The Raid on Deerfield Part Two, or How Would it Feel to be Trapped in a House by Hundreds of Enraged French and Indian Warriors?
When I left off on a previous post, Benoni Stebbins with his family and many neighbours were trapped in his home by several hundred very annoyed French soldiers and Indian warriors. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds. This was a frontier house. The exterior walls were built in three layers: An outside layer of wood, an interior layer of planks, and the space in between filled with unfired bricks. In other words, the walls were bullet proof, or musket ball proof as it were. And a good thing too, because for several hours a lot of musket balls were fired at the Stebbin’s house, hundreds of them. Not only did Stebbin’s and company manage to hold out, they killed a few of the attackers that got too close as well. Yes, as well as having thick walls, there were a lot of guns in the house. The attackers did attempt to set the house on fire, but the sub zero weather and people shooting at them from the barricaded house made their efforts moot. The attackers even tried to negotiate a surrender at one point, promising to spare those inside the house. Benoni had been taken captive by Indians before, and wanted nothing doing.
Benoni and company must have been in an incredible state of mind. “Keyed up” probably doesn’t begin to cover it. Imagine being trapped in one’s home by an angry force of Indian warriors and French soldiers. Knowing damn well that if they broke into the house, very very bad things would happen. Like scalping and rape and slavery and death. In some people, this would no doubt focus the mind. I thought I was going to have to shoot my way out of a situation once, and it was an amazing experience. The world turned to ice is the best I can describe it, I’ve never experienced such clarity before or after. Some people panic no doubt, but in this situation Benoni was able to hold everyone together. They knew help had to be on the way too, several houses in the town were burning and there was no doubt that hundreds of armed men were gathering in nearby towns and rushing to the rescue.
And that’s what happened. After three hours of fruitlessly trying to capture the one house that managed to resist them, the attackers withdrew with their captives. The militia from neighbouring town arrived, took stock of the situation, and took off after the raiders. How fast could they go in the deep snow with over a hundred captives? If this was a Hollywood movie the English militia would have quickly caught up with the raiders and rescued the hostages. And they did sort of catch up with the raiders, right outside of town. Where they walked right into an ambush set up by the very professional soldiers of the raiding force. Nine more Englishmen were killed and the rest retreated into the palisade at Deerfield.
And that was the end of the raid itself, no other efforts were made to pursue the raiders. Benoni and his few neighbours and family survived, but almost everyone else in Deerfield was either dead or taken prisoner by the French and their native allies. And marched to New France, now Canada, in the dead of winter. Over 300 miles. Most of them made it, but about 20 died on the way, or were killed because they couldn’t keep up. The Deerfield raid was a stunning French victory in the war, and spread fear far and wide in the English colonies. A militarily insignificant but psychologically devastating victory. In some ways the Deerfield Raid was the 9/11 of its time. Without the endlessly grandstanding and politicizing the modern media era has infused in such events.
So what happened to the people taken captive then? It varies. Most of them were eventually ransomed or otherwise released. One of the results of the raid was that English raids were launched on French towns in New France. Partly as revenge, and partly to take prisoners to exchange for the residents of Deerfield. Some of the captives never returned home though, of their own choice. This is because they were children when captured, and were adopted by the native tribes that held them. While the captives were treated badly, the child captives were treated well, Indian raiders even carrying them on their back to get them to New France safely. Capturing children from other tribes and raising them as their own was a common practise at the time, so some of the captives eventually married into the tribes that held them and lived happily ever after. And our hero Mr. Stebbins, what became of him? Sadly he died of his wounds shortly after the raid, but lived long enough to know he had saved his family and friends.
And that’s the story of the Deerfield raid, or at least as much as I can fit into two posts. There’s no major lessons from this story, I just thought it was a fascinating nugget from history. It does illustrate, for those who care about such things, that the participants in events like the Deerfield Raid all thought their actions were justified. And they were. While the English citizens of Deerfield were terribly victimized, the French and Indians were conducting a just military operation under the mores of the time. Lastly I reflect that for the surviving residents of Deerfield, those three hours in the middle of the night changed their lives forever. The price of war.
(The above image is used without permission from the book: “The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America” by John Demos. I hope its use can be forgiven since it’s not being used for profit, and the book can be purchased here. Credit and Copyright: John Demos. Quite a march eh, 300 miles in the dead of winter through what was then entirely wilderness. One of the Indian nations participating in the raid was the Wôbanaki, for the whom Deerfield and environs had been home territory before it was seized by English settlers by treachery and massacre. The other Indian tribes on the raid were there to cement their alliance with the French and to take captives, for the Wôbanaki it was more personal. A beautifully detailed account of the raid and its history from all perspectives can be found here: The Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704. )