BY THE MIDDLE of June 1675, the Pokanokets’ war dance had entered its third week. There were hundreds of warriors, their faces painted, their hair “trimmed up in comb fashion,” according to a witness, “with their powder horns and shot bags at their backs,” and with muskets in their hands. They danced to the beat of drums, the sweat pouring from their already greased bodies, and with each day, the call for action grew fiercer. Philip knew he could not hold them back much longer.
The powwows had predicted that if the Indians were to be successful in a war, the English must draw the first blood. Philip promised his warriors that come Sunday, June 20, when the English would all be away from their homes at meeting, they could begin pillaging houses and killing livestock, thus beginning a ritualistic game of cat and mouse that would gradually goad the English into war.
On Mount Hope Neck, just a few miles north of Philip’s village, was a cluster of eighteen English houses at a place known as Kickemuit. As June 20 approached and the belligerence of the nearby Indian warriors increased, several residents of this most remote portion of Swansea decided it was time to abandon their homes and seek shelter elsewhere. To the north, on the other side of a bridge across the Palmer River, was the home of the minister John Miles. Dispossessed residents began to flock to this large structure, which after being reinforced against possible Indian attack became known as the Miles garrison. A few miles to the east in Mattapoisett, there was also the Bourne garrison, a large stone structure that soon contained sixteen men and fifty-four women and children.
The Miles garrison in the early twentieth century
On the morning of Sunday, June 20, seven or eight Indians approached an inhabitant of Kickemuit who had not yet abandoned his home. The Indians asked if they could use his grinding stone to sharpen one of their hatchets. The man told them that since it was the Sabbath, “his God would be very angry if he should let them do it.” Soon after, the Indians came across an Englishman walking up the road. They stopped him and said “he should not work on his God’s Day, and that he should tell no lies.” Unnerved and intimidated, the last residents of Kickemuit left for the shelter of the garrisons. By day’s end, two houses had been burned to the ground.
Governor Winslow received word of the vandalism that night, and by the morning of Monday, June 21, he had ordered towns across the colony to muster their militia for a rendezvous at Taunton, where they would be dispatched to Swansea. He also sent a message to officials in Boston, requesting their colony’s assistance. There was no reason to assume that Massachusetts-Bay would rush to Plymouth’s defense. As the flare-up with Philip in 1671 had shown, there were many in that colony who were critical of Plymouth’s treatment of the Pokanokets. And for those with long memories, Plymouth had been so slow to come to the Bay Colony’s aid during the Pequot War that the Plymouth militia had missed the fighting. In the end, however, Massachusetts-Bay decided that it was in its own best interests to support Plymouth. Not only was the uprising a possible threat to its inhabitants, but the conflict might make available large portions of choice Indian land.
In the middle of all this, Governor Winslow decided he needed to put his colony’s religious house in order. The latest troubles with the Indians were a sign that God was unhappy with Plymouth. It was time, therefore, that “we humble ourselves before the Lord for all those sins whereby we have provoked our good God sadly to interrupt our peace and comfort.” Winslow proclaimed that Thursday, June 24, be designated a day of fasting and humiliation.
Plymouth Colony was rife with sin, but apparently none of those sins involved the treatment of the Indians. Winslow later insisted that “we stand as innocent as it is possible for any person or people towards their neighbor.” Even the trial for Sassamon’s murder was, in Winslow’s view, an exampleof English justice and magnanimity. In a letter to the governor of Connecticut, he claimed that Tobias and the other condemned men had “give[n] us thanks for our fair trial of them.”
The result of this stubborn insistence on rectitude was to dehumanize the Indians so that they seemed the wanton and senseless instruments of God’s will. This meant that there was nothing to be achieved through diplomacy; if the English were to make any progress in their difficulties with the Indians, they must do it through prayer and the sword.
Solid maple war club, inlaid with white and purple wampum, reputed to have been King Philip’s
By Monday night, companies of militiamen had begun to arrive at Taunton. The elderly James Cudworth of Scituate was designated the army’s commander with Major William Bradford, the fifty-five-yearold son of the former governor, as his immediate subordinate.
Since they’d just arrived on the scene, Cudworth and Bradford were as ignorant as everyone else as to the movements of the Pokanokets. There was one man, however, who had firsthand knowledge of the territory to the south and the Indians surrounding Mount Hope Bay. Just the year before, Benjamin Church, a thirty-three-year-old carpenter, had become the first Englishman to settle in the southeastern tip of Narragansett Bay at a place called Sakonnet, home to the female sachem Awashonks and several hundred of her people.
Instead of being intimidated by the fact that he was the only Englishman in Sakonnet (known today as Little Compton, Rhode Island), Church relished the chance to start from scratch. “My head and hands were full about settling a new plantation,” he later remembered, “where nothing was brought to: no preparation of dwelling house, or outhousing or fencing made. Horses and cattle were to be provided, ground to be cleared and broken up; and the uttermost caution to be used, to keep myself free from offending my Indian neighbors all round me.” Church was a throwback to his maternal grandfather, Mayflower passenger Richard Warren. By moving to Sakonnet, he was leaving his past behind and beginning anew in Indian country.
But as became increasingly clear in the traumatic months ahead, Church had moved well beyond his Pilgrim forebears. The early days of Plymouth Colony had been devoted to establishing a community of fellow worshippers. Within the shelter of their wooden wall, the Pilgrims had done their best to separate themselves from both the wilderness and the ungodly. Church, on the other hand, was quite content to be living among the heathen—both red and white. In addition to Awashonks and the Sakonnets, with whom he developed “a good acquaintance…and was in a little time in great esteem among them,” there were the residents of Aquidneck Island, just across the Sakonnet River to the west. Mostly Baptists and Quakers, these were not the sorts with whom a proper Puritan socialized. Church, on the other hand, “found the gentlemen of the island very civil and obliging.” While his wife, Alice, and their two-year-old son, Thomas, stayed with relatives in Duxbury, he labored to prepare a new home for them.
