Historic Deerfield Buys 1703 Letter That
by Ross Grant, Recorder Staff
DEERFIELD-- Most New England historians agree
that the 1704 Deerfield Massacre, in which 48 of the town's 300
settlers were killed and 112 were taken hostage, was a defining
moment for the town and western Massachusetts. But what isn't commonly
known is that the 300 settlers expected the attack.
A few hours before the sun rose that chilly February
morning, a company of 48 French soldiers and 200 American Indians
raided Deerfield--then the farthest northwest settlement on the
British frontier, encroaching on French Canadian territory.
The invaders came more than 300 miles, mostly
by snowshoe, to plunder Deerfield, which was defended by only about
20 militia men. They burnt down houses, slaughtered livestock and
one of their prisoners was minister.
"It was the most dramatic attack of any
New England settlement," said Donald R. Friary, the executive
director of Historic Deerfield. The massacre was a hot topic for
discussion in Boston and London, he said. "It put Deerfield
on the map. If it hadn't been for that, Deerfield would have been
just another New England town."
The 295-year-old letter anticipated the massacre
six months before it occurred and pleaded for support from the south.
Indeed, many a book has been written about the
massacre and the settlers' grueling 300-mile trek north, which killed
about 20 of them.
In those books a number of writters have gone
into detail about the sense of fear and foreboding in town. Bust
last week, Historic Deerfield acquired a 295-year-old letter from
Christie's Auction House in New York that makes it clear the settlers
knew they were about to be attacked.
The letter anticipated the massacre six months
before it occurred and pleaded for support from the south.
Deerfield residents were "in daily and hourly
fear of the enemy's approach," according to the letter, written
in Aug. 10, 1703, by Col. Samuel Partridge, who was the senior militia
officer for western Massachusetts. "We have not yet seen
ye enemy in or Bordr yet there being Usually Litl or no tyme betwixt
the discovery of the Enemy & their striking their blow that
have thought it or duty to lay this matter before you with
the fears of hazzard that we are under," Partridge wrote.
The aged letter, which cost the museum $7,475
was sent to John Winthrop, then governor of Connecticut. It tells
Winthrop that two different groups of friendly Indians had warned
Deerfield settlers about the coming attack, and asks him to send
50 to 60 militia men.
Partridge went to Connecticut officials because
the towns in western Massachusetts were dependent on Connecticut
for military support.
"The understanding was that Connecticut
would help western Massachusetts since invaders would have to go
through Massachusetts to get to Connecticut," said Kevin
Sweeney, a history professor at Amherst College who is writing a
book on the 1704 attack.
And as Friary's recent research has shown, Winthrop
responded just two days after receiving Partridge's letter. Friary
found Winthrop's response earlier this month at the Massachusetts
Historical Society. In his letter, Winthrop said he would dispatch
50 dragoons, or foot sol- diers. The Connecticut soldiers arrived
about a week later and, after finding no Indians, decided to go
home, Friary said.
The French and Indian fighters waited until winter
to make the attack, however, which was a surprising tactic since
Partridge himself expected the attack in the summer.
The attack, a part of Queen Anne's War which
ended in 1713, was one of a series of raids along the northern frontier
by the French. The idea was to wear down England by making it expend
resources defending all of its exposed settlements, Sweeney said.
The letter comes from the Henry Ford Museum in
Dearborn, Mich., in which it hung unknown to most New England historians.
Christie's of New York told the museum that the piece would be auctioned.
Before purchasing it, Friary looked over the letter and hired a
rare book and manuscript expert to authenticate.
"It is in excellent condition for a document
of that age, and also Partridge's handwriting is very legible,"
Friary said, adding that there was no uniformity of spelling in
those days. "It simply didn't matter to people."
Besides heralding the coming invasion, the letter
also shows that the English were in touch with Indi- ians, Friary
"They were giving intelligence to the
English. We tend to think of the relationship with the Indians as
one of warfare, but obviously there was communication,"
And while the massacre was important to Deerfield's
history, it was not the only attack on the frontier settlement.
During the King Philip's War, South Deerfield saw about 64 men killed
in the 1675 Bloody Brook Massacre. There was also the 1694 attack
during the King William's War, a smaller one in 1709 and yet another
After withstanding such a spree of attacks, Deerfield
developed a strong sense of identity and history, Friary said. People
began collecting artifacts and eventually institutions like Historic
Deerfield and the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Associ- ation formed.
The 1703 letter written by Samuel Partridge to Connecticut Gov.
John Winthrop warning of a French and Indian attack on Deerfield.
The French and Indian fighters didn't attack until winter, however,
and the troops had left.
To buy the letter, Historic Deerfield used money
it raised from selling other items in its collection. One of the
museum's most significant buys was in 1997, when it spent $300,000
on the silver from the First Church in Historic Deerfield.
"We have about 30,000 items and each
year our curators carefully comb the collection for certain items
we could sell to acquire others like this letter," said
Grace Friary, director of public relations for Historic Deerfield.
"It's an unusual find. First of all it
survived, second it is so germane to Deerfield, and third of all
it shows the care of this enlisted man," Mrs. Friary said
Not only did Partridge plead for help from the
Connecticut governor, he was also one of the first militia men to
come to Deerfield's aid after the attack began. Seeing the smoke
and flames from Hatfield, Partridge and a group of British soldiers
headed north and arrived at Deerfield a few hours after the attack
began, Friary said.
Many of the attackers were "fireing houses
& killing all they could that made any resistance; alsoe killing
cattle, hogs, and sheep & sakeing & wasting all that came
before them Except some persons that Escaped in the Crowds, some
by Leaping out at windows and over the fortifications,"
Partridge wrote in his account of the battle.
The relief fighters pushed back the attackers.
About a dozen Indians and four Frenchmen were killed, and more than
half of the French were injured in the ensuing fight. Eventually,
the French soldiers and Indians fled with their prisoners. Partridge
and his men chased them as far as they could, but had trouble moving
through the three-foot-deep snow without snowshoes, Partridge wrote.
Of the 112 prisoners, about 20 died during the
walk north. Later, about 60 of the prisoners were ransomed and returned
to New England, and about 30 remained in Canada. Half of those married
French Canadians, and the other half married into the native community,
The letter will be on public view for a limited
time in the fall at Historic Deerfield's Flynt Center of Early New
England Life in Old Deerfield. Because of the letter's fragile state,
however, it will be stored until 2004, when it will be included
in an exhibit commemorat- ing the 300th anniversary of the attack
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