- The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America by John Demos
Knopf, 325 pp, $25.00, July 1994, ISBN 0 394 55782 4
The Indians attacked in the dead of winter, before dawn. The first the minister knew of it was the sound of axes breaking open his windows and doors. Moments later, twenty painted savages were in his house. Bound and helpless, he watched them kill his six-year-old son, his new baby of six weeks and his black woman slave.
This, properly discerned, is an incident from the War of the Spanish Succession. The thread of history stretches from Charles II, last of the Spanish Habsburgs: from his dead hands across an ocean, to the bound hands of John Williams, a minister of religion in Deerfield, a small settlement in New England. Europe’s conflicts are echoed and mimicked in this precarious, snow-bound frontier territory. The winter of 1703 to 1704 had been a season of ugly rumour, of a defensive huddle in the stockade, of a phoney war. And in the small hours of 29 February, the French and their ‘mission Indian’ allies descend. They kill, they slaughter the livestock, they fire the houses. Then they round up their prisoners – it is the Indians who do this work, not the French – and march them out into the freezing wilderness.
‘Most of all, I wanted to write a story,’ John Demos says. It was the stories that first drew him to the study of history, when he was a child. The tide of the times ran against narrative, and he became a pre-eminent analyst, interpreter. His earlier book A Little Commonwealth is a study of Plymouth colony in the first two generations after the Mayflower settlers. It gives a vivid picture of an emerging society, and of the kind of habits, assumptions and ideals from which John Williams and his surviving family were so brutally torn.
In that book Demos was careful not to focus on individuals; he wanted to improve on the anecdotal method. He made an aggregation of the settlers’ lives, for the sake of a wide and general picture which is not distorted by the idiosyncrasies of personal predilection and personal fate. This is valuable work, and his book is a swift, informative read. He is not some sultan of statistics, conferring the largesse of knowledge only in tables at the back of the book. But it is easy to see why the generalising method seems deficient to a man of imagination. What is true of everybody is true of nobody.
‘Biography, psychology, sociology, history,’ he has written: ‘four corners of one scholar’s compass, four viewpoints overlooking a single field of past experience.’ This compass guided him through Entertaining Satan, his 1982 study of witchcraft in New England. Once you have decided on such a multi-disciplinary approach, where do you stop? How wide do you open your arms? One could argue his study would be more informed, complete, if he had read the relevant papers on Hunting-don’s Chorea, the dreadful inherited disorder traceable in the families of some pre-eminent New England ‘witches’. So, to psychology, one should add neurology. If you opt to be eclectic, there is no limit to scholarship, no end to your book. Yet you know you are working closer to some sort of truth ... One might argue that in his new book Demos has done the risky, the necessary thing. He has embraced imagination, and yielded – in a controlled and chary way – to its delights. So he has written certain interposed passages of reconstruction, of supposition, of – let us spit the word out – fiction. Like Simon Schama he is dealing in ‘dead certainties’ and ‘unwarranted speculations’. But within the text the line is clearly drawn. The critic cannot claim to be confused.
On the afternoon of 29 February, John Williams and the other Deerfield prisoners were marched five miles through deep snow. From a height, they looked down on the ruins of their town. The second day was worse – perhaps the worst day of John Williams’s life. He may have understood his own significance to his captors; he was an important man, respected in his community and throughout New England. He could be exchanged for some prisoner valuable to the French; but why these innocents, these babies and women? What use were they? The answer was simple and nasty and would have occurred to him as he tried to stay on his feet on that second day. Prisoners were money.
There was a flourishing system for exchange and ransom. Prisoners were the Indians’ bonus, for fighting in settlers’ wars. In times past, the frequent fate of Indian captives was to be used as slaves, to be adopted by the tribe, or to be tortured to death. Recently, perhaps under the influence of the Jesuits who had converted them, the Indians had become more pragmatic and a little less bloodthirsty. If they took English prisoners, the French authorities in Canada would buy them for exchange. Sympathetic French individuals would ‘redeem’ the small children. Any buyer might sell on his captive – and the chain would lead, eventually, to a New England extended family who would pay almost anything, fulfil any demand, to get the prisoners back from among the savages and the papists.
