English Settlement of Deerfield, MA Attacked by French and Indians

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English Settlement of Deerfield, MA Attacked by French and Indians

"Raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts" (1900) by Walter Henry Lippincott
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 29, 1704

Today's excursion into history is one that can only be presented today, this year. The incident was another in the continuing stories of frontier warfare during the colonial warfare in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries.


The rivalry between Great Britain and France exploded into war in 1688. The War of the Grand Alliance (known as King William's War in America) ended in 1697, with England victorious. It did not, however, settle things sufficiently in North America. The French-Canadian colonists of Quebec took great pains to stir their Indian allies to raid American settlements.

In 1701, war broke out again, with the War of the Spanish Succession taking place in Europe. One year later, Queen Anne's War began in the Americas. Again, French-Canadians and their Indian allies continued to cause various troubles.

The French had three main military forces at their beck and call: their various Indian allies; Canadian militiamen, who were most adept at tracking and ambushing; and, semi-regular French soldiers called "troupes de la Marine." These last were the main standing army troops in Canada. They were recruited mainly in France, but their officers were mostly Canadians. They were organized as independent companies and concentrated in several cities of the French North American colonies. During Queen Anne's War, the troupes de la Marine numbered some 500 to 1200 soldiers.

Troupe de la Marine re-enactors in Montreal
Troupe de la Marine re-enactors in Montreal

The French government in New France had identified the Connecticut River valley as a likely target as early as 1702. In late 1703, a force of almost 300 French, Canadians, and Indians gathered just south of Montreal. The force consisted of 48 Frenchmen, many were Canadian militia while other were recent recruits from the troupe de la Marine, and about 200 Abenaki, Iroquois, Wyandot, and Pocumtuc Indians. These last tribesmen were apparently anxious to avenge themselves on the English settlers of Deerfield, who drove them from their lands. As they journeyed to Deerfield, they were joined by a group of 30-40 Pennacooks from southern New Hampshire. The French were commanded by Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville. Born in New France, he had enlisted in the troupe de la Marine at an early age. At the age of 34, he had extensive experience in the colonial brand of warfare as practiced by the French-Canadians.

Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville (1668-1722)
Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville (1668-1722)

Town of Deerfield

Deerfield (population about 200) was located on the far northwestern frontier of the Massachusetts Bay colony, on the Connecticut River. The area once had a large Indian population, but King Philip's War (1675-1678) drove many of the natives from the area. Some went west to the Iroquois, others went north to Quebec and Montreal. The settlers were aware that their town could face attack by the French or Indians, and took various precautions to guard against such an eventuality. They rebuilt and repaired the town's palisade, in addition to organizing a larger militia force. The town had a population that included about 70 men of military age.

French raids on English settlements in modern-day Maine reinforced the Deerfield settlers' fears, and they began to drill their local militia more intensely. Rumors of a French raid circulated in August of 1703. Militia from nearby towns were called to Deerfield in October, but were recalled when there a French attack failed to materialize. In addition, with winter approaching, many of Deerfield's inhabitants felt that winter was not a campaigning season.

Minor raids against other nearby communities forced the governor of Massachusetts to send about 20 militiamen to Deerfield in mid-February of 1704. With the addition of these men, the garrison of Deerfield was now about 90 men altogether; their commander was Captain Jonathan Wells.

Early New England Indian Tribes (circa 1600), and later English settlements (Deerfield is in upper left corner)
Early New England Indian Tribes (circa 1600), and later English settlements
(Deerfield is in upper left corner)

Raid on Deerfield

English intelligence at reported that a French and Indian raid was imminent, but its target was not known. The raiders came within 25-30 miles of Deerfield in mid-February, leaving most of their equipment and supplies behind as they proceeded toward their objective. They made a cold camp on February 28, about two miles north of town. Scouts reported that the town was buttoned up tight, with the town gate closed and a sentry posted. However, it was reported that snow drifts were piled up to the level of the palisade.

In the early pre-dawn hours of February 29, the raiders approached Deerfield stealthily. Several Indians climbed the town wall and opened the gate. Varying sources give different tales about the single sentry. One source says he was asleep, while another source claims he fired a warning shot to alert the townspeople, but few probably heard him. As the attackers poured into town, the attacks began…

However, there was a lack of coordination among the various Indian contingents. Fourteen years earlier at the Schenectady attack, the French and Indians attacked every building in the town simultaneously. [For more information, please see my Burn Pit post of February 11, 2011 entitled, "French and Indian Raiders Attack Schenectady, NY; Massacre Ensues."]

The attack on the Deerfield settlement was not so well coordinated. In the Stebbins house, seven men and four or five women kept up a brisk fire on the French and Indians for several hours. Unfortunately, the attackers broke into nearly every house in the town, with some inhabitants killed and others taken prisoner.

At about dawn, the raiders began to gather their captives and pillaging the houses and barns, burning any building that had been ransacked. Suddenly, and Indian scout reported English reinforcements approaching Deerfield. One of the town's inhabitants had escaped at the first sound of attack and reached the nearby village of Hadley. He led 30 militiamen back to Deerfield. Not knowing the size of the enemy force approaching, Lt. Hertel de Rouville ordered his men to begin their trek back to Canada. Some of his men became so panic-stricken by the appearance of the Hadley militia that they abandoned their guns and plunder.

The arrival of the Hadley men gave a morale boost to the Deerfield inhabitants. Determined to purse the raiders, 20 Deerfield settlers joined the reinforcements and began to follow the French and Indians. However, Lt. Hertel de Rouville anticipated such a move, and set up an ambush about a mile-and-a-half north of town. Nine men were killed and seven men were captured by the French. The bloodied Englishmen retreated back to Deerfield.

News of the attack spread quickly, so that by nightfall of the next day, over 250 Massachusetts militiamen had gathered in Deerfield. Debating on what course to follow next, it was decided that a pursuit was impractical, so most of the men returned home after a strong force of militiamen was quartered in Deerfield.


All told, the inhabitants of Deerfield lost 44 dead – 10 men, 9 women, 25 children. In addition, 5 of the garrison militia and 9 Hadley militiamen were also casualties. The raiders also suffered casualties, reported somewhere between 11 and 40 killed with 22 wounded. In addition, 109 inhabitants of Deerfield were taken captive and led north to Canada. Some of the captives died of starvation, exposure, or were killed by the Indians; 89 reached Canada.

Illustration of journey back to Canada By Howard Pyle (1902)
Illustration of journey back to Canada
By Howard Pyle (1902)

The various Indian tribes claimed most of the captives, but the French managed to ransom some of the English from the Indians. By the fall of 1706, most of the Deerfield inhabitants were returned by the French to Boston.

Footnote #1: Reverend John Williams was among the captives, who survived and was paroled. He published a book about his experiences in 1707. His daughter Eunice, however, was given to the Indians and at age 16 she married a Mohawk warrior.

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that is sad

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