John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive: The Story Behind the Book

The “Unredeemed” Captive,” John William’s account of Indian “kidnapping” was not an unusual story in itself. Wars and other conflicts of the sort often landed several colonists in the hands of Native Americans. However, the key characteristic that holds John William’s particular account apart from others is its focus on Puritan faith and its clash with the captor’s traditions. John Williams, or precisely Reverend John Williams, was an important figure in his town of Deerfield, Massachusetts. When his flesh and blood daughter Eunice was captured, the English colonies as a whole were disconcerted and prayed for her to be “redeemed.” Webster’s defines redeemed in this context as “to free from what distresses or harms” (Webster). This definition does not quite fit Eunice’s position as it unfolds later. The aspect of distress or harm seem completely absent from her situation, yet the Puritans still demand redemption. In either case several attempts were made to retrieve Eunice Williams from the “clutches” of the Indians. Although, it soon became apparent to John Williams as well as other New Englanders that Eunice’s feelings toward being redeemed were quite different then their own.

The records of the events which processed during this period are quite vague. Nonetheless an approximate account of the proceedings which unfolded can be pieced together to get a general synopsis of the story. The cause of all this turmoil seems to stem from a French “privateer” who had been imprisoned in the English colonies. French officials wished to liberate this itinerant privateer for his marvelous reputation of looting and pillaging the English. The French knew that this endeavor would not be one of great ease. They would need a valuable commodity to exchange for one who had caused such mayhem for the English. They decided to capture Reverend John Williams and offer him in exchange for their French partisan. This would be an arduous task, and to procure an easier method they enlisted the aid of the local Native Americans.

The initial assault on Deerfield was quite a success. The guards on watch were not performing their duties adequately, and Indians managed to sneak in swiftly. The guards let out an alert but it came far overdue, the Indians had already secured the upper-hand. Homes were raided and several prisoners were taken. The men of Deerfield had foolishly left their families unattended as they attempted to protect the town. However, reinforcements arrived from the surrounding towns and the attackers quickly retreated. With their captives they regressed across meadows where the French waited to hold back the perusing English. Among the captives taken from Deerfield were John Williams and his family.

The captives were made to march north towards Canada. Those who faltered along the path were either helped by the Indians if aid was available or put to death. Mrs. Williams, spouse of John Williams, succumbed to the later fate after scarcely crossing a formidable wintry river. As the party approached Canada the captives were separated and went either with the French or the Indians. Eventually, after roughly two years John Williams was released from captivity along with all of his progeny with the exception of his young daughter Eunice who remained a captive of the French Indians. Ultimately, this is where Puritan beliefs would collide with those of the Catholics and Indians.

As the years went by, John Williams attempted to free his daughter countless times. At first, the response was the Indian family who had adopted her refused to give her up. The statement from the Iroquois said they “would rather part their hearts” (Demos 146) than part with Eunice. Nonetheless further attempts were made to retrieve Eunice; however the new response they received shocked them greatly. Eunice herself was now unwilling to return to her father in the English colonies. Mr. Williams had feared that his daughter would ultimately be “turned” to Catholicism. He had futilely tried to prevent such a terrible outcome, yet what he had dreaded most is precisely what happened. Her new name was “Margaret Williams” as she was christened at her Catholic baptism. Additionally, further news of Eunice alleged that she had married an Indian. She had even forgotten her native tongue and adopted the Iroquois language. Mr. Williams was undoubtedly quite upset by this precarious position; however he persevered in his attempts to “free” Eunice.

Ultimately, John Williams was unsuccessful in his efforts, although that is not of importance. The true topic at hand is why Eunice or anyone for that matter would convert from Puritanism to Catholicism; as well as accept the “savage” Indian culture. Some rationalization can be derived from the fact that Eunice was taken from her family at a very young age, approximately seven. However, there had to be more to her conversion then simply age. Critically examining how Eunice ended up in Iroquois territory points to further plausible reasons. Eunice had seen her father fall short of expectations several times during the attack on Deerfield as well as on the trip north to Canada. To begin with, her father had been unable to protect his family from being kidnapped from Deerfield. He had then feebly walked the trail north and left Eunice and his other children in the care of others. Worst yet of all his failures was he had let her mother perish along the route. To Eunice this surely must have appeared to be the weakness of her father as well as the Puritan faith.

These factors as well as the accommodating culture of the Iroquois Indians are most likely what swayed Eunice to Catholicism. Unlike Puritan women who were taught to be completely submissive, the Iroquois had a culture which incorporated women into their society. The French culture in general also was more accommodating then their New England neighbors. Captives of the French were treated quite well and would often even become naturalized citizens. In terms of religion Catholicism was easier to accept in that fact that it was more probable that one would be allowed into heaven. Puritans believed that most were destined for the depths of hell, with only a select few reaching heaven. This theology did not exactly flock the masses to their faith. In Eunice’s case another pertinent factor for her conversion may have been her father’s re-marriage. John Williams was quick to re-marry on his return to the English colonies. Those who visited Eunice and her new family in Canada were able to determine that she may have been willing to visit her father had he not re-married so quickly. When John Schulyer traveled to Canada and pleaded Eunice to visit her father she responded with a simple statement, “Jaghte oghte. Peut-etre que no.” When translated into English this meant “maybe not” or simply “no” (Demos 107). This showed her utter discontent for her father and her English past.

In conclusion, Eunice’s story of conversion essentially shows us ho w Puritanism could be broken down by Catholicism and the Indian culture. Those who were seeking an easier way into heaven could have easily been tempted to join the Catholic faith. Yet, even the Puritans wondered after Eunice’s passing if she would be allowed to enter heaven. This showed that even the Puritans had some flexibility in their theology. However most still assumed that her delve into popery had sentenced her to hell. In either case, when looking at Eunice’s life objectively it becomes quite apparent that she was never in harm or duress. She had married out of love, had children, and adopted a faith which she believed in whole-heartedly. This certainly does not seem like the description of one in need of redemption. As the Puritan society pushed for Eunice’s redemption, it seems as though they did not realize she was already free. They did not realize she had been already been redeemed the night when she was removed from Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Another suggested reading,” Sir Walter Raleigh: The Life and Death of an Explorer.”

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