On that second day, John Williams’s wife was killed. She was six weeks out of childbed. Her baby daughter was already murdered. As they forded an icy river, Eunice Williams went head-over-heels. She swam out, alive. An Indian killed her with one blow from a hatchet. Later that day, another baby was killed; so was a girl of 11. These killings were a sort of mercy, John Demos suggests, to those who were too weak for the trials ahead. Their end was swift; otherwise, they would have been left by the trail to die of exposure. Why the Indians now killed the minister’s black male slave is not known, but one doubts the explanation is palatable.
In four days they covered 65 miles. The Indians recovered their stores and their dog sleds. They killed eight women who could not keep up. One week after the massacre, the captives were split into small groups. John Williams was marched away with a party of Indians and two children of his former neighbours. He had lost sight of his own children; but perhaps at some point he looked back and noted that his seven-year-old daughter, named Eunice after her mother, was being carried on the broad shoulders of an Indian who did not seem to mind her weight.
Of the 112 Deerfield captives, it is believed that 20 died on the trail. John Williams survived to reach Montreal, and was ‘redeemed’ by the Governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil. Three of his children were bought out soon after – Samuel, who was 15, Esther, who was 13, and Warham, who was four – the latter ‘wonderfully preserved’, for on the journey he might have been killed many times. But there was one child, Eunice, whom the Indians would not sell back.
They held her in a fort near Montreal, called Kathnawake. The mission Indians lived cheek-by-jowl with the French, preserving much of their traditional way of life, and preserving too, Demos suggests, many traditional beliefs under a Christian veneer. The women farmed, the men hunted, made war on each other, and traded in furs. Adoption, even of adult prisoners, was not a rare practice. The fertility rate was low and infant mortality very high. Adoption brought another pair of hands into an extended family. But to the families left behind, it seemed a cultural and psychological catastrophe. As soon as John Williams was home, he and his community began the strenuous, complex negotiations that they hoped would lead to the ‘redemption’ of Eunice. They were to last, in one form or another, for eighty years.
A year on, her father saw her, but though she begged him to take her away with him he was unable. She still remembered her catechism, and how to read. She said her captors made her say prayers in Latin. She didn’t understand the prayers; she hoped they wouldn’t harm her. These are her reported words. Direct evidence of Eunice is lacking. Her father, her brothers, were great diary keepers, great correspondents. Eunice has just one letter to her name – and that is transcribed from her words spoken in the Mohawk language, taken down in French and then translated into English so that her family could read it. The facts of her life are scant mid debatable, so that she scarcely emerges from the shadow of history; but in John Demos’s hands her story is powerful, resonant and moving.
Eunice grew up among the Indians, married, had children. Within two years of her capture, she had forgotten how to speak English. She was baptised into the Catholic Church, and took an Indian name. Years on, when their negotiating skills – and the power of prayer – had been tested to the utmost, her family had to face the awful, unimaginable truth. Eunice did not want to come back. Wrenched from the ‘Land of Light’, she had made her home in the dark.
The case of Eunice Williams stirred up the English settlers’ deepest fears. They were the fears of all colonialists. They had come to America with two projects – to tame the land, and to ‘help’ the native inhabitants by converting them to Christianity. From the farming of the wilderness, from the compliance of savages, all the benefits of civilisation would flow. But what if the process somehow went into reverse? Each year nature fought back, with droughts, blights and epidemics. Was it possible that the settler might become decivilised, become primitive, be drawn into the wilderness and vanish? Demos extends the point: ‘The “frontiers” between New England and New France, between Protestantism and Catholicism, between Euro-American and Native American People: all were clearly drawn and carefully patrolled. To travel across them was costly and dangerous – and potentially transforming. Some who set out would not return.’
