Posted: June 2011 / Dave Buckhout
[Inspired by the historical work: "New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield," by Richard I. Melvoin (W. W. Norton & Co., New York; 1989)]
Part 1 : "Re-Setting, and Settling the Frontier"
My appetite for American history has led me to consume hundreds of works. The well from which to draw is so vast and well-covered by substantial work that it is rare I don’t feel, at least, satisfied. But increasingly, it has become rare I encounter a volume that can re-set the parameters of a history I know well. Searching, reading reviews, seeking suggestions, scanning the bibliographies of great works, all of this can on occasion turn up a volume that re-frames my previous knowledge, instead of simply reinforcing what I already know. So in light of this wide-cast search, it’s great irony that the most recent ‘re-setting’ work I have read was gathering dust on my shelf for over a decade.
New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield, was written by Richard I. Melvoin, a Harvard professor and lecturer of history / literature ... Published in 1989, purchased in 1998, first read in 2010, I have re-read it since, fully absorbing a work that provides a great service: re-setting the start-point of the European-American frontier from points west of the Mississippi—where it resides in the popular mind—to the Atlantic coast and the very first European immigrants. This book also reminds us that European migration (what is still often considered a destined hegemony) was by no means an assured thing in the 17th century. English and French settlement in the ‘new’ world was still experimental—all interior settlements residing at the edge of this tenuous coastal Europeanized-zone more experimental still, satellites to the whole venture.
In the last thirty years of 1600s New England, there was no greater experiment than Deerfield, Massachusetts, or its original incarnation: Pocumtuck (after the native tribe that long inhabited the region). Perched precariously—as on a “knife blade”—at the end of a string of settlements up the Connecticut River valley (which flows south in reverse of European settlement, forming the Vermont / New Hampshire border and splitting Massachusetts / Connecticut before emptying into Long Island Sound), there the several iterations of Deerfield stood for half-a-century—exposed, anxious, puritanically studious, brave. Along with the modern Albany region of New York (it too having pushed up a major river valley), Deerfield and its closest settlement neighbors comprised the farthest extent of English civilization in America well into the 1700s. They were literally outposts at the edge of their world. This tension is made palpable by Melvoin. The history of what has come since is stripped away, and the moment is seen through the perspective of the participants (always a signal achievement in an historical work). Far from European dominion being an inevitable outcome, you are instead left with the ‘harsh real’ these settlers faced in their moment. Being tenuous challenges to all other interests in the area, the potential for these outposts to be swept away by motivated tribes, or alliances was very real—a reality that would visit Deerfield.
As hinted, an exceptional trait of this work is its full coverage. The complexity of inter-tribal and Native / European relations are illustrated from the perspectives of all involved. The story is ultimately about the frontier phases of an English settlement. But any chosen point or range on an historical timeline is proceeded by a linear organic string of evolving events—often mundane, occasionally watershed—that allowed space for the historical focal-point to occur. All this coalesces in the book’s narrative: Melvoin beginning with the Pocumtuck tribe previously mentioned, one of a dozen minor tribes inhabiting what is now mid-New England between the more populous, more unified and powerful Abenaki (modern south Quebec / coastal Canada / northern New England and Maine) and Iroquois (modern New York state). In the popular mind it would be expected that this small tribe was eventually pushed out by the ‘manifest’ advancement of whites; but not so. Though the strength of all native tribes in the region had been devastated by the European pathogens that also made the trans-Atlantic journey (estimates claim an appalling 3 in 4 individuals of these New England-area tribes succumbing to disease, what they would call: the great mortality), the Pocumtuck instead met their doom at the hands of the Mohawk, eastern gatekeepers of the Iroquois. Feeling squeezed between the forever hostile Mohawk and the encroaching English—and likely feeling the need to assert themselves and their place in their traditional river valley lands—they struck the Mohawk in several small raids during the 1660s. The Mohawk response was without mercy. The Pocumtuck tribe as a unified entity was annihilated. This, in turn, cleared the valley of permanent native residents at the very moment English settlers were sizing up the river valley for further settlement; a brutal, human-friction influenced—yet organic—evolution. “The wheel turns” is an apt phrase used often by Melvoin.
The cataclysmic descent of the Mohawk on the Pocumtuck—just one of many inter-tribal rivalries / ancient grudges that both the English and French would employ to their advantage—opened up an opportunity. But the hard violence of the event supplies a not-so-subtle hint of the kind of frontier the English were venturing into. Though all the early river valley settlements went forward under Puritan banners, their reality was far from utopian. This was hard business and much more in line with all of the evolutionary migrations of masses of organized humans: fitful, slow-moving steps back-and-forward across grey zones where competing interests / societies intertwine, intermingle, trade, disagree, fight wars, fail and succeed (with some of those failed attempts trying again and eventually succeeding). All of the modern northeast United States and southeastern Canada was such a zone; cautious curious interaction, interspersed with conflict, was typical of the mid-late 1600s. With no agreed upon fixed boundaries, it was a period of continuous back-and-forth claims / counterclaims, and fights to prove one over the other. Melvoin cautions: “The frontier line should not be drawn too firmly.”
