John Williams
English, 1664 - 1729

Note: All narratives about people are, to the extent possible, based on primary and secondary historical sources. Some narratives necessarily contain invented, yet plausible, scenarios and personal attributes. Please see About This Narrative to learn more about how this person's narrative was created.

John Williams - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | March to Canada | Parting Ways | Captivity | Epilogue | About This Narrative |


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The Reverend John Williams (1664 - 1729), the well-connected minister of Deerfield who wrote a famous narrative of his experience during the raid on Deerfield and captivity in New France.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

John Williams was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on December 16, 1664, and grew up in the heart of New England Puritanism. His grandfather, Robert Williams, came from England in 1637 as part of the Puritan "Great Migration" to the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630-1643). The Puritans (as they were called by their detractors) were strict followers of Protestant theologian John Calvin who tried to reform or "purify" their church, the Church of England. These efforts won them persecution by the state as well the church, since the king headed both. Thousands fled to New England—"an Indian wilderness" and "the devil's territories" (1) in the words of Cotton Mather—to establish a godly commonwealth based on their beliefs.

The Puritans' Calvinist beliefs were intense and not very optimistic. They included the concept of "total depravity," which holds that all humans are born corrupted by Adam's original sin. Furthermore, only a few souls chosen by God—the "elect"—would be saved from eternal damnation. The Puritans believed in "predestination": that God has already determined who will be saved as well as everything that happens in this world.

A Puritan Upbringing

John Williams's birth family was large, as was typical of his time. John was the sixth of eight children born to his father, Samuel Williams, and mother, Theoda Park Williams. When Samuel died in 1698, Theoda remarried and gave birth to five more children. Of her 13 children, only eight lived to adulthood.

Growing up in Roxbury (then a village near Boston), John Williams knew personally many of the colony's prominent men and religious leaders. Samuel Williams was a deacon in the Roxbury church whose minister was the Reverend John Eliot, famed for preaching to the Native population in their own language. Cotton Mather, son of Increase Mather—both renowned writers and ministers of the preeminent Second Church of Boston—was John Williams's contemporary (and a cousin of his future wife, Eunice).

John was 11 years old when the colony was shaken by Metacom's War, in which Native warriors attacked English settlements throughout New England. John and his family probably read Increase Mather's account of the massacre at Bloody Brook, near the devastated English frontier village of Pocumtuck (later resettled as Deerfield). Mather, whose nephew Samuel was Pocumtuck's minister, wrote about that "black and fatal day," and questioned why "the Lord himself seemeth to be against us, to cast us off, to put us to shame?" (2) He answered his own rhetorical question: it was a judgment of God against the colony's sins. In response, the General Court called for a day of prayer and contemplation.

Growing up in an intensely religious environment, John Williams "early devoted his attention to study," (3) and set his sights on the ministry. His maternal grandfather, Deacon William Park, provided for his education at Harvard College. John graduated from Harvard in 1683 at the age of 19, in a class of three that included his cousin, William Williams, and Samuel Danforth, son of yet another noted minister. All three entered the ministry; their Harvard education equipped them well for study of the scriptures, requiring as it did a knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.


Three years after John Williams graduated from Harvard, the town of Deerfield—which had recently been resettled on the ashes of Pocumtuck—offered him the position of minister. Samuel Mather had left the position while the town was abandoned, and one or two others had declined it. Cousin William Williams was already minister in Hatfield, a neighboring town. The proximity of his cousin may have helped John in his decision to accept the call to Deerfield, which was still a vulnerable frontier town. And Deerfield made him a generous offer: to build him a large house, fence his house lot, build him a barn within two years, and "break up his plowing land." He was also offered "16 cow-commons of meadow land" and a yearly salary of 60 pounds, with a raise to 80 pounds within five years. His salary would be paid in the equivalent amounts of "wheat, peas, Indian corn and pork." (4)

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A partial map of the Deerfield town street and north meadows, circa 1680-1700, showing numbered house lots and fields. The block of land south of Lot 13 is "sequestered for the ministry." Click here to go to the survey's artifact page for more information and a closer view.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. All rights reserved.

