The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America.

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. – book reviews

Benjamin Roberts

How did the great detective Sherlock Holmes solve a mystery? Presumably by combining a fair amount of evidence, a touch of probability, and a dash of speculation. And seldom did a case go unsolved. Much like Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, the Yale historian John Demos has provided us with a viable solution for the unredemption of the abduction of a six-year-old New England girl by Indians in the 18th century. By using the narrative method and adding speculation where evidence had failed, Demos has possibly solved the case and in doing so has exquisitely told a fascinating story about family life in New England in the 18th century.

The backdrop of the story is Queen Anne’s War: England and France are at war over the succession to the Spanish throne. The conflict also spread to the sparsely populated North American colonies where the Mohawk Indians had become allied with the French. Demos’ story starts on the night of February 29th, 1704 when the small New England frontier town of Deerfield is raided. Most of the town was plundered, ravaged, and set ablaze. Some of the residents were slaughtered and scalped, the fortunate escaped, and the less fortunate were held captive and taken back to New France (Canada). The motive for the attack was to kidnap Deerfield’s prominent reverend, John Williams, who would make a good trade-off for the French captain Jean Baptiste Guyon, a celebrated pirate held hostage by the English.

On the night of the attack the Williams home was raided, and the two youngest children (a six-month old baby and a two-year old) were scalped. John Williams, his wife, and their five other children (Samuel: age fourteen, Stephan: age twelve, Esther age eight, Eunice age six, and Warham age four) were herded along with 112 other Deerfield captives on a three hundred mile journey to Montreal that lasted for two months. During the journey the Williams children were scattered amongst the various participating Indians tribes. Upon arrival in New France the captives were sold to the French, and later negotiated for release by the governors of French and English colonies. Almost three years later John Williams made his way back to New England. A release was negotiated for his children. All were returned except for his six-year old daughter Eunice. She remained in the hands of the Kahnawake Indians who refused to sell her to the French.

After ten years of fruitless attempts for Eunice’s release, John Williams was deeply saddened by the news that Eunice had forgotten how to speak English, had been baptized to the Roman Catholic faith by Jesuit priests, and had married an Indian or a “savage” as they were referred to in the correspondence of the Williams family. Until his death in 1729, John Williams tried several times to have Eunice freed. After his death, his son Stephan Williams, carried on the crusade.

For the first time in 36 years a meeting was arranged with Eunice. The meeting between the two siblings in 1740 lasted shortly: a translator was needed to help them communicate with each other. Eunice and her Indian husband agreed to spend the summer with her brother in New England. During the visit in 1741 the family tried to persuade Eunice, her Indian husband Arosen, and three children to stay permanently; however, they insisted on returning to Canada after agreeing to visit again the following year.

Another twenty years followed before Eunice would see her family again. In the meantime Eunice became a grandmother. The possibility of Eunice leaving her Indian family became even more remote. Years would pass before Eunice and her brother would again hear from each other. Eunice had a letter written and translated to her brother Stephan shortly before her 75th birthday; she requested to hear about her brother’s well-being, and said that she should probably never see him in this world because she had become too old to travel. They never met again. Stephan lived to the ripe-old age of ninety, and Eunice died at the age of eighty-five, yet their descendants, both Indians and New Englanders, kept in touch deep into the 19th century.

The story is primarily based on the lavishness of personal documents such as the correspondence between the colonial governors of New England and New France, Stephan Williams’ diary (a healthy 4,000 typed pages), John Williams’ published autobiographical account of his captivity: The Redeemed Captive Re. turning to Zion, and Eunice’s sole letter written shortly before her 75th birthday. These personal documents have been paramount in Demos’ reconstruction of how the Williams family endured the 79 years of unsuccessful attempts for Eunice’s return. However, if the reader is looking for a table of contents, index, or historiography in which the author accounts for the use of sources (and in this case the lack of sources), or unravels the choice of historical approach, he won’t find it. In the Preface Demos simply states: “most of all, I wanted to write a story”. Instead of telling the story of the redeemed captive, John Williams, Demos has superbly told the story of the unredeemed captive – the story of Eunice of which there is only one document. But how?

It is clear that Demos was faced with the classic historian’s problem: sources are not always there when needed. When deprived of sources needed in writing his story Demos has applied a touch of probability and a dash of speculation. However, Demos never abandons his professional ethics in regard to facts. He has clearly informed the reader in cursive print what is fact so that there is no uncertainty between fact and fiction. Much as Holmes would have done when lacking evidence, Demos has crept into Eunice’s mind and has given her probable answers to the many unsolved questions. For example,

FACT: Within two years – perhaps less – of her arrival in Kahnawake, Eunice Williams had forgotten [how] to speak English.

Demos thereafter speculates that psychology could have played an important role:

“the trauma of capture – including as it did, the deaths of mother and siblings – might call forth its own ‘repression’; forgetting everything would be a kind of defense. Whatever the actual sources of change, the result was deeply significant. From now on Eunice would communicate only with her new people, in her new place, with a new set of customary forms. Language was the pivot and symbol of her personal acculturation”.

Besides speculating about Eunice’s loss of the English language, this conjecture also makes Eunice’s life-long desire to remain with the Indians quite understandable. Eunice became accustomed to the Indian way of life: she later married, had children and grandchildren, and became a valued member of the tribe. Who would give that up? According to the narratives of other captives it was not uncommon for Puritan captives to choose to live with the Indians.(1)

By crossing the delicate line between fact and fiction without doing injustice to the facts, Demos should be applauded for providing a possible solution to the case of the unredeemed captive, and for writing a spectacular family story. In doing so, Demos has illustrated how one historian has solved his own problem.


1. James Axtell, “The White Indians of Colonial America,” William and Mary Quarterly 32 (Jan. 1975): 55-88; Malie Montagutelli, “John Tanner, a Stranger in his Own Land,” paper presented at the 16th ISCHE Conference, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 10-13 August 1994.

Benjamin Roberts University of Groningen

COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History

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