The Raid on Deerfield. Part One: Unexpected Guests
In 1702 Queen Anne’s War broke out. This was the second in what would later be called the French and Indian Wars, which is to say that they were conflicts between England and France. Since the French at the time had many Indian allies in what is now Canada, much of the fighting was between the English colonists and the French and their Indian friends. In 1704 no one called themselves Americans, not only hadn’t George Washington been born yet, his father was but six years old. In other words it was a long ways to the American Revolution, and Massachusetts was a whole different land. Western Massachusetts was literally the frontier … the state of Vermont didn’t exist, it was all Indian land. And the little town of Deerfield (population approximately 300) was right on the frontier, in fact it was the most northwest of all the settlements in Massachusetts, and had only been a town for some thirty years. Before that it had been an Indian village and it had not exactly been acquired by the colonists in a fair and square manner, which does play into our little story eventually.
So when war broke out in 1702, the residents of Deerfield were a little apprehensive. They were in harm’s way, no doubt about it, and all through the summer of 1703 they expected Indian raids or worse. The centre of their little town was walled, but there were only about 20 militiamen guarding it. The residents of Deerfield beseeched the governor of Connecticut to send more troops to defend their town, and he obligingly sent 50 militia dragoons. At the time a dragoon was an infantryman who rode a horse, IE highly mobile infantry. In any event the dragoons rode into town. Everyone cheered and slept soundly for a week. Then, not having seen any Indians, the dragoons left. Great.
The residents of Deerfield waited out the summer and fall, dreading any moment, especially in the wee hours of the morning, to hear the sound of raiders falling on their nearly defenceless town. None came in the summer. In October two men working in the fields were captured by Indians, and the town’s walls repaired and people were extra vigilant as friendly Indians warned of an imminent attack. None came though. The snows arrived, and the frigid New England winter settled in for the count. And that was that, the town of Deerfield breathed a sigh of relief. No one expected a raid in mid winter, French attackers from Canada would have to travel hundreds of miles across frozen trackless wilderness in temperatures well below zero. And we’re talking the English zero here, 25 below zero or more Celsius. No one was that crazy, the residents of Deerfield slept soundly that winter.
And as long time readers of Doug’s Darkworld might know, not to mention even casual students of military history, many of history’s greatest military calamities were preceded by the absolute assurance that an enemy attack wasn’t in the cards. So suffice it to say, when in the cold dark wee hours of the morning on Feb 29 1704 hundreds of French soldiers and Indian raiders swarmed into Deerfield, the residents were a little surprised. OK, they were a lot surprised. The raiders were over the undefended wall and into the town before the alarm was raised. It could have been worse though. The raiders had actually planned to attack every house in the town simultaneously, but before they could all get in position, an over eager attacker fired his gun. So people in a few houses had a few minutes warning.
It didn’t do any good though, before most people could rouse themselves, attackers had burst through their doors and swarmed into their homes, killing anyone who tried to resist. In minutes the fighting, such as it was, was over. More than fifty Deerfield residents were dead, over a hundred were captured including the town’s minister, Reverend John Williams, and his family. Or almost over. This story has its Wiebbe Hayes too. One 48 year old Benoni Stebbins not only was able to bar his door in time, he got many of his fleeing neighbours into his home first. And now, surrounded by hundreds of French soldiers and Indian warriors, Mr Stebbins and a few people were all who had had not been killed or captured in the first few minutes of the raid.
Could they hold out till the militia arrived from nearby towns? To be continued … here.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. It’s also being used for educational purposes, and since I got it from an educational site if anything I am using it in the manner in which it was intended to be used. Credit and Copyright: The Lessons of 1704. It is indeed the actual door to the Stebbins home, preserved when the house was torn down in the nineteenth century. I offer it because it’s proof that I’m not making this story up, it really happened.)