UPON THE RETURN of her husband in August to her family’s home in Duxbury, Alice Church did as many a soldier’s wife had done before and has done since: she almost instantly became pregnant. In the months ahead, as a son grew in the womb of Alice Church, the war that had begun in New England’s oldest colony spread with terrifying speed to the newest and most distant settlements in the region. The frontier of Massachusetts, which included the Connecticut River valley and modern New Hampshire and Maine, erupted into violence, while a sudden and eerie placidity came to Plymouth. As they all knew, it was yet another calm before yet another storm.
The war in Massachusetts had begun in earnest on August 2 with the Nipmucks’ attack on the town of Brookfield, one of the most isolated settlements in the colony. Set in the midst of the wilderness between the towns outside Boston and those along the Connecticut River, Brookfield possessed just twenty houses and was a day’s journey from its nearest neighbor, Springfield. As happened with frightening frequency in the months ahead, the fighting began with an ambush. A diplomatic delegation from Boston, hoping to establish peace with the Nipmucks, was suddenly attacked from a hillside overlooking the forest path. Eight English, including three residents of Brookfield, were killed, with just a handful of survivors managing to ride back to town. Soon after their arrival, several hundred Nipmucks descended on Brookfield, and one of the most legendary sieges in the history of New England was under way.
For two days, eighty people, most of them women and children, gathered in the home of Sergeant John Ayres, one of those killed in the ambush. When the Indians were not burning the rest of the town to the ground, they were firing on the house with guns and flaming arrows, forcing the English to chop holes through the roof and walls so that they could douse the fires. At one point the Nipmucks loaded a cart full of flaming rags and pushed it up against the side of the house. If not for a sudden shower of rain, the garrison would surely have become an inferno. Finally, on the night of August 3, fifty troopers under the command of Major Simon Willard came to the rescue, and the Nipmucks dispersed.
Detail from John Seller’s 1675 map of New England
With the attack on Brookfield, inhabitants throughout the western portion of the colony began to fear that they would be next, especially when the Nipmucks moved on Lancaster on August 22 and killed eight English. On August 24, a council of war was held at the town of Hatfield on the Connecticut River, where concerns were voiced about the loyalty of the neighboring Indians. A force of one hundred English was sent out, and the Indians, many of whom did not want to go to war, had no choice but to join the fight against the English. What became known as the battle of South Deerfield resulted in the deaths of nine English and twenty-six Indians as the war quickly spread up and down the river valley. When, four days later, a tremendous hurricane battered the New England coast, the Indians’ powwows predicted that the number of English dead would equal the number of trees “blown down in the woods.”
On September 3, Richard Beers was sent with thirty-six men to evacuate the town of Northfield. Unaware of the Indians’ use of concealment as a tactical weapon, Beers led his men into an ambush and twenty-one were killed. On September 17, a day of public humiliation was declared in Boston. Colonists were told to refrain from “intolerable pride in clothes and hair [and] the toleration of so many taverns.” But the Lord remained unmoved. The following day proved to be, according to Hubbard, “that most fatal day, the saddest that ever befell New England.”
Captain Thomas Lathrop, sixty-five, was escorting seventy-nine evacuees from the town of Deerfield. They were about to ford a small stream when several of the soldiers laid their guns aside to gather some ripe autumn grapes. At that moment, hundreds of Indians burst out of the undergrowth. Fifty-seven English were killed, turning the brown waters of what was known as Muddy Brook bright red with gore. From then on, the stream was called Bloody Brook. For the Indians, it was an astonishingly easy triumph. “[T]he heathen were wonderfully animated,” Increase Mather wrote, “some of them triumphing and saying, that so great a slaughter was never known, and indeed in their wars one with another, the like hath rarely been heard of.” But the fighting was not over yet.
Captain Samuel Moseley and his men happened to be nearby, and they heard gunshots. By this time, Moseley was widely known as Massachusetts-Bay’s most ferocious Indian fighter. An early proponent of the doctrine that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, Moseley refused to trust Native scouts and had nothing but contempt for the colony’s Praying Indians. In August he countermanded orders and burned the wigwams of the friendly Penacooks in New Hampshire; soon after, he seized a group of Praying Indians on a trumped-up charge, strung them together by the neck, and marched them into Boston for punishment. Since Moseley was related to the governor and was now a popular hero, he felt free to do anything he wanted. He also enjoyed shocking the authorities back in Boston. That fall he blithely related in official correspondence that he had ordered a captive Indian woman “be torn in pieces by dogs.”
There was no Englishman the Indians hated more, and when Moseley took the field at Bloody Brook, the Nipmuck warriors shouted, “Come on, Moseley, come on. You want Indians. Here are enough Indians for you.” For the next six hours Moseley and his men put up a tremendous fight. Scorning the Natives’ scattered style of warfare, Moseley ordered his vastly outnumbered men to remain together as a unit as they marched back and forth through the Natives’ ranks, firing relentlessly. After hours of fighting, Moseley was forced to ask his two lieutenants to take the lead while he, according to Hubbard, “took a little breath, who was almost melted with laboring, commanding, and leading his men through the midst of the enemy.” If not for the arrival of Major Robert Treat and some friendly Mohegans at dusk, Moseley and his men might have been annihilated. The next day, sixty-four Englishmen were buried in a single mass grave.