An engraving of Benjamin Church that appeared in a nineteenth-century edition of his narrative
Church had taken up where the former “Lord of Misrule,” Thomas Morton of Merrymount, had left off fifty years before. But where Morton had been an outsider from the start, Church was as closely connected by blood and by marriage (his wife was the daughter of Constant Southworth, William Bradford’s stepson) to the aristocracy of Plymouth Colony as it was possible to be.
He was also ambitious. Possessed “of uncommon activity and industry,” he had already constructed two buildings by the spring of 1675 when he heard a disturbing rumor. Philip, sachem of Mount Hope—just five miles to the north—was “plotting a bloody design.”
From the start, Church had known that his future at Sakonnet depended on a strong relationship with sachem Awashonks, and over the course of the last year the two had become good friends. In early June, she sent him an urgent message. Philip was about to go to war, and he demanded that the Sakonnets join him. Before she made her decision, Awashonks wanted to speak with Church.
Church quickly discovered that six of Philip’s warriors had come to Sakonnet. Awashonks explained that they had threatened to incite the wrath of the Plymouth authorities against her by attacking the English houses and livestock on her side of the river. She would then have no alternative but to join Philip. Church turned to the Pokanokets and accused them of being “bloody wretches [who] thirsted after the blood of their English neighbors, who had never injured them.” For his part, he hoped for peace, but if war should erupt, he vowed to be “a sharp thorn in their sides.” He recommended that Awashonks look to the colony for protection from the Pokanokets. He promised to leave immediately for Plymouth and return as soon as possible with instructions from the governor.
Just to the north of the Sakonnets in modern Tiverton, Rhode Island, were the Pocassets, led by another female sachem, Weetamoo. Even though she was Philip’s sister-in-law, the relationship did not necessarily guarantee that she was inclined to join forces with him. Church decided to stop at Pocasset on his way to Winslow’s home in Duxbury.
He found her, alone and despondent, on a hill overlooking Mount Hope Bay. She had just returned by canoe from Philip’s village. War, Weetamoo feared, was inevitable. Her own warriors “were all gone, against her will, to the dances” at Mount Hope. Church advised her to go immediately to Aquidneck Island, just a short canoe ride away, for her safety. As he had told Awashonks, he promised to return in just a few days with word from Governor Winslow.
The site of King Philip’s village on the eastern shore of the Mount Hope Peninsula in the early 1900s
But Church never got the chance to make good on his promise. Before he could return to Weetamoo and Awashonks, the fighting had begun.
Church had been in Plymouth speaking with Governor Bradford when the call for the militia had gone out, and he had immediately reported to Taunton. As the army prepared to march to Swansea, Major Bradford requested that Church lead the way with a small vanguard of soldiers. Church and his company, which included several “friend Indians,” moved so quickly over the path to Swansea that they were able to kill, roast, and eat a deer before the main body of troops caught up with them. Church was already discovering that he enjoyed the life of a soldier. As he later wrote in a book about his experiences during the war, “I was spirited for that work.”
But the impetuous Church still had much to learn about military tactics. His mission had been to provide protection to the soldiers behind him. By sprinting to Swansea, he had left the army vulnerable to an Indian ambush. While Church crowed about the speed of his march south, his commanding officers may have begun to realize that this was a soldier whose ambition and zeal verged on recklessness.
Over the next few days, more and more soldiers arrived at Swansea. In addition to fortifying the Miles garrison, a temporary barricade was constructed to provide the growing number of soldiers with protection from possible attack. But no direct action was taken against the Indians. Given that hundreds of Native warriors were said to have rallied around Philip, Cudworth felt that his own force must more than match the Indians’ before they marched on Mount Hope.
With each passing day, the outrages committed by the Indians increased. Church and his compatriots could hear their whoops and the crackle of gunfire as the Native warriors slaughtered cattle and pilfered houses. But so far, no English men or women had been injured. By the morning of Wednesday, June 23, some residents had grown bold enough to return to their houses to retrieve goods and provisions.
That morning, a father and son ventured from the garrison and came upon a group of Indians ransacking several houses. The boy had a musket, and his father urged him to fire on the looters. One of the Indians fell, then picked himself up and ran away. Later in the day, some Indians approached the garrison and asked why the boy had shot at one of their men. The English responded by asking whether the Indian was dead. When the Indians replied in the affirmative, the boy snidely said “it was no matter.” The soldiers tried to calm the now infuriated Indians by saying it was “but an idle lad’s word.” But the truth of the matter was that the boy had given the warriors exactly what they wanted: the go-ahead to kill.
Thursday, June 24, the day of fasting and humiliation throughout the colony, proved momentous in the history of Plymouth, but not in the way the governor had intended. Reports differ, but all agree that it was a day of horror and death in Swansea. At least ten people, including the boy and his father, were killed by the Indians. Some were killed on their way back from prayers at the meetinghouse. One couple and their twenty-year-old son stopped at their home to secure some provisions. The father told his wife and son to return to the garrison while he finished collecting corn. But as the father left the house, he was beset by Indians and killed. Hearing gunshots, the son and his mother returned to the house. Both were attacked and in what became a common fate in the months ahead, scalped; and as also happened with terrifying frequency, both survived their scalpings only to die from loss of blood.
For Church and the other soldiers cooped up at the garrison, the days ahead proved an exasperating and humiliating ordeal as they were forced to wait for the reinforcements from Massachusetts-Bay to arrive. In a clear attempt to mock the soldiers’ impotence, the Indians had the audacity to approach the garrison itself. Two soldiers sent to draw a bucket of water from a nearby well were shot and carried away. They were later discovered with “their fingers and feet cut off, and the skin of their heads flayed off.” Even worse, the Indians succeeded in killing two of the garrison’s own sentries “under the very noses of most of our forces.” On the night of June 26, a total eclipse of the moon was witnessed all across New England. Several soldiers claimed they saw a black spot in the moon’s center resembling “the scalp of an Indian.” All agreed that an “eclipse falling out at that instant of time was ominous.”
Finally on Monday, June 28, with the arrival of several Massachusetts companies from Boston, the number of soldiers had reached the point that Cudworth was willing to venture from the garrison. In addition to a troop of horse under Captain Thomas Prentice and a company of foot soldiers under Captain Daniel Henchman, there was a rowdy bunch of volunteers under the command of Captain Samuel Moseley. The English had not yet fought a single battle, but Moseley, a sea captain, was already something of a hero. In April, Moseley had led a successful assault on some Dutch privateers off the coast of Maine. In June, several of the captured sailors were put on trial and condemned to death, but with the outbreak of war, they were granted a reprieve as long as they were willing to fight the Indians under Moseley. In addition to this multinational group of pirates, which included a huge Dutchman named Cornelius Anderson, Moseley secured the services of a wild gang of servants and apprentices from Boston. Decidedly lacking in Puritan restraint and with a seaman’s love of profanity, Moseley’s company proved adept at transferring their talent for murder and mayhem from the wilderness of the high seas to the swamps and forests of New England.
To a pious group of farm boys and merchants, Moseley’s men seemed as savage as the Indians themselves. To Benjamin Church, who had suddenly been superseded as one of the army’s more colorful and audacious figures, Moseley was destined to become both a rival and a nemesis.
With the arrival of more than three hundred new soldiers, the Miles garrison quickly became charged with a crude and volatile energy. The assault was scheduled for the following day, but some of the new arrivals, led by Quartermasters John Gill and Andrew Belcher, requested liberty to go out immediately and “seek the enemy in their own quarters.” Some Indians on the opposite side of the river were taking great delight in firing on the garrison. It was time to put these heathens in their place.
Permission was granted, and twelve troopers prepared to take it to the enemy. In addition to William Hammond of nearby Rehoboth, who was to act as their “pilot” or scout, the troopers requested the services of Benjamin Church. They quickly set out across the bridge, all of them knowing that an audience of several hundred English soldiers was watching their every move.
Almost as soon as they crossed the bridge, about a dozen Indians concealed in some nearby bushes let loose a killing volley of shot. In an instant, Hammond, the scout, was, if not dead, nearly so; Belcher was hit in the knee and his horse was shot out from under him, while Gill was slammed in the gut. Fortunately, he’d worn a protective coat of quarter-inch-thick ox hide, known as a “buff coat,” which he had lined with several pieces of well-placed parchment, and had suffered only a severe bruise.
The troopers were so terrified by the attack that they turned their horses around and galloped back for the garrison, leaving Hammond dazed and dying in the saddle and Belcher pinned beneath his horse. As the troopers clattered across the bridge, Church “stormed and stamped, and told them ’twas a shame to run and leave a wounded man there to become a prey to the barbarous enemy.” By this time, Hammond had fallen down dead off his horse, and with the assistance of Gill and only one other man, Church attempted to save Belcher’s life. Church jumped off his horse and loaded both Belcher and Hammond onto the horses of the other two. As they retreated to the garrison, Church went after Hammond’s horse, which was wandering off toward the Indians. All the while, he shouted out to those at the garrison “to come over and fight the enemy.” But no one appeared willing to join him.
The Indians had had a chance to reload and were now blasting away at Church as he continued to bawl indignantly at the army on the other side of the river. Every one of the Indians’ bullets missed its mark, although one ball did strike the foot of a soldier watching from the safety of the garrison. Church decided he had better join his cowardly compatriots before the Indians had a chance to reload and fire once again. He started back across the bridge but not without proclaiming, “The Lord have mercy on us if such a handful of Indians shall thus dare such an army!”
Massachusetts governor John Leverett wearing an ox-hide buff coat
It was a grim and awful night. The weather had deteriorated dramatically since they’d seen the lunar eclipse several nights before, and as a cold wind lashed the Miles garrison with rain and Moseley’s roughneck crew mocked the troopers with “many profane oaths,” a soldier from Watertown lost control of himself. Screaming “God is against the English!” he ran crazily around the garrison until he was finally subdued, “a lamentable spectacle.”
The vast majority of the soldiers gathered that night had grown up on stories of the military might of the Puritans during the English civil war. One of the most efficient fighting forces of the age, Cromwell’s New Model Army had subdued England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. The navy, under the command of Robert Blake, had won so many victories against Holland and Spain that the crews of British ships proudly lashed brooms to their mastheads in recognition of having swept the Channel clean of enemy vessels. Now that Charles II was back on the throne, it was left to them, the militiamen of Puritan New England, to maintain the twin traditions of spiritual purity and martial prowess in the face of an ungodly foe.
There was yet another legacy for these soldiers to consider that night at the Miles garrison. Thirty-eight years before, many of their fathers had served in the Pequot War. The Indians’ bows and arrows had proven ludicrously ineffective in the face of English matchlocks, and victory had come in what seemed a single, God-ordained stroke at the massacre at Mystic. It was true that the Indians had since armed themselves with flintlocks, but the assumption remained that a single Englishman was worth at least ten Indians in battle—the previous day’s outcome notwithstanding.
The combined Plymouth and Massachusetts-Bay forces assembled at the Miles garrison possessed the same equipment and training then current in Europe, where orderly lines of soldiers gathered on open battlefields and fired at one another, often with as little as fifty yards between them. In this kind of fighting, an old matchlock, which was so heavy that a wooden stand was required to prop up the muzzle, was perfectly suitable. The soldier was not expected to aim his weapon at anyone or anything in particular; in fact, the matchlock possessed no sight. Instead, the musketeer was trained to fire in the general direction of the enemy in a coordinated volley. Just as important in European warfare as the musketeer was the pikeman, a soldier who wielded a fourteen-foot-long spear. Pikemen led charges against an enemy line; they also provided a form of defense against a cavalry charge. By driving the butts of their pikes into the ground, the pikemen created a temporary fortress behind which the musketeers could reload their weapons.
