SICK DESPERATE, and fast becoming irrelevant to the war he had started, Philip and his small band of warriors headed more than fifty miles west to the Hudson River valley. In late December they made camp at Schaghticoke on the Hoosic River, an eastern tributary of the Hudson. It was here in the colony of New York, where a remnant of the original Dutch settlers still actively traded with the Indians and where the Hudson River provided access to the French to the north, that Philip hoped to stage his triumphant return to the war.
That fall, Philip had met with a French official on his way back to Canada after a visit to Boston. The Frenchman had presented the sachem with an ornate brass gun and pledged his country’s support in his war against the English. Specifically, he had promised Philip three hundred Indian warriors from Canada and all the powder and shot he needed. He even claimed the French navy would set up a blockade along the coast of New England to stop the flow of English supplies from Europe. But the Frenchman also had some requests of Philip. He asked that he and his warriors not burn the meetinghouses, mills, and “best houses.” “[F]or we intend to be with you in the spring before planting season…,” he said, “and possess ourselves of [the] Connecticut River and other English plantations.”
Philip was, once again, following in his father’s footsteps. He, too, was attempting to strengthen his decimated tribe through an alliance with a European power. There was no guarantee that the French would be any more trustworthy than the English in the long run, but at least for now Philip would have the warriors and ammunition he desperately needed. So he and his men, led by his principal captain, Annawon, established winter quarters at Schaghticoke and waited for the French and their Native allies.
In early January, New York governor Edmund Andros worriedly wrote to officials in New England that Philip had been joined by “3 or 400 North Indians, fighting men” at Schaghticoke. By February, Philip’s forces had reportedly grown to 2,100 and included 600 “French Indians with straws in their noses.” Although this figure was undoubtedly exaggerated, Philip had succeeded beyond all expectations in assembling one of the largest forces of Indian warriors in the region.
But there was another Native group to consider. The Mohawks, a powerful subset of the Iroquois, lived in the vicinity of Albany and were the most feared warriors in the Northeast. In addition to being the traditional enemies of the Indians of southern New England, they had a special hatred of the French and their Indian allies to the north. Yet if Philip could somehow succeed in bringing the Mohawks into the war on his side, he would be in a position to bring the New England colonies to their knees.
But Philip was not the only one seeking an alliance with the Mohawks. Governor Andros also hoped to enlist their aid. Unlike the Puritan magistrates, who viewed all Indians as potential enemies, Andros saw the Mohawks and the rest of the Iroquois as powerful independent entities that must be dealt with diplomatically rather than through force and intimidation. Andros and the Iroquois were in the midst of creating what became known as the Covenant Chain, a mutually beneficial partnership between the colony and the Iroquois that would stand for generations. It became Andros’s mission to persuade the Mohawks that Philip and the tribes to the east were a threat to that alliance. But it may have been Philip, instead of Andros, who ultimately brought the Mohawks over to the English side.
According to the Puritan historian Increase Mather, the Pokanoket sachem decided he must resort to a deception if he was going to create an alliance with the Mohawks. So he and his warriors killed a “scattering” group of Mohawks and blamed the murders on the English. Unknown to Philip, one of the Mohawks had escaped and reported that the Pokanoket sachem was behind the attack. Whether or not Philip was, as Mather maintained, the cause of his own downfall, sometime in late February, the Mohawks attacked his forces in Schaghticoke. By all accounts, it was a rout. On March 4, Governor Andros witnessed the triumphant return of the Mohawks to Albany. In addition to plenty of prisoners, they proudly displayed the scalps of the many Indians they had killed.
Once again, Philip’s forces were on the run, this time headed east, back to the Connecticut River. Instead of leading an invincible Native army, Philip was back to being a mere sachem with a reputation for grandstanding and defeat. The future of the war was in others’ hands.
His name was Job Kattenanit. He was a Praying Indian being held on Deer Island. Before he had been transported to the island, his village had been attacked by the Nipmucks, who’d taken his three children captive. By December, Job, who was a widower, was desperate to find his children, and he and another Praying Indian named James volunteered to become spies for the English. They were to infiltrate the Nipmucks at Menameset, the village near Brookfield to which Philip had fled after escaping from Plymouth, and learn anything they could about the Indians’ plans for the winter. If Job was lucky, he might also make contact with his three children. It was dangerous duty to be sure, but James and Job could truthfully tell the Nipmucks that they had been so abused and reviled by the English that they had been given no choice but to leave them.
James was the first to return, on January 24. He reported that the Nipmucks had at first threatened to kill them, but a sachem who had fought with James against the Mohawks several years earlier spoke in his defense, and they had been allowed to live. Job had located his children, who were all still alive, and he had decided to remain with them at Menameset for as long as possible. James reported to Daniel Gookin that the Nipmucks had “rejoiced much” when they learned that the Narragansetts had been forced to join their struggle. Now that most of the English towns along the Massachusetts portion of the Connecticut River had been abandoned, the Indians planned to attack the settlements to the east, including Medfield, Marlborough, Sudbury, Groton, and Concord, but it would begin with Lancaster. James even knew the details of how the Nipmucks planned to do it. First they would destroy the bridge that provided the only access point to the settlement from the east. Knowing that there was no way for English reinforcements to reach it, the Indians could burn the town with impunity.
