Strange Alliances: The Deerfield Raid of 1704

By Riechers, Maggie | Humanities, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview
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Strange Alliances: The Deerfield Raid of 1704

Riechers, Maggie, Humanities

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, a 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.

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