February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
One terrible night came to symbolize the whole struggle for supremacy on the North American continent
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-and-run, 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 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.
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.”
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.”
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. Someone 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.”
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 unredeemed: 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.
Indeed, Deerfield today recalls both sides of its former frontier experience. It remains an exquisitely tranquil—and beautiful—village, its main street lined with stately old houses (twelve of them open to the public). But its most celebrated single artifact is an ancient wooden door, hacked full of hatchet holes on that bitter night in the winter of 1704.