The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America'

by Scott Weidensaul

An exploration some of the most turbulent, fascinating years in American history: the 16th century into the mid-18th century in eastern North America.

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547539560
  • ISBN-10: 0547539568
  • Pages: 480
  • Publication Date: 02/08/2012

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About the Book
About the Author
  • About the Book

    Frontier: the word carries the inevitable scent of the West. But before Custer or Lewis and Clark, before the first Conestoga wagons rumbled across the Plains, it was the East that marked the frontier—the boundary between complex Native cultures and the first colonizing Europeans.

    Here is the older, wilder, darker history of a time when the land between the Atlantic and the Appalachians was contested ground—when radically different societies adopted and adapted the ways of the other, while struggling for control of what all considered to be their land.

    The First Frontier traces two and a half centuries of history through poignant, mostly unheralded personal stories—like that of a Harvard-educated Indian caught up in seventeenth-century civil warfare, a mixed-blood interpreter trying to straddle his white and Native heritage, and a Puritan woman wielding a scalping knife whose bloody deeds still resonate uneasily today. It is the first book in years to paint a sweeping picture of the Eastern frontier, combining vivid storytelling with the latest research to bring to life modern America’s tumultuous, uncertain beginnings.

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts


    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, apfelschnitz time was one of the highlights of autumn.

      The apple trees, planted more than fifteen 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 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 sliced and pared 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 apfelschnitz 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.

    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 i...

  • Reviews

    “With a novelist's flair, he conveys the experiences of ordinary people pitted against powerful and unpredictable nature. . . Mr. Weidensaul invites readers to imagine the bloody ground beneath modern America's apparently tame landscape.”
    —The Wall Street Journal

    “Exhaustively researched and entertainingly written. . . Credit Weidensaul with proving once again that history does not have to be dull in order to be comprehensive. It would be difficult to find a work of either fact or fiction more filled with excitement and suspense than The First Frontier.”
    —The Seattle Times

    “With a novelist's flair, he conveys the experiences of ordinary people pitted against powerful and unpredictable nature. . . Mr. Weidensaul invites readers to imagine the bloody ground beneath modern America's apparently tame landscape.”
    —The Wall Street Journal