My Thoughts About One of My Favorite Places--Northeastern Indiana's Amish Country

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Shipshewana Walldogs, Part Fourteen: Amish Heritage

One of the sixteen murals painted by the Walldogs in Shipshewana during June 2014 was this one, with the simple message “Amish Heritage.”  It can be seen on the north wall of Spector’s, a fabric store on State Road 5 which is frequented by the Amish.

The mural says that the Amish “first settled in this area 1841.”  Having done a lot of genealogy research for my Amish friends and written about it on mygenealogy blog, I’m familiar with the history of the Amish in this area of Indiana.  But I looked into the subject a little further to be sure I had my facts straight.

Indeed, as the mural says, the Amish first came to Lagrange and Elkhart Counties in the 1840s, mostly from Somerset County, Pennsylvania.  (These were the “Dutch Amish” who had come to Pennsylvania from Europe in the 1700s to escape persecution, and then moved westward into Ohio and then Indiana in the early 1800s.) 

For more details, I turned to the book History of Lagrange County by F.A. Battey & Company, published in 1882.  I liked having history from the viewpoint of those who might have been alive when the first Amish came.  And this book would have been written at a time when the non-Amish were just as “horse and buggy” as the Amish, so the differences would have been more subtle.

The first Amish settlers in the Newbury Township (later Shipshewana) area, according to the book, came to Newbury Township in 1844.  Brothers Daniel and Joseph Miller came on a scouting tour from Somerset County.  They liked it and immediately purchased farms.  Soon they were joined by Christian and Joseph Bontrager.  More German “Dutch Amish” followed, along with some of their brethren from Holmes County, Ohio.  John C. Yoder was another early Amish settler and patriarch.  The book says he was called “the doctor”—“on account of his skill in healing some of the human ills.” 

The book goes on to say that “This branch of the church [the Amish], which is distinguished by a strict observance of all the old customs, has a large membership among the Germans, who now occupy almost the whole of Newbury [Township]...  each district has its Bishop and two ministers.  The Bishop alone can perform the rites of baptism and marriage.”   The book also says this: 

“The peculiar characteristic of the church is a literal observance of every injunction of the Scriptures…  There are no meeting-houses, but they meet in the homes of the members; no written creed is used by the church; the apostolic rite of feet-washing is observed…  But the most obvious characteristic is that no ornament of any kind is tolerated on the person, nor in the way of paint or plaster in the houses, nor any brilliant coloring about the buildings…  As no conformity to the world is allowed, something like a German peasant costume is still used, and as buttons are under the ban, hooks and eyes supply the necessary fastenings…  German is also spoken continually in their home life, and this is another ‘tie’ and distinction from ‘the world.’”

The authors (members of the Lagrange County Historical Society) seemed to have a high respect for their Amish neighbors, as distinctive as they were even in 1882.  They go on to say, “A marked degree of morality pervades these people…  Financially they are prudent, frugal, and successful.”

The Amish thrived in Lagrange and Elkhart Counties, and today their settlement there is the third largest Amish settlement in the United States.  (There are no Amish settlements in Europe in modern times—only North America.)  Their numbers in have risen to over 14,000 in Lagrange County alone, as of the 2010 census—and although they mainly keep to themselves, they are good neighbors, good businessmen, and good citizens, and—for my husband and I—good friends.

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