In Deerfield, Massachusetts, the biggest tourist draw is Yankee Candle Village, where busloads of leaf peepers and retirees unload to overtake the impressive flagship store. But beyond the highly popular New England brand's mega-store, you can travel down route 5 just a few miles and hit Historic Deerfield. This truly spectacular 18th-century New England village, snuggled into the hills and trees of the Connecticut River Valley, is like a time capsule into the region's past (Another post I wrote about this charming neighborhood).
Now if you go a little deeper into this village, off the beaten path, you will find the founders of this western Massachusetts colony, settled in the 17th and 18th centuries. You will find the men and women who established this settlement, who birthed babies and planted crops and lived dangerous lives on the edge of civilization, hoping to see great rewards for their perilous efforts. And you will find a story of tragedy and colossal loss. On the property of Deerfield Academy, a classic New England prep school, tucked away in a little corner, on a little hill overlooking the academy's sports fields, you will stumble upon the old burial grounds of these luckless, brave, and perhaps also naive first settlers.
When I walk this hallowed ground, I walk among some of the originators of some of my DNA. My people lie under the dirt and grass and etched slate slabs. I am descended from the desperate pioneers of Deerfield. The blood of those whose cells were filled with agony, grief, and unexplainable optimism runs through my veins.
I descend from Daniel and Elizabeth Belden, who settled in Deerfield in the 1690's. They have the grave misfortune of settling the feral wilderness, far from the safety of populated towns like Boston, in a time when the devil himself was thought to roam and stalk these misplaced hopefuls. And the devil's home was thought to be in the deep woods that surrounded these settlers in western Massachusetts. This was at a time of cruel aggression, back and forth, between the English settlers and the Native Americans and French. Such brazen confidence, leaving civilization for certain danger. Did that trait trickle through the generations and make it into my blood? Perhaps my adventurous spirit is proof of its existence in admittedly diluted quantities.
This brashness was met in a most cruel way. The Native Americans were rightfully threatened by these white settlers, encroaching ever further on their ancient lands; and the French took advantage of these sentiments by engaging the native population in their campaign against the English. In 1696, there was an Indian raid, and poor Elizabeth and three of their children were hacked to death with hatchets. Two of their children were seriously wounded, but survived, which is remarkable considering one of the surviving children was found with a hatchet sunk deep into his head with his brains spilling out. Daniel and two of his children were kidnapped and sold as slaves in Canada. He was eventually set free and returned to Deerfield, where he remarried. In 1704, the French and Natives attacked the town again. This time it was a complete massacre. Again his wife was hacked to death and another daughter kidnapped and taken to Canada. Even then, Daniel didn't leave. He lived out his life in Deerfield, even boldly marrying again (his third wife survived the next Indian raid in 1709, bucking tradition). Brave or irretrievably stubborn, I don't know. Maybe a bit of both.
When I first entered the burial ground, I photographed a gravestone that caught my eye, a broken, primitive piece of stone. It wasn't until later that I realized the first stone I chose to shoot was the blood of my blood, a grandfather from generations ago. It was Daniel Belden's stone which caught my eye and lens before anything else. Chills tickled across my flesh when I realized this.
Did his cells, long buried, call out to mine? Was there some instant recognition on a minute level of our mutual presence? Was it spiritual? Or simply an interesting marker that caught my eye? I'll never know, but it was one of those things that left me wondering, pondering the perhaps mystical links of the generations.
Off in the back corner of the burial grounds sits a mound of earth with a simple monument that tells of a harrowing story. Forty-eight men, women, and children, The bodies of 48 men, women, and children, all victims of the 1704 massacre, share a single monument, speaking of their violent end. All of the unspoken heartbreak and spent tears of hundreds of years ago stir the imagination and hush the soul. And I pondered that a portion of that despair belonged to my own people, flesh of my flesh.
I feel a familial recognition of something in the soil, the land, and the trees of Deerfield. Something in my body perceives the wrenching anguish that overcame my unfortunate ancestors and also the triumph of survival. Maybe the secret of some of my melancholy, fearlessness, and headstrong nature rests in this New England soil in western Massachusetts, where the bones of sleeping ancestors lie, hopefully in peace.