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In the Classroom > Unit Overview > Lesson 1
Lesson 1
Native American Presence in Deerfield, Massachusetts

The Pocumtuck people, whose homelands included the land that would eventually be named Deerfield by the English settlers, were connected culturally and through language to the Algonquian people. In addition to Pocumtuck, the Norowottuck, Sohoki, Abenaki, Mahican, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Nipmuc, Pennecook, Pigwacket, Pequot, and Mohegan were a part of the Algonquian "network."

The Pocumtucks moved seasonally through their homelands which were connected by a network of paths. They lived in wigwams, created palisaded villages, and, by the time of the birth of Christ, planted cornfields on the flood plain. The women were responsible for the agriculture and the raising of the children; the men hunted and fished for food. Their culture and their lifeways centered around the use of the land and they were dependent upon it. To guarantee sustenance, shelter, and security they killed animals, cut trees, and cleared and farmed lands to support populations that grew with the domestication of crops. Fire was the tool they employed to render seeds palatable, to make habitats for animals they ate and used for clothing and shelter, to ready land for planting, and to make travel easier. They used the land to survive. Were they ecologists and conservationists, as we understand those terms today? Was the natural "Eden" that awed the first European visitors a feature of native "environmentalism" or just of very low population density? These are questions that are worthy of study by all students interested in culture and in the historic landscape.

When on May 22, 1665, Dedham men came to the Connecticut River Valley to investigate "a tract of good land... about 12 or 14 miles from Hadley," they declared ownership to lands in a place where they were aware that "other people" had lived. Furthermore, they recognized that the Indians might well "clayme a title" to those lands. What appeared to the English to be a fertile and empty land was a country with a deep and complicated history. In the Native world, land was not "owned" individually but rather collectively and was shared; in the English world land possession meant wealth and was the major key to improving one's station in life. The English typically considered the Indians to be homeless nomads who could not own land since they did not "improve" it, while at the same time believing those same Indians could legally sell their land to eager English purchasers. In the end, the Indians were only sovereign enough to give their sovereignty away.

The wars between the English and the Natives, which followed, were the inevitable consequences of competition between two disparate ways of life.

Initially, however, contact between whites and Natives was peaceful. Starting with the first Connecticut River Valley colonization in the 1630s, Indians and English had lived side by side. The power balance, with the Indians assisting the settlers with needed corn supplies to stave off starvation and a fur trade beneficial to both sides, was maintained generally until the third quarter of the 17th century. The frontier was a "porous" one with trade and interaction between cultures - Indian and Indian and English and Indian. The borders were fluid and capable of expanding and contracting. Even as King Philip's war began in 1675, a group of friendly Indians lived in villages near Springfield, Massachusetts.

But the tensions were building in the second half of the 17th century. Over-hunting had resulted in depletion of the beavers. Native groups encroached upon other Native hunting lands in their efforts to satisfy the European demands for furs. European contact had resulted in unfamiliar diseases among the Indians with escalating higher death rates, circumstances which not only threatened the Native population, but also their faith in traditional beliefs and in the healers who were unable to help. This situation made many Natives more open to Christianity.

The Pocumtucks were drawn into conflict with the Mohawks, which resulted in the near-dispersal of the Pocumtucks. Some fled to Northampton to join the Nonotucks while others remained in other areas of their homelands. Little evidence has been found of Native presence in the 1671 English settlement of Deerfield. Resentment of the initial village by Natives was manifested in the burning of the town in September of 1675 by Indians allied with King Philip and by the attack at Bloody Brook on Deerfield men who had returned to harvest crops in the adjoining fields. Resettlement by the English took place seven years later in 1682 on the same plat of land. In the first fifty years of settlement, Deerfield was attacked by Indians more than thirty times, but the town was never abandoned again.

