This is, perhaps, one of the most heart-wrenching stories we have ever recounted at Leben, but it is also a bittersweet reminder of the goodness of God, whose mercies are new every morning. Written in 1880 by Rev. Eli Keller, a descendant of the Kellers of this story, its power remains undiminished by the passing of years.
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 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).
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.
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. … 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.”
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.
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.”