Less than a month later, on October 5, the Indians fell on Spring-field. By day’s end, thirty-two houses and twenty-five barns had been burned; several mills had been destroyed and tons of provisions. In all of Springfield, only thirteen of more than seventy-five houses and barns were left standing. “I believe forty families are utterly destitute of subsistence,” John Pynchon, son of the town’s founder, wrote; “the Lord show mercy to us. I see not how it is possible for us to live here this winter…, the sooner we [are] helped off, the better.” Pynchon, who had been named the region’s military commander, was so shaken by the devastation that he asked to be relieved of his duties.
Prior to the attack, Springfield had enjoyed a long history of good relations with the local Indians. For many Puritans, the burning of Springfield proved once and for all that all Indians—friend and foe alike—were, in Hubbard’s words, “the children of the devil, full of all subtlety and malice.”
In this climate of mounting paranoia and racial bigotry, the presence of the Praying Indians, situated in their own self-contained villages within a thirty-mile radius of Boston, became intolerable to most New Englanders. When the minister John Eliot and Captain Daniel Gookin, superintendent to the Praying Indians, dared to defend the Indians against unsubstantiated charges of deceit, they received death threats. Finally, Massachusetts authorities determined that the Praying Indians must be relocated to an internment camp on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. On the night of October 30, hundreds of Praying Indians were gathered at a dock on the Charles River. As they prepared to board the three awaiting ships, a scene startlingly reminiscent of the Pilgrims’ departure from Delfshaven was enacted. Gookin related “how submissively and Christianly and affectionately those poor souls carried it, seeking encouragement, and encouraging and exhorting one another with prayers and tears at the time of the embarkment, being, as they told some, in fear that they should never return more to their habitations.” The ships left at midnight, and in the months ahead, hundreds of Indians died of starvation and exposure on the bleak shores of Deer Island.
By the end of October, New Englanders were desperate for even the most meager scrap of positive news. So many refugees from the towns to the west had flooded Boston that Pynchon’s replacement as military commander, Major Samuel Appleton, was instructed to forbid any more inhabitants from leaving their settlements without official permission. Massachusetts-Bay and Connecticut were already beginning to run low on food, and in October both colonies embargoed trade in provisions. Some of the bloodiest scenes of the war had occurred in coastal Maine, where the scattered settlement pattern made the inhabitants particularly susceptible to Indian attack. In the months ahead, conditions became so desperate that some Massachusetts authorities considered the possibility of building a palisade wall from the Concord to the Charles rivers and abandoning all the territory to the north, west, and south to the Indians. Since this would effectively have cut off all the settlements in Maine, New Hampshire, and the Connecticut River valley, the wall was never built.
Adding to the fears and frustrations of the English was the elusiveness of the man who had started the conflict. By November, Philip had become an almost mythic figure in the imagination of the Puritans, who saw his hand in every burning house and lifeless English body. In the years to come, traditions sprang up in the river valley of how Philip moved from cave to cave and mountaintop to mountaintop, where he watched with satisfaction as fire and smoke arose from the towns along the blue necklace of the Connecticut.
The truth, however, is less romantic. Instead of being everywhere, Philip appears to have spent much of the summer and fall holed up near the modern Massachusetts-Vermont state border. While he and his handful of poorly equipped warriors may have participated in some of the victories that season, Philip was certainly not the mastermind behind a coordinated plan of Native attack. Indeed, there are no documented instances of his having been present at a single battle in the fall of 1675. Instead of being heralded as a hero, Philip appears to have been resented by more than a few Indians in the Connecticut River valley. One well-known warrior in the Hadley region even attempted to kill the Pokanoket sachem, “alleging,” an Indian later recounted, “that Philip had begun a war with the English that had brought great trouble upon them.” Although unsuccessful, the assassination attempt indicated that Philip was hardly the dominant and controlling force the English claimed him to be. Rather than looking to the Pokanoket sachem for direction, the Nipmucks and the river valley Indians, as well as the Abenakis in New Hampshire and Maine, were fighting this war on their own.
With Philip having vanished like smoke into the western wilderness, and with unrest and fear growing by the day among the English, colonial authorities needed a foe they could see and fight. To the south, occupying a large and fertile territory claimed by both Massachusetts and Connecticut but presently a part of the infidel colony of Rhode Island, was the largest tribe in the region: the Narragansetts. To date, their sachems had signed two different treaties pledging their loyalty to the English. However, many New Englanders believed that the Narragansetts were simply biding their time. Come spring, when the leaves had returned to the trees, they would surely attack. “[T]his false peace hath undone this country,” Mary Pray wrote from Providence on October 20.
