The Attack on Deerfield


Deerfield attacked: On February 29, 1704, the sun rose on a chaotic scene in the English settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts. Bodies lay in the street. Houses had been plundered and set on fire. The Native and French allies claimed captives; many who resisted or seemed unable to survive the difficult trek north were killed. By the time the forces withdrew, 41 English and six allies were dead.

Allied forces: In Europe, France and England were fighting the War of the Spanish Succession, a conflict that spilled over to the colonies. Nevertheless, each contingent of the allied raiding party had its own reasons for destroying this northwestern-most New England settlement. The force consisted of 200 to 250 Wôbanakiak, Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), and Wendat (Huron) warriors and 48 French troops and canadiens. Most of the raiders had traveled over 300 miles from Fort Chambly near Montreal through bitter winter weather—a trip that Natives and French were well prepared for, but which was logistically difficult given the size of the expedition.

Surprise: In response to rumors of an allied French-Native attack, Deerfield's palisade had been repaired and garrison soldiers arrived just days earlier. Yet the pre-dawn attack took the town by surprise. The allies' probable plan was to sneak into the settlement and surround each house, then attack simultaneously for maximum captives and minimum casualties to the raiding forces. But the element of surprise was lost when a gunshot woke the villagers before all of the allies were in place.

Was this dramatic pre-dawn raid in contested lands an unprovoked attack on an innocent civilian village, or a justified military action against a fortified settlement in Native homelands?


In the battle: Wôbanaki fighters split into groups with other Natives and French to attack individual houses. More than 20 Natives broke into the large home of John Williams, Deerfield's minister. As a person of status, Williams would command a large ransom, so three Wôbanakiak took him captive. Guards held the surviving members of the Williams family in their house until the raiders were ready to withdraw. As they departed the settlement, the Wôbanakiak joined other raiders in burning houses and killing livestock, devastating the village in order to discourage resettlement, and halt further incursions into Wôbanaki homelands.

At the beaver hill: The village the English called "Deerfield" was situated in the heart of familiar Wôbanaki territory. Beside the rivers called Pocumtuck and Quinneticook, among the fertile fields below Pemawatchuwatunck, generations of Pocumtuck people had hunted, fished, set their wigwams and planted their corn. Deerfield sat at the crossroads of major east-west and north-south Native trails. Wôbanaki people followed those trails, in company with their allies, to attack the village set in some of their former homelands.

Several groups of Wôbanaki people were in the war party. The largest was from St. Francis, a village near the St. Lawrence River that included Pocumtuck and other refugees from central and northern New England Native communities. Wôbanaki peoples of Missisquoi, Cowass and Sokoki in present-day Vermont joined in, as did the Pennacook, a central Wôbanaki people from the region now known as New Hampshire. The Pennacook, one of whose villages the English had recently attacked, had been fighting the English in New Hampshire and Maine. They likely initiated this raid by urging their Native allies and the French to join them in an attack on New England.


Taken by surprise: "The enemy came in like a flood . . . and by their violent endeavors to break open doors and windows, with axes and hatchets, awaked me out of sleep. . . ." (1) Like John Williams, many families in the north part of town were surprised and taken captive—except for the youngest, who were killed. Elsewhere within the palisade, people roused by the noise had more time to attempt escape or to resist capture. Well-armed people in Benoni Stebbins's house resisted for over two hours, killing several attackers and holding out until the Native and French forces retreated. The raiders devastated the town, burning 17 houses and barns full of tools, provisions, and livestock.

Between two empires: As a New England frontier town, Deerfield was on the edge of the English empire and on the border of Wôbanaki-controlled territory. Frequent wars between the rival European powers extended into North America, where they fought for control of its rich resources—land and furs. Deerfield's location near the Connecticut River made it especially vulnerable to attack by the French and their Native allies.

Warnings and preparations: Reports of a planned French-Native attack had circulated for months, and in October two Deerfield men were captured as they worked in the fields outside the palisade. In response, the palisade was repaired and people whose homes were outside built temporary shelters inside the "fort." But when nothing more happened and the cold and snowy winter of 1704 set in, Deerfield villagers let down their guard.


Plan falters: Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville, the official leader of the expedition, was seasoned in the ways of frontier warfare, but the raiding party was large and made up of warriors from independent nations. Discipline broke down, and fighting began before the raiders surrounded every house. The allies lost the advantage of surprise and suffered higher casualties than in similar raids, especially among the French. French troops and canadiens fought alongside Native warriors in assaulting Deerfield homes. Early in the raid, the French captured Jacques de Noyon and two other renegade French fur traders who had fled to New England in search of better economic opportunities.

French goals: For De Rouville and his fellow officers, military success was a route to promotion, even noble status. It was his first independent command, though he had fought in many such raids under his father. For France, the raid helped confirm alliances with Native nations in an unstable time, and stirred up trouble between the English and Native groups. Embroiled in war with England, Governor Vaudreuil of New France had been planning to attack New England since the spring of 1703. When the Pennacook asked for his help against the English in the fall of 1703, Vaudreuil took the opportunity to deliberately include warriors from as many Native communities as possible in this attack, especially from among Iroquoian and Algonkian peoples who participated in the French-brokered Great Peace of 1701.

Victory: The raid was a great success for New France. It reinforced its alliances with Native groups, intensified the rift between the English and Native groups, spread fear throughout New England, and put the English on the defensive.


