Strange tale of Eckerlin Brothers and struggle for religious freedom in W.Va.

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The Eckerlins would have entered into vast forests never before seen by Europeans.

West Virginia’s history is filled with stories of religious diversity and of hermits and holy men who escaped the clamor and confines of civilization. Beyond the edge of the American frontier, its sheltered valleys promised both freedom and isolation in a potential Garden of Eden. That promise was not always fulfilled.

Eckerlin Brothers Settlement at Dunkard Bottom
Dunkard Bottom on Cheat River

One such story is that of the Eckerlin Brothers, who were Dunkards, a branch of Anabaptists, as are the Amish and Mennonites. The Dunkards were known for fully immersing, or dunking, their baptized. Dunkard Creek, in Monongalia County, and Dunkard Bottom, in Preston County, are both named for the Eckerlins, who were the first Europeans believed to have settled in the vast wilderness west of the Allegheny Mountains.

The following version of this history is recounted in the “Chronicum Ephratense,” written by a monk of that faith in 1789, according to a citation in the West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, pages 1420-1421. There seem to be many varied versions of the tale. The surname Eckerlin is also spelled Eckerly and Eckarly in other accounts, and the given names of the brothers vary as well.

Michael Eckerlin, a councilman of Strasbourg, Germany, left the Roman Catholic church and professed his faith of the German Baptists, or Anabaptists, also known as the Dunkards. After his death, his wife and four sons emigrated to America, reaching Philadelphia around 1725. Three of the children — Israel, Samuel, and Gabriel — were baptized into a Dunkard church, which later became a monastic community, and took as their names Onesimus, Jephune, and Jotham (or Jonathan) sometime between 1728 and 1732.

In the latter years the brothers and a number of others, known as The Solitary Brethren, moved into a cloister called Zion at Ephrata, Pa.  The Brethren, both men and women, held all property in common, and marriage was forbidden.

Onesimus became the prior of Zion, but as such he caused controversy among the brethren because of his desire to expand the order and construct additional buildings and a bell tower at the cloister, a desire which was called “vanity” by the others. After a time an open conflict developed, and the Eckerlin brothers departed from the group, journeying into the Allegheny Mountains until they reached the New River [near present day Pulaski, Va.], where they built huts at a place they called “Mahanaim.”

Thus the Eckerlins were among the first, if not the first, settlers west of the Alleghenies. Others joined them briefly but later returned to Ephrata or to the secular communities from which they had come, reporting that the Indians made life in the wilderness untenable, but the Eckerlin brothers stayed on.

The brothers had varying occupations. Jephune attended to the border people as a physician. Onesimus spent most of his time writing. And Jotham, for a while, did all the hunting until he was order to stop by Onesimus, who believed that such activity was unseemly for a monk. In 1750 Onesimus and Jotham returned to Ephrata for a visit but soon came back to the New River, despite the rigors of a bad winter and heavy snow.

Dunkard Creek near Pentress, W.Va.

When the first land grants were made by Indians in the Ohio Valley, Onesimus requested leave of the Six Nations to settle on the Youghioghany River but was told he must apply to the Onondaga council and be recommended by the governor of Pennsylvania. Unwilling to return to Philadelphia for that purpose, the brother applied to Christopher Gist, land agent of the Ohio Company, and received a tract on the Monongahela on what is still known as Dunkards Creek.

In 1753 or 1754 the brothers moved to Cheat River in what is now Preston County, led by friendly Delaware to a remote area now known as Dunkard’s Bottom [near Kingwood] where they expected to be safe from the French and hostile Indians. Here they proposed to build their hermitage, which they proposed to develop into a religious community.

They raised horses and cleared the land, and there is even a tradition that they were planning to develop a gold and silver mine. But their solitude was short-lived. A band of Iroquois raided the settlement and took everything, including the carpets and the clothes the brothers wore on their backs.

Meanwhile, the settlers of the South Branch Valley began to fear that the brothers were in league with the Indians and agitated successfully to prevent the Ecklerlins from getting legal title to the land on which they were living. When the brothers came to the valley for supplies, they were arrested, and for a time Onesimus was held prisoner in one of their forts [Fort Pleasant near Moorefield], although he was later allowed to return.

But the end came in 1758 when Jephune was marched back from the South Branch under armed guard, the settlers having determined to dissolved the hermitage and escort the brothers back east. As they approached the settlement, Jephune and his escort saw it attacked by Mohawk under the command of a French officer. Onesimus and Jotham were taken prisoner, the monastery was set on fire, and Jephune returned to civilization with his guards.

Onesimus and Jotham were taken to Fort DuQuesne (now Pittsburgh) where they were sold to the French and were reasonably well-treated afterwards as their captors respected religious men and monks in particular. However, France and England were at war, so there was no hope of their return to any English settlement. They were taken to Canada and then to France where Onesumus became converted to Catholicism and became a monk known as “Le Bon Chretien.”

Both brothers died soon afterward. Jephune, according to tradition, spent his last days in Easton, Pa., among the Dunkards there.