Pages

Sunday, March 15, 2009

PHINEAS STEVENS AND THE DEFENSE OF FORT NO.4

((This is another in a series of posts about the descendants of my
ancestor, Simon Willard, and their experiences in the Indian wars
of colonial New England.))


I've written earlier about the capture of young Phineas Stevens and his
brother by Indians in 1721. During his captivity he experienced and learned
much about Indian culture and this knowledge would shape the course of his
life.

After his eventual ransom and return home to his family, Phineas reached
adulthood and became an officer in the colonial militia. He also was sent
to Canada twice to negotiate the release of captives from Massachusetts and
on one of those he liberated was John Stark, who later became a general in the
American army and defeated in the British at the Battle of Bennington, Vt.

Phineas' most interesting exploit involves his defense of the frontier garrison
called Fort No. 4 which at that time was part of Massachusetts but it is now
Charlestown, New Hampshire. He took command of the Fort in March,1747
with a force of thirty men, and soon found himself under attack several
days later by a combined force of French and Indians led by General Debeline.
Phineas wrote about the siege to Governor Amherst of Massachusetts:

"Our dogs being very much disturbed, which gave us reason to think that the enemy
were about, occasioned us not to open the gate at the usual time; but one of our men,
being desirous to know the certainty, ventured out privately to set on the dogs, about
nine o'clock in the morning; and went about twenty rods from the fort firing off his
gun and saying, Choboy to the dogs. Whereupon, the enemy, being within a few rods,
immediately arose from behind a log and fired: but through the goodness of God, the
man got into the fort with only a slight wound. The enemy being then discovered,
immediately arose from their ambushments and attacked us on all sides. The wind
being very high, and everything exceedingly dry, they set fire to all the old fences,
and also to a log-house about forty rods distant from the fort to the windward; so that
within a few minutes we were entirely surrounded with fire — all which was performed
with the most hideous shouting and firing, from all quarters, which they continued, in
a very terrible manner, until the next day at ten o'clock at night, without intermission;
during which time we had no opportunity to eat or sleep. But notwithstanding all their
shoutings and threatenings, our men seemed not to be in the least daunted, but fought
with great resolution: which, doubtless, gave the enemy reason to think we had
determined to stand it out to the last degree. The enemy had provided themselves with
a sort of fortification, which they had determined to push before them and bring fuel
to the side of the fort, in order to burn it down. But instead of performing what they
threatened, and seemed to be immediately going to undertake, they called to us and
desired a cessation of arms until sunrise the next morning, which was granted : at
which time they would come to a parley. Accordingly the French General Debeline
came with about sixty of his men, with a flag of truce, and stuck it down within about
twenty rods of the fort in plain sight of the same, and said if we would send three men
to him he would send as many to us, to which we complied. The General sent in a
French Lieutenant with a French soldier and an Indian.

Upon our men returning, he desired that the Captain of the fort would meet him half-way,
and give an answer to the above proposal, which I did, and upon meeting the Monsieur,
he did not wait for me to give an answer, but went on in the following manner, viz. —
that what had been promised he was ready to perform, but upon refusal he would immediately set the fort on fire, and run over the top, for he had seven hundred men
with him, and if
we made any further resistance, or should happen to kill one Indian,
we might expect all to
be put to the sword. " The fort," said he, " I am resolved to
have or die. Now do what
you please, for I am as easy to have you fight as to give up."
I told the General, that in
case of extremity his proposal would do; but inasmuch as
I was sent here by my master,
the Captain General, to defend this fort, it would not be consistent with my order to give it up unless I was better satisfied that he was able
to perform what he had threatened;
and furthermore I told him that it was poor encouragement to resign into the hands of the enemy, that upon one of their number
being killed, they would put all to the sword, when
it was probable that we had killed
some of them already. "Well," said he, "go into the fort,
and see whether your men
dare to fight any more or not, and give me an answer quick, for
my men want to be
fighting." Whereupon I came into the fort and called all the men
together, and informed
them what the French General said, and then put it to vote which
they chose, either to
fight on or resign; and they voted to a man to stand it out as long as
they had life.
Upon this, I returned the answer that we were determined to fight it out.
Upon which
they gave a shout, and then fired, and so continued fighting and shouting
until daylight
the next morning."



But the French apparently were not in such a good position as they claimed, for the next
day they asked for a second parley and sent two Indians with a new offer from General
Debeline:

"That in case we would sell them provisions, they would leave and not fight anymore; and
desired my answer, which was, that selling them provisions for money was contrary to the
laws of nations, but if they would send in a captive for every five bushels of corn, I would
supply them. Upon the Indians returning the General this answer, four or five guns were
fired against the fort, and they withdrew, as we supposed, for we heard no more of them.

In all this time we had scarce opportunity to eat or sleep. The cessation of arms gave us
no matter of rest, for we suspected they did it to obtain an advantage against us. I believe
men were never known to hold out with better resolution, for they did not seem to sit or
lie still for one moment. There were but thirty men in the fort, and although we had
some thousands of guns fired at us, there were but two men slightly wounded, viz.
John Brown and Joseph Ely. (Saunderson's "History of Charlestown, N.H")"
- quoted in The History of Sudbury, Massachusetts. 1638-1889 by Alfred Sereno Hudson.

Despite the failure of this attack more were to come. A year later in June, 1748, Phineas'
son Enos was captured by Indians in the field outside the fort and continued the family
tradition of being carried off to Canada. He was released shortly after and sent home
by way of Albany, N.Y., a rather roundabout way of returning.

But six years later another attack on Fort No.4 would result in several of Simon Willard's
descendants taking an even longer journey home from captivity.

No comments: