ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Telling an old story in a new way
raid on Deerfield

By Lynne Spichiger / July 2004

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

On February 29, 2004, the 300th anniversary of the raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts, the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA)/Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield launched a Web site, Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 to tell an old story in a new way.

Our intention was to both commemorate and reinterpret the raid from the perspectives of the five different groups who were present at the event, as well as their descendants: Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), Wôbanakiak (Abenaki), Wendats (Huron), the French, and the English. We did not want to simply present information; we wanted to help learners come to a deeper understanding of the raid, the forces that led up to it, and its profound legacy. We wanted to increase viewers' awareness of the multiple perspectives surrounding the event and encourage them to reach their own interpretations.

For three centuries, this assault in contested lands has been interpreted from the dominant European viewpoint: as an unprovoked, brutal attack on an innocent village of English settlers. However, the same event can be seen from another perspective: as a justified military action taken by Native Americans and the French against a highly-fortified English settlement in lands belonging to the natives. Our challenge was to tell this story in a fair and unbiased way to a general audience through the use of e-learning.


©Francis Back

In the pre-dawn hours of February 29, 1704, a force of about 300 French and Native American allies launched a daring, surprise, three-hour raid on the English settlement of Deerfield, situated in the Pocumtuck homeland. By the end of the attack, 112 Deerfield men, women, and children were taken captive on a 300-mile forced march to Canada in harsh winter conditions. Some of the captives were later "redeemed" (ransomed) and returned to Deerfield, but one-third chose to remain living among their former French and American Indian captors.

Challenge 1: Collaboration

Our first challenge was to create a collaboration that would include the diverse perspectives of five different cultural groups. We began by assembling a planning team that included a core team of Native American and non-Native American scholars; a historian-in-residence; an award-winning interactive media designer specializing in history and humanities Web sites; a well-known French Canadian illustrator; a programmer responsible for site architecture, programming, and database structure; and a project manager with extensive experience in interactive multi-media training and project administration. The core team worked closely on collaborating with Native American and French Canadian cultural organizations, including the tribal council of the Huron-Wendat Nation in Quebec; the Kanien'kehaka Onkwawén:na Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center in Kahnawake, south of Montreal; the Musée des Abénakis located in Odanak, west of Quebec City; and Pointe-à-Callière, the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History.

To encourage communication and collaboration with staff that were geographically dispersed, we developed a team Web site. The site contains links to contact information, writing and review guidelines, an advisor review section, an art gallery with successive iterations of illustrations, policy statements, Web statistics, user testing results, and content trackers. The People tracker, built by our programmer and illustrated below as an example, posts pages that list each character's narrative, the name of the author, the stage of development, the person responsible for the next task, the due date for the next task, and the grant that is paying for the narrative. To enter information about an item, the user simply clicks the Track field; to review the actual text of the narrative, the user clicks the Title/Preview field. Using the trackers, everyone on the team is able to access up-to-date information about the Web site's components.


Challenge 2: A Design to Support Learning

Our second challenge was to use technology to support learning—by capturing the casual user's attention with engaging and compelling content and design, and by facilitating the comparison of perspectives—and do all of that with a wealth of material. To illuminate broad and competing perspectives on this dramatic event, the Web site brings together 13 historical scenes; 18 narratives of people's lives; 165 biographies; over 70 artifacts and historic documents from PVMA and more than 30 institutions in the U.S., Canada, France, England, and Italy; 13 interactive maps; over 300 glossary definitions; over 200 bibliography and Webography citations; voices and songs; a dozen essays; more than 100 illustrations/paintings, many commissioned expressly for this project; and an interactive timeline covering 120 years of Deerfield, North American, and world history. Despite all this, the work is not yet finished; by October, we will have added several additional scenes, including a Legacies section that brings the story up to the present day, as well as "How to" and Teacher Guide sections.

To meet this challenge, we enlisted the help of our designer, Juliet Jacobson, who designed several key learning components:

  1. a tab approach to multiple perspectives
  2. a pyramidal content structure to accommodate different learning styles
  3. "special features" to allow for learner exploration

Tab Approach to Multiple Perspectives

History museums throughout the country continue to seek effective ways to provide a fuller understanding of the many groups of people who are part of our nation's history. However, the medium of a physical museum exhibit often limits the degree to which diverse perspectives can be presented and easily compared by the viewer. Comparisons among perspectives are best understood when a viewer can rapidly and effortlessly move from one to the other, appreciating the points of similarity and difference without being required to remember one before learning the next. Using an interactive medium, we developed a "tab" approach for the historical scenes that allows users to move easily among the different perspectives, facilitating comparison and enabling the telling of the story from conflicting points of view without the loss of coherence in the narrative. This gives the learner control over which viewpoints she reads. In the screenshot below, you can see the five tabbed perspectives to the right of the illustration, with the Wôbanakiak Perspective selected. Concurrently, the illustration has dimmed to highlight just the Wôbanakiak who are present in this scene.


Pyramidal Content Structure to Accommodate Different Learning Styles

A pyramidal content structure permits storytelling in small, understandable, compelling segments, supported by fuller context—thereby capturing the learner's attention and providing a rich context to satisfy the casual observer, as well as the motivated student. The structure allows the viewer to dig deep and focus on a particular topic. As seen in the screenshot above, viewers can textually delve deeper into the story in several ways:

  1. click the links in the text.
  2. click the objects or people in the illustration. (Note hand cursor on the bayonet and the descriptive text beneath the illustration, including "Click object for more")
  3. click the RELATED TO THIS SCENE menus beneath the illustration to reveal pop-up menus of people, artifacts, explanations, and maps.

This enables the learner to take charge of his or her learning—textually, visually, and interactively.