Like most ministers of the time, John Williams farmed as well as preached. Deerfield was rich only in land, which it granted to young settlers to repopulate the town. Most of these settlers were farmers who produced barely enough for their needs, and many were in debt. Because the minister was paid directly from individual taxes, John Williams was often owed back salary.

Within a year of arriving in Deerfield, John gained a helpmate to run his household and farm. He married Eunice Mather, daughter of Northampton's first minister, stepdaughter of its second, niece of Increase Mather, and granddaughter of the Reverend John Warham, a founder of Connecticut. Eunice's prominent connections and John's high-status profession placed the Williamses among Deerfield's leading families. In the following year, 1688, the Deerfield church ordained John Williams. Both minister and community expected the relationship to last a lifetime.

John and Eunice had ten children, eight of whom were alive in 1704. The older children helped with the farm work, tending the fields and caring for the livestock, and in the home, depending on their age and gender. They also learned to read and write. Given Williams's beliefs, he would have stressed the importance of Biblical literacy for his sons and daughters.

John Williams was unusual in the poor farming community of Deerfield—though not among New England ministers—in owning slaves. The first recorded evidence of African-American slavery in Deerfield is the death of Williams's "Negro Servant" Robert Tigo on May 11, 1695. In New England farm households, slaves supplemented the family labor pool, often working side-by-side with their owners and living with the family. Williams also bought a man and a woman, Frank and Parthena; town records indicate that they were "joined in marriage" by the minister in 1703.

John Williams was zealous in his ministry. "He would not only visit the sick when desired, but he would visit them unsent for; yea, he would . . . walk the circuit almost every day, and visit them all. . . . He did not content himself with Preaching upon the Lord's Day, but would frequently Preach upon Week-days. . . . He preached so often, that his example is scarcely to be paralleled." In addition to his ministerial duties and farm work, he was expected to use his position and influence to represent the town's interests to government authorities in Boston and Hartford. Accordingly, he made sure to "inform himself of the Transactions and Affairs of Europe, and to understand the State and Circumstances of the Province." (5)

War and Disorder

As Williams's ministry and family grew, Deerfield struggled through the next of the "French and Indian" wars. Native forces attacked Deerfield's fort several times, and killed or captured people working in their fields or traveling on the roads. On October 12, 1693, John Williams himself narrowly escaped from ambush near Wequamps. The next day, Martin Smith was not as lucky, and was carried captive to Canada. During his absence, his wife Sarah was the center of a public scandal and tragedy. In 1698, she smothered a newborn illegitimate daughter in an effort to conceal the birth. She was convicted of murder and hanged. On the day of her execution, the Reverend John Williams preached a long, excoriating sermon in her presence, saying "God appoints. . . . a lake burning with fire and brimstone . . . to all them that burn in their filthy lusts here.") (6)

War's disruption of farming and trade added to the townspeople's economic difficulties. Peace was restored in 1697 for a few years, until the War of the Spanish Succession began in 1702. Given the turmoil, Deerfield often found it impossible to pay the minister's salary. In 1702, Williams released the town from the obligation to pay several years of back salary it owed him.

In October of 1703, John Williams appealed to Governor Joseph Dudley on behalf of the town for help in fortifying the palisade, for soldiers to be garrisoned in Deerfield, for negotiations to redeem captives already taken, and for tax relief: "[We] have in the alarms been wholly taken off from any business, the whole town kept in. . . . crowded together into houses to the preventing of indoor affairs being carried on to any advantage . . . so that our losses are far more than would have paid our taxes. . . . Strangers tell us they would not live where we do for twenty times as much as we do, the enemy having such an advantage of the river to come down upon us. . . . The frontier difficulties of such a place so remote from others & so exposed as ours, are more than be known, if not felt." (7)

Deerfield got its guard of 20 men, and the palisade was reinforced. As the very snowy winter wore on, many relaxed their vigilance, thinking that the French and their Native allies would not travel from Canada through such deep snow. But John Williams continued to feel anxious, and "set apart a day of prayer, to ask of God either to spare, and save us from the hands of our enemies, or to prepare us to sanctify and honor him, in what way soever he should come forth towards us." (8)

John Williams - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | March to Canada | Parting Ways | Captivity | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

Attack on Deerfield
February 29, 1704

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John Williams's house was one of the first attacked, and he and most of his family were taken captive.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

Deerfield's minister, the Reverend John Williams, wrote about the attack in his book, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion:

"On Tuesday, the 29th of February, 1703-4, not long before break of day, the enemy came in like a flood upon us. . . . They came to my house in the beginning of the onset, and by their violent endeavors to break open doors and windows, with axes and hatchets, awaked me out of sleep; on which I leaped out of bed, and, running towards the door, perceived the enemy making their entrance into the house. I called to awaken two soldiers in the chamber, and returning to my bedside for my arms, the enemy immediately broke into the room, I judge to the number of 20, with painted faces, and hideous acclamations."

