Raid and Remembrance

REVIEW: ‘The Deerfield Massacre: A Surprise Attack, a Forced March, and the Fight for Survival in Early America’ by James L. Swanson

A depiction of the 1704 raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts by Walter Henry Lippincott
April 7, 2024

There are two mistakes we can make about life in North America in the first century of English colonization. The first is the common one which many, if not most, of us grew up with, that the English settlers of the Atlantic seaboard at first lived happy and fraternal lives with the tribes of that coastline until something led to the outbreak of conflict, after which the tribes lost, lost, and lost, and then conveniently melted away. The second mistake is to rush to the other end of the spectrum and paint an idyllic portrait of precolonial life that is only disrupted by the intrusion of arrogant and aggressive Europeans, with the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay taking the prize as the most arrogant and aggressive. As in most movements of interpretation and then reinterpretation, the truth usually lies somewhere between the spectrum’s ends, and even then is generally more of a zig-zag than a fixed point. The long history of the human species itself is a story of incessant movement, displacement, assimilation, absorption, intermingling and—not the least—genocidal conquest, in which the number of saints is perilously small and the percentage of sinners depressingly great. Taken together, it gives historians little reason to be optimists, much less partisans.

James Swanson shows us that, for all this frenzy, it is still possible to navigate the turbulent historical waters of colonial America, and do it in a faithful and humane fashion. Swanson is best known for his books on Abraham Lincoln, starting with Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution (2001) and Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (2006). But he has branched out from there to write about the pursuit of Jefferson Davis at the end of the Civil War, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and now, switching centuries backward, the famous Deerfield massacre of 1704. Curiously, he traces his beginnings as a historian to a fellowship year at Historic Deerfield in western Massachusetts "to study furniture, paintings, silver, architecture, landscapes, ceramics, textiles, gravestones, historic preservation, and, of course, the massacre of 1704," and he has been a frequent return visitor for events and reunions. It is, he admits, the sort of place where "any visitor risks slipping into an ecstatic antiquarian frenzy that can overwhelm the senses."

Swanson, however, is careful not to wax too ecstatically, especially since the Deerfield of 1704 was far from being a place that engendered ecstasy. Deerfield was originally the invention of the colonial government of the Massachusetts Bay colony, one of Jacobean England’s many uneven experiments in colonizing North America. The word uneven is used deliberately: The English government was Europe’s poorer relation among its empires and preferred to franchise-out the planting of English colonies around the world to commercial outfits—as if, for instance, the U.S. government had franchised-out the 1969 moon landing to G.E. or Westinghouse. The unevenness entered into the picture because the franchisees were often straw buyers for a variety of radical dissenters—Quakers, Puritans, Catholics—whom the English government was only too happy to be rid of. Once landed on the North American seaboard, these colonists were made to understand that they were on their own. Britain would establish no garrisons to protect them and spend no money to defend them, and if they failed (as they did in Virginia) the home government in London would afford them only the most nominal bankruptcy oversight.

That posed serious risks for the colonists, both in dealing with the tribes they encountered—from the Powhatans of Virginia to the Wampanoags of New England—and with much more hostile and better-organized French colonial settlements in Canada. Compelled to improvise its own defense, the Massachusetts Bay government encouraged the creation of a series of outpost settlements on the western fringe of the colony to act as a barrier against intrusions and uprisings. Deerfield, 100 miles west of Boston, was laid out between 1669 and 1671 as the northernmost of these outposts, which meant that it was in constant danger of attack, first from the Wampanoag uprising in 1675 known as "King Philip’s War," and then from recurring attacks from French Canada, with the French employing tribal allies to augment their small European numbers. The town itself was laid out like a garrison, with a heavily built meeting house at the center, 43 strongly constructed private dwellings lining the single street, and a palisade surrounding them all. From the town, farmers fanned out across the fields and meadows that sloped down to the Deerfield river (a tributary of the larger Connecticut river), but always ready to retreat to the palisade if danger threatened.

