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Oyster River Raid - King William's War

During 1687 and 1688, a series of seemingly disconnected events plunged the northern colonial frontier into a violent war. In New York, the Iroquois, instigated by the English, attacked French allies among the western Indians, disrupting the valuable fur trade in that region." [13]In response, then Canadian Governor, the Marquis de Denonville, led an expedition against the Seneca of western New York. The invaders ravaged four Seneca towns, destroying a vast quantity of grain. [14]

In marching against the Seneca, Denonville violated the territorial boundaries of the Province of New York. Enraged, New York Governor, Colonel Thomas Dongan, fired off a series of hot-tempered letters to Denonville upbraiding him for his violation of English territory and unjust attack. [15]The English increased their material aid to the Iroquois. In November 1687, the Iroquois were formally adopted as English subjects and further hostilities against them, by the French, were forbidden. [16]The Iroquois went on the war-path during the summer of 1688, launching several raids into French territory. In 1689, they sacked the town of La Chine, a mere six or seven miles outside Montreal, killing some two hundred inhabitants and carrying off 120 more. [17]For the French, the west would remain the main theater of operations throughout what became known as King William's War.

In western Maine, the years of 1687 and 1688 brought with them a heightening of tensions between the Abenaki and their English neighbors. Increased settlement, especially near the mouth of the Saco River, triggered a series of conflicts over fishing rights, livestock, and land ownership. [18]The English placed nets across the Saco River, blocking migrating fish, a major Abenaki food source in the spring. English cattle continually damaged the local tribe's unfenced corn fields. [19]The leaders of the Saco Indians approached the English complaining, "that the corn, [the English had]promised by the last treaty, had not been paid, and yet their own was destroyed by the cattle of the English; and that they, being deprived of their hunting and fishing b [e]rths, and their lands, were liable to perish of hunger." [20]

The Abenaki complaints fell on deaf ears. English failure to address these complaints violated a 1685 treaty that established mechanisms for resolving such difficulties. [21]Frustrated in their attempts at diplomacy, the Saco killed the offending cattle during the summer of 1688. In August, a dispute between settlers and Indians at North Yarmouth ended violently with casualties on both sides. [22]Prompted by this Indian uprising, Benjamin Blackman, justice of the peace at Saco, ordered the seizure of twenty Indians that he suspected of causing the unrest. The Abenaki responded in kind, capturing several settlers during a raid on New Dartmouth in September 1688. [23]

While the events on the Saco were playing themselves out, Sir Edmund Andros, Governor of the Dominion of New England, sailed the H.M.S. Rose into the harbor at the mouth of the Penobscot River. Once anchored, Andros sent his lieutenant ashore at Pentagoet to summon the Baron de St. Castin. [24]St. Castin was a French army officer, who had established a trading post at Pentagoet near the mouth of the Penobscot. He married a daughter of Madockawando, the highly respected principal chief of the Indians living along the Penobscot River. [25]As the son-in-law of Madockawando, St. Castin enjoyed considerable influence among the Indians. The English, not wholly without merit, blamed the current Indian troubles on St. Castin. [26]When the lieutenant returned with word that St. Castin had fled, Andros promptly seized the trading post. All movable goods were conveyed to the Rose, leaving behind only the vestments in St. Castin's chapel. [27]Many historians point to this raid as the beginning of King William's War in the colonies. [28]

The Abenaki enjoyed considerable success at the start of the war. In June of 1689, several of the Eastern Indians joined with Kancamagus' Pennacooks in an attack on Cocheco (Dover). [29]That August, the English fort at Pemaquid Point (Maine) was destroyed. [30]Later that same month, a party of sixty Indians returned to New Hampshire, burning the Huckins garrison at Oyster River. [31]

During the fall of 1689, Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, succeeded Denonville as the governor general of New France (Canada). Frontenac, a member of the Court at Versailles and former governor general of New France, possessed experience with the peculiar military situation in the North American colonies. [32]He also brought with him news of the declaration of war in Europe between France and the League of Augsburg, which England recently had joined. [33]With the French and English now in direct confrontation on both sides of the Atlantic, Frontenac dispatched joint parties of French and Indians against the English frontier settlements. In 1690, three of these war-parties descended in spectacular fashion on the settlements of Schenectady (New York), Salmon Falls (Rollinsford, N.H.South Berwick, Maine), and Casco (Maine). [34]After 1690, the war settled down into a pattern of retaliation and counterretaliation which inflicted much suffering on frontier communities but contributed little toward a meaningful victory for either side. [35]

In 1692, the fortunes of war began to turn against the Abenaki. A series of reverses undermined Abenaki confidence and heightened feelings of war-weariness. On the ninth of June, a combined force of five hundred French and Indians suffered a humiliating defeat at Wells (Maine), where English militia captain, James Converse, with only fifteen men, resisted every assault during a two-day seige. [36]There is little doubt that the Abenaki saw this defeat as a sign of misfortunes to come. The Chevalier de Villebon, who as governor of Acadia was subordinate to Frontenac, wrote of the Wells debacle as a "bad augury," explaining that, "it has, so far, been impossible to overcome the superstition that, if they receive such a reverse when they set out on the warpath, they must stop at once, no matter how large the party may be, or how insignificant the action." [37]

To make matters worse, in August 1692, the English built a new fort at Pemaquid. Replacing the one destroyed in 1689, the new fort boasted stone walls rather than wooden palisades. Christened Fort William Henry, the new fort mounted fourteen to eighteen cannon, making it considerably stronger than its predecessor. A company of sixty men was detailed to permanently garrison the post. [38]

In order to divert the enemies' attention away from the construction of Fort William Henry, Massachusetts Major Benjamin Church led a military expedition up the Penobscot and Kennebec Rivers. At Penobscot, he encountered a large body of Indians, but failed to engage them in battle. While the main body eluded him, Church managed to take five prisoners and destroyed a quantity of corn and furs before returning to Pemaquid. After depositing his prisoners, Church proceeded up the Kennebec to the Abenaki fort at Teconnet. Forewarned of Church's approach, the Indians set fire to their fort and retreated into the woods. When the expedition arrived, they found only a couple of corn cribs that managed to avoid being consumed by the fire. Church set fire to the corn cribs and withdrew back down the Kennebec. [39]While this expedition failed to accomplish anything of real value, it served to demonstrate that the English were unafraid to conduct offensive operations into the Abenaki heartland.

The Indians soon discovered Fort William Henry despite the precautions taken to conceal its construction. With their French allies, they made plans for its immediate reduction. The ships of war, Poli and Envieux, were to beseige the fort from the sea, while Villebon and a large body of Indians attacked from land. [40]As the Abenaki positioned themselves for an attack, the French ships entered the harbor opposite the fort. However, upon seeing the fort and the English warship at anchor nearby, they promptly withdrew without firing a shot. [41]For the Abenaki, this withdrawal was clear proof of French cowardice. The tribes dispersed for their fall hunting, disgusted with the refusal to attack. [42]

The spring of 1693 brought more unwelcome news. Captain James Converse, made legendary by his defense of Wells, was promoted to major. Given command of a strong militia force, he patrolled the coast from the Piscataqua to Pemaquid. Converse detached a portion of his men to construct another stone fort at Saco. Perched on the west bank of the river, the fort occupied prime hunting ground and blocked Abenaki access to the sea. [43]

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