Much of what James said was corroborated by other reports. But the Massachusetts authorities chose to dismiss his warnings as the untrustworthy testimony of just another Indian. General Winslow and his army were then doing their best to eliminate the Nipmuck-Narragansett menace, and it was hoped the Indians would be unable to resume their attacks. But by early February, Winslow’s army had been disbanded, leaving the western portion of the colony more vulnerable than ever before. Then, at ten o’clock on the night of February 9, Daniel Gookin was awakened by an urgent pounding on the door of his home in Cambridge. It was Job.
Like James before him, he had traveled with “rackets on his feet” through the drifting snow of the western frontier. He was starving and exhausted; he was already fearful of what might happen to his children, whom he had been forced to leave with the Nipmucks; but he felt a responsibility to tell Gookin that everything James had reported was true. Four hundred Nipmucks and Narragansetts were about to descend on Lancaster, and there was very little time. The attack was scheduled to begin tomorrow, February 10, at daybreak.
Gookin leaped out of bed and sent a dispatch to Marlborough, where Captain Samuel Wadsworth and about forty troops were stationed. The messenger rode all that night, and by morning Wadsworth and his men were riding furiously for Lancaster, about ten miles away. As both James and Job had predicted, the bridge had been burned, but Wadsworth and his troops were able to get their horses across its still-smoldering timbers. Up ahead the English soldiers could see smoke rising into the sky and hear the shouts of the Indians and the firing of muskets. The attack had already begun.
Mary Rowlandson was thirty-eight years old, and the mother of three children—Joseph, eleven; Mary, ten; and Sarah, six. In a few years’ time she would be the author of The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, an account of her capture by the Indians that became one of America’s first bestsellers. But on February 10, 1676, she was simply the wife of Lancaster’s minister, John Rowlandson, who was away in Boston urging the authorities to provide his town with some protection.
As the wife of a minister, Mary was one of Lancaster’s foremost citizens. Instead of Goodwife Rowlandson, she was addressed as Mistress Rowlandson. Adding to her stature in the community was the fact that her father, John White, had been one of Lancaster’s earliest and wealthiest residents, and Mary had six brothers and sisters, many of whom still lived in town. Mary and John’s large home, built beside a hill and with a barn nearby, served as the town’s social center. Mary especially enjoyed the nights before and after the Sabbath, “when my family was about me, and relations and neighbors with us, we could pray and sing, and then refresh our bodies with [food from] the good creatures of God.”
On the morning of February 10, the residents of Lancaster had taken the precaution of gathering in five different garrisons, one of which included the Rowlandson home. When the Indians attacked at daybreak, there were between forty and fifty men, women, and children assembled in the Rowlandson garrison.
First they heard the musket fire in the distance. When they looked cautiously out the windows, they could see that several houses were already burning. They could hear shouts and screams as the Indians worked their way from house to house until suddenly they too were under attack.
Dozens of Indians took up positions on the barn roof and on the hill behind the house and began firing on the garrison “so that the bullets seemed to fly like hail.” In no time at all, three of the men stationed at the windows had been hit, one of them quite badly in the jaw. The Indians found large quantities of flax and hemp in the barn, and jamming the combustibles up against the sides of the house, they attempted to set the clapboards on fire. One of the men was able to douse the flames with a bucket of water, but the Indians “quickly fired it again,” Rowlandson wrote, “and that took.” Soon the roof of the house was a roaring maelstrom of flame. “Now is the dreadful hour come,” she remembered. “Some in our house were fighting for their lives, others wallowing in their blood, the house on fire over our heads, and the bloody heathen ready to knock us on the head if we stirred out.” Mothers and children were “crying out for themselves and one another, ‘Lord, what shall we do?’”
With six-year-old Sarah in her arms and her other two children and a niece clustered around her, she resolved “to go forth and leave the house.” But as they approached the doorway, the Indians unleashed a volley of “shot so thick that the bullets rattled against the house as if one had taken a handful of stones and threw them.” Mary and the children paused, but with the flames roaring behind them, they had no choice but to push ahead, even though they could see the Indians waiting for them with their muskets, hatchets, and spears. Her brother-in-law John, already wounded, was the first to die. The Indians shouted and began to strip his body of clothes as they continued firing at anyone who dared leave the house. Rowlandson was hit in the side, the bullet passing through her and into the abdomen of the child she clutched protectively in her arms. Her nephew William’s leg was broken by a bullet, and he was soon killed with a hatchet. “Thus were we butchered by those merciless heathen,” she wrote, “standing amazed, with the blood running down to our heels.” Rowlandson’s oldest sister, who had not yet left the house and had just seen her son and brother-in-law killed, cried out, “Lord let me die with them!” Almost immediately, she was struck by a bullet and fell down dead across the threshold of the house.
