J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Ransom of Stephen Williams

Running the portrait of the Rev. Stephen Williams yesterday put me in mind of how at the age of ten he was captured in the 1704 raid on Deerfield.

That was a horrible experience. Stephen’s mother and other captives were killed, he was separated from the rest of his family, and he spent more than a year as a prisoner, fearing possible death.

But there was another prospect for Stephen when he was taken. As a ten-year-old boy, he was a prime candidate for being adopted into a Mohawk or Abenaki family who had lost a family member. That custom was deeply rooted in the Native cultures of the region, even becoming a motivation for warfare. Stephen’s younger sister Eunice did become a lifelong member of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) community. But Stephen didn’t.

And to explain that, we can look at his own actions. Here are excerpts from Stephen Williams’s recollections of captivity, as published in the nineteenth century, and what his captors or potential adopters might have been saying at those moments.
Then we left the river and travelled about noon on the west side of the river. We came to two wigwams, where we found the signs of Indians, but no Indians. In those wigwams they left their sacks and went a hunting, if perhaps they might find some moose buried in the snow by the hunting Indians, but could not find any.

I wandered about and lost myself, and hollowed. My master came to me, and was very angry. He lifted up the breach of his gun in order to kill me, but God kept back his hand, for which I desire his name might be praised. The Indians will never allow any body to hollow in the woods. Their manner is to make a noise like wolves, or other wild creatures, when they would call to one another.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. But none of that would have happened if you hadn’t ‘wandered about’ and gotten lost.

“Look, I’m going to give you to my brother. I’m, uh, not going to mention the lost-in-the-woods episode. Try to make a good impression, all right?”
…when I first arrived here they were extraordinary kind, took care of my toe which was frozen, would not suffer me to do any work, gave me deer-skin to lie on, and a bear-skin to cover me withal;

but this did not last long, for I was forced to carry such a pack when I travelled that I could not rise up without some help, was forced to cut wood, and carry it sometimes a considerable way on my back. After that manner I lived till their hunting time was over, without any society but the inhuman pagans.
“Yes, we need to carry things when we’re hunting. We need firewood. You’re eating a lot more meat than the men we left behind in camp. And you’re going to have to get better at traveling in the woods since now we’re headed for Canada.”
This was an exceedingly tedious march to me. When we came to the French River, it was as much as our canoe would carry our lumber, the water was so shallow; so that I was forced to travel afoot, on the bank, which cut out my shoes. My feet were much galled, and one or two of my toes almost cut off with the stones. I had little or nothing to eat.
“We made those shoes for you. They’re better for walking in the woods than English shoes. Nobody else is having trouble with those shoes.”
While I tarried here [at Shamblee], a Frenchman came and desired the Indians to let me go with him, which they did. He gave me some victuals, and made me lie down in his couch, which my master’s son perceiving, told his father, who thought he did it to hide me, and did design to steal me; upon which he came up and fetched me away, and would not let me go to the fort any more, for which I suffered. While here the French dressed my feet that were wounded, at which the Indians seemed to be vexed.

From hence we went towards Sorel, but tarried a day or two near a Frenchman’s house, about three miles from Shamblee, who was kind to me, and would have lodged me in his house, but the Indians would not allow of it, mistrusting he would convey me away in the night privately.
“Well, yes! Because you tried to sneak away with that last Frenchman.”
Monsieur Shamblee heard that I was with Sagamore George, and came to buy me. I seemed to be willing to go with him, at which the Indians were much disturbed, and would not let me go, because I showed a forwardness to go, and did likewise threaten to kill me, did complain to the Jesuit, who came and said to me, “What, no love Indian! they have saved your life,” &c.
“The feeling’s starting to be mutual, kid.”
At length, being wearied out, my master went to the Jesuit, and got pen, ink, and paper, would have me write to my father, for we had heard he was learned, and had two hundred pounds a year allowed him, which I believe some of them believed. After he had got paper he takes another Indian with him that could speak good English, who was to indite for me. The substance of the letter was this, that if they did not buy me before spring, they would not sell me afterwards, and that he must give forty crowns for me. They carried it to the Jesuit, who could speak English, to see whether I had written as they ordered me, and when they found I had, they were well pleased.
“All right, finally! Now all we have to do is wait for the English money to come.”
While on a certain day my mistress went to a French house to get victuals, and ordered me to spend my day in getting wood; but it proved a tempestuous day, and we had half a cart-load at the door, which is a great deal for Indians to have, so that I did not get any. When she came home, being disturbed by the French, asked what I had been doing; they replied, nothing, at which she was very angry.
“And that money can’t come fast enough.”
Whilst I lived here, I made about fourscore weight of sugar with the sap of maple trees, for the Indians. My mistress had a mind to go to Sorel, and because there was a barrel of sap to boil she sent me to the sugar place over night to boil it, so that we might go in the morning. I went and kept a good fire under the kettle, little thinking of its coming to sugar, and it was spoiled for want of stirring, for the manner is to stir it when it comes almost to sugar. They were very angry, and would not give me any victuals.
“We have got to get rid of this kid.”
It being now spring, we went in canoes to Sorel; and so soon as we had got there, the woman that brought me victuals across the river when I was there before, came and desired of the Indians to let me go to the fort, which they consented to.
“Yes, you can go into the French fort. I know we didn’t want you to lodge with the Frenchmen before, but now you can go.”
I went; but remembering the bad effect of tarrying all night before, durst not do so again without the Indians’ leave. I went to the Indians and carried them some victuals, and asked them to let me lie at the fort, which they granted.
“Yes, yes, you can go to the fort! Go into the fort!”

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