Another Atrocity in Deerfield

May 23, 2009

Deerfield Massacre

The images had remained with me since childhood: an Indian dashing a baby’s brains out outside a house, and a great wooden door with a jagged hole chopped in the middle, through which the same Indians fired a gun at English men, women, and children taking shelter from the attack.

I learned about the Deerfield Massacre from a family visit to the Deerfield Memorial Hall, and from two books: The Boy Captive of Old Deerfield (originally published in 1904) and The Boy Captive in Canada (1905) (1), both by Mary P. Wells Smith, a college-educated Unitarian and supporter of women’s suffrage who had an active career in community affairs. The books tell the story of the year of captivity among the Indians suffered by Stephen Williams, the 10-year-old son of the Reverend John Williams, minister of Deerfield. I was about the same age as Stephen when I read them. The small frontier town of Deerfield was attacked by French and Indians in 1704 as part of the conflict known as Queen Anne’s War. 50 residents were killed and 112 captured and marched 300 miles to Canada to be held for ransom.

The two volumes are classics for older children, combining truthful accounts of the brutality of the attack which make the reader shudder, with romantic imagined episodes of young Stephen’s interactions with the Indians. The latter would be perfect in a Disney version of the story: the kind Indian girl; the nasty boy who pushes the white boy under the ice; the one who befriends him and teaches him to hunt. Stephen is described as intelligent and sensitive, unwavering in his Christian, Protestant faith (some of the Indians are partially-converted Catholics) but willing to learn Indian ways from his captors. The Indians, despite their willingness to instantly dispatch of any captive lacking the strength to travel, by and large treat him well once they have determined to adopt him and teach him Indian ways. Since Stephen, after attending Harvard College, did go on to become a minister active in missionary efforts with the Indians, Smith’s portrait of him is reasonable.

It is essential for American children to be acquainted with stories such as that of Stephen Williams. Through them they can understand their link with the settlers of 300 and more years ago, and understand the hardships and adventure and human drama of the formation of the country. The author also portrays the absolute centrality of religion in Puritan society in terms a child can easily understand. In a Preface to the second book, she writes:

In reading this true story, we can but wonder afresh what superhuman power enabled a young boy, suddenly dragged from home and friends by savages, to endure and survive such an ordeal, and realize anew that in the religious faith instilled by our Puritan forefathers lay the secret of this power of enduring seemingly unbearable hardships and sorrow, so often manifested by our ancestors in the trying times of the old French and Indian wars. (p. vii)

I was disappointed, though, when I recently returned to the Memorial Hall. The door was there, of course, and various portraits and artifacts displayed; but there was no coherent narrative of the events of 1704-5. The lack of clarity came, of course, from the unsuccessful attempt to reconcile contemporary concern with the suffering of displaced Indians with the original and inherent purpose of the museum, which was to commemorate the experience of the white forebears of modern America. The display on the massacre (now called a “raid”) featured numerous Indian artifacts and explanatory texts musing over how “Natives” are ambivalent about the memorializing of Deerfield.

Even worse, the exhibit attacked the more recent inhabitants of Massachusetts for their supposed bias against Indians. For instance, a photographed re-enactment of the “raid” from, I suppose, the early 20th century, showing an “Indian” carrying away Stephen Williams’s younger sister, Eunice, was described as follows:

The darkly painted face on the “Indian” contrasts sharply with the white Puritan cap and innocent face of little “Eunice,” drawing a firm symbolic line between the sinister “savage” and the helpless child.

Another photograph shows young men of perhaps college age standing outdoors, dressed in “Indian” garb and pretending to perform a prayer. The text helpfully informs us:

In pretending to be engaged in a Native American religious activity, they belittle the customs of Native people.

Now I am the first to agree that it is desirable for objective information be given about the three tribes involved in the Deerfield incident and the reasons for their actions. And some devices do not work today, like having the Indian characters say things like “heap good fire,” as Smith did in her novels. Nevertheless, Deerfield is not and never can be a monument to American Indians. It was a town built by English settlers and partly destroyed in a horrific attack which became enshrined the memory of their descendants. These settlers ultimately prevailed against the French and Indians alike to form a new nation.

Have white Americans been guilty of demeaning and belittling the Indian peoples who inhabited the continent before them? No doubt; but in the history of human affairs I do not see why they should be singled out for doing what all people do: placing their group first and seeing things from their group’s perspective. And of course a tradition of humane concern for and admiration of Indians has existed for as long as Europeans have been in contact with them. I would like to defend the young men “praying” mentioned above, who were obviously conducting an innocent ritual that expressed, if anything, admiration for Indians, with no intent to belittle anyone. And if the seizure of a seven-year-old white girl by an Indian warrior can be portrayed without making the girl look innocent and the man sinister, I would like to know how! Further, it seems to be assumed that to identify with the English in the Deerfield incident somehow means to demonize American Indians, which is obviously not the case.

If the reader wishes to see an even more nightmarish deconstruction of Anglo-American identity, he may refer to the website entitled “The Many Stories of 1704,” which attempts to give equal “airtime” to each of three Indian tribes involved, the French, and, yes, the hapless English. To get a flavor of the bias of the website, note the picture which visually suggests that the settlers had destroyed an Indian village to build their own, and the anthropological description of the English as just another human “tribe” driven by economic and other pressures (supplemented by a painting reinforcing a view of them as a collective mass). Amazingly, the website even emphasizes Stephen Williams’s lack of cultural sensitivity – apparently he was an ungrateful captive and “offended” his captors with his eagerness to be ransomed and preference for the French.

This is the kind of “Indian atrocity” that takes place today. The massacres are long past, but our memory of the white founders of America is under continual attack, and the ferocity of the attacks is increasing. If they are not countered, the day may come when the lovely colonial buildings in Old Deerfield, and the Memorial Hall, no longer tell their story at all – if they are even still standing. (If the reader believes that “Old New England’s” future existence is secure, he should look up demographic statistics for cities like Springfield, Massachusetts, now about 30% Hispanic.)

Today, it is not Stephen Williams, but his younger sister, Eunice, who draws the interest of historians (2). Eunice Williams, like one-third of the Deerfield captives, never returned to her original home. Only seven years old when captured, she forgot her English and assimilated completely to the society of her captors, marrying an Indian and converting to Catholicism. Stephen and others made contact with her and repeatedly attempted to persuade her to return to Massachusetts, but to no avail. In our era, in which non-European immigrants steadily move in to overwhelm the white, English-speaking, Protestant population, assimilation out of the founding population is the new ideal for historians, most of whom support the change. Eunice thus replaces Stephen as the subject of interest and sympathy. I too find her to be a sympathetic and interesting character. Nevertheless it is the survival of Stephen that is most important for Americans to remember, symbolizing as it does the roots of our nation and, one hopes, the strength we will find to survive threats of a very different sort.


(1) Mary P. Wells Smith, The Boy Captive of Old Deerfield (Deerfield, Massachusetts: Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, 2004), and The Boy Captive in Canada (ibid).

(2) The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), is a very popular and scrupulously researched account of the incident which focuses on the fate of Eunice. I do not make use of it in this essay, however. The Memorial Hall also gives her story much attention. The Indian practice of adopting whites into their tribes, suggesting that they were less “racist” than the English, seems to be generally admired these days.


God’s Grandeur

May 6, 2009

A poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, written in 1918:

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.