A 1771 woodcut depicting the attack on Mary Rowlandson’s house
An Indian grabbed Rowlandson and told her to come with him. Indians had also seized her children Joseph and Mary and were pulling them in the opposite direction. Unbeknownst to Rowlandson, Wadsworth and his troopers had just arrived, and the Indians had decided it was time to leave. She cried out for her children but was assured that if she went along quietly, they would not be harmed. Rowlandson had anticipated this moment and, like many New Englanders, had vowed that “if the Indians should come, I should choose rather to be killed by them than be taken alive.” But now, in the presence of the Natives’ “glittering weapons” and with Sarah in her arms, she thought differently. She and twenty-three others were taken that day and so began what she later described as “that grievous captivity.”
They spent the first night on a hill overlooking the smoldering wreck of Lancaster. A vacant house stood on the hill, and Rowlandson asked if she and her injured daughter might sleep inside. “What, will you love Englishmen still?” mocked the Indians, who exultantly feasted on roasted cattle while Rowlandson and the others were given nothing to eat. “Oh the roaring and singing and dancing and yelling of those black creatures in the night,” she remembered, “which made the place a lively resemblance of hell.”
They left early the next morning. Rowlandson’s wounds had begun to fester, making it impossible for her to carry her daughter. One of the Indians had a horse, and he offered to hold Sarah, who whimpered, “I shall die, I shall die” as Rowlandson staggered behind “with [a] sorrow that cannot be expressed.” That night she sat in the snow with her fever-racked daughter in her lap. “[T]he Lord upheld me with His gracious and merciful spirit,” she remembered, “and we were both alive to see the light of the next morning.”
That afternoon they arrived at the great Nipmuck gathering spot of Menameset. There Rowlandson met Robert Pepper, a captive now for more than five months. Pepper told her to lay oak leaves on her wound, a Native remedy that had helped his injured leg and would also cure Rowlandson. But there was nothing to be done for little Sarah. “I sat much alone with a poor wounded child in my lap,” she wrote, “which moaned night and day, having nothing to revive the body or cheer the spirits.” Finally on February 18, nine days after being shot, Sarah died.
Before this, Rowlandson had been horrified even to be in the same room with a corpse. Now her daughter’s dead body was the only source of comfort she possessed, and that night she slept in the snow with Sarah cradled to her breast. The next morning, the Indians buried her child on the top of a nearby hill. “I have thought since of the wonderful goodness of God to me,” Rowlandson wrote, “in preserving me in the use of my reason and sense, in that distressed time, that I did not use wicked and violent means to end my own miserable life.” Instead, she went in search of her other two children.
There were more than two thousand Indians gathered at Menameset. Rowlandson had learned that her ten-year-old daughter Mary was living somewhere nearby. That day as she wandered from wigwam to wigwam, she found her. But when her daughter began to sob uncontrollably, the girl’s master told Rowlandson that she must leave—“a heart-cutting word to me.” “I could not sit still in this condition,” she remembered, “but kept walking from one place to another.” She prayed to the Lord that he would show her “some sign, and hope of some relief.” Soon after, she heard her son’s voice.
Joseph had been taken to a village about six miles away. His master’s wife had agreed to bring him to his mother, and “with tears in his eyes, he asked me whether his sister Sarah was dead…and prayed…that I would not be troubled in reference to himself.” It was too brief a visit, but Rowlandson could not help but interpret her son’s appearance as God’s “gracious answer to my earnest and unfeigned desire.”
The next day, February 22, several hundred warriors returned from a raid on the town of Medfield, twenty miles southwest of Boston. There had been about two hundred soldiers quartered in the town, but even this sizable force was not enough to prevent the Indians from burning close to fifty houses and killing more than a dozen inhabitants. Even worse, the Indians had the audacity to leave a note. One of the Indians had been formerly employed as a typesetter in Cambridge. Known as James the Printer, he undoubtedly penned the letter that was found stuffed into a gap in a nearby bridge: “Know by this paper, that the Indians that thou hast provoked to wrath and anger, will war this twenty-one years if you will; there are many Indians yet, we come three hundred at this time. You must consider the Indians lost nothing but their life; you must lose your fair houses and cattle.”
When the war party returned to Menameset, the warriors shouted a total of twenty-three times to indicate how many English had been killed. “Oh! The outrageous roaring and hooping that there was…,” Rowlandson wrote. “Oh, the hideous insulting and triumphing that there was over some Englishmen’s scalps that they had taken.” One of the Indians had brought back a Bible from the raid, and he offered it to Rowlandson. She immediately turned to chapter 30 of Deuteronomy and read, “though we were scattered from one end of the earth to the other, yet the Lord would gather us together, and turn all those curses upon our enemies.” It was a wonderful balm for the grieving and godly Englishwoman. “I do not desire to live to forget this Scripture,” she remembered, “and what comfort it was to me.”
