The Abduction of the Tarbell Children: Part 1

The account below, of the abduction of our relatives, niece and nephews of one ancestor, and cousins of another, by the Caughnawaga Mohawks, is in a way the most readable because it was written for a popular magazine. I found it, as a reprint, in The Groton Historical Series, edited by Samuel Green, Vol. III, pp. 126-134, Groton, 1893.

For an absolutely excellent historical look at the French practice of encouraging Native Americans to kidnap English settlers, and the terrible cultural identity crises this would provoke among the captives themselves, see The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos. The book is history that reads like a novel, and describes an actual abduction that took place in Deerfield, at roughly the same time the Tarbells were taken. It details the assimilation process many of the captives went through, as they became members of tribes, and their agonized choices of whether or not to later return to white society— as well as their white relatives’ anguish to have them back.

A brief note on language: The following is an account from the 19th century that draws on and quotes primary material written in the 18th century. There are multiple instances here of language that ranges from racially insensitive to downright repugnant, when read from a 21st century perspective. These passages are included – have been allowed to remain –  because they are integral to the meaning and substance of the unique and irreplaceable historical documents being referenced, and not because I as an individual in any way agree with or endorse these characterizations.


from  Samuel GreenThe Groton Historical Series,  Vol. III, pp. 126-134, Groton, 1893.

THE following story of a Groton family appeared originally in the “Boston Daily Traveller,” March 8, 1890. It was written by Mr. Stephen Olin Sherman, a well‑known journalist of Boston, who has been connected with that newspaper for nearly twenty years. Mr. Sherman is a son of the Reverend Dr. David and Catherine Bardwell (Moody) Sherman, and was born at Blandford in this State, on April 29, 1849. He entered Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, in 1868, but left college during his Sophomore year.


A True Story of Provincial Life in New England

The Indian troubles which are known in our early history as “Queen Anne’s War” broke out in I702, when England resumed hostilities with France and Spain, and continued up to the time of the Peace of Utrecht, which was signed in 17I3. For many years prior to that time the Indians all along the northern border of New England had been trading with the French settlers in Canada, and with the Dutch in northern New York, neither of whom were friendly to the little English colonies, and the savages in many instances acting under the direction of the French, and always with their active sympathy and co‑operation, made frequent incursions upon the frontier, where even the utmost vigilance did not always insure the lives and property of the inhabitants.

There were at that time eight frontier towns in Massachusetts, as we are credibly informed by the veracious historians, who, however, somewhat singularly fail to tell us what those towns were. It is, however, known that Lancaster, Chelmsford, Sudbury and Groton were among the number, and these as well as several other towns, notably Medway, suffered severely from the incursions of the Indians. The people of Groton had heard the rumblings of the distant thunder, occasionally had seen a vivid Rash across the horizon, and on more than one occasion had met the Indians on their very threshold. A series of fatalities which followed the family of Mrs. John Shattuck of this town, between the year 1692 and 1725, was a most remarkable one, and is interesting because it throws a strong light upon a most romantic period of our history as a people, the period when the territory lying west of the State of New York was almost an unknown land to the whites, visited only by the most daring and reckless of that band of pioneers who blazed their way through the trackless forests, and became the couriers of civilization. Their wild life, their romantic adventures, their valorous deeds, their years of captivity with the Indians, and their bloody encounters with and hair‑breadth escapes from their wily foes, have been the theme of many a thrilling tale of border life, and as presented by such masters of fiction as Fenimore Cooper, have long since passed into the realms of standard literature.

On the 13th of September, 1692, Mrs. Shattuck’s father, James Blood, was killed by the Indians, as were also her uncle, William Longley, his wife and five children, while three of the children were carried off into captivity. A relative of Mrs. Shattuck, James Parker, Jr., and his wife, were also killed at the time of the Longley massacre, and their children were also taken prisoners, the Indians having learned by that time that if they could bear the hardship and exposure of the march, children had a certain commercial value with the French settlers in Canada. Mrs. Shattuck’s stepfather, Enoch Lawrence, was wounded in an engagement with the Indians, and was disabled for life. John Shattuck, her husband, and John Shattuck, Jr., her son, the latter a young man about 19 years of age, were shot and killed by the Indians while they were returning from the west side of the Nashua River near where the Hollingsworth paper mills now stand. The three Tarbell children, cousins of Mrs. Shattuck, were carried off by the Indians on the 20th of June, 1707. John Ames, who was shot by the Indians at the gate of his own garrison, July 9, 1724, was the father of Jacob, who married Mrs. Shattuck’s niece, Ruth Shattuck, and lastly her son‑in‑law, Isaac Lakin, the husband of her daughter Elizabeth, was wounded at Lovewell’s fight at Pequawket, May 8, 1725, all of these casualties occurring in one generation, and together forming a series that was remarkable even in those troublous times. In the whole range of fiction there is nothing more pathetic, more romantic, or more thrilling than the experiences of the Tarbell children in their captivity. In this case it can indeed be said that truth is stranger than fiction. Zechariah, John and Sarah were children of Thomas and Elizabeth (Wood) Tarbell, who, with a large family, lived in Groton.

Sarah was at that time nearly 14 years of age, John was a stalwart lad of 12, and Zechariah was seven. Early in the evening of June 20, 1707, old style, a date that by the new style would be somewhat later in the season, they had returned to the house after a day of rare sport in the meadows. As they were about to enter the house, they thought of the cherries which were then beginning to ripen, and full of anticipations of enjoying the red and luscious fruit, ran to a cherry tree, climbed it, and at once began to eat the cherries. As they were thus engaged they looked down and were horrified to see that the tree was surrounded by Indians who made signs for them to come down at once. Too frightened to refuse, and knowing that an outcry would result in instant death with the tomahawks which were threateningly brandished beneath them, they descended and were led off into the woods, the little girl never to see her friends or home again, and the boys not until they had grown to manhood, so changed that they could recall none of their early associations when the memories of their childhood’s days were obliterated and forgotten, and all of its tender ties forever sundered.

The captives were taken some distance into the woods, where the Indians were joined by others of their party, making some 15 Indians in all. With the party were several squaws who rode on ponies while on the march, and while in camp prepared the food for the others. At first the Indians viewed the children with suspicion, and fearful that they would attempt to make their escape, held each child tightly by the wrist while following the trail, and at night kept a strict watch upon them. One of the squaws, however, took a fancy to the little girl and taught her how to cook in the Indian fashion. In this way an intimacy grew up between them which undoubtedly served to save her life, as the squaw on several occasions, when she seemed ready to drop from hunger and fatigue, gave her a seat on horseback. On the night of the capture the children were forced to march some 14 miles, as the Indians were fearful of pursuit, and the little captives were dragged some of the way by their heartless and cruel captors who paid no attention to their tears and cries. On the day following the capture, the party was forced over a like distance, and was then in the vicinity of Pepperell. Here a small stream was forded, and a circuit was made in the woods in order to avoid the settlement. At the close of that day the camp of a tribe of friendly Indians was reached as a great feast was in progress. Here the children had the first real nourishment they had had since leaving home. Early on the following morning the trail was resumed, and by night the party came into the neighborhood of the present location of Peterboro, N. H. Another day’s march brought them into the vicinity of where Claremont is now, and there a rest of half a day was taken, as the Indians then felt that they were beyond danger of pursuit. The captives were placed in charge of the squaws, and Taxous, the chief, and his warriors at once proceeded to get drunk in celebration of the success of their enterprise. The boys, who were somewhat familiar with Indian customs, were then told that they were to be taken to Coughnawaga, the village of the tribe on the banks of “ the great river.” They knew that the children of several of their neighbors had been carried off to Canada, and at once resigned themselves to the same fate, thanking their stars that it was no worse. From this point the line of march was so deflected that the Connecticut river was reached at a point where Windsor, Vt., now stands. Over Mountains, through woods, along the banks of rivers they continued, subsisting mainly upon berries, roots and acorns, such game as they could shoot or snare, and such fish as could be caught in the streams. Their route lay along by the present location of Woodstock, Pittsford and Orwell, until they reached the foot of Lake Champlain, where canoes were obtained, and they embarked for the upper waters of the lake. Coasting along the shore of the lake to its northern point, they followed one of its tributaries until they were near Montreal, when a short march brought them to Coughnawaga, the village of the tribe, which was situated on the banks of the St. Lawrence, the “great river” of the Indians, opposite the present location of Lachine, the La Chine of the early French settlers. As soon as the French people at Lachine learned that the Indians had a young girl who was to be sold as a captive, they flocked to the Indian village, and as she was a healthy, fine‑looking child, became interested in her. Among those who came to see her was Father Dubois, the venerable priest of the tribe, who interested M. de Lamorandiere, a wealthy French official, in her case. After several consultations it was decided that she should be purchased from the Indians. The purchase money was paid, she was delivered to M. de Lamorandiere, and was adopted into his family, the event being celebrated by a feast to which many of the French settlers were invited, while the little stranger was the special guest of honor.

