Posts Tagged ‘“By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess’

A Family Story: Doc Gabe, the Herb Doctor

Gabriel, my great-great-great-great grandfather (4 times great), born in 1789, was a young lad (between 7-10, depending which history source you read) when he rode the wagon south from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania to the Shenandoah Valley and his family settled in the shadow of Mole Hill near Hinton, Virginia. The family traveled with the barest of belongings and soon settled into the log cabin.  Even though young, Gabriel would have been a valuable asset to his father helping to clear timber to build a house, tilling the land to plant crops, and working in the clobber shop. Faith was an integral part of the Heatwole life.  He was taught and spoke the German language only.

In 1810, at the age of twenty-one he married Margaret (Polly) Swank. Two years later his first son was born, and by 1816 he had purchased a place of his own on Dry River where he set up a saw mill and cooper shop. “The History of the Heatwole Family” states, “Being of strong constitution, together with an indomitable will, he plied his axe and maul to advantage, and as the forest trees by which he was surrounded grew less in number, so little by little his few tillable acres in the course of time increased to quite a farm, the boundaries of which were so situated that never, through the whole course of his life, did it suit to join fencing with any of his neighbors.” It is recorded that either alone or with others he owned in excess of 3,000 acres. “By the Grace of God” says, “Doc Gabe had a saying which he truly believed and worked hard to make come true: ‘Prosperity comes to those who possess a strong will to succeed.’  Apparently Doc Gabe was born with that will, along with a genius for getting ahead.” He was fascinated with astronomy, studied his almanac, and planted and harvested by the phases of the moon.

From “By The Grace of God” I quote or retell all of the following….

Along with farming, he was a cooper by trade.  In his cooper shop he made many valuable antiques, measuring kegs, churns, baskets, wood flails , farm tools, fence palings, roof shingles and split bottom chairs. He was a woodsman and hunter, scouring the hills for rabbit, squirrel and coon.  It is reported that he used a Pennsylvania blunderbuss and old Yeager rifle which he had inherited from his grandfather Matheus.  It is said he and his eight sons were a lively clan, gadding about, outfitted in cowhide boots, thick, hand knitted salt and pepper socks, rough nutmeg breeches, cinnamon vests and onion-toned homespun collarless shirts. He taught his boys to whittle, whet and whistle. He taught them how to collect herbs and roots that he used in doctoring.

Photo copied from “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess, page 114.

Doc Gabe

Around the age of 46, Gabe became interested in the study of medicine and ordered text books from a prescribed home study system put together by Dr. Samuel Thomson of Vermont which advocated “Natural remedies only are beneficial to the human body; therefore only vegetable and herb medicines should be taken internally.”  From the Thomson’s school of medicine he acquired the title “Thomsonian Herb Doctor” and the nickname “Doc Gabe”.  It is said that he was a good doctor; who saved lives, doctored during epidemics, delivered babies and answered  community needs. He raised grapes (wine), apples and herbs and yarb which he used in his doctoring. He build a doctoring office attached to the front of the house

A Man of Faith

Gabe was a man of strong faith and for church going, he and his boys would dress up in proper, somber attire. Gabe wore a black Prince Albert frock coat and a tall, wide-brimmed hat. He held to the Mennonite faith and was a pillar in the church as well as the Mole Hill community, supporting his church with his money as well as being vocal. Occasionally he was asked to preach. I quote, “All his children were raised by the Holy Write and fed Scripture pie and cake. They taught their children and grandchildren to live in peace and harmony just like the Great Designer planned”.  In 1847, he donated a portion of land on a bluff overlooking Dry River for a cemetery and a church which he and his boys built, along with their Mennonite neighbors. The Bank Mennonite Church was the third Mennonite church to be built in the Valley.

The Bank Mennonite Church was built in 1847. (Picture was taken around 1900). You can see from the picture the large size of the church and crowd of people signifying the rapid influx and growth of Mennonites in the area. Note the two entrance doors. Men sat on one side and women on the other. Photo was copied from “By the Grace of God” page 114.

Family Life

Gabriel and Polly had twelve children.  Their children were well versed in German and English and attended winter school. In their home was good reading material, singing books, world maps and newspapers from Pennsylvania. They ate well with meat always on the table from their butchered game, lamb, beef, hogs and chicken. He grew bumper crops of grain, hemp, tobacco, maize and hay. He always worked to improve and build up the soil. His animals were sleek and well-fed.  Like their European counterparts who feared contaminated water and threats of typhoid, they did not drink water unless it was boiled but sipped instead on cider and wine which Gabriel made and fermented deep in the dark small room in the cellar. When his children left home and married, he set them up on land from his vast acreage. It is amazing to me the difference in assets and wealth that happened so quickly between David’s father and his generation. Times were quickly changing.

Gabe: The Man

“Gabriel was a pleasant man of medium to small build, with a wide, winning smile, large puffy jaws and a good-sized Adam’s apple which jiggled up and down when he spoke. He had heavy steel brows and warm, dark, expressive Heatwole eyes. He was an ingenious codger, exceptionally intelligent, innovative, and shrewd. He was an ambitious man, robust by nature, hospitable, family-loving, a friend to all and entertaining to be around; ‘A happy contented man.’

Civil War

When he was seventy-two (1861), the Civil War began between the states. He and his family were deeply affected by the war. Being a peace-loving man. he doctored both Yankee and Rebel. Under the house he had a bed of hay where his grandson hid during the Civil War. Under the front room he kept his meat on hooks, safely hidden from marauding solders. During the war a horse was kept hidden in the basement. Once Polly went below and discovered a Yankee searching for food.  She fixed him a hearty meal before he went on his way.

In her book “By the Grace of God” Nancy Hess describes in much detail the horror and destruction of the war and its devastating impact on the valley.  The Mennonites, a peace-loving  people, refused to take up arms to fight. Though Gabriel was unscarred in body from the war, his old heart was torn asunder by the terrible war that had robbed him of his children and scattered his grandchildren. His house and barn was one of the few not burned.  I quote from “By the Grace of God”, page 130, “In this valley of grief, the war was ugly before the Federal General Sheridan came; but after his coming, the destruction wrought was almost incomprehensible……General P.H. Sheridan set out to burn everything. He already had instructions from Grant to make the Valley untenable for the Rebel Army. He used this excuse along with his wrath to devastate this Valley. In L.J. Heatwole’s scrapbook of recollections, he writes, ‘The morning after the terrible burning started, gray smoke hung over Mole Hill, a stench filled the air.’ Nearly every barn in West Rockingham County was burned, as were numerous houses.

There are two stories told about why Gabriel’s house and barn survived. One account has it that in her seventy-fourth year, Gabriel’s wife (Polly) stood by and dared Sheridan’s men to start a fire. When they lit a flame in the hay on the barn floor, she bravely scraped out the fire, not once, but three times. At least one descendant believes the barn was never set afire because of the medical assistance Doc Gabriel gave the North.”

No longer could he stand on Mole Hill and look out across his beautiful acres. Shortly after the war the lovable, old, white-haired doctor, semi-retired, either sold or divided most of his holdings between his twelve children and their children. On June 18, 1875, at the age of 85, he passed on to his reward.


From his fourth child, Joseph, comes my great-grandmother Molly Grace Coffman and from his seventh child, Jacob S, is the family line of great-grandfather Melvin Jasper Heatwole. It is the union of Melvin and Molly that I wrote my book “The Story of Melvin Jasper Heatwole and Molly Grace Coffman” in 1983.


I can not take credit for any of the information posted in this blog. It is a combination of information from:

  1. “History of the Heatwole Family” by Cornelius J. Heatwole, 1907.
  2. “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, 1982.

Additional blog posts:

A Family Story: Death on the High Seas

A Family Story: Triumph Over Tragedy

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.


A Family Story: Death on the High Seas

(Photo taken from “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess)

When you dig into your family history, you find some fascinating stories about your ancestors. Some are sad and devastating, others are amazing stories of surviving over impossible odds.

One such story is about Johann Matheus (sometimes written Mathias) Hutwohl, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.  My family can trace it’s roots back to 1545 in Morschbach, Germany to Georg Hutwohl.  Johann is the 9th generation down from Georg.

