Today in History

Today in History: February 29

Attack on Deerfield

Old house
Old Fray [sic] House, Deerfield, Mass., built in 1698, copyright 1904.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

On February 29, 1704, between 200 and 300 French soldiers and their Native American allies raided the tiny frontier settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts. The assault was a tiny skirmish in Queen Anne's War—a broader conflict between France and England. As a precaution, the townsfolk had sheltered in the town's palisade but they were surprised by the mid-winter attack and Deerfield quickly fell to the invaders. Some fifty English men, women, and children were killed and over 100 residents began a forced march through heavy snows to Canada (New France).

Deerfield's minister, Reverend John Williams, his wife, and five children, were among the captives. Although approximately twenty prisoners died along the way, including Mrs. Williams, the minister survived the trip. Held for more than two years in captivity—first by the Abenaki Indians, next in French Catholic communities near Montreal, he and nearly sixty other colonists were ransomed by Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley, arriving by boat in Boston in November 1706. Williams memorialized his Canadian experience in The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion. First printed in 1707, the book was reprinted again and again.

Several young Deerfield captives never returned to their families. Instead, they joined either Native American or French society. Four Williams children were released; one child, Eunice Williams, remained in Canada. Eunice took the Mohawk name A'ongote, which means "She (was) taken and placed (as a member of their tribe)." Eunice married a Mohawk man when she was sixteen; they had three children.

Captivity Narratives

Native Americans and a captive in a canoe
The Captivity of Mrs. Rowlandson, Wood engraving [detail],
Illustration, Harper's Weekly, 1857.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Reverend Williams’ testimonial was neither the first nor the last popular account of a captivity experience. Captivity narratives were frequently bestsellers and were among the first American books published; the genre profoundly influenced the nation's literary imagination.

Mary White Rowlandson's widely read treatise The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was published in Massachusetts and London in 1682. Held hostage by Native Americans for eleven weeks, she was ransomed for £20. Rowlandson's effort was followed by similar works depicting women as hapless victims of mysterious savages.

In 1823, James E. Seaver's A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison challenged the traditional narrative. Seaver related the true story of Mary Jemison who, in 1758, was carried off by the raiding party of French soldiers and Shawnee who killed her parents. Adopted by a Seneca family, she refused to return to "civilization." Eventually, Jemison married a Seneca warrior and became one of the largest tribal landowners.

In 1713, Queen Anne's War ended when Great Britain, France, and Spain settled the War of the Spanish. England gained North American assets including Newfoundland and French Acadia (renamed Nova Scotia). France and England did not do battle in America again until the 1754 French and Indian War. All of these wars were colonial counterparts of widespread European conflicts.

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