A macro-view of American history can see that frontier line as an even, steady advance. But the micro-view reveals the ‘harsh real’ played out in the thousands of Deerfields where conditions tried (and often broke) the hardiest ... What drives people to stick with such hardship—and specifically, the violent difficult life these Puritan pioneers would face—instead of setting up in safer settled venues? Melvoin goes far in providing answers, perhaps indirectly, simply through the act of finely-detailing the story of these sturdy, studious participants determined to succeed. Melvoin describes Pocumtuck as a “second generation” town, populated by the children of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony. Though originally laid out by surveyors employed by speculators from Dedham (south and west of Boston, at the time rural but far from the frontier), those who came to live in the river valley were mainly from other previous frontier-line settlements. They were motivated by a standard litany of inspirations: economic opportunity (in Melvoin’s estimation, that reason already supplanting the religious mission), a chance to escape the ‘settled’ social / economic hierarchy of other established towns (an irony, in that the town’s participants would be heavily indebted)—and for some even simple escape: a second-chance. But beneath the temporal reasons lay a societal influence still driven by shared religious views. Melvoin states that it was less the hard-driving utopian mission informed by Winthrop’s Puritanical beacon (as is so often the case, the children thinking less of their parents’ starched views); but there is no doubt that the ingrained Puritan traditions of the early English settlers informed every aspect of these 17th century New England outposts. The opportunity provided them by the Mohawk in the river valley was seen as providence, the close work of a guiding hand creating space for their settlement to bloom. Even the horrific reduction of the native population in modern New England by way of the great mortality, as well as the attrition of inter-tribal warfare and migration (an estimated native population of 100,000 being thinned to at most one-fifth that number between 1600 and 1676) was viewed through this ‘divine filter.’ This was a hard world. But the Lord that had sent their parents across the Atlantic was still close at hand and guiding events with preference. The historical record provides us a more complex and methodical explanation for the eventual success of the English settlers. But as Melvoin is quick to point out, the early Pocumtuck / Deerfield settlers operated under that idea of divine providence. And whether true or not is irrelevant to the point: that notion stands tall in explaining the kind of steadfast resolve the English pioneers showed (despite the existence of irreligious drifters, of which the town had plenty). It is the ‘how-and-why’ by which these people persisted in the face of hard poverty, death, and destruction. What drove these people to rebuild in wake of devastating failures like those Deerfield would suffer? Divine grace—separated from the temporal hardship of the moment (hardships regularly blamed via ministers on their lack of commitment to the divine goal)—explains this drive better than simple economic benefit, or fertile agricultural lands, or nostalgia. Divine grace was a fuel that flowed freely in early New England. It drove the determined to eventually succeed ... And all of this explanation flows freely from Melvoin’s narrative. It captures the emotional and psychological aspects without interfering in the business of documenting facts. In an age of opinion presented (and often believed) as fact, it is refreshing to see a history allowed the space to interpret itself without pre-conceived end-points obscuring the ‘harsh real’ that fully explains this early frontier.
The ties to Dedham deteriorated almost as soon as the settlement took shape. By 1673, inside a decade of its founding, Pocumtuck would be awarded “the liberty of touneship.” But this does not indicate the rough-and-ready freedom often ascribed to the American frontier. The story that unfolds from the historical record was—for me—another ‘re-set’ moment. Melvoin expands the popular history by highlighting the fact that these colonial outposts exhibit much less of the rugged individual of lore, and more of individuals living in a dependent state—both externally and internally. Melvoin writes: “These settlers were certainly pioneers, but hardly the isolated fiercely independent individuals of American legend.” Whereas a straight historical / culturally-influential line can be drawn between the colonial settlers’ sense of grace (what Melvoin describes as a “17th century version of manifest destiny”) and those pioneers that poured across the middle / western frontiers throughout all of the 19th century, there seems a significant gap between the rugged individualism that we tend to think drove European-Americans beyond the settled east and the more communal traits inherent of these early European-colonial attempts at interior migration. A good deal of the later can be attributed to the uniformity and lack of diversity in the society that spawned these colonial outposts, a condition that had certainly changed by the 19th century. But Melvoin realizes there is more to the story and lets the history point the way. In that setting, at that point in time (recalling that European domination was still no fait accompli in the 1670s), the practical aspects of communal farming, community—and instinctually democratic—governance, and egalitarianism amongst an exposed group almost entirely lacking in material wealth, simply made sense. It was a communal existence born of necessity, not choice. Private livestock kept on a commons in which all had a small stake made sense. Employing ‘fence-viewers’ to insure that each resident maintained their length of commons-fencing made civic sense (and adhered to their watchful judgmental traditions). Throughout the first several decades of Pocumtuck / Deerfield’s existence, records show a high-degree of turnover in town offices pointing to a population-challenged citizenry democratizing by necessity. Though Deerfield women did hold a more integrated role in the society and its agriculture than usual at the time (again, by necessity), officeholders—all men—moved from high-up offices (selectmen), down to basic ones (fence-viewer), and then back up the chain: a town population lacking ‘landed’ civic leaders spreading out the social responsibilities. Melvoin details the employ of strict Puritan law (noting such punishable offenses as the “wearing of Silk,” “Long Haire and other Extravagences,” and a couple out of wedlock “lying in bed ... [having had] Rhum to Drinke”), but also shows Deerfield taking in those with not-so-sterling backgrounds: “[the] large number of newcomers who were young, had debts, or had been in previous trouble with the law.” Add in that the average age for marriage was younger, and that town records document a high number of remarriages (death closer in proximity on the frontier), and we begin to see the clear picture of a fledgling outpost who as a society—and whose individuals—could not afford to be picky. They worked with what they had to in order to survive. There would be order informed by their traditional customs, yes; but it would be tempered with a social / democratic tolerance that the founding generation might not have tolerated ...