The colonial forces determined that as proof of their loyalty the Narragansetts must turn over any and all Pokanokets and Pocassets who were in their midst—especially the female sachem Weetamoo. When an October 28 deadline came and went and no Indians had been surrendered, the decision was made. “The sword having marched eastward and westward and northward,” Increase Mather wrote, “now beginneth to face toward the south.”
Some Englishmen privately admitted that if the Narragansetts had chosen to join Philip in July, all would have been lost. As the Nipmucks assailed them from the west, the far more powerful Narragansetts might have stormed up from the south, and Boston would have been overrun by a massive pan-Indian army. But instead of acknowledging the debt they owed the Narragansetts, the Puritans resolved to wipe them out.
The United Colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth determined to mount the largest army New England had ever seen. From now on, all hope for negotiation was lost. In December, one thousand soldiers, representing close to 5 percent of the region’s male English population, would invade the colony of Rhode Island, which refused to participate in the attack. The leader of this mammoth force was to be Plymouth’s own Josiah Winslow. Serving as General Winslow’s trusted aide was none other than Benjamin Church.
Winslow had originally requested that Church command a company of Plymouth soldiers. But he had declined. In his narrative, he gives no reason for the refusal, saying only he “crave[d] excuse from taking commission.” Church was still angry over the enslavement of the Indians the previous summer. In addition, it’s probable that he had his doubts about the efficacy of attacking a huge and so far neutral Indian tribe. But there may have been other, more personal reasons for turning down the commission.
As his decision to settle in the wilderness of Sakonnet might indicate, Church preferred to do things his own way. And as the Pease Field Fight had shown, he enjoyed being in charge. Being part of a vast English army was not something that appealed to him. But when General Winslow proposed that he serve as his aide, Church was unable to resist the opportunity to advise the most powerful person in Plymouth Colony.
Church and Winslow rode together to Boston. After meeting with Massachusetts officials, they headed to Dedham Plain, where more than 450 soldiers and troopers were assembling as similar groups gathered in Taunton, Plymouth, and New London. Quotas had been assigned to each colony, with 527 soldiers coming from Massachusetts, 158 from Plymouth, and 325 from Connecticut.
The Massachusetts forces were under the command of Major Appleton, a veteran of the war in the western frontier, with the companies under his command headed by Captains Moseley, Issac Johnson, Joseph Gardner, Nathaniel Davenport, and James Oliver, and a troop of horse under Captain Prentice. The Connecticut forces were under Major Treat, another veteran commander, with Captains Nathaniel Seeley, John Gallop, John Mason, and Thomas Watts heading up the companies. Plymouth’s two companies were under Captains William Bradford and John Gorham.
December 2 was declared a day of prayer throughout New England. According to Increase Mather, “the churches were all upon their knees before the Lord, the God of Armies, entreating his favor and gracious success in the undertaking.” On December 8, Winslow and his soldiers departed from Dedham. After a night at Woodcock’s garrison in modern North Attleboro, the army arrived at Seekonk along the Seekonk River. Winslow ordered Church to sail directly for their next destination, Smith’s garrison in Wickford, Rhode Island, while he led the troops on the land route through Providence. That way Church could prepare for his arrival; it also provided Church with the opportunity to share a boat ride with the redoubtable Samuel Moseley.
By this time in the war, Moseley was almost as mythic a figure as Philip himself, while Church, with the exception of the Pease Field Fight, had accomplished almost nothing. If word of Church’s righteous indignation over the enslavement of the Indians at Dartmouth and Plymouth had reached Moseley, the former privateer would undoubtedly have viewed the Plymouth carpenter as misguided and weak. It could only be hoped that General Winslow would not rely too heavily on the advice of his softhearted aide.
For his part, Church resolved to prove that he was as skilled at capturing Indians as anyone in New England. Church had been ordered to prepare for Winslow’s arrival. But instead of remaining at Smith’s garrison in Wickford, Church teamed up with some “brisk blades” from Rhode Island and set out that night in search of Indians. It was a cold December night, but they had the benefit of a nearly full moon. By sunrise the next day, Church and his men had returned to the garrison with eighteen captive Indians. As it turned out, Moseley had also been out that night, and he, too, had captured eighteen Indians.
Winslow and his army had already arrived by the time Church and Moseley returned to Wickford. “The general, pleased with the exploit,” Church wrote, “gave them thanks, particularly Mr. Church, the mover and chief actor of the business.” There were two Indian children in Church’s group, and Winslow decided to make a present of these “likely boys” and send them to friends in Boston. The general grinned at Church and said that “his faculty would supply them with Indians boys enough before the war was ended.” As Winslow had made clear last August, slaves were one of the spoils of war.
