John Putnam Demos is an American historian and professor emeritus at Yale University who has written several books on the topic of American history. Part of the inspiration for his work was the realization that one of his ancestors, John Putnam Senior, participated in the Salem Witch Trials. In the...
John Putnam Demos is an American historian and professor emeritus at Yale University who has written several books on the topic of American history. Part of the inspiration for his work was the realization that one of his ancestors, John Putnam Senior, participated in the Salem Witch Trials. In the story of The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America, Demos tackles important themes about the relationship of European settlers to Indigenous peoples in early American history.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the way it challenges popular conceptions of the cultural relationship of Native Americans and European people. The stereotyped portrayal of this relationship is one of Christian, educated, "modern: European settlers confronting Native peoples portrayed either as "Noble Savages" or barbarians. What this picture misses and what Demos documents is that the Mohawks in the narrative were cosmopolitan, French-speaking Roman Catholics. Thus, a major theme is that readers need to be aware of cultural blending and interfaces rather than thinking in terms of binary oppositions.
The next important theme of the work is gender. Most popular accounts, especially in Hollywood and other popular visions, downplay female agency and set up an example of either virtuous white maidens abducted by evil Indians or Native maidens abused or rescued by white settlers. Demos portrays an interesting and complex reality of a settler's daughter who is adopted by the Mohawks, thrives in that environment, and chooses voluntarily to live a well-adjusted life as a fully integrated member of the Mohawk tribe rather than returning to her white family. Many of her descendants thrived and later interacted peacefully and productively with the settlers at the grave of Eunice's father.
Eunice Williams was one of more than 100 English settlers who were captured by combined French and Native American forces in a 1704 raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts. Her father (who was a Puritan minister), mother, and siblings marched with the other captives to Canada, which the French controlled. A series of negotiations led to her father’s release while other family members remained in captivity. The book’s main theme is the conflict between personal obligations and religious and national values.
John Williams was placed in an untenable position when he decided to accept his own freedom but leave his children behind. Upon arriving back in New England, he published a strongly anti-French, anti-Catholic narrative, calling himself the “redeemed captive,” using a synonym for “ransomed.” Although he tried for several years to obtain Eunice’s freedom, she continued to live with the Kahnawake people, who did not want to release her. Returning once more to their community, the father found that his daughter had been fully accepted into the community, and had married a Kahnawake man. Now a young adult who had lived more than half her life among them, she decided to stay.
The author raises fascinating questions about the effects of socialization on a vulnerable child. Eunice’s own beliefs about her parents’ efforts remain unclear, as most of the text is based on the Puritans’ narratives. One interesting aspect of their concern about her continuing to live in Canada is the religious aspect, as they feared for her soul because she had converted to Catholicism. Equally crucial is the ethical question of using children as pawns of war.
The book appears to address the main themes of identity and multicultural conflict. Eunice Williams's captivity is central to the story, and Demos explores these themes by highlighting her eventual choice to remain with her captors.
The main event that sets off Eunice's story is the Deerfield Raid. This is actually a historical event, and it occurred on February 29, 1704. Prior to the raid, the British and the French had been fighting for control of the American colonies. On that eventful day in February, almost 300 French soldiers and their Native American allies descended on the town of Deerfield in Massachusetts. They slaughtered more than 50 of Deerfield's citizens and took at least 100 civilians into captivity.
The captives were made to endure a months-long trek to Canada, and many died along the way. Among the captured were the Reverend John Williams and his family. Williams was a minister and a community leader in Deerfield. His daughter, Eunice, is the focal point of Demos's book. Reverend Williams was able to return to Deerfield after the Canadian French governor ransomed him, but Eunice had to remain behind with her Mohawk master. This was because Williams came up short in his initial effort to arrange a ransom for all his children.
Ironically, when Williams managed to arrange for Eunice's return, she refused to comply with her father's wishes. Note that Williams's main fear for his daughter was that she would be susceptible to the Roman Catholic religion. Williams was a devout Puritan, and he knew that the Native American allies of the French often converted to Catholicism. Many native converts also chose to intermarry with the French. Demos effectively highlights the deep multicultural and religious conflicts between the English and the French/ Native American allies in his book. He inspires us to explore the theme of identity within the context of these conflicts.
Eunice eventually married a Mohawk warrior, chose to embrace the Native American lifestyle, and converted to Catholicism. She never returned to Deerfield. In later years, she became the subject of sermons that warned about the pitfalls of falling prey to a barbaric culture and to ungodly influences. Essentially, Eunice is the "unredeemed captive" referenced in the book.
Probably the most interesting topic raised by the book is the question of identity. Is identity hereditary (static) or is it fluid? In Eunice's case, personal will was a major factor in influencing her unique decision to stay in Canada. She chose to reject her Puritan, New England roots in order to embrace a foreign identity, culture, and religion. Essentially, Eunice did not view her identity as predetermined or fixed. In an era when women had few choices and little personal agency, she chose to forge her own path in life. Interestingly, despite the fears of her Puritan community, Eunice's faith in God remained intact. You can read more about the real Eunice here.