"I reached up my hands to the bed-tester for my pistol, uttering a short petition to God, for everlasting mercies for me and mine, on account of the merits of our glorified Redeemer; expecting a present passage through the valley of the shadow of death." He prayed the words of Isaiah, chapter 38, verses 10 and 11:

I said, in the cutting off of my days,
I shall go to the gates of the grave;
I am deprived of the residue of my years.
I said, I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord
In the land of the living; I shall behold man no more
Among the inhabitants of the world.

"Taking down my pistol, I cocked it, and put it to the breast of the first Indian that came up; but my pistol missing fire, I was seized by three Indians, who disarmed me, and bound me naked, as I was in my shirt, and so I stood for near the space of an hour. Binding me, they told me they would carry me to Quebeck. My pistol missing fire was an occasion of my life's being preserved." Men slept in their shirts, which reached almost to their knees. Bed chambers were unheated, so it must have been a cold hour's wait. John had a flintlock pistol, which misfired; had he succeeded in killing his captor, he himself would have been killed on the spot.

"I cannot relate the distressing care I had for my dear wife, who had lain in but a few weeks before; and for my poor children, family, and Christian neighbors. The enemy fell to rifling the house, and entered in great numbers into every room. I begged of God to remember mercy in the midst of judgment; as to prevent their murdering of us; that we might have grace to glorify his name, whether in life or death; and, as I was able, committed our state to God."

"The enemies who entered the house, were all of them Indians and Macquas, insulted over me awhile, holding up hatchets over my head, threatening to burn all I had; but yet God, beyond expectation, made us in a great measure to be pitied; for though some were so cruel and barbarous as to take and carry to the door two of my children and murder them, as also a Negro woman; yet they gave me liberty to put on my clothes. . . . Gave liberty to my dear wife to dress herself and our remaining children." The Williamses' six-week-old daughter, Jerusha; their six-year-old son, John; and their slave Parthena were killed. Fourteen-year-old Samuel, thirteen-year-old Esther, ten-year-old Stephen, seven-year-old Eunice, and four-year-old Warham were taken captive, along with John, his wife Eunice, and Parthena's husband Frank.

"About sun an hour high, we were all carried out of the house, for a march, and saw many of the houses of my neighbors in flames. . . . Who can tell what sorrows pierced our souls, when we saw ourselves carried away from God's sanctuary, to go into a strange land. . . . Upon my parting from the town, they fired my house and barn." (9)

John Williams - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | March to Canada | Parting Ways | Captivity | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

March to Canada
February 29 - March 1, 1704

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John Williams saw the smoke from burning Deerfield as the captives began their march.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

The Reverend John Williams recorded his experiences on the march to Canada in his book, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion:

"We were carried over the river, to the foot of the mountain, about a mile from my house, where we found a great number of our Christian neighbors, men, women, and children, to the number of an hundred. . . . After this, we went up the mountain, and saw the smoke of the fires in the town, and beheld the awful desolations of Deerfield. And before we marched any farther, they killed a sucking child belonging to one of the English. . . . We travelled not far the first day; God made the heathen so to pity our children, that though they had several wounded persons of their own to carry upon their shoulders, for thirty miles, before we came to the river, yet they carried our children, incapable of travelling, in their arms, and upon their shoulders."

"When we came to our lodging place, the first night, they dug away the snow, and made some wigwams, cut down some small branches of the spruce-tree to lie down on, and gave the prisoners somewhat to eat; but we had but little appetite. I was pinioned and bound down that night, and so I was every night whilst I was with the army."

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This reproduction temporary wigwam was constructed on the route taken by the allied army and its captives.
Courtesy of Allison Bell.

