Of One Blood All Nations

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John Demos can do something no one else I’ve read can do as well: bring to empathetic life the distant world of the New England Puritans. He has done it before, several times in the pages of this magazine as well as in his Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (winner of the 1983 Bancroft Prize) and A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in the Plymouth Colony .

But in The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Earh America (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.00) it seems to me that he has surpassed himself, managing to revivify this time both the Puritans and some of the Native Americans they dispossessed. The outlines of the story he has woven from old books and letters and journals are dramatic but deceptively simple: In the snowy winter of 1704, a mixed French and Indian force attacked the Massachusetts village of Deerfield, killing fifty inhabitants and making off with more than one hundred others, including the Reverend John Williams, his wife, and five of their children. Mrs. Williams was hacked to death on the way to Canada, where the surviving captives were parceled out among Indians and Jesuits. The Reverend Williams and four of his children were eventually released and sent home to Massachusetts. But one child, a seven-year-old daughter named Eunice, remained behind. She swiftly adopted the ways of her Indian captors, forgetting even how to speak English, was rebaptized as a Catholic, took the new name Marguerite, and, at sixteen, was married to an Indian whose name seems to have been Arosen or some variation of it. With him she had an unknown number of children. Her father — and, after his death, her older brother, Stephen, also a clergyman — never stopped trying to bring about her return. But in the end, despite pleas, cajolery, and even offers of money and property, she chose to live out her long life with the people who had stolen her.

Careful always to alert the reader whenever he begins to edge beyond the evidence, Demos manages to winkle out from this bare-bones story a world of complexities—and manages to do it all in dazzling narrative style. Here, for example, he suggests what it must have been like for the Williams family and other Deerfield prisoners, still in shock from the sudden, bloody assault on their village, to set out on the long trek to Canada with their captors: “They cover perhaps five miles that afternoon. Their experiences from moment to moment—the physical sensations large and small—are new and unsettling. The rolling whiteness underneath, alive with sun-gilt sparkles. The dark shapes of the forest. The blue that soars overhead. Snow, trees, and sky; a world in three elements. Yet gradually they see more. Here and there the surface is littered with brown refuse, twigs and cones (left by foraging squirrels). An occasional tree stands stripped of its bark (by a vagrant moose, in search of hidden sustenance). Often there are animal tracks (fox, rabbit, wildcat): little dents stretched smartly toward a nearby ridge crest.

“Walking on the snow is itself a problem. In open areas they find a sharp crust; in sheltered ones lie pools of powder. Different footing, different hazards. With the crust they break through, and fangs of ice tear their ankles; with the powder come deep drifts and sudden ‘traps’ laid by buried undergrowth. They flounder and sometimes fall, as they proceed.”

From the first the Puritans feared and despised the Indians. They were cruel “salvages,” dark, sinister, satanic, utterly unworthy to hold title to the great forests the English coveted. “They act like wolves,” wrote a relative of the Reverend Williams of the Indians who fell upon Deerfield, “& are to be dealt withall as wolves.”

No Indian people were ever as the Puritans perceived them, but least of all the Kahnawakes, into whose hands Eunice Williams fell. Theirs was already a hybrid world, altered irrevocably by contact with the French, who paid them to raid the English, and with the English, with whom they traded cheerfully enough between raids. The Kahnawakes constituted a comparatively new community—not yet forty years old in 1704—made up initially of refugees from Mohawk and Huron villages burned by the French. They were “praying Indians,” converted to Roman Catholicism by the Jesuits who lived among them in their encampment outside Montreal, but still faithful to many of the customs of their forefathers.

Kidnapping is a terrible crime in any time and any culture, and it is impossible not to share in the Reverend Williams’s heartbreak as he seeks for some shred of news about his daughter and casts about for some way to bring her home.

But he suffered extra burdens of anguish that are harder for modern readers to understand. His faith, for example, required him to alloy his grief with guilt. The unshakable Puritan belief in predestination demanded that he see the attack upon his town, the death of his wife, the loss of his daughter, as unfathomable but righteous judgments upon him and his contemporaries for their sins: “You are carried into the land of the Canadiens for your good,” Cotton Mather assured Williams in 1705. “Your Calamities are useful … even unto us the ministers of [New England]. They awaken our zeal to carry on the Designs of Reformation. Since the fate of Deerfield, great things have been done in several parts of New England, upon those Holy Designs.”