Using History to Define Us

By Humanities teacher Nathan Sokol-Margolis

In 1707, Reverend John Williams, the minister of Deerfield, MA published his narrative The Redeemed Captive. This text, which relates the story of Williams’s and his family’s capture by Mohawks and the French during the Deerfield Raid of 1704, became a classic of early American literature and was key in perpetuating a two-dimensional perception of the conflict between Indian and English, between “savage” and “civilized.” For our Division II Humanities class, Constitution Nation, this moment in history is a case study for how individuals use stories to help them organize and coalesce into groups.

This past week, after studying 17th century Deerfield (previously know as Pocumtuck), students traveled there and spent the night in the “Old Indian House,” a replica of John Sheldon’s house, which was one of the few homes to survive the raid of 1704.

Starting off at the summit of Wequamps, renamed by the English to Sugarbush, students looked out over the Connecticut River Valley and discussed why the land was contested by so many groups. They listened to the ancient story of the Amiskwôlowôkoiak (the People of the Beaver-tail Hill) and heard of a people that settled the land at least 10,000 years ago. From there, they met with David Brule, a local who helped the Nolumbeka Project gain protection for Wissatinnewag, an Indian village. Wissatinnewag is the Algonquin word for “shining hill.” It is a holy site that had been inhabited for thousands of years, and it is the site where, in the aftermath of King Philip’s War in 1676, hundreds of non-combatants were killed by colonial militia led by William Turned. This event is one of the key moments that led to the Native population raiding Deerfield in 1704.

After speaking with Brule, students went to the “Old Indian House,” changed into colonial garb, and lived a colonial life for 16 hours. Working together, the students did chores such as shelling beans and carding cotton. They cooked dinner in a walk-in fireplace, and they told stories about the raid late into the night. The next morning, students made breakfast together and played traditional colonial games. They also got to experience multiple first-person narratives from the perspective of raid survivors. After breakfast and clean-up, students changed back into their 21st century garb and went to the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Museum, where they saw the original Sheldon Door that the raiders hacked at to get at the English colonists. They examined the language used then to talk about that moment in history (the Deerfield Massacre), versus the language used now (the Deerfield Raid), and discussed the power of perspective in giving meaning to a group of people.

Now that students are back in the classroom, they are doing primary source research on the many groups in New England during the 18th century. Once this research is finished, students will craft narratives to share with others in an effort to explore how we take the past and manipulate it to explain our present. Stay tuned for updates on the project!