OLD FRANCE IN THE NEW WORLDWho can tell what sorrows pierced our souls?
–Reverend John Williams (1)
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 eighteenth 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, Maine, as well as a few smaller outposts. In October, Indians allied with the French had captured a pair of men from Deerfield itself. (2)
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 hundred and three hundred French and Indian marauders were descending upon the town. Led by Sieur Hertel de Rouville, they had braved the severe conditions, trudging 300 miles south from Canada on snowshoes, to spread terror among the American colonists and capture hostages who might be exchanged for French prisoners.
As the sun disappeared on February 28, the French and Indian expedition 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 unsuspecting 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 him. 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 created ramps that allowed a few to clamber over the twelve-foot-tall barriers. Once inside, they opened the main doors of the fort for their comrades. The killing was about to begin.
As bloodcurdling war whoops echoed through the cold air, attackers burst into the home of the Reverend John Williams, the village’s most prominent citizen. He had been marked for capture, not death. Two of his young children, however, were not as fortunate: John junior, age six, and Jerusha, a six-week-old baby who could not even hold up his head, were murdered before his eyes. The children’s nursemaid, a black servant named Parthena, was also slaughtered.
Outside, a massacre raged. In all, seventeen homes were put to the torch. One family of five suffocated in their cellar as a fire burned above them. The inhabitants of another dwelling, the brick home of Benobi Stebbins and his family, put up a fierce resistance. For several hours, French and Indians 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, reinforcements from the nearby towns of Hadley and Hatfield managed to push the attackers beyond the walls of Deerfield only to break off their pursuit when they clashed with a larger French and Indian force that already had left the village.
When the men returned to the smoldering town, they surveyed the magnitude of the disaster. Nearly 300people had gone to sleep in the village the night before, but only 133remained. 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 fifty-six fatalities. Another 109people had been herded off as captives. (3)
The French and Indians had displayed enormous cruelty in deciding whom to kill and whom to capture. Children age two and under were slain at an exceptionally high rate and those between three and twelve at a somewhat lower one, while all of the older children survived. (4) It seems the French and Indians were making judgments about which villagers would be able endure a forced march through the wintertime wilderness to Canada and which might slow them down. They had designated the weakest and most vulnerable members of the Deerfield community for death–and they did not think twice about slaughtering infants. Leaving the little ones behind for others to rescue does not seem to have entered their thinking.
Many of the captives faced a similarly grim fate. In the first three days of the march, the French and Indians killed nine of their prisoners, including “a suckling child” and three elderly women. (5) One of the victims was Eunice Williams, the minister’s wife. During the trek, she fell into a river and injured herself, thus becoming a liability to the raiders. “The cruel and bloodthirsty savage who took her slew her with his hatchet at one stroke,” wrote her husband of the incident. Her body was abandoned, leaving the Reverend Williams to pray that somehow “she might meet with a Christian burial and not be left for meat to the fowls of the air and beasts of the earth.” (6) (His wish was granted: Searchers recovered her body a few days later and buried it in the Deerfield graveyard.)
In all, some twenty-one captives perished during the journey north. One of them was the pregnant Mary Brooks, murdered after she slipped on the ice and miscarried her child. Another was a four-year-old girl, whose Indian porter had struggled under the weight in the deep snow and decided his pack was more important than the child. By the middle of April, a full six weeks later, the survivors at last reached New France.
Over the next forty months, the governor of Massachusetts, William Dudley, pleaded with his counterpart in New France, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, to release the captives. Most were let go after more than a year in Canada, although twenty-nine of the youngest members never returned because the French had successfully convinced (or coerced) them to join their community and convert to Catholicism. John Williams was one of the last to be released. Vaudreuil considered him the most valuable captive, and would exchange him only for Jean Baptiste, a notorious French pirate confined to a Boston jail. At first Dudley refused to give up this dangerous criminal, but as the months dragged on, he finally relented. By the beginning of 1707, the widower Williams was back home in Deerfield, almost three years after he had been forced to leave at gunpoint.
But the French had not yet had their fill of bloodshed–and New England would not know peace for many decades. The year after Williams returned, violence again visited the recovering village when Indians allied with the French captured one resident and killed a Hatfield man. In April 1709, they seized another from Deerfield. Two months later, some 140French and Indians attacked the town once more. This time, however, sentries raised an alarm and succeeded in hustling most of the locals into the fort. Two people were killed and another pair captured, but Deerfield survived.
The Deerfield Massacre was merely an episode in what the colonists would collectively refer to as the French Wars–a series of brutal conflicts that eventually came to be known as the French and Indian Wars. There were four of them in all–King William’s War (1689to 1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702to 1713), King George’s War (1744to 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 proved decisive in toppling the New World empire France had been trying to build for more than two centuries. It also set in motion many of the resentments and jealousies that would animate French attitudes toward Americans in the years to come.
