The Deerfield Massacre

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Our traditional picture of colonial New England is essentially a still life. Peaceful little villages. Solid, strait-laced, steadily productive people. A landscape serene, if not bountiful. A history of purposeful, and largely successful, endeavor.

And yet, as historians are learning with ever-greater clarity, this picture is seriously at odds with the facts. New England had its solidity and purposefulness, to be sure. But it also had its share of discordant change, of inner stress and turmoil, and even of deadly violence. New England was recurrently a place of war, especially during the hundred years preceding the Revolution. The French to the north in Canada and the various Indian tribes on every side made determined, altogether formidable enemies. The roster of combat was long indeed: King Philip’s War (1675–76), King William’s War (1689–97), Queen Anne’s War (1702–13), Father Rasle’s War (1724–26), King George’s War (1744–48), and the French and Indian War (1754–63). Most of these were intercolonial, even international, conflicts, in which New England joined as a very junior partner. But there were numerous other skirmishes, entirely local and so obscure as not to have earned a name. All of them exacted a cost, in time, in money, in worry—and in blood.

 

Much of the actual fighting was small-scale, hit-andrun, more a matter of improvisation than of formal strategy and tactics. Losses in any single encounter might be only a few, but they did add up. Occasionally the scale widened, and entire towns became targets. Lancaster and Haverhill, Massachusetts; Salmon Falls and Oyster River, New Hampshire; York and Wells, Maine: Each suffered days of wholesale attack. And Deerfield, Massachusetts—above all, Deerfield—scene of the region’s single, most notorious “massacre.”

The snow has piled hugely around the stockade; the drifts make walkways to the top.

The year is 1704, the season winter, the context another European war with a “colonial” dimension. New France (Canada) versus New England. (New York and the colonies farther south are, at least temporarily, on the sidelines.) The French and their Indian allies have already engineered a series of devastating raids along the “eastern frontier”— the Maine and New Hampshire coasts. The English have counterattacked against half a dozen Abenaki Indian villages. And now, in Montreal, the French governor is secretly planning a new thrust “over the ice” toward “a little village of about forty households,” a place misnamed in the French records “Guerrefille.” (An ironic twist just there: Deerfield becomes “War-girl.”)

Deerfield is not unready. Like other outlying towns, it has labored to protect itself: with a “stockade” (a fortified area, at its center, inside a high palisade fence), a “garrison” of hired soldiers, a “watch” to patrol the streets at night, and “scouts” to prowl the woods nearby. Indeed, many families are living inside the stockade. Conditions are crowded and uncomfortable, to say the least, but few doubt the need for special measures. The town minister, Rev. John Williams, conducts an extraordinary day of “fasting and prayer” in the local church—“possessed,” as he reportedly is, “that the town would in a little time be destroyed.”

 

The attack forces—French led, largely Indian in rank and file—set out in early February. Steadily they move southward, on frozen rivers and lakes, with one hard leg across the Green Mountains. They have snowshoes, sleds to carry their supplies, and dogs to pull the sleds. The lower part of their route follows the Connecticut River valley till it reaches a point near what would later become Brattleboro, Vermont. Here they will strike off into the woods to the south, leaving dogs and sleds for their return. They are barely a day’s march—twenty miles—from their objective. The rest they will cover as quickly and quietly as possible. Surprise is their most potent weapon. The people of Deerfield, though generally apprehensive, know nothing of this specific threat. On the evening of February 28, the town goes to sleep in the usual way.

Midnight. Across the river to the west the attackers are making their final preparations: loading weapons, putting on war paint, reviewing plans. The layout of Deerfield is apparently known to them from visits made in previous years by Indian hunters and traders. Presently a scout is sent “to discover the posture of the town, who observing the watch walking in the street,” returns to his comrades and “puts them to a stand.” (Our source for the details of this sequence was a contemporary historian, writing some years after the fact.) Another check, a short while later, brings a different result. The village lies “all … still and quiet”; the watch evidently has fallen asleep. It is now about four o’clock in the morning, time for the attackers to move.