Within shouting distance of the rollercoasters and thrill rides of Hersheypark we discovered a historic log cabin, the oldest in southeast Pennsylvania. Built from hand-hewn logs in 1732, the same year George Washington was born, the Derry Church Session House saw much of the history of pioneer days in the Keystone State.
Local records say that Presbyterians were meeting here for worship in 1724. Church services would be a three-hour sermon in the morning, then they would break for a meal, and then services resumed for another two or three hours. The first pastor, Reverend William Bertram, was installed in 1732. He was paid $500 a year, part in cash and the balance in bacon, corn, hemp, and linen.
The land upon which the Session House and the present Derry Presbyterian Church stand was deeded to the congregation by John, Thomas, and Richard Penn, sons of William Penn, in 1741.
The Reverend John Elder was pastor of Derry Church from 1746 to 1791. He was the famous “Fighting Parson” who kept a rifle beside him at the pulpit and was active in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars.
More than once hostile Indians surrounded the little cabin, waiting to ambush any unwary worshipper who ventured outside. Usually, seeing the great number of rifles the men of the congregation carried, they faded back into the forest to wait for easier targets. Many pioneer men were killed by the Indians as they plowed their fields, and people frequently disappeared, either taken captive and carried away, or slain and their bodies never found. In 1757, they did attack just as services were breaking up, killing two or three people before return fire drove them away.
The Quaker governors of the colony advocated a peaceful policy and were against fighting the Indians who frequently raided the area. Finally, frustrated with the lack of support from the governing body, Reverend Elder recruited two companies of Rangers from the congregations of Derry and Paxton churches. They came to be known as the Paxton Boys and patrolled the countryside, swiftly punishing any Indians caught lurking nearby.
Things got out of hand on December 14, 1763, when the Rangers attacked a village of friendly Conestoga Indians. Many of the Conestoga had converted to Christianity and had lived peacefully with their white neighbors for years. Reverend Elder tried to stop the attack, even blocking the Rangers’ way atop his horse, but their blood lust was fueled by decades of attacks and raids by other tribes, and they ignored his orders to stand down. In what became known as the Conestoga Massacre, they descended on the village, killing and mutilating every Indian they found, including women and children.
Sixteen surviving Conestoga fled to Lancaster and begged governor John Penn to protect them. With nowhere else to put them, they were housed in the local jail and warrants were issued for a number of the Paxton Boys, charging them with murder.
Undaunted by the warrants, on December 27, 1763, the Rangers broke into the jail and slaughtered six Conestoga adults and eight children. Even hardened veterans of the Indian wars were sickened by what they saw in the aftermath of the grisly murders.
Throughout the frontier, colonists were outraged by the attacks on the innocent Conestoga, declaring that the killings by the Paxton Boys were more savage than any of those ever committed by Indians. The governor offered a second reward of $600 for the capture of anyone involved in the atrocity. The attackers were never identified.
Over the years, the log cabin at Derry Church has served many purposes. The first school ever to be held in this part of what was then frontier America was held in the cabin. The Presbyterian minister who taught the classes placed emphasis on reading because the pioneers considered it essential that everybody knew how to read the Bible. Many of the boys who were educated here went on to fight the British in the American Revolution and become leaders of the new nation.
Church services, Sunday School, and other gatherings were held here. For a time, it was the post office of Derry Church, the village which later became Hershey. One door still has a letter slot.
Milton S. Hershey, the founder of the Hershey Chocolate empire, erected the glass enclosure that protects the Session House for the church in 1929. Visitors can look through the glass and see how well preserved the old cabin is.
The adjacent Derry Cemetery holds over 200 pioneer graves, including at least 40 Revolutionary War soldiers and another 27 of Reverend Elder’s Rangers. The oldest grave in the cemetery is that of John Campbell, who died in 1735. There are also an unknown number of Indians buried in the northeast corner of the cemetery. Local history says that they were buried three and four deep so that the rest of their tribe would not know how many there actually were.
Things are a lot more peaceful in Pennsylvania these days, and visitors to the area can stop by the Derry Church at 248 E. Derry Road in Hershey and see the old Session House, and walk through the little cemetery to pay their respects to the pioneers who lived hard lives full of work and peril to settle the frontier.
Thought For The Day – Yesterday is not ours to recover. But tomorrow is ours to win or lose.