Moseley had captured an Indian named Peter, who because of a falling-out with one of the Narragansett sachems was willing to talk. Peter claimed the tribe possessed a total of three thousand “fighting men,” most of them gathered together with their women and children in the depths of a giant swamp to the southwest. As the English had learned in pursuing Philip, under normal conditions it was almost impossible to fight the Indians in a swamp. But these were not normal conditions. It had been a bitterly cold December, so cold that the wet-lands had frozen solid. As a consequence, Winslow could now take his army just about anywhere. The real problem was how to find the Narragansetts. It was true that there were no leaves on the trees, but the swamplands around modern Kingston, Rhode Island, were still so dense with undergrowth that even the most experienced guide would have difficulty navigating them to the Indians’ lair. Peter, however, claimed he could find it.
For them to move on the Narragansetts, Winslow had to march his army south to Jireh Bull’s garrison in modern Narragansett, Rhode Island. From there it should be a six-to seven-mile march to the swamp. But on December 15, Winslow received disturbing news. The Indians had attacked the garrison, killing fifteen people and burning it to the ground, effectively robbing him of a location from which to launch the attack. Even more troubling was that the Connecticut soldiers under the command of Major Treat had not yet arrived. Two days later, Winslow learned that Treat and 300 English and 150 friendly Mohegan and Pequot Indians had arrived at the burned-out shell of Bull’s garrison. The next day, Winslow’s force set out to the south, arriving at the garrison around five in the evening.
The next day was a Sunday, but Winslow decided he had no choice but to attack. Otherwise his entire army might freeze and starve to death. The frigid temperatures had frozen in the supply ships that were to provide his soldiers with food. Most of his men had only enough provisions to last them a single day. With the garrison in ruins, his army had no shelter during one of the coldest nights in New England’s history. The temperature was not only bitterly cold, it had begun to snow. “That night was very snowy,” Captain Oliver wrote. “We lay a thousand in the open field that long night.” By morning, the snow was two to three feet deep. Even before the men headed out at 5 A.M., the hands of many were so frostbitten that they were unable to work their muskets.
For eight hours they marched without stop through the drifting snow, with Moseley’s company in the lead and with the soldiers from Connecticut taking up the rear. What was to have been just a seven-mile trek proved more than double that as the army was forced to follow a circuitous route along the high ground to the north. Finally, around 1 p.m., they came to the edge of a dense swamp. Indians began to fire from the trees and bushes, and Peter announced that they had arrived at their destination. Winslow appears to have had no particular plan of what to do next. Two Massachusetts companies, led by Captains Johnson and Davenport, pursued the Indians into the swamp “without,” Hubbard wrote, “staying for word of command, as if everyone were ambitious who should go first.”
They had not gone far when they were presented with a truly aweinspiring sight. Ahead of them, looming above the frozen, snow-covered swamp, was a huge wooden fort. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. Set on a five-acre island and containing approximately five hundred wigwams and thousands of Indians, the fort combined elements of Native and European design. In addition to a palisade wall of vertically planted tree trunks, the fort was surrounded by a sixteen-foot-thick “hedge” of clay and brushwork. At the fort’s corners and exposed points were flankers and what the English described as blockhouses—structures made of tree branches from which the Indians could fire at anyone attempting to scale the wall. The fort had a single point of entry, where a massive tree trunk spanned a moatlike sheet of frozen water. Any Englishman who attempted to cross the tree trunk would be picked off by the Indians long before he made it into the fort. If they had any hope of breaching the wall, they must find another way in.
Peter, their Indian guide, was not sure whether there was, in fact, an alternative entrance. Hubbard later insisted that it was God who led the English to the one place where there was a possibility of piercing the Indians’ defenses. In a remote corner of the fort there was a section that appeared to be unfinished. Instead of vertical logs and a thick clay barrier, there was a section of horizontally laid tree trunks that was just four feet high and wide enough for several men to scramble into the fort at a time. But what soon became known as the “trees of death” was probably not, as the English assumed, an unfinished portion of the fort. Rather than an Achilles’ heel, it may have been an intentional feature designed to direct the English to a single, defensible point. On either side of the gap were flankers, where Indians equipped with muskets could rake any soldiers who dared to storm the opening; there was also a blockhouse directly across from the opening to dispose of anyone who managed to enter the fort. If the Narragansetts’ supplies of gunpowder had held out throughout that long afternoon, the English would have come to realize just how ingenious the design of this fort really was.
In the end, the fort provided eloquent proof of who were the true aggressors in this conflict. Instead of joining the Pokanokets and Nipmucks, the Narragansetts had spent the fall and winter doing everything in their power to defend themselves against an unprovoked Puritan attack. If ever there was a defensive structure, it was this fort, and now a thousand English soldiers were about to do their best to annihilate a community of more than three thousand Indian men, women, and children, who asked only to be left alone.
As soldiers spread themselves along the perimeter and poured shot at the fort, the companies led by Captains Johnson and Davenport prepared to go in. With the officers leading the way, they charged the four-foot-high section of the fort. As soon as Johnson reached the logs, he was shot dead. Captain Davenport was wearing “a very good buff suit,” and it was believed the Indians mistook him for General Winslow himself. He was hit three times, and after handing his musket to his lieutenant, died of his wounds. The fire from the flankers and blockhouse was so fierce that those soldiers who were not already dead fell on their faces and waited for reinforcements.
