Dawn was still two hours away on the morning of February 29, 1704. Inside the fence at Deerfield, Massachusetts, 291 people slept fearlessly. Expecting no trouble on such a cold, quiet night, the settlers had posted no night watch (or the watch had been negligent).
But, creeping quietly through three feet of hardened snow, a party of over 300 French and Indian fighters approached the town. Probably they noted with satisfaction the snow drifts that had piled high against the little town's palisade. They swarmed over the protecting fence and into the houses.
John Williams and his wife Eunice woke to find twenty painted warriors howling around their bed. Newly arrived to Deerfield as its first pastor, John was the most prominent person in the town. Indians tied him with ropes. Before his horrified eyes they tomahawked his six year old son, a six week old daughter and a black servant.
For three hours, the French and Indians looted the town. They set fire to its houses and barns. When men from neighboring towns came to Deerfield's defense, the indians battled them. Finally, they disappeared into the snowy wilderness with 109 captives, leaving 56 settlers dead. Wading through three feet of snow, the raiding party headed North on a seven week trek to Montreal, Canada.
On the second day, John saw that his wife could not hold up. She was still weak from her last pregnancy. Knowing that the raiders would spare no one who was unable to keep up the pace, John said good-bye to her. Soon afterward, she stumbled while wading a small river and "was plunged over head and ears in the water; after which she traveled not far, for the cruel and bloodthirsty savage slew her with his hatchet."
Why had a Puritan pastor in a remote outpost been targeted for this bitter destiny? For one thing, Boston authorities held a Canadian "pirate" named Jean-Baptiste Guyon. The Canadians wanted this naval officer back, and thought a hostage exchange might force the negotiations along. For another, their Indian allies were concerned at the numbers of colonists moving westward and demanded that something be done to slow the land grab.
Although his own feet were so raw that he had to wring blood out of his socks each night, John did all he could to keep up the spirits of the other captives. Sixty of them were eventually released. John was one of the last. He returned to a hero's welcome in Massachusetts on this day, November 21, 1706. Shortly afterward, he wrote a bestseller The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion.
The book was part-heroism and part religious argument and part complaint. His main gripe, apart from the brutal attack itself, was that the French attempted to force their Protestant captives to convert to Catholicism. In this and other details, the book remains an important source of information on colonial life.
John Williams died on June 12, 1729. One of his daughters, Eunice, would not be there to bury him. Captured with him, she never returned home, but married an Indian.
- Encyclopedia Americana. 1956.
- "The Deerfield French/Indian Raid." John Williams Family and Their Most Interesting Genealogical Connections. http://members.tripod.com/~ntgen/bw/wms_john.html
- Moonan, Wendy. "Rare U.S. frontier memoir resurfaces." The New York Times. http://www.iht.com/articles/69256.html
- "Williams, John, American Clergyman." http://www.bartleby.com
- Williams, John. The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion ; or, A faithful history of remarkable occurrences in the captivity and deliverance of Mr. John Williams, minister of the Gospel in Deerfield, who in the desolation that befel that plantation by an incursion of the French and Indians, was by them carried away, with his family and his neighbor-hood, into Canada, drawn up by himself : to which is added a biographical memoir of the reverend author with an appendix and notes by Stephen W. Williams. Bedford, Massachusetts: Applewood Books, 1993.
Last updated June, 2007.