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No 'one truth': history through a Web lens

By Jim / June 15, 2005


"In the pre-dawn hours of February 29, 1704, a force of about 300 French and Native allies launched a daring raid on the Engish settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts, situated in the Pocumtuck homeland." So begins the introduction to a website dedicated to what is, in essence, a footnote in history - an incident that most of us have never heard of, or quickly forgot.

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But the innovative approach of this online commemoration will almost certainly give the raid a higher profile than it has ever had before.

Rather than follow the tradition of history being written by the eventual victors (in this case, endorsing the English position of an unprovoked attack made on a village of innocent settlers), the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association chose to examine the attack from multiple angles, and demonstrate that there is no 'one truth' about any historical event. Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 allows the visitor to hear from diverse witnesses before reaching their own verdict.

Launched on the 300th anniversary of the event, Raid on Deerfield set out to do with a virtual exhibit that which would be almost impossible in a conventional museum setting - specifically, to simultaneously communicate five different cultural perspectives of the same historical event in a comprehensible manner. (In fact, as the site's title suggests, there are many more than five stories related here. The narratives of twenty-three individuals involved in the raid are also included in the production.)

From the splash page, with its concise visual summation of the raid's legacy, Deerfield takes visitors to an interactive Index of the site's four main features. First up, Play the introduction to 1704 provides a five-minute Flash overview of the circumstances leading up to the attack, and the website's goals in relating the stories of those involved. The style of the presentation also serves to put the surfer in a 'museum' frame of mind - as the video feels exactly like something you'd see in a museum kiosk or A.V. room before proceeding to the main exhibits.

Next, Meet the Five Cultures presents the main groups connected to the event - Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), W├┤banaki (Abenaki), Wendats (Huron), French, and English. With brief summaries that link to much more thorough examinations, a set of "Lifeways" essays include such factors as history, food and clothing, social structure, government, and even attitudes about war, for each community - giving visitors the background they need to intelligently consider each participant's actions.

In addition to the Lifeways pages, related sections include: Artifacts, Timeline, Maps (which are interactive), audio files of period songs and stories, and the narratives and biographies of individuals on all sides of the raid. (While biographies are compiled from the historical record, narratives fill in gaps with reasonable assumptions and extrapolations about real participants, and the creation of 'composite characters.')