It was now time for Captains Moseley and Gardner to give it a try. Moseley later bragged that once inside the fort he saw the muskets of fifty different Indians all trained on him. Moseley survived the onslaught, but his men were unable to make any significant progress into the fort.
Next came Major Appleton and Captain Oliver. Instead of a helterskelter rush, they organized their men into “a storming column.” Crying out, “[T]he Indians are running!” Appleton’s and Oliver’s men were able to push past their comrades from Massachusetts-Bay and take the flanker on the left side of the entrance. In addition to reducing the deadliness of the Indians’ fire by approximately a third, the capture of the flanker provided the soldiers with some much-needed protection.
Holding his own Plymouth companies in reserve, Winslow sent in the soldiers from Connecticut. Although one of the flankers had been taken, no one had informed the Connecticut officers of the danger posed by the blockhouse directly opposite the entrance. Major Treat and his men ran headlong into fire so deadly that four of five Connecticut captains were killed. The soldiers were, in Hubbard’s words, “enraged rather than discouraged by the loss of their commanders,” and pushed on into the fort.
As the fighting raged on, Benjamin Church began to regret his decision not to lead a company of his own. “[I]mpatient of being out of the heat of the action, he importunately begged leave of the general that he might run down to the assistance of his friends.” Winslow reluctantly yielded to his request, provided that Church take some soldiers with him. Thirty Plymouth men instantly volunteered, and Church and his makeshift company were on their way into battle.
Church had no sooner entered the fort than he saw “many men and several valiant captains lie slain.” There were also many Indian bodies, with more than fifty corpses piled high in a corner of the fort. To his left, fighting amid the wigwams, was a friend of Church’s, Captain Gardner of Salem. Church called out to Gardner, and the two men exchanged glances when the captain suddenly slumped to the ground. Church ran up to him and, seeing blood trickle down Gardner’s cheek, lifted up his cap. Gardner looked up at Church but “spoke not a word.” A bullet had passed through his skull, and before Church could say anything, Gardner was dead.
Studying the wound, Church realized that the bullet had come from the upland side of the swamp and therefore must have come from an English musket. As soldiers pulled Gardner’s body from the fort, Church sent word back to Winslow that English soldiers were being killed by their comrades behind them. Now that the tide had turned in the direction of the English, it was time for General Winslow to apply some method to his army’s advance. With between three hundred and four hundred soldiers inside this extremely confined space, the English posed as much a threat to themselves as did the Narragansetts, who after several hours of fighting were beginning to run out of gunpowder.
Church could see that many of the warriors had started to abandon the fort, leaving large numbers of Native women, children, and elderly trapped in their wigwams. Instead of running away, the warriors had taken up positions amid the bushes and trees of the swamp and were firing on the English soldiers inside the fort. It was clear to Church that the fort had been effectively taken. It was time for him to take care of the Indians in the swamp. Church led his men out of the fort, and they soon found “a broad bloody track,” where the Indians had dragged away their dead and dying men. They came upon an Indian who, instead of firing on them, pulled his gun across his chest in a sign of peace. Hoping to acquire some useful information, Church ordered his men not to hurt the Indian, but to Church’s “great grief and disappointment,” a soldier coming up from the rear killed the Indian before he had a chance to speak with him.
A shout erupted from the swamp, somewhere between them and the fort. It was a group of Narragansetts “running from tree to tree” as they fired on the English. Now the trick was to attack the Indians without being killed by the soldiers inside the fort. After alerting a sergeant to their presence, Church led his men to a dense clump of bushes just a few yards behind the Indians, who were preparing to fire a coordinated volley at the fort. Church and his men were about to attack them when the sergeant cried out to hold their fire; they were about to kill “friend Indians.”
But as Church soon realized, these were not Mohegans and Pequots; these were Narragansetts, and there was now, in Church’s words, “a formidable black heap of them” preparing to fire on the unwitting sergeant and anyone else unlucky enough to be near him. “Now brave boys,” Church whispered to his men, “if we mind our hits, we may have a brave shot. [L]et our sign for firing on them be their rising up to fire into the fort.” Soon after, the Indians stood up in a group to fire, but not before Church and his men gave them such an “unexpected clap on their backs” that those who were not dead were soon running in confusion. About a dozen of them even ran back into the fort and took refuge in the blockhouse.
Church and his men quickly followed and approached the blockhouse. The structure appeared to be quite rickety—Church described it as “a sort of hovel that was built with poles, after the manner of a corn crib”—and he decided that the best strategy was simply to topple it over with the Indians still inside. They were running toward the blockhouse when Church realized that one of the Narragansetts had pushed his musket through a gap in the poles and that the gun was pointed not just in his direction but at his groin.
