By Maggie Riechers
On a cold February night in 1704, two hundred and forty French and Indian troops attacked the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, the northwesternmost settlement of the New England colonies. The raiding party swept through the village, killing residents, burning their homes, and taking captives.
“The 1704 attack on the English colonial town of Deerfield is a military saga, family story, a case study of colonialism--a multicultural glimpse of early American history,” says Tim Neumann, executive director of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, or PVMA. The story of the raid is told in detail at the PVMA museum in Deerfield. The museum’s collection of materials relating to the attack is now being made available online, along with collections from Indian and Canadian institutions. The website, The Many Stories of 1704: Conflict and Cultures in the Colonial Northeast, will mark the three-hundredth anniversary of the raid and will tell the story from the perspectives of all the groups involved--British, French, and Indian. All three groups have helped plan the website’s content and design.
One of the survivors of the attack, Reverend John Williams, writes, “Not long before break of day, the enemy came in like a flood upon us. . . .They came to my house in the beginning of the onset, and by their violent endeavors to break open doors and windows, with axes and hatchets, awaked me out of sleep.”
The English settlers of the town had taken extra precautions, surrounding the village with a stockade, posting a guard at the gate, and garrisoning twenty soldiers among the townspeople. But the night of the raid, snow muffled the approach of the attackers and the drifts made it easier for them to scale the stockade and enter the town.
The British put up a fight, but they were overwhelmed. More than half of Deerfield’s two hundred and sixty residents were killed or captured. The French and Indian force headed for Canada with one hundred and nine captives in tow.
The 1704 skirmish came at a time when the fate of North America was still in doubt. The conflict in the New World was an extension of hostilities in Europe, where France and Britain were waging war against each other for control of the Spanish throne.
The museum holds some three hundred objects relating to the raid, many of which will be photographed digitally and posted on the website. One such item is the Stebbins family door, which bears the ax marks left by the invading force. “Attracting visitors to an in-person exhibit in a small rural town is difficult,” says Neumann. “And many of the objects are fragile and could not withstand traveling to other sites.”
The museum also holds an early edition of the memoir of Reverend Williams, who survived the raid and the ensuing three-hundred-mile march through heavy snow to Quebec. He eventually returned to Deerfield and wrote The Redeemed Captive, which describes the attack, the trek to Canada, and his three-year captivity. He relates how Indians killed two of his children and an African slave, sparing his wife and five of their other children. He writes of the grueling journey to Canada and how the Indians gave them snowshoes, which they had hidden along the way in anticipation of their return with captives. The group walked as many as thirty-five miles a day, staying well ahead of the British force pursuing them. During the first two days of the forced march, the Indians killed more than a dozen prisoners they deemed too weak to withstand the journey north. Williams’s wife was among them, too frail from recent childbirth to keep up. Captives considered valuable, such as healthy children, were carried on the shoulders of their abductors or pulled on dog sleds along with the wounded.
Once the group reached Canada, the prisoners were divided among the Indian tribes and the French. Many of the captives were later “redeemed”--either purchased outright or traded for prisoners held by the British. Some remained with their captors. A number of children were adopted by Indian or French families and lived out their lives in Canada.
The story of the Deerfield Raid has been handed down through the generations with a decidedly British slant. Williams’s memoir, still in print today, popularized the notion of the Indians as savages and the French as papists bent on converting the Protestants to Catholicism.
“For the last three hundred years it’s been a story of foreign Indians coming out of the north and attacking English settlers,” says Marge Brushac, an Abenaki Indian and historical consultant. “Only in the last twenty years or so have natives been included in the picture. The whole identity of the town was based on this perception of one event. The raid didn’t come out of nowhere.”
As the British forged across New England in the seventeenth century, they sought to replicate English rural life by settling families and forming towns in the area. “It was interested in settling North America with its excess population, establishing farms and villages,” Neumann says. The British wanted a steady flow of raw materials for England and a willing market in America for its manufactured goods.
In contrast, the majority of French in New France were single men, not families. As the English settled in New England, the French settled in New France, roughly the present-day province of Quebec. “The French explorers did not find a passage to China,” says Neumann, “but they did establish profitable trading ties with native peoples around the fur trade that later helped them in creating military alliances.” At the time of the raid, the British outnumbered the French in North America by a margin of nine to one.
As the French and British were vying for control of territories in the New World, the people native to the area were struggling to hold on to their homelands. “The continent was home to a complex web of people with their own long histories of conflict and cooperation,” says Neumann.
