Westmoreland Historical Society plans event to celebrate life of its founder, James Dean

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Last summer the Westmoreland Historical Society was given a real treasure by the great great great great granddaughter of our founder, James Dean. Her name is Cornelia Meritt Wood, but if you meet her, and we hope you do come to meet her on April 28, call her “Deany.”

“When I was growing up I wanted a name like Debbie,” she explained. Her father named her Cornelia, but told people to call her Deany as a compromise. 

As an 11-year-old she was traveling with her grandfather, Benjamin Dean Merritt to Ontario when they stopped at the home of her aunt Helen Judson, who showed her a box that was owned by James Dean.

“I really loved horses,” she recalled thinking that the box was covered with pony skin. Many years later when it was left to her after her aunt’s death, she realized it was actually deerskin.

Deany Wood has donated that box to the Westmoreland Historical Society and we have begun working with her to put together a presentation on the life of James Dean. It will be the first time that box, and some other possessions will be seen in public. This event, to be held on Sunday, April 28, will also be an opportunity for people to meet Deany and ask questions about her impressive family tree. She attended our monthly meeting last week on Thursday. 

Deany read from a bound scrapbook entitled the Meritt Family History.

“Early destined by his parents to be a missionary to the Indians, James Dean was sent at the age of 12 to reside at Oquago, on the Susquehanna River with an Indian missionary named Mosely. Here he mastered the Oneida’s tongue and was adopted into the tribe.” 

“Because he lived with them as a child he knew the language,” Sharon Yager said. “They grew to trust and appreciate his labor on their behalf, and even after the war, as late as 1785, they were still requesting his presence.”

Yager was one of the Westmoreland Historical Society members who researched and spearheaded the process of getting an official state Historical Marker for the Dean Homestead on Deans Highway in Westmoreland. 

“He did trading for them,” Theresa McFadden, a founding member of the Westmoreland Historical Society said. “That’s how he became trusted by the Oneidas. He did favors for them.”

After his time with the Oneidas, and before the Revolutionary War, Dean went East and was among the first graduating class of Dartmouth College in 1771. 

According to the book, Westmoreland 200 Years, “In 1774, the leading citizens of each colony endeavored to ascertain the feelings of all classes of people in reference to the impending contest. Mr. Dean, from his peculiar fitness for the task, was appointed by the Continental Congress to ascertain the feelings of the Indians in New York and Canada, and to ascertain what part they would probably take in the event of a war.”

While performing this mission he was arrested in Canada and charged with spying. However according to the book, “his self-possession was equal to the occasion, and by the aid of his papers he was released.”

Deany read more out of the Meritt family history, “During the Revolution, he was given the rank of Major on the Staff and was stationed as Agent for Indian Affairs at Fort Stanwix and Oneida Castle.”

Ultimately his unique skills and position as adopted son and translator for the Oneida Indians allowed him to negotiate peace between them and the colonists. This was documented in the Aug. 10 issue of the Utica Morning Herald in 1881.

“As the outbreak of the war,” the article states. “[Dean] was stationed at Oneida Castle and Fort Stanwix as Indian agent and interpreter, with the rank of major. Thro’ the efforts of Mr. Dean and Mr. Kirkland, the Oneidas were induced to remain neutral during the struggle.”

It was for those services that Indians gave him a tract of land. When his first choice was flooded, he was granted a plot near the waterfall on what is now known as Deans Creek. He settled it in February of 1786, returned to Connecticut to marry Lydia Camp, then returned to what we now know as Westmoreland and, according to Utica Morning Herald, “began in earnest to develop his holdings.”

Dean was one of the first five judges in Oneida County and was twice elected to the New York State Assembly. He lived in Westmoreland until his death in 1823.

Historical Society member Charlene Hartman has assembled a substantial amount of genealogical history of the Dean family. She cross-referenced her research with what Deany knew of the generations between her grandfather and James Dean himself.

Deany’s great grandmother, Cornelia Dean, lived out of state for a while after marrying a professor at Trinity College (now Duke University) in North Carolina.

“Were they ever again residents of Westmoreland?,” Historical Society treasurer Betty Barron asked. 

“My grandfather was,” Wood answered. When Cornelia’s husband (Deany’s great grandfather) died at a young age, his widow took their two sons — Deany’s grandfather Benjamin and his brother Herbert — and moved back to Westmoreland to live with her sister. Both of the boys subsequently graduated from Hamilton College and both became professors. Her grandfather was an archaeologist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. 

We wondered if she knew growing up that she was descended from the founder of Westmoreland. 

“Somehow I must have known that,” Wood said. “I don’t know when I knew that. I knew that Dadoo’s (grandfather) family was from here because he talked about it a lot. And he was very proud of Hamilton — he was the Class of 1920.”

I wondered how Dean would have been able to identify the land he wanted from the Oneidas after hiking up Deans Creek to the waterfall.

“They would have known that land,” Historical Society member Dave Shefferstine said. “There would have been crops on it already. They would have known it was good farmland.”

“It was also the water power he wanted,” pointed out Westmoreland Town Historian Nancy Pritchard. “One of the first things (Dean) did was put in a sawmill. Lumber from that mill built the Westmoreland United Methodist Church.”

“He also put in a grist mill,” Sharon Yager said. “The first one in town.”

“You needed water power for everything back then,” Pritchard added. 

Betty Barron said that it was reputed to be the noisiest mill around, so probably the busiest.

By then the meeting had begun breaking up. Shefferstine pointed out the original treaty line that formed one of the boundaries of Dean’s Patent on our map from the 1800s. 

“This is Dean country here,” he traced along the line that represented Dean’s Creek.

Deany Wood has a conch shell that was used by James Dean to call people in from the fields. 

I asked her if she could blow it at our event on April 28.

“No, I can’t!” she laughed. 

That’s alright. The Westmoreland Historical Society will have plenty for you to see and hear on Sunday, April 28.

Mark your calendars and follow along with us at Facebook.com/WestmorelandHistoricalSociety as we put together an event that is more than 200 years in the making.  

Ron Klopfanstein is the president of the Westmoreland Historical Society. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo.

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