A Family Story: Triumph Over Tragedy

David S. Heatwole, my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, (6 times great!) was born in Lancaster County in 1767. Due to his father’s untimely death and the dire circumstances facing his mother, he was bound out as help to learn a trade at the tender age of nine.  The story of his parents is on the blog post A Family Story: Death on the High Seas.

Unfortunately, David was put into the rough hands of a Mr. Bear and was often the victim of extremely harsh treatment. He was so frequently mistreated that he carried scars to his grave from the beatings he received. He finally mustered the courage, ran away and went to live with a man by the name of Momaw until he was eighteen.  Finally his Uncle Christian Haas (later written Hess), his mother’s brother, took him in to live with them and taught him the shoemaker trade. This had to be a welcomed respite and healing for his injured spirit and body.

David excelled under the tutelage of his skilled Uncle and became a master of his trade. It is said that his shoes were never a left or right but fit either foot. He met and married sweet Magdalene Weland, who was five years his senior, in 1788 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Magdalene’s story: Indian Massacre

Magdalene’s parents had left Lancaster County when she was a little girl and establish a frontier home in a new colony about one hundred miles north of Harrisburg, PA in the rich fertile soil of Wyoming Valley on the banks of the upper fork of the Susquehanna River.  It was also known as “the Wilds”. Trouble with the Indians in this Luzerne County settlement started almost as soon as the family moved there. The encroachment of  the “pale faces” upon the Indian hunting grounds angered the hostile Indians. “Squatter Sovereignty” was not embraced in the code of laws by which the “red man” governed themselves. Most of the early settlers of that section learned by sad and fatal experience, that this was a true reality. Twice the Weland family was driven from their home and their buildings burned.

The second raid came on July 4, 1778 when the Indians joined with the British Loyalist to incite trouble.  They swooped down on the unsuspecting colonists in the terrible Wyoming Massacre and many lives were lost. One of Magdalene’s brothers was fatally shot and another wounded.  Fourteen year old Magdalene escaped by lying flat in the bottom of a canoe and floating downstream. She decided to remain with a Grabill family in Lancaster County where she had fled as a fugitive from the harrowing scene of the massacre. The rest of the family barely escaped with their lives.  It was during the seven years that she lived with the Grabills that she met and married David.

Life together….

A modern day picture of David’s first cobbler shop in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania

(Photo by Bertha Horst, a great, great, great, great granddaughter, taken in December 2015)

The first two to three years of their marriage, they lived in Lancaster where David set up a shoemaker’s shop and practiced his trade.  They then purchased a small farm in Chambersburg, PA where he set up another shoemaker shop.

Around 1792, quite a few of the German emigrants got restless feet as they heard about the rich, fertile, cheap land of the Shenandoah Valley. David, along with several others,  traveled to the Valley and bought 85 acres in Rockingham County for 300 pounds (approximately $1400.00). He still could not speak English and in giving his name to civil authorities for the deed of land they spelled it by the phonetic utterance of his name, Hetwol. It is thought that he also spent some time with his Uncle Christian Hess who had already settled in Turleytown in Rockingham County and was carrying on his shoemaker trade.

David, grateful for God’s guidance and provision, went back to Pennsylvania and informed his wife of his purchase and intentions. There is a little discrepancy between the two history sources listed below as to the exact timeline. It appears he returned to the valley and built a 16’x11′ cobbler cabin with logs harvested from his land.  He positioned it over a spring so he had fresh water underneath and a loft on top for temporary living until he could built a larger log cabin. Once it was completed, he returned to Pennsylvania, sold his land, loaded up his family and belongings and they traveled by horse and wagon to their new home.  Deed records show that his last name was recorded as Heatwole. The log cabin is still standing to this day.   (More details of the building and structure of the cabin are in Nancy Hess Burkholder’s book, “By the Grace of God” pages 70-75).


History records that David was one of the plain, unassuming men of his time and a strong believer and advocate of the non-resistant doctrine as taught by Menno Simons. He and his wife had both seen and experienced firsthand the horror of violence and war.

He was scrupulously exact in his mode of dress and that of his children, never varying in color or cut of garb. He taught his children the German language only. He was an elder in the Mennonite Church and tried to comply with what he believed to be the will of his Lord and Master.  Magdalene is remembered as a gentle mother who passed on much of the “before” history of the family to her children.

David and Magdalene had eleven children. It is from their oldest child, Gabriel, that my family line continues.  The family record records, “On October 26th, 1789, was born to us our son Gabriel, in the sign of the ‘Waterman.'” (History of the Heatwole Family).  The same format recorded the birth of all eleven children who lived and grew to adulthood. The story of Gabriel, the herb doctor, will be another blog post.

When I read the stories of my ancestors, emotions well up within me as I try to grasp the incredible risks, hardships, danger and sacrifice they endured to seek religious freedom in hopes of a better life for themselves and their children. This family endured horrendous tragedy but triumphed because of an enduring faith in an Almighty God. I am humbled and challenged to remain faithful, just as my ancestors before me.


I can not take credit for any of the information posted in this blog. It is a combination of information from “History of the Heatwole Family” by Cornelius J. Heatwole, 1907, and from “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess, 1979. Some is quoted and some rewritten. Permission from both parties was granted for the story to be retold in my book “The Story of Melvin Jasper Heatwole and Mollie Grace Coffman” by Pat Hertzler, 1983. The log shoemaker cabin picture is copied from “History of the Heatwole Family, page 69.

If you want a fascinating read….

I highly recommend “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess. She vividly and poignantly tells the story of the Mennonites  moving into the Shenandoah Valley, the ravages of the Civil War and the rebuilding of homesteads. Faith was such an important part of the settlers and that faith is woven into the stories.

Additional blog posts:

A Family Story: Death on the High Seas

A personal side note:

During my junior high and high school years, I had an extra-ordinary history teacher, James Rush, at least four times. He made history come alive whether it was family, local, state, national or world.  One of our many projects was constructing our family genealogy tree. It stirred a passion within me that has helped define my life, even today. I enjoy family history, especially the Heatwole line, and have written a book about my great-grandparents Melvin and Mollie Heatwole.

For high school, I went to Eastern Mennonite in Harrisonburg, Virginia and in the 1970 senior class of 79 students there were 22 of us that could claim David and Magdalene Heatwole as our ancestors.  We are most closely related through David’s son, Gabriel, and grandson Joseph:  Bonnie, Glenna, Eldon, Pat, Kathy and Edith.  Others more distant cousins are:  Grace, Leon, Kirk, Carol, Curt, Carl, Joy, Rich, Diana, Randy, June, Elaine, David, Keith, Sheldon, and John. (Thanks Edith Layman Rhodes for this tidbit of information).

David’s impact on the history of Rockingham County and the Mennonite community was and still is today, profound.



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