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Founding a Permanent English Settlement at Deerfield, 1682

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This drawing depicts the early years of Deerfield's first permanent settlement in 1682.
Illustration copyright Frank Gregory.

Introduction

In the spring of 1682, a handful of English settlers began re-establishing home sites on Deerfield's street. A few of them, like Samson Frary, had been among the original English settlers in 1669, but periods of warfare with local Native peoples had driven them south to more protected English towns. 1682 marked the establishment of a permanent English settlement at Deerfield, on the site of the abandoned English village known as "Pocumtuck.” Between 1669 and 1682, Deerfield's English settlers encountered a series of setbacks, but they remained determined to plant their village among the richest fields in New England.

The Land Transaction

The English presence at what would become Deerfield owed its origins to Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) attacks in the 1660s on the land's original inhabitants, the Pocumtuck Indians. After alternating periods of peace and conflict, the Kanienkehaka attacked the central Pocumtuck village (the site of the future English outpost) in early 1665. Pocumtuck survivors left the vulnerable areas of the homeland for more protected places; or they took refuge with nearby allies living near English Northampton, Massachusetts, or at Pennacook to the northeast.

Meanwhile, the Dedham Proprietors, (individuals who owned land in Dedham's land corporation in eastern Massachusetts), were looking for 8000 acres of fertile land in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1663 the Proprietors had won a court case suing for the replacement of Dedham land that was appropriated from their holdings for a praying Indian village at Natick. The Dedham Proprietors contracted with John Pynchon, an Englishman who had for years been negotiating land sales on the Connecticut River. Pynchon saw the "abandoned" Pocumtuck homeland as an opportunity for the Dedham proprietors. Within months of the Kanienkehaka attack, Pynchon and a group of Dedham men traveled to Pocumtuck to estimate its potential.

Since the Pocumtuck had lived on the land less than six months previously, there would have been fairly obvious markings of domestication. Nevertheless, the English viewed the land as vacant according to the principle of "vacuum domicilium," meaning that land that was not being used in a traditional European way—that is, settled, farmed and enclosed by fences—was "vacant" land, free for the taking. John Winthrop, the first Governor of Massachusetts summed up this belief when he wrote:

"That which is common to all is proper to none. This savage people ruleth over many lands without title or property; for they enclose no ground, neither have they cattle to maintain it, but remove their dwellings as they have occasion, or as they can prevail against their neighbors." (1)

What the English saw as empty territories were homelands that Native peoples had developed and inhabited for millennia. The Native peoples burned underbrush to keep pathways clear, planted vast fields, and established fishing camps at the nearby falls. The site of the main Pocumtuck village was near an ancient crossroads of the Mohawk-Mahican trail, a major east-west route which followed the "Deerfield River" on the east side of the Berkshire Mountains, and intersected with the region's major north-south route, the Connecticut River.


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According to the English colonists, this document gave them full rights to 8,000 acres in what is now Deerfield, Massachusetts. See the Chalk Deed artifact page for more information.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. All Rights Reserved.

Between February 1666 and 1672, Pynchon convinced a few Pocumtucks, who were probably taking refuge from the Kanienkehaka outside Northampton, to sign deeds to their homeland, even though as individuals these people were not the sole owners of the tracts they "sold." These transactions likely took place without most Pocumtuck people's knowledge or consent. Furthermore, while the English viewed these land sales as quitclaim deeds, the Native people likely viewed them differently, as evidenced in the deed Chauk signed which covered the central Pocumtuck homeland. Chauk, like many of the other Native people who signed deeds in this period, clearly reserved for his people "Liberty of fishing for ye Indians in ye Rivers or waters & free Liberty to hunt Deere or other Wild creatures & to gather Walnuts chestnuts and other nuts things &c on ye commons." Agreements like these reflect the Native desire to have deeds function as "joint occupancy" rather than a "quit-claim," indicating that Chauk expected both the English and Pocumtucks to remain on the land.

English Settlement

The first English settler arrived in 1669. Others soon followed, mostly settling in family groups. They began planting their crops in the former Pocumtuck cornfields—some of the richest farmland in New England. Like other English towns of the Connecticut River Valley founded in this period, Deerfield was a planned community. In 1671, The Dedham Proprietors hired Joshua Fisher to survey the land for calculated distribution among the themselves. Most of the Proprietors later sold their shares rather than resettling on the western Massachusetts frontier. Fisher's survey reflected the terms on which the English would take this Native landscape and make it a recognizable English village reminiscent of medieval English villages, with homelots along a central street, clearly delineated fields and woodlots.

According to Fisher's plan, each landowner would be apportioned one homelot and one wood lot, as well as plowing and meadow land within the common field for cultivating crops and mowing hay. Individuals owned land in the common field that was enclosed with a common fence whose upkeep and use was controlled by the community. Most individuals would have owned three sections in the common field, one each in the north, west and south meadows.


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Land allocation in Deerfield was carefully planned.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. All Rights Reserved.

Settlers came for economic security and improvement; religious freedom was not a factor since they universally shared English Protestantism with surrounding communities. Since many New England towns were running out of land to give the next generation of farmers, new settlements were developed to meet this need; settlers wanted to acquire enough property to endow their children with land.

In the next several years, families continued to arrive at Deerfield in extended family groups. Twelve families came from eastern Massachusetts, while the rest came from Connecticut River Valley towns like Northampton, Hadley and Hatfield. Although their economic backgrounds varied, settlers were generally younger men with their families, seeking opportunity on the English frontier. At least half the individuals had close relatives in the community.

In 1673, Deerfield (at this time still named Pocumtuck) was incorporated as a town. As in other New England villages, propertied men could vote for town selectmen, pass regulations, manage the common field and accept or reject new settlers. 1673 also marked the year the town secured the services of their first minister, Samuel Mather. By 1675, the settlers had erected a meeting house, thus meeting the criteria of necessary institutions to be a bona fide New England community.

Contested Land

When Metacom's War broke out in 1675, the Pocumtuck who continued to live in the area joined other displaced peoples of the Connecticut River Valley in attacking the English. In an effort to push the English back down the valley, the Native fighters attacked Northfield and Deerfield in 1675, forcing the English to abandon their holdings there. The following spring the Pocumtuck replanted their ancient cornfields near the abandoned English settlements, asserting their determined reoccupation of the land.

Metacom's War officially ended in 1676, and a group of settlers returned to Deerfield that spring. It was not long before the Pocumtuck attacked them and took several captives, driving the English out of the Pocumtuck homeland for the next five years. Not until 1682, is there evidence of the English returning and renaming their settlement Deerfield. As the northwesternmost settlement in New England, Deerfield lay at the edge of the English Empire in North America, in territory contested by European rivals as well as Native peoples.

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