written by John Demos
If we had a time machine, and could drop down in one or another Connecticut Valley town at any point in the 18th century, we would find that nearly everyone recognized the name Eunice Williams. “Oh, yes,” they might say; “that poor perishing soul who was captivated [sic], when still an innocent child, by the French Indians, and who then — horror of horrors! — chose to stay with them and accept their savage ways!” (Anyway… something like that.)
Eunice was born in September 1696, the seventh child of Rev. John and Mrs. Eunice Williams. Her Puritan bloodlines were impeccable; her mother was part of the Mather clan, and thus a cousin of several leading Massachusetts clergymen. Her father was the first minister of the town of Deerfield (then a frontier outpost of English settlement); as such, he obtained the highest regional importance. Her earliest years must have been shaped accordingly: she would learn to read, to recite her catechism, to master at least the rudiments of the “female arts” (sewing, for example). But on February 29, 1704 her young life as a “Puritan maid” was thrown violently off course, when Deerfield became the target of a surprise raid by French and Indian forces ranging down from Canada. Many in the town died that night; many others, including the Williams family, were taken prisoner and forced to begin a “march” northward through the wilderness. After several weeks of hard travel, the group reached the vicinity of Montreal, where the captives were distributed to various different locations; some went into the households of French colonists, others were given to nearby Indians. Eunice was taken to a Mohawk village called Kahnawake, peopled mainly by emigrants from what is today central New York state and overseen by a handful of Jesuit missionaries. In due course, she was adopted into a Mohawk family, and — what would seem even worse in the minds of her New England kin — converted to Catholicism. She was also given the Mohawk name A’ongote, which can be roughly translated to mean “they took her and placed her as a member of their tribe.” In the years that followed she grew up in a fully assimilated way, married a local Indian man named Arosen, and bore several children (perhaps as many as eight, though only two seem to have survived to adulthood). At some point, following tribal custom, she acquired a second name appropriate to her mature age and status; it was Gannenstenhawi, meaning “she brings in corn”–which , to be sure, was a major responsibility of Mohawk women.
Meanwhile, back in New England, her Williams relatives mourned her loss, and schemed endlessly for her return — a project they referred to as “redemption” (in the Biblical sense). However, Eunice herself had no interest in this; quite the contrary. Her father, by now returned to the Deerfield pastorate as a famously “redeemed captive,” traveled to Canada to see her, but was flatly rebuffed. (He wrote later: “she would not give me one pleasant look.”) Other emissaries, acting on his behalf, fared no better; she was, and wished to remain, an Indian. This choice, combined with the prominence of her birth-family, explains her lasting notoriety in New England and beyond. She became a kind of symbol of the danger that “civilized” colonists might somehow be turned “savage.” In fact, she did return to her original home in the Connecticut Valley — during her middle years — on four separate occasions. Each time, her Williams relatives hoped, and prayed, that she would decide to stay for good; but these were visits, nothing more. She lived to a very old age, long enough to see her sons rise to the rank of village chiefs. Her death was recorded in a single spare notation in the records of the mission church, in November 1785. Through all this she remained firmly — and, from the New England standpoint, tragically — “unredeemed.”