Captivity was the deepest fear. It seemed to go against the natural order; the Indian became master, the settler his slave. That one might elect captivity, as Eunice Williams did, seemed a kind of blasphemy. How did her family and the wider society come to terms with what had happened? They prayed. Every day, year after year – a great network of beseeching, stretching across New England. Her family’s eloquent letters show that she was never out of their thoughts. And if the prayers were not answered, what did that show? That they were unworthy. They must reform their lives.
Some of the most interesting insights in The Unredeemed Captive concern the Christian response to suffering and loss. The settlers had various psychological methods for coping with their capricious deity. When John Williams was first a captive in Canada, the Boston minister Cotton Mather told him in a letter: ‘You are carried into the land of the Canadiens for your good.’ His patience and resignation would glorify God more than ‘ye best Activity in any other Serviceableness’. In addition, ‘Your calamities are useful ... they awaken us.’ The Puritan God was thirsty for glory, and his subjects had to seek out any opportunity to slake this thirst. Pain and suffering were a punishment for man’s evil deeds, but they were also a test for the individual. They would bring out the best in the person concerned, give him the chance to display all his virtues. So the perennial question ‘Why me?’ is answered. Your punishment is also your opportunity.
Over the years there were various sightings of Eunice. Her Indian husband tried to persuade her to visit her relations, but explained that she was ‘exceedingly afraid of ye English’. A rendezvous in Albany was negotiated, and two of her brothers saw her and spoke with her through an interpreter: ‘We had ye joyfull, Sorrowfull meeting of our poor sister yt we had been sepratd from fer above thirty-six years,’ wrote Stephen. It was only after John Williams’s death that Eunice came down to New England. John Demos suggests that his helplessness on the long march, his inability to rescue her, had made him a feeble, untrustworthy figure in her eyes, and that very soon she had responded to the warmth and strength of her Indian captors, and identified herself with them.
Her first visit caused a sensation. It seemed a turning point for everyone concerned. She and her husband would not stay indoors, but camped out in the orchard. It is clear that her surviving family found her strange, impenetrable. But would she stay? No. Yet Stephen wrote, hopefully: ‘And when I took leave of her I do think her affections were movd.’
On subsequent visits she sat in church with her family, wrapped in her blankets, while prayers for her and about her passed over her head: mere gibberish, as far as she was concerned. On each occasion the family raised their hopes: this time, surely she would stay? The authorities attempted bribery, offering the family a lump-sum payment and an annual allowance to settle back in New England. But Eunice’s world was elsewhere, in the long-house and cornfield, amongst her tribe. When it became clear that she would never be redeemed, the community performed a face-saving psychological manoeuvre. According to one sermon, she was living ‘in the Thickness of popish darkness and superstition’. She did not perceive her own misery. She had not really rejected her home and family and community. She was simply not responsible for herself.
Why would she not return? John Demos suggests that in many ways she may have been better off among the Indians. Their child-rearing practices were indulgent. Casual observers would often describe the squaws as little better than slaves, but those who lived among the Indians for some time remarked that women had power and influence in the tribe’s affairs as well as in household matters. Eunice herself gave a reason that her family would not have wanted to hear: she said that ‘living among heretics would endanger her and her children’s salvation.’
The family visits ceased when Eunice and her brothers became too old to travel. She died at the age of 89: an object lesson, a focus of fear, an awesome study in psychological malleability. Her story, told in John Demos’s spare and disciplined prose, goes straight to the heart of the puzzle of personal identity. He has drawn the meaning from what few facts we have about Eunice Williams, by an exercise in scrupulous scholarship and imaginative sympathy. Trying to convince himself that his daughter’s apostasy would end, that her true faith was preserved beneath papistry and savagery, John Williams wrote: ‘God can make dry bones, very dry, to live.’ So can historians; that must be their job, and it is seldom performed so successfully as here.