The next thing Church knew, he had been hit by three pieces of lead. The first bullet buried itself harmlessly into a pair of mittens rolled up inside his pocket; the second cut through his breeches and drawers but only nicked him in the side; it was the third bullet that almost killed him—slicing into his thigh before glancing off his hipbone. As Church fell to the ground, he made sure to discharge his gun and wound the Indian who had wounded him.
His men rushed to his side and began to carry him out of the fort, but Church insisted that they first complete their mission, especially since the Indians had no charges left in their muskets. But as they prepared for another assault on the blockhouse, the Indians started to shoot at them with arrows, one of which cut into the arm of the soldier whom Church was clutching for support. Without their commander to lead them, the Plymouth soldiers became, in Church’s words, “discouraged” and abandoned their attempt to upset the blockhouse. But by this time Church’s attention was elsewhere.
It was approaching five in the evening, and with darkness coming on, some of the soldiers had begun to set fire to the wigwams inside the fort. This was a needless, potentially disastrous act. Not only did the wigwams contain hundreds of Native women and children; they possessed tons of provisions. In fact, there were so many baskets and tubs of corn and meat lining the interiors of the wigwams that Church claimed they had been rendered “musket-proof.” A former commissary general, he quickly assessed the situation. The colonial army was on the verge of starvation; it was already close to sundown, and there were at least sixteen snow-covered miles between them and the Smith garrison at Wickford. Dozens, if not hundreds, of men (himself included) were wounded, and a march of this length in subfreezing temperatures was tantamount to collective suicide. Instead of burning the Narragansett fort and the valuable food it held, they should take up residence in it for the night. After helping themselves to the Indians’ corn and meat and keeping themselves warm within the snug confines of the wigwams, they could set out the next day for Wickford. Someone must stop these men from torching the fort.
The orders to destroy the fort had just come from the general himself. Church pleaded with the soldiers to desist from firing the wigwams until he had a chance to speak with Winslow. With the assistance of at least one of his men, Church hobbled out of the fort to the low hill where the general surveyed the action from the saddle of his horse.
Winslow listened to Church’s impassioned appeal and, after conferring with some of the officers gathered around him, decided that the proposal had much merit. The army would do as Church had suggested and move into the fort for the night. Winslow had begun to ride toward the fort, when Captain Moseley suddenly appeared from the edge of the swamp and asked “[W]hither he was going.”
Winslow replied that he was about to enter the fort. Moseley grabbed the reins of the general’s horse and exclaimed, “His life was worth a hundred of theirs, and he should not expose himself.” Winslow said that “Mr. Church had informed him that the fort was taken…[and] that it was most practicable for him, and his army to shelter themselves in the fort.”
“Church lies!” Moseley thundered. The fort was not yet secure. If the general moved another inch, he would shoot his horse out from under him.
Had Church not been injured, he might have countered Moseley’s insubordination with a threat of his own, but as it was he was barely conscious from loss of blood. It was then that a doctor in the group joined the fray, insisting that Church’s proposal would “kill more men than the enemy had killed, for by tomorrow the wounded men will be so stiff that there will be no moving them.” Noticing that Church had a serious wound of his own, the doctor threatened to deny him medical attention if the general decided to follow his aide’s advice, claiming Church “should bleed to death like a dog before they would endeavor to stench his blood.”
It was almost laughably ironic. Throughout the weeks and months of the first phase of the war, the English had been obsessed with building forts. Now that they had a perfectly serviceable and well-stocked fort at their disposal, all they wanted to do was destroy it. The difference, of course, was that this was a Native-built structure. For Indian haters like Moseley, the idea of sleeping in a wigwam and eating the Indians’ food was abhorrent. It was far better to consume this wretched fortress in purifying fire than spend a single night living like the heathen enemy.
There was also a more justifiable fear of ambush. They had sixteen miles to cover before they reached the safety of the Smith garrison in Wickford. An Indian captive claimed that in addition to the Narragansett warriors who had survived the attack, there were another 1,500 waiting just a mile and a half away. If they did not leave immediately, before the Narragansetts had the chance to regroup, their battered and exhausted soldiers would be virtually defenseless against a well-executed Native ambush. Best to depart while the enemy was still reeling from the attack.
The Plymouth governor might have been named commander of this army, but Massachusetts-Bay was apparently in charge. Winslow once again reversed himself, and the fort, along with all its provisions and perhaps hundreds of Native women, children, and elderly, was consigned to the fire. Contemporary accounts of the battle focus on the bravery of the English officers and soldiers but make little mention of the slaughter that followed the taking of the fort. It must have been a horrendous and terrifying scene as Narragansett women and children screamed and cried amid the gunshots and the flames. Thirty-eight years before, Narragansett warriors had been sickened by the burning of the Pequot fort at Mystic, Connecticut. On this day, December 19, 1675, Pequot warriors were there to watch the Narragansetts meet a similar fate. The English later claimed that the Pequots and Mohegans had been faithless allies that day, firing their muskets up into the air rather than at the enemy. One can hardly blame them, if the claim was true.
