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320 years ago, the raid in Deerfield was at the center of the fight for control of North America

James L. Swanson is the author of "The Deerfield Massacre: A Surprise Attack, a Forced March, and the Fight for Survival in Early America."
Lisa Nipp
James L. Swanson is the author of "The Deerfield Massacre: A Surprise Attack, a Forced March, and the Fight for Survival in Early America."

The Deerfield Massacre was a leap year, February 29, 1704, attack on a remote Franklin County colonial settlement by French and Native American raiders. Forty-seven colonists were killed and houses were burned down, and more than 100 colonists were captured. And those that weren't killed by their captors, trudged about 300 miles to Canada.

In the 320 years since the Raid on Deerfield, plenty of books have been written about the massacre. Author James Swanson has just released "The Deerfield Massacre: A Surprise Attack, a Forced March, and the Fight for Survival in Early America."

Carrie Healy, NEPM: What sparked your interest in this moment in time?

James Swanson, author: I got interested in college. I spent some time living in Deerfield. I was part of a college program called the Deerfield [Summer] Fellowship, where Historic Deerfield brings 6 to 8 college students to town to study early American art, architecture, silver, ceramics and Native American culture.

And so I fell in love with Deerfield when I spent time in college there. And that's the source of my interest. And I've been back so many times. And so it's really a place I love.

I imagine that's been a couple of decades now in the rearview mirror.


I'm a western Massachusetts resident and grew up here, so I feel like I'm familiar with the story of the 1704 raid on Pocumtuck, later named Deerfield. But, you know, often overlooked is how geopolitics and the fight for control of North America is intertwined into what actually happens here in Massachusetts. Could you put that into context?

Yes. Deerfield was a remote outpost — 300 people lived there. So it was not of massive strategic importance, but it was close to Canada. It happened during Queen Anne's War of 1702, a huge conflict between England and France over who would claim the Spanish throne. So that war came across the ocean to North America. So, what was at stake was the war between the French and English over the control of the North American continent. That was what was at stake.

Old Indian House Door, c. 1699 
Exhibited in Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s Memorial Hall Museum since 1880.
This pitch pine door was salvaged from John Sheldon's house. The door has come to symbolize the Deerfield Raid, a conflict between Deerfield's early settlers and the French and Native Americans.
Old Indian House Door, c. 1699. Exhibited in Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s Memorial Hall Museum since 1880. This pitch pine door was salvaged from John Sheldon's house. The door has come to symbolize the Deerfield Raid, a conflict between Deerfield's early settlers and the French and Native Americans.

Readers will be propelled through your story of the raid and the aftermath, learning the fates of the colonists who were captured in what happens ultimately to Deerfield. But more tangibly, readers are going to read about the tomahawk-scarred door. So, how did you come to know and appreciate the "Old Indian Door"?

It's really one of the great iconic relics of early New England history. If you go to Deerfield today, there is no evidence on the street of what happened in 1704. Those houses were burned. Deerfield today looks more like a Revolutionary War era, beautiful colonial town. And so the houses don't exist anymore.

But that door was saved, from "The Old Indian House," so-called, which was torn down in 1848. But the door was saved. And that door had great symbolic importance to the colonists. It represented a barrier between savagery and civilization, between the dark forest and the witchcraft of New England, and the threat of Indian native raids and Canadians. And so that door really was a symbol of the purpose of the settlement of New England and the struggle to survive. So it became really a secular holy relic of early New England.

You know, 320 years is pretty far removed from the events that you're talking about and that you wrote about. The families impacted by that tale were pious and hardworking and — all in all — pretty poor. So, as you wrote this, were you would all concerned about the relevance that this story has to a generation of readers who may have very little in common with those that you write about?

Yes. In fact, this is an early New England that we don't recognize or know about today, and they wouldn't recognize us either. It was a very different people. This was not the revolutionary era of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Adams. Those people had not been born. This was 75 years before the American Revolution. In that era, it was a terrifying time. People believed in witchcraft. The Salem witchcraft trials had only happened a few years before the Deerfield Massacre.

People feared the forest, and the night. People would vanish from their fields, they'd be kidnaped. One of the favorite practices of the natives was to take hostages and capture people in their fields while they were working in their farms, or while they were tending to their livestock. And so it was an extremely dangerous time. So, it was really my task to try to bring that era alive, because it's really a lost story from the vast early America, long before the American Revolution.

For hundreds of years, many have written about the massacre, and in their writing they have called those raiders Indians and savages. Does telling this story of survival get any easier with the passage of lots and lots of time?

Well, in a way it does, because for almost 300 years the role of the Indians was obscured and hidden away. They were viewed as savages. They weren't part of the story. In fact, George Sheldon, the great historian of Deerfield, who wrote that huge book on the history of Deerfield and was one of the founders of the PVMA (Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association) — his goal was to keep out of the story Indians and later European immigrants in the late 19th century. Sheldon was interested in venerating and celebrating the colonial heroes and the ancestors.

And so, for hundreds of years the Indians were excluded. The myth of the vanishing Indian was used against the Indians. They didn't vanish. They never went away. But they were obscured.

So one of the goals in writing this book, was to restore the proper role and give credit to the Native American stories who were involved in the attack on Deerfield and throughout the history of New England. So, it was very important to me to restore from obscurity the stories of Native Americans and the important role they played in early New England and in the story of Deerfield.

Did you ever find that the oral history of the region, and that historical written memory of the raid, at odds, and did that give you pause as you were researching and and writing this book?

Well, it was important to me to deconstruct some of the myths. For example, in the Memorial Chamber at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, which used to be the the original headquarters of the Deerfield Academy in the 1790s, there's a wall. I call it a cenotaph wall of ancestry. It looks like a mausoleum inside a museum. There are these marble white tablets carved with all the names of the people who were killed or captured during the raid, and it was really a chamber of ancestor worship. And the inscriptions were very anti-native and anti-Indian.

I'll give you one example. It describes a little girl who was captured at a young age and it said, "Captured by savages. She married a savage and became one." Later, the PVMA created new cloth coverings to put over some of these tablets, and now, instead [it says], "She married into the native culture, was raised there, did not return, and lived in Canada with her husband."

So, a lot of this erasure of the Indians has been deconstructed and removed at the PVMA, so we a get much more evenhanded and sensitive approach to the role of the natives in New England history, which was very important to me. I didn't want it to be a story of white triumph over the savages, which is how has been interpreted for hundreds of years. But now it's been reinterpreted in a proper way that recognizes the role of Indian culture in the story.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.

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