Retelling the story of the 18th-Century Dietz Family Massacre

— From the Greater Oneonta Historical Society Museum,

The Dietz Massacre was painted by Jacob Dietz, the younger brother of Captain William Dietz, who is shown, at front left, being taken captive by Indians during the Revolutionary War. The massacre took place in Berne on Sept. 1, 1781. The marauders were led by a British soldier, targeting Deitz because he was a local militia captain in strong support of the Revolution, according to Harold Miller who has written two books on the German heritage of Berne and Knox. In 1927, the Tawasentha Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a marker at the massacre site.

To the Editor:

Altamont, New York lies west of Albany in the upper Hudson River Valley at the base of the stately Helderberg escarpment.  Across the summit of the Helderbergs are several small historic townships and hamlets, each with a story to tell.

These are the recorded facts of America’s early settlers who opened fields, plowed ground, fought Indians, and carved out the country we live in today.

On Sunday, June 5, 1927, a monument was unveiled in commemoration of “The Massacre of the Dietz Family” at South Berne.  Several may have seen the monument but few know the significance of its placement.  The following is one of several historical records and pictures saved and left to me by my great aunt, Mary Stein, wife of Edwin Stein, New York State historian and photographer.

“The Deitz Family Massacre”

The Brice family, living in what is now known as Rensselaerville, sent their youngest son, Robert, to the “Beaverdam” gristmill with several other lads on horseback, all bound on the same errand. The boys reached the mill with their sacks of wheat and obtained their grist, but it was late in the day so the boys thought it best to spend the night with the miller.

Robert Brice, however, had an elder brother John, who was working on the farm of Johannes Deitz.  Robert’s plan was to start out for home and stop at the Deitz farm, approximately the halfway point of his journey, and enjoy the evening with his brother.

It was near dusk, the sun setting behind the rugged hills when Robert reached the gate that opened unto the lane leading to the Deitz home.  Suddenly an Indian sprang up from behind a pile of logs near the roadside, seized the bridle of his horse and led the frightened youth directly toward the house.

In passing the barn, the beginning of a dreadful scene came into full view.  Laying prostrate and still in a pool of blood was the body of the elder Mr. Deitz.  Between the barn and house, which were in direct line with each other, were the mutilated bodies of Captain William Deitz’s wife, their son’s wife, four lovely children, and a young servant girl.

Approximately 15 Indians were busy plundering the belongings of the house.  They had made a prisoner of Captain Deitz, the son of the elder Mr. Deitz, together with John Brice, Robert’s older brother, tied to a nearby apple tree.

Having finished their work of blood, they set fire to the house and barn.  Taking the horses, belongings, and prisoners, the Indians started off on a well-known path leading in the direction of Rensselaerville.  They camped that first night of their journey within a mile of the Brice Mansion, where the parents of the two Brice boys at that moment were asleep, unaware of the terrible fate that had befallen their sons.

The next morning, the raiding party with their captives continued their march toward Potter’s Hollow and on to Oak Hill, Middleburgh, Breakabeen, Harpersfield, and so on through the valley of the Susquehanna until they reached their destination at Niagara.

News of the massacre and destruction of the Deitz farm reached the garrison at Schoharie.  The Indians’ route and footpath were well known.  A scouting party was sent out to overtake the raiding party and their captives if possible.

At a point near Middleburgh, the Indians were spotted.  Several Indians were wounded, their horses and plunder abandoned, but the captives were carried off through the cover of night.

Along the route, they were forced to live on roots and berries.  Small game was taken occasionally and at one point a deer saved the party from starvation.

Their suffering was beyond description.  At each Indian village passed along their way, the captives were compelled to “run the gauntlet,” beaten with fists, whips, and clubs.  In addition to the gauntlet, Captain Deitz was forced to endure severe mental agony by looking upon the scalps of his parents, wife, and children.

The rigors of the journey, coupled with the burden of his losses took their toll on his normally strong constitution to a point that he gradually pined away, dying of a broken heart while in captivity.

Robert and the other captives soon learned that sanctuary could be found within the door of the first wigwam or dwelling they could run into.  At some point in their journey, young Robert was separated from the other captives, guarded by three Indians, and left to rest due to a flesh wound he received during the encounter with the Schoharie garrison at Middleburg, his brother and Captain Deitz going on with the rest of the party.

At a place called Nine Mile Landing, on Lake Ontario, the Indians shaved Robert’s head and adorned it with feathers and paint after their own manner, intending to bring the boy up as an Indian.  They brought Robert with them on fishing and hunting parties, intending to indoctrinate him into their mode of living.

After spending several weeks at this camp, Robert traveled with several Indians to Fort Erie where a Scottish Captain of a vessel spotted the young boy and bought him from the Indians for $15.  Now on board ship, Robert sailed through the Great Lakes to Detroit, thinking he was on the ocean.

He remained with the captain until 1783 when, according to the articles of peace after the Revolution, all prisoners were to be sent to the nearest fort of their respective country; from there they might reach their homes.

The captain who bought Robert protested but the British commanding officer managed to procure Robert his freedom.  He was taken to Fort Erie, from there to Fort Niagara where he found his brother.

Together they made their way to Albany where they were met by their father and taken back home to Rensselaerville.  The two Brice boys returned home after an absence of three years.  Robert, the younger brother, advanced in life and died several years after his capture in New Scotland.

The next time you’re in the vicinity of Berne, take some time to seek out the location of the “Deitz Family Massacre” now that you know the story of two pioneer families who endured the pain and hardships it took to survive in a new and savage country we call the United States of America.

John A. Meineker

Summerfield, Florida

Editor’s note: This is among the local legends and lore that John A. Meineker, 73, is recording for his grandsons. He lived on Lark Street in Altamont and is now living in Florida.

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