Game from the forest, and fish from the river formed the principal dishes, and the tables were adorned with puddings and ices, tarts and cakes, for M. de Lamorandiere was famed as an epicure, and brought with him to the new world a love of the gastronomic art that long made his feasts celebrated. Rabbits baked and fricasseed and served with tempting gravies, boiled partridge, venison steaks tender and juicy, wild turkey, the luscious Indian corn, and last but not least, a monster salmon, flanked with crisp trout and blackfish, were served to the guests smoking hot, and were washed down with copious libations of the choice wines which were set out only upon great occasions. Father Dubois’ interest in the little waif continued, and under his care she soon acquired a fair knowledge of the French language. Soon after reaching Canada, Sarah had learned that her relative, Lydia Longley, who had been carried off by the Indians at the time of the Longley massacre 13 years before, was living with the sisters in charge of the Convent of Notre Dame. Her desire to see Lydia was finally gratified. She was taken to the convent and there saw not the romping child she had expected, but a sedate and most accomplished woman. She learned from Lydia who had taken sacred vows, that when she was taken from Groton her little sister Betty had succumbed to the hardships of the march, and had died on the way to Canada; that her brother John who had been living with the Indians had been ransomed by his relatives, and had returned to Groton to live.

Delighted with Lydia, and especially with her surroundings, little Sarah at her own fervent request was placed in the same institution, and after faithfully serving her novitiate, was admitted to full membership in the order to which the sisters in charge belonged. At the congregation of Notre Dame at Montreal a record in French reads as follows:

On Monday, July 23, 1708, the ceremony of baptism was performed on Sarah Tarbell, who was born at Groton in New England, Oct. 9, 1693. Her parents were Thomas Tarbell and Elizabeth Wood, both Protestants, and she was baptized by the minister shortly after her birth. Having been taken by the savages on Monday, June 20, 1707, she was brought to Canada; she has since been sold and has lived with the sisters of the congregation of Notre Dame established at Lachine, where she abjured her religion on May I. Her godfather was M. Jacques Urbain Robert de Lamorandiere, secretary of M. L’Intendant, and her godmother was Madame Marguerite Bouat, wife of M. Etienne Pascaud, the deputy‑treasurer of the king in this country. Her name Sarah has been changed to Marguerite.





The kind and considerate treatment which the girls received at the hands of the French people in a measure explains their unwillingness to leave Montreal and this feeling was doubtless reinforced by the sacred vows they had taken, and their devotion to the faith in which they had grown up. They never came back to the scenes of their childhood, but grew up in the convent, and there passed their lives engaged in the pious duties and labors of the order. Lydia died on the 20th of July, 1758, at the age of 84 years. The date of Marguerite’s death is not known. Their remains lie buried in the little cemetery connected with the convent. We will now follow the fortunes of the two Tarbell boys, John and Zechariah, whose adventures were, if anything, more thrilling than those of the two girls. At Coughnawaga the boys learned that their capture had been planned by Villieu, a French officer at Montreal. Taxous was selected by him as the chief who would be most likely to accomplish it, and upon his return Villieu was so much pleased with the result that he presented Taxous to Frontenac, the Governor‑General of Canada, who complimented him upon the skill and adroitness with which he had accomplished his mission. As a preliminary step to their adoption by the tribe, the boys were compelled to run the gauntlet, and after their recovery from its effects they were placed in the hands of an old squaw, who pulled their hair out until only a small knot remained on top of the crown. This knot was then adorned with feathers and dressed in the Indian fashion, while their noses and ears were bored and jeweled, and they were attired in garments made of the skins of wild beasts.