In 1690 a palisade was constructed by the citizens after news of an Indian attack on Schenectady, New York reached the town. According to Pliny Arms (1778-1859) the palisade was "made of sticks of timber sharpened at the upper end and set in the ground with their edges in contact - they were about ten feet high." It was fourteen years before a wholesale attack on Deerfield occurred on February 29, 1704. The attack, led by French from Canada, was composed of forty-eight Frenchmen and 200 Indians: Hurons, Pigwackets, Penacooks, Pocumtucks, and Mohawks who, with the aid of a recent heavy snowfall, gained access to the palisaded center of the town. Forty-two Deerfield residents were killed plus five soldiers assigned to protect the town. In pursuit of the enemy in the north meadows, nine more Deerfielders lost their lives. The attackers lost eleven in the battle. Captives were taken, 109 men, women, and children, and marched north to Canada; only twenty-four men remained in the town, now truly an outpost, after the surviving women and children were sent to towns further south in the Valley. One of the captives was Elizabeth Price, who, on December 6, 1703 had married Andrew Stevens, "an Indian." About Mr. Stevens we know nothing more, but it does remind us that the Native presence was felt in the domestic life of Deerfield in the earliest years of the eighteenth century. The attack was another reminder that the town was on the edge of the frontier, the northernmost in the small settlements up the Connecticut River Valley from Long Island Sound.

Kevin M. Sweeney and Evan Haefeli in their article "Revisiting the Redeemed Captive" address the presence of females in the raiding party of February 29, 1704. The information in the following three paragraphs is taken from the article.

According to traditions kept in one Kahnawake Mohawk family, at least two members of the Mohawk party, which came to Deerfield in 1704, were women, whose specific goal was to take captives to replace family members who had died. One of them became the Mohawk mother of Eunice Williams, daughter of the Reverend John Williams. This Mohawk woman had lost a daughter two years before in a smallpox epidemic. Eunice was one of the twenty-nine captives who elected to stay in Canada. The other woman in the raiding party took a young boy as captive.

In seeking captives to replace their own lost children the two Mohawk women were observing an old Iroquois practice. Adopting captives to replace lost loved ones was a special condolence rite, one perhaps essential in a culture which through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lost many to wars and to epidemics. The taking and adopting of captives was a means not only to replace the missing bodies, but, more substantially, to allay the grief which was so debilitating that it endangered physical and psychic health in the community. Wars launched for these reasons, wars that required the consent of Iroquois women and were, in fact, often initiated at their urging, have come to be called mourning wars. This seems to have been at least one of the motives among the Native attackers at Deerfield in 1704.

Eunice Williams's adoptive mother displayed all the symptoms of someone who could not heal her grief over the death of a loved one and for whom a war that would bring a captive replacement became a necessity. She had been "inconsolable" and "so much borne down with, that some of her relations predicted that she could not survive long." "It was visible in her countenance that she was in decline, she had lost the vivacity which was a peculiar trait in her character before she was bereft of her daughter." Eunice Williams became a new daughter, made all the more precious for being a second chance. She was perceived not as a replacement, exactly, but as a blessed gift, who brought new life and enabled a more comforting keeping of fond memories of the dead daughter. "The relations of her adopted mother took much notice of her, and the children were instructed to treat her as one of the family."

The 1704 raid on Deerfield was one of a series of joint military expeditions carried out by the French and Indians during the years 1702 to 1713 in the War of the Spanish Succession or Queen Anne's War. The attack was an effort by the French and Indians to halt the gradual expansion of English settlement and political domination. Almost without exception, however, the English interpreted Indian assaults as expressions of mindless savagery or as divine retribution rather than as calculated assaults on the English way of life.

