The Dietz Family Massacre

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Courtesy of Barry and Terry Schinnerer:

Tales of Old Helderbergh
By Arthur B. Gregg
Signed: Arthur B. Greeg. Mar. 24, 1965

No. 6— "The Dietz Family Massacre"

Some 12 years before the Revolution, a few hardy families arrived in the pleasant, fertile valley watered by the Switz Kill, not far from its junction with the swifter flowing Foxen Kill. They had named the former after their native land, Switzerland; while other settlers from the Palatine districts of Schoharie had named the latter after one of their revered list-masters, William Fox. To the south was the small settlement at Rensselaerville, founded by the Scotch; to the north a still smaller group at the ancient Indian trapping grounds of Beaver Dam. Here also were a grist mill, and a little Dutch Reformed log meeting house and burying ground. Between these two settlements lay the homestead of Johannis Dietz. He, with his wife and small son, had arrived from the Rhineland some 50 years before, joining their fellow Palatines along the rich Schoharie flats. Now in his declining years, the elder Dietz and his wife had made their home with son William in the valley of the Switz Kill.

In 1769, William Dietz had disposed of his extensive acres along the Schoharie and had moved to this more challenging land of rich soil and virgin forests. No easy task had it been to clear the land for a homesite and cultivation. But in a few years the original log cabin had grown to a two-story structure and large addition with extra fireplace. The barns for cattle and crops had also increased in number and size. His family, besides his father and mother, now consisted of his wife, their four children, a Scotch servant girl, and a sturdy neighborhood boy named Bryce.

When the Revolution interrupted their peaceful existence and the time came for all to choose sides, there was no question about the Dietz family's sympathies. But if it was hard to be a patriot at Schoharie, it was doubly so in the Beaver Dam district. On all sides were strong supporters of the Crown. However, William Dietz at once offered his services to the Committee of Safety at Schoharie and was appointed captain of a company recruited on the Helderbergs. His home had been the rendezvous of Captain Jacob Van Aernam and his Normans Kill troops. Together their companies had dispersed a threatening band of Tories at Basic Creek and Onisquathau.

From time to time it had been his task to transport "disaffected persons" to the committee at Albany. Many of them never returned. His enemies among the relatives of those transferred to Connecticut prison camps constantly grew in numbers. Often he discussed his problems with his older brother, Johannis, a lieutenant in the same regiment, quartered at the Lower Fort at Schoharie, who warned him to keep a constant guard against reprisals. As the years passed and no harm developed, his worry over the safety of his family and property lessened. Now he believed the cause of liberty was in the final stage of its long, hard struggle, with victory just beyond the horizon.

The summer of 1781 had been good for man and beast. The Dietz "barracks" were bulging with hay and grain, their cattle fat and their horses sleek. Then in early September a party of 15 Tories and Indians proceeded by a circuitous route south of the Schoharie settlements with the sole intention to capture the patriot leader and des his family. Let us now continue the story as given by that eminent historian, Jeptha Simms of Schoharie, written only 50 years after the event.

"The enemy arrived at Dietz's just before night and surprised and killed all the family, except Capt. Dietz and young John Bryce, then 12 or 14 years old. Robert Bryce, a brother of John, 11 years old, had been sent on horseback that day to the mill at Beaver Dam with grist, in company with several other lads on the same errand. The grain was ground, but as it was nearly sundown they all concluded to tarry with the miller over night, except Bryce, who resolved to return as far as Dietz's, three miles toward home and stay with his brother. He arrived just at twilight near the house, when an Indian sprang from a covert by the roadside and seized his bridle reins. A short time before his arrival the family had been led out of the house to be murdered, agreeable to a savage custom perhaps that their mangled remains may terrify surviving friends; and as the horse with Robert still on him, was led near the house, the lad discovered the disfigured bodies of all the family, except Capt. Dietz and his own brother who were tied to a tree near by.

