By Tom Knapp
MANHEIM, Pa. | More than 100 descendants of Christian and Adelheide Hershey — nee Hirschi, from Switzerland via Germany — disembarked from two tour buses Friday morning and trudged through a cornfield near Manheim to visit a sacred site.
They gathered at the graves of Michael and Mary, last surviving members of the Conestoga Indian tribe that was wiped out in two unprovoked massacres — one in a village near Millersville, the other while in protective custody at the Lancaster jail on Prince Street — in 1763.
Michael and Mary survived the attacks because they were living on the Hershey farm along Doe Run Road in Penn Township, Craig Stark — a Hershey descendant and family historian — explained.
“They were referred to in family records as the ‘children of the forest,’ ” Stark said. “They were, from the very beginning, peaceful people.”
They built a wigwam on the farm in 1749 and lived there until their deaths, he said.
When Christian Hershey, a reverend in the Mennonite church, learned of the massacres, he hid the couple in his basement for nearly a year to protect them from further violence, Stark said.
“Since that time, the Hershey family felt it was important to remember these people and their horrible fate,” he said. “Because these people, like them, had great respect for nature and all life in it, the Hersheys held the Conestoga people with a certain degree of reverence.”
Members of the Hershey family gathered this week in Lancaster and Dauphin counties to mark 300 years since their ancestors settled in the New World.
Reunion chairman Carl Hershey of Landisville said cousins came from Florida and Texas, Minnesota and Michigan, Wisconsin and the UK.
Activities began Wednesday in the town bearing the name of their most famous forebear, candymaker Milton Hershey.
On Friday, they visited local landmarks that are meaningful to their family, including the mill at 1458 Columbia Ave., the site of the first Mennonite meetinghouse on Abbeyville Road, several 17th- and 18th-century homes near Columbia, Mount Joy and Manheim, former Hershey farms in Lancaster, Lititz, Gordonville and Paradise, and the graves, which are preserved on Kreider Dairy Farm.
Ties between the Kreiders and Hersheys go back at least a century, Stark said.
Sharon Kreider Beiler, who lives there now, said she remembers her grandmother’s stories about the Conestoga Indian couple. As a child, she said, she played in the basement where they hid.
The graves are marked by four stones, overlaid by wooden poles and with four cedar posts surrounding them. A Native American butterfly represents the transition from the physical to spiritual world.
Three tribal representatives — Barry Lee and Barbara Christy, of Phoenixville, and MaryAnn Robins of Willow Street — accepted the plea.
“You are forgiven,” Lee said. “What was done has been done. We can’t change that. But we can move forward from now.”
This is the first time in over 100 years, Stark said, that the Hersheys have made a formal visit to the gravesite.
At a gathering in 1907, he said, Milton Hershey himself honored their memory.
“They really represent the good relationships between the Mennonites and the indigenous peoples” in colonial times, Stark said. “There was a real intimacy, a kinship, that developed between them.”
The Hershey reunion ended Saturday with a series of lectures and discussions at Manor Church, near Mountville, Carl Hershey said.