They struck just before dawn on February 29, 1704—the Mohawks. Coming quickly, they climbed over the snowdrifts that had formed around the edges of the fort. Local legend has it that the watchman leaning against a house failed to see them coming. He was listening to the sounds of a mother’s lullaby. His cry to arms came too late…
Two hours before daybreak a small army of natives along with their French allies attacked the wilderness village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, changing the citizens’ lives forever. Among the captives of the raid was a young girl named Eunice Williams. At the age of seven, she became a prisoner of the Kahnawake Mohawk people. Taken from her family Eunice entered into a world that was anything like her own. But Eunice’s story is different from the stories of most. Eunice was never redeemed.
To redeem someone from native captors in the early 1700s met to rescue them. The people of Deerfield made multiple attempts to redeem Eunice but as she assimilated to life with the Kahnawake it became clear that where Eunice felt the most free was in the land of her captors. Eunice, a child of the Puritans, found freedom and redemption in a society where her role as a woman was drastically altered by traditions and norms that were radically different from anything she had ever experienced in her Puritan childhood. At the age of seven Eunice Williams’ world was forever changed and for her it was an alteration that would tear her from one family and lay her gently in the arms of another.
Colonial New England was not a place made of tangible boundaries. There was not a line drawn in the dirt to mark where native territory stopped and the European settlements began. It was more fluid than that. Settlers and natives mixed on a regular basis. Because of this the town of Deerfield was no stranger to native visitors. The town was often filled with native peoples who came to trade or simply to visit. Most of these visits were peaceful but when conflict did erupt it often turned violent and deadly.
The raid on Deerfield was a combination raid—Natives and Frenchmen. Native warriors were conducting what they called a “mourning war,” in which captives are taken to replace those in the tribe who have died. The French, it seemed, simply had a score to settle with some of the English villagers.
Eunice’s home was one of the first to be attacked. “They came to my house in the beginning,” recalled her father, “…and by their violent endeavors to break open doors and windows with axes and hatchets, awakened me from my sleep…” He tried to shoot the invaders but failed and was taken captive. He watched helplessly as his two youngest children and the family’s slaves were murdered. Eunice was witness to all this terrible carnage. She was only seven years old in February of 1704. But even at seven she was old enough to understand the destruction around her. She was old enough to understand the cries of her neighbors as their houses went up in flames and she was old enough to remember the sight of her murdered siblings lying in the snow. But could her most vivid memory of all have been the unknown Indian woman who comforted her in all her terror? Perhaps it is here, amid the destruction of her biological family that Eunice feels the first connection with the Kahnawake people that will keep her with them for the rest of her life.
An hour after sunrise the next morning Eunice, her father, mother, four brothers, and older sister, along with some of their neighbors were marched out of the village by their captors to start a grueling trek into the Canadian wilderness. Eunice was separated from her family in the middle of the journey. While her father was taken to Montreal and soon ransomed by the Governor General of Canada, Eunice was taken to a native settlement near Montreal.
Within the course of the following year, all four of Eunice’s brothers and sister were redeemed, but not Eunice. While her family was being redeemed from their captors, Eunice was assimilating. She was adjusting to life among the Natives and beginning to embrace her new role as a female outside of the Puritan world. Deep in the Canadian wilderness Eunice began to feel an unexplainable pull towards a world that was so completely opposite of her own. As she observed the world around her and began to grow she saw that the piety of the Puritan women—the piety pulsed through every vain in her body, even at seven—lacked something that her mind could not yet begin to wrap itself around. But whatever it was, Eunice abandoned it for the freedom and authority she found in the women of the Kahanwake Mohawks.
The Captive Who Was Never Redeemed
Could it be possible to be born in the wrong place? To the wrong people? It seems that this may have been the case for Eunice. Her father made several attempts to have her redeemed saying at first she was “…Very desirous to be redeemed out of the hands of the Mohawks…” But as time went on she receded further and further into the Kahanwake community until there was nothing left of the Puritan Eunice to be redeemed. The Mohawks her father said, “…would sooner part with their hearts as my child.”
Eunice married into the Kahanwake Mohawks, raised a family, and saw her real family only three more times in life. Many have asked why Eunice would stay with the people who had destroyed her family. This question seems best answered by looking at Eunice’s role as a female in Kahnawake society, a role that was much different from the role she would have had if she went back to her Puritan home. The Kahnawake Mohawks were part of the Iroquois Five Nations sharing many of the same beliefs as the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Oneida people. The Iroquois believed that women held an important and special role in society. Women were life givers, creators of all that was new. In the Seneca legend of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, woman is credited with the earth on the back of a sea turtle. “Here on the sea turtles back, she planted bits of roots and plants she had brought from the sky world. And she walked across the turtles back, planting and creating the Earth that we know…” She became known as the Sky Mother and bore a daughter. The daughter had twin boys who fought with one another to see who would be first out of their mother’s womb; one son chose, instead, to be born out of his mother’s armpit and in the process killed her. The two boys buried their mother in the earth. She became the Corn Mother, the source of all things good and bountiful from the earth. In this story, woman is seen as the creator. The Sky Mother creates the Earth while the Corn Mother creates all those things which nourish the human body.
In Puritan society women were not viewed as givers of life. Rather, they were viewed as being subordinate to the male. A woman was descended from Eve, they said. Eve was irrational and corrupt, making women more vulnerable to error and sinfulness. Puritan women were encouraged to be pious and to strive for the perfection that they would never reach (do to their unfortunate relation to Eve). One Puritan women named Lucy Hutchenson even called herself her husbands faithful mirror saying she reflected “truly, though but dimly, his own glories upon him.” Puritan women spent their days looking out for the good of their husbands and their families. They were glorified for their subordination and piety, not their ability to give life and sustain a community.
In many ways the life of Eunice Williams can be compared to the Seneca legend of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky. She suffered great loss in the beginning and was forced into a world about which she knew nothing. But she found friends among the Kahnawake and soon she had planted her roots there. She married there, had children and died there. She returned to Deerfield only three times later in life. By then her children had grown and she had forgotten how to speak English. The Eunice Williams that her family had known was gone and an Indian woman stood in her place. There was not a trace of her Puritan self left within her.
At the time of her death Eunice Williams was eighty-nine years old. She had been a “captive” for over eighty years. In her captivation she had found redemption from a world that would have forced her into submission; a world that would have neglected to acknowledge the life-giving purpose of the woman; a world that was interested only in her piety rather than her faith or her being. For Eunice, captivity did not mean restriction, it meant freedom.