John Williams's captors on the march—his "masters"—were two Wôbanakiak, both of whom spoke English. (A third captor had been killed in the assault on the Stebbins house). One Wôbanaki was strict, and would not allow John to speak to the other captives, but the other was more permissive, and let him walk with his wife, Eunice. "On the way, we discoursed of the happiness of those who had a right to an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. . . . as also, that it was our reasonable duty quietly to submit to the will of God. . . . My wife told me her strength of body began to fail, and that I must expect to part with her."

Eunice and John were separated again when John's strict master ordered him back to the front of the march, "and so made my last farewell of my dear wife, the desire of my eyes, and companion in many mercies and afflictions." The group "was made to wade over a small river . . . the water above knee deep, the stream very swift; and after that to travel up a small mountain." John was given a chance to sit and rest, and as the marchers passed, "I asked each of the prisoners . . . after her, and heard that, passing through the above-said river, she fell down, and was plunged over head and ears in the water; after which she travelled not far, for at the foot of that mountain, the cruel and bloodthirsty savage who took her slew her with his hatchet at one stroke." John cried when he heard this terrible news, and "such was the hard-heartedness of the adversary, that my tears were reckoned to me as a reproach."

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The party crossed the Green River at this spot.
Courtesy of Allison Bell.

John Williams and his children were made to march on, "with a far heavier burden on my spirits than on my back. I begged of God to overrule, in his providence, that the corpse of one so dear to me . . . might meet with a Christian burial, and not be left for meat to the fowls of air and beasts of earth." He later learned that Deerfield townspeople did indeed find and bury Eunice's body. As John and the rest of the captives struggled on, "I was made to mourn, at the consideration of my flock being, so far, a flock of slaughter . . . and from fears what we must yet expect, from such who delightfully imbrued their hands in the blood of so many of His people." (10)

John Williams - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | March to Canada | Parting Ways | Captivity | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

Parting Ways
March 1-8, 1704

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John Williams had to say goodbye to his son Stephen, who went east with the Pennacooks.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

The 140-mile journey from Deerfield to the junction of the White and Connecticut Rivers, where the party split into smaller groups, took eight days. Grieving for his two young children killed during the attack on Deerfield, and for his wife, Eunice, killed on the second day of the march, John Williams struggled to keep going.

He had wrenched his ankle several weeks before the attack, and "travelled many hours in water up to the ankles" as they walked north on the frozen Connecticut River, its surface slushy as it thawed. "My shins were also very sore, being cut with crusty snow" as he traveled without snowshoes. "I thought, and so did others, that I should not be able to hold out to travel far" and that he would be killed, as Eunice and others had been. "I lifted up my heart to God, my only refuge, to remove my lameness . . . and within a little space of time I was well of my lameness, to the joy of my friends."

"On the Sabbath day (March 5), we rested, and I was permitted to pray, and preach to the captives. The place of Scripture spoken was from Lamentations, chapter 1, verse 18: 'The Lord is righteous, for I have rebelled against his commandment: hear, I pray you, all people, and behold my sorrow: my virgins and my young men are gone into captivity.' The enemy, who said to us, 'Sing us one of Zion's songs,' were ready . . . to upbraid us, because our singing was not so loud as theirs."

Like Increase Mather in response to the Bloody Brook massacre, John Williams interpreted the captives' plight as punishment for their sins. He compared their situation to that of the Israelites taken into captivity in Babylon, as described in Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down; yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps in the midst thereof. For they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion." Whether or not they knew the Biblical reference, Williams's Native captors echoed the behavior of the Babylonians by taunting their captives.

Still, John Williams wrote, "When the Macquas and Indians were chief in power, we had this revival in our bondage, to join together in the worship of God"—in contrast to what happened in New France, where the French exerted pressure on them to convert to Catholicism.

On the ninth day (Wednesday, March 8), "we were made to scatter one from another into smaller companies; and one of my children Stephen was carried away with Indians belonging to the eastern parts." (11) The next day, after praying and singing a psalm with his group of English captives, John Williams was separated from his other children and the rest of the group. Led by his masters, he set off northwest up the White River toward Lake Champlain and Canada.