Already, New England’s militia had begun to alter their equipment and tactics in ways that were well ahead of Europe. Flintlocks were more popular in America than in Europe, where matchlocks were used in battle as late as 1700. The example of the Indians, who used their flintlocks to such good effect in hunting deer, bear, and other game, was impossible to ignore. But old habits died hard, and on the morning of Tuesday, June 29, many of the soldiers still possessed matchlocks and pikes—weapons that soon proved completely ineffective in fighting an enemy that refused to meet them in the open field.
That morning, Moseley and his privateers led the way across the bridge. Schooled in the brutal, haphazard world of hand-to-hand combat on a ship’s deck, these sailors were, it turned out, much better adapted than the militiamen to fighting Indians. Ten of the enemy could be seen on the opposite side of the river, about a half mile away, shouting insults at the English. “[N]ot at all daunted by such kind of alarms,” Moseley and his men “ran violently down upon them over the bridge, pursuing them a mile and a quarter on the other side.”
As Moseley’s volunteers chased the Indians until they had disappeared into a swamp—killing, it was later reported, about a half dozen of them—Church was forced to participate in a more traditional military operation. Fanning out in two wings, the troopers created a long line intended to sweep the area of Indians while protecting the foot soldiers in the middle. Unfortunately, the center of the line was, in Church’s judgment, “not well headed.” With visibility diminished in the rain, some of the soldiers mistook their comrades for the enemy, and one of the troopers, a twenty-year-old ensign named Perez Savage, who “boldly held up his colors in the front of his company,” was shot not once but twice, one ball harmlessly piercing the brim of his hat and the other hitting him in the thigh. With the weather getting worse by the moment and no Indians in sight (although several officers insisted that Savage had been hit by Native fire), it was decided to return to the garrison for the night.
The next day, the English forces were in no hurry to march on Mount Hope, where as many as five hundred Native warriors were said to be waiting for them. Not until noon did the English head out once again across the bridge. The previous day they had ventured only a mile and a half into enemy territory; this time they continued on to the English settlement at Kickemuit. Tensions were already high among the militiamen. What they saw at Kickemuit made them only more apprehensive of what lay ahead.
The abandoned houses had been all burned. But even more disturbing than the blackened and smoking remnants of a once thriving community were the pieces of paper seen fluttering in the air, paper that soon proved to be the torn pages of a Bible. For this overwhelmingly Puritan force, it was a shocking outrage to know that the Indians had ripped apart this most sacred of books and scattered God’s words to the winds “in hatred of our religion.” Then, three miles later, they discovered the remains of eight Englishmen, killed five days earlier at the nearby settlement of Mattapoisett. The Indians had mounted the men’s heads, scalps, and hands on poles and planted them beside the roadside in what one commentator described as a “barbarous and inhuman manner bidding us defiance.” The body parts were quickly buried, and the soldiers continued on.
Two miles later, they reached the Pokanokets’ village. One of the first on the scene was the giant Dutch pirate Cornelius Anderson. It was apparent that the Indians had left in a hurry. Cooking utensils had been left scattered on the ground, and at Philip’s own wigwam, the Dutchman found what several local residents recognized as the sachem’s hat—a hat that Anderson placed triumphantly on his own huge head. The Pokanokets had also left their drums behind, but not before carefully staving in each one. Spreading out almost as far as the eye could see was an estimated thousand acres of Indian corn. Soon the soldiers began uprooting every stalk. If they could not defeat the Indians in battle, they would do their best to starve them to death. Some of Philip’s pigs were found rooting in the mud. There were also a large number of newly masterless Native dogs. Philip’s horse, identifiable by its distinctive saddle, was found wandering the fields of Mount Hope. But nowhere was there a single Indian.
Church knew immediately what had happened. So as not to become trapped on the peninsula, Philip and his people had transported themselves by canoes across the sound to Pocasset—not an easy feat given that the waters surrounding Mount Hope were supposedly being guarded by vessels from Rhode Island. Once in Pocasset, Philip had met up with Weetamoo, who now had no choice but to join her brother-in-law. Church recognized it as a brilliant tactical move. Not only did Philip now have “a more advantageous post,” he was stronger than he’d ever been. Church’s commanders, however, chose to see Philip’s flight from Mount Hope as “a mighty conquest” on their part. They had driven the Pokanokets from their homeland.
Church urged his superiors to pursue Philip immediately. If the sachem should break out of Pocasset, all of New England might soon be at war. But the Plymouth commander James Cudworth insisted that they must first comb every inch of the Mount Hope Peninsula for Indians. Then it was decided that the army should build a fort on the site of Philip’s village to make sure the Pokanokets did not return to Mount Hope. From Church’s perspective, it was nothing but busywork designed to postpone the time when the English must finally face the Indians in battle. “’Twas rather their fear than their courage,” Church wrote, “that obliged them to set up the marks of their conquest.”
While the Plymouth forces built a useless fort, the Massachusetts authorities committed an even larger tactical blunder. Instead of sending Moseley and the others after Philip, they decided it was time to turn their attention to the Narragansetts. There were legitimate concerns that the tribe might be preparing to join Philip in the war. Some of the Pokanokets’ women and children, it was rumored, had sought shelter with the Narragansetts. In truth, however, there was no clear evidence that the tribe had any hostile intentions toward the English.
The Narragansetts, like all the other tribes in New England, were watching Philip’s rebellion very closely. In the beginning, they assumed the conflict was a local affair between Philip and Plymouth. But with the arrival of soldiers from Massachusetts-Bay, the Narragansetts began to realize that the English regarded the rebellion in broader terms. Even though Massachusetts-Bay had no complaints against Philip, the Puritans had quickly come to their neighbor’s defense. Even Rhode Island, which both Plymouth and Massachusetts normally scorned, had offered to help. “[The Narragansetts] demanded why the Massachusetts and Rhode Island rose and joined with Plymouth against Philip,” Roger Williams wrote on June 25, “and left not Philip and Plymouth to fight it out. We answered that all the colonies were subject to one King Charles, and it was his pleasure and our duty and engagement for one Englishman to stand to the death by each other in all parts of the world.”