Deerfield, for three years after the February 1704 attack, was a military outpost on the western Massachusetts frontier. With the return of the minister, the Reverend John Williams, in 1707, the town began once again to be peopled by families, perhaps given courage by the return of their pastor. Some of the original families returned, many did not and were replaced by newcomers. In addition to newcomers from south in the Connecticut River Valley, the presence of Indians is noted - if not as permanent residents like Andrew Stevens, as occasional visitors. On May 24, 1718, Rev. Williams wrote a letter to his son Stephen in Longmeadow to tell him that "My Indian Master has been to visit several times." Fourteen years after taking Williams prisoner and marching him to Canada, one of Williams's two captors had returned to Deerfield on a peaceful mission. While staying in the area, the warrior visited the minister several times before returning to Canada. The Indian captor was English-speaking, as were others in the warring party, indicating extended, close association with English colonists.

Jonathan Hoyt (1688-1779), captured in 1704, was visited in Deerfield by his Huron master after the war ended and travel between New England and New France was no longer hazardous. The Huron sometimes brought along his sister, and Hoyt was said to have treated both with kindness and respect. Jonathan Hoyt had learned the Huron language during his stay in Canada. The two men apparently enjoyed each other's company and after several visits, Hoyt petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts for reimbursement for expenses incurred during the visit of his Huron "master."

During the years of peace between 1710 and the early 1720s, Natives often visited Deerfield. [p.59 Haefeli and Sweeney] The first party came in 1714 and one of the party was ten-year-old Aaron Denio. Young Aaron was grandson to John Stebbins whose daughter Abigail had married one of "three Frenchmen" living in Deerfield, James Denio (Deniuer, Denyo, Denayon) February 3, 1704. Both Abigail and James were taken to Canada where their son, Aaron was born December 14, 1704. The parents never returned to live in Deerfield but Aaron's visit to his grandfather resulted in permanent residence. Eunice Williams, daughter of the Reverend John, visited Deerfield as an adult, but never returned to live there. At age sixteen in 1713, Eunice married Arosen, a Kanien'kehaka from Kahnawake.

In 1716, the Five Nations Iroquois used the village site as a gathering place for Algonquian speaking and possibly French Iroquoian recruits to fight against the Catawbas in the Carolinas. [Haefeli and Sweeney]

The two cultures - Indian and English - were disparate, it is true, in religion, language, use of the land, law, and social mores, but caring friendships had been formed in spite of the differences. A poignant sentence in a letter Rev. Williams wrote to his son Stephen and recorded in Stephen's diary on August 10, 1722 expressed concern about the hostilities resumed between New Englanders and the Eastern Indians as the minister confessed he was "Greatly concerned because of the war - he is fearful whether it is just on our side."

The visits did not stop during Dummer's War of 1722-1727. The Huron captor of Jonathan Hoyt and the Kahnawake captors of Ebenezer Sheldon and his sister Mary (Sheldon) Clapp came to visit. In the 1730s, other Deerfield residents petitioned for reimbursement for time and money spent caring for sick Five Nations Iroquois. Councils were held in Deerfield in 1723 to negotiate with Mohawk representatives of the Five Nations and in 1735 with Kahnawakes, Schaghticokes, and St. Francis Abenakis. Incredibly, this 1735 meeting undoubtedly included Natives who had participated in the 1704 attack.

Although the Native American presence in Deerfield rarely included permanent residents after the time of the English when Indians were all too familiar as adversaries, sometimes their presence was as friendly, English-speaking visitors to neighbors up and down the street who had formed a bond of commonality, even as they were engaged in conflict.

Haefeli, Evan and Kevin Sweeney, "Revisiting the Redeemed Captive: New Perspectives on the 1704 Attack on Deerfield," in After King Philip's War, Presence and Persistence in Indian New England. Colin G. Calloway, editor, . Hanover: University Press of New England, 1977, pp. 28-71.

Jennings, Francis, The Invasion of America, Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1976.

Lepore, Jill, The Name of War, King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Melvoin, Richard I., New England Outpost, War and Society in Colonial Deerfield. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.

Williams, John, edited by Edward W. Clark, The Redeemed Captive. Amherst, Massachusetts: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1976.


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