- 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
The day after, “Connecticut men begin to come in”; by nightfall their number has swelled to fully 250. There is more debate on whether to counterattack. However, the “aforesaid objections” remain—plus one more. The weather has turned unseasonably warm, “with rain,” and the snowpack is going to slush. They “judge it impossible to travel [except] … to uttermost disadvantage.” Under the circumstances they could hardly hope “to offend the enemy or rescue our captives, which was the end we aimed at in all.” And so they “desist” once again. They give what further help they can to “the remaining inhabitants"—help with the burials and with rounding up the surviving cattle. They prepare a report for the colony leaders in Boston, including a detailed count of casualties: 48 dead, 112 taken captive. (Another 140 remain “alive at home.”) They leave a “garrison of 30 men or upwards” in the town. And the rest return to their home villages.
Meanwhile, the “march” of the captives, and their captors, is well under way: through the wilderness on to Canada. There is extreme privation and suffering on both sides. The French and Indians are carrying wounded comrades. The captives include many who are physically weak and emotionally stricken: young children, old people, pregnant women, lone survivors of otherwise shattered families. Food is short, the weather inclement, the route tortuous.
The captors, fearing a possible English pursuit, push forward as rapidly as possible. Any who cannot keep up must be killed and left by the trail “for meat to the fowls of the air and beasts of the earth.” Among the first to suffer this fate is the minister’s wife. Still convalescent following a recent pregnancy, she nearly drowns in a river crossing, after which, according to John Williams, “the cruel and bloodthirsty savage who took her, slew her with his hatchet at one stroke.” In the succeeding days another seventeen of the captives will be similarly “dispatched.”
Later in the journey the French and the Indians separate. And later still the Indians, who now hold all the captives, subdivide into small “bands.” At one critical juncture Reverend Williams is marked for execution by revenge-minded kinsmen of the “captain” killed at Deerfield; a rival chief’s intervention saves him. His five surviving children are scattered among different “masters” and, surprisingly, are “looked after with a great deal of tenderness.”
There are two additional deaths —from starvation—as the various bands move farther north, but sooner or later ninety-two captives reach Canada. Some, like John Williams, are ransomed “out of the hands of Indians” by French officials; others are taken to Indian “forts” and encampments throughout the St. Lawrence River Valley.
Almost immediately their relatives and friends in New England begin efforts to secure their release. But the process is complicated, and progress is painfully slow. Eventually some fifty-three will be returned home, with John Williams as one of the last among them. His subsequent account of his experiences, published under the imposing title The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion , will make him famous throughout the Colonies.
His daughter Eunice will become equally famous, but for a different reason: she declines to return and spends the rest of her long life among the Indians. She forgets her English and adjusts completely to Indian ways; she marries a local “brave” and raises a family. Another fifteen or so of her fellow captives will make a similar choice, and still others stay on with the French Canadians. These are the captives un redeemed: a source of sorrow, and of outrage, for the New Englanders.
In fact, efforts to bring them back will continue for decades. “Friends” traveling back and forth quite unofficially, and full-fledged “ambassadors” sent from one royal governor to the other, seek repeatedly to force a change. In some cases there are direct—even affectionate—contacts between the parties themselves. Eunice Williams pays four separate visits to her New England relatives. Each time they greet her with great excitement and high hopes for her permanent “return,” but there is no sign that she even considers the possibility. She acknowledges the claims of her blood, but other, stronger claims draw her back to Canada. She has become an Indian in all but blood, and she prefers to remain that way. She will become the last surviving member of the entire “massacre” cohort.
The destruction of Deerfield came nearer the beginning than the end of the Anglo-French struggle for control of North America. And was barely a curtain raiser in the long, sorry drama of “white” versus “red.” But it left special, and enduring, memories. Well into the nineteenth century New England boys played a game called Deerfield Massacre, complete with mock scalpings and captive taking. A curious bond grew between Deerfield and the descendants of those same Canadian Indians who had formed the attack party, with visits back and forth on both sides. And particular “massacre” memorabilia have been carefully—almost lovingly—preserved to the present day.