Posted: August 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 2 : "Deerfield ... A Toune, A Target"
To the Boston reverend, Increase Mather, the ambush at Bloody Brook, the subsequent abandonment of Pocumtuck and Connecticut River Valley, generally—and no doubt the death and destruction of King Philip's War itself—was explained simply: God's wrath; "the sinful Degenerate Estate of the present Generation in New England" ... Simplistic as a historical explanation, it nonetheless shines a light on motivations firmly embedded in the earliest English pioneers. Failure was, in the context of their societal training, their fault and theirs alone; moreover, it was God's punishment. To succeed and regain grace they all must try again, and try harder. Be it through renewed moral commitment, behind the plow, in their civic duties, in prayer, a Puritanically-fueled conviction was the central motivator. It drove those of the original inhabitants and many new inhabitants alike to resurrect the abandoned settlement now being called "Deerfield" ... By the mid 1680s—still sparse population-wise, highly indebted, and nominally a satellite of Dedham—it was again an established 'toune.' Though its hardest darkest days lay ahead, this time it had been planted for good.
The story of "Deerfield" makes up the second part and bulk of Richard Melvoin's: "New England Outpost, War and Society in Colonial Deerfield." And here is where the story really gets moving. The author's skill in translating heavy research into a recitation of facts that fuels (instead of dragging under) the narrative is on full display. It is, in fact, a page-turner—a trait that is common amongst popular best-selling historical books, but a rare feat among scholarly publications. It helps that Deerfield's is a gripping story. But part of the success is certainly due to the fact that Melvoin is not tempted to filter the history through pre-conceived historical frames, instead allowing the space for facts—presented in context—to tell their own story. This latter point stands up a work that pushes the reader past the popular mythic notion of 'frontier.' Melvoin summarizes: "The New England frontier defined Deerfield's world as anything but individualistic, democratic, impatient and free." It was instead insular to the point of inbred, and interdependent to the point of communal. And though each frontier / pioneering phase of colonial and European-American history is unique to the circumstances of its time and topography, a quick glance reveals that, generally-speaking, the trials Deerfielders faced in the late 1600s—isolation, poverty, natural forces beyond their control, the competition for land and resources in uncomfortably close proximity to hostile groups vying for, and claiming the same land and resources—were present in every step of European migration from coast-to-coast.
But skewering legends seems not Melvoin's intent. Instead, it is the simple act of letting the facts roam where they may. If myth falls as a result, so be it. If myth is upheld by a thorough recitation of the facts in-context, then the accomplishments of pioneers are all the more impressive. New England Outpost does challenge our popular cultural paradigm, but it does not revel in it. And in that it scores a great achievement. In pushing us past caricatures, frontier outposts and pioneering individuals become even more impressive than the stock myths. The hardships seem harder, their conviction more iron-clad. It reinforces the reason I am so personally drawn to history: reality, honestly presented, beats the legend every time.
The subtitle of the book is "War and Society." But it seems right to reverse that order in discussing the second phase of Deerfield's early history. For the impressive societal growth that accompanied the settlement's resurrection hints at a toune and population that was nonetheless determined to do what it took—poor and exposed though they were / however hard or personally limiting it may be—in order to make their outpost on the edge of English civilization a permanent fixture. That said it would be war, not the demands of civic polity, that was to push Deerfield and its inhabitants to the brink. Melvoin reminds us: "The major force that changed the frontier was war." So often the case throughout all phases of European-American westward migration, this was even more true in the colonial era when two world powers were still very much in the game with an empire to lose and everything, in the way of dominion over a vast resource-rich land, to gain. To all Europeans, the land had to seem infinite.
