The Dean Family Massacre

Dean Family Memorial, Keller Cemetery

As I finished paying my respects to William Donnelly, whose 1832 murder remains unsolved, I noted a nearby memorial and instantly knew this was the other monument that had brought me to the historic Keller Church and Cemetery. I walked carefully among the older stones to the monument to the Dean Family. William’s murder can be found here: The Murder of William Donnelly.

This monument is one of the largest, if not the largest, in the small cemetery. The base of the stone was marked by the name of those buried here: Dean. The memorial tells the story of those buried here: “Rebecca, wife / Two children, / Samuel and infant daughter / Massacred by Indians October 1780 / Matthew, husband, died, April 1781 / And is buried in Harts Log Cemetery / Four children, John, Margaret Means, / Rebecca Caldwell and / Elizabeth Caldwell, / Escaped the massacre. / Dedicated September 1909.”

The Dean family lived in the shadow of Lowry’s Fort, which was erected in late 1778/early 1779. The fort was for the protection of the settlers living west of Water Street and those living in Canoe Valley. The fort was under the command of Captain Simonton.

One of the families living near the fort was the family of Matthew Dean. The family consisted of Matthew, his wife Rebecca, and eight children. Note: At the time of the massacre, Rebecca was expecting another child – she was due at any time. I believe that the listing of eight children included the unborn baby.

In October 1780 Captain Simonton, along with his wife and son, John, went to visit the Dean family. Simonton informed Matthew that Indians had been seen in Sinking Valley and suggested the family seek refuge within the blockhouse. Matthew believed the rumors to be false and the family remained at the homestead.

While the Simontons prepared to leave, John did not want to go. The suggestion was to allow him to stay the night and Mrs. Simonton agreed, promising to return in the morning to get John.

The next morning, Matthew, along with four of his children – two sons and two daughters – left to go into the fields to work. As the children worked, Matthew took his gun and went to hunt pigeons he saw flying nearby. While he was searching for game, he glanced towards the homestead and noted it appeared to be on fire. By the time he arrived back in the field where his four children were, he knew that the house was indeed on fire.

By the time Matthew arrived back at the homestead, Mrs. Simonton had arrived to get John. They were greeted with a horrific sight. His eight-year-old daughter was lying on the steps to the house – she had been murdered and scalped. Once the fire had died, the remains of Mrs. Dean and her three children were recovered. The search for John Simonton began. He had been playing with the daughter whose body was discovered on the steps of the house. Searchers scoured the area around the homestead, thinking he had been killed and was lying nearby. John was not among the dead and it was believed that he had been taken prisoner by the raiding Indians.

A group led by the Beattys, another family who had settled in the area, started after the raiding party. Although they found evidence of the raiding Delaware, the search party was not able to locate them and the warriors and their prisoners escaped the valley.

Note: Why the Simonton boy was the only child taken during the raid is a mystery. U. J. Jones, in History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata Valley, makes a suggestion why the Indian raiders singled out the Dean family. His suggestion – take it as you may – was the Delaware raiders had been watching the Simonton family and took the boy, hoping Captain Simonton who pay a large ransom for John’s safe return.

The remains of the Deans were buried in the burial ground near the fort. The following year, Matthew would pass, but he would not be buried with his wife and children, but instead he would be interred in the Old Harts Log Cemetery near Alexandria.

Captain Simonton never gave up searching for his son. He would die never knowing what happened to him.

Many years later, John’s brothers joined Captain Moses Canan’s company and went to New York. While camped among the Senecas they met a man named John Sims, who claimed he was taken from the Juniata as a child. After talking to the Simonton brothers about his memories, Sims’ wife took the man away and the brothers never saw him again.

As I stood reading the stone, I immediately noticed something about the memorial. Being familiar with the story of the Dean family massacre, I knew that Mrs. Dean and four children had been reported being killed during the massacre. The stone records Mrs. Dean and two children were killed and buried on these sacred grounds – I’m not sure why the number on the stone varies from the recorded versions.

In Tarring S. Davis’ History of Blair County concludes the Dean family massacre with: “Dean’s house was razed to the ground and Mrs. Dean with three of their children and a son of the Simonton’s died as a result of the raid.” This phrasing suggests the Simonton body was recovered. If this is the case, using the early records that state four children were killed, the children buried with Rebecca Dean in Keller Cemetery are: Samuel, Matthew’s eight-year-old daughter, the infant daughter, and John Simonton. However, this does not take into consideration that the unborn Dean baby was also buried on these sacred grounds.

I continued to read the stone and immediately noted something else. The story recorded states that Matthew had taken two sons and two daughters into the field that fateful day. However, the names listed on the memorial as survivors report one son and three daughters. From everything I’ve read, I believe the stone is correct on this fact and the recorded histories are in error.

I finished paying my respects to the victims of the massacre before leaving them to continue their eternal slumber on the hilltop.

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