Which it did, frequently. In 1675, an attack killed 8 Deerfielders in one raid, ambushed 60 more just two weeks later, and burned the town. Rebuilt in 1682, Deerfield was attacked four more times between 1693 and 1696. "Strangers tell us they would not live where we do for twenty times as much as we do," grumbled the town’s Puritan minister, John Williams. And many Deerfielders probably wouldn’t have lived there, either, had it not been for the tax exemptions the Massachusetts government offered them.

The French kept coming, though, and every new outbreak of transatlantic war between France and England prompted new raids from Canada by the French and their tribal allies, who often planned them for the purpose of capturing hostages who could later be held for ransom. When Queen Anne’s War erupted in 1702, Deerfield was warned that it might come under renewed attack. But for months, nothing disturbed Deerfield’s quiet, and the town grew complacent. They had no inkling that a massive raid—some 50 French and Canadian regulars and militia, plus up to 300 Abenakis, Hurons, Mohawks, Pennacooks, and Iroquois—was about to descend on them.

Aided by a major snowstorm that piled drifts up to the top of the 10-foot palisade, the predawn attackers were over the palisade and into Deerfield before any alarm could be sounded. Houses were broken into, resisters were clubbed to death, and a rescue party from nearby Hatfield forced to retreat. Fifty colonists were killed, including the infant children of John Williams, and Williams and 111 others were captured and forced onto a long march toward Canada.

The conditions of the march were reminiscent of Bataan: Anyone who could not keep up (beginning with John Williams’s wife, Eunice, and eventually 18 others) was simply tomahawked or starved. It took two months for the Deerfield captives to reach Montreal, and most were then parceled out to French or tribal settlements until they could be ransomed. There, Jesuit missionaries went to work on their prisoners to encourage them to convert to Catholicism, while the tribes began assimilating the English children into tribal life to replace their own losses in war. Four Deerfielders escaped and made their unbelievable way back to Massachusetts. But in the end, only 59 of the Deerfield hostages were returned in a deal brokered in 1706; remarkably, 33 of them (including John Williams) restarted life in Deerfield.

From the first, the Deerfield raid was a sensation, and it became the source of one of the most influential "captivity narratives" written in colonial New England, John Williams’s The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion. His son, Stephen, also survived captivity and went on to a career as a minister himself. His sister, Eunice, however, did not return. She instead converted to Catholicism and married a Mohawk man, François-Xavier Arosen.

That divided path provides Swanson with Deerfield’s second story: how the massacre was remembered, how that remembrance was readjusted over time, and how Deerfield transformed itself into an open-air museum that tried to bring all the mixed elements of the sacking of Deerfield into some sort of harmonious narrative. Only one actual physical relic of the 1704 raid survives today—the so-called Indian door from a Deerfield house, still bearing the marks of repeated tomahawk blows—but that has not prevented Deerfield from becoming a character in a succession of tales, from the Colonial Revival of the early 20th century to a 2004 festival that featured representatives of the Abenaki, Huron, Pennacook, and Mohawk—even the French.

Swanson is not accusatory; he is also not romantic. The attackers were guilty of some abominable deeds; their victims' descendants were guilty of some abominable interpretations. And one remembers both, because human fragility requires that we recall the cruelties of the past in order to remind ourselves not to repeat them in the present; because human aspiration requires that we recognize the resilience of humanity, even under the most violent and unjust circumstances; and because human flourishing in the present requires a confidence that the past can be faced and embraced without flinching, without self-righteousness, and without falsehood or evasion. That will not make us optimists, but it will give us something better to feed on than despair.

The Deerfield Massacre: A Surprise Attack, a Forced March, and the Fight for Survival in Early America
by James L. Swanson
Scribner, 336 pp., $30

Allen C. Guelzo is director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in Princeton University’s James Madison Program and author of Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy and the American Experiment (Knopf, 2024).