The following captivity narrative was related by Robert Brice and includes an account of the September 1781 “Dietz Massacre” that took place a few miles south of the Village of Berne, Albany County, NY. This story was taken down from Robert Brice when he was still living by Josiah Priest and published in his Stories of the Revolution in 1836 as “The Captive Boys of Rensselaerville – John and Robert Brice.” This version has been lightly edited for easier reading, but has retained much of the tone and style, including the use of disparaging terms to refer to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people who took part in these events. Additional details and background about this event can be found here. New York Almanack is presenting this story to illustrate historical attitudes about these events from a victim’s perspective.
The Brices had migrated from their native country of Scotland in the year 1774 and settled in a new place, southwest of the city of Albany. At this place, a few families had chosen a residence, which was then called Van Rensselaer’s Patent, but now Rensselaerville. Here the newcomers erected a few log houses.
The war of the Revolution raged for about four years, when reports of the depredations of marauding parties of Tories and Indians, in and about Old Schoharie, threw the defenseless inhabitants into fear.
At a distance of some eight or nine miles from the home of the Brice’s is a place called the Beaver Dam where the inhabitants resorted to get their grinding done.
Between the little neighborhood of the Brice’s and the Beaver Dam, was a deep woods of about six miles distance. The first house before the woods was that of Johannas Deitz where John Brice, the eldest of the two Brice boys, was at work helping Deitz thresh out the wheat. The Deitz family consisted of eight persons, the old man and his wife, his son and his son’s wife and their four children, who were very young.
The parents of the Brice boys, having got out of bread, inquired of 11-year-old Robert, the younger of the two, whether he could go to the Beaver Dam for the first time, to mill. He was accompanied by two other neighborhood children, on the same mission, both slightly older than himself.
Early in the morning, the horse and grain were got ready and the lad Robert set thereon. A few hours trotting and chatting along brought the little group to safety to the place of destination, where they procured the grinding of their grain. But the day, by that time was too far spent for them to reach their homes before dark, so they decided to stay at the miller’s house until the next morning. The long woods, which must be passed, was the chief reason of this arrangement. Little Robert was, however, an exception to this plan, as he thought he could easily go toward home as far as to the place where his brother was at work at the Deitz house.
The miller placed Robert’s bag upon his horse and Robert started off alone through the woods.
It was near twilight, when he reached the Deitz gate. Suddenly a tawny Indian man, horribly painted, who had lain hid beside the road among some old logs, rose up and seized the bridle of Robert’s horse, without saying a word or seemingly to notice the boy at all. The gate he flung open, leading the horse directly toward the house.
In passing the barn door, to the boy’s terror, in addition to what the Indian had already inspired him with, he beheld old Mr. Deitz lying there, weltering in his own blood. This was not all, between the barn and house, he saw the wives of old Mr. Deitz and son, with four small children of the latter, and a servant girl, all smoking in their newly shed blood; which had as yet scarcely cooled in the evening air after being heated by their flight. All of them had horribly bloody and steamy heads as their scalps had been removed.
Robert now perceived the house to be full of Indians, hideously painted; busily, and silently employed in carrying out its contents – provisions, clothing, &c. In casting his eye around, he beheld at a little distance from the house, his brother, John, and Captain Deitz, the son of the old man, tied to a tree.
The Indians had now nine horses in their possession, four had been obtained from the Deitz family, four from his son-in-law, although a Tory, and one from the boy. On these they laid their plunder. The work of death and robbery being now accomplished, they hurried away with the horses, baggage, prisoners and all, toward the place where the parents of the two captive brothers lived.
They had gone but a little way from the scene of butchery, when hearing a crackling noise behind them, the lads looked back and saw the house, barn, and out-houses, all in flames. They went nearly to the spot where the parents of the boys lived, when they suddenly turned out of the road into the woods, where on account of its being too dark, they encamped for the night.
Here, the first night of their captivity, they slept within a mile of their parents, in the arms of savages, while those parents, unconscious in their slumbers, that their sons were on their dismal road of captivity, knew it not.
As soon as the light announced the morning, the Indians, nimble as the wolf, sprang up from their lair, ate a hearty breakfast of the food that they had plundered, and then resumed their flight. Their progress was slow through the wood, occasioned by the bulkiness of their baggage, while they wended their way toward the head waters of the Catskill Creek, sleeping that night somewhere in the neighborhood of what is now called Potter’s Hollow, a few miles southwest of Oakhill, Greene County, N.Y.
From this place, they again set off in the morning toward the Schoharie River aiming to reach the river above Middleburgh, when all at once the Indians appeared to be greatly alarmed. At this particular juncture they had entered an old field where there was a deserted log house, at which it is probable they had intended to sleep that night. But instead of doing so, as the boys hoped they would, they suddenly put their horses on a gallop and seemed desirous of reaching the side of the field on their left hand, which lay along the base of a steep and heavily timbered mountain.