By immediately assuming the conflict was a racial rather than a political struggle, the English were, in effect, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the magnitude of the English response increased, Indians across New England discovered that instead of considering them valued allies, the English had suddenly begun to regard them all as potential foes. Perhaps Philip was right: their only option was war.
But there were other factors besides racial fear and national loyalty influencing the Massachusetts-Bay officials’ decision to send the militia to Rhode Island. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut had designs on obtaining large tracts of land in the western portion of Rhode Island. The Massachusetts-Bay leaders decided that they must seize the opportunity to make their military presence known in Rhode Island. And so, under the pretext of securing a treaty with the Narragansetts, the Massachusetts forces left Mount Hope for the western shore of the bay, where they did their best to intimidate both the Indians and the English, whose lands the Puritans coveted. The end result of this misbegotten strategy was to turn what had most probably been a neutral tribe into an increasingly hostile one.
For his part, Church had not given up on his original hope of winning both Weetamoo and Awashonks over to the English side. He was convinced that if he’d been able to speak to the sachems before the outbreak of hostilities, they would have spurned Philip. Even if it was too late to keep the Pocassets and Sakonnets out of the war, there was nothing to be accomplished by remaining at Mount Hope. The Plymouth authorities, however, seemed intent on keeping him on the west side of Mount Hope Bay. His elderly father-in-law, Constant Southworth, requested that Church assume his duties as commissary general of the Plymouth militia. Instead of doing something that might bring an end to the war—whether it was through diplomacy or fighting Philip—he was now forced to attend to the mundane tasks of feeding an army of several hundred men.
There was one officer, however, who agreed with Church that it was time to move into Pocasset. Matthew Fuller was the army’s surgeon general. Although he was, in his own words, too “ancient and heavy” to be chasing Indians, he asked Church if he’d go with him to Pocasset. Church responded that “he had rather do anything in the world than stay there to build the fort.” So on the night of Thursday, July 8, after taking the ferry that ran from the southern tip of Mount Hope to Aquidneck Island, Fuller, Church, and just thirty-six men were transported by boat to the shores of Pocasset.
After a night spent sleeping in the countryside, they were off in search of Indians. While Fuller went north with half the men, Church took the other half south toward his home in Sakonnet. With luck, he might make contact with Awashonks. Several hours later, his men began to complain that they had not yet found any of the Indians he had promised them. As they made their way along the shore of the Sakonnet River, Church assured them “that if it was their desire to see Indians, he believed he should now soon show them what they should say was enough.”
Fifty-five years earlier, Miles Standish had led a similar patrol along the south shore of Cape Cod. The Pilgrims’ search for Indians had been part of a voyage of discovery to a new and unknown land. Church was conducting his search just a few miles from his own farm—a land made just as new and strange by the transformative power of war.
They could see signs of recent Indian activity all around them—a network of sinuous trails that crisscrossed the woods and fields. They came upon a wigwam loaded with cooking utensils and clothing. A few of the men asked if they could take some of the goods with them, but Church forbade it, “telling them they might expect soon to have their hands full” with Indians instead of plunder.
On Punkatees Neck, between a ridge of dense forest and the stony shore of the Sakonnet River, they found a newly cultivated field of peas. They also saw two Indians walking through the field toward them. When the Indians turned and started to run, Church called out that he only wanted to talk and would not hurt them. But the Indians continued to run, with Church and his men in pursuit. There was a fence between the field and the woods, and as the Indians scrambled over it, one of them turned and fired his musket. A soldier fired back, and even though the Indians quickly disappeared into the woods, the English heard a strangled cry of pain suggesting that one of them had been hit.
They followed the Indians into the woods. Suddenly the sundappled darkness erupted with the roar of dozens of muskets firing simultaneously. Like many other English officers would do in the months ahead, Church had led his men into an ambush. He glanced back, “expecting to have seen half of them dead.” But all were still standing and firing blindly into the thick cloud of gray smoke that billowed toward them from the trees. Church ordered them to stop firing. If they discharged their muskets all at once, the Indians might charge them with their hatchets. It was time to retreat to the field.
As soon as they reached the fence, Church ordered those who had not yet fired their muskets to hide themselves behind the fence while the others moved well into the field and reloaded. If the Indians should pursue them to the fence, there would be a trap waiting for them. Church was quickly learning how to use the Indians’ own tactics of concealment and surprise against them.
But when Church glanced back to the heavily wooded rise of land from which they’d just come, he immediately began to reevaluate his strategy. From where he stood, the wooded hill appeared to be moving. He soon realized that the rise of land was completely covered with Indians, “their bright guns glittering in the sun” as they poured out of the woods and onto the field. The field bordered the Sakonnet River, and the Indians were attempting to surround the Englishmen before they reached the water’s edge.
Church quickly scanned the river. There were supposed to be several boats waiting to take them back to Aquidneck Island. On the other side of the river, less than a mile away, were some boats on the Aquidneck shore. They were too far away to be of much help now.
Near the water were the remnants of a stone wall. He ordered his men to run across the field and take the wall before the Indians reached it. He also told them to strip down to their white shirts so that the men across the river would know that they were Englishmen. In order to get their attention, he ordered three of his men to fire their guns one after the other. Soon they were all dashing across the field, the Indians’ bullets cutting through the leaves of the pea plants and sending up spurts of dust as the Englishmen threw themselves over an old hedge and tumbled down the bank to the wall beside the shore.
Unfortunately, it was not much of a wall. As the Indians took up positions around them, using the ruins of an old stone house and any available stumps, rocks, trees, and fence posts for protection, Church and his men were left wide open to shots from the north and south. They grabbed whatever rocks they could find and began widening the wall.