We can layer all the reasons that drew the colonists to this outpost—economic potential, divine mission, a fresh start—atop one: land. It was the land that brought pioneers to Deerfield. Without the rich riparian fields of the Connecticut River valley, there would be little reason for withstanding the hardships that defined the area in the late 17th century (whether compelled by God, or not). For there was wealth in this land. If these inhabitants did not have wealth in shillings and pounds, they could feel they had wealth—or the potential for it—in location and in working this land. We are reminded of the budding value of land in the colonial-era. It was currency. And this is an important historical footnote: it helps to define the seemingly unbridgeable gap in European-Indian relations—considering that virtually every conflict that erupted, be it in New England, the Ohio River Valley, the deep South, on the Plains, out West—blew up from land disputes. But it also provides context to the revolution-in-thought on wealth that would transform this land and what it was to be. The basis for individual wealth—and, as a result, greater individual freedom—could be spread vastly across society, in a way never considered, through a wide distribution of land-ownership. Owners of anything in the 17th century were an exclusive club. And so, the widespread ownership of one's own land, livestock, and structures—and in step: one's own ideas / future—this was a radical concept in the 1600s. Once again we can see a logical linear progression develop: the new nation to be founded in the late 1700s on these 'self-evident' ideals, finds roots in these proto-steps taken out onto the edges of English civilization. What was radical in the late 1600s had become popular demand by the late 1700s ... Given Melvoin's fine descriptions of daily life in Deerfield, it is important to note that most of these settlers seem oblivious to the drift of the future. But given the fact that there was land—an unfathomable amount of 'open' land—in hindsight, it seems to have been only a matter of time before settlers in these outposts of European civilization put it together: to own was to be free, a concept woven into American societal DNA to this day.
The concept of collective sovereignty employed by all native tribes was to lose out to this powerfully inviting and revolutionary notion of the right of anyone to own land (though it would, of course, take still more time for 'anyone' to be defined as everyone, regardless of race or gender) ... And so, despite the historical trajectory set forward in colonizing this specific river valley, it is great irony that few Deerfielders owned anything (aside from gumption); and equally ironic that they set out to establish / cultivate their new found wealth collectively.
Melvoin documents well the "web of credit and debt" cast up the river valley by certainly the wealthiest Englishman in the New England interior at the time, Springfield's Thomas Pynchon. It seems everyone in Deerfield, and the valley for that matter, had borrowed either material, or the means to acquire material via credit from the man. A staunch businessman he must have been; but he also had a direct interest in seeding the settlements, hence spending / investing liberally to help support agriculture and the region's stability (serving as it's civic military leader when the need arose, as it would almost non-stop until well into the 1700s). In addition to Pynchon's cycle of credit / debt, there was heavy subsidy of this outpost on the 'knife's blade' by the colony's ruling elements back east. But despite the heavy state of indebtedness that this all infers it did not slow Deerfield's rapid growth. Certainly the boon of gaining clear autonomy, which was awarded to Deerfield in 1689, gave the inhabitants a sense-of-freedom that was rare for those of so little material means in the 1600s. Melvoin documents an impressive tally of civic improvements undertaken, including the construction of a grain mill and a network of township roadways. There was also the mentioned local governance, which required the participation of all townsmen out of sheer necessity (if not the compelling pull of civic duty). For it was to be a collective enterprise if they were to survive out here, civic service being "a sign of citizenry, a sort of rite of passage ..." The regular schedule of elections, collection of taxes, the rotation of officeholders up-and-down the hierarchy of civic posts, an enterprising resume of public works—it all begins to seem less an outpost on the edge of 'howling wilds' (though it still was) and more a maturing settlement that was planning to stick around awhile.
There seems no better way to infer your intent on a permanent settlement than to farm the land, sink actual roots. And again, that was the point; Deerfield being a "town of subsistence farmers" ... That said (and recognizing my having made much of the re-setting effect of this history), the unique circumstances and setting of the New England frontier that led to this communal "community-run" agricultural operation were bound to give way to a more individualized agricultural norm in America. The coming flood of diverse migrant groups—no doubt still harboring tribal, even communal preferences—but nonetheless diluting the rigid insular views of the early Europeans was just around the corner. In combination with vast spaces being opened up in the interior beyond the rock-strewn northeast, and the already mentioned all-important development of a new nation enshrining the ability of its citizens to determine their own destiny in its founding documents, the favored trend of individual stand-alone farms seems inevitable. Still, no European frontier-line pushed out too far without a heavy degree of interdependence amongst those like-minded souls braving the 'howling wilds' ...
But again, all these environmental / evolutionary steps were future points on the timeline. In Deerfield at the end of the 1600s, their solution was a 'communal plantation,' Melvoin summarizing: "In light of all these circumstances—shared poverty, a general sameness of condition, limited resources, isolation, like occupations and life style—it is not surprising that Deerfielders became interdependent and community oriented."