Johann, who often went by his middle name Matheus, was born in 1711 and is known as the first Heatwole  (Hutwohl) immigrant to America.

On February 11, 1744, when he was thirty-three years old, he married Anna Christina nee Heiderich and they were blessed with two daughters, Christine Elizabeth (October 16, 1745) and Anna Susanna (October 17, 1747).  Religious persecution and the Thirty Year War had ravaged Europe making life bleak and difficult.  During the winter of 1748, Matheus and Anna began quietly making plans to give up their German homeland and sail to America in search of religious freedom.  By mid-summer they said goodbye to their families and homeland, went to the port in Bacharach, loaded a few personal belongings onto a ship and set sail down the Rhine River which branched into the Waal River. After docking at Dordrecht in the Netherlands, they traveled a short distance overland to the Dutch seaport of Rotterdam, arriving in late July.  The party of four booked passage on a vessel christened as the “Two Brothers” and began their journey to a new life in America. Leaving Holland,  they first docked in England where the immigrants obtained proper documentation to continue their advancement to North America.

The conditions on the ship were horrible and the food was bad and rationed.  We do not have the details of their voyage but history records that the conditions on the ship and the mistreatment of the passengers is beyond our comprehension. Passengers were so densely packed together that one sick person had to enhale the breath of another. Because of the stench, filth, and lack of food many developed scurvy, yellow fever, dysentery and other infectious diseases.  It was noted that a ship that could hold 400 would be stuffed with 1200.  The captains would ration food under the pretense that they must guard against famine, allowing only half rations of moldy bread and salt meat. The water was often black, thick and full of worms so that even with the greatest of thirst they could not drink it without disgust.  The mortality rate was high. The Hutwohls were ill prepared for the journey. (More of this story is written in “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess, pages 63-66).

Three and a half months later on September 15, 1748, Thomas Arnott, Captain of the ship, docked at Mud Island Fort in sight of Philadelphia, PA. Matheus, a Lutheran, was one of the ninety-six German emigrants to sign the ship’s register. When the plank was lowered, he walked down the plank with a broken heart to the New World, alone. He had buried his wife and two little girls, ages 3 and 1, somewhere at sea.  It was reported that children seldom survived the journey across the rough Atlantic Ocean and no records were kept of those buried at sea or under the age of sixteen.

At the age of thirty-seven, he faced a new life alone in a strange land, an unfamiliar language, and very little personal belongings with a bitter grief. He found his way to the Conestoga Valley in Pennsylvania along with some of his other European friends and German neighbors and apparently was taken in by a kind-hearted family until he could get started on a place of his own.

When he arrived in America he had little money, only a good back and strong arms. He soon found land and began the back-breaking task of clearing the land by ox and axe. After the hard task of clearing the land and building shelter was done, God steered a good woman to him.

Around 1765, at the age of 54, he married a Miss Haas and they had six children: David, Jacob, John, Christian, Mary and Anna.  It is through this family that the Heatwole descendants in America can trace their family lineage.

About eleven years later (around 1776), Matheus died suddenly leaving a widow with six small children. He was trying to get a calf into the stable but the animal refused to cooperate and ran off into the woods. Matheus followed but did not return. He was later found in a sitting position, leaning against a tree, dead.

Times were difficult and because of the dire circumstances, it became necessary for his anguished widow to put the children out among strangers. David, through whom my ancestor line descended, was farmed out to work for Mr. Bear.  David’s story will be posted in another blog.


I can not take credit for any of the information in this post. 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 Patricia H. Hertzler, 1983. The Heatwole Coat of Arms also comes from “By The Grace of God” page 66.

If you want a fascinating read….

I highly recommend the “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess. She vividly and poignantly tells the story of the Mennonites in Germany, the devastation of the wars that ravished Europe.  She tells the story of immigrating to America and the unimaginable deplorable conditions of sailing on a boat to America.  Faith was such an important part of the settlers and that faith is woven into the stories.

Additional blog posts:

A Family Story: Triumph Over Tragedy


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