But their biggest problem was not a lack of protection; it was their lack of gunpowder. Church estimated that they were up against several hundred Indians, and there were only twenty of them. Once they ran out of powder, the Indians would be on them in a moment, and they would all be massacred.
Church marveled at how his men “bravely and wonderfully defended themselves” in the face of such an overwhelming force. But there was reason for hope. A sloop had started to sail toward them from Aquidneck Island. But as soon as the vessel came to within hailing distance, the Indians turned their guns upon it. The wind was blowing onshore from the northwest, and Church asked the boat’s master if he might send them the canoe that was tied to his stern so that they could use it to paddle back to his boat. But the sailor refused. One of Church’s men cried out, “For God’s sake, take us off. Our ammunition is spent!” This was not the kind of information Church wanted the Indians to know. It was time to end the conversation. Marshaling the same kind of fury he had displayed at the Miles garrison, he ordered the boat’s master to “either send his canoe ashore or else be gone presently, or he would fire upon him.” The vessel promptly headed back for Aquidneck, and the Indians, “reanimated” by the boat’s departure, “fired thicker and faster than ever.”
Some of Church’s men began to talk about making a run for it. Church insisted that their best chance at survival was to stay together. It was already a miracle that they were still alive. God, in his “wonderful providence,” had chosen to preserve them. Church was confident that no matter how bad it looked now, “not a hair of their head[s] should fall to the ground” if they continued to be “patient, courageous, and prudently sparing of their ammunition.” It was a soldier’s version of predestination: God was in control, and he was on their side.
One of the men had become so frightened that he was unable to fire his musket. Church ordered him to devote his energies to reinforcing the wall. As Church delivered his speech, the soldier was in the midst of laying a flat rock down in front of him when a bullet ricocheted off the stone’s face. It was exactly the example Church needed. “Observe,” he cried out to his men, “how God directed the bullets [to]…hit the stone” and not the man. Whether through Providence or not, from that moment forward, everyone “in his little army, again resolved one and all to stay with and stick by him.”
All afternoon, beneath a hot sun, Church and his men held their ground as the Indians made the surrounding woods echo with their whoops and shouts. With night approaching, one of Church’s soldiers said he could see a sloop sailing toward them from a tiny island several miles up the river. “Succor is now coming!” Church shouted. He recognized the vessel as belonging to Captain Roger Goulding, “a man,” he assured them, “for business.”
The sloop glided with the diminishing northwesterly breeze down to the besieged soldiers. Captain Goulding proved as trustworthy as Church had claimed. He anchored his vessel to windward of them and floated a buoy with his canoe tied to it to Church and his men. The sails and hull of his sloop were soon riddled with bullet holes, but Goulding stayed put.
The canoe was so tiny that only two men could fit in it at a time. It took ten agonizingly slow trips back and forth, but at least there was a growing number of soldiers in the sloop to provide cover for those in the canoe. Finally, only Church was left ashore. As he prepared to climb into the canoe, he realized that he had left his hat and cutlass at a nearby well, where he had stopped to get a drink of water at the beginning of the siege. When he informed his men that he was going back to collect his possessions, they pleaded with him to get into the canoe. But Church was adamant; he was not about to leave without his hat and sword. He loaded all the gunpowder he had left in his musket and started for the well.
Since he was the only remaining Englishman, all the Indians’ guns were trained on him as he made his way to the stone-encircled spring that today bears his name. A ceaseless stream of bullets flew through the air and drove into the ground at his feet, but none hit Church. On returning to the canoe, with the hat on his head and the cutlass at his side, he fired his musket one last time, but there was barely enough of a charge to push the bullet out of the barrel. Just as he settled into the canoe, a bullet grazed his hair while another splintered the wooden brace against which he’d nestled his chest, but he reached the sloop unscathed.
It had been a remarkable day. For six hours, twenty men had held off three hundred Indians (a number that was later confirmed by the Indians themselves) without suffering a single casualty. It was a deliverance that Church looked to for the rest of his life as indisputable proof of “the glory of God and His protecting providence.” William Bradford had learned of it in a dream, but for Benjamin Church it had been revealed in battle: he was one of the elect.
He’d also learned something else during what came to be known as the Pease Field Fight. When it came to Awashonks and the Sakonnets, the time for diplomacy had passed.
Even if the Sakonnets had joined Philip, Church still held out hope that many other Indians in the region might be convinced to stay out of the conflict. As the Puritan historian William Hubbard observed, most Indians in southern New England were unsure of what to do next. It was in the colony’s best interests, Church maintained, to welcome all potentially neutral Indians with open and beneficent arms.
But by July 1675, the hysteria of war had taken hold of New England. Shocked by the atrocities at Swansea, most English inhabitants had begun to view all Indians with racist contempt and fear. As a result, many Indians who would gladly have remained at peace were given no choice but to go to war.
Weetamoo was Philip’s sister-in-law, but she did everything she could to avoid the conflict. Church had advised her to seek refuge on Aquidneck Island, and that was exactly what she had done. But when she fled to Aquidneck by canoe with six of her men, some of the English inhabitants, who were “in fury against all Indians,” insisted that she leave the island. When Philip and his warriors stormed into Pocasset, Weetamoo was left with no option but to join him.
Other Indians attempting to remain neutral were told to flock to the shoreline of their territory, where, if they “did not meddle” with the English in any way, they would be safe. Unfortunately, soldiers such as Anderson the Dutchman made no effort to distinguish between friendly and hostile Natives. At one point during his depredations on Mount Hope, Anderson and twelve men came upon sixty Indians who were hauling their canoes ashore. Anderson and his privateers immediately killed thirteen of them, took eight alive, and once the rest had fled into the swamps, proceeded to burn all forty canoes.
