly why they left.
    One theory is that they left because of the threat of impending war with England. Soon after the French & Indian War, the British began to levy taxes on the Colonies, such as the Stamp Act of 1765 which financed the British military stationed in the Colonies. There were other import taxes as well on sugar, glass, paper, and lead—all of which initiated the Colonists and their leaders. This is when Patrick Henry became famous for his quote in protest: “Give me liberty or give me death.”
    Then came along the Tea Tax in May 1773 which was the straw that broke the camel’s back! This erupted into the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 which led to the American Revolution.
    The news of all these events spread thoughout the Colonies including the remote areas of Berks County where our Amish ancestors lived. These events could have easily prompted the nonresistant Amish to leave their community for a place far away (about 260 miles west) from one of the hot beds of the Revolution—in Philadelphia.
    Was it deliberate or was it a coincidence that Michael Beegly, Peter Livengood, Jacob and John Saylor, and Yost Zook relocated to present-day Somerset County the same year as the Boston Tea Party in 1773?
    In the 1790s, more Amish families left Berks County and relocated in Mifflin County. These families include the Zooks, Hertzlers, Yoders, and Kings from northern Berks County, with others coming from southern Berks County and the Conestoga Valley. Here again, there is no documentation as to why the families moved.
    Then, there is a final theory. There may have been internal problems in the congregations: disagreements on church policy or perhaps there was no capable leadership because after the death of Bishop Jacob Hertzler in 1786, the congregation declined rather rapidly.
    If only we could find a cache of paperwork left by Hertzler or one of the other Amish leaders—then, maybe we would have more answers. But with 250 years between us, the likelihood of it is rather slim.
    There were still other Amish who did remain in northern Berks County including Kauffmans and Yoders whose descendants still live there today. No Amish congregations are there today.


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