1704 – French raid on Deerfield
The campaign took place from January to February 1704
In 1702, soon after the official declaration of war, the French governor of Nouvelle-France considered to launch a raid on British settlements along the Connecticut River valley. His aim was more political than military. He hoped commit the Abenakis to the French alliance without alienating the Iroquois.
In May 1703, a force began to assemble at Montréal but the operation was postponed because of the fear of a British naval expedition against Québec and of operations in Main which diverted some resources.
In the fall of 1703, upon the arrival of Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville at Montréal after his raid in Maine, a force of 250 men (48 French and approx. 200 Abenakis, Iroquois of Kahnawake, Pocumtucs and Wyandots, aka Hurons) finally assembled at Chambly for the planned raid on Deerfield, a small village on the extreme north-western frontier of Massachusetts.
Of late there had been warnings of fresh disturbance. Lord Cornbury, governor of New York, wrote that he had heard through spies that Deerfield was to be attacked, and a message to the same effect came from Peter Schuyler, who had received intimations of the danger from Mohawks lately on a visit to their Kahnawake relatives.
During the autumn the alarm was so great at Deerfield that the people took refuge within the palisades, and the houses of the enclosure were crowded with them; but the panic had now subsided, and many, though not all, had returned to their homes. They were reassured by the presence of 20 volunteers from the villages below, whom, on application from the minister, Williams, the General Court had sent as a garrison to Deerfield, where they were lodged in the houses of the villagers.
In January 1704, Rouville’s force moved southwards in the direction of Deerfield. On its way, it was joined by some 35 Pennacooks under Sachem Wattanummon. The raiders journeyed on snow-shoes through the forest.
Governor Dudley of Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire, and Governor Winthrop of Connecticut were twice warned of an impeding French expedition against New England.
In late February, Rouville’s force finally reached the vicinity of Deerfield.
On February 28, Rouville established a camp at Petty’s Plain, some 3 km north of Deerfield. He had left most of his equipment and supplies in another camp some 45 km away.
Deerfield stood on a plateau above the river meadows, and the 41 houses were chiefly along the road towards the villages of Hadley and Hatfield, a few km distant. In the middle of the place, on a rising ground called Meeting-house Hill, was a small square wooden meeting-house. This, with about 15 private houses, besides barns and sheds, was enclosed by a fence of palisades some 2.5 m. high, flanked by blockhouses, at two or more of the corners. The four sides of this palisaded enclosure, which was called the fort, measured in all no less than 1,016 m., and within it lived some of the principal inhabitants of the village, of which it formed the centre or citadel. Chief among its inmates was John Williams, the minister, a man of character and education, who, after graduating at Harvard, had come to Deerfield. His next neighbour was Benoni Stebbins, sergeant in the county militia, who lived close to the meeting-house. About 50 m. distant, and near the north-west angle of the enclosure, stood the house of Ensign John Sheldon, a framed building, one of the largest in the village, and, like that of Stebbins, made bullet-proof by a layer of bricks between the outer and inner sheathing, while its small windows and its projecting upper story also helped to make it defensible.
The space enclosed by the palisade, though much too large for effective defence, served in time of alarm as an asylum for the inhabitants outside, whose houses were scattered, - some on the north towards the hidden enemy, and some on the south towards Hadley and Hatfield. Among those on the south side was that of the militia captain, Jonathan Wells, which had a palisade of its own, and, like the so-called fort, served as an asylum for the neighbours.
As night was approaching, several of the inhabitants took refuge within the palisade of Deerfield. There were in all the settlement a little less than 300 souls, of whom 268 were inhabitants, 20 were yeomen soldiers of the garrison, two were visitors from Hatfield, and three were black slaves.
Heavy snows had lately fallen and buried the clearings, the meadow, and the frozen river to the depth of full one meter. On the north-western side the drifts were piled nearly to the top of the palisade fence, so that it was no longer an obstruction to an active enemy.
