Published: September 10, 2002
DEERFIELD, MASS. – Historic Deerfield has made one of the most important acquisitions in the 50-year history of the western Massachusetts museum.
Through a most unconventional method, Librarian David Bosse has acquired a rare first edition of The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, written by the Rev John Williams (1664-1729), the first settled minister of Deerfield. The book describes Deerfield’s defining moment, the attack by the French and their Native American allies on February 29, 1704 — considered one of the seminal events in the history of frontier New England.
In addition to being the only published eye-witness account of the raid that resulted in the destruction of much of the village, The Redeemed Captive chronicles the fate of many of the 112 men, women and children captured that day and marched to Canada in the depths of winter. Williams recounts the terror and tragedy of the attack and the ensuing struggle with Jesuit priests for the souls of his parishioners during their captivity in Canada.
Not until November of 1706, two years after the attack, did Williams return by ship to Boston after he and the other captives had been ransomed or “redeemed.” While Williams may have written part of his narrative during his confinement in Canada, it is clear that by March of 1707 his manuscript had been completed and was being printed in Boston.
The Redeemed Captive was not the first captivity narrative printed in the American colonies, but Williams’s account arguably achieved the most enduring popularity. Eight editions of the book appeared during the Eighteenth Century, four others during the Nineteenth and several reprints were published during the Twentieth Century.
The book’s enduring appeal may in part reflect the changing concerns of its nearly three centuries of readers. For Williams’ early Eighteenth Century contemporaries, it served as a warning against the very real dangers of moral decline. Later audiences may have viewed it in the context of the clash between Catholic French and Protestant English for control of North America, or as an instructive tale on the virtues of spiritual steadfastness in the face of calamity and adversity.
Today, The Redeemed Captive is read as an example of the captivity narrative, a form of early American literature, or as an historical account of an episode in Queen Anne’s War that shaped the future of the village of Deerfield.
While later editions of The Redeemed Captive can readily be found on the shelves of libraries and booksellers, few copies of the 1707 edition exist. In all, only 12 copies of the first edition of the book are owned by libraries and museums in Canada, Europe and the United States. No copy of the 1707 edition has appeared on the market for more than 25 years, so the prospect of Historic Deerfield acquiring a first edition presented a momentous opportunity for the museum. The sale of the book did not, however, involve a major auction house or the rarified antiquarian book trade. Instead Historic Deer-field’s copy of the first edition of The Redeemed Captive was sold on eBay, the Internet auction site.
Once alerted to the online auction of The Redeemed Captive by a Williams family descendant and member of Historic Deerfield, also named John Williams, the seller was contacted. An email exchange provided reassuring details indicating that the rdf_Description being auctioned was indeed a first edition. Proxy bids were placed over the course of three days and ultimately Historic Deerfield prevailed, despite a startling last moment bid by another party.
The 1707 first edition of John Williams’s The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion joins editions of 1774, 1776, 1793, 1795, 1800, 1802, 1811 and 1853 in the collection of the Henry Flynt Library of Historic Deerfield. The newly acquired edition will be on display to the public for the first time at the Flynt Center of Early New England Life during 2004, the tercentenary of the great attack on Deerfield.
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