The scene is set: in the early hours of Feb. 29, 1704, roughly 300 Native Americans and French allies raided Deerfield, an English settlement on contested land. The Natives killed fifty-six English settlers. They forced a further one hundred and twelve men, women and children into a 300-mile march to Canada in unforgiving winter conditions. It was a “vicious” and “unprovoked” assault against the English settlers. For many members of our Deerfield community, this is familiar: it is oftentimes, and unfortunately, the only story told about Deerfield’s past.
Over the years, this singular event has been romanticized to become one of war, heroism, and triumph. Now, it has become part of Deerfield’s mythology — passed down, no doubt, since and before the Academy’s founding nearly a century later. It is the story that has been told on campus tours and through hearsay campus lore to imply that a primordial greatness has always been with this school, a greatness that has even embedded us in the confides of history. Passed down through informal conversation, we have taken pride in these seemingly awe-inspiring stories about combatting Native Americans.
We recognize that this experience of romanticization has not been universal, and that the romanticized retelling has not been one actively encouraged by the school. Indeed, many have sought to establish a clearer understanding of Deerfield’s past for the community. In the classroom, we look towards such examples as the Philosophy and Religion Department’s one-term ‘Native America’ course and US History classes’ focus on settler-Native conflict in and around Deerfield. We also look toward individuals, like Jazz Baker ’22, who have openly called for a greater recognition of indigenous people and the 2015 von Auersperg exhibit “Native America: Art by and of First People.”
Unfortunately, while these efforts have been made with the best intentions and done with the utmost care, their impacts have not resonated fully within our community. The problem remains: an accurate story of Deerfield exists, but our community is largely not aware of it. A popular, incomplete, narrative of Deerfield’s past lives on.
Indeed, we have not examined our history as closely as we should have. Most certainly, the singular story of the raid does not fully explain the contested nature of the land, or provide insight into any previous violence on Deerfield land. In reality, and most often forgotten, the raid represents a much larger history of violent European colonialism. The raid is just one part of a far more complex military saga: a collection of family stories, an exploration of the meaning of land ownership, and a confrontation between different values. When we proudly tell of the raid without inspection or further explanation, our story neglects the Native American perspective, ensuring that it remains untold.
Today, Deerfield prides itself as one of the leading schools in the country. The time is past due for the school to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue amongst faculty, students, staff, and all community members to recognize a more complete story of Deerfield’s origin. We must honor our guiding principles of honesty and inclusion. History is the set of stories we choose to tell, and which means that we must interrogate the way we’ve framed our history. It’s time to spotlight the voices and narratives that were never highlighted to tell a complete history.
Peer schools and universities have built relationships with Native American communities and nations through partnerships, historical recognitions, community service, and enrollment efforts. Deerfield has not done the same. For example, Phillips Exeter Academy invited Indigenous tribal leaders on campus to address its community; the Brooks School has held comprehensive workshops and conversations about Native history; and various universities have adopted land acknowledgements. We remained shockingly silent on this year’s Indigenous People’s Day, and our website does not display any such acknowledgement.
In order for us to gain a true understanding of Deerfield’s history, we must dismantle glorified versions of the 1704 raid to strive towards a more comprehensive understanding. Instead, today, we must acknowledge Deerfield, and America’s complicated history with Native American tribes here in the Valley and beyond. This effort should begin with official land acknowledgements, but must not stop there. These difficult conversations are the only way that Deerfield Academy can begin to understand the wounds of its past.