Rowlandson’s master was the Narragansett sachem Quinnapin. Her mistress was Quinnapin’s new wife, Weetamoo, the sachem from Pocasset. Much had transpired since Weetamoo had spoken with Benjamin Church about her unwillingness to go to war. After being forced to join her brother-in-law Philip, she had fled to the then neutral Narragansetts. There is evidence that she once again attempted to surrender to colonial authorities, but as had happened before at Aquidneck Island she was once again rebuffed. By marrying Quinnapin, who already had two wives but none as noteworthy as the Pocasset sachem, Weetamoo formally aligned herself with the Pocassets’ ancestral foe. After the Great Swamp Fight, all of them were in this together.
By the middle of February word had reached Menameset of the Mohawk attack on Philip. The Pokanoket sachem and what was left of his forces were bound for a village site well to the north on the Connecticut River. It was time for the Nipmucks and Narragansetts to meet with Philip and plan for the spring offensive. When their scouts informed them that a large Puritan army, including six hundred cavalry, was headed for Menameset, the Nipmucks and Narragansetts immediately broke camp and headed north.
So far, Rowlandson had been in close contact with several English captives, including a former neighbor and half a dozen children. But after the departure from Menameset, she saw almost nothing of her fellow captives.
Keeping two thousand Native men, women, and children ahead of a mounted English army might seem out of the question. But as Mary Rowlandson witnessed firsthand, the Indians’ knowledge of the land and their talent for working cooperatively under extraordinary duress made them more than a match for the fleetest of English forces.
As a small group of warriors headed south “to hold the English army in play,” hundreds upon hundreds of Indians picked up their possessions and began to flee. “I thought to count the number of them,” Rowlandson wrote, “but they were so many and being somewhat in motion, it was beyond my skill.” It was a scene worthy of Exodus. “[T]hey marched on furiously, with their old and with their young. Some carried their old decrepit mothers, some carried one and some another. Four of them carried a great Indian upon a bier, but going through a thick wood with him, they were hindered and could make no haste; whereupon they took him upon their backs and carried him, one at a time, till they came to Bacquag River.”
Known today as Miller’s River, the waterway is an eastern tributary of the Connecticut. Swollen with snowmelt, the river was too deep and the current too swift to be forded without some kind of assistance. “They quickly fell to cutting dry trees,” Rowlandson wrote, “to make rafts to carry them over the river.” Rowlandson and her master and mistress were one of the first ones across the river. The Indians had heaped brush onto the log rafts to protect them from the frigid water, and Rowlandson was thankful that she made it across the river without wetting her feet, “it being a very cold time.”
For two days, while the warriors did their best to delay the English, the rafts went back and forth across the river. A temporary city of wigwams sprang up along the northern bank of the Bacquag as the Indians waited for everyone to complete the crossing.
It was the third week of her captivity, and Rowlandson’s hunger was such that she greedily ate what she had earlier regarded as “filthy trash,” from groundnuts and corn husks to the rancid offal of a long-dead horse. Rowlandson was often on the edge of starvation, but so were her captors, whose ability to extract sustenance from the seemingly barren winter landscape seemed nothing less than a God-ordained miracle. “[S]trangely did the Lord provide for them,” she wrote, “that I did not see (all the time that I was among them) one man, woman, or child die with hunger.”
Now that she no longer had her daughter to care for, Rowlandson was expected to work. In a finely sewn pouch known as a pocket, she kept her knitting, and she was soon at work on a pair of white cotton stockings for her mistress, Weetamoo. As a sachem, Weetamoo wore both English and Native finery. She also conducted herself with a dignity that Rowlandson, who had formerly been the one to whom deference had been paid, could not help but find offensive: “A severe and proud dame she was, bestowing…as much time as any of the gentry of the land [in dressing herself neat]: powdering her hair, and painting her face, going with necklaces, with jewels in her ears, and bracelets upon her hands.” In the weeks ahead, as the pressures mounted on both the Indians and their captives, Weetamoo treated Rowlandson with increasing harshness.
By Monday, March 6, everyone had made it across the river. That day they set fire to their wigwams and continued north just as the English army, under the command of Major Thomas Savage, reached the southern bank of the river. But instead of pursuing the Indians, Savage elected to do as so many Puritan commanders had done before him. Even though he had the Indians almost in his grasp, he decided to quit the chase. Over the last few days, hundreds of the old and infirm had somehow managed to ford the river, but Savage claimed it was not safe for his men to attempt a crossing. For Rowlandson, it was a devastating turn of events, but the Lord must have had his reasons. “God did not give them courage or activity to go after us,” she wrote; “we were not ready for so great a mercy as victory and deliverance.”