John Williams - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | March to Canada | Parting Ways | Captivity | Epilogue | About This Narrative |


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Deerfield minister John Williams, captured by Wôbanaki fighters in the raid, was held for nearly three years, most of that time in French custody.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

The Reverend John Williams, perceived by both his Native and French captors as the most important of the Deerfield captives, received better treatment during his captivity than many others. Even so, Williams's suffering was undeniable. During the rest of the journey from the junction of the White and Connecticut rivers, where he was parted from his surviving children, to Fort Chambly, he had to travel on sore and bloodied feet and was twice threatened with death by his captors. During the following two-and-a-half years in French custody, the Deerfield minister felt powerless to help his children and congregation resist French and Native efforts to convert them to Catholicism and new lives as members of those foreign communities.

Journey through the Green Mountains

After seeing his son Stephen "carried away" up the Connecticut with a band of Pennacooks while he himself was taken west, John Williams was threatened by his English-speaking Wôbanaki (Abenaki) captor: "At night my master came to me, with my pistol in his hand, and put it to my breast, and said, 'Now I will kill you, for,' he said, 'you would have killed me with it if you could.' But by the grace of God, I was not much daunted, and . . . God prevented my death." (12) The threat was probably just that, intended to keep Williams cowed, because his "masters" knew he would bring a good ransom.

The next day, on March 9th, their captors allowed Williams and his remaining congregation to pray and sing a psalm together, but after that, the group broke into smaller bands for hunting. Provisions were running dangerously low, and procuring food was essential to keep up the strength of captors and captives alike. John Williams wrote, "I was taken from all the company of the English, excepting two children of my neighbors, one of which, a girl of four years of age [Elizabeth Hawks], was killed by her Macqua master . . . the snow being so deep . . . that he could not carry the child and his pack too." (13)

Left alone with a young Deerfield boy and one Native guard while the others went hunting—without his congregation for whom to remain a source of spiritual strength—Williams nearly succumbed to despair. "I thought to myself that God had now separated me from the congregation of his people, who were now in his sanctuary, where he commandeth the blessing, even life forever; and made me to bewail my unfruitfulness under, and unthankfulness for, such a mercy." Thus nearly wishing himself dead, "when my spirit was almost overwhelmed within me," Williams felt God speak to him through several Scriptural passages. These passages strengthened his resolve and the hope that his captive children would survive. (14)

John Williams's physical health was strengthened by his captors' success at hunting. They killed five moose, and their small party stayed by the carcasses for three days while the Wôbanakiak "roasted and dried the meat. My master made me a pair of snow-shoes; 'For,' said he, 'you cannot possibly travel without, the snow being knee-deep.'" (15) When the journey began again, Williams struggled to walk on snowshoes while carrying a heavy pack, until they arrived at the "French river" (now the Winooski), when his captor put Williams's pack on a sled that he drew along on the frozen river.

This act, whether of kindness or expediency, did not much improve Williams's ability to travel quickly. "My feet were very sore, and each night I wrung blood out of my stockings when I pulled them off. . . . And here my master was very kind to me—would always give me the best he had to eat . . . I never wanted a meal's meat during my captivity, though some of my children and neighbors were greatly wounded . . . with the arrows of famine and pinching want." Williams's master also gave him "a piece of a Bible [and] never disturbed me in reading the Scriptures, or in praying to God." (16)

Though kind when they were able to be, Williams's Wôbanaki captors were anxious to get back to their home villages before the spring thaw prevented traveling on the ice of the Winooski and Lake Champlain. The second threat to Williams's life came on a morning when Williams reported that he could barely stand for the pain in his feet and joints. "And when the Indians said, 'You must run today,' I answered I could not run. My master pointed out his hatchet; said to me, 'Then I must dash out your brains and take off your scalp.'" Instead, Williams's master gave him a head start, and let him travel alone. Williams again felt supported by God when he gained a second wind that day: "We should never distrust the care and compassion of God, who can give strength to them who have no might, and power to them who are ready to faint." (17)

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On the ice on Lake Champlain, looking north toward Canada, near Missisquoi where Williams and his captors stayed for a week or so.
Courtesy of Allison Bell.

