Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield, By Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney, University of Massachusetts, 376 pp., illustrated, $29.95
When my ancestor Hanna Chapin agreed to marry John Sheldon Jr. and move to Deerfield, her mother warned her to sew a trousseau of warm clothes because she'd probably be captured by Indians. Mother was right.
A few months later, on the night of Feb. 29, 1704, more than 350 Native Americans and French soldiers attacked the frontier town. While they hacked away at the Sheldons' heavy oak door, the newlyweds bailed out of a second-floor window in the back. Hanna, 22, sprained her ankle and urged her husband to leave her and run for help to nearby Hatfield. When he returned with reinforcements, the invaders had departed with 112 captives, including his bride, leaving 50 other settlers dead. The captives were marched more than 200 miles north to Montreal through deep snow. Those who could not keep up, mostly women and children, were dispatched by a quick blow to the head. Hanna made it, despite her ankle, and a year later was ransomed by her father-in-law from a French-Canadian family. Subsequent negotiations led to more releases.
When the Sheldon home, known as the Old Indian House, was torn down in 1848, the controversy helped spur preservation of the remaining early buildings by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and later Historic Deerfield Inc.
Old Deerfield is now a museum-village and education center observing the tricentennial of the raid, which used to be called the Deerfield Massacre until this became politically incorrect. The Sheldons' front door with a hole hacked in it, through which Hanna's mother-in-law was shot and killed, has been preserved in the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield. It will be a centerpiece of an exhibition, "Remembering 1704," which runs through April 2005.
But how does one remember 1704 today? For many generations, the Deerfield raid was used, like Custer's Last Stand, as propaganda to justify taking Native Americans' land (and also France's northern colony). "Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield," by Evan Haefeli of Tufts University and Kevin Sweeney of Amherst College, reinterprets the event for a modern audience less inclined to dismiss Native American grievances.
Haefeli and Sweeney spent 10 years exhaustively researching the individual stories of captors and captives. There is much repetition, for the authors are telling the same story from three points of view -- English, French, and Native American -- in alternating chapters. The book is least sympathetic to the English settlers and their expanding families, whom the authors regard as a land-grabbing "engine of growth that drove New England's expansion." The chapters devoted to the Catholic settlers of underpopulated but rigidly class-structured New France (now Canada) are informative, but they pale next to the tragedy of the overrun Native Americans trying to find their way out of an impossible situation. Here lies much of the soul of the book.
The authors write of the culture, politics, and fate of the five tribes that participated in the Deerfield raid: Abenakis, Hurons, Kahnawake Mohawks, Pennacooks (Deerfield's original inhabitants), and Iroquois of the Mountain. To bolster their own thin ranks, the French offered an alliance. But while the French wanted to destroy the enemy, many Native Americans wanted to adopt them. Most prized were young girls, often presented as family replacements to grieving Native American women who had lost loved ones. That's why raids for captives were called mourning wars.
While scores of smaller Native American raids on Worcester, Chicopee, Northampton, Reading, Chelmsford, Haverhill, and Sudbury faded from memory, the Deerfield event was immortalized by its captured minister, John Williams, who recounted his ordeal and his wife's murder as a test of religious faith in a Colonial bestseller called "The Redeemed Captive." "Captors and Captives" builds on John Demos's prize-winning 1994 history, "The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America." Demos focused on Williams's 7-year-old daughter Eunice, who refused to be "redeemed." She was one of several young girls who chose to stay with and marry within their captors' tribe rather than return to their Deerfield families. Demos's book reaches a resolution of tolerance and forgiveness when many years later Eunice brings her Mohawk family from Canada to visit their Deerfield relatives.
"Captors and Captives" lacks the compelling emotional arch of "The Unredeemed Captive" but similarly employs in-depth historical research to convert a bloody old tale into an opportunity for multicultural understanding. How does one remember 1704? Three hundred years after the event, "Captors and Captives" does it by giving all the participants fair historical treatment.