The men and women who occupied the east coast of North America between 1607 and 1800 have been more closely scrutinized than any other collection of people in American history. Their deeds filled the pages of the classic nineteenth-century historians George Bancroft and Francis Parkman (there were not then many other Americans to write about); and they have captured a major share of attention from the most gifted historians of this century, including Perry Miller and Samuel Eliot Morison. New Englanders in particular have been placed under the microscope, their ideas dissected, their psyches probed, and more recently their social relations subjected to sophisticated statistical analyses that tell us more about them than they could have known themselves: their life expectancies, average age at marriage, family size, distribution of wealth, and so on.
It is only fair to say that the early New Englanders brought all this attention on themselves. They were forever writing down what they did and thought, and they took pains to preserve what they wrote, sending a not wholly unintentional invitation to future historians to take them as seriously as they took themselves. Historians of different generations have accepted the invitation according to the differing usages of their times. In the past thirty or forty years few have followed the older mode of narrative history. Instead, they have treated early New England as a kind of social laboratory in which to trace patterns of behavior or the operation and evolution of ideas, institutions, and forces of one sort or another.
Now perhaps the time has come for a return to narrative. There have been voices summoning historians in that direction, and the two books under review seem to be replying to them. John Demos, once a pioneer in the statistical mode, announces at the outset: “Most of all, I wanted to write a story.” David Fischer, whose last book was a study of the influence of different English local cultures on social patterns in America, states his purpose to present a “series of events as a sequence of choices by Paul Revere, General Gage and many other leaders,” and avers that “to reconstruct that sequence of happenings, the best and only instrument is narrative.”
Narratives, stories, throughout their exile from academe, have never lost favor in the wider world. The nineteenth-century historians were in touch with that world and enjoyed a popularity (and sales) that their academic successors have never approached or even tried for. The analytical historical studies have thrived, because academics, whose capacity for taking themselves seriously outdoes that of the early New Englanders, reward one another for writing books that only academics can read or admire. The general public has never lost interest in history; but the history they want to hear about or experience vicariously in theme parks like Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village or Historic Deerfield is a history replete with stories, stories lodged in the collective memory and celebrated in anniversaries, reenactments of battles, pageants, plays, and historical novels. It is perhaps no accident that two academic historians, newly discovering the virtues of narrative, have latched on to two stories of early New England that have survived in the national memory, almost untouched and unaffected by the attention showered on the societies in which they occurred.
The Deerfield Massacre occurred in 1704, when England and France were at war, and the French in Canada sent their Indian allies to harass New England outposts. In a surprise attack at four o’clock on a February morning they killed nearly fifty people and carried more than a hundred more on a death march back to Canada. The event achieved an immediate place in the consciousness of New Englanders, secured in the autobiographical account of it by the Deerfield pastor John Williams, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, which went through six editions in the eighteenth century and five in the nineteenth. It persisted as a prototype when Americans pressing westward treated every successful resistance by the existing inhabitants as a massacre. Paul Revere’s ride of April 18–19, 1775, on the other hand, achieved its prominent place in folk memory only after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow celebrated it in his famous ballad in 1863 (“Listen my children, and you shall hear”). These two episodes provide the reader with stories that they already want to hear, stories they can feel a connection with, old stories that can now be given new meanings to mix with the old, familiar ones.
John Demos tells his story, not in Parkman’s terms, as a chapter in the half-century of conflict between England and France for North America, and not in John Williams’s terms, as part of the perennial conflict between Christ and Antichrist, but as the story of a family. The unredeemed captive is John Williams’s daughter Eunice, who was taken at Deerfield and lived a long life (to age eighty-nine) among the Indians in Canada. The book cannot properly be called a biography, for everything that is certainly known about Eunice could be told in a paragraph. She was seven years old when captured along with most of the rest of her family. Her mother and nineteen of the other 112 captives were killed or died on the eight-week march from Deerfield to Montreal. Most of the survivors eventually were exchanged or ransomed or somehow returned. But not Eunice. Separated from her own family and adopted into an Indian one, Eunice quickly lost her native tongue, was baptized as a Catholic, refused to see her father or others seeking to bring her home, married an Indian at the age of sixteen, and bore two children with him. Although she eventually made several visits to her brother Stephen in Massachusetts, she never relearned English and never, apparently, considered a permanent return to her old home or to the ways of the people who lived there.