Restraining British expansion was a key goal for both the French and the Indians, and they forged an allegiance. “Basically the French used the tactic that the best defense is a good offense,” says historian Kevin Sweeney, a project adviser for the website and coauthor of a forthcoming book, At the Edge of Empire: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield.
Three native groups were involved in the 1704 attack on the British. They were the Abenaki, who had absorbed several dislocated tribes pushed from their villages by the British--Pennacooks, Pocumtucks, Sokokis, Norwottucks, Cowassucks, and Pigwackets--and the Mohawk and Huron tribes, both members of the Iroquois.
“The French in Canada felt threatened by the large numbers of English, and the British had already attacked Quebec twice in the 1680s,” Sweeney says. “They were tied to the Indians through the fur trade and made alliances with native groups, hoping to embroil them in conflicts with the English.”
Religion played a role in the French and Indian bond. As the Indians moved away from their homelands and customs, many converted to Christianity, particularly to Catholicism.
In 1701 the French organized the Great Peace, a conference of some thirty tribes that sealed the alliance between native groups and the French. They consented to join the French in fighting British expansion, but also agreed that the tribes would make peace with each other. This accord meant that opposing forces now outnumbered the British--much of whose population consisted of women and children.
Indians had watched the English encroach on their lands for decades. In the 1650s, the British had moved into the Connecticut River valley, where Deerfield is located, driving native peoples farther north and away from the rich farming area. Deerfield, at the confluence of the Connecticut and
Deerfield rivers, already had a history of conflict. It was originally inhabited by the Pocumtuck Indians and known as Pocumtuck. In 1664 it was burned down by the Mohawks when the two tribes clashed.
In 1673 English settlers moved in, incorporated Pocumtuck into the village, and called it Deerfield. The Pocumtuck thought they had agreed to share the area with the English. The tribe moved from site to site but returned each spring, believing they had retained their hunting and fishing rights.
The British, however, thought they had purchased the area outright from the Pocumtuck. In 1675 the Indians and British fought a yearlong battle, during which the British made a devastating pre-dawn attack at Turner’s Falls, killing three hundred Indian men, women, and children.
In this tense climate of political rivalries, brutal attacks, and newly formed alliances, the town of Deerfield stood vulnerable.
“The Pocumtuck and Abenaki may have wanted revenge,” says Neumann. “The Hurons had made alliances with other tribes involved, and felt bound to go along. Everyone was looking for captives, who could be sold back to the British or adopted by a nation.”
Two hours before dawn on February 29, a surprise attack by an army of forty-seven French and two hundred Abenaki, Pennacook, Mohawk, and Huron soldiers on snowshoes, led by the French nobleman Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville, dealt the English a major setback.
“The crushing defeat of the English in Deerfield became a rallying cry for increased intercolony military cooperation--eventually leading to the French defeat,” says Neumann. “The capture of over one hundred Deerfield residents, many of whom did ot return from French Catholic Canada, was to have repercussions for years to come.”
According to Neumann, those who survived the attack made a great effort to redeem the English abducted to Canada, but some captives remained there.
Reverend Williams and four of his children were ransomed and returned to Deerfield. But his daughter Eunice, who had been eight years old when the attack occurred, was adopted by the Mohawk and converted to Catholicism. She eventually married a Mohawk named Arosen and settled in Kahnawake, near Quebec City. Williams spent the rest of his life trying to convince Eunice to return to Massachusetts. Although she visited her New England family, Eunice made her life with the Mohawk.
Many captives under the age of twelve were adopted by French or Indian families and remained in Canada through adulthood. Joseph Kellogg, for example, was twelve when he was taken and lived in Canada until 1714. His knowledge of tribal languages led him to the fur trade. He later returned to New England and was much in demand as an interpreter. He achieved some fame as the first Englishman to see the Mississippi River.
His sister, Rebecca, captured at age eight, lived in Kahnawake and later returned to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where she married. She used her knowledge of native languages in mission work. “Their lives were still connected with the Indians,” says Sweeney. He estimates that between 3 and 5 percent of today’s French Canadian population is descended from English captives.
“The story of 1704 does not fade away with the end of the French and Indian Wars,” says Neumann. “Native peoples have a continued presence in New England and Canada, with several highly visible and documented visits by Eunice’s descendants to Deerfield.” Eunice herself left a direct legacy: because native family names are matrilineal, “Williams” continues on among her children and her children’s children.