News had reached the garrison at Schoharie of the outrage not far from the Beaver Dam, and knowing the course the Indians always took in leaving the country, a scouting party in pursuit had intercepted them at this place. They had scarcely commenced their hurry to reach that side of the field, when the report of musketry in the woods below them, was heard to speak in vengeful tones in the brief rattle of successive volleys. The cause of their alarm was now explained to the boys, for the keen eyes of the Indians had discovered them before a shot was fired, when looking that way they saw the woods alive with men, but too far off, as yet, to do much execution.
At the verge of this field, being obstructed in their course both by a fence and the sternness of the mountain, they were compelled to abandon their horses, plunder and all, the three prisoners and eight scalps excepted, and flee into the woods on the side of the ridge, where was offered the only hope of escape from the fury of their pursuers; yet even this could not have availed them had it not been so near dark, which now closed in and hid them as a gang of wolves in the mountain.
If they had not been disturbed in their course, their intention was to have availed themselves of the warrior’s path on the Schoharie River, leading to the place called Brake a bin, [Breakabeen, now a hamlet in the town of Fulton in Schoharie County] from thence to Harpersville and on to the Susquehanna, the Chemung, Genesee and Niagara.
As soon as it was day, having slept that day without fire, they set forward again.
Having now lost all of their provisions, they were immediately exposed to the horrors of hunger, and no way to relieve themselves, as they did not dare to shoot any game, lest their tell-tale guns should report them to their pursuers. Three days and nights they were compelled to subsist on nothing except what the bushes might afford, wintergreens, birch bark and now and then a few wild berries.
Captain Deitz was a particular sufferer, more so than the lads, as suspended from a stick were the aged scalps of his father and mother, his wife and the four bloody memorials of his babes, adorned with the half grown hair of their infant heads. These were constantly in his view and often slapped in his face by the poor untutored warrior. What from the pain of a broken heart and the sorrows of captivity, Captain Deitz died at Fort Niagara among his enemies, sinking to the grave as a fair pine when the leveling axe had done its office.
At the mouth of the river, the Indians considered themselves out of danger, consequently traveled more at their leisure, stopping frequently several days at a time to hunt, killing deer, partridges and wild turkeys, so that they suffered no more for provisions during their trip.
At such times as they went out to hunt, intending to return by night, the Indians always bound Captain Deitz and Robert’s brother to a tree laying them flat on their backs with their legs a little elevated to a limb; in this uneasy posture they were compelled to suffer till their return.
On a certain day, early in the morning, the Indians were observed in close counsel; a separation was about to take
The young boy was now separated from his brother and Captain Deitz, the only persons with whom he could converse, or who could in the least sympathize with and pity his sufferings. He was left behind with his master and two other Indians.
The first intimation that the Indians had arrived within their territory was the yells they uttered and the responses they received from a great distance, which they continued till within sight of each other.
But here commenced a trouble the poor boy had not anticipated; for the Indian children about his size and age, immediately fell upon him with their whips, making immense sport and frolic, to see him jump about and cry. He naturally fled for protection to his master, but obtained none in that quarter; not knowing this to be a custom and a privilege allowed Indian boys, whenever a prisoner was so unfortunate to be brought among them. His next resort was to fly as fast as he could to a hut, although full of ruthless monsters, full of grown Indians, all laughing at his trouble, he sprang in among them, trembling pale and bleeding.
Here they stayed some time. When they again set off, Robert knew not whether, but whenever they approached an Indian settlement, the same ominous yells were renewed and the same sort of persecution again befell him. As necessity at first had taught him to fly to a hut, so he now had learned from the event to press forward with all of his power to the door of the first wigwam offered to his view. [He was being forced to “run the gauntlet” a practice with captives.]
Four times, in passing from one settlement to another he experienced this same sort of treatment, without the least interference of his master to save him from it; which custom nearly cost him his life. An Indian lad considerably larger than himself, who ought even according to their notions of dignity of manners, to have known better, knocked him down with a club. But he sprang up, and soon found the accustomed asylum, drenched in blood, which after entering no one any more at that place attempted to molest him.
At length, the three Indians came to a place called the Nine Mile Landing on Lake Ontario, where was the home of his master. Here they shaved his head and adorned it with feathers, and painted him after their manner, intending to bring him up as an Indian, taking him with them on their fishing and hunting parties, initiating as fast as possible the child into their modes of living.
Several weeks had passed away at this place, when his master in company with several other Indians, taking him with them, went to Fort Erie, opposite where Buffalo now stands, where, being noticed by a captain of a vessel, a Scotchman, who bantered with the Indian for the purchase of the boy. A bargain was struck at fifteen dollars, which redeemed him.
From this time he saw his Indian acquaintance no more, going immediately with his new master, the Scottish captain, to Detroit. Having now for the first time since coming from Scotland seen a vessel, and having sailed in one the length of the lake, thinking that it was the ocean on which he was, that all opportunity would be forever lost of returning to his parents again, which, to accomplish, was the object of all his thoughts both night and day.
On this account, he contrived a plea to be left at Detroit, to which his master consented. He was placed in the care of one Parks, who also was a Scotchman, till called for by his owner. At this place he remained till the peace of 1783, when according to the articles of that peace, the prisoners of both countries were to be sent to the place on the frontiers of their respective countries from whence they might reach their homes.
