On January 24, on the morning after Candlemas Day, 1692, the town of York, Maine was burned to the ground by a band of 150 Abenaki Indians. Between 40 and 48 people were killed in the massacre, with an estimated 100 others taken captive and forced to march with their captors to Quebec.
The number of victims killed in the terror attack was nowhere near the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives on 9-11. But the attacks shared many elements. Both had religious as well as political dimensions. Distant orchestrators stoked the attackers with rhetoric and propaganda. Deaths were gruesome. Fire and smoke enhanced fear and panic. Finally, the emotional impact of the massacre was equal to if not greater than 9-11. If the enemy could mount an attack that destroyed an entire town so close to the center, what else might they do?
According to Christian tradition, Candlemas Day celebrates the day that Jesus, 40 days after his birth, was delivered to the temple by his thankful parents. Like many Christian celebrations, Candlemas Day was built upon the pre-Christian traditions; in this case, the Feast of Light, which celebrated the increased strength of the light and occurred mid-way between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Candlemas Day was the forerunner today’s secular Groundhog Day, which this proverb (and many others) suggests:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will take another flight;
If Candlemas Day be foul and rain,
Winter is gone and won’t come again.
On Candlemas Day, 1692, a portion of York’s 500 residents (counting outlying villages) likely spent part of the day in the village’s Congregational Church, where the town’s first minister, Reverend Shubael Dummer, might have offered a sermon noting parallels between the presentation of the baby Jesus and the survival of village babies born that winter. We do not know exactly what the minister preached on that Candlemas Day, but according to one source, (cited in Banks) his sermon on the “Sabbath next” before the attack included a prophetic warning to “beware of the enemy,” warningr the Congregation of the consequences if their vigilance abated, as did that of the “careless inhabitants of Laish, preceding the invasion of their land by the Danites, their foes.” Reverend Dummer was probably speaking allegorically — church attendance had declined by the 1690s and people had to be reminded that Satan was still lurking out there — but I wonder if the survivors, after the attack, remembered his words.
York had prospered in the 15 or so years since the conclusion of King Philips War. Since then relations between the Indians and the English had been fairly settled, but up north, goaded by the Catholic-Protestant religious divide and by distant European political events, the French began pouring gas on the fire.
In June of 1691, the Abenaki had attacked the village of Wells, about 11 miles away, but the residents had successfully taken shelter and fought off the attackers in a garrison house. In York, several residents had built garrison houses to which residents could retreat in the event of an Indian attack, but nobody believed that an attack was imminent. No guard was posted.
Samuel Drake’s account of the massacre notes that snow was falling heavily at dawn. Even so, people were out visiting. York was a small town, but not isolated. Thanks to the Piscataqua River highway, travel between York, Kittery and Portsmouth was not difficult (at least by 17th century standards). Mrs. and Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, with Francis Tucker of Portsmouth, were at Moulton’s Tavern when gunshots pierced the quiet morning and the Abenakis descended upon the village spread out along the river.
The warriors began to systematically break into every home, kill the inhabitants inside, and then set fire to the house. At some point, the killing stopped, and, as Drake observes, “it would seem as if the savages themselves grew weary of the bloodshed.” With the exception of four garrison houses where some managed to take shelter, all of the 18 or 19 houses on the north side of the York River were burned.
Reverend Dummer was shot as he attempted to escape on his horse; he fell onto his doorstep, was stripped naked, and mutilated. His wife Lydia was taken captive along with their young son.
The Candlemas Massacre is remembered today with a mixture of legend and documentation. At the time, the Massacre was the biggest terror attack ever in early New England. Everyone was talking and writing about it, so many accounts exist of what happened
Although the colonial government would not negotiate for the release of hostages, it didn’t stop individuals from ransoming captives. Funds were raised, hostages redeemed. Some, like Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, returned to their comfortable home in Portsmouth. Many became refugees, taking shelter in Salem, Massachusetts and other larger towns. Others never returned, either because they died on the winter march, or, in the case of children, were adopted by Indian families.
Another raid on Wells followed that June. The frontier was abandoned and people took refuge in what felt like safer places. But they must have been afraid — if York could burn, was any town truly safe?
Was the Candlemas Massacre terrorism, or a battle in a territorial war? Describing the massacre as terrorism doesn’t negate the reality that the Abenaki had legitimate grievances. English settlements had multiplied along the Maine coast and into the interior of northern New England, threatening their homeland and survival. The colonials, in turn, carried out equally brutal counter-attacks on the Abenaki.
From the Abenaki perspective, I’m sure the Candlemas Massacre was a territorial war, a need to strike hard and dramatically to scare their enemies straight. For the victims, the massacre was pure terror.
After several years, people began to rebuild, on higher ground above the river. A new minister, Reverend Samuel Moody, arrived in 1698, his coming a symbol of the town’s rebirth. Once again, the villagers began to look for the light.
Notes and resources:
A note on dates: The date of the Massacre is sometimes presented as January 24 and sometimes as January 25, (1691-92), on the morning after Candlemas Day, using the old Julian Style calendar. The Gregorian Calendar, adopted in 1751 by an Act of Parliament, pushed the calendar ahead by 11 days (those days being pulled from time in September 1752), so many historians suggest that the Massacre happened on February 5, by today’s calendar. Adding to the confusion is that the same Calendar Act changed the legal start of the New Year from March 25 to January 1. Today, Candlemas Day is celebrated on February 2, 40 days after Christmas.
For more details and sources related to the massacre, see Charles Edward Banks’s History of York, Maine, successively known as Bristol (1632), Agamentious (1641), Gorgeana (1642), and York (1652). With contributions on topography and land titles by Angevine W. Gowen. Sketches by the author. Baltimore, Regional Publishing Company, 1967 reprint of first edition: Charles E Banks, Boston, 1931 [Vol.1], Chapter XXV (287-299). Banks’s account on the massacre synthesizes multiple English and French sources such as letters and diaries.
19th century historian Samuel Drake provides an account of the Massacre in his 1897 book, “The Border Wars of New England, Commonly Called King William’s and Queen Anne’s Wars.”
Emerson W. Baker and James Kences explore the connections between the Candlemas Massacre and the Salem Witchcraft outbreak in their article, Maine, Indian Land Speculation, and the Essex County Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692 Maine History, volume 40, number 3, Fall 2001 (pp. 159-189).
The article serves as the basis for one of the chapter’s in Baker 2014 book, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, which goes into greater detail about connections between the Salem witchcraft outbreak and survivors from the Candlemas Massacre and other Indian raids during King William’s War. Great book – not a fast read, but interesting and very detailed.