In the year 1738, my ancestors were living in the city of Zweibrucken, in the Palatinate, Germany. This is near the border of France, and sometimes known by its French name Deuxponts. Originally our family was of Swiss descent; but in the time of the black plague, they, with many other Swiss, emigrated, and found a pleasant home in this city, which is now included in what is known as Rhenish Bavaria.
The clear waters of mountain streams flowed from thousands of springs in the Hardt Mountains down into the Moselle. Nor was there any lack of honest employment. But Germany then was not united as now, but split up into provinces, and in fact lay under the feet of proud France. This was under the rule of the celebrated, but vicious, Louis XIV. “This brought much sorrow upon the German lands; but what was worse, Louis was driven by his ambition to bring that beautiful borderland, the Palatinate, under his power. His generals ravaged the defenseless land with barbaric fury.”
Then it was that necessity drove many to emigrate; and among them Joseph Keller, with an older brother, and with a half-brother, named Good (Guth), also concluded to go to America. At that time Joseph was but 19 years of age. His father had been of the Catholic faith, but his mother belonged to the Reformed Church, and had piously trained her son in the doctrines and duties as set forth by this confession.
In entering upon the state of matrimony, as an active and industrious young man, he could no doubt have found a life-companion in America also, but his heart went back to the Palatinate, and sought out a daughter of his people, a friend of his youth, whom he had learned to know and love in his old home. Her name was Maria Engel Drumm, born in Ann Weiler, a village of the Palatinate. She followed him to America as soon as she could find an opportunity to do so in the company of friends. Possibly he may have written to her and described to her the new home in America as a land where no French border-incursions and no forced military service were to be found; where no officials, in imitation of the French, oppressed the common people; where no one was compelled to pull off his hat in the presence of the proud nobles; and where no mocker made sport of the Heidelberg Catechism. It was a free, open land, with fine game in the forests, and an abundance of fish in the numerous waters.
No one looked with anxious eyes upon the newcomers. They were received with the greatest of kindness. The old Bible and the Hymn Book, which had been brought by them from Germany, are lying before me as I write. The Hymn Book especially is as yet complete. The Psalms and Hymns are all accompanied with the notes. Appended are the Heidelberg Catechism, and prayers and liturgical formulas. Out of this book they sang, in the cabin under the shadows of the Blue Mountains, the same hymns and tunes, which they had sung at home in the Hardt mountains, and on church-occasions the same forms were used as there; the youth were instructed in the same doctrines, so that the young as well as the old might learn to know that they were Reformed Christians, who renounced the world, the flesh, and the devil, and gave themselves with body and soul to the Lord Jesus.
In the old Bible before me are recorded the names of seven children, six sons and one daughter. No father need be ashamed to enter such a record in his Bible. Over the door of such a house we might well write, in golden letters, the words of the Psalmist: “For thou shalt eat the labor of thy hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee. Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house; thy children like olive plants round about thy table” (Ps. 128:2-3).
But now a dark cloud began to gather over the heads of the prosperous and happy family. The “French and Indian War” broke loose. Because the French devoted themselves mainly to the trade in furs, and paid little attention to agriculture, most of the Indians sided with them, and the settlers on the border were greatly subject to their hostility and fearfully murderous raids. It was on the 15th of September 1757 that the unsuspecting Keller family by the Blue Mountains was suddenly overwhelmed.
It took place in the afternoon. Joseph Keller, the father, was at that time in a distant field, engaged in plowing. After having fed and watered his horses at noon, he had taken two of the children with him, going joyfully to his work, which was the preparation of his field for seeding. Another son, Simon, had been sent into a clearing in the woods, to drive away the wild pigeons from the newly sown field. The mother, with the two smaller children in the house and the babe in the cradle, was engaged in her household work.
