Catrina Bierlin (1687-1707): A First Settler
By L. C. Engle
This article by Bill Theriault first appeared in the “Spirit of Jefferson," January 28, 1988. We thank Bill for preserving so much history and for letting us print this article and his writings about Julia Davis. - ED
Bill Theriault writes:
Throw another log on the fire and pull up a chair. I’m going to tell you a tale that goes back to the first settlers of this area, or maybe earlier. A story told by old men to children and passed on by them to their grandchildren. It’s a mixture of fact and fiction, of murder and unsolved mysteries that spans two centuries. Be patient. It’s going to take a couple of evenings to hear the whole story. When you’ve heard it all, I’ll let you be the judge of what really happened.
The main character in the story was born 300 years ago in Germany, and she died in what is now Jefferson County in 1707. Or was it 1757? The lady was Catrina Bierlin, and her identity and the circumstances surrounding her death are part of the mystery. I found one version of her story among the papers of L. C. Engle (1866-1942) that had been preserved by his granddaughter, Donna Kidwiler of Engle, West Virginia. Mr. Engle noted that the “tradition” has been passed down to him by his father and other contemporary relatives. What follows is taken directly from Mr. Engle’s version. Remember that people in the old days were more creative (and less consistent) about how they spelled their names. Names like Catrina, Catherine, or Cattana and Bierlin, Beyerle, or Biern may all refer to the same person. That’s for you to figure out. Here’s Mr. Engle’s story:
“In the fall of 1704 hunting parties came down into Elk Branch Creek and camped near the head spring a few hundred yards of which is now Shenandoah Junction. There were vast herds of deer, elk and a lot of other game. So in April 1707, Jacob Engle (the Pastor), John Miller, Daniel Miller, John Biern (Bains), Gist, Longbrake, and Hagley decided they would move their families down as it was early in the spring.
“They started about the first week in April, under the protests of Indian chiefs, who held a council and decided to ask the Lieutenant Governor to stop them. The Chiefs were named Harry, Shawgdooning, Pemoghheuach-sham, Passyussay, Senequees, Connondagtah, and Captain Civility. But the Lieutenant Governor was in New York to confer about having all Immigrants registered at any English port before they left for their new homes, and by the time he returned, Jacob and friends were across the Potomac River and ready to build their lean-to cabins and fort.
“The fort was built in sections of unhewn logs; most of the trees in this vast forest were under one foot in diameter, and they proceeded very rapidly with their work. In the meantime two men with plows made of a forked tree on which they fastened handles and bolted a bull tongue or shovel plowed the fields or gardens on each side of the Elk Branch Creek from the fort at J. R. Osbourn Spring to the Springs near Duffields and (it) must have been 15 to 20 acres in extent. The red top grass was dry, and was tall enough to tie over a horse’s back, so they had to burn it off before they could start the plowing. The sod was so heavy and thick that one team followed the other to cut through the heavy sod. The women and children carried it off to the side of the creek and the garden, and then they plowed the land and planted seeds they had brought with them for corn and other vegetables. The fort was finished, had over shoot (water wheel-ED), and was one story high and had four fireplaces of stone with chimneys of stone and cord wood plastered with clay.
“They also built a number of cabins in the nearby section and one at Engle where John Miller lived while he and others were working building a mill and dam. The black loam soil produced a large crop which was stored in the fort which had the stockade built down around the spring.
“It had been the custom to detail two men or boys to go hunting for meat or two scouts to be on the lookout for Indians. So about the 1st of November, 1707, the scouts located more than 100 Shawnee Indians camped at Indian Spring on the land of Mr. Connor about two and a half miles south of Shepherdstown. It is close to the pike. So they hastened back to gather all into the fort. Several men with horses went to get John Miller at Engle, but he being a hard-headed German refused to come to the fort.
“Everything was made ready for the siege; the stave tanks in the fort were filled with water, wood was carried into the fort, and guns, axes, and all kinds of weapons laid handy. By the time the Indians arrived the next morning the women had a number of pots of boiling water on the fires. Jacob Engle, the preacher and leader, having lived among the Indians for twenty years, understood their language. They gathered around the fort and the Chief told them to leave as that was his hunting ground.
“A historian states that the whole of the Shenandoah Valley was at one time owned by the Shawnee Indians, but they had abandoned it and moved to the western part of the state where there was more game.