Pocasset Swamp as it appeared in the early twentieth century
Just prior to the outbreak of violence, some Quakers from Aquidneck Island had taken the ferry to Mount Hope and attempted to convince Philip and his advisers that they should submit to some form of arbitration rather than go to war. For a sachem supposedly bent on violence, he had proven surprisingly open to the Quakers’ suggestion and admitted that “fighting was the worst way.” The Quakers, however, were in no position to speak for Plymouth Colony, and nothing ever came of the overture.
Now, while fighting was still very much a local affair, was the time for Governor Winslow to attempt a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. At the very least, some coordinated effort could have been made to assure nonhostile Indians that they were safe from attack. But none of these measures were taken. In fact, when several hundred Indians surrendered to authorities in Plymouth and Dartmouth after being assured that they’d be granted amnesty, Winslow and his cronies on the Council of War refused to honor the promise. On August 4, the council determined that since some of the Indians had participated in the attacks, all of them were guilty. That fall they were shipped as slaves to the Spanish port of Cádiz.
From the perspective of the Plymouth magistrates, there was nothing unusual about enslaving a rebellious Native population. The English had been doing this in Ireland for decades; most recently Cromwell had sent large numbers of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish slaves to the West Indies. After the conclusion of the Pequot War in 1637, Massachusetts-Bay officials had sent a shipload of Indian slaves, including fifteen boys and two women, to the Puritan settlement on Providence Island off the east coast of Central America. Selling Indian captives served two functions: it provided income to help pay for the war, and it removed a dangerous and disruptive people from the colony—not to mention the fact that it made the rebels’ lands available for later settlement by the English.
But if the policy made perfect sense to Winslow and the Council of War at Plymouth, Benjamin Church regarded it as a shocking abomination of justice that would only prolong the war. Church was no paragon of vitue. In the years ahead he, like many Englishmen in the Narragansett Bay region, would own African slaves. But he would also work diligently to ensure that the Indians he’d come to know in Sakonnet continued to live freely and peacefully in the region. To Church’s mind, the enslavement of the Indians from Plymouth and Dartmouth in the summer of 1675 was “an action so hateful…that [I] opposed it to the loss of the good will and respect of some that before were [my] good friends.”
By Monday, July 19, most of the Massachusetts companies that had been diverted to Narragansett country had returned to Mount Hope, and a combined Plymouth-Massachusetts force crossed the bay for Pocasset. Running along the eastern shore of the bay was a seven-mile-long cedar swamp, beside which Weetamoo and Philip had reportedly camped. For the English it would be a day of disorientation and fear as they pursued the Pokanokets and Pocassets into the depths of what Major William Bradford described as a “hideous swamp.” In his memoir of the war, Church says almost nothing about this particular battle, most probably because he was required to fight with the Plymouth companies, which were, according to William Hubbard, the last to enter and the first to retreat.
Instead of Church, it was Samuel Moseley who once again led the charge. Moseley and his privateers were assisted by a pack of dogs, but even they proved of limited effectiveness in the Pocasset Swamp. As far as the English were concerned, the Indians, who camouflaged themselves with tree branches and ferns, were virtually invisible in this dark, wet, and densely overgrown environment. While the leather shoes of the English succumbed to the sucking mud, the Indians danced weightlessly across the mire, their flintlocks cradled in their arms. Needless to say, the English matchlocks and pikes proved ineffective in these conditions, so ineffective, in fact, that it would soon become illegal for a militiaman to equip himself with anything but a flintlock and a sword.
Almost as soon as Moseley’s men entered the swamp, five of them were dead, the bullets flying, it seemed, from the vegetation itself. The Indians quickly retreated deeper into the gloom, deserting close to a hundred wigwams made of bark so green that they proved impossible to burn. The English came upon an old man, who was unable to keep up with the others, and who told them that Philip had just been there.
For the next few hours, they ranged about the swamp, but soon discovered, in Hubbard’s words, “how dangerous it is to fight in such dismal woods, when their eyes were muffled with the leaves, and their arms pinioned with the thick boughs of the trees, as their feet were continually shackled with the roots spreading every way in those boggy woods.” Several soldiers found themselves firing on their own men, and as darkness came on, all of them gladly gave up the chase and retreated to more solid ground.
That night, Major Cudworth, the leader of the Plymouth forces, decided that he had had his fill of swamps. They would do as they had done on Mount Hope: instead of pursuing the enemy, they’d build a fort. Cudworth and his fellow officers preferred to think that they now had Philip and Weetamoo trapped. If they carefully guarded the swamp and prevented the Indians from escaping, they hoped to starve them out. In addition to the soldiers stationed at forts on Mount Hope and in Pocasset, Cudworth proposed that there be a small “flying army,” whose purpose was to prevent the Indians from “destroying cattle and fetching in supply of food, which being attended, will bring them to great straits.” If this strategy worked—and he had every reason to believe it would—the war was effectively over. Since there was now no need for a large army, most of the companies from Massachusetts-Bay, including Moseley’s, were sent back to Boston.
There was unsettling evidence, however, that Philip was not the only Indian sachem at war. A week earlier, on July 14, what appeared to have been Nipmucks from the interior of Massachusetts had fallen on the town of Mendon, twenty miles to the west of Boston, and killed six people. Closer to home, Philip’s brother-in-law Tuspaquin, the Black Sachem, had laid waste to Middleborough, while Totoson from the Buzzards Bay region, just to the west of Cape Cod, had attacked the town of Dartmouth, burning houses and killing several inhabitants. While yet another “losing fort” was being constructed at Pocasset, Church accompanied the 112 Plymouth soldiers sent to aid Dartmouth.
Unlike the towns to the east on Cape Cod and the islands, where many of the local Indians were Christian and remained faithful to the English throughout the war, Dartmouth was surrounded by hostile Natives. Every English house, except for three garrisons, had been destroyed, and the decision was quickly made to evacuate all the town’s inhabitants to Plymouth.
