July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
A very distant world of Puritans and the Native Americans they dispossessed, brought to complex life
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.”
Then, too, while Williams was appalled to learn that his daughter had been married to a man whom he considered a savage, that disgust was matched by his horror that she had also become a Catholic and was therefore living in what a cousin called “the thickness of popish darkness.” Her Catholicism—which to him, of course, meant her eternal damnation—as much as any other factor, seems to have caused John Williams and his son, Stephen, to suffer nearly eighty years of unrelieved distress.
Eunice did make four wary visits to her brother over the decades. But fearful she might be seized by English, she always brought her husband with her and rarely stayed among her white relations for long. She remained all her life more or less as she had been when an Englishman encountered her shortly after her marriage: “looking very poor in body, bashfull in the face, but … harder than Steel in her breast.”
Like his father before him, the Reverend Stephen Williams ultimately failed in his mission to “redeem” his sister, though one bit of evidence survives to suggest that by the end of his life he may privately have concluded that she did, after all, belong with the people among whom she had chosen to remain. In a journal entry scrawled shortly before his death at eighty-seven, he wrote that he was himself “ye Last Pson yt Survives of those captivated” at Deerfield. Evidently he no longer numbered his sister among the still captivated. She died three years later at eighty-nine.
Perhaps the most moving section of The Unredeemed Captive is its epilogue. One summer day in 1837—133 years after the massacre—twenty-three Indians emerged from the forest near Deerfield and asked to be shown the graves of the Reverend and Mrs. John Williams. They were all descendants of Eunice Williams, they said, and had come to honor her parents, their common ancestors. They stayed a week, a contemporary chronicler noted, and despite the great curiosity of crowds that came to see them (so many as almost to deny “them time to take their ordinary meals”), they “in all respects seemed disposed to conduct themselves decently and innoffensively.”
They also attended Sunday services “in an orderly and reverent manner,” moving the Reverend John Fessenden, one of John Williams’s successors in the Deerfield pulpit, to deliver an extraordinary sermon in which he wrestled with all the questions of race and culture and Christianity the Indians’ presence had forced his congregation to confront.
Indians and whites seemed so different from each other, he began, that it was hard for some to believe them representatives of the same species. But Eunice Williams’s half-Indian descendants, in whom the races were “mingled, blended … [or] assimilated,” demonstrated the falseness of that notion. If differences between peoples were allowed to overshadow the similarities that bound them together, Fessenden continued, if people permitted themselves to believe that such differences were “founded in nature,” rather than being merely the products of “custom and various accidental causes,” then “blood and carnage must … deform and deface the scenes of earth, to the end of time.”
Instead, he continued—just as the Reverend Williams might have, but in a more liberal spirit—the answer lay in Christian faith, which “gathers all the scattered and various kindreds of the earth into a common family … finds the same life-blood circulating through the veins of every human creature; [and] invites them all to one hospitable roof … the everlasting habitation of the same Common Parent, as brethren of a single, united, harmonious household.”
The Reverend Fessenden addressed his triumphant conclusion directly to Deerfield’s visitors: “I would recognize with pious humility … the workings of that mysterious providence, which has mingled your blood with ours, and which … admonishes us that God … hath made of one blood all nations of men, and hath determined the times, the places, and circumstances in which they should live, in order to accomplish his designs of impartial benevolence and general good. …”
“ Your blood with ours ,” John Demos asks in closing. “Was there not a kind of ‘redemption’ here as well?”