Pioneer Valley - Deerfield


Deerfield was the northwesternmost outpost of New England settlement for several decades during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It occupies a fertile portion of the Connecticut River Valley and was vulnerable to attack because of its position near the Berkshire Mountains. For these reasons it became the site of several Anglo-French and Indian skirmishes during its early history, as well as intertribal warfare.

At the time of the English colonists' arrival, the Deerfield area was inhabited by the Algonquian-speaking Pocumtuck nation, with a major village by the same name. First settled by English colonists in 1673, Deerfield was incorporated in 1677. Settlement was the result of a court case in which the government in Boston agreed to return some of the land of the town of Dedham to Native American control, and allowed some of Dedham's residents to acquire land in the new township of Pocumtuck. To obtain this land, their agent John Plympton signed a treaty with some Pocumtuck men, including one named Chaulk. He had no authority to deed the land to the colonists, and appeared to have only a rough idea of what he was signing. Native Americans and English had quite differing ideas about property and land use, which contributed to their conflicts, along with competition for resources.

The settlers expelled the Pocumtuck tribe by force, who in turn sought French protection from colonists in Canada. At the Battle of Bloody Brook on September, 18, 1675, the dispossessed Indians destroyed a small force under the command of Captain Thomas Lathrop before being driven off by reinforcements. Colonial casualties numbered about sixty. In retaliation, at dawn on May 19, 1676, Captain William Turner led an army of settlers in a surprise attack on Peskeompskut, in present-day Montague, then a traditional native gathering place. They killed 200 natives, mostly women and children. When the men of the tribe returned, they routed Turner, who died of a mortal wound at Green River.

On February 29, 1704, during Queen Anne's War, joint French and Indian forces attacked the town in what has become known as the 1704 Raid on Deerfield. Under the command of Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville were 47 Canadiens and 200 Abenaki, Kanienkehaka and Wyandot, as well as a few Pocumtuck. They struck at dawn, razing Deerfield and killing 56 colonists, including 22 men, 9 women, and 25 children. They took as captives 109 survivors, including women and children, and "carried" them away on a months-long trek to Quebec. Many died along the way or were killed when they could not keep up.

Deerfield and other communities collected funds to ransom the captives, and negotiations were conducted between colonial governments. When New England released the French pirate, Canada arranged redemption of numerous Deerfield people, among them the minister John Williams. He wrote a captivity narrative about his experience, which was published in 1707 and became well known. Because of losses to war and disease, the Mohawk and other tribes often adopted younger captives into their tribes. Such was the case with Williams' daughter Eunice, eight years old when captured. She became thoroughly assimilated, at age 16 marrying a Mohawk man. Most of the Deerfield captives eventually returned to New England. During this period, other captives remained by choice in French and Native communities such as Kahnawake for the rest of their lives.

As the frontier moved north, Deerfield became another colonial town with an unquiet early history. In 1753 Greenfield was set off and incorporated. During the early nineteenth century, Deerfield's role in agricultural production of the Northeast declined. It was overtaken by the rapid development of the Midwestern United States into the nation's breadbasket, with transportation to eastern markets and New York City enhanced by construction of the Erie Canal.

During the Colonial Revival movement of the late nineteenth century, Deerfield citizens rediscovered the town's past. Residents founded the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in 1870, and erected monuments to commemorate various events, including the Bloody Brook and 1704 attacks. In 1890, Charlotte Alice Baker returned to Deerfield to restore her family home, the Frary House. Assisted by the Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, her project was one of the first in historic preservation in western Massachusetts. Today, tourism is the town's principal industry. Historic Deerfield, a National Historic Landmark district with eleven house museums and a regional museum and visitors' center, and the Yankee Candle Company are major attractions.

An account of the town's early history was written by local historian George Sheldon and published in the late nineteenth century. By this time, South Deerfield and other New England villages were already absorbing a new wave of Eastern European immigration, particularly from Poland. The new people influenced Deerfield's demographics and culture. They were mostly Catholic peasants, who built their own churches and first worked as laborers, forming a community later known as Old Polonia. Later twentieth-century immigrants from Poland tended to be more educated, but settled in the larger cities. Immigrants in smaller communities followed different paths, and their descendants often moved to cities for more opportunities.

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