Like the British, the French were latecomers to the Western Hemisphere. Spain had already conquered the Aztecs in Mexico and was well on its way to subduing the Incas in Peru when King Francis I decided that his country needed to make its own claims in the New World. In the 1530s, he commissioned Jacques Cartier to search for gold in faraway lands. An intrepid navigator, Cartier explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Although he found no treasure, he did raise a thirty-foot-tall cross bearing the fleur-de-lis at Gaspé. This action served as the initial basis for French territorial claims in North America. Later Cartier ascended the St. Lawrence River to the site of modern-day Montreal. One day, he came upon an encampment the natives called Canada. An effort to start a colony failed, and Canada–as the entire region came to be known–would remain virtually untouched by Europeans until the first part of the seventeenth century.
In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec. A man of common birth, he was a remarkable leader who formed alliances with local Indian tribes, raided others, and began to establish the fur-trading networks that would come to dominate life in New France. With the exception of Catholic missionaries devoted to the conversion of natives, almost everyone participated in this industry. Population growth already was impaired by the severe winters, but fur trading made it even more difficult because it drew men away from the farms that formed the backbone of any seventeenth-century community. France compounded the problem by both failing to invest significant financial resources in Canada and banning Protestant settlement. In time, French colonists came to rely heavily on the goodwill of local Indians. Intermarriage was common. A hundred years after Champlain’s arrival, immigration had dwindled to the point where the majority of French people in New France had been born in North America.
Despite its drawbacks, fur trading did encourage the exploration of an unknown continent. In the 1660s and 1670s, Father Jacques Marquette traveled extensively in the Great Lakes region and eventually made his way to the Mississippi River. In 1682, Robert La Salle became the first European to descend the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, claiming all the lands whose waters flowed into the huge river for Louis XIV and giving them a name that stuck: Louisiana. Within a generation, France was sending colonists to the area, where they traded in furs or started indigo plantations. By the 1720s, the city of New Orleans had been founded and became the capital of the province.
New France now formed an enormous crescent from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the delta of the Mississippi. With so few people, it was no economic powerhouse. Yet the government in Paris recognized its geopolitical importance. Along the eastern seaboard of North America, the British had founded a string of thriving colonies, which France was determined to keep from expanding west of the Appalachians. It would be a difficult task. By the 1750s, there were a mere 55,000colonists living in New France, compared to the 1.3million colonists and 300,000slaves in British North America.
What the French lacked in population, however, they tried to compensate for in good tribal relations. Indians formed alliances with both French and British colonists, but a clear majority of those who fought in the French and Indian Wars did so on the side of the French. This gave France a distinct advantage in the guerrilla combat of an untamed continent. It also forced tremendous suffering upon British colonists who were trying to create a new life in the New World. Indians aligned with the French were responsible for the vast majority of raids and massacres against North American settlers. To be sure, the British did not have entirely clean hands when it came to Indian atrocities, but their crimes simply did not compare with what France was willing to tolerate in its name. The French were far more effective at exploiting and directing Indian violence.
From this bloodshed, it is possible to glean the beginnings of an American national identity forged in opposition to the constant threat from New France. As the distinguished twentieth-century historian Crane Brinton observed in the late 1960s: “For New Englanders and New Yorkers the existence of a French menace on their northern borders was for years a very real thing, more real than any acute danger from a foreign power was to seem to Americans until the Russians acquired their own atomic bomb.” (7) The French and Indian Wars were not merely a series of British efforts to defeat an imperial adversary–they were a set of joint American efforts to defend against a common foe. The famously fractious colonists demonstrated an ability to band together during times of trouble. During Queen Anne’s War, as French and Indian raiders plundered Deerfield, Connecticut sent troops into Massachusetts. Such cooperation became a routine practice during the eighteenth century and played a crucial role in persuading the colonists that they shared common interests.
Although these early Americans did not create a formal union until later in the century, they began to think about it seriously for the first time during the French and Indian Wars. At the Albany Congress of 1754, when representatives from seven colonies gathered to discuss increased cooperation, Benjamin Franklin observed that their “disunited state” actually encouraged French aggression. The French, said Franklin, “presume that they may with impunity . . . kill, seize and imprison our traders, and confiscate their effects at pleasure (as they have done for several years past), murder and scalp our farmers, with their wives and children, and take an easy possession of such parts of the British territory as they find most convenient for them.” (8)
Franklin issued his warning at the dawn of the fourth, final, and decisive French and Indian War. While the first three had erupted in Europe before making their way to America, this new war would be different. Starting in the New World, it quickly expanded into a global conflict. It was triggered by a young Virginian who unwittingly put his name to a document that had him admitting to a monstrous act in the forests of Pennsylvania. His name was George Washington.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Our Oldest Enemy by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky. Copyright © 2004 by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.