The story Demos tells, in an extraordinarily effective, elliptical style (no complete sentences where an incomplete one will do), is the story of her father’s and her brother’s anguished efforts to reclaim Eunice, to reclaim her for themselves and to rescue her from the awful fate awaiting Roman Catholics at the Day of Judgment. The story begins with the settlement of Deerfield, which of course had once been Indian territory, and goes on to the details of the massacre, not improperly named, of men, women, and children. We are taken on the long march through the snow, when the captors did not hesitate to tomahawk stragglers too feeble to keep the pace. But the heart of the story lies in the unsuccessful efforts to reclaim Eunice.
As with all narrative history at its best, the story instructs. Without learning much about Eunice personally, we come to know the settlement of Kahnawake outside Montreal where she so quickly lost whatever had been taught her in her first seven years, a place where the people who had butchered her neighbors became so dear to her (and she to them) that she would not think of leaving them.
Kahnawake was an unusual community, where Jesuit priests lived with Mohawk Indian converts in a semi-independent culture that embodied Indian and Christian elements in an uneasy but enduring combination. People were given Christian names (Eunice became Marguerite) and also Indian names (Eunice becameA’ongote), and they lived in extended families, fifteen or sixteen to a household, with women retaining the allegiance and residence of their sons even after marriage, in a manner totally unlike anything known in Deerfield. Children enjoyed a freedom too that must have been wholly novel to a New Englander: “A relaxed, even carefree, style of life, in which children were left to express themselves as they pleased, and training was by example only.” Captives from Deerfield held in Montreal as prisoners or placed in French families were generally happy to be redeemed, but at least five of the dozen Deerfield children who came to Kahnawake are known to have stayed there permanently, marrying with their captors as they came of age. The savages so frightful in war begin to look different and not unattractive at home.
They look different too when Eunice and her husband François Xavier Arosen finally agree to make a visit to her brother Stephen in 1740, thirty-six years after her capture. It is the first of several, interrupted by the series of wars between England and France that divided their respective American colonies and Indian allies until 1763 and then divided them again during the American Revolution. In these visits Eunice Marguerite A’ongote demonstrated a certain friendliness to her old family, but it was expressed more in the fact of the visit than in any obvious rejoicing at the reunion. She and her husband, accompanied on at least one occasion by their children, apparently declined to sleep indoors, and while they took an occasional meal with the family, had to converse through an interpreter. They showed no inclination to exchange their way of life for the one that the Williamses urged on them. Indeed Eunice seems to have been more suspicious of her kinsmen than her husband was. After a few days, or in one case a few months, they would break camp and walk off to repeat more casually the journey she had first made in 1704.
Demos has extracted the story from tantalizingly brief references and allusion in sermons, diaries, and letters, including the surviving official correspondence in which the governors of Massachusetts negotiated with the authorities in Canada for the return of prisoners. It is a story full of surmise and speculation, as Demos pries his way past the hints and ambiguities of stray references to guess at the feelings of the participants. Here, for example, is his reconstruction, clearly labeled as speculation, of what may have gone through Eunice’s mind, nine years after her capture, in responding, or failing to respond, to one of the many messengers from her father:
The journey had begun with a terror so extreme that her memory could not sort out the details. But strangely disconnected images remained—images that included herself as though seen by someone else. Herself shocked from sleep, and flung out of bed, in a pitchdark room—as intruders smashed in the door. Herself squeezed with her English brothers and sisters (shadowy figures now) beneath a bench against a wooden wall. Herself amidst a disordered throng in the meetinghouse, prisoners awaiting an unknown fate. Herself frozen on a trail by a winding river—what trail? what river?—as her mother—what mother?—was led off to be killed. Her father was there, too: there in the dark room, struggling vainly to fire his gun; there in the meetinghouse, eyes raised toward an apparently indifferent God; there by the riverside, helplessly bidding her mother good-bye. (Had he really taken another wife, so soon after his return?) [He had.] Faithless, forgetful father: protector who could not protect, comforter who would not comfort, caretaker who did not care.