In that region, as soon as the sun sinks behind the Blue Mountains, the ploughman usually regards it as time to stop and return home. But in seeding time he may think it best to go round his field a few times more, in order to complete his work. So on this day Joseph Keller had continued his work longer than usual, and returned late in the evening, tired and weary. Arriving at the house, he at once noticed a very unusual silence. He did not, as at other times, hear the voices of the children and their joyful greetings. He saw nothing of the usual signs of an evening meal a preparing. No smoke ascended from the chimney. Only the loud crying of the babe in the cradle met him. Fear and dread overwhelm him. He searches through the whole house, and finds no one. He hurries to the barn, but only an empty echo answers to his call. The two children whom he had brought with himself from the field, and Simon, who had returned from his pigeon hunt, gather in tears about him. Where are the rest? Where possibly can the mother be? Is not this the season for going after wild grapes, plums, or whortleberries? Is not this perhaps the time to make a visit to a neighbor? He leaves the children in the house, and hurries to the nearest neighbor. No one of his family is there. The neighbors accompany him home. They call aloud, and search in every direction. Suddenly they see something lying on the ground, and hasten to it. Alas! It is a bloody corpse, lying in the field, the corpse of Christian, the eldest son. He has been pierced through with a spear, and his scalp has been torn from his head! It is plain that he was attempting to escape, and was brought down to the ground in his flight. This at once explained a great deal: Indians had been here, and had murdered the rest also, or had carried them away as captives. This conclusion was at once reached.
But what now is to be done? The night has already fallen, and, in searching for them what direction was to be taken? O, woe and misery! All the neighbors hurry to the scene, and soon there are plenty of well-loaded weapons standing in a corner. The whole night is consumed in discussing plans but what can it all avail?
At the break of day Christian was buried not far from the spot where he had fallen. The whole region round was searched, far and wide, but all in vain! Joseph Keller was overwhelmed with his misfortunes. He could well say, with Job: “Oh, that my grief were thoroughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea” (Job 6:2-3). With the same Job he could sigh: “Oh that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me!” (Job 29:2).
If all had been murdered the anxiety would not have been so great. But as they had entirely disappeared, without the slightest trace, the heart was all the time alternating between hope and fear. Every sound, by day or night, agitated his heart. Ah! how many tears fell to the ground, and how many sighs and prayers ascended to heaven!
The night was beautiful and cool, and a fire was kindled. Scarcely had the flames commenced to arise, when an Indian drew forth the scalp of Christian, and dried it at the fire. The mother recognized it by its blonde hair, and a stab went through her bleeding mother-heart.
It was not the object of the Indians to murder them; they also avoided setting the house on fire, else their raid might have been discovered too early, and their flight might have been cut off. Nor had they probably intended to kill Christian. As a prisoner he would have been of more value to them than his scalp. But no doubt he tried to escape from them, and was too fleet to be overtaken by them. All else turned out according to their plans, and Maria Engel Keller, with her two sons, Joseph and Jacob, aged respectively 3 and 6 years, was now in all haste hurried over mountain and valley, in the way to Montreal in Canada. The first night they were halted at a place about 12 miles distant, now known as Cherry Valley. The night was beautiful and cool, and a fire was kindled. Scarcely had the flames commenced to arise, when an Indian drew forth the scalp of Christian, and dried it at the fire. The mother recognized it by its blonde hair, and a stab went through her bleeding mother-heart. It is easy to understand what a night of terror she must have passed, and that no sleep visited her eyes. Then followed the long and hurried march of 400 miles. She was often so exhausted that an Indian would place his weapon against her back to urge her along. Often she believed that in the end the Indians would kill her, in order to get rid of her. Still Canada was finally reached, and the mother was sold to a French officer. The boys were taken away from her, and she was now alone in her misery. Joseph was adopted into an Indian family. A young Indian had died, and his sister adopted Joseph in his stead. This saved his life. What became of the other boy will only be known in eternity: nothing was ever heard of him.Indians
Thus passed three eventful, disturbed years. In the meantime, the English had been greatly successful as over against the French, and in these contests our forefathers, the colonists, rendered great services. The fortified city of Montreal, although surrounded with high walls and a ditch eight feet deep, and placed under the special protection of the Virgin Mary, could not withstand them. With the aid of the God of Abraham, the English under General Wolff stormed the “heights of Abraham,” took the city of Quebec, and cooped up the French commander Vandreuil in Montreal. On the 6th of September 1760, nearly 10,000 British troops advanced against the city, and two days later Montreal, with the whole of Canada, fell into their possession. All prisoners were at once released.
