The Light in the Forest

Historical context

While The Light in the Forest is historical fiction, it is based on several historical persons, places, situations and events. The Tuscarawas River, where True Son’s Lenape village was located, runs through northeastern Ohio. It meets the Walhonding River to form the Muskingum River near Coshocton. (“The Forks of the Muskingum” are mentioned frequently in the novel.) The Muskingum in turn meets the Ohio River near Marietta, Ohio. Fort Pitt, later developed as Pittsburgh, stood at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. A British post, it replaced the French Fort Duquesne in 1758 during the French and Indian War, which the British won in 1763.

Harris’ Ferry was located in the area where True Son and his party crossed the Susquehanna. The city of Harrisburg developed at this site. Fort Hunter is now operated as a period museum north of the city. At one point, a Black slave tells True Son and Gordie about Kittatinny, Second, and Stony (or Short) mountains. These are modelled after Blue, Second and Third mountains north of present-day Harrisburg. The narrative provides an accurate description of the craggy crest of Third Mountain.

The Lenape place name, Peshtank or Paxton, is referred to in Dauphin County’s Upper, Middle, and Lower Paxton townships, as well as the borough of Paxtang. However, the “Paxton Township” referred to in the novel once included all but the southernmost portion of present-day Dauphin County, as well as part of present-day Lebanon County. When the narrative refers to “the two townships,” the second is likely meant to be Derry, south of Paxton.

John Elder (1706–1792), known as "the Fighting Parson," became the pastor of Paxton Presbyterian Church, located in present-day Paxtang, in 1738. The church was founded in 1732. The present structure, built in 1740, is the oldest Presbyterian church still in use in Pennsylvania. It had been built by the time of the events portrayed in The Light in the Forest. Elder’s Protestant Scots-Irish family was from County Antrim, Ireland, and he was a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. John followed his father Robert to North America in about 1735. The novel mentions Elder as being pastor of the “Derry Church.” While the unincorporated town of Hershey, in Derry Township, was previously known as Derry Church, Elder’s pastorate at the church in Paxtang is unquestioned.

Elder also a leader of the Paxton Boys, a vigilante frontier group formed to protect White settlers from Indian attack. The Paxton Boys are perhaps best known for having massacred a group of Conestoga Indians who had been placed in protective custody in a jail in Lancaster. The massacre was carried out as vengeance for an attack on White settlers by an entirely different group of Indians.

Henry Bouquet (1719–1765) was a prominent British Army officer in the French and Indian War and Pontiac's War. In autumn 1764, following the French and Indian War, he became commander of Fort Pitt. In October of that year, his army reached the Tuscarawas, the site of True Son’s fictional village. Representatives of several Native groups came to him to sue for peace. The return of White captives described in The Light in the Forest was a traumatic experience for many, especially for those who had been adopted and assimilated when young. They knew no other families and way of life other than those of the Lenape. Many such former captives eventually returned to their Indian families, and many others were never exchanged at all. However, Bouquet returned approximately 200 former captives to European-American settlements in the East. Bouquet died suddenly, shortly after the events depicted in the novel.

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