After traveling up Lake Champlain on the ice, Williams and his captors joined the Wôbanakiak's families, who were out on their winter hunt near Missisquoi. They rested there for a week or more. Again, Williams found that the Wôbanakiak "were, after their manner, kind to me, and gave me the best they had, which was moose-flesh, ground-nuts, and cranberries. . . . " (18) Soon the captors and their captive set off again for the French fort at Chambly. They reached Chambly on April 15, 1704, about six weeks after the raid on Deerfield.

At Chambly and Odanak (St. Francis)

When John Williams and his Wobanaki captors arrived in New France, he faced a new set of difficulties. His physical comfort was greatly improved, but pressure to act according to religious beliefs he abhorred—Catholic rituals such as making the sign of the cross—was also increased.

French officers like Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville, who led the expedition against Deerfield, were experienced with Native attitudes toward warfare and captives, and left the fate of most captives to the Native warriors who claimed them. Other people in New France felt differently. Although many Natives lived among them, usually in villages associated with Jesuit or Sulpician missions, French settlements had been attacked by the Rotinonsionni (Five Nations Iroquois Confederacy) for generations, and some settlers had experienced captivity among the Iroquois. They viewed the Natives as "savages," and sympathized with their fellow Europeans, the English captives.

In extending comforts to John Williams, the French sometimes offended his captors, as Williams reports it. Perhaps, having lived so closely with the Wôbanakiak, he had become sensitive to their feelings. "When we came down to the first inhabited house at Sorel, a French woman came to the riverside and desired us to go into her house . . . she compassioned our state, and told us she had in the last war been a captive among the Indians, and therefore was not a little sensible of our difficulties. She gave the Indians something to eat in the chimney-corner, and spread a cloth on the table for us with napkins; which gave such offence to the Indians that they hasted away. . . ." (19)

The French officers at Chambly wrote to Governor-General Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil to inform him that the Reverend John Williams was on his way to Odanak, also known as St. Francis, on the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec. The Wôbanakiak who captured Williams lived in this village, where many refugee Native groups from New England and elsewhere had settled. There, Williams encountered two Jesuits, who began the attempt to convert him to Catholicism—a religion he reviled as "popery." When the Jesuits, with whom Williams regularly dined, invited him to Catholic services just to see what they were like, and told him that they would do the same if they were in New England, Williams replied that "the case was far different, for there was nothing . . . as to matter or manner of worship but what was according to the word of God in our churches, and therefore it could not be an offense to any man's conscience. But among them were idolatrous superstitions." (20)

Williams reported no pressure to convert from his Wôbanaki captors while they were on the trail together; on the contrary, he reported that they allowed him and the other captives freedom to read Scripture and to sing and pray together. In New France, however, the Wôbanakiak seemed to act as strongmen for the Jesuits. The Jesuits told Williams that the "Indians would not allow of any of their captives staying in their wigwams whilst they were at church, and were resolved by force and violence to bring us all to church if we would not go without." When Williams objected that it was un-Christian to impose religion on those who were of a contrary belief, the Jesuits replied that the Wôbanakiak "were savages, and would not harken to reason, but would have their wills." (21)

John Williams and his Wôbanaki master struggled several times over Williams's refusal to comply with Catholic rituals. Williams did allow himself to be dragged to Mass, which he then ridiculed for its multilingual "great confusion"—the service was said in Latin and simultaneously translated into Native languages. Their struggles culminated in a session in which the Wôbanaki tried to force Williams to make the sign of the cross and to kiss a crucifix. Frustrated with Williams's refusal, the Wôbanaki threatened to "dash out my brains with his hatchet" and then to bite off all Williams's fingernails, a common method of torture. Williams still refused, and after going through the motions of biting Williams's thumbnail, the Wôbanaki gave up in disgust, saying "'No good minister, no love God, as bad as the Devil.'" (22)

French Captivity

Shortly thereafter, Williams's lot improved when Governor Vaudreuil "redeemed me out of the hands of the Indians, gave me good clothing, took me to his table, gave me the use of a very good chamber; and was, in all respects relating to my outward man, courteous and charitable to admiration.” (23) In Williams's view, Governor Vaudreuil was an ally and advocate for Williams and his family—although it was Vaudreuil's strategy of French-led Native attacks on New England that led to their captivity and the devastation of Deerfield.

Vaudreuil also ransomed the eldest Williams daughter, 13-year-old Esther, and arranged for visits with Warham and Samuel, who were in Montreal. Four-year-old Warham had been redeemed from the Natives by a wealthy French noblewoman, Agathe de Saint-Père, as the returning army passed through Montreal, probably on their way to the Iroquois village at Sault-au-Récollet. Fourteen-year-old Samuel was living with Jacques le Ber, a rich merchant, who "took a great deal of pains to persuade the savages to part with him." (24)

What the governor could not do, powerful as he was, was to persuade the Kanienkehaka (Mohawks) at Kahnawake to give up seven-year-old Eunice Williams. The Native nations were his allies, not subjects, and Vaudreuil could not command their compliance. Vaudreuil did make it possible for John Williams to visit his daughter twice, once at Kahnawake and once in Montreal, over the objections of the Jesuits and the Kanienkehaka. The visits were painful. Eunice confirmed her father's greatest fear: that she was in danger of losing her religion. "'They force me to say some prayers in Latin, but I don't understand one word of them; I hope it won't do me any harm.'" Despite the governor's efforts in finding a Native girl to exchange for Eunice, his offering of "an hundred pieces of eight," and attempts of Vaudreuil's wife "to have begged her [Eunice] from them," all was in vain. In a cry of pain and despair, Williams seemed to wish Eunice a sanctified death rather than life as a "savage": "O that all who peruse this history would join in their fervent requests to God . . . that this poor child, and so many others of our children who have been cast upon God from the womb, and are now outcasts ready to perish, might be gathered from their dispersions, and receive sanctifying grace from God!" (25)

Contending Creeds

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Title page of Williams's account of his captivity; this 5th edition was published in 1794.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA.

The rest of John Williams's narrative of his captivity, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, chronicles his struggle against the pressure to convert or at least display outward signs of Catholic belief. He was sent from Montreal to Quebec to Chateau Richer, a small town 15 miles from Quebec, apparently to keep him away from his fellow English captives and perhaps his friend the governor, and to expose him to ever more persuasive priests. He describes physical and emotional pressures verging on torture to which English captives were subjected, and the manipulation of young children and the dying. Williams's oldest captive son, Samuel, in a French school and under the influence of the Sulpician priest Father Meriel, suffered from such extremes of persuasion. He was forced to kneel for hours at a time and was whipped with a whip that "had three branches, and about twelve great knots tied to it" to force him to make the sign of the cross. Samuel eventually submitted and converted, news of which "was ready to overwhelm me with grief and sorrow." (26) John Williams devoted many pages of his book to a lengthy letter he wrote to Samuel, which had the desired effect of making him renounce his conversion.

Williams seems to take pleasure in reporting his own steadfastness in the face of Catholic proselytizing, proudly describing how he out-argued the Jesuits, famed for their rhetorical powers. They persuaded, threatened, and sometimes bribed, telling Williams that "if I would stay among them and be of their religion I should have a great and honorable pension from the king every year" (27) and would be reunited with his children.

Williams's one comfort, aside from his faith, was his eventual reunion with Stephen, who spent over a year with the Pennacooks in north-central New England and at Odanak/St. Francis. In May of 1705, Governor Vaudreuil ransomed him from his captor's kinsman, Sagamore George, for 40 crowns. He lived with his father at Chateau Richer until his return to Massachusetts in the fall of 1705, with the emissaries Samuel Vetch and William Dudley, the Massachusetts governor's son.


It would be another year before John Williams was able to rejoin Stephen in Massachusetts. Captives were released to emissaries from Massachusetts in several small groups—five had left with John Sheldon and John Wells of Deerfield in the spring of 1705; another 11 prisoners sailed to Massachusetts that fall with Samuel Vetch and William Dudley; another 17, then eight, were released to Captain Williams Rouse in exchange for 47 French prisoners. But Governor-General Vaudreuil was holding John Williams until the English released French privateer Pierre Maisonnat, also known as Captain Baptiste or Battis. Only after Governor Dudley freed Maisonnat/Baptiste and all the remaining French prisoners did Vaudreuil respond by returning 57 English captives, including John Williams and his sons Samuel and Warham. They sailed from Quebec in late October, 1706, on the brigantine Hope. John Williams's youngest daughter, Eunice, was not with them; she remained with the Kanienkehaka at Kahnawake, to the sorrow of the family.

