Saturday, February 29, 2020

Death in Deerfield

The Berkshires in Western, MA

By Elaine Marie Cooper

When I think of Deerfield, Massachusetts, I envision its lush woods, the Connecticut River, and the huge Yankee Candle store in the rural town. The last thing I think about is a massacre.

Yet that is the location of a vicious attack on the settlers of Old Deerfield some 300 years ago— February 29, 1704 to be exact. As so often occurs in these tragedies, innocent men, women, and children were caught in the cross hairs of a political battle between France and England to gain control over North America.

The French had the advantage of natives who fought with them. And when an attack occurred, it was bloody and vicious. 

The massacre occurred during the period of time called Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). It was not unusual for solitary attacks on dwellings in the wilderness frontier. But a full-scale decimation of an entire village surprised and horrified the British.

Rumors had been rampant for months ahead of the actual attack. Periodically, the governor of Massachusetts Bay would send militia to offer support and protection. When no threat materialized, the military men returned home. 

The town of Deerfield, like most outposts on the frontier, was surrounded by a stockade as fortification against attack. But in the winter months, the deep snows provided easy passage over the wooden structure. The sentinel on watch fell asleep and In the early morning hours of February 29, the attack began against the 300 villagers.

About 50 French soldiers and 200 Iroquois, Abenaki, Huron, and Iroquois raided the village, killing men, women and children, then taking some as captives. The goal of the French was to destroy the English village and they carried it out in horrific success. 

Homes and barns were burned to the ground, while farm animals slaughtered and provisions destroyed. 

The owner of one home, John Sheldon, had wisely fortified the door so that it resisted the hatchet thrusts of the natives. The sharp instruments did manage to open a hole through which a gun was fired by the attackers, killing Mrs. Sheldon. The door is still on display in the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield. 

Another resident had built his walls out of brick, which resisted the onslaught of the enemy. Some residents managed to escape through a gate that had not been guarded by the enemy.

But most of the homes provided scant protection against the firearms and weapons of the attacking soldiers. While many of the inhabitants were killed or wounded, more were taken as captives to be used as ransom. 

Forty-eight Deerfield residents were slain in the attack while 112 were captured and force-marched to Canada, some 300 miles north, in the dead of winter. At least twenty of the captives died enroute, mostly women who were weak from pregnancy and childbirth and young children, too frail to survive. 

Many of the captives survived the trek. Some escaped; some were rescued and returned home; some, especially the younger children, assimilated into the French or native culture of the families who adopted them. Many books have been written about the Deerfield massacre, including 

Of note in my readings was a curious occurrence that preceded the actual attack on Deerfield. According to Herbert Milton Sylvester in his book, “Indian Wars of New England,” a historian recorded the recollections of the Reverend Solomon Stoddard: “The people of Deerfield were strangely amazed by a trampling noise around the fort, as if it were besieged by the Indians.” Some of the surviving residents reported hearing this sound a few days before the attack, but they could see no one. Some of the villagers later looked back on it as a supernatural warning of what was to come. 

Fates of the Deerfield Captives:
Total Captured: 112
Died on the march to Canada: 21
Escaped: 5
Returned by 1707: 47
Returned by 1714: 8
Returned Later: 2
Remained with French: 19
Remained with Natives: 7
Fate Unknown: 3

 Elaine Marie Cooper has two historical fiction books that released in 2019: War’s Respite (Prequel novella) and Love’s KindlingLove’s Kindling is available in both e-book and paperback. They are the first two books in the Dawn of America Series set in Revolutionary War Connecticut. Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherlessand Bethany’s Calendar. Her 2016 release (Saratoga Letters) was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul and HomeLife magazine. She also penned the three-book historical series, Deer Run Saga. Her upcoming release, Scarred Vessels,” is about the black soldiers in the American Revolution. Look for it in October 2020. You can visit her website/ blog at


  1. Quite a story for Leap Day! Thanks for posting!

    1. Yes, I was amazed I found such a significant event on a leap year day! I wish I'd known the history and could have visited the historic village when I went to the Yankee Candle store years ago. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Wow, history on Leap Day that is not known. Thank you for sharing, Elaine.

    1. You're very welcome. Yes, a sad anniversary on a leap day. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. What a frightening ordeal to endure. When I think of the hardships our ancestors endure, it's amazing that America has thrived as it has. Thanks for telling us about this sad tidbit of history.

    1. You're very welcome. And yes, the thought of enduring such an attack brings tears to one's eyes. Little ones too young to keep up on the trek north, brutally killed by their captors. As a grandma, I cannot even imagine.

  4. It's amazing what today appears a tranquil setting, was once a place of a terrifying tragedy. Great post, Elaine.

    1. Thanks, Janet. I'm sure that there are many such stories of tragedies on the frontier. Likely the large scale of this attack is why it is recorded in history. It reminds me of "Last of the Mohicans" movie which was heartbreaking to watch. Thanks for commenting.