Captivity and Return - By Kevin Sweeney


Natives from Kahnawake, Lorette, La Montagne, Sault-au-Récollet and Cowass participated in the raid on Deerfield for a number of reasons. Joining the expedition affirmed alliances with the French and each other, while offering an opportunity to strike at the English. Many of the raiders also came seeking captives. Taking captives for adoption, slaves or ritual death was a traditional part of Native cultures in the Northeast. In addition, by 1704 Natives had begun to take captives to ransom them for money.

Mourning Wars

image name: tumpline.jpg

Tumplines or burden straps had multiple uses: to carry loads and tie up prisoners. Click here to link to this Kanienkehaka tumpline's artifact page for more information.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA. All rights reserved.

The Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) and the Wendats (Huron) had a long-established tradition of launching mourning-wars to capture prisoners to replace family members who had died. If the established rites that channeled the grief of mourners failed to assuage the sense of loss resulting from the death of a relative, the women of the mourning household could demand a raid or even a war to obtain captives who, if worthy, could ease their pain by either replacing the deceased through adoption or by suffering ritual execution. Such expeditions were directed at enemies who may or may not have been responsible for the death that inspired the mourning-war. The demands of kin for adoptees as well as the other considerations noted above brought Kanienkehaka and Wendats to Deerfield.

Deerfield's Captives

The size of the raiding party that attacked Deerfield and the presence of Native peoples looking for captives led to the taking of a record number of prisoners, 112. The raiders came equipped with cords to bind their captives and extra winter moccasins for their feet. Of the Deerfield captives, 86 to 89 survived the almost 300-mile trek through the snow to Native and French communities in Canada. Native captors who hoped to adopt younger captives into their communities and those who intended to sell their prisoners had a stake in keeping them alive. Still, nineteen captives who were unable to keep up are known to have been killed on the march and two starved to death. Most of those who were killed were adult women or very young children. Two young men escaped.

Once in Canada the religious struggle between Catholic and Protestant that had been rather muted on the march became paramount. The captives—and especially their minister, John Williams—feared for the loss of their souls. In Montreal, a devout circle of prominent French men and women in Montreal worked to transform the Protestant English into good Catholics. Some Christian Natives supported them in this effort. Others—especially the Kanienkehaka at Kahnawake—wanted to turn their captives into Natives first and Christians second. Struggles to possess the souls of Deerfield's hapless colonists pitted French against Indians and English captives against one another. In the period from 1704 until the end of the war in 1713 at least two dozen captives, including two children of the Reverend John Williams, had been baptized into the Catholic faith.

image name: johnwms_portrait.jpg

The Reverend John Williams of Deerfield (1664 - 1729). As the most prominent Deerfield captive, he received special treatment, but his family's varied captivity experiences represented a range of possible captive fates. Click here to go to the artifact page for this picture.
Copyright Historic Deerfield, Inc., Deerfield, MA.

A concern for souls was not the entire story, however, though it figured prominently in later English accounts of captivity experiences. Economic calculations, cultural pride, family ties, and human frailty played roles in determining the fate of individuals. Depending on the community—even the family—in which captives found themselves, they could be used as slaves or servants, adopted as family members, bartered for money and ransomed, or retained as hostages. What happened to individual captives was also influenced by who they were. The Reverend John Williams—the first New England minister to be captured by a French and Indian raiding party—experienced a far different reception in Canada from that of nine-year-old Mary Harris, who had no relatives to help her.

Negotiations for the Captives' Return

Serious efforts to secure the return of the Deerfield captives from Native and French communities in Canada began late in 1704 and continued in earnest for three years. John Sheldon of Deerfield made trips to New France to negotiate for the release of captives in 1705, 1706, and 1707. Negotiations took time, and both sides delayed the process. Several times the French governor explained to skeptical English negotiators that there was relatively little he could do to obtain the release of captives that Native communities wanted to retain. The Natives were French allies, not subjects. But some were willing to ransom their captives to the French or directly to the English. The governor also had to contend with devout French men and women who tried to keep English captives in Canada. Eventually, Sheldon's efforts and those of others secured the return of 47 Deerfield captives by the end of 1707. Three young Englishmen, frustrated by the slow pace of the negotiations, had escaped and made their way back to Deerfield on their own.

After the War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1713 other negotiators, including the Reverend John Williams, traveled to New France to bring back those who remained in Canada. Their efforts had mixed results. Eight more captives returned by 1714 and two more came back to New England much later on their own. Among those who never returned were the three Frenchmen taken at Deerfield, two girls who were teenagers when captured, and two dozen girls and boys who were all under the age of thirteen when they were captured. Among the latter was John Williams's daughter Eunice.

