The Dietz Family Massacre

From Berne, NY - a Helderberg Hilltown
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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

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.