The apfelschnitz had been made, the gathering had ended, the young people had gone home, and the house at the foot of Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountains had grown quiet. It was well past midnight, and most of the family had settled into a deep sleep. Everyone, that is, except for young Jacob, Jr. Jacob was roused by an unusual sound outside from the family dog and decided to investigate. The minute he opened the door, a musket ball tore through his leg. Hovering outside were nearly a dozen Lenape Indians. When Jacob realized his family was under attack, he slammed and bolted the door. Within minutes, brothers Joseph and Christian, both excellent marksmen, were armed and ready to defend their home and family. With little effort, they could fire on their attackers, killing their enemies and saving themselves. Their father, however, wouldn’t allow it. It wasn’t right, said Jacob Hochstetler, Sr., to take the life of another. Not even to save your own. That conviction would affect his family forever.
Ervin Stutzman knows this story well. Stutzman is the executive director of Mennonite Church USA. He’s also former dean and professor of Church Ministries at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Va. He’s a preacher, teacher, and writer with multiple books to his name, including Tobias of the Amish, the fictionalized account of his father’s life. He also has a personal connection to Swiss German immigrant Jacob Hochstetler, who settled near Northkill, Pa. in 1738. Stutzman is a descendant of Hochstetler, one of history’s most well-known Amish immigrants. And, like many from the Hochstetler clan, Stutzman’s lineage involves more than one link.
“I’m related eight ways,” Stutzman explains, meaning he has eight different connections to the Hochstetlers through marriage and blood. “I happen to be a descendent of three of the four Hochstetler children who survived.”
In the Hochstetler community, that’s not uncommon. Some people are related 20 ways. Others have a whopping 40 connections to those original immigrants. People love to compare notes on this firmly-rooted family tree. The Gospel Book Store in Berlin, owned by Vesta and Small Hochstetler, descendants of Jacob, has made thousands of reprints of two Hochstetler genealogy books--one of Jacob, and another of his daughter Barbara and husband Christian Stutzman. The descendants have even developed an organization, the Jacob Hochstetler Family Association (JHFA), which publishes a newsletter, manages an information-packed website, and hosts quinquennial gatherings that draw hundreds of Hochstetlers, Hostetlers, and Hochstedlers to talk about genealogy and attend breakout sessions with titles like, “How John’s Little House was Rebuilt,” or “The Hochstetlers from Switzerland to Holmes County, Oh.”
Ervin Stutzman’s presentation at the 2013 JHFA gathering was “Tracing our Ancestor Jacob’s Footsteps.” Those footsteps are important to Stutzman not only as a descendent, but also as an author. Jacob’s Choice, the first in a trilogy, is Stutzman’s fictional, ethnohistorical novel closely based on the facts surrounding Jacob Hochstetler’s choices, life, and family. It delves into the culture of the Amish, Delaware, and Shawnee of the late 1700s.
Stutzman has been working on the book for more than five years, immersing himself in the research required to undertake a project like this, especially considering the intended readership.
“Normally, fiction authors write for one audience,” Stutzman says, “but I wrote for three. First, the descendants; they know the story and want it to be authentic and accurate. Another is Amish romance and fiction readers, because this book looks honestly at the area of romance in the Amish, war, and nonresistance, which aren’t normally addressed in Amish fiction.”
The final audience Stutzman had in mind was Native Americans, who are often depicted merely as the villains of the story.
“The home was surrounded by Indians, but Jacob would not allow his sons to shoot them. He lost family because of that,” Stutzman explains. “But he didn’t see them as the enemy. He viewed them as men created by God.”
It was a challenge to be true to fact while crafting an interesting, believable story, but Stutzman was up for it. He drew not only from books on the subject, legends passed down through generations, and genealogical writings, but also from practical information. What kind of dog would the Hochstetlers have owned? What type of peaches grew in late September? Would Hochstetler really have come face-to-face with an Indian chief? It was important to Stutzman to be as factual as possible. As a scholar with multiple PhD’s, he relished the research. It’s one reason the book will be available in two versions--a paperback with just the story, and a hardcover including all of the facts and historical information.
But beyond genealogy and history, there’s a bigger reason Stutzman chose this subject.
“It’s a story of faith and courage,” Stutzman says, “of sticking to one’s convictions in the face of very difficult times. That’s really what the story is about.”