The Indians continued north for several days until they reached the Connecticut River near the town of Northfield. Philip, Rowlandson was told, was waiting for them on the opposite bank. “When I was in the canoe,” she recalled, “I could not but be amazed at the numerous crew of pagans that were on the…other side. When I came ashore, they gathered all about me…[and] asked one another questions and laughed and rejoiced over their gains and victories.” For the first time of her captivity, Rowlandson started to cry. “Although I had met with so much affliction,” she wrote, “and my heart was many times ready to break, yet could I not shed one tear in their sight, but rather had been all this while in a maze, and like one astonished. But now I may say as Psalm 137, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon…[I] wept.’” One of the Indians asked why she was crying. Not knowing what to say, she blurted out that they would kill her. “‘No,’ said he, ‘none will hurt you.’” Soon after, she was given two spoonfuls of cornmeal and told that Philip wanted to speak with her.
It was one of several conversations she would have with the Pokanoket sachem. Despite everything she had heard of Philip’s malevolence, Rowlandson was treated with kindness and respect by the Native leader. When she entered his wigwam, Philip asked if she would “smoke it.” She would gladly have taken up a pipe before her captivity, but by now she had weaned herself from tobacco and had vowed never to smoke again. In the weeks ahead, she would knit a shirt and cap for Philip’s son and even be invited to dine with the sachem. “I went,” she remembered, “and he gave me a pancake about as big as two fingers; it was made of parched wheat, beaten and fried in bear’s grease, but I thought I never tasted pleasanter meat in my life.”
Later, while in the midst of yet another extended journey, Rowlandson feared she lacked the strength to continue. As she slogged through the knee-deep mud of a swamp, Philip unexpectedly appeared at her side and offered his hand and some words of encouragement. In her narrative of her captivity, Rowlandson faithfully records these acts of kindness on Philip’s part. But nowhere does she suggest that the sachem was unfairly portrayed by her fellow Puritans. Rowlandson had lost her daughter and several other loved ones in the war Philip had started, and nothing—not a pancake or a hand offered in friendship—could ever bring them back.
On March 9, Philip met for the first time with Canonchet, the young leader of the Narragansetts. As they all recognized, the victories they had so far won at Lancaster and Medfield were meaningless if they did not find a way to feed their people. They needed seed corn to plant crops in the spring. Hidden underground in Swansea was a large cache of seed. Canonchet volunteered to lead a group of warriors and women back into the very heart of Plymouth Colony to retrieve the corn. As the women returned with the seed to the Connecticut River valley, Canonchet would remain in Plymouth and bring the war back to where it had begun.
Despite the espionage work of Job and James, distrust of the Praying Indians was at its height. The note left at Medfield by James the Printer was looked at by many as proof that the missionary efforts of John Eliot and Daniel Gookin had only added to the threat posed by the Indians. On February 28, Richard Scott of Boston got very drunk and in the presence of three witnesses began to rail against Gookin, “calling him an Irish dog that was never faithful to his country, the son of a whore, a bitch, a rogue, God confound him and God rot his soul.” Scott, a veteran of Moseley’s company, claimed that if he should be lucky enough to encounter Gookin on a Boston street at night, “I would pistol him. I wish my knife and scissors were in his heart.” There was even talk of leading an assault on the Praying Indians at Deer Island. As Gookin realized, Scott and those like him were merely bullies who, frustrated by the army’s lack of success, “would have wreaked their rage upon the poor unarmed Indians our friends.”
Plymouth was not immune to such sentiment. In February, the Council of War, headed by Governor Winslow, voted to send the Praying Indians of Nemasket to Clark’s Island in Plymouth Harbor and “there to remain and not to depart from there…upon pain of death.” But even as officials acted to curb the freedoms of the colony’s friendly Indians, they were, as Benjamin Church soon found out, reluctant to pay for putting an end to the war.
On February 29, Church attended a meeting of the council at Winslow’s home in Marshfield. The raid on Medfield the week before had been followed by an attack on nearby Weymouth, and there were fears that the colony was about to be overrun with hostile Indians from the north. A member of the Council of War proposed that a militia company of sixty be sent to the outlying towns in the colony to defend against a possible Indian attack. The same official proposed that Church be the company’s commander. But just as he had done prior to the Great Swamp Fight, Church refused the offer of command. Instead, he had a proposal of his own.
If the Indians returned to Plymouth, it was reasonable to assume that, in Church’s words, “they would come very numerous.” As Massachusetts had learned, it was a waste of time stationing militias in town garrisons. Although they helped to defend the settlement in the event of an attack, they did nothing to limit the Indians’ activities. The only way to conduct the war was to “lie in the woods as the enemy did.” And to do that, you not only needed a large force of several hundred men, you needed a large number of friendly Indians. “[I]f they intended to make an end of the war by subduing the enemy,” Church insisted, “they must make a business of the war as the enemy did.” Instead of worrying about how much money was being spent, Plymouth officials should equip him with an army of three hundred men, a third of them Indians. Give him six weeks, and he and his men would “do good service.”
The council turned him down. The colony, it explained, was already woefully in debt, and “as for sending out Indians, they thought it no ways advisable.” But Church’s words were not without some effect. The man who agreed to serve in his stead, Captain Michael Pierce of Scituate, was given, in addition to sixty Englishmen, twenty “friend Indians” from Cape Cod.
