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Friday, February 29, 2008

Deerfield Massacre - 1704

On Leap Day in 1704, the Abenaki Indians attacked the settlement of Deerfield on the Massachusetts frontier, killing over 50 colonists, taking captive over a hundred others.

King Philip’s War of the previous century had lately evolved into a more peaceful state for the English settlers of New England. But the Abenaki made an impressive encore by their assault on the Connecticut River valley towns.

On the evening of February 28th, a group of about 40 Abenaki men, slipped into Deerfield and routed the villagers, smashing doors and windows, setting fire to homes, killing livestock. The call to alarm brought the sleeping colonists awake, and some managed to leap from windows and run into the fields and woods for cover, even escaping to other settlements. It was reported that Goodman Allison and his wife ran all the way to Hatfield.

Some hid in cellars. Others were killed, including two small children of minister John Williams, and a woman named Parthena, who was the family slave of Williams.

Williams, his wife, and surviving children were taken captive. His wife and others were killed on the forced march to Canada. Between the Indians and the French, and the English who negotiated for release, many captives were released over the next few years. John Williams and two of his children were released and returned by ship to Boston in November 1706. He eventually returned to Deerfield, and wrote an account of his captivity. His daughter Eunice, taken at 7 years old, settled with the Mohawk community at Kahnawake, married, and would not return to New England except for visits in the later years of her life.

Starting today and continuing on Saturday and Sunday, Historic Deerfield will host a weekend of commemorative activities, including a reenactment of the skirmish. There are 13 museum houses in Old Deerfield, built between 1730 and 1850, and objects on display from the two hundred years from 1650 to 1850 which illustrate the lives of the settlers on this frontier outpost.

Stop by if you can, and re-live this lightning rod event in New England history, and learn about the clash of the cultures between English, French, and native people which met at a crossroads with tragic results in the wee small hours of February 29, 1704.

For more information on Historic Deerfield and this weekend’s colonial encampment, have a look at this website.


Mark T. Alamed said...

Excellent blog...what a treasure for New Englanders to mine!

For anyone who has the time or inclination, I would highly recommend a warm-weather drive to Old Deerfield and a visit to the old burying ground there, where a somber mound of dirt topped with a marker covers the mass grave of many of the settlers killed in the 1704 skirmish.

Take care.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you for stopping by, Mark, and for your kind comment. I would urge readers of this blog to visit your great blog Exploring Western Massachusetts.

Your suggestion on visiting the Old Deerfield burying ground is excellent. A somber story.

Orr's said...

Why were they taken captive, I'm taking a test on this next week and one of the questions was why? I know they ransomed some of them but was that all? It was no easy task escorting them through the snow, why did they take captives in the first place instead of killing them?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Orr's. That's a good question. Ransom at that time, as it still is today, is strong motivation for the capture of prisoners.

I wonder, though, if there might be another aspect to living in that century in this remote wilderness that we have forgotten. The population, both native and European settlers, was sparse. People, therefore, were a resource, a commodity. For the Abenaki to take captive a substantial segment of one community was to achieve political power, military leverage, and the possibility of increasing their own wealth. Killing those who did not resist would be a waste. Since a few, like the girl named Eunice who were captured as children, became volunatary members of Indian nations as adults, it was also a way for the captors to increase their own nations and therefore their own consequence.

Good luck on your test.

Anonymous said...

Doing my family tree, I stumbled onto the fact that I am a direct descendant of Benoni Stebbins. My father was always vague about New England ancestry, but his name was like a key that unlocked the whole thing, since his middle name was a surname, and he was the fourth of the line to be named John Benedict Foster. The Benedict's were a prominent Connecticut family, and when a Stebbins married a Benedict, it became even easier to trace back. Hannah Stebbins was a granddaughter of a man with an odd name, Benoni. Finding Benoni Stebbins at was a boon. Googling it opened the door to a story we never knew. Like most Americans, we have amnesia.

I have always felt that the popular view of American history is telescoped a little oddly. You have Jamestown and the Pilgrims, this war where young George Washington won his spurs (French and Indian) and then, soon afterwards, the switch of sides at the Revolution. What happened between those times is nothing less than my family history, in every gory detail. Going to Grandma's in Connecticut will never be the same - except that now she's moved to California with so many more of these descendants. I remember visiting the burial hill in Concord, MA and asking the guide there what happened to these old families. "They moved to California," he said. Yes indeed. And there they forget.

Until, that is.

By the way, the Abenakis were not the instigators of the raid on Deerfield, in my opinion. This was actually a skirmish in Queen Anne's War between Louis XIV (the Sun King) and the sister of Mary (of William and Mary). The French arrived at Deerfield in command, and the Indians supplied some of the muscle and terror factor. This was a French operation, and the captives did not all wind up being raised as Indians. Many were turned into French Quebecois. Remember when the Patriots dressed up as Indians at the Boston Tea Party? Where did they get that idea? Clearly, Europeans acting as Indians and with Indians was an old trick, but it is a sort of vernacular understanding lost on that public which has lived so long with a telescoped history, and also with that bum rap of violence placed solely on the Indians.

I'd document this chapter and verse, but there are many fine books on the raid.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much for sharing your family history with us. You make some interesting and valid points on the Deerfield raid. I admire your tenacity in researching this era and your family heritage.

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