Sometime after five o’clock, the order was given to begin the long march to Wickford. According to one account, the flames rising up from the burning fort lit the army’s way for as many as three miles through the wilderness.
It was the worst night of the soldiers’ lives. They had spent the previous night attempting to sleep on an open field in the midst of a snowstorm; that morning they had marched for eight hours and then fought for another three, and now they were slogging their way through the snow—eight hundred men lugging the bodies of more than two hundred of the dead and wounded. “And I suppose,” Church wrote, “everyone that is acquainted with the circumstances of that night’s march, deeply laments the miseries that attended them, especially the wounded and dying men.” The first ones reached the Smith garrison at 2 A.M. Winslow and his entourage became lost and did not arrive at Wickford until seven in the morning.
Twenty-two of the army’s wounded died during the march. The next afternoon, thirty-four English corpses were buried in a mass grave; six more died over the next two days. Those wounded who survived the march, including Church and Captain Bradford (who had been injured in the eye), were shipped to Newport on Aquidneck Island for medical treatment. The Puritan historian William Hubbard had an undeniable Massachusetts-Bay bias. But after interviewing many of the participants, even he had to admit that Church had been correct: “Many of our wounded men perished, which might otherwise have been preserved, if they had not been forced to march so many miles in a cold and snowy night, before they could be dressed.”
The battle became known as the Great Swamp Fight, and more than 20 percent of the English soldiers had been either killed or wounded—double the casualty rate of the American forces at D-day. Of all the colonies, Connecticut had suffered the most. Major Treat (who was the last one out of the fort) reported that four of his five captains had been killed and that eighty of his three hundred soldiers were either dead or wounded. This makes for a casualty rate of almost 30 percent—roughly equivalent to the Confederate losses at Antietam on the bloodiest day of the Civil War. Major Treat insisted that his men return to Connecticut, and despite the outraged objections of Winslow and his staff, who were already contemplating another strike against the Narragansetts, the Connecticut forces marched for Stonington on December 28.
But as Winslow knew all too well, his army was not about to go anywhere. One supply vessel had managed to make it to Wickford, but the rest of the ships were trapped in the ice of Boston Harbor. The severity of the weather meant that it took five anxious days before Bostonians heard the news of the army’s hard-fought victory.
As late as 1906 the historian George Bodge insisted that the Great Swamp Fight “was one of the most glorious victories ever achieved in our history, and considering the conditions, as displaying heroism, both in stubborn patience and dashing intrepidity, never excelled in American warfare.” It cannot be denied that the assault struck a merciless blow at the Narragansetts. Estimates varied wildly, but somewhere between 350 and 600 Native men, women, and children were either shot or incinerated that day. And yet there were still thousands of Narragansetts left alive. If they could make their way north to Nipmuck country, the number of hostile Indian warriors would be more than doubled. Instead of saving New England, Winslow’s army had only increased the danger.
Two young sachems were left to head up the remnants of the tribe: Canonchet, who had traveled to Boston that fall to carry on negotiations with Puritan officials, and Quinnapin, who had brazenly announced his defiance of the English by marrying the Pocasset sachem Weetamoo.
Before he had abandoned the fort, Canonchet had been careful to leave a message for the English. In the final minutes of the battle, as the soldiers moved from wigwam to wigwam with firebrands in their hands, one of them had found it: the treaty Canonchet had signed in Boston. The Puritans looked to the document as proof that the Narragansetts had been fully aware of their treaty violations, but as Canonchet now knew for a certainty, it was a piece of parchment that had been worthless from the start.
In the weeks ahead, Church lay in a bed in Newport, racked with fever, as his body fought off the infections associated with his wounds. The weather outside remained brutally cold—so cold that eleven of the replacement soldiers sent from Boston during the first week of January died of exposure before they reached Winslow’s army at Wickford.
On January 14, some soldiers captured a man who they at first thought was an Indian but who proved to be an Englishman. His name was Joshua Tefft, and he claimed that he had been captured by Canonchet prior to the Great Swamp Fight and forced to become his slave. He had been present at the battle but had not fired a gun. But many soldiers said they had seen him taking part in the fighting.
What made Tefft’s guilt a certainty, in many men’s minds, was his appearance. Without English clothes and with a weather-beaten face, he looked like an Indian to the English. Tefft was a troubling example of what happened to a man when the Puritan’s god and culture were stripped away and Native savagery was allowed to take over. Two days after his capture, Tefft was hanged and, as was befitting a traitor, drawn and quartered. Hubbard claimed there were few tears at his execution, “standers by being unwilling to lavish pity upon him that had divested himself of nature itself, as well as religion, in a time when so much pity was needed elsewhere.”