Church decided his first priority must be to ensure the safety of his pregnant wife, Alice, and their son, Tom. If the Indians should come in the numbers he expected, he knew that Duxbury, where they were now located, was likely to be a prime target. Even though it meant leaving the colony, he resolved to take Alice and Tom to Aquidneck Island. It was an unpopular decision both with the authorities, from whom he needed a permit, and with his wife’s relations. Eventually Church was able to convince Governor Winslow that he could be of some use to him “on that side of the colony,” and he was given permission to relocate to Rhode Island.
Prior to their departure, they stopped in Plymouth to say good-bye to Alice’s parents. The Southworths were adamant: their daughter should remain in Plymouth safely tucked away with their grandson in Clark’s garrison on the Eel River, just a few miles from the town center. At the very least, she should remain there until she’d delivered her baby in May. But Church was just as obstinate, and on March 9, they set out for Taunton, from which they would proceed by boat down the Taunton River to Mount Hope Bay and Aquidneck Island.
In Taunton the Churches encountered Captain Pierce and his company. Pierce must have known that Church had spurned the command that he had chosen to accept, but that did not prevent the captain from offering to provide Church and his family with an escort to Rhode Island. Church politely declined Pierce’s “respectful offer,” and the following day he and his family arrived safely at Captain John Almy’s house in Portsmouth.
A few days later, they heard the shocking news. Clark’s garrison in Plymouth had been attacked by Indians. Eleven people, most of them women and children, had been killed, and the garrison had been burned to the ground.
For the English, March of 1676 was a terrible and terrifying month. Indians from across New England banded together for a devastating series of raids that reached from the Connecticut River valley to Maine and even into Connecticut, a colony that had, up until now, been spared from attack. But it was in Plymouth, on Sunday, March 26, where the English suffered one of the most disheartening defeats of the war.
The previous day, Captain Pierce and his men had skirmished with some Indians fishing for salmon, shad, and alewives at the falls of the Blackstone River. After spending the night at Rehoboth, Pierce set out once again in search of Indians. He suspected that there were an unusually large number of them in the area, and he sent a messenger to Providence to request reinforcements. As it turned out, all of Providence’s residents were worshipping in the town’s meetinghouse that morning. Reluctant to interrupt, the messenger waited until the service had ended before delivering Pierce’s request. By then, it was too late.
Pierce and his force of sixty Englishmen and twenty Indians were marching north along the east bank of the Blackstone River when they spotted some Indians. There were just a few of them, and when the Indians realized they were being followed, they appeared to flee in panic. Pierce’s men eagerly pursued, only to discover that they had blundered into an ambush. A force of five hundred Indians, apparently led by Canonchet, emerged from the trees. Pierce and his soldiers ran across the rocks to the west bank of the Blackstone, where another four hundred Indians were waiting for them.
Pierce ordered his company of eighty men to form a single ring, and standing back to back, they fought bravely against close to a thousand Indians, who according to one account “were as thick as they could stand, thirty deep.” By the end of the fighting two hours later, fifty-five English, including Pierce, were dead, along with ten of the Praying Indians. Nine English soldiers either temporarily escaped the fighting or were taken alive and marched several miles north, where they were tortured to death at a place still known today as Nine Men’s Misery. As Church had warned, the enemy had come in overwhelming numbers, and as he might also have predicted, it was Pierce’s small band of friendly Indians who distinguished themselves during the battle.
Given the impossible odds, the Cape Indians would not have been faulted for attempting to escape at the first sign of trouble. But such was not the case. An Indian named Amos stood at Pierce’s side almost to the very last. Even after his commander had been shot in the thigh and lay dying at his feet, Amos held his ground and continued to fire on the enemy. Finally, however, it became obvious that, in the words of William Hubbard, “there was no possibility for him to do any further good to Captain Pierce, nor yet to save himself if he stayed any longer.” The Narragansetts and Nipmucks had all blackened their faces for battle. Smearing his face with gunpowder and stripping off his English clothes, Amos did his best to impersonate the enemy, and after pretending to search the bodies of the English for plunder, he disappeared into the woods.
There were other instances of remarkable ingenuity on the part of the Cape Indians that day. As the fighting drew to a desperate conclusion, a Praying Indian turned to the English soldier beside him and told him to start to run. Taking up his tomahawk, the Indian pretended to be a Narragansett pursuing his foe, and the two of them did not stop running until they had left the fighting far behind. When word of the heroism of Pierce’s Cape Indians began to spread, public opinion regarding the use of friendly Indians in combat started to shift. It still took some time, but New Englanders came to realize that instead of being untrustworthy and dangerous, Indians like Amos, James, and Job might in fact hold the secret to winning the war.
Two days after slaughtering Pierce and his company, Canonchet and as many as 1,500 Indians attacked Rehoboth. As the inhabitants watched from their garrisons, forty houses, thirty barns, and two mills went up in flames. Only one person was killed—a man who believed that as long as he continued to read the Bible, no harm would come to him. Refusing to abandon his home, he was found shot to death in his chair—the Bible still in his hands.