All that was behind her now, far behind. Yet the trader’s coming had brought it back, like the embers of an old fire stirred to life beneath the ash. The priests said she must see him, must give him a hearing. All right: she would see, she would hear. But they couldn’t make her speak. Silence would be her reply; its meaning would be clear enough.
Without ever tricking the reader into taking such ruminations as fact, Demos manages not only to tell his family story but to embody in it the larger story of three distinct cultures rubbing together in the lives of eighteenth-century Americans. In his own way he has told part of the same story that Parkman told of the contest for the continent. But the contest here is located in the heart, a contest more bewildering for the participants than the one concluded in battle on the Plains of Abraham, a contest in which the protagonist unaccountably spurns family for strangers, England for France, civilization for savagery, and Protestantism for Rome. No book is likely to displace the Deerfield Massacre in the collective national memory, but the readers of this one will have to wonder a little about where that massacre fits.
David Hackett Fischer’s story did not have to be extrapolated from fragments of evidence but had to be reduced to order from masses of documents bearing directly on it. Fischer writes not simply about Paul Revere’s ride to warn people in the Massachusetts countryside that a British expedition was on the way, but about the events that led to the opening of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord, in which that ride was only one dramatic episode. Both the voluminous documents and the people who produced them have long been familiar, and often studied, at first in efforts to establish who was to blame for opening the conflict, later in less partisan efforts to understand it. Paul Revere himself has been the subject of two full-length scholarly biographies, in which the errors of detail in Longfellow’s ballad and popular legend have been corrected, and the range of Revere’s other activities as silversmith, engraver, and revolutionary has been chronicled and appreciated. Fischer’s story is thus an old one, but his evident purpose is to tell it as a corrective to the misconceptions of other historians about narrative history.
Correcting previous misconceptions is, of course, what every generation of historians does to its predecessors. Fischer’s earlier works, including one entitled Historians’ Fallacies, have aspired to that objective. Here he devotes an appendix on historiography to the succession of “myths” about the midnight ride, perpetrated by a succession of politicians, poets, journalists, and historians. Most of the myths have never marred the work of serious scholars, but Fischer is particularly eager to rebuke the historians who he thinks have missed the importance of individuals in their analytical studies of social structure and group activity. Throughout the book he tilts at what he calls “the naive determinism of academic scholarship in the 20th century.” What recent interpretations lack, he believes, is a “sense of contingency…recognition of individual agency.”
It will perhaps be news to most contemporary historians that they subscribe to some sort of determinism, naive or otherwise. Writing history, whether narrative or analytical, is a matter of making sense out of the past. It requires some degree of generalization, which does not necessarily imply determinism. Narrative history inevitably devotes more space to what individuals did and said, to how they decided between alternative courses of action. But to be more than a pointless chronicle of disparate actions, a narrative has to embody some kind of analysis, has to enable the reader to see past the trees to the woods. And Fischer, when he forgets his own naive discovery that people can make choices, gives us a story that does embody analysis and in fact treats the American Revolution as “a violent collision between two moving forces—an expansive set of colonial cultures [the use of the plural is consistent with the argument of his own previous work of analytical social history], and an aggressive British aristocracy that was extending its reach throughout the Empire.” General Thomas Gage, Major John Pitcairn, and Hugh Earl Percy were exemplars of that aristocracy, and Paul Revere of New England culture.
