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Deerfield, MA Stories

"On Tuesday, the 29th of February, 1703-4, not long before the break of day, the enemy came in like a flood upon us; our watch being unfaithful...About sun an hour high, we were all carried out of the house, for a march, and saw many of the houses of my neighbors in flames, perceiving the whole fort, one house excepted, to be taken. Who can tell what sorrows pierced our souls, when we saw ourselves carried go into a strange land."
--Rev. John Williams, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion

Deerfield was located in the wilds of New England, and during the many American and European conflicts that occurred in the area even before the French and Indian War (King Philip's War, King William's War, Queen Anne's War, King George's War) the inhabitants of this "New England Outpost" found themselves caught in crossfire.  The town was located in an exposed valley that sat right in the path of an ancient trail used by Native American tribes. Other than Hatfield and Hadley (towns also subject to frequent raids) Deerfield was mostly surrounded by wilderness in all directions, with no civilization nearby.

Up to 1704, several raids had brought random violent incidents to the Deerfield settlers, but the siege was never steady.  After some isolated incidents and rumors of more organized trouble to come, the town built a fortification in the center of the settlement. The stockade perimeter surrounded the meeting house and a dozen or so homes.

On the morning of February 29, 1704, 142 Native Americans of various allied tribes, supported by about 200 French troops, attacked the town. It is reported that the attackers just walked in, using snow that had drifted up against the wall of the fortification to jump inside and open the gate.

The painted invaders swarmed into Deerfield, looting and firing houses, slaughtering livestock, and killing those who resisted. Some members of the Nims family, hiding in the cellar, died while their house burned overhead. Mrs. Shelton was killed when she was shot through a hole that had been chopped in her door. Many witnessed the horrific murders of their family members.

When it was over, only 133 Deerfield residents had survived. Most of these were taken captive and marched to Canada. Some of the captives died on the march. Some of the captives never returned to New England, settling in Canada. Many, however, did eventually return to Deerfield.

Some settlers got away. Thankful Nims and her husband, who lived on the far side of the fortification, managed to sneak out and run away.  Some settlers fought back. Benoni Stebbins and others who were in his home at the time fought bravely. Benoni did not survive, but he and his companions not only held out for hours in the house, but killed several attackers, including a high ranking French officer and a Native American chief.

February 29, 2004 is the 300th anniversary of the attack on Deerfield, MA. Historic Deerfield has planned several commemorative events. Following are anecdotes about some of the people involved:

Godfrey Nims
Benoni Stebbins
Jonathan Wells
The Sheldon House
Mrs. Catlin
The List of captives who went to Canada
The List of Deerfield residents who were killed

Source list:
Williams, Rev. John The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion more information

Sheldon, George History of Deerfield more information

Demos, John The Unredeemed Captive more information

Suddaby, Elizabeth (ed.) The Nims Family more information