And as I continued to read (then re-read) this history, it all began to point at an even larger organic idea (which may, or may not have been Melvoin’s intent): that the physical demands of living in America—especially on, or near the frontier-line—helped to breed a common-sense desire for wider societal / individual independence and local governance; an idea that would slowly seep into colonial society over the decades to follow. There is little doubt that the specific experience of Deerfield and its residents’ relative isolation forced a self-reliance on its individuals (however indebted they might have been) that they may not have acquired otherwise. And as mentioned, it was the struggle and success of the thousands of Deerfields that would settle the European-American frontier, embedding many of the core traits we still use to define our national psyche along the way. It seems no leap to say that the eventual success of Deerfield can be viewed as an incremental evolutionary step towards the demand for greater freedoms that would ignite a revolution a century later.
But this eventual success was first to encounter another rule of the frontier: the hard reality of competing interests. In the mid 1670s, it came in the form of one ‘King Philip’ ... By 1675, the various smaller tribes of modern mid-south New England (who as Melvoin notes had been interacting and trading with English settlers for a generation) were finally squeezed to the point of pushing back; missionaries, both English Puritans and French Catholics, only adding to the roiling hatred, having “thrust themselves into Indian settlements, gaining more resentment than converts.” With their very way of life threatened, the various tribes formed an alliance—including many long-time enemies—to assert their claim to ‘collective sovereignty’ of the land. Metacom, who the English called: King Philip, led this alliance of Wampanoag, Narragansett, Nipmuck, Mohegan, Pequot, and others, in an attempt to roll back the expanding colonial frontier-lines of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut—and reclaim their traditional lands. A warrior force of an estimated 3500 at its peak would fix their initial focus on reducing the most exposed settlements: those in and around the river valley. ‘King Philip’s War’ marked the beginning of a state of near constant high-alert, if not actual conflict that would hang over modern mid-New England for the next half-century. Pocumtuck / Deerfield would be attacked 30 times by the time the frontier moved on.
The attacks of this war began with ferocity in the summer of 1675. Over 20 outpost settlements were eventually struck. In early September, Northfield—an equally ambitious outpost up the valley—was struck hard, and abandoned. This left Pocumtuck the most exposed English settlement in the region—possibly on the continent—at that time. It braced for attack. But the expected attack was instead sprung as an ambush on an English force in-transit, this group including a large number of Pocumtuck’s fighting-age men. The Battle of Bloody Brook, to the immediate south, was a stinging defeat in which one-third (18) of those English engaged were killed. In its wake, the remaining settlers removed under heavy guard well down the valley to the fortified settlement of Northampton. Pocumtuck was abandoned. The brutal attacks of King Philip’s force were effective in achieving their goal, pushing the English frontier-line back 25 miles. Melvoin summarizes: “In 1675 ... the Indians waged a coherent campaign which effectively reduced the frontier and successfully drove back English settlement.” But it would be short-lived. 1676 saw a better-trained English militia adapt a more effective strategy that would beat back and eventually regain nominal command of the territory lost. Add to this, the continuing ‘grey zone’ complexities: inter-tribal factionalism amongst King Philip’s force and a massive concerted strike by the Mohawk (at the time allied with the English), destroyed the alliance and the attempt to drive out the English settlers.
Still, it would take some time for the brave and studious to return to Deerfield’s rich valley lands. For many years, the abandoned town would molder, its fields going fallow. It was described as little more than “a dwelling for owls.”
Part 2: Deerfield ... A Toune, A Target
Back To THE ALMANACK