The news of the peace had reached Detroit, when all was joy and clamor among the captive Americans; and little Robert’s heart beat high with the expectation of once more being pressed to the bosom of his father and mother, who for a moment had never been out of his mind, from the hour in which the Indian first seized his horse’s bridle. But what was the consternation of the poor boy when his master told him that he was not included with those who were to go to the states; as he had purchased him of the Indian and surely it were better to belong to a white man, one of his own Scottish countrymen too, than to be a slave of an Indian forever.
But, however this argument might seem to claim the gratitude of Robert Brice, yet it was not powerful enough to divest him of the one all absorbing wish of his heart, a return to his parents. Dark clouds of despair began to settle down on the bright prospect, which had but an hour before risen to his view.
But while weeping and musing on the dolefulness of his lot, the thought flashed across his mind, I will run and tell the British commanding officer about it; which he did all bathed in tears, when the General said it should not be so, for the peace articles made no such exceptions. He threw himself among his fellow captives and was soon launched away on the lake that was to waft him toward his home.
The vessel soon moored at Fort Erie, where he had been purchased from the Indian, thence to Fort Niagara. Here to his great joy, he found his brother, who he not seen since they were parted in the woods. The number of liberated captives, men, women and children, amounted now to about two hundred persons. From Fort Niagara they were sent on to Montreal. From Montreal they went across the St. Lawrence to Whitehall; thence to Albany, a distance from Detroit, the place of starting, of about a thousand miles.
News soon spread over the country that all the prisoners were on their way to the states, and on a certain day about two hundred would arrive in Albany. Among these the eldest of the two captive brothers, was expected to arrive, his parents having frequently heard by the means of the Tories, that he was alive and well at Fort Niagara; but as for the younger one, poor little Robert, there lingered not a hope of his return, or scarcely that per chance he might be yet alive, among the savages, somewhere in the boundless wanderings of the Indian nations.
Early on the morning of that day the mother’s heart was first awake, when she roused her husband, saying “Come let us rise, John, you know he is in Albany by this time if he is yet living. Oh make haste and fetch him.” Here she burst into tears, it was a mother’s soul in its longing for her son. John sprang from the bed, for the father’s heart was not a whit behind in the holy passion, though kept more within bounds; yet a tear or so was often seen to tremble on the withered cheek of the hardy Scotchman. He mounted his horse, and trotted out of her sight towards Albany.
The distance was soon measured, while the musings of hope and fear, filled up the time. Somewhere in the Colonye, in the city of Albany, was situated the house where the glad company of liberated captives were to make their halt.
Having come within sight of the inn, he perceived a great crowd of soldiers, citizens, women and children, running this way and that; some with tears trickling down their cheeks and others laughing for joy. He soon came among them, almost fearing to make inquiry for his son.
He alighted and fastened his horse; when meeting a person he knew was one of those who had returned from Canada. He made the inquiry, as his heart rose to his mouth in spite of his manliness, “De ye kow is there one John Brice, a mere lad wha has come along with ye from Canada?” “Oh yes,” answered the man, “two of them, brothers; one is a little fellow. Here come along with me.”
He followed, all in a tremor, musing in his mind, “My God, can it be that both my children are here.” “There they are,” said the man, “are they the lads you wanted?” “Yes,” he shouted, when the three were folded together in the ardent grasp of father and sons. “O ye poor things, ha ye come again, yer mither’s heart wie brake o’ gladness, wha she sees ye coming wie me.”
He now started for home, putting the boys on the horse, while he walked by their side, talking all the way, of their sufferings among the Indians.
It was late in the evening when they came within the precincts of the well-remembered little neighborhood, which the boys had left three years before. All was fresh in their memory as if but an hour had elapsed.
They pointed out as they went along, who lived here and there when they left it, one for the mill and the other to work for old Mr. Deitz. Not a soul of the neighborhood had lain down to sleep, but all had assembled at the house of John’s parents, to await his coming. So eager were they to know the worst or best, as it might turn out to be. At length the neighing of the horses announced the coming of the most wretched or the most fortunate of fathers. They all ran to the door, except the mother, who dared not lest she should be disappointed. She stayed back until the sound of voices struck her ear as the well remembered ones of her children, although now much altered having been gone for 3 years.
In an instant she burst beyond them all, crying as she grasped them in her arms, “O Johnney, O Robert, ha ye come again to yer pure mither; God on high be thanked for iver and iver, for so great a mercy.” Crying all the while as loud as she could for joy, while the old neighbors well known to the boys, gathered around them asking a thousand questions about their captivity; how they were taken – if they had suffered – and of the Indians; whether they were cruel. Scarcely that night suffering themselves to sleep, so great was the joy, not only of the parents, but of all who witnessed their return.
Illustrations, from above: painting of the Dietz Massacre by James Dietz courtesy the Greater Oneonta Historical Society; Dietz massacre engraving from Stories of the Revolution by Josiah Priest; and DAR plaque memorializing the Dietz Massacre on Switzkill Road in Berne, NY.