EDITOR’S NOTE:This year marks the 300th anniversary of the Deerfield Massacre, one of the worst atrocities ever committed against Americans–and, in this instance, at the hands of bloodthirsty French soldiers.
The people of Deerfield, Massachusetts, didn’t know what danger lurked just outside their little village before dawn on February 29, 1704. Yet dozens of them had only hours to live. For most of the rest, it would be the worst day they would ever witness.
They certainly weren’t blind to the risks of residing in the wilderness of western Massachusetts. At the start of the 18th century, Deerfield sat precariously on the edge of the American frontier. Many of its residents lived within the walls of a small fort, and even more crowded in each night. Patrols checked the surrounding countryside. A night watchman kept vigil. There was a good reason for these precautions: The previous summer, French and Indian raiders had destroyed the village of Wells, in Maine, and a few smaller outposts. In October, Indians allied with the French had captured a pair of men from Deerfield itself.
Winter was supposed to be a season of relative calm, with the bitter cold and three feet of snow providing a blanket of security found at no other time of year. The people of Deerfield probably had gone to bed the night before thinking they would wake up to a chilly morning like any other, except for the trivial fact that it would be a leap-year day. Yet somewhere in the darkness between two and three hundred French and Indian marauders who had braved the severe conditions, trudging 300 miles south from Canada on snowshoes, were descending upon the small village. Their expedition, led by Sieur Hertel de Rouville, aimed to spread terror among the American colonists, as well as capture hostages who might be exchanged for French prisoners.
As the sun disappeared on February 28, the French and Indians halted a mile or two north of Deerfield and began to probe the little town. Throughout the night, scouts crossed the frozen Connecticut River and observed their target. A little after midnight, one of them returned to the camp and informed his companions that a watchman was making his rounds. A few hours later, however, a second reconnaissance found no trace of the watchman. The man apparently had nodded off. At about four o’clock, the attackers approached the sleeping hamlet.
The harsh weather that had hampered their progress from New France now became a friend to the French and Indians. Drifts of snow pressing against the walls of the fort had created ramps that allowed a few of them to clamber over the 12-foot-tall barriers. Once inside, they opened the main doors of the fort for their comrades. The killing of the townsfolk of Deerfield had begun.
As bloodcurdling war whoops echoed through the cold early morning air, attackers burst into the home of Reverend John Williams, the village’s most prominent citizen. He had been marked for capture, not death. Two of his young children weren’t so fortunate: John Jr., age 6, and Jerusha, a six-week-old baby who couldn’t even hold up his head, were murdered before his eyes. The children’s nursemaid, a black servant named Parthena, also was slaughtered.
Outside, a massacre raged. Seventeen homes were put to the torch. One family of five smothered to death in their cellar as a fire burned above them. The inhabitants of a single dwelling, the brick home of Benobi Stebbins and his family, put up a fierce resistance. For several hours, the aggressors laid siege to it, but their numbers dwindled as members of their party quit the fort to lead captives away. At about nine in the morning, help arrived. Reinforcements from the nearby towns of Hadley and Hatfield managed to push the French and Indians beyond the walls of Deerfield, but had to break off their pursuit when they clashed with a larger enemy force that already had left the village.
When the men returned to the smoldering town, they surveyed the magnitude of the disaster. Nearly 300 people had gone to sleep in the village the night before, but only 133 of them remained. Forty-four residents had been killed, including ten men, nine women, and twenty-five children. Five soldiers garrisoned at the fort lost their lives, as well as seven men from Hadley and Hatfield, for a total of 56 fatalities. Another 109 people had been herded off as captives.
There would be much more violence to come, both in Deerfield and elsewhere. The Deerfield Massacre was an episode in what the colonists would collectively call the French Wars–a series of brutal conflicts that eventually came to be known, perhaps in an early nod to multiculturalism, as the French and Indian Wars. There were four of them–King William’s War (1689 to 1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702 to 1713), King George’s War (1744 to 1748), and the eponymous one known as the French and Indian War (1754 to 1760). Each was part of a larger imperial struggle between Britain and France, with American colonists bearing the brunt of the violence. Only the last of these conflicts was decisive, for it toppled the New World empire France had been trying to build for more than two centuries and set in motion the resentments and jealousies that would animate French attitudes toward Americans through the reign of Napoleon III in the 19th century and beyond.