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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Williams
Reverend John Williams was the minister of Deerfield, Massachusetts, in Feburary 1704 when he was taken captive by Abenaki Indians following a bloody pre-dawn raid on the frontier village by French and Indian forces. Although citizens of Deerfield were on the lookout for an attack and had built a stockade around the town, deep snowdrifts allowed a force of some three-hundred French Canadians, Abenakis, and Caughnawaga Mohawks to scramble over the stockade and destroy the town, burning many of the houses, killing residents, and taking more than one hundred inhabitants as captives, many of whom would not survive the march north to Canada. The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion is Williams’s account of his forced march to Canada following his capture and of the two and half years he subsequently spent in captivity—eight weeks with the Abenakis, the remainder in French Catholic communities near Montreal.

Deerfield was a precarious outpost of English colonialism at the turn of the eighteenth century. Originally settled in 1672, the village was abandoned in 1676 after Indian attacks during King Philip’s War. The town was resettled in 1682, and Williams arrived to serve as the town’s spiritual leader in 1686. As the French and English engaged in battles in Europe—in this case, the War of Spanish Succession—border skirmishes between  French and English colonists in North America became more active, and both sides employed Indians to asssist in their war efforts. The 1704 attack on Deerfield was thus an incident in what the colonists called Queen Anne’s War (the second of the four French and Indian Wars), a war that was based on hostilities a continent away but nonetheless offered the occasion for territorial warfare in New England and Canada.

John Williams was the grandson of Robert Williams, who emigrated from Norwich to Roxbury in 1637, and the son of Samuel Williams, a shoemaker and large landholder, who became deacon and later Ruling Elder in the Roxbury church of John Eliot. He attended Roxbury Latin School; graduated from Harvard in 1683; became Congregational minister of Deerfield in 1686; and married Eunice Mather, niece of Increase Mather and stepdaughter of Solomon Stoddard, in 1687. Williams and his wife had eight children: John Williams Jr., age 6, and Jerusha Williams 6 weeks, were killed in the raid on Deerfield. Of the remaining six, four (Samuel, 15, Esther, 13, Stephen, 10, Eunice, 7 and Warham, 4) were taken captive and marched to Canada. Williams’s oldest son, Eleazar, also 15, was away from Deerfield at the time of the attack. Williams’s wife was killed during the march to Canada. Williams was a prominent and well-connected member of the New England clergy, and his captivity was a matter of great concern throughout the colony. Governor Joseph Dudley negotiated the final terms of his release in 1706—terms that involved the exchange of the notorious French pirate Baptiste for Williams and other New Englanders. After his release, Williams returned to Deerfield and later married his wife’s cousin, Abigail Allen Bissell. He wrote the tale of his captivity in 1707, shortly after his “redemption.” The narrative was extremely popular and eventually went through six editions over the course of the century.

Williams’s narrative describes the battle in Deerfield and the long march through the snow; the death of his wife, who, having given birth only a few weeks earlier, could not keep up with the prisoners and was killed by the Indians; the cruelties and kindnesses of the Indians; Williams’s attempts to obtain news about his children, who had been separated from him; his efforts to serve members of his congregation who were scattered among Indian and French settlements; his purchase by the French and Jesuit efforts to convert him; his correspondence with his son Samuel, who briefly converted to Catholicism; and Williams’s return home after more than two years of bondage, with all of his remaining children except Eunice, then ten, who chose, to her father’s enduring consternation, to remain with the Indians.

The narrative is unusual among captivity narratives because Williams spends the greater part of his captivity among the French, not among Indians. Yet for the Puritan Williams, the dangerously foreign religion of Catholicism poses a threat equal to that of the “savagery” of Indian culture. Throughout the narrative, Williams details his continued resistance to the pressures of the Jesuits to convert and his attempts to save his children and other New Englanders from the double threat of absorption into French Catholic or Indian culture. His son Samuel does briefly convert to Catholicism, and his daughter Eunice does become a fully adopted member of the Caughnawaga Mohawks, a tribe of Catholic Indians living outside Montreal. The narrative tells of Williams’s sorrow upon learning that Eunice can no longer speak English. Seven years after his release, Williams returned to her village and met with her, but, as he wrote to a friend, “she is obstinately resolved to live and dye here, and will not so much as give me one pleasant look.”

The narrative also functions as a jeremiad. It warns New Englanders that they have fallen away from their unique covenant with God, and it demonstrates “the anger of God” toward his “professing people” and the patience of Christians who are suffering “the will of God in very trying public calamities!” Williams seeks to offer an account of his captivity—to render his painful plight meaningful—and thus ascribes both personal and collective meaning to his experiences in the violent cultural, religious, economic, and political power struggles among the French, British, and Indians that roiled New England during the eighteenth century.

Rosalie Murphy Baum
University of South Florida

Elizabeth Maddock Dillon
Yale University

In the Heath Anthology
from The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion (1707)

Other Works

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A Captivity Narrative and the Jeremiad
A succinct site describing the jeremiad literary form.

Captivity Narratives
Valuable notes on 17th, 18th, and 19th Century captivity narratives.

John Williams Study Questions
Helpful study questions for Williams's "Redeemed."

Selected Bibliography on Mary Rowlandson and Captivity Narratives
A bibliography of sources on captitivity narratives.

The John Williams Family
Primarily focused on genealogy, but it also offers valuable information about Williams' and the Deerfield Indian Raid (1704) and the relationship between his "Redeemed Captive" and Cooper's Last of the Mohicans.

Secondary Sources