In the middle of January, the temperature began to rise. A thaw unlike anything seen in New England since the arrival of the Pilgrims melted the snow and ice. It was just what the Narragansetts had been waiting for. The English could no longer track them in the snow. To augment their scanty provisions, the Indians could now dig for groundnuts. The time had come for the Narragansetts to make a run for it and join Philip and the Nipmucks to the north.
On January 21, Winslow received word that the Indians were “in full flight.” Not until almost a week later, on January 27, did the army—swelled to 1,400 with the arrival of Major Treat’s Connecticut forces—begin its pursuit.
By this time, Benjamin Church had returned. He was not yet fully recovered, but he agreed to join in what was hoped to be the final knockout punch against the Indians. Reports claimed that there were 4,000 of them, including 1,800 warriors, marching north. If they should reach the wilderness of Nipmuck country, New England was in for a winter and spring of violence and suffering.
About ten miles north of Providence, Winslow’s soldiers came upon a pile of sixty horse heads. The Narragansetts were scouring the land for anything that was edible. Unfortunately, this left little for the English, who were almost as poorly provisioned as the Indians. On a few occasions, the soldiers leading the English army were able to catch a glimpse of the rear of the Narragansett exodus only to watch the Indians disappear into the forest as soon as they came under attack.
Without sufficient supplies of food and with no way to engage the enemy, the morale of the English soldiers deteriorated with each day, and desertions became endemic. The temperature started to plummet once again, and illness swept through the English ranks; even General Winslow was reported to be suffering from the flux. Several days into what became known as the Hungry March, they came upon some wigwams beside an icy swamp. After exchanging gunfire, the Indians fled, although a friendly Mohegan managed to capture a Narragansett warrior who had been wounded in the leg.
That night, the Indian captive was brought before General Winslow for interrogation. It appeared to Church that the Narragansett was surprisingly forthcoming, but some of Winslow’s advisers suggested that they torture him until he offered “a more ample confession.” Church, who doubted that the Indian had anything more to divulge, insisted that he be allowed to live. Once again, Church’s advice was ignored. It was pointed out that the captive was injured, and they were in the midst of a strenuous march. To prevent the Narragansett from slowing them down the next day, it was decided that he must be executed.
The Indian was taken over to a large bonfire, where the Mohegan who had captured him prepared to cut off his head. “[T]aking no delight in the sport,” Church limped over to where the army’s supply horses were standing in the cold, jets of steam flowing from their nostrils. Church was about fifty yards from the fire, when the Mohegan raised his hatchet. Just as the weapon was about to slice through his neck, the Narragansett jerked his head to the side and broke free of the Mohegan’s grasp. Despite his injury, he began to run—directly, it turned out, for Benjamin Church, who was concealed in the darkness beyond the glow of the fire.
Church was still so lame that he needed the help of at least two people to mount his horse. He had tents in his wounds—plugs of gauze used to promote the drainage of pus and blood. This did not prevent him from tackling the Narragansett, who was stark naked and slippery with bear grease. After rolling around together on the ground, the Indian broke free of Church’s grasp and was running once again, this time with Church in close pursuit.
Since they were both wounded, there were, in Church’s words, “no great odds in the race.” They were lumbering over a frozen swamp, and the ice crackled so loudly with each of their steps that Church hoped his English friends back at the fire would “follow the noise and come to his assistance” even though it was impossible to see much of anything in the starless night. The Indian might have escaped if he had not blundered into a tree and nearly knocked himself out.
Soon the two of them were once again rolling around on the ground. This time the Indian grabbed Church by the hair and was attempting to twist his head and break his neck. Church’s wounds had “somewhat weakened him,” but he did his best to fight back by applying several “notorious bunts in the [Indian’s] face with his head.” As they mauled each another, Church could hear the welcome sound of cracking ice approaching from the fire. It proved to be the Mohegan. Feeling for them in the dark, he determined who was the naked Indian and who was the clothed Englishman, and “with one blow settled his hatchet in between them, and ended the strife.” The Mohegan gave Church a thankful hug and then “cut off the head of his victim, and carried it to the camp.”
By February 5, the Hungry March had reached the town of Marlborough at the eastern fringes of Nipmuck country. Winslow decided that he had no choice but to disband his army. Church returned to his pregnant wife, Alice, and their son, Thomas, who had been staying with family and friends in Duxbury.
The march had been an unmitigated catastrophe. Back in December, colonial officials had hoped to wipe the Narragansetts off the face of the earth. Instead, they had flushed thousands of them into the arms of the enemy.
The Puritans had claimed it was common knowledge among the Indians that the Narragansetts were planning to join the war in the spring. However, no one seems to have informed the Nipmucks of this plan. When the first Narragansett warriors began to arrive in January, they were shot at. As far as the Nipmucks knew, they were still traitors to the cause and had, in all likelihood, joined the English. Only after the Narragansetts had presented them with English scalps as proof of their loyalty did the Nipmuck sachems begin to realize that they had a new and powerful ally. Thanks to the intervention of the English in Rhode Island, there was yet another tribe eager to take up the fight.
But where were Philip and the Pokanokets?