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The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America by John Demos

John Demos is an historian of another age. He was trained during a time when historians were struggling to be recognized as more than mere stenographers of past events. As a result, narrative history was shoved aside in favor of a more (if not almost purely) analytical approach that stressed interpretation of the stories rather than the telling of them. This was unfortunate as he “had been drawn to history by the stories.” As the subtitle to this work suggests, however, he has come back to that love of story and expressed it through The Unredeemed Captive: A Story from Early America.
Demos’ work tells the story of the Williams family. Theirs is a story that was central to the history of colonial America. Settled in Deerfield on the Massachusetts frontier, John Williams (d. 1729), respected Puritan pastor and community leader, and his family struggled to build a life on the edge of the vast American wilderness. They faced hardships both environmental and physical. The greatest of these occurred 28 February 1704, when the French directed a raid against the community of Deerfield. The raiding party included French troops as well as a great number of Indian allies. Two of Williams’ children were killed outright; four others were captured along with him and his wife. His wife, Eunice, was killed along the way, but the others all survived the arduous trek to Canada. Over the course of almost three years all were ‘redeemed’ or returned to Massachusetts, except for the youngest daughter, also named Eunice. She chose to stay and make her life with the Mohawk family that had adopted her.
This book is ostensibly the story of the raid and capture, the redemption of John Williams and four of his children, and subsequent attempts to redeem Eunice. While focusing primarily on this one family, Demos managed also to tell the larger story of the early colonies. He used a wealth of primary sources, including letters, journals, public notices and legal records. In staying true to his narrative form, he weaves those into the story at times as if they were dialogue. This makes the story come alive in a way that reads much like decent fiction.
Demos does not shy away from the analytical, however. He goes beyond what is merely recorded in the sources to interpret the larger picture of colonial Massachusetts. One of the most salient examples is the third chapter, his study of Williams’ writings during and immediately after his captivity. Demos goes beyond the text in front of him and interprets them through a contextual filter. In so doing, he gives a much more intimate portrayal of Williams, while at the same time widening the scope to show Williams as a product of his time and place.
The second half of the book is taken up with Eunice’s life in Canada. After being adopted by a Catholic Mohawk family, she chose in turn to adopt their ways, language and religion. Eunice was baptized a Catholic (and rechristened Marguerite), much to the horror of her Puritan family that saw Catholicism as grievous sin. She married a Mohawk man and raised a family with him. John Williams never gave up his hope of redeeming her to her old family. Eunice never gave up her new family. In telling this part of the story, Demos relied on, admittedly scant, tribal records and personal papers. Yet he managed to recreate a realistic portrait of her community and family.
Demos managed to achieve his goals of telling a story and doing so from a point of view not wholly European. Through the life of John Williams, he was able to describe a larger colonial story. Through Eunice, he told the story through the eyes of those facing colonization. Through the French officials in Montreal and Quebec, Demos was able to add the additional voice of those North of the border. Unredeemed Captive is at once a story highly personal and yet hugely representative of early America.

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