Struggle for religious freedom in U.S. unfolds in tale of Eckerlins

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Struggle for religious freedom in U.S. unfolds in tale of Eckerlins
A historic marker along the Cheat River recalls the settlement of Dunkards in the mid-1700s.

DUNKARD BOTTOM, W.Va. — The history of West Virginia is filled with stories of religious diversity — of hermits and prophets who escaped the clamor and confines of civilization.

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Beyond the edge of the American frontier, in what would become West Virginia, the mountains west of the Blue Ridge promised both freedom and isolation in a potential Garden of Eden. That promise was not always fulfilled.

Dunkard Bottom on Cheat River

One such story is that of the Eckerlin Brothers, who were , 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, Anabaptists who were among 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 the Dunkard faith in 1789. There seem to be many varied versions. The surname Eckerlin is also spelled "Eckerly" and "Eckarly" in other accounts, and the given names of the brothers included in these records vary as well.

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The Tale of the Eckerlin Brothers

Michael Eckerlin, a councilman of Strasbourg, Germany, left the Roman Catholic church and professed his faith in 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 his children — Israel, Samuel, and Gabriel — were baptized in 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 several others, known as "The Solitary Brethren," moved into a cloister called at Ephrata, Pa., not far from Philadelphia. Brethren men and women held all property in common, and marriage was forbidden.

Onesimus became the prior of Zion, but he caused controversy among the brethren because of his desire to expand the order and construct additional buildings as well as a bell tower at the cloister. His desire was called "vanity" by others.

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After a time, an open conflict developed, and the Eckerlin brothers departed from the group, journeying into the Allegheny Mountains until they reached the 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 Eckerlins 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 ordered 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 returned to the New River, despite the rigors of a hard winter and heavy snow.

Dunkard Creek near Pentress, W.Va.

When native groups in the Ohio Valley made the first land grants, Onesimus requested a leave of the Six Nations of the Iroquois to settle on the but he was told he must apply to the Onondaga council and be recommended by the governor of Pennsylvania.

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Unwilling to return to Philadelphia for the purpose, he applied to Christopher Gist, the land agent of the Ohio Company, and received a tract on the on what is still known as Dunkards Creek.

However, in 1753 or 1754, the brothers moved to Cheat River, a branch of the Monongahela, in what is now Preston County. A friendly member of the Delaware led them to a remote area now known as Dunkard's Bottom, near , where they expected to be safe from the French and hostile Indians. They proposed to build a hermitage, which they proposed to develop into a religious community.

Forests never-seen by Europeans.

The brothers 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.

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Meanwhile, settlers from the began to fear that the brothers were in league with the Indians, and they agitated successfully to prevent the Ecklerlins from acquiring legal title to the land on which they were living.

When the brothers came to the South Branch for supplies, they were arrested, and for a time, Onesimus was held prisoner at Fort Pleasant near , although he was later allowed to return.

The end came in 1758 when Jephune was marched back from the South Branch under armed guard, the settlers having determined to dissolve 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.

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Onesimus and Jotham were taken to Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, where they were sold to the French, though they were reasonably well-treated afterward as their captors respected religious men and monks in particular.

However, France and England were at war, so there was little hope of their return to an English settlement. They were taken to Canada and then to France, where Onesimus became converted to Roman 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.


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