Raiders: Among the largest contingent of allies were Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) from Kahnawake and other Iroquois warriors from Sault-au-Récollet and La Montagne. They were among the group who broke into John Williams's house and captured his family. They also were a part of the group who besieged Ensign John Sheldon's house, the largest in town. A Kanienkehaka hacked at the reinforced front door with an axe, but finally got in through a back door. The house became a holding place for captured villagers. The Kanienkehaka and other groups competed for captives and plunder. Because the Kanienkehaka valued captives above all, they moved their prisoners out before the fighting was over, burning houses north of the palisade on their way.

The bell: Kanienkehaka oral tradition tells that in Deerfield the Kahnawake raiders hoped to find a church bell that had been purchased by the people of Kahnawake and transported on a French ship from Europe. According to this tradition, the bell was stolen en route by English privateers and later bought by John Williams. Such traditions expressed Catholic Kanienkehaka feelings of distrust and religious opposition toward the Protestant English colonists.

Why they fought: The Kanienkehaka had other reasons for joining the raid, the most important of which was to take captives. Traditionally, "mourning wars" were a way to console grieving families; adopting captives replaced loved ones who died naturally or in warfare. Since contact with Europeans, captives were also used for ransom. Other reasons for participating included their longtime interest in the Connecticut River Valley, their alliances with the French and the other Native villages, and the desire for goods like the muskets and blankets they brought back to Kahnawake for distribution.


The siege: The Wendats (Huron) from the village of Lorette sent the smallest contingent, about 20 warriors, to the Deerfield expedition. After taking houses elsewhere in the village, Wendat fighters besieged Benoni Stebbins's house along with Wôbanakiak and French troops. They traded gunfire for over two hours with the well-armed villagers inside the brick-insulated building. One of their great chiefs, Tsawenhohi, was mortally wounded leading a charge against the house; he was one of more than 30 allies killed or wounded in the raid. The Stebbins house defenders held out against repeated assaults and attempts to set the house afire.

Alliance is all: As a small community, the Wendats valued alliance and trade highly. The French considered them their closest Native allies—as well as crafters of especially fine snowshoes, for which they placed a large order before the raid. The Wendat's complex alliances included close ties with the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) and the Wôbanakiak, who likely first asked the village of Kahnawake, and then the Wendat and the French, for help against the English. The Wendats were eager to participate in support of their allies; unlike the other groups, they did not have a special interest in Deerfield. They did hope to obtain captives for adoption or revenge, in the mourning-war tradition.

Wendat warriors: The Wendats proved their mettle in the attack and during the retreat from Deerfield. With Wôbanaki and French fighters, they ambushed and routed the English pursuers, so that the allies and their captives could get away. As a small group participating in the raid, the Wendat served as scouts and provided cover for larger groups of French and Native allies.

Captions for rollovers in the interactive scene illustrations.

Those within the Sheldon house hear the ominous, repeated blows of a trade axe striking their nail-studded front door.

Although cumbersome to load, this European flintlock musket proves a useful addition to the traditional weaponry this Wôbanakiak carries.

In hand-to-hand combat, a war club like the one this Kanienkehaka carries is a preferred weapon.

As other houses are subdued, raiders focus all available firepower on Benoni Stebbins's house.

The attackers burn as many buildings as possible in a calculated effort to inspire fear and discourage English resettlement.

Drifted snow has enabled the raiders to easily scale the 10 foot high palisade encircling the village.

Its weight makes this cast iron kettle impractical to carry through the snows to New France.

Atiwans surveys the destruction of the English settlement at Pocumtuck; he hopes this attack will impede further English invasion into his Wôbanaki homeland.

Keeping his Kanienkehaka kinswoman's plea in mind, Thaonwentsawakon has seized this young blond girl.

After capturing the Hoyt family, Tsohahisen moves on to join his Wendat comrades in the assault on the Stebbins house.

Wattanummon joined the raid several months after the English attacked the Wôbanaki community of Pequawket where he and others from Pawtucket had taken refuge.

Frank's status as a slave of the English does not protect him from the fury of his master's enemies.

The raiders kill all who resisted capture; Parthena may have been protecting the Williams children who died with her.

Mrs. Eunice Williams mourns the loss of two of her children and dreads the unknown fate of her surviving family.

Little Eunice Williams leaves her home with her Kanienkehaka captor. Will she ever return?

Stephen Williams leaves for New France wearing the warm clothing his Wôbanaki captor has allowed him to put on with his mother's help.

A wounded Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville struggles to coordinate French troops and their allies for another assault on Benoni Stebbins's house.

The worst fears of the Reverend John Williams have become reality as their captors hurry Williams, his wife and children from the already-burning parsonage.

Native warriors target cattle which symbolize to them English invasion and destruction of their homeland.

The Geneva Bible is a bulwark of the Reverend John Williams's Protestant faith and a lightening rod in this conflict.

Its versatility makes this trade axe an indispensable tool and a useful weapon.

The table, representing the status and refinement of the Williams family, now shelters the French Canadiens from Stebbins House defenders.

Although prized in an English household, this chair, bulky and difficult to transport, holds little value as plunder.

This chest is less valuable than the textiles it recently held.

A prominent Wendat chief, Tsawenhohi, is mortally wounded; his death triggers a long debate between traditional Wendat and Christian mourning customs.

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