At this time the farmers of upper Pennsylvania were wont to bring all their farm produce by wagon to Philadelphia, a distance of 60 miles. Joseph Keller was on his way to market, in the neighborhood of Philadelphia, when he heard the news that the prisoners were released; and this took such possession of his heart, and filled him with such hope, that he at once unhitched his team, allowing the loaded wagon to stand, and rode back home with all speed. And when he arrived at his house, behold! his beloved wife had returned. Ah! what a meeting that must have been! How must the children have gazed upon the mother, and how must the mother have embraced the children before the arrival of the father! How much there must have been to relate on both sides!
True, Christian was dead and buried, and the two younger ones had not yet been found, but the mother was now restored, and there was hope that the two boys might again be found. In the family Bible the father wrote, with trembling hands: “My wife came back, anno 1760, on the 20th of October, but of my boys I have as yet heard nothing.”
Two years later another entry was made in the same Bible: “Philip, born the 29th of March, 1763.” This was my grand-father, whom as a youth I often visited. Each time, on leaving him, he gave me a quarter of a dollar as a present. With the older brother, Simon, I also became well acquainted. He often visited our house, and each time was presented by our mother with German cheese, of which he was very fond.
A few years after the birth of Philip the parents had the great joy of welcoming the return of Joseph, after his seven years captivity and detention in Canada. He had passed this whole period with the Indians, and in his feelings and habits had become like one of them. With the bow and arrow he was very skilful. The Indians had not yet allowed him a gun, but had promised him that the next year he should have one, and his desire for it was so great that at first he did not wish to return home. Gradually, however, he accustomed himself again to a civilized life. He was, however, always very fond of hunting, in which he easily took all sorts of game. Often he would seat himself under a tree, in a thicket, and allure all sorts of birds to him in order to catch them, for he could imitate the cry of every kind of bird. He was also fond of playing jokes on his acquaintances, without injuring them. Seated in a thicket, imitating the songs of the different birds, he would rouse their curiosity, and after allowing them to gaze around for a sufficient time, he would suddenly emerge from the thicket, and laugh loudly at them.
It was not long now, until the War of Independence commenced. Margaretha, the only daughter, married a Mr. Miller, who served as captain under Gen. Washington. He met with the sad misfortune that his wife and only child died whilst he was absent in the war. Both lie buried in the Plainfield graveyard. The inscriptions have long since become illegible, but in the stone that marks the resting place of the daughter is a hole, filled with lead, in which was once fastened a crown, as an ornament. Joseph also served in the Revolutionary War. The other son, John Jacob, had a son who became a minister of the Reformed Church, and died in the year 1852 in the State of New York.
The two parents lived to a venerable age. The father died at the age of 81, the mother lived to be 83. They were well and widely known for their piety. As long as she lived, the mother always kept the day of her deliverance from captivity as a day of prayer and thanksgiving, which she kept strictly also as a fast-day, doing entirely without food. Both of them served God through their whole lives, remembering the severe sufferings through which they had passed, and which left ineffaceable traces in their countenances and hearts. But they did not forget their thankfulness for the great blessings which were also vouchsafed to them. By the grace of God I hope to meet them before the throne of Jehovah, among those, who have not only “come out of great tribulation”, but who have also “washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.
Eli Keller, Reformed Minister in Zionsville, Lehigh Co., Pennsylvania, 1880. (This English translation is reprinted from the RCUS 1880 Almanac)