"Early on the morning of February 29, 1704, before the settlers of Deerfield, Massachusetts, had stirred from their beds, a French and Indian war party opened fire, wielding hatchets and torches, on the lightly fortified town. What would otherwise have been a fairly commonplace episode of "Queen Anne's War" (as the War of the Spanish Succession was known in the colonies) achieved considerable notoriety in America and abroad. The reason: the Indians had managed to capture, among others, the eminent minister John Williams, his wife, Eunice Mather Williams, and their five children. This Puritan family par excellence, and more than a hundred of their good neighbors, were now at the mercy of "savages"--And the fact that these "savages" were French-speaking converts to Catholicism made the reversal of the rightful order of things no less shocking." "In The Unredeemed Captive, John Demos, Yale historian and winner of the Bancroft Prize for his book Entertaining Satan, tells the story of the minister's captured daughter Eunice, who was seven years old at the time of the Deerfield incident and was adopted by a Mohawk family living at a Jesuit mission-fort near Montreal. Two and a half years later, when Reverend Williams was released and returned to Boston amid much public rejoicing, Eunice remained behind - her Mohawk "master" unwilling to part with her. And so began a decades-long effort, alternately hopeful and demoralizing for her kin, to "redeem" her. Indeed, Eunice became a cause celebre across New England, the subject of edifying sermons, fervent prayers, and urgent envoys between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and New France. But somehow she always remained just out of reach - until eventually, her father's worst fears were confirmed: Eunice was not being held against her will. On the contrary, she had forgotten how to speak English, had married a young Mohawk man, and could not be prevailed upon to return to Deerfield." "Eunice's extraordinary and dramatic story speaks to broad, compelling themes that involve race, religion, the place of women in two societies, and, above all, contact between cultures ("Captivity, after all, meant 'contact' of a particularly vivid sort") and the crossing of cultural boundaries. For both colonists and Indians, the stakes were high in early-eighteenth-century America. Hence the boundaries were carefully patrolled: "To travel across them was costly and dangerous - and potentially transforming." The Unredeemed Captive traces just such a transformation - remarkable, profound, and uniquely American."--Jacket.
In the early morning of February 29, 1704, a mixed force of nearly 50 French soldiers and officers and 200 "domiciled" Indians from the Abenaki, Huron, and Mohawk Iroquois tribes attacked Deerfield. The political aim was to capture someone valuable to trade for a prisoner the British were holding. In the resulting battle, 48 townspeople slain, 120 captives taken, and 140 survivors remained. In addition, not all of the captives survive the journey to Montreal, where most are "redeemed" and made prisoners of the French, or to assorted Indian villages north of Albany. Mr. Williams and three of his sons are redeemed immediately, one son and a daughter are taken to live in different tribal villages.
All of this occurs in the first chapter, the rest of the book focuses on broader themes, such as the meaning of redemption from the Indians to the descendents of the Puritans on the brink of the Great Awakening. Much of the New Englanders concern for their kin was not their physical safety, but the safety of their souls. The Jesuits had converted thousands of Indians to Catholicism, and the settlers were deathly afraid that the captured would be converted to evil popish ways and their souls lost forever. I had never realized that the majority of the Indian attackers were practicing Christians, that the majority of the captives never stayed in Indian villages, and that the British offered bounties for enemy scalps. My childhood history books seem to have gotten a few things wrong.
The book is an interesting introduction to the New England experience of the time and made me want to read the original source material. Especially since the author had the annoying habit of quoting words and phrases, so that each paragraph was a patchwork of tiny quotes (often single words) and his own words. I found it much harder to follow than if he had quoted larger sections of source material and then provided interpretation. The book is well-researched, however, and I learned a great deal. I did feel misled by the jacket flap, for the book is not the story of Eunice Williams, about whom very little is actually known, but the story of a much larger phenomena.
Demos’ work tells the story of the Williams family. Theirs is a story that was central to the history of colonial America. Settled in Deerfield on the Massachusetts frontier, John Williams (d. 1729), respected Puritan pastor and community leader, and his family struggled to build a life on the edge of the vast American wilderness. They faced hardships both environmental and physical. The greatest of these occurred 28 February 1704, when the French directed a raid against the community of Deerfield. The raiding party included French troops as well as a great number of Indian allies. Two of Williams’ children were killed outright; four others were captured along with him and his wife. His wife, Eunice, was killed along the way, but the others all survived the arduous trek to Canada. Over the course of almost three years all were ‘redeemed’ or returned to Massachusetts, except for the youngest daughter, also named Eunice. She chose to stay and make her life with the Mohawk family that had adopted her.
This book is ostensibly the story of the raid and capture, the redemption of John Williams and four of his children, and subsequent attempts to redeem Eunice. While focusing primarily on this one family, Demos managed also to tell the larger story of the early colonies. He used a wealth of primary sources, including letters, journals, public notices and legal records. In staying true to his narrative form, he weaves those into the story at times as if they were dialogue. This makes the story come alive in a way that reads much like decent fiction.
Demos does not shy away from the analytical, however. He goes beyond what is merely recorded in the sources to interpret the larger picture of colonial Massachusetts. One of the most salient examples is the third chapter, his study of Williams’ writings during and immediately after his captivity. Demos goes beyond the text in front of him and interprets them through a contextual filter. In so doing, he gives a much more intimate portrayal of Williams, while at the same time widening the scope to show Williams as a product of his time and place.
The second half of the book is taken up with Eunice’s life in Canada. After being adopted by a Catholic Mohawk family, she chose in turn to adopt their ways, language and religion. Eunice was baptized a Catholic (and rechristened Marguerite), much to the horror of her Puritan family that saw Catholicism as grievous sin. She married a Mohawk man and raised a family with him. John Williams never gave up his hope of redeeming her to her old family. Eunice never gave up her new family. In telling this part of the story, Demos relied on, admittedly scant, tribal records and personal papers. Yet he managed to recreate a realistic portrait of her community and family.
Demos managed to achieve his goals of telling a story and doing so from a point of view not wholly European. Through the life of John Williams, he was able to describe a larger colonial story. Through Eunice, he told the story through the eyes of those facing colonization. Through the French officials in Montreal and Quebec, Demos was able to add the additional voice of those North of the border. Unredeemed Captive is at once a story highly personal and yet hugely representative of early America.