What seems never to have occurred to Major Cudworth, who led the expedition to Dartmouth, and to Captain Henchman, who was left to build the Pocasset fort, was that Totoson’s attack might have been a diversion. On July 30, word reached Henchman that the Indians he was supposedly guarding in the Pocasset Swamp were no longer there. Several hundred Pokanokets and Pocassets had been sighted almost twenty miles to the west of the Taunton River, and they were headed north toward Nipmuck country.
After fleeing across Mount Hope Bay to the Pocasset Swamp, Philip realized that he must escape from Plymouth Colony. Otherwise the Pokanokets would, as Cudworth had predicted, begin to starve to death. He must find a way to reach his father’s old haunts among the Nipmucks, approximately sixty miles to the northwest.
They must somehow cross the Taunton River just above Mount Hope Bay and move with lightning speed past the settlements of Taunton and Rehoboth before crossing a stretch of flat, open country known as the Seekonk Plain to the Seekonk River. Once they’d forded the river, they would head north to the Nipmucks. About a hundred women, children, and elderly were judged to be too weak to complete the journey, and as the night of the escape approached, there were undoubtedly many tearful good-byes.
The English had built their fort at the southern end of the Pocasset Swamp, near where the Taunton River flows into Mount Hope Bay. Philip and Weetamoo headed north, working their way up the full seven-mile length of the swamp over ground the English considered impassable. Since the Taunton River was between them and potential freedom to the west, and they no longer had any canoes, this strategy had the benefit of taking them to where the river was fordable. On a night at the end of July, at dead low tide, probably in the vicinity of modern Dighton, where the river is less than an eighth of a mile wide, 250 of Philip’s and Weetamoo’s warriors, accompanied by a large number of women and children (including Philip’s wife and their eight-year-old son), prepared to cross the Taunton River. They constructed crude rafts of driftwood, and after wading out to the center of the stream, they swam and floated their way to the western bank. As dawn approached, they clambered onto shore and disappeared into the woods.
On July 30, some residents of Taunton were astonished to see several hundred Indians making their way west. A messenger was sent to Rehoboth, a village situated some ten miles west of the modern town of that name, where the minister, Noah Newman, began to organize a party of volunteers to pursue Philip. Also in Rehoboth was a group of approximately fifty newly arrived Mohegan Indians under the command of Uncas’s son Oneco. Many in New England had wondered how the Mohegans would respond to word of the Pokanoket revolt, especially since Philip was known to have sought Uncas’s support that spring. The Mohegans’ decision to remain loyal to the English was one of the few pieces of good news the colonies received in the summer of 1675, and Uncas’s son eagerly joined the chase.
By sunset of July 31, the English and Mohegans had pursued Philip across the Seekonk River into the vicinity of modern North Providence. The trail headed northwest for another ten or so miles, and with it now almost totally dark, several Mohegan scouts were sent up ahead. They reported hearing the sounds of wood being chopped as Philip’s men made camp. Leaving their horses behind with some attendants, the English and Mohegans continued on foot another three miles until they reached a region known as Nipsachuck, in modern Smithfield, Rhode Island.
It had been hoped that Captain Henchman and his men, who had sailed from Pocasset to Providence, would have joined them by now. But even without reinforcements, they decided they must engage the enemy. As they prepared to attack in the predawn twilight, five Pocassets from Weetamoo’s camp, apparently out foraging for food, stumbled upon them. Shots were fired, and the battle began.
The fighting lasted until nine in the morning, when Philip’s and Weetamoo’s men were forced to retreat into a nearby swamp. They had suffered catastrophic casualties—losing twenty-three men, including Nimrod, one of Philip’s bravest warriors, while the English had lost only two.
Philip had lost even more men to desertion, and he and his sixty or so remaining warriors were on the verge of surrender as they huddled at the edge of the Nipsachuck Swamp. They were starving, exhausted, and almost out of gunpowder, with several hundred women and children depending on them for protection. But instead of pursuing the enemy, Captain Henchman, who did not arrive from Providence until after the fighting was over, decided to wait until the Mohegans had finished stripping the bodies of the dead. Not until the next morning did he order his men to break camp and pursue Philip.
By then it was too late. Both Weetamoo and Philip had managed to escape. They hadn’t gone far when Weetamoo, who had been a reluctant ally of Philip’s since the very beginning of the war, decided she must leave her brother-in-law. Many of the women and children were unable to go on much farther. Even if it might mean capture and certain death, the Pocasset sachem resolved that she and two hundred women and children, along with a handful of their husbands and fathers, must seek sanctuary among the nearby Narragansetts to the south. Philip’s forces, now down to just forty warriors and a hundred or so women and children, continued north until they were met by several Nipmuck warriors, who escorted them to a remote, well-guarded village at Menameset in modern New Braintree, Massachusetts.
Three times Philip had avoided what seemed like certain capture, but he had been driven from his homeland. His original fighting force of approximately 250 warriors was down to 40, only 30 of whom had guns. The Pokanokets were, for all practical purposes, defeated. Yet by fighting his way out of Plymouth Colony, Philip was poised to transform a local squabble into a regionwide conflagration.
The Pokanokets were devastated, but the Nipmucks were ready to take up the fight. Just a few days before, they had laid waste to the frontier town of Brookfield, Massachusetts. On Friday, August 6, Philip was greeted by three of the Nipmucks’ most powerful sachems. Philip possessed a coat made of wampum, and he used it to good effect. Unstringing the valuable white and purple shell beads, he gave “about a peck” to each of the sachems, “which,” according to an eyewitness, “they accepted.”
Philip had been the beneficiary of his father’s foresight and planning. By moving to Nipmuck country in 1657, Massasoit had given his son both an exit strategy from Mount Hope and an army to take up his cause.
In the months ahead, Philip continued to cut “his coat to pieces” as he ritualistically secured the cooperation of sachems from Connecticut to modern Maine. “[B]y this means,” William Hubbard wrote, “Philip…kindl[ed] the flame of war…wherever he [went].”