Special Features

We use four interactive features that capture viewer interest and give the learner control over digging deeper into the material:

  1. Interactive maps allow learners to zoom in and out, and pan left, right, up and down (illustrated below)


  2. Interactive artifacts permit learners to turn the artifact around, seeing more of its detail (illustrated below)


  3. A "magic lens" feature allows learners to move a virtual lens over a historic manuscript to reveal a transcription (illustrated below)


  4. A zoom feature permits closer viewing of detail (illustrated below)



Throughout the development process, we conducted numerous formative evaluations to inform both design and development of the site. We used an advisor review process, direct observation, interviews, online and in-person questionnaires, and focus groups to collect feedback about accuracy of content, clarity of writing, ease of use, and performance. In one example, based on learner confusion about a story menu which attempted to include more information than the learner could assimilate, we scrapped the entire menu and started from scratch, striving for a simpler and clearer organization. In another instance, we created a "Reveal all hotspots" button because some learners were unaware of the hotspot links in the illustrations for the historic scenes. Now, when the learner clicks this button, every hotspot is illuminated.

Audience Reactions

Have we achieved our goals with this Web site? Do learners come away from the site with a greater understanding of the raid on Deerfield, the forces that led up to it, and its lasting legacies? Do learners gain a greater awareness of the different viewpoints about this event? Are they able to form their own opinions about the controversy?

While we have not yet begun a summative evaluation to answer these questions, we do have some preliminary indications that we are on the right track. One questionnaire filled out by a high school student yielded the following comment when students were asked what they really liked about the Web site: "The fact that it examines all sides of the story." When asked how they would describe the Web site to someone, three students said the following: "French and Indian war and all the different sides and stories"; "the attack on Deerfield and the opinions of the people"; "the different views of an attack on Deerfield during the French and Indian War."

Much of the e-mail feedback we have received to date has recognized the importance of the multi-perspective approach:

  1. I am an Australian consultant historian working in education and public history at The National Archives in London UK. The Head of Education showed me your website yesterday and I wanted to acknowledge you for a most extraordinary Web site, but more importantly, for the perspectives on history that it provides-the multiple stories and interpretations, the equality of the various perspectives, whether they be indigenous or English, and the accompanying essays, manuscripts, artifacts, etc. I have already recommended it to several colleagues in Australia as an exemplar of how a history Web site can be.
  2. I spend a lot of time involved with e-learning, and I have to say this is one of the best Web sites I have ever come across. It has kept me engaged for a long period and I have learned lots of things. The way you present the stories from different perspectives is excellent, you have really brought this to life.
  3. What a terrific job you've done on explaining the complexity of the Deerfield Massacre. The interactive features add much to the site in a timely and simple fashion to be able to help readers understand both the sources and the language inserted in your analysis of the event, its people, and the conflict. I particularly like your discourse on "Who Owns History," that was included, because in interpretation you have rightly made reference to the fact that different perspectives are always possible, and indeed, probable because of different vantage points of observation and knowledge of events.

Model Web Site

Our award letter from the Institute of Museums and Library Services identified our Web site project as "...a potential model for connecting museums and their communities through technology." It is our mission to create an online model for other museums and organizations that wish to present an event—indeed, any controversial subject—from multiple perspectives. The fruits of our labor—design methodology, programming code, project management tools and rationale—are all available to any interested party. It is our hope that other institutions will contact us so that we might share with them what we have learned.

We believe that viewers can experience the 1704 Web site on three distinct levels. First, they can learn about the local history of the town of Deerfield. Many people have written to us about shaking their family trees and finding genealogical information about a relative on the site. On a second level, this Web site invites a broader view of history, beyond the town of Deerfield and the raid. While conventional history may have relegated the raid on Deerfield to one small episode in a larger global contest as European powers vied for control of the Spanish throne, it was—and is to this day—much more. When examined closely from all sides, the raid is a multi-cultural glimpse of early American history, rooted in cultural and religious conflicts, trade and kinship ties, personal and family honor, and genocidal expansion. And finally, on a third level, the Web site invites the viewer to look at any history in a new, multi-perspective way and provides a generic model for examining controversy.

In an essay entitled "Who Owns History," Barry O'Connell, Professor of History at Amherst College, tells us that:

The end to be sought is not to get something "absolutely right," but to make it come alive in all of its uncertainties. The more we can multiply perspectives from many different kinds of people, the better able we are to ask useful and specific questions out of which can come the fullest sense both of what did happen in the past and how we might understand and judge it…It is our task, as students and teachers, writers and citizens, to bring everyone and everything out of the mist so we might hear their voices, follow their actions, and respect each person, past and present, as a maker as well as a subject of history.

Our Web site endeavors to "bring everyone and everything out of the mist" so that we might hear the voices and follow the actions of the people who were present on that day so very long ago. There is no "one truth" on this Web site; rather, it is for the visitor to determine his or her own truth and meaning about this event, the crosscurrents and forces that led up to it, and its powerful legacies. And in the search for that truth lies the deeper understanding—the real learning—that is possible on this Web site.


This project was funded by a $50,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Planning grant, a $290,000 NEH Special Projects grant, a $250,000 Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Museums Online grant, and a small grant for curriculum development by the John H. and H. Naomi Tomfohrde Foundation.

PVMA is a small organization in western Massachusetts that offers a variety of cultural opportunities including two museums, a library, numerous educational programs, online curriculum projects in conjunction with local school districts, and the Old Deerfield craft fairs. The association was founded in 1870 when a group of residents, concerned that the younger generation knew little of the region's history—especially the raid on Deerfield—created a museum that would memorialize the past, including Native peoples of the region.


  • There are no comments at this time.