“So, they talked with the Indians and offered to give them food for peaceable possession of a tract of land. The leaders being suspicious of the Indians told all in German to be on guard. So all the Indians at once let out a blood curdling war whoop and attempted to scale the fort. The Indians had the muzzles of the guns thrust against them and fired; so many dead Indians. Axes and all weapons were in action and so with the women and girls throwing boiling water and hot ashes on the savage warriors, the attack was beaten off. The Chief rallied his warriors with blood curdling war whoops time and time again, only to have the assaults beaten off, and leaving a number of dead Indians around the fort. This continued until the night of the sixth day and they were out of water, the Indians having burned a hole in the stockade to the spring.
“One young man, son of Jacob Engle, said he could fight no longer without water, laid down his gun and with two buckets started for the door of the fort; his sweetheart Cattana Biern (Burns) ran to the door and threw her arms around his neck and begged him to let her go to the spring as they needed him to defend the fort. She went to the spring so quickly and back, she kicked on the door with her foot and an Indian ran around the corner of the fort and shot her in the back with a poisoned arrow. She held on to the buckets of water until she got in the door. This gave them a drink of water and revived them.
“Cattana died in an hour. The lye poultice that they had applied to others wounded with poisoned arrows failed to do her any good as the arrow had gone almost through her. As was their custom they held a prayer meeting twice a day, morning and night, and when they were singing the songs in German the Indians would listen. They did not understand how they could sing under the circumstances of a siege. The people in the fort thought the Indian Chief must have been killed or badly wounded for they missed his war whoops on the fifth day. All the lead being shot away, they melted their pewter spoons and then put large gravel in their guns in place of bullets, and on the evening of the sixth day of the siege they had only two loads of powder for each gun. One man suggested they kill all the women and children rather than let them fall into the hands of the savages. The women held a council and asked to fight until death with the men and never surrender.
“On the morning of the seventh day while they were holding their prayer meeting seven shots were heard in the wilderness to the south near Flowing Spring. The wilderness was said to be so thick a man could not penetrate to hunt, and herds of deer would gather on the South side at night where it was warm in Fall. Seven hunters had come up from Baltimore in this section, and just scared up the deer and fired on them, not knowing the fort or Indians were nearby. The Indians were scared and disheartened and when they heard these shots, they beat a hasty retreat leaving between forty and fifty dead around the fort.
“After the Indians left two men volunteered to follow them to see if it was a ruse; but the Indians went on north; and two men went to the south to see who was doing the shooting and they came in contact with the seven men near Flowing Spring and invited them to come with them to the fort. They found forty or more Indians dead around the fort, but they could not find the Chief whom they supposed was killed on the fifth day of the siege.
“The Indians were buried in a ditch to the northwest of the fort. Cattana Biern was buried in the Engle graveyard about three hundred yards to the southwest. A party was formed to go to Engle to look for John Miller; they found his cabin burned; his crisp remains were near the door with the barrel of his trusty rifle, his wife with the axe by her remains and two children nearby. Their remains were buried by the side of Cattana. They sent to Philadelphia and secured a sand (stone) tomb to mark her heroic grave. In 1900 this tombstone was taken to Charleston and a marble one put in its place.”
According to the tradition recorded by L. C. Engle, Catrina Bierlin died in 1707, and her family went to Philadelphia shortly after her death and brought back a sandstone marker for her grave.
The stone placed over her grave included her name, an inscription in German, and the years of her birth and death. Over the centuries, the sandstone deteriorated until the date of the lady’s death was no longer completely legible. Her date of birth (1687) is still clearly visible on the stone, but part of the third number in the date of her death has been obliterated. It is either a zero or a five, making the date either 1707 or 1757.
So what’s the big deal? Well, if the date of the lady’s death is 1707 then the fort described by L. C. Engle could be one of the earliest settlements in West Virginia. On the other hand, if the date on the stone was 1757 then the lady died at the age of 70 and cannot be the girl described by L. C. Engle. Some people who favor the 1757 date argue that she is really the mother of Melchior Engle, who settled here in 1751. Of course, if the lady really died in 1707, then she can’t be Melchior Engle’s mother. Danske Dandridge, in her history of Shepherdstown, mentions that the dates on Catrina Bierlin’s tombstone were clearly visible to several persons who visited the grave in the late 19th century. These people, she says, stated that the date of death on the stone was 1707. (The original testimonials are on file in the West Virginia State Archives.) She also notes that the stone began to deteriorate rapidly after it was cleaned.
Who do you think the lady beneath the new marble stone is? The young lady who was killed by Indians or the mother of Melchior Engle?