Captives Who Remained in Native Communities

image name: rising_home.jpg

Home of Deerfield captives Josiah Rising and Abigail Nims Rising at Lac des Deux Montagnes. Both very young when captured and brought to Sault-au-Récollet, they became Iroquois and Catholic, and married in 1715. When the village and mission moved to Lac des Deux Montagnes, Sulpician priests gave them this land outside the Native village, and their descendants grew away from the Iroquois and became part of the French community. Photograph by Emma Lewis Coleman, circa 1890.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA. All rights reserved.

Certain patterns can be discovered in the fates of the Deerfield captives. Those prisoners taken by Wôbanakiak from Odanak and by Pennacooks passed fairly quickly into the hands of the French. For the Wôbanakiak and Pennacooks who joined the raid on Deerfield, taking captives for adoption, even for ransom, had been a secondary consideration in the on-going struggle against English invaders of their homelands. By the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, no Deerfield captives remained permanently with either group. Despite a desire to adopt captives, none of the prisoners taken at Deerfield joined the Wendat community at Lorette. The village's small size and the intrusion of French officials made the retention of English captives difficult. Intrusion by priests of the Sulpician order also made it hard for the Iroquois of the Mountain at La Montagne and Sault-au-Récollet to retain their English captives. These priests were intent on turning the English into French Catholics, not Native American Catholics, and to further this end they convinced the Iroquois to marry two of the Deerfield captives—Josiah Rising and Abigail Nims—to each other. Eventually, the couple's ties to the Native village diminished and their children became part of the French community at Oka. Only one Deerfield captive, eight-year-old Hannah Hurst, became an Iroquois of the Mountain.

image name: Kahnawake.jpg

View of Kahnawake in the mid-18th century showing longhouses and the mission church and buildings; ink and watercolor; artist unknown.
Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes, Paris.

Kanienkehaka at Kahnawake had more success at incorporating Deerfield captives into their community. The tradition of fighting mourning wars to adopt captives, the large population of the community, its relative autonomy and its strategic importance aided in the incorporation of captives and limited the influence of French priests and officials. The Kanienkehaka also ransomed their older captives to the French in an effort to isolate their younger prisoners. In all, seven young girls—Mercy Carter, Mary Field, Abigail French, Mary Harris, Joanna Kellogg, Rebecca Kellogg and Eunice Williams—joined the community. Subsequently, a number of these women and their Native families would visit relatives in New England, but only Rebecca Kellogg would choose to remain, abandoning her Kanienkehaka husband and children. The descendants of the others can be found living today in Native communities in Canada.

Captives Who Remained in French Communities

image name: french_descendents.jpg

Photo of the Marchesseau-Higgins family, circa 1892. Joseph Marchesseau, seated next to his wife Helen Higgins, is a descendant of Deerfield captive Martha French. Captured at the age of eight, Martha was married at 16 to Jacques Roy, a mason from La Prairie, a French community adjacent to Kahnawake.
Courtesy of Jean Paquet.

French communities were more successful than the various Native villages at incorporating Deerfield captives. It appears that English captives had an easier time crossing from one European culture to another. French clergy and other pious men and women made a concerted effort to convert young New Englanders to Catholicism. Sixteen Deerfield residents remained in New France after the War's end: ten females and six males. Their names appear in records in French versions: Carter became Chartier; Hurst became Hust; and Stebbins became Stebbene. When they came of age, they married into the lower orders of French society and lived out their lives in Montreal or nearby communities such as Boucherville, Chambly, and La Prairie as farmers or the wives of farmers and craftsmen. In large measure, their lives resembled those of their relatives in New England. Descendants of these Deerfield captives can be found throughout the province of Quebec.

Captives Who Returned

image name: hinsdale_grave.jpg

Mehuman Hinsdale's gravestone, slate, circa 1736. Hinsdale and his wife Mary were captured in 1704 and their child killed. They returned from Canada in 1706. He was captured again in 1709 near Deerfield, and returned again in 1712—after being traded back and forth between the French and Kanienkehaka, thrown in a Quebec prison, and shipped to France. He died in Deerfield as one of the richest men in town.
Photograph by Kevin Sweeney.

Sixty-two of the Deerfield captives who survived the march to New France returned to New England when given an opportunity. Not all of the former captives chose to return to Deerfield with its painful memories and continuing risks. Some moved to places of safety in Connecticut. They settled in Coventry, East Guilford (today Madison), Glastonbury, Hartford, Newington, Suffield and Norwalk. Surprisingly, a few moved north to establish new frontier towns, such as Northfield during the 1710s and 1720s. Joseph Kellogg made use of his knowledge of Native languages, acquired while a captive, to work as an interpreter, diplomat and trader along the frontiers of Massachusetts. About half of the former captives did resettle in Deerfield and helped rebuild the shattered community. Among them was their pastor John Williams who remarried, rebuilt his home and served his parishioners until his death in 1729. He, like other Deerfield residents, was visited by the Natives who had captured them in 1704. But his daughter Eunice was not among those who came to visit during his lifetime, and for the Deerfield pastor and other residents the absence of their relatives was a wound that never healed.

Further Reading

top | print