What distinguishes Fischer’s book is not any insistence on Paul Revere’s individual agency on April 18–19, 1775, but its emphasis on the collective action of the people of Massachusetts. Revere gets full credit for deep involvement in the revolutionary movement. He is shown to have belonged to more of the many radical groups and associations in Boston than any one else except Joseph Warren. His familiarity with other colonial leaders through these associations made him an ideal carrier of messages among them. But Fischer’s main point actually diminishes Revere’s personal role, the role of the “solitary rider.” Even before he set out for Concord, Fischer shows us, “Many people in Boston helped him on his way—so many that Paul Revere’s ride was truly a collective effort.”
Moreover, the people he awakened along the way were not simple farmers who grabbed their guns to take potshots at the regulars. Historians have never supposed that they were, but Fischer takes pains to correct popular notions of what might be called individual agency in the colonial resistance:
The same legends that celebrate the myth of the solitary midnight rider tell us that the Middlesex farmers rose spontaneously in response to the alarm. This idea is very much mistaken. The muster of the minutemen in 1775 was the product of many years of institutional development. Like the alarm itself, it was also the result of careful planning and collective effort.
Fischer gives us the details of the planning and of the collective effort that turned a routine British march through the countryside into a bloody rout. From the time when the English first planted themselves in the alien soil of New England, the settlers of every town had organized in train bands of militia to protect themselves. Although, as Fischer points out, the train bands “lapsed into a state of suspended animation” in peacetime, they quickly revived when danger threatened (the Deerfield band had been taken by surprise in 1704 but put up a stiff, if tardy, counterattack after the massacre). By 1774 Americans in all the colonies knew they were in danger, though not from traditional enemies, and the Massachusetts militia were ready. In every town they had formed special units to assemble at a minute’s notice (the famous minutemen). They had stockpiled arms and ammunition in various places, including Concord. When the British moved to seize the Concord depot, marching out in the night with seven hundred troops as a show of force, the machinery for resistance was already in place.
In spite of efforts to keep the march a surprise, Bostonians had detected the preparations and spread the word. While Revere carried the alarm to Lexington, a host of other messengers relayed it from town to town. Many train bands in nearby towns had already mustered by daybreak, and by the time the British reached Concord (to find the stockpile of colonial arms already moved elsewhere) the bands from virtually every town in eastern Massachusetts were lined up to harass the retreat back to Boston. It was not solitary snipers but organized militia companies who ambushed and pounded the regulars into disorganized flight (including the thousand reinforcements that Gage belatedly sent to assist them).
Despite his flogging of dead horses, Fischer tells the story faithfully, and his emphasis on collective action is well taken. It was the popular resistance displayed on April 19 that made the American Revolution truly a revolution. Although (along with the Battle of Bunker Hill, which followed on June 17) it gave Americans an over-confidence in the prowess of militia against regular troops and thereby probably prolonged the war, it was what made the war ultimately unwinnable by the British. The British had enough trained soldiers, along with the world’s best navy, to seize colonial cities at will—New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, all on the coast. But when they ventured into the interior, sooner or later they met with the kind of resistance first encountered on April 19. Paul Revere’s ride deserves its place in the national memory as the dramatic prologue to American independence. And it deserves to be seen as Fischer has shown it, as a symbol, not of American individualism, but of a new nation organizing for independence.
Historians who meddle with national symbols do so at their peril. People do not like to be shown feet of clay in the shoes of their national heroes or too much fiction in episodes that redound to the nation’s credit. And fictions generally do turn up when popular views of the past are put to the test. But the symbols generally endure, and they give historians of every generation an entry to an audience that has been understandably indifferent to the studies historians address to one another. If it is the historian’s proper business to explain the puzzle of how we came to be what we are, these two narratives of the events behind two national symbols give us a few welcome clues to the puzzle.
June 23, 1994