Book Review: Jacob’s Land: Revolutionary War Soldiers, Schemers, Scoundrels and the Settling of New York’s Frontier by Charles Yaple (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, March 2017)
Jacob’s Land by Charles Yaple is a fascinating, multigenerational narrative history of an immigrant family, their migration into the wilderness, and of the native tribes who populated the land circa 1753-1783. It is a thoroughly researched, richly detailed, balanced, and enchanting story of one of the thousands of mostly poor European families who immigrated, struggled, fought, and built a new nation on the North American Continent. The Yaple family narrative is skillfully woven into a tapestry which includes the major events and historical themes of the era.
On the surface this is the story of Heinrich and Maria Holder Yaple, a young Prussian (German) couple who braved the terrors of a sea voyage seeking the security and prestige of owning their own land, something not possible for ordinary people in Europe at the time. Heinrich was a clockmaker, a farmer, and an optimist who quickly departed Philadelphia with his pregnant bride to find the first of several patches of wild land the family would successfully convert into working properties.
In 1754 with the very good advice of Maria’s brother, a resident of Philadelphia, Heinrich purchased an established farm of one hudnred acres in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, some sixty miles northwest of Philadelphia. The cabin was built, the fields cleared, and the valley soil was fertile and well-watered with streams. Church records confirm that Maria soon filled their home with children (Adam, born 1754, Henry, 1756, and Anna, 1759). Unfortunately, Maria died soon after delivering Anna, a common tragedy among young families at the time. The distraught widower, Heinrich, soon remarried a local widow, Susanna Vesqueau, another common necessity of the times. Life in the wilderness required the teamwork of a family.
Susanna brought to the marriage four young children all under the age of twelve, and within a year she contributed the baby of the family, Jacob, son of Heinrich and Susanna. The Yaple youngsters played and learned from the children of their Native American neighbors. Several of the boys acquired the magnificent Pennsylvania rifles of a nearby gunsmith, Christian Oerter, becoming expert marksmen, hunters, and militiamen. One of the daughters would fall in love with the admirable son of an Esopus Tribal Chief, creating an agonizing family crisis. Being a family story, the lives of the second generation fill the later chapters of the book with tales of further migration, the American Revolution (as both Whig and Tory), and the building of a new nation. The author is a skilled story-teller providing rich details about life in the wilderness, the unimaginable hard work, clearing land, building cabins, barns, and fences, harvesting mountains of fodder and fire wood, and being ever alert to the dangers of starvation, pestilence, and war.
Yaple provides a balanced view of the endless conflicts with the Native people who had been dispossessed of their land and were often humiliated in their dealings with the white man. The family survived the French and Indian Wars (1755-1762) and Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763) but not the peace. Following the Treaty of Paris in 1763 the English government banned all settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains; putting the Yaple property in jeopardy. It was time to move again.
By the middle of the 1770s the Yaples reached another milestone common to immigrant families: they needed more land. The second generation of boys had grown up and they wanted to establish their own farms and families. In 1774 at the advanced age forty-eight, Heinrich moved his family to “Pakatakan” (Margaretville, New York) in the Catskill Mountains. Why there? The Catskills offered dirt, wood, and water: farm land on the fertile valley floors, forests for wood, and streams for powering lumber and grist mills, plus cheap transportation to world markets on the nearby Hudson River.
The Yaples thrived again, until 1778 when the bloody massacres of settlers in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania and the Cherry Valley of New York led to the ghastly retribution by an American Army under General Sullivan. Author Charles Yaple sagely notes, “… as with most wars, the likelihood of cruel behavior increases in direct proportion to the number of battles fought.” In one gripping scene our hero, Heinrich Yaple, is captured by a band of Tories but manages to escape and return to his family.
In 1779 Heinrich migrated again with his wife and three youngest children. This time, possibly in search of a more secure environment, they moved to Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania (modern Pittsburgh) near a permanent American army garrison. The story then shifts focus to the second generation. Among the most interesting of the children is son Jacob Yaple. He would grow up to become a woodsman, hunter, sharpshooter, and veteran of the American Revolution. In 1788 Jacob, two friends, and their families would be among the first to migrate and settle on the rich farmlands at the head of Cayuga Lake (Ithaca, New York). This trio of veterans would ultimately construct successful farms and businesses (water-powered lumber and grist mills). Tragically, they would also be among the many immigrants on the frontier swindled out of their properties by greedy land speculators and government officials.
Do the Yaple’s give up? Never. Jacob Yaple and friends moved south into the forested wilderness along Buttermilk Creek (near Danby, New York) on the trail linking Ithaca with Owego, New York. The Yaples would thrive again. Within a very few pages you will be cheering for these hardy people, and wondering what will happen to them next. And in the process you will be learning a lot of good history.
In his final chapter the author poignantly switches focus again: “… if you could see your ancestors what would you think of them … and what would they think of you?” The author challenges us to consider what history and genealogy has taught us? And, how have we used that knowledge to make a better life for all? Yaple concludes, “ … Maintaining and protecting the land paid for in blood by our ancestors (Native American, black, white, Mexican American, Asian) is important for everyone’s well-being!” Will we continue the hard work of building a just and healthy land of opportunities for all with the same commitment as our ancestors?