The next day, March 29, the Indians fell on Providence. Most of the town’s five hundred inhabitants had left for the safety of Aquidneck Island, but there remained in Providence a hardy contingent of thirty men, including seventy-seven-year-old Roger Williams. All that day the Indians wandered up and down the streets of the town, firing the houses. Providence was situated on a steep hill overlooking a large salt cove, and when a group of Indians appeared on the opposite shore, Williams, a long staff in his hand, strode out to the end of a point to speak with them. For the next hour, with only a narrow sliver of water between him and the enemy and with Providence burning behind him, Williams conversed with this group of Nipmucks, Pokanokets, Pocassets, Narragansetts, and Connecticut River valley Indians.
“I asked them,” he wrote in a letter to his brother in Newport, “why they assaulted us with burning and killing who ever were [kind] neighbors to them, (and looking back) said I, ‘This house of mine now burning before mine eyes hath lodged kindly some thousands of you these ten years.’” The Indians replied that even though Rhode Island had remained neutral, it had provided assistance to the other colonies during their assault on the Narragansetts that winter. But Williams would have none of it. “I told them they…had forgot they were mankind and ran about the country like wolves tearing and devouring the innocent and peaceable…. They confessed they were in a strange way.”
Williams warned them that planting time was approaching. A valley sachem said that “they cared not for planting these ten years. They would live upon us, and dear. He said God was with them…for [the English] had killed no fighting men but…they had killed of us scores.” He then invited Williams to go to the site of the Pierce battle and “look upon three score and five now unburied.” These words provoked Williams into angrily challenging the Indians to fight the English in the open field instead of “by ambushes and swamps.” In the end, however, he offered his services as a peacemaker. The Indians said that after another month spent burning Plymouth Colony, they might speak to him again. “We parted,” Williams wrote, “and they were so civil that they called after me and bid me not go near the burned houses for there might be Indians [who] might mischief me, but go by the water side.” Williams closed his letter with a word of warning to his brother: “prepare forts for women and children at Newport and on the island or it will be shortly worse with you than us.”
By the beginning of April, it looked as if the Indians might do as they had once threatened and drive the English to the very edge of the sea. Adding to the Puritans’ troubles was the outbreak of disease. That spring, a lethal influenza claimed the lives of inhabitants in just about every New England town, including several military officers and the governor of Connecticut, John Winthrop Jr. Then, on April 9, an event occurred that changed the course of the war.
Unlike Massachusetts and Plymouth, Connecticut had relied on friendly Indians from the very start of the conflict. In addition to the Mohegans, there were two factions of Pequots, as well as the Niantic Indians, a subset of the Narragansetts, who had remained loyal to the English. In early April a Connecticut force under Captain George Denison was in the vicinity of modern Pawtucket, Rhode Island, when they captured an Indian woman who revealed that Canonchet was nearby. Over the course of the next few days, Denison’s eighty or so Mohegans, Pequots, and Niantics competed with one another for the honor of capturing the great Narragansett sachem.
In the last few months, Canonchet had earned the reputation for charismatic leadership that had so far eluded the more famous Philip. Dressed in the silver-trimmed jacket the Puritans had given him during treaty negotiations in Boston, with a large wampum belt around his waist, the young sachem was passionate and decisive and known for his bravery in battle. Even the Puritans, who blamed him for the defection of the Narragansetts, had to admit that Canonchet “was a very proper man, of goodly stature and great courage of mind, as well as strength of body.” At considerable risk, he and thirty warriors had succeeded in collecting the seed corn from storage pits just north of Mount Hope. The corn had already been delivered to the Connecticut River valley, where the women would begin planting in May. He was now leading the army of 1,500 Indians that had annihilated Captain Pierce’s company and had laid waste to Providence and Rehoboth.
On April 9, Canonchet was resting at the foot of a hill near the Blackstone River with nine of his warriors, trading stories about the attack on Captain Pierce and his company, when he heard “the alarm of the English.” He ordered two of his men to go to the top of the hill and report back what they saw, but the men never returned. A third warrior was sent, and he too disappeared. Only after two more men ventured to the top of the hill did Canonchet learn that “the English army was upon him.” Taking up his musket and blanket, the Narragansett sachem began to run around the base of the hill, hoping to sneak through the enemy forces and escape behind them. However, one of Denison’s Niantic warriors saw the sachem moving swiftly through the woods, and the chase was on.
Canonchet soon realized that Denison’s Indians were beginning to catch up to him. Hoping to slow them down, he stripped off his blanket, but the Indians refused to stop for the plunder. Canonchet then shook off his silver-trimmed red coat, followed by his belt of wampum. Now the Indians knew they had, in Hubbard’s words, “the right bird, which made them pursue as eagerly as the other fled.”