John Williams - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | March to Canada | Parting Ways | Captivity | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

1706 - 1729

image name: johnwms_portrait.jpg

The Reverend John Williams, probably painted circa 1707, shortly after his return from New France. Oil painting, artist unknown. Click here to go to the picture's artifact page for more information.
Copyright Historic Deerfield, Inc.

The Reverend John Williams's arrival in Boston on November 21, 1706, was an occasion for celebration. In Puritan New England, ministers were important men—and Williams was related by marriage to the most prominent, Cotton Mather, minister of the Second Congregational Church of Boston. In his captivity, John Williams had become famous. Williams wrote: "At our arrival in Boston, we found the kindness of the Lord in a wonderful manner, in opening the hearts of many to bless God with us and for us; wonderfully to give for our supplies in our needy state." (28) Both the people of Boston and the legislature donated money to the returning captives. Williams was offered an additional 40 pounds (half of his previous yearly salary) if he would return to Deerfield and help rebuild the town.

Williams stayed in Boston for about a month. He preached a sermon, "Reports of Divine Kindness," and attended social gatherings. A three-man delegation from Deerfield came to offer him incentives to return to the town: a house as big as John Sheldon's, an advance of 20 pounds, a pledge of help with his farm work. On December 28, 1706, he returned to Deerfield.

Shortly after his return, he began writing the story of his captivity, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion. With Cotton Mather's help, it was published in March of 1707, and was reprinted in new editions six times during the 18th century and another five times in the 19th century. The book became a classic of captivity literature and a major document of American Puritanism.

Returning to Boston in March for the publication of his book, Williams preached a sermon before the legislature and Governor Dudley entitled "God in the Camp." Within a few days, the legislature authorized a military offensive against New France, which became the failed attack against Port Royal.

John Williams resettled in Deerfield later that month, although his children were still scattered, living with relatives in Roxbury, Charlestown, and Northampton. Williams's new house was completed during the summer of 1707, and he remarried in September. His second wife was Abigail Bissell, a widow from Connecticut. Like Williams's late wife Eunice Mather Williams, Abigail Bissell was a granddaughter of the Reverend John Warham, the prominent Connecticut minister. She was therefore his first wife's cousin, a fact which raised concern at least in the mind of Solomon Stoddard, to whom Williams wrote with his news. Williams and Abigail Bissell were not deterred, and she helped him rebuild the household and reunite his children. John and Abigail also had five children of their own.

His daughter Eunice's life among the Kanienkehaka continued to haunt John Williams for the remainder of his life. After the War of the Spanish Succession was over in 1712, Williams returned to New France with other men from Deerfield to seek the return of relatives still living there. Williams's old friend, Governor-General Vaudreuil, assured them that any remaining captives were free to return, with his blessing—but that he could not force his Native allies to hand them over. John Williams visited Eunice, now married to her Kanienkehaka husband Arosen, at Kahnawake, but the meeting was a bitter disappointment to him. As Williams sadly wrote to Samuel Sewall, "she is obstinately resolved to live and die here, and will not so much as give me one pleasant look." (29)

The Reverend John Williams remained minister of Deerfield until his death at the age of 65 on June 12th, 1729. He had had a stroke three days before, and was unable to speak more than a few words to his son Stephen, who had ridden seven hours from Longmeadow on hearing the news. John Williams's death was noted throughout New England with memorial sermons and newspaper obituaries, as well as a volume of abstracts of many of his sermons.

John Williams - Prologue | Attack on Deerfield | March to Canada | Parting Ways | Captivity | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

About This Narrative

We use John Williams's own words to tell of his experiences during the attack on Deerfield and the march to Canada. He wrote about them shortly after his return from Canada late in 1706, and published them as The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, which became a classic of early American literature. The Prologue section of this narrative provides a context for his story by describing the intensely religious, Puritan environment in which he was raised and the difficult conditions of life in Deerfield, a struggling farming community on the frontier of English colonial settlement. This narrative was written by Freda Brackley.

See Further Reading for a list of sources used in creating this narrative. For a discussion of issues related to telling people's stories on the site, see: Bringing History to Life: The People in The Many Stories of 1704.

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