Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Happy Leap Year


Given its rare appearance on the calendar, it is unsurprising that February 29th was seldom a day of great moment in American history. However, there are two significant events that occurred on Leap Year during the colonial era, both involving Puritans and Indians. The first (1692) was the formal filing of a legal complaint by Thomas Preston, Joseph Hutchinson, and Thomas and Edward Putnam of Salem Village against three women whom they accused of injuring their daughters and servants by witchcraft. The accused were Sarah Good, a woman "previously suspected of witchcraft by her neighbors," Sarah Osborne, a middle-aged woman involved in a land dispute with the Putnam family, and Tituba, a Native American slave. The three women set the pattern for what would become known as the Salem Witchcraft Trials or the Essex County Witchcraft Crisis, a crisis originating with legal disputes in Salem Village, actual belief in witchcraft, and fears of "devilry" left over from the Indian wars of the 1670s and early '90s. Before they was over, the trials would implicate 185 defendants (mostly women) from 22 towns and result in deaths of 20 people - all so that Salem could become a happening place on Halloween thenceforward. (Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil's Snare [Vintage, 2002], 8, 21-23, quote 23; see also Joseph Conforti, Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America [Johns Hopkins, 2006], 124-127.)

The other noteworthy event which took place on Leap Year in colonial New England was the Deerfield Raid of 1704, wherein a war party of Abenakis, Hurons, and Caughnawagas attacked the Massachusetts town of Deerfield, killing 50 people and taking another 100 captive. The raid led to one of the most famous captivity narratives of the colonial era, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion (1707), written by the most prominent of the ransomed prisoners, Rev. John Williams. It also resulted in the decision by Williams' daughter Eunice to stay in Canada, convert to Catholicism, and marry a Mohawk man. Her grandson, Eleazar, led an equally famous life in the nineteenth century: educated by Congregationalists in New England, he went to Oneida country in 1816, successfully converted a number of Oneidas to Christianity, and became an advocate for voluntary removal of the Oneida nation to a new homeland in Wisconsin. Williams also asserted, later in his life, that he was the lost Dauphin of France, demonstrating that outrageous self-pronouncements were not merely the province of Anglo-Americans in the nineteenth century. (Conforti, 131-32; Karim Tiro, The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution through the Era of Removal [University of Massachusetts Press, 2011], 135-144.)

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