The raiders did not dare to make fires during the night. There was a patrol inside the palisade, but there was little discipline among these extemporized soldiers; the watchers grew careless as the frosty night went on; and it is said that towards morning they, like the villagers, betook themselves to their beds.
Two hours before dawn on February 29, Rouville and his men left their packs and their snow-shoes behind, they moved cautiously towards their prey. There was a crust on the snow strong enough to bear their weight, though not to prevent a rustling noise as it crunched under the feet of so many men. It is said that from time to time Rouville commanded a halt, in order that the sentinels, if such there were, might mistake the distant sound for rising and falling gusts of wind. In any case, no alarm was given.
Just before dawn, a few of Rouville’s men, taking advantage of snow drifts accumulated against the palisade, entered the fort and immediately opened the north gate. The raiders then quickly poured into the village and with one accord screeched the war-whoop, and assailed the doors of the houses with axes and hatchets.
The raiders burst into most of the houses, killed such of the men as resisted, butchered some of the women and children, and seized and bound the rest. Some of the villagers escaped in the confusion, and either fled half dead with cold towards Hatfield, or sought refuge in the fortified house of Jonathan Wells.
Early in the attack, and while it was yet dark, the light of burning houses, reflected from the fields of snow, had been seen at Hatfield, Hadley, and Northampton. The alarm was sounded through the slumbering hamlets, and parties of men mounted on farm-horses, with saddles or without, hastened to the rescue, not doubting that the fires were kindled by Indians.
The house of Stebbins had not been attacked so soon as the rest, and the inmates had a little time for preparation. The house contained seven men, four or five women, and a considerable number of children. Though the walls were bullet-proof, it was not built for defence. The men, however, were well supplied with guns, powder, and lead, and they seem to have found some means of barricading the windows. When the enemy tried to break in, they drove them back with loss. On this, the French and Indians gathered in great numbers before the house, showered bullets upon it, and tried to set it on fire. They were again repulsed, with the loss of several killed and wounded ; among the former a Kahnawake chief, and among the latter a French officer. Still the firing continued. If the assailants had made a resolute assault, the defenders must have been overpowered; but to risk lives in open attack was contrary to every maxim of forest warfare. The women in the house behaved with great courage, and moulded bullets, which the men shot at the enemy. Stebbins was killed out right, and another defender was wounded, as was also a woman. At length most of the French and Indians, disgusted with the obstinacy of the defence, turned their attention to other quarters; though some kept up their fire under cover of the meeting-house and another building within easy range of gunshot.
This building was the house of Ensign John Sheldon. The Indians had had some difficulty in mastering it; for the door being of thick oak plank, studded with nails of wrought iron and well barred, they could not break it open. After a time, however, they hacked a hole in it, through which they fired and killed Mrs. Sheldon. Her husband, a man of great resolution, seems to have been absent. Their son John, with Hannah his wife, jumped from an upper chamber window. The young woman sprained her ankle in the fall, and lay helpless, but begged her husband to run to Hatfield for aid, which he did, while she remained a prisoner. The Indians soon got in at a back door, seized Mercy Sheldon, a little girl of two years, and dashed out her brains on the door-stone. Her two brothers and her sister Mary, a girl of sixteen, were captured. The house was used for a short time as a depot for prisoners, and here also was brought the French officer wounded in the attack on the Stebbins house.
The sun was scarcely an hour high when the miserable drove of captives was conducted across the river to the foot of a mountain or high hill. Williams and his family were soon compelled to follow, and his house was set on fire. As they led him off he saw that other houses within the palisade were burning, and that all were in the power of the enemy except that of his neighbor Stebbins, where the gallant defenders still kept their assailants at bay.
Having collected all their prisoners, the main body of the French and Indians began to withdraw towards the pine forest, where they had left their packs and snow-shoes, and to prepare for a retreat before the country should be roused, first murdering in cold blood Marah Carter, a little girl of five years, whom they probably thought unequal to the march. Several parties, however, still lingered in the village, firing on the Stebbins house, killing cattle, hogs, and sheep, and gathering such plunder as the place afforded.
