The Story Keeper

by Lisa Harris

Her early life was a fairy tale, and a journey into the land of Moses and the Israelites, and a daily closer walk with all things Jesus. It was a history lesson on the Methodists and John Wesley, a renegade Anglican with some good ideas.

She heard story after story about dairy farms, electricians, the Shopes and Harrises, the Witherites and the Eurways, the Shirks and the Schnables. Each day at school was filled with facts about all things Pennsylvania: William Penn, the Wyoming Valley massacre, the Commonwealth, the coalmines, and the oil in Titusville. Her favorite map was large and hung on the wall above the built in bookcases. Pictures of Pennsylvania’s resources were marked by images of that wealth.  

At the dinner table, she heard about teaching and Mansfield State Teachers’ College where her parents had met, and about Penn State. She learned about the Tannery in Milesburg where the Shirk side of her family had worked, and when she listened, the purple-maroon Alleghenies formed the backdrop in her mind. 

Her days were filled with piano lessons, flute lessons, chores, walks in the woods, bake sales and church dinners, raffles and fall festivals, carnivals and fishing trips with her dad. At night she read books from her mother’s library using a flashlight beneath her covers. 

She belonged to her family, and they belonged to her. Aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents surrounded her. Three graveyards provided resting places for those who had come before her and had already departed.

She lived on top of Snow Shoe Mountain, and she drove twisty, circular Route 144 to go anywhere from there. 

Her mother told her the story of her ancestors, the Highlanders of Calloden, who chose Prince Charles over George II. Thousands of them were slaughtered in battle, but some of her bloodline escaped, fleeing across the Irish Sea and settling in Ireland’s northern counties. If they were not killed there, they were declared outlaws and could be killed at will, their goods seized, and their women molested and raped. 

Times were hard in Ireland—little food or work—and so 85,000 of these Scotch-Irish came to Pennsylvania between 1728-1776. They carried a Bible, a jug of whiskey and an ax, using all three to eventually make a home in Pennsylvania’s wilds.

She learned that Daniel Shirk was among those who arrived in Philadelphia in 1758. He worked at the docks in the city of brotherly love until he had enough money to travel to Centre County, Pennsylvania where his son, Jacob, was born in 1775. Daniel heard the rumors of three men scalped at Pine Creek and two others killed and scalped at the mouth of the Bald Eagle. 

Loyalists to the Crown joined forces in the Wyoming Valley with Native people and drove those who opposed them back south to Philadelphia. Pennsylvania history books call this ‘the Great Runaway.’ 

In that same year, the Wyoming Valley massacre occurred on July 3rd , and news of it caused those settlers at the mouth of Bald Eagle Creek and at the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna, Lenni Lanape for a mile wide and a foot deep, to stampede like horses. Some families made rafts, barely held together by dry sticks and string, to keep afloat. 

The women and children traveled in the boats and canoes, riding on the water, while the men walked in single file along the banks. By 1782 there were no European settlers living along the West Branch of the Susquehanna. 

Her mother pauses and waits for her to think about what she is hearing, and then she begins again.

Jacob Shirk, Daniel’s son, did not return until the land he had been living on was purchased for a fair price from the Lenni Lenape, around 1784, as recorded at the Land Office. From then on, he is listed as a resident and taxpayer in the hamlet of Pine Creek. He built a house and worked the land. Nine years later, in 1793, his son, Joseph Shirk was born there.

He built a tan-yard in Boggs Township along Bald Eagle Creek in 1815, and then rebuilt it some thirty years later at the confluence of Bald Eagle Creek and Spring Creek—taking pride in the quality of the leather he produced. When Joseph Junior took over the business in 1868, the tannery handled 500 hides a year, and they called their product Union Leather.

He became the father of Joseph Shirk, Junior, who married Betsy, and they had a daughter, Eliza, one of their 13 children.  Eliza, who lived to 91, bore her daughter Betsy at age 52. 

Eliza’s daughter, Betsy and her husband, Joseph were the parents of Margery who married John Wesley Shop, an ironworker at the Curtin Furnaces. They lived in Milesburg until 1875. Margery was the great-grandmother of the young woman who lived in the small house in coastal Georgia, the girl who visited their graves near Moshannon to plant red geraniums to show her love.

She carries this bloodline, and the stories she hears make her dream of deep forests, fast running creeks, and the wilderness. She imagines men in British uniforms, early Americans in homespun, and the Lenni Lenape wearing leather leggings and loincloths.

Few of the Lenni Lenape people remain in Pennsylvania, but their language lives on in the names of places—Pakihmomin, where the cranberries grow, Tumanaraming, where the wolf walks, Moyamensing, the place of judgment, Tulpehocken,land of the turtles and the Susquehanna River. She learns other words that name what people do: elogamgussit, the messenger, anatschiton, one who cares, and kittlelandamwagan, the earnest one. She knows she is kittlelandamwagan.

Her mother pauses in her storytelling. She can see that her daughter is daydreaming in Lenni Lenape language. She watches as her daughter whispers the ancient words.

Her mother waits for her daughter to return. 

Are you ready? The mother asks.

The girl knows it is her job to listen, to learn, to be able to repeat the stories. It is also her job to attend to the graves of those who have passed over. 


“The Story Keeper” is an excerpt from Harris’ memoir-in-progress, Imagine Castles.

Category: Memoir, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing