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The Heinrich Zeller House (commonly known as Fort Zeller or Zeller’s Fort) was built in 1745 by Heinrich Zeller (Henri Sellaire). The historic one-and-a-half-story structure is located west of Newmanstown, off of Pennsylvania Route 419 in Millcreek Township.

Fort Zeller – southeast front view. (Randy Jaye)
Fort Zeller – west view. (Randy Jaye)

Fort Zeller is considered to be one of the most important examples of original Pennsylvania German traditional architecture surviving in the United States. This architectural style reflects a distinctly medieval form with strong cultural traditions of Pennsylvania’s early European settlers from the German-speaking areas of Europe.

Fort Zeller was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, a Pennsylvania Historical Marker was installed nearby, and the Fort Zeller Memorial (a large boulder with a silver plaque displaying a recreation of the Zeller’s original land deed) was placed at the property’s entrance.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker – Fort Zeller. (Public domain)
Fort Zeller Memorial plaque. (Randy Jaye)

Yet with all of this notoriety and national prominence, few locals seem to have visited the historical treasure.

A journey from Europe to Pennsylvania

Members of the Zeller family were Huguenots (French Protestants) who were persecuted and expelled from France by its Catholic government in the 17th century. They fled to Great Britain prior to immigrating to British Colonial America in 1710. The family’s father, Jaques, died before they arrived. However, their mother, Lady Clothilde de Valois Sellaire, and her two sons, Jean and Jean Henri, settled in the New York Colony.

In 1723, about 19 families, including the Zeller family, were convinced by promises made by an emissary of its governor to resettle in the Pennsylvania Colony. These families moved from the New York Colony’s Schoharie Valley to the Pennsylvania Colony.

Illustration of the Zeller Blockhouse – circa 1895. (Frontier Forts of Pennsylvania by Clarence M. Busch)

The Zeller family settled in the Tulpehocken Settlement near an old Indian trail that connected the Susquehanna region to the Schuylkill Valley (now part of a highway system). Their chosen land included a freshwater spring with an abundance of black walnut trees believed to be an indicator of deep soil and fertility.

The vast majority of early European settlers in the Tulpehocken Settlement were of German origin, so they changed their family name from Sellaire to Zeller, and adopted the German language and culture.

Native Americans and the Zeller Family

In 1723, the Zeller family built their first home in the Tulpehocken Settlement — a log cabin — near the freshwater spring.

Fort Zeller – canal and creek. (Randy Jaye)

The family assumed ownership of the surrounding 500 acres in 1731 when a land deed was signed by “Alumoppes, King of the Schuylkill Indians, as well as the family chiefs of the Oneidas, who were Skekelamy and Pisquetomen, vicegerents [rulers] of the Six Nations [Iroquois Confederacy].”

European settlers in this part of the Pennsylvania Colony during the early to mid-18th century were mindful of potential Indian raids. Heinrich Zeller served with Conrad Weiser (the German immigrant, pioneer, and agent of the government) when he organized a company of over 300 men, who marched armed with flintlock muskets, swords, axes and pitchforks towards the Susquehanna River driving Indians out of the general area.

Construction of Fort Zeller

In 1745, the original log cabin was replaced by Fort Zeller, a larger fortified stone structure, which was built into a bank directly over the freshwater spring. Fort Zeller served the nearby community as a meeting place and held many religious services. The Zeller family also helped to build the first church in the area.

The exterior of the stone structure was practically fireproof and was capable of providing protection against Indian attacks. It included limestone outer walls over 12 inches thick covered in stucco, heavy timbers, small 12- by 6-inch narrow windows with locking shutters, an iron door latch on the front door, and a steep gable roof covered with handmade beaver tail-shaped red clay tiles. The wood front door is in two sections, upper and lower, and is constructed of chamfered boards attached by wooden pegs and stands five-and-a-half feet tall.

The family crest is carved in stone above the front door jamb and the cornerstone includes the hand-chiseled words and date: Henrich Zeler [sic], 1745, SWH.

Fort Zeller’s 1745 cornerstone. (Randy Jaye)
Zeller family crest on top of the front doorjamb of Fort Zeller. (Randy Jaye)

The first floor of the interior included a staircase leading to the upper loft, kitchen, living room, storage room, and a centrally located 12-foot-long Queen Anne fireplace used for heating and cooking. A trap door on the floor of the living room led to the basement, which was half underground and had a constant water source that provided a cool area to store food. The upper loft was used as a bedroom. The interior walls were finished with plaster.

Around 1850, several of the windows were enlarged to allow more light into the structure as it was used as a weaver’s shop. Over the decades, several other upgrades were made, including steel support beams, a tin roof added with four window dormers, electricity installed throughout the structure, and the water flow from the basement spring was rerouted to prevent structural deterioration.

Legend of Christine Zeller

A sensational story associated with Christine Zeller, known as the “young countess” and wife of Heinrich Zeller, claims she single-handedly killed several marauding Indians at Fort Zeller.

Legend has it that Christine was home alone when she spotted several natives sneaking up the creek towards Fort Zeller. She hid in the basement and waited for them to attempt to enter the structure.

Armed with a broad ax, she decapitated the first Indian that put his head through the canal opening and dragged his body into the basement. She then disguised her voice and coerced the other Indians into Fort Zeller, where she decapitated them one after the other.

Accounts differ as to the number of Indians she killed — some say three, and others say six or seven. When Heinrich returned home, she bragged of her brutal achievements and, afterward, they buried the Indians in a nearby creek bed.

Is Fort Zeller really a fort?

In the early to mid-1700s, many homes in the central part of colonial Pennsylvania were built from logs. During this time, native tribes including the Iroquois and Leni Lenape were being uprooted from their native lands and moving west, engaging in some skirmishes with European settlers. The French and Indian War (1754–1763) also stirred local fears that its fighting might extend into the area.

Log homes provided little to no protection, so the few well-built stone homes in the area were often prepared to serve as frontier forts that could shelter neighbors and defend against Indian attacks. The Heinrich Zeller House has had the moniker of “Fort Zeller” for more than two centuries.

Fort Zeller – north view from the farmhouse porch. (Randy Jaye)

There is an ongoing debate as to whether well-built 18th-century private stone houses, such as Light’s Fort (1742) in Lebanon, the Isaac Meier Homestead (1750) in Myerstown, and Fort Zeller, which all served as community shelters and defensive strongholds, should or should not be called forts. Some believe that only structures built by the military or militia forces specifically for defensive or strategic purposes should be referred to as a fort. Others believe that any private or public structure that was reinforced enough to be used as a community shelter and for defensive purposes can also be referred to as a fort.

Some historians refer to 18th-century private fortified stone houses as a “place of refuge” or a “stockaded farmstead.”

Today’s usage and private tours

Today, Fort Zeller is a living history museum, considered the oldest structure of its type in Pennsylvania, and is used as the location for Zeller family reunions. According to the current owners, the Hoffman family, private tours can be arranged by request through their website.

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Randy Jaye

Randy Jaye is an historian and Lebanon, PA native. He has recently researched and nominated four properties that have been successfully added onto the National Register of Historic Places. He is the author of three recent history books, and writes articles for historical journals, local newspapers, magazines,...