Paint was then smeared upon their bodies, a belt of wampum was hung around their necks, and they were led to the river and were washed by two young squaws, who told them that this custom signified that they had ceased to be white men, and would thereafter be Indians. Regaining the bank they donned their Indian garments, their heads were again painted, and they were conducted in silence to the Council House of the tribe by Taxous. Entering, they were seated, and a pipe, tomahawk and a flint and steel were placed in their hands. The members of the tribe in full war paint, and with weapons in hand, then entered, and forming in a circle around them, were also seated. Then the council fires of the tribe were started, and the Indians remained for a long time silent. At last a pipe was lighted, passed to Taxous, by him to the boys, and then to each member of the tribe in turn. Taxous then told the boys that they had been adopted by the tribe, and would be their own flesh and blood. A feast of boiled venison and corn followed, and ended in a debauch which was continued for several days, and nearly resulted in an outbreak. As the boys grew older guns were placed in their bands, and they were taught how to track and shoot the bear, the deer, and the raccoon, how to hunt with the bow and arrow, how to snare their game and how to fish. Later they were taught to fight, and proving apt scholars, soon not only mastered, but became expert in all the branches of woodcraft. Upon their adoption by the tribe the boys assumed Indian names but also retained their English name Tarbell. As they reached manhood they married daughters of Sakonentsiask and Atawenta, chiefs of the tribe, and became themselves chiefs. More intelligent, more enterprising, and more successful in their undertakings than the other chiefs who became envious of them, it was foreseen that the rivalry would eventually lead to trouble, and acting upon the advice of a priest the Tarbells in the year 1760 took their wives, and their wives’ parents, and set out to establish a new home for themselves in the trackless forest. Coasting along up the St. Lawrence in canoes, they finally reached the lovely spot where St. Regis now stands, and there established their home, founding what is now the village of St. Regis. The record is by no means complete, but from what has been preserved it is known that in 17I3 Thomas Tarbell, who was probably an older brother of the captives, accompanied John Stoddard and John Williams, who were commissioned by Governor Joseph Dudley to go to Quebec and treat with the governor general of Canada for the release and return of the New England captives. Nothing came of the attempt, however, and so far as is known there is nothing on record concerning the boys until the winter of 1739 when they came back, saw their relatives, and visited their native place. They were dressed as Indian chiefs, were in full war paint, had only an indistinct recollection of the people and the place, and to all intents and purposes were as utter strangers as though they had never been there before. They expressed no desire to come back, but that year Governor Belcher brought their case to the attention of the Legislature in these words: “There are lately come from Canada some persons that were taken by the Indians from Groton above 30 years ago, who (it’s believed), may be induced to return into this province on your giving them some proper encouragement.” The House rejected a favorable report of a committee upon that portion of his excellency’s address, other efforts to reclaim the boys proved unavailing, and they returned and remained with the Indians, each of them living to a ripe old age. Their descendants also retained their name of Tarbell, as the name frequently appears in official records. On Feb. 20, 1818 a treaty was signed in behalf of the tribe by Loran Tarbell and Thomas Tarbell, and another one was signed Sept. 23, 1825, by eleven chiefs of the tribe, among whom were Peter, Thomas, Mitchel, Louis and Battice Tarbell. Lesor Tarbell, a son of one of the captives, was greatly esteemed among the Indians and whites for his prudence, candor and worth, and his son, a half‑breed known as “ Peter the Big Speak,” was a man of unusual address and ability, and was always commissioned to represent the tribe on important occasions. In the year I772 a descendant of one of the Tarbells accompanied Rev. Mr. Ripley to Hanover, N. H., and entered the charity school at that place, which subsequently became Dartmouth College, the old chief of the tribe at that time, a Tarbell, expressing great affection for his relatives in New England, to whom he sent his love, with a request that they should be informed that he had a grandson at this school. In 1826 Fovel, a French adventurer, visited St. Regis, and induced one of the descendants of the Tarbells, a chief whose Indian name was Torokaron, to visit Europe in the character of an Indian chief, Fovel to act as agent and interpreter. In France Torokaron was received by the reigning monarch Charles X. who gave him many valuable presents, including portraits of St. Regis, the patron saint of the tribe, and St. Francois Xavier. Marseilles and Rome were then visited, and Torokaron was granted two interviews with the pope, who gave him a set of books, a silver service for the church, a rosary of jewels and gold, a considerable amount of money, and many other gifts. Fovel absconded when they reached New York upon their return, leaving Torokaron absolutely penniless. By the assistance of friends he was enabled to reach St. Regis, and as Fovel was good enough not to steal the paintings and the rosary, they were deposited in the church at St. Regis, where they are now to be seen. In 1877 Dr. Samuel A. Green, ex‑mayor of Boston, and a noted antiquarian, who had become interested in the history of the Tarbell children while engaged in writing the history of Groton, his native place, saw a grandson of one of the Tarbell boys at St. Regis, who was then more than 80 years of age and describes him as living with one of his sons in a small house, where, surrounded by his grandchildren, he was comfortably passing his declining years. He could speak only in the Indian tongue, and said that he was aware that his grandfather, when a boy, was taken from a town near Boston, and that he had relatives who were still living there. At that time the Tarbells were among the most prominent families in St. Regis, some 40 persons of that name residing in the place.

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