- Historic Sites
The Deerfield Massacre
One terrible night came to symbolize the whole struggle for supremacy on the North American continent
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
Over the river, on the ice. Across a mile of meadowland, ghostly and white. Past the darkened houses at the north end of the street. Right up to the stockade. The snow has piled hugely here; the drifts make walkways to the top of the fence. A vanguard of some forty men climbs quickly over and drops down on the inside. A gate is opened to admit the rest. The watch awakens, fires a warning shot, cries, “Arm!” Too late. The attackers separate into smaller parties and “immediately set upon breaking open doors and windows.”
The townspeople come to life with a rush. Some find opportunities to escape by jumping from windows or roof lines. Several manage to flee the stockade altogether and make their way to neighboring villages. In half a dozen households the men leave families behind in order to rally outside as a counterforce. In others there is a frantic attempt to hide.
The minister’s house is a special target, singled out “in the beginning of the onset”; later John Williams will remember (and write about) his experience in detail. Roused “out of sleep … by their violent endeavors to break open doors and windows with axes and hatchets,” he leaps from bed, runs to the front door, sees “the enemy making their entrance,” awakens a pair of soldiers lodged upstairs, and returns to his bedside “for my arms.” There is hardly time, for the “enemy immediately brake into the room, I judge to the number of twenty, with painted faces and hideous acclamations.” They are “all of them Indians”; no Frenchmen in sight as yet. The minister does manage to cock his pistol and “put it to the breast of the first Indian who came up.” Fortunately—for both of them—it misfires. Thereupon Williams is “seized by 3 Indians, who disarmed me, and bound me naked, as I was in my shirt”; in this posture he will remain “for near the space of an hour.”
Williams cocks his pistol and puts it to the breast of the first Indian who came up.”
With their chief prize secured, the invaders turn to “rifling the house, entering in great numbers into every room.” There is killing work too: “some were so cruel and barbarous as to take and carry to the door two of my children and murder them [six-year-old John, Jr., and six-week-old Jerusha], as also a Negro woman [a family slave named Parthena].” After “insulting over me a while, holding up hatchets over my head, [and] threatening to burn all I had,” the Indians allow their captive to dress. They also permit Mrs. Williams “to dress herself and our children.”
By this time the sun is “about an hour high” (perhaps 7:00 A.M. ). The sequence described by John Williams has been experienced, with some variations, in households throughout the stockade: killings (especially of infants and others considered too frail to survive the rigors of life in the wilderness); “fireing houses”; “killing cattle, hogs, sheep & sacking and wasting all that came before them.” In short, a village-size holocaust. When John Williams and his family are finally taken outside, they see “many of the houses … in flames”; later, in recalling the moment, he asks, “Who can tell what sorrows pierced our souls?”
The Williamses know they are destined “for a march … into a strange land,” as prisoners. And prisoners are being herded together—in the meetinghouse and in a home nearby—from all over town. However, one household—that of the militia leader, Sgt. Benoni Stebbins—has mounted a remarkable resistance. Its occupants are well armed and fiercely determined; moreover, the walls of this house, “being filled up with brick,” effectively repel incoming fire. The battle (as described in a subsequent report by local militia officers) continues here for more than two hours. The attackers fall back, then surge forward in an unsuccessful attempt “to fire the house.” Again they retreat—this time to the shelter of the meetinghouse—while maintaining their fusillade all the while. The defenders return bullet for bullet, “accepting of no quarter, though offered,” and “causing several of the enemy to fall,” among them “one Frenchman, a gentleman to appearance,” and “3 or 4 Indians,” including a “captain” who had helped seize John Williams.
In the meantime, some of the attackers with their captives begin to leave the stockade. Heading north, they retrace their steps toward the river. Then a stunning intervention: A band of Englishmen arrives from the villages below (where an orange glow on the horizon “gave notice … before we had news from the distressed people” themselves). “Being a little above forty in number,” they have rushed on horseback to bring relief. They stop just long enough to pick up “fifteen of Deerfield men.” And this combined force proceeds to the stockade, to deliver a surprise of its own: “when we entered at one gate, the enemy fled out the other.” Now comes a flat-out chase—pell-mell across the meadow—the erstwhile attackers put to rout. The Englishmen warm, literally, to the fight, stripping off garments as they run. (Later the same soldiers will claim reimbursement for their losses—and record details of the battle.) They inflict heavy casualties: “we saw at the time many dead bodies, and … afterwards … manifest prints in the snow, where other dead bodies were drawn to a hole in the river.”