R. Greg Lau’s new book “The Young Wagoner: Surviving Braddock’s Defeat 1755” weaves together family memories, historical events and fictional encounters to tell the story of his ancestor, Jost Herbach.
At age 14, Herbach left his Pennsylvania Dutch home in York to serve as a wagoner, an experience that culminated at the French and Indian War’s Battle of the Monongahela – about 10 miles east of Pittsburgh – on July 9, 1755.
That knowledge was passed down through the family in the writings of Henry Lee Fisher, Lau’s great-grandfather.
“In there, he mentioned his grandfather, how much he admired him and what a joy it was when he would come to visit,” Lau said. “They’d all have his special mush and milk, and they would hear his stories. But he didn’t tell the story. He just said he was 14 years old and survived Braddock’s defeat. So I know he was there. I know he survived.”
Lau, a retired history teacher who lives in Bedford County, then did his research and writing.
He also incorporated historical figures, including George Washington, Daniel Boone and Dan Morgan. They participated in the battle that was a defeat for the forces of Great Britain and British America, led by Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock, who died from wounds sustained during the fight. Their encounters with Herbach are fictional.
“I did tons of research on Braddock, the Battle of the Monongahela,” Lau said. “Of the 150 wagons that they originally had, none of them returned. They were all devastated. So I have him – in the end – losing his wagon. A good bit of the book is the fiction part, although George Washington was there, Daniel Boone was there, Dan Morgan was there. The Indian chief Monacatootha was a real Indian guide for Braddock. So all those people are real, and I just have my character somehow meeting up with all of them.”
The story is told from the perspective of Herbach, as an 87-year-old, looking back on his experiences from the time he set out from York until he returned home. The first chapter begins in the chaos of battle with Herbach asking himself, “What am I doing here? Will I survive? Will any British survive? Dear God, help me! What should I do?”
“I have Jost writing his story down because Henry Lee Fisher liked to hear the story, and so he was motivated to do this writing by his grandson,” Lau said. “And that’s actually true. It’s true that the grandson admired him and loved to hear his stories.”
Lau’s research also included visiting historic sites in western Pennsylvania connected to the French and Indian War.
“To me, it was exciting to do that,” Lau said. “You never learn enough. I thought I was pretty well informed. But when I started doing research I just found all kinds of things that I thought were interesting, and I never heard before, tried to incorporate into the book.”