- 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
They make, in sum, a highly successful counterattack. But one that is “pursued too far, imprudently.” For across the river the French commanders hear the tumult and swiftly regroup their own forces. The riverbank affords an excellent cover for a new stand; soon a “numerous company … [of] fresh hands” is in place there, concealed and waiting. On the Englishmen come, ignoring the orders of the officer “who had led them [and] called for a retreat.” On and on—the river is just ahead, and the captives are waiting on the other side—into the teeth of a withering “ambuscade.” Back across the meadow one more time, pursued and pursuers reversing roles. The English are hard pressed, “our breath being spent, theirs in full strength.” Their retreat is as orderly as they can make it, “facing and firing, so that those that first failed might be defended”; even so, “many were slain and others wounded.” Eventually the survivors regain the stockade and clamber inside, at which “the enemy drew off.” They will appear no more.
It is now about 9:00 A.M. A numbness settles over the village. The fires are burning down. There is blood on the snow in the street. The survivors of the “meadow fight” crouch warily behind the palisades. The townspeople who had escaped start to filter back in through the south gate. Time to look after their wounded and count their dead.
Viewed from close up, the carnage is appalling. Death—by gunshot, by hatchet, by knife, by war club—grisly beyond words. And the torn bodies on the ground are not the whole of it; when the survivors poke through the rubble, they find more. Casualty lists have entries like this: “Mary, Mercy, and Mehitable Nims [ages five, five, and seven, respectively] supposed to be burnt in the cellar.” Indeed, several cellar hideouts have turned into death-traps; in one house ten people lie “smothered” that way.
And then the wounded. One man shot through the arm. Another with a bullet in his thigh. Another with a shattered foot. Yet another who was briefly captured by the Indians, and “when I was in their hands, they cut off the forefinger of my right hand” (a traditional Indian practice with captives). A young woman wounded in the Stebbins house. A second with an ankle broken while jumping from an upper-story window.
There are, too, the lucky ones, quite a number who might have been killed or injured (or captured) but managed somehow to escape. The people who ran out in the first moments and fled the town unobserved. A young couple and their infant son whose “small house” was so small that the snow had covered it completely. A woman who lay hidden beneath an overturned tub. A boy who dived under a pile of flax. Some of this is remembered only by “tradition,” not hard evidence, but is too compelling to overlook. Here is another instance, passed through generations of the descendants of Mary Catlin: “The captives were taken to a house … and a Frenchman was brought in [wounded] and laid on the floor; he was in great distress and called for water; Mrs. Catlin fed him with water. Some one said to her, ‘How can you do that for your enemy?’ She replied, ‘If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him water to drink.’ The Frenchman was taken and carried away, and the captives marched off. Some thought the kindness shown to the Frenchman was the reason of Mrs. Catlin’s being left. …” (Mary Catlin was indeed “left,” the only one of her large family not killed or captured. And this is as plausible an explanation of her survival as any.)
Thus Deerfield in the immediate aftermath: the living and the dead, the wounded and the escaped. Tradition also tells of a mass burial in the southeast corner of the town cemetery. Another “sorrowful” task for the survivors.
Soon groups of armed men begin arriving from the towns to the south. All day and through the evening they come; by midnight there are “near about 80.” Together they debate the obvious question, the only one that matters right now: Should they follow the retreating enemy in order to retake their captive “friends”? Some are for it, but eventually counterarguments prevail. They have no snowshoes, “the snow being at least 3 foot deep.” The enemy has “treble our number, if not more.” Following “in their path … we should too much expose our men.” Moreover, the captives themselves will be endangered, “Mr. Williams’s family especially, whom the enemy would kill, if we come on.”