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Lesson 8
Booklet Accompanying "American Heros" Action Toys

The Deerfield Massacre
by Claire Cochrane
For New Ventures PD&M Inc.

On the cold winter night of February 29, 1704, the Reverend John Williams was awakened by a thundering crash. He jumped from bed in his nightshirt. A glance into the hall told him that natives were breaking down his door. He shouted a warning to his family and grabbed the loaded pistol he always kept by his bedside, just as the natives burst in.

They were Mohawk and Abenaki warriors, painted for battle, and waving knives and tomahawks. Williams pointed his pistol at the nearest warrior and pulled the trigger. The gun did not fire! Williams was overpowered and the pistol was jerked from his hand. He, his wife and children were tied up. Something that could happen to any frontier family had happened to them. Their town, Deerfield, was burning. Many of their neighbors lay dead. The Williams family were prisoners.

Deerfield was settled by English families from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1670, but they were not the first people to live there. This fertile valley on the Connecticut River had been home for generations to a small tribe- the Pocumtucks- who gave their name to the area. White settlers formed a town there, calling it Pocumtuck.

Back in England the settlers, called Puritans, had struggled with the question of how to live a godly life in an ungodly world. Their quest to live as they thought God wanted them to, had led them to the shores of America. They considered New England to be the Promised Land, where they could live as they wished.

Many different tribes lived there already. They, too, thought the land had been made by God for their use. They hunted deer and bear in the forests, and caught salmon in the Connecticut River. They grew corn, beans, and squash, which they called the Three Sisters. They told stories praising the animals and plants that fed them. They raised their children to be brave and kind. Without help from the natives, the first Puritan settlers would have died, but the natives and the Puritans did not understand each other.

A bitter war set the natives and the Puritans against each other. Pocumtuck was attacked, and the Puritan colonists had to leave. It was resettled by them after the war, in the 1680's, and given a new name- Deerfield.

Among the new settlers were Reverend John Williams, his wife Eunice, and their family. By 1704, they had five children. Like all Puritan children, the Williams' boys and girls were raised to live a religious life. They were taught by their parents to read and write, to pray and to say Bible stories aloud. The girls did chores with their mother and older sisters in the house, and looked after the younger children. The boys worked with their father in the fields, carried firewood, and drove the family cows to pasture. Hard work and obedience were expected of Puritan children. Like all Puritans, the Williams' family kept the Sabbath, gathering in church to pray and hear sermons all day Sunday with their neighbors. As minister, John Williams led this service and was a valued member of the Deerfield community.

During this time England, which was the mother country of the Puritans, and France, which had sent many of its people to Canada, were often at war. These wars were about land, power, and religion. In America, this meant that the Puritans were fighting the French and their native allies. Both sides attacked each others' towns and villages, killing and capturing men, women, and children. Captives were very important to the natives, because they could be adopted into the native families who had lost members in the fighting.

The English had captured Captain Baptiste, a famous French soldier. They locked him up in a jail in Boston. Angered by this, the French, along with their native allies- the Mohawks, Hurons, and Abenakis- plotted their revenge. The target was Deerfield. They would destroy the town and capture Reverend Williams. Surely the English would set Captain Baptiste free in return for Williams.

As summer turned to autumn, fear of a native raid was on everyone's mind in Deerfield. Six times in the 1690's the town had been attacked. That October, two boys tending cows were ambushed by natives. A constant lookout was kept.

The older boys helped repair the stockade that protected the town. Many families moved into the stockade.

Winter snow blanketed the town with a peaceful stillness. The year turned. It was 1704, but there would be no peace in Deerfield. Two hours before daybreak on February 29, three hundred and fifty moccasined warriors, who had journeyed from Canada on snowshoes, crept silently across the crusted snow. So that they would not be heard, the natives timed their approach in short rushes to sound like gusts of wind.

A sentry on the stockade, having fallen asleep, did not shout the alarm until too late. Natives, covered in war paint and waving tomahawks, climbed the snow drifts to the top of the stockade and surprised the sleeping villagers. With blood-curdling war cries, they broke into houses, killing, taking prisoners, and looting. Many Mohawk and Abenaki warriors had lost family and friends in raids by the English. Now was their time for revenge. Houses and barns were burned. Some Puritan families woke in time to put up a fight or escape, but most did not.

In the early morning light, Reverend John Williams, his family, and more than a hundred of their shivering neighbors, were herded into line by their native captors and a few French soldiers. They began the forced march to Montreal, Canada, three hundred miles north. Over their shoulders, they could see the burning town and, here and there, bodies lying in the snow.

Nine rescuers from Hatfield, the nearest town, having seen the glow of fire in the sky, joined with fifteen escaped Deerfield men. Enraged by the attack, they chased the last of the natives from the town, skirmishing with them in the drifted snow. Women, children and the wounded who had escaped capture were taken to nearby towns.

By the next day, over two hundred settlers from as far away as Connecticut, had gathered. They could not pursue the natives north, for fear of the captives safety.

The bitter cold and lack of food during the long march to Montreal pushed the captives to the limits of human endurance. Eunice Williams, the Reverend's wife, had given birth to a child just six weeks earlier. On the second day of the march, exhausted, she was put to death. In the days to come, nineteen more captives were tomahawked. To the natives, this quick death was though more merciful than being left behind to starve. As they marched northward across what is now the state of Vermont, the captives prayed for strength to go on.

Arriving in Canada after one and a half months of grueling travel, Reverend Williams and his fellow Puritans were sent to different native villages. Williams was separated from his children, who were adopted into native families. The English surrendered Captain Baptiste two years later and Williams was released from captivity. He returned to Deerfield with some of his fellow captives and joined with survivors to rebuild the town.

All of his children were also freed, except one. His daughter Eunice, who was seven years old when she was captured, refused to come home. She took very well to her new family. She grew up to marry a Mohawk warrior and lived the rest of her life among the natives in Canada. This broke John Williams'heart. He married again, took up his life as a minister, and wrote a book about his captivity and how it had deepened his faith in God. He never stopped hoping that he would see his daughter again.

Imagine what it would have been like to be alive in 1704. Would you have been brave enough to defend your family, as Reverend John Williams did? Would you have the courage to walk hundreds of miles through the deep snow, like the captive Williams children? What would you have done if you were a Mohawk or Abenaki and settlers were taking your land? The story of the Deerfield Massacre has many different heroes.

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