Nor is it a surprise that a strict religious-based law lorded over even the outposts of the English world. Several instances of extreme punishment are detailed. There was little sympathy for the occasional immoral slip. There was none whatsoever for a crime of significance: the tragic case of Sarah Smith, for instance. A young wife, her husband captured in an Indian raid in 1693 (and probably killed), she was also the victim of an attempted rape. Three years later, she gave birth to an illegitimate child. Since she was still technically married, her fear of being found out (having delivered the child alone) probably led her to smother the new-born. But this tragic alignment of circumstances was of no bearing. This was all about her "sin of darkness," nothing less. At her public execution, the long-time Deerfield reverend, John Williams, showed no mercy. Her fate was her own doing: "Warnings to the Unclean." Here was the hardcore wrath-of-God at the centre of the Puritan faith ... And so it was in Deerfield: if agricultural concerns were carried out under the watchful eye of the community-at-large, keeping this toune in line would follow suit in order to appease the steely judge above.
But what is eye-popping is that this represented a lighter shade of Puritanism than the original generation of English immigrants had practiced. A purposeful authority-driven campaign to ease the hard edges of this religious / societal belief-set, called "Stoddard's Way," was designed to appeal to a next-generation population who had already begun to buck the extreme rigidity of the system (most certainly driving many of the non-fervent to the frontier). In both the population itself and the powers of the land, we can again see the first faint flickers of a budding individualism and demand for wider freedoms. Such a reform would not have been introduced had it not seemed imperative to the old order. A minor step (obviously, considering the harsh fate of Sarah Smith), but still a step away from communal fundamentalism, one that would only accelerate over the coming centuries with the settling of successive frontiers, both physical and philosophical.
All of this hard effort was meant to stitch together a permanent point of English civilization at the edge of their known world. But it was war that truly tested Deerfield's staying power. The contemporary view of long-settled New England must be suspended to fully contextualize the grim circumstances these settlement-outposts faced. The actual history shows us a frontier that was far less mysterious and wild than it seemed on the ground at the time: an amorphous shifting "zone of exchanges between peoples, an area of interaction between cultures." But again, this is a view in hindsight with the facts in-hand. To English pioneers raised under the notion of a God inclined to hard punishments, the unsettled land beyond their scope-of-understanding was a 'howling wilderness,' untamed and deadly—the 'devil's own.' In the final decade of the 1600s through into the early 1700s, this popular view was true of everything beyond the tenuous arc of English settlements extending from modern-day Portland, Maine, to Hartford, Connecticut. At the very centre, Deerfield stood out as the most exposed point of that arc. It would be the focal point of an old world fight exported to this 'new world,' a series of conflicts running one-into-another that would also force all native inhabitants of this contested land to pick sides—often fighting wars within wars, alliances created out of convenience instead of shared goals. From 1688 to 1712, with hardly a break, all cultures in-and-about modern New England were at war.
Though the alliances, strategies and motivations paint a complex picture, the fuel for this constant state of conflict was rather simple: the French and English. When the old world went to war, so did its colonists. King Philip's War proved a harbinger of the brand of sophisticated French-supported attacks that would fall on Deerfield and all other English outpost-settlements. And fall they did. With the start of King William's War in 1688, mixed-force forays of French and Indians began to attack along the mentioned interior arc. These attacks were made to look sporadic; and though many were certainly spontaneous opportunistic strikes, it all fit into a strategy of planned randomness meant to keep the English on-the-defensive. Being the closest English outpost to the French, Deerfield would bear the brunt of this strategy. Six coordinated attacks fell on Deerfield over the next decade. Adding to the anxiety, small roving bands were constantly on the prowl, attacking individuals and small groups while in the fields or in-transit—taking prisoners, destroying property and killing English pioneers.
The expectation of attack had become a routine part of life by the turn-of-the-century, compulsory military service for all men between the ages of 16 and 60 a law, a tradition—a necessity. (Public interdependent defense would become so vital a frontier necessity that, regardless of the rapid evolution in single family farming and private land ownership, it would move across the country along with every phase of the European-American frontier.) King William's War soon bled imperceptibly into Queen Anne's War, a petty fight over royal succession and trade which began in 1702. It quickly crossed the Atlantic, its first new world export taking the form of French-inspired Abenaki assaults in 1703 on the northernmost tip of the English arc: settlements at Saco and Wells (Maine coast between modern Portland and Portsmouth, NH). The European continent's mired web of alliances and counter-alliances aside, those in the new world were also complex and varied. But 'New France' had clearly outpaced the English in building strong military alliances with regional tribes. Again, Melvoin deftly considers the angles of all players: the French sought to raid along the soft exposed frontier line in order to pen in the English; they also wanted to safeguard Abenaki claims in modern north New England / southeast Canada to secure their presence as a buffer against the nominally English-allied Mohawk; meanwhile, the Abenaki and Caughnawega (a Mohawk faction that had split to side with the French) were more than happy to accept generous material support to avenge destruction done them by the English and Mohawk alike. The 'acid test' of this French / Indian alliance came in the form of a large war party that descended through the dead of winter and the wilderness on Deerfield ...
