Royalton Raid Revisited
Front Page / Oct. 13, 2005 12:00am EDT
Royalton Raid Revisited:
New Book & 225th Celebration
"What interests me are the stories that history has to tell—and this is a very good story."
That’s South Royalton architect, filmmaker, and author Neil Goodwin on the Royalton Raid of 1780. The 225th anniversary of the raid is being celebrated in fine style on October 22-23. (See details in side article.)
In a recent interview, Goodwin said he had been intrigued about this piece of Revolutionary War history since he bought a home in South Royalton 40 years ago, and stopped to read the commemorative plaque on the Royalton Green.
He was "hooked" about 10 years ago, Goodwin added, when he read the "captive narrative" of Zadock Steele, one of 27 men and boys taken captive by the raiding party.
Steele was a young man living alone in his cabin in the unfortified, "no-man’s land" of northern Randolph, when he was taken captive by the band of six British soldiers and about 270 Mohawks, as they headed back north after pillaging Royalton.
He was held prisoner in Canada, first by the Indians, and then by British, for two years, in often horrific conditions, before escaping.
Years afterward, Steele published his account of his trials in "A Narrative of the Captivity and Suffering of Zadock Steele, Related by Himself, To Which is Prefixed an Account of the Burning of Royalton."
"Among the evils resulting from the destruction of Royalton," Steele wryly observed, "my own captivity was far from being the least."
Using this and other pieces of source material, Goodwin has spent the last four years researching and writing a book that goes far beyond the events of the Royalton Raid of October 16, 1780, to examine the rich history and personal stories of the time. His research took him to libraries and archives in Canada, Boston, and elsewhere, including, of course, South Royalton Library and Royalton Historical Society.
The "narrative spine" of his not-yet-published book is the story of Zadock Steele, Goodwin notes.
Steele’s account, according to Goodwin, is one of the longest and most complete "captive narratives" of the time. So many people were being taken captive in these raids at the time, that the form became a popular literary genre.
The following overview of the Royalton Raid, and Steele’s captivity is drawn, primarily, from the interview with Goodwin and a book draft he provided.
October 16, 1780
At dawn on October 16, 1780, a war party of 270 Canadian Mohawks and Abenakis, led by British officer Lt. Houghton quietly moved into Royalton, a settlement of 20 to 25 cabins spread along both sides of the White River and its First Branch.
Despite raids on neighboring communities earlier in the year, the settlement of Royalton is completely surprised by the massive attacks.
The raiders move quietly from cabin to cabin, traveling as far downstream as the mouth of Broad Brook in Sharon, and as far upstream to where the Second Branch meets the White, near the site of the present-day "Foxstand" brick building.
With the exception of two settlers who are killed, and a few who hide or who escape to spread the alarm, all others are taken captive.
As the war party withdraws, cabins are plundered and burned, and food stores and livestock are also destroyed.
The well-known heroine of the day is a young mother, Hannah Handy or Hendee, who has escaped capture but who crosses the White River to confront Lt. Houghton, to demand the return of her son. Hendee’s spunk earns her the admiration of the Mohawks, who eventually agree to hand over her son and several other children.
The raiders head north, capturing two more men, including Zadock Steele, and then camp for the night, probably near the present site of East Randolph.
Meanwhile, a militia of some 300 armed settlers has been mustered and comes upon Lt. Houghton and his party at about 2 a.m.
There is a brisk exchange of fire, but the Vermont militia does not press the attack, and the war party fades north on foot, with captives forced to carry plundered goods.
For Zadock Steele and other captives, these trials are only the beginning of two years of hardship. Held first at an Indian village in Canada, Steele and others are eventually sold to the British. For most of the next two years, he is held in a maximum-security prison on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, under conditions of extreme privation.
In August of 1782, Steele and several other prisoners stage a daring escape, which involves digging a 20-foot tunnel, and then swimming through the dangerous rapids surrounding the island.
The escapees have no way of knowing the Revolutionary War is over, and all prisoners are about to be released.
Steele and three other prisoners walk through the wilderness for 22 days, close to starvation, before arriving at an American settlement in Pittsford.
As Neil Goodwin said: It’s a very good story.
However, the Royalton Raid and Steele’s subsequent captivity are more than riveting tales. According to Goodwin, they offer a superb window into a fascinating period in American history and details about a time when extraordinary hardship was a part of daily living.
Settlers lives were so hard, and so joyless, he noted, that those taken captive by Indians often preferred to remain with them.
"If we were plunked down in the 18th century, we wouldn’t last very long," Goodwin said. "Those people were so tough."
The book he has written, Goodwin noted, also touches on contemporary themes, such as terrorism and prisoner abuse.
The Royalton Raid, he explained, was part of what was "essentially a terror campaign" being conducted by the British, with the assistance of Indian allies, against the northernmost American settlements in New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
The British hoped to force settlers back south, thereby increasing pressures on limited food and supplies in the colonies.
Goodwin’s book also highlights the interconnectedness of all the players in the 1780 drama.
For example, some of the Mohawks in the raiding party were known to the Royalton settlers, and at least one was rebuked for attacking a place where he had once received food and shelter. Many of the Indians spoke English; at least one was a graduate of Dartmouth College.
Also, loyalist and revolutionary sympathies often divided communities, and even families. Zadock Steele suffered at the hands of a Loyaltist jailkeeper, but Loyalists were often treated horribly by the Revolutionaries, Goodwin noted.
All of his research, Goodwin admitted, has made him "more skeptical" of the typically "triumphalist" portrayals of the Revolutionary War.
"It’s not ‘the noble Revolutionary,’’’ Goodwin commented. "It is much more interesting than that."
By Sandy Cooch