When the sun was about two hours high, between 30 and 40 men of the neighbouring villages were gathered at the fortified house of Jonathan Wells, at the southern end of the village. The houses of this neighbourhood were still standing, and seem not to have been attacked, - the stubborn defence of the Stebbins house having apparently prevented the enemy from pushing much beyond the palisaded enclosure. The house of Wells was full of refugee families. A few Deerfield men here joined the horsemen from the lower towns, as also did four or five of the yeoman soldiers who had escaped the fate of most of their comrades. The horsemen left their horses within Wells's fence; he himself took the lead, and the whole party rushed in together at the southern gate of the palisaded enclosure, drove out the plunderers, and retook a part of their plunder. The assailants of the Stebbins house, after firing at it for three hours, were put to flight, and those of its male occupants who were still alive joined their countrymen, while the women and children ran back for harborage to the house of Wells.
Wells and his men, now upwards of 50, drove the flying enemy more than a 2 km across the river meadows, and ran in headlong pursuit over the crusted snow, killing a considerable number. In the eagerness of the chase many threw off their overcoats, and even their jackets. Wells saw the danger, and vainly called on them to stop. Their blood was up, and most of them were young and inexperienced.
Meanwhile the firing at the village had been heard by Rouville's main body, who had already begun their retreat northward. They turned back to support their comrades, and hid themselves under the bank of the river till the pursuers drew near, when they gave them a close volley and rushed upon them with the war-whoop. Some of the villagers were shot down, and the rest driven back.
When they reached the palisade the villagers made a final stand, covering by their fire such of their comrades as had fallen within range of musket-shot, and thus saving them from the scalping-knife. The French did not try to dislodge them. Nine of them had been killed, several were wounded, and one was captured.
Long before noon the French and Indians were on their northward march with their train of 109 captives.
The French and Indians marched that afternoon only 7 km, to Greenfield meadows, where they stopped to encamp, dug away the snow, laid spruce-boughs on the ground for beds, and bound fast such of the prisoners as seemed able to escape.
By midnight, 80 additional men from Northampton and Springfield had joined the defenders of Deerfield.
By the end of March 1, with the arrival of more men from Connecticut, the British force counted 250 men. However, they decided that it was useless to pursue Rouville’s party and each contingent returned to its village.
The raiders then undertook a 500 km journey towards Chambly.
On March 4, the raiders came to the mouth of West River, which enters the Connecticut a little above the present town of Brattleboro. At this place dog-trains and sledges had been left, and these served to carry their wounded, as well as some of the captive children.
The march now continued with pitiless speed up the frozen Connecticut, where the recent thaw had covered the ice with slush and water ankle-deep.
At the mouth of the White River, the party divided into small bands, to subsist by hunting, for provisions were fast failing.
The raiders then marched down the Winooski River to Lake Champlain, and from there to Chambly. Several prisoners perished on the way some of them killed by their captors because they could not keep up with the party, only 89 survived. The captives accompanied their captors to their respective villages.
Afterwards, some 2,000 British fortified the frontier between Deerfield and Wells.
Rouville’s raiders had destroyed 17 of the 41 houses of the village of Deerfield; killed 44 inhabitants (10 men, 9 women, 25 children), 5 garrison soldiers and 7 Hadley men. Out of a population of 291 people, only 126 remained after the raid. The raiders brought 109 prisoners with them.
According to Governor-General Philippe Rigaud de Vaudreuil, the raiders lost only 11 men killed and and 22 wounded (including Rouville and one of his brothers).
Deerfield was not abandoned. Such of its men as were left were taken as soldiers into the pay of the province, while the women and children were sent to the villages below. A small garrison was also stationed at the spot, under command of Captain Jonathan Wells.
This article incorporates texts of the following source which is in the public domain: Parkman, Francis: A Half-Century of Conflict – France and England in North America Part VI in The Works of Francis Parkman, Boston: 1897, Vol. 11, pp. 55-58
Wikipedia – Raid on Deerfield