Historian explores unheard voices in brutal tale of colonial New England
For almost 300 years, the memory of the Deerfield Raid has haunted—and fascinated—New Englanders.
Early on the morning of February 29, 1704, a band of French soldiers and their Indian allies attacked the then-frontier town of Deerfield, killing 50 English colonists.
What has kept the story alive in the public imagination is the fate of the rest of the town: More than 100 residents—including women and children—were taken captive and forced on a months-long trek to Canada. Some eventually returned to New England; others remained in French and Native communities for the rest of their lives.
As history enthusiasts prepare to mark the 300th anniversary of the raid, a Tufts historian has published a book that takes a look at the events of 1704 through new eyes.
“Traditionally, the story was told from the perspective of the New England settlers. That’s where the sympathies lay,” says Evan Haefeli, assistant professor of history and co-author of Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004). Haefeli wrote the book with his mentor, Amherst College professor Kevin Sweeney.
“We’re trying to give equal treatment to all of those involved: the English, the French and the different Native groups. There were five different groups, all involved with this for very different reasons.
“Our ultimate goal was to tell a story about the frontier and colonial New England that’s inclusive of all perspectives of all the people involved,” Haefeli said.
“Amherst [home of Hampshire College] is just down the river from Deerfield,” Haefeli said. “I’d read about the Deerfield Raid in college; historians always mentioned it as the quintessential or representative event when they wanted to tell a story about the French and Indian Wars.
“The event has always gotten a lot of attention, and people in New England have always talked about it. So I wondered: Why do people keep telling this story? I realized there was a lot of emphasis on the memory of the event, but I realized not much was known about all the facts of what happened and why.”
The first place to stock the book was Historic Deerfield Village, a restored village and museum devoted to early New England life.
A website is being developed by the Memorial Hall museum in Deerfield that draws on Haefeli and Sweeney’s work.
What's in a Name?
“Only for the last 10 years has it been called the Deerfield Raid,” Haefeli said. “For the last 300 years, it has been called the Deerfield Massacre, and the name has been a symbol of importance. Again, that comes out of the tradition of portraying the New England settlers as victims.
“The word massacre stresses the [settlers] who were killed, but it was really much more of a battle. They fought back and forth. The New Englanders killed many French and Indians. It wasn’t a massacre other than the fact that the English lost.”
The raid itself grew from hostilities between the English and French in Europe, continued by their colonists in the New World. The English had become aggressive about settling farther into North America, building outposts like Deerfield along the Connecticut River and filling them with growing families. This was seen as a threat to French interests as well as the Indians’ territory.
In the subsequent retelling of the Deerfield story, “it’s not generally known why the French and Indians attacked,” Haefeli said. “The English in New England were very aggressive about taking land away and fighting wars against those [Native people] who lived near them.”
The French, meanwhile, were primarily interested in North America for economic reasons. Their involvement in the fur trade led to alliances with Indian tribes as far west as the Great Lakes. “They were much more intimately involved in cooperating with Native peoples. They were not stealing land and not encouraging settlement,” Haefeli said.
In addition, many Indians were converted to Catholicism by Jesuit missionaries, and there was intermarriage between the French and Natives, so it was understandable that the two groups became allies against the English.
The story of Deerfield didn’t end with the bloodshed of a single night. “What was always striking was the number of captives taken back to Canada,” Haefeli said. In the Native cultures, it was not uncommon for prisoners taken during war to be adopted by Indian families and assimilated into the community.
“I was very interested in who the French and Indian people were who took the captives and the relationship between the two—the whole context of why it happened and the after-effects on the lives of the people involved on all sides, especially the lives of the captives and captors,” Haefeli said.
The relationship that developed between the captives and their captors became “quite complicated,” Haefeli said. “Some of the captives stayed with the Mohawks near Montreal. Some were taken in by the French and lived out their lives as French. So a lot of French-Canadians are really descended from New Englanders.
“Most [of the captives] eventually came back to New England, but their relationship with their former masters didn’t end. There was visiting, staying in touch, especially with those who still had relatives in Canada.
“The experience wasn’t just something they forgot about. It shaped the rest of their lives,” Haefeli said. Among the Deerfield captives was the settlement’s minister, John Williams, who later came back to write a narrative of his captivity. Narratives such as Williams’ “were the first genuine American literary form, and his was the most famous. People kept reading this book for centuries,” Haefeli said.
The intriguing part of Williams’ story was that his daughter, Eunice, captured as a 7-year-old, was adopted by the Mohawks and “made a complete assimilation from a Puritan girl to a Mohawk woman.” She eventually married a Mohawk warrior.
“That part of the story has fascinated and horrified people for centuries,”