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The Tragic Tale of the Lost Children of the Alleghenies

This sad tale has a peculiar ending.

allegheny national forest, where the lost children of the alleghenies went missing
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  • Photo Credit: Mathew Schwartz / Unsplash

They were called the Lost Children of the Alleghenies, but their names were Joseph and George Cox. In April of 1856, they lived with their father and mother in a cabin in the heavily forested Allegheny Mountains of southern Pennsylvania. They were five and seven years old, respectively.

One day, as they were sitting down to a meal, their dog, Sport, began barking. Their father, Samuel Cox, assumed that the dog must have treed a squirrel, and grabbed his rifle to follow the sound into the woods. By the time he returned, the children were gone.

Of course, no one knows precisely what happened between the time that Samuel left to track down the family dog and when he returned, but as near as anyone could reconstruct it, the two young boys must have left to follow their father. Their mother, Susannah, noticing their absence, thought that Samuel had taken them with him. It wasn’t until he returned alone that she realized the truth, and by then they had already been gone for some time.

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Immediately, Samuel and Susannah began searching for the boys, calling out in the hopes that they would hear their voices. Yet there was no reply. Soon, Samuel went for help from his nearest neighbors, and within a day, nearly a thousand people were beating the bushes around the Cox’s cabin, looking for the two boys. Some came from as far as 50 miles away, which may not sound like a lot today, but was a big deal back in 1856.

In the evenings, the searchers lit fires and carried torches, in the hopes that the boys would see the light and come to it. They found nothing. Their search expanded, day by day. Near the Cox’s cabin was a stream that was swollen with melting spring snow, and the searchers believed that there was no way the boys could have crossed it without drowning. Despite the natural barrier, they turned up nothing.

allegheny national forest, where the lost children of the alleghenies went missing
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  • Allegheny National Forest. 

    Photo Credit: Lance Anderson / Unsplash

The length of the stream was searched, with the fear that they might find the drowned bodies of the two boys, rather than the brothers alive and well, but they found neither. Within two days of their disappearance, the searchers came to a conclusion—they were unlikely to find the boys alive. Nights were still cold at that time of year, and they had ranged far enough afield by now that if they boys were still breathing, they should have found them.

Suspicion began to fall upon Samuel and Susannah Cox, and the community’s outpouring of sympathy and support turned to accusation. Had the parents actually murdered their own children, making up the story of their disappearance to extort money from sympathetic neighbors? It looked more likely with each passing day.

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The same searchers who had previously helped the Cox family seek their missing children now turned their cabin and the surrounding land upside down in search of hidden bodies, but again they found nothing. That might have been where it ended, with an increasingly hostile community convinced of wrongdoing they had no way to prove, had it not been for one man’s prophetic dream.

Jacob Dibert was a farmer who lived not far from where the Cox boys had gone missing. One day, he told his wife that he wished he could dream of where the boys were located. On May 2, he did just that. In his dream, he was walking along a path through the woods. He crossed a stream on a fallen log, passed a dead deer and a child’s shoe, and found the boys at the foot of a broken birch.

When he woke the next morning, he didn’t think anything of it, chalking the strange dream up to wishful thinking. He had, after all, just been hoping to have such a dream. Obviously, it was on his mind before he fell asleep. Then he had the same dream the following night, and the night after. At this point, it seemed like something more, so he and his brother-in-law went looking for the landmarks that Dibert could remember from his dream.

Eerily enough, they found them all. The trail through the woods, the fallen log across the stream, the dead deer, the child’s shoe… and, in the roots of a broken birch tree, they found the bodies of young Joseph and George Cox. This was thirteen days after the two boys had gone missing from their cabin.

fallen log
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  • Photo Credit: Luca Bravo / Unsplash

Under other circumstances, suspicion might have fallen on Dibert. After all, how could he have known the whereabouts of the two boys if he hadn’t had something to do with their disappearance? However, both children appeared to have died from exposure. 

As near as anyone could make out, the two must have left their cabin to follow their father, only to get lost in the woods. They made it across the swollen creek, putting them outside the perimeter of most of the searches, but they couldn’t find their way back. Eventually, they lay down among the roots of the broken birch, and there their bodies were found more than a week later.

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While it wasn’t precisely a happy ending to the tragedy—which, by then, may not have been able to have one—Dibert’s seemingly prophetic dream certainly added a memorably weird coda to the story, and allowed people in the community some closure.

lost children of the alleghenies monument
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  • 1910 newspaper photo of the monument for the Lost Children of the Alleghenies. 

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

It also helped the tragic events enter into local legend, and today the Lost Children of the Alleghenies are still remembered, with visitors to the region stopping by to leave flowers on the grave of the two boys, which is marked with the epithet by which they were known after their disappearance. 

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In 1906, on the 50th anniversary of the brothers’ unfortunate fate, the nearby community of Pavia, Pennsylvania began taking donations and, in 1910, erected a monument on the spot where the two boys were found, which still stands today in Pennsylvania’s Blue Knob State Park, along with a plaque detailing the story and Dibert’s bizarre dream.

Featured photo: Mathew Schwartz / Unsplash