"The enemy, after plundering the dwelling of such articles as they desired, set it on fire and with the out-buildings it was soon reduced to ashes. Securing the scalps of the eight bleeding victims, or sixty-four dollars worth of American blood in an English market — after placing their plunder on a number of horses belonging to the Dietzs, and that of young Bryce, on which the grist was retained for food — they started forward on their tedious journey to Canada. They traveled about two miles and encamped for the night, distant from the paternal house of the Bryce boys about a mile. Little did their parents dream of the fate and future prospects of their sons. By dawn of day next morning, the journey was resumed. The Indians desired to take the southern route to Niagara, and hoped to gain the sources of the Schoharie without molestation. Tidings of the untimely fate of this family were next day communicated to the Schoharie forts, and a body of troops was dispatched by Col. Peter Vroman in pursuit.

"Lieut. Johannis Dietz, brother of Capt. Dietz, who was sent from the Lower (Old Stone) Fort with a party to bury the dead, met them in a wagon owned by a neighbor. The bodies had been mutilated by hogs and presented a most revolting appearance. They were all deposited in one grave, in a yard attached to a small Reformed Dutch church, then standing not far distant from the place of massacre. Suspecting the route the invaders would take, the Americans proceeded up the river, and towards night on the second day after the massacre, fell in with and fired upon them near the headwaters of the Schoharie. Several of the Indians were wounded, but they all effected their escape with their prisoners. They, however, abandoned their horses and plunder at the outset, which were restored to the surviving relatives of the family. The Indian who claimed ownership to the person of Robert Bryce was badly wounded in one leg by the fire of the Schoharie troops, and being unable to keep up with the party, journeyed with his prisoner and two of his partisans at a much slower pace. On arriving at the Indian settlements in western New York, Robert was initiated into the cruel mysteries of gauntlet- running, which nearly cost his life. He was taken to Nine Mile Landing on Lake Ontario, sold to a Scotch- man, who was the captain of a sloop, for fifteen dollars; was removed to Detroit, from whence he was liberated and returned home after the proclamation of peace, in company with his brother and several hundred prisoners liberated at the same time.

"The treatment of Capt. Dietz and the elder Bryce was more severe than that of Robert. Their party was greatly straitened for food on the way, and for several days lived on wintergreen, birch bark, and pos sibly a few esculent roots and wild berries. On the Susquehanna river near the mouth of the Unadilla, a deer was shot, which providentially saved them from starvation. Their progress at this period was very slow, as they were compelled daily to spend much of their time in hunting food. They journeyed through the Chemung and Genesee valleys, and at villages the prisoners were compelled to endure the running ordeal. Added to the stripes of his foes and the gnawings of hunger, Capt. Dietz suffered the most severe mental agony. He was not only doomed to see the bloodstained scalps of his honored parents, his bosom companion and four lovely children stretched in hoops to tan in the sun, as was the custom, but often to have them slapped in his face by the Indian who bore them, in the most insulting manner.

"George Warner, Cobleskill, who was captured the same season, informed the writer that he saw Capt. Dietz in his confinement at Niagara and conversed with him. The latter appeared heart stricken and in a decline, under which he sunk to the grave not long after. He told Warner where a certain amount of money had been concealed near the dwelling, which Warner claimed was later recovered."

One of the most horrifying incidents in the Revolution, the "Dietz Family Massacre" aroused this entire section in an all-out effort to free itself from the Tory threat and scalping knife. Not for two years, however, would total peace reign in the Helderberg region and the valley of the Switz Kill.

One hundred and fifty-four years later on June 5, 1927, the Tawasentha Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the state of New York dedicated a monument to mark the spot where the members of one entire family gave their lives for upholding the patriot cause and the establishment of all we enjoy today.

Picture Caption

MASSACRE OF THE DIETZ FAMILY - Near Beaver Dam in the present Town of Berne - September 1781. This is the only known view of the event, reproduced from an early painting. The horses, baggage and Indians as grouped above show them mov- ing off from the scene of devastation and murder, while the buildings, a log house and a log barn, are on fire - the flames of which are seen bursting from the windows and doors. On the ground in front of the buildings lie the victims. The two Bryce boys and Captain Dietz are seen in the foreground; also an Indian having the eight scalps of those killed, strung out full length on a pole.