Where was the first Amish community in North America? Lancaster County is the oldest Amish settlement still around today. But it’s not the first place Amish settled on this side of the Atlantic.
That distinction belongs to the Northkill settlement that existed in neighboring Berks County*. It was organized by 1740, predating today’s Lancaster settlement by about two decades.
This historical marker, placed in 1959, gives a brief history of the community.
The first organized Amish Mennonite congregation in America. Established by 1740. Disbanded following Indian attack, September 29, 1757, in which a Provincial soldier and three members of the Jacob Hochstetler family were killed near this point. Pennsylvania Historical And Museum Commission
The “established by 1740” line I think allows for the possibility that Amish settlers were here before that date. The Charming Nancy, aka the “Amish Mayflower“, sailed in 1737 with at least a dozen Amish on board.
So perhaps the official date of “establishment” has some wiggle room here (it’s also possible that Amish lived in other areas before this time, as this account references several earlier individual families).
The first bishop at Northkill was Jacob Hertzler, who arrived from Switzerland in 1749. The Northkill name came from the name of a local creek and fort. At its peak, the community may have had up to 200 residents, so about a church district-and-a-half in size, going by today’s terms (see A History of the Amish by Steven Nolt, p. 75).
As noted in the marker, Northkill was the scene of the infamous Hochstetler Massacre. Amish know this story today for its powerful lesson of nonresistance.
On a fateful evening in 1757 (there is some disagreement on the exact date), Jacob Hochstetler and his family came under attack by Delaware Indians hired by the French during the French and Indian War.
Jacob famously restrained his boys from firing their rifles on their attackers, but paid a great price. Three members of his family – his wife, a daughter, and a son – were killed.
It’s unclear who the “Provincial soldier” was who also died, as noted on the historical marker. Was he attempting to protect the Hochstetlers? I haven’t been able to find an explanation of this death.
You can read an account of the story here. The Hochstetler tale has also been retold in at least two historical fiction accounts. The Northkill settlement soon after died out, with the Amish members going on to found several other congregations in the region.
The Reading Eagle recently published an article on the Amish in Berks County and the Hochstetler family lore entwined in this history, which you’ll find here.
Amish Ancestor Nicholas Stoltzfus
Berks County is also known for another noteworthy early Amish resident.
Nicholas Stoltzfus came to live in the area of Reading in 1770 or 1771, having resided for several years in Lancaster County.
Stoltzfus is an important ancestor for the Amish. He has many descendants – around one million.
Since there are only around 330,000 Amish today, obviously most of those are not Amish. But many are descended from this early settler, including 98% of Lancaster Amish.
The Nicholas Stoltzfus House preservation project was begun in 1997 by citizens concerned with preserving the Stoltzfus homestead for its historical value.
They prevented the demolition of the home, and have since helped to fund and accomplish its restoration. There has been significant Amish support and involvement in this project.
You can visit the Stoltzfus house today. The location might surprise you a bit – it is not in a rural setting, but basically in Reading, located off a highway ramp in a wooded area by the Tulpehocken Creek.
Given the city location, it wouldn’t be a place where Amish would like to live today. But the homestead stands preserved, commemorating an important piece of Amish and Anabaptist history.
*At the time of founding of this settlement, Berks County technically did not yet exist. It was created in 1752 from parts of Lancaster, Chester and Philadelphia Counties, becoming the state’s seventh county. Thanks to reader David Swonger for pointing that out. David notes that when Jacob Hertzler arrived here in 1749, the settlement was in Lancaster County as it existed at the time.
Updated April 2020