If Deerfield were to survive in any form after February 28, 1704, then it seemed nothing could erase it. Despite the state of indefinite high-alert, the mentioned force was able to take the sleeping town by surprise in a pre-dawn raid ... I encourage everyone to track down a copy of this book and read it for a detailed account. It is violent, tragic and gripping, a stretch of narrative that propels the reader. In short, 300 French and Indian attackers swarmed over the outpost, bursting into homes and killing indiscriminately. Any house that fell to the invaders was put to the torch. It was a brand of assault that was meant to instill fear amongst all of the new English pioneers, and likely had that effect short-term. There were a few heavily fortified houses that held out, the entire town centre being within a strong palisade (that had been scaled in part due to the height of outside snowdrifts). But in the end, "the Bloody Desolation" saw 56 killed, near half of all structures burned and 109 prisoners—2/5 of the population at the time—who were then marched off with no remorse through the wilds of what is now modern Vermont, in mid-winter. Twenty-one more would die or be killed by their captors on the march to Montreal.
And yet as horrific a story as this is, a more amazing story comes with the end of Queen Anne's War in 1712: in that 80% of the inhabitants at that time had lived there before the war ... By 1706, the surviving captors who did not convert (all prisoners having been subjected to coercive and stressful attempts at Catholic indoctrination) had been ransomed. Many immediately returned to Deerfield, which in the wake of the 1704 attack and for the next eight years was to be more a garrisoned military outpost than autonomous settlement. The mentioned resolve bears repeating; there are few modern American examples that can hold a candle to it. After all they'd been through, knowing well another attack of similar magnitude—or even worse—could happen again, that these pioneers decided Deerfield worth the risk ... And it did happen again, 'the wheel turning.' In 1709, an attack of similar strength as that in 1704 was this time repulsed. In all, Deerfield was struck 10 times: a third of all major attacks that were launched by the French and their Native-American allies in the river valley during Queen Anne's War—including the two heaviest attacks: 1704 & 1709. And yet, in 1712 the toune stood.
There would be more violence and more attacks; but their size and frequency would slow until they were no more. It was not for lack of conflict, or competition for land and resources, or differing interests / ideologies; that would be too much to ask of old and new world contestants confronting old and new issues. No, the violence moved on in step with the westward drift of the frontier. Northfield, having been abandoned along with Pocumtuck after the fierce raids of King Phillip's War, was re-established in 1715. Deerfield no longer stood alone at the centre-point of the arc. Fort Drummer was established north of Northfield in 1724, the first of a string of forts whose presence alone would help push to the west a frontier-line that had hovered for 50 years in-and-around this stretch of the Connecticut River Valley. Deerfield could finally concentrate on being a 'toune,' farming, governing, growing—physically and philosophically ...
And Melvoin is quick to step in at the right time, with the right summary: "When the frontier moved on, so did many of the reasons for the town to live as it had." In that quote lies a capstone to what was—for me—the exceptional strength of this somewhat obscure, localized historical work: here is one of the many first steps in the evolution of the country I knew well, but now know better ... This book draws the idea of 'frontier' into sharper focus, allowing the reader to look past myths and zero-in on truths. But in doing so—bonding us to facts in-context—popular legends are not replaced, they are re-set in real terms. This, in turn, allows the tendrils of how we got to where we are from these early proto-steps to become more clear. Richard Melvoin provides us not only a superior historical work on a micro-level, but an informed jumping-off point for us to think through the macro-level. "New England Outpost" urges a scientific approach by which to help decipher America today. It urges the reader to think ... The American story is a slow, arduous, deliberate journey—part-circumstance, part-environment, part grit & determination. And it all began in places like Deerfield.
My thanks to Richard Melvoin, for providing us all a superior historical work: "New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield."
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