Ahead was the Blackstone River, and Canonchet decided he must attempt to cross it. But as he ran across the slick stones, his foot slipped, and he fell into the water and submerged his gun. Canonchet still had a considerable lead over his pursuers, but he now knew that flight was useless. According to Hubbard, “he confessed soon after that his heart and his bowels turned within him, so as he became like a rotten stick, void of strength.” Soon after crossing the river, a Pequot Indian named Monopoide caught up to the sachem, who surrendered without a fight.
The first Englishman on the scene was twenty-two-year-old Robert Stanton. When Stanton started questioning Canonchet, the proud sachem replied, “You much child, no understand matters of war. Let your brother or your chief come, him I will answer.”
The English offered Canonchet his life if he helped them convince Philip and the others to stop the fighting. But he refused, “saying he knew the Indians would not yield.” He was then transported to Stonington, where officials blamed him for dragging the Narragansetts into war. He responded that “others were as forward for the war as himself and that he desired to hear no more thereof.” When told he’d been sentenced to die, he replied that “he liked it well, that he should die before his heart was soft or had spoken anything unworthy of himself.” Just prior to his execution in front of a Pequot firing squad, Canonchet declared that “killing him would not end the war.” When Uncas’s son responded that he was “a rogue,” Canonchet defiantly threw off his jacket and stretched out his arms just as the bullets pierced his chest.
Connecticut officials made sure that all three factions of their friendly Indians shared in the execution. According to one account, “the Pequots shot him, the Mohegans cut off his head and quartered his body, and Ninigret’s [Niantics] made the fire and burned his quarters; and as a token of their love and fidelity to the English, presented his head to the council at Hartford.”
If the death of Canonchet did not end the war, it was, in Hubbard’s words, “a considerable step thereunto.” The Indians had lost a leader whose bravery and magnetism had briefly united several groups of Native peoples into a powerful and effective fighting force. In the days and weeks ahead, dissension began to threaten the Indians as the English belatedly came to realize that the Praying Indians were the best ones to drive home the wedge that might break apart the Nipmuck-Narragansett-Pokanoket alliance.
The wedge? A thirty-eight-year-old English captive named Mary Rowlandson.
By late March, a large number of Indians had gathered at Wachusett Mountain to the north of modern Worcester. The steep and rocky terrain provided them with protection from the English yet was far enough east that they could easily attack the towns between them and Boston. On April 5, the Praying Indian Tom Doublet arrived at Wachusett with a letter from colonial officials in Boston. In addition to the possibility of opening peace negotiations, the letter mentioned the release of English prisoners.
An early-twentieth-century view of Wachusett Mountain
On April 12, Doublet returned to Boston with the Indians’ response. They were in no mood, as of yet, to discuss peace: “you know and we know your heart great sorrowful with crying for you lost many many hundred men and all your houses and your land, and women, child and cattle… [you] on your backside stand.” They were willing, however, to discuss the possibility of ransoming hostages. As a minister’s wife, minis-ter Mary Rowlandson was the Indians’ most notable captive, and she inevitably became the focus of the negotiations.
In mid-April, Rowlandson, who was still in the vicinity of the Connecticut River with Weetamoo, learned that her presence was required at Wachusett, where Philip and her master, Quinnapin, were already meeting with the Nipmucks. Before receiving this news, she had reached a new nadir. Her son, she had learned, was racked by the flux and was infested with lice; she had heard nothing about her daughter. Without Quinnapin to intervene, Rowlandson’s relationship with Weetamoo—difficult from the start—had deteriorated to the point that the sachem had threatened to beat her with a log. “My heart was so heavy…that I could scarce speak or [walk along] the path,” she remembered. But when she learned that she might soon be ransomed to the English, she felt a sudden resurgence of energy. “My strength seemed to come again,” she wrote, “and recruit my feeble knees and aching heart.”
Rowlandson arrived at Wachusett Mountain in the midst of preparations to attack the town of Sudbury. With the death of Canonchet having already begun to erode Native confidence, the Indians urgently needed a major victory. They were winning the war, but they were without significant reserves of food. Even if they succeeded in growing a significant amount of corn, they couldn’t harvest the crop until late summer. In June, the groundnuts went to seed and became inedible. They must force the English to sue for peace before the beginning of summer. Otherwise, no matter how great their military victories, they would begin to starve to death.
On April 17, Rowlandson became one of the few Westerners to witness a Native war dance. In the center of a large ring of kneeling warriors, who rhythmically struck the ground with their palms and sang, were two men, one of whom held a musket, and a deerskin. As the man with the gun stepped outside the ring, the other made a speech, to which the warriors in the ring enthusiastically responded. Then the man at the center began to call for the one with the gun to return to the deerskin, but the outsider refused. As the warriors in the ring chanted and struck the ground, the armed man slowly began to yield and reentered the ring. Soon after, the drama was repeated, this time with the man holding two guns. Once the leader of the dance had made another speech, and the warriors had “all assented in a rejoicing manner,” it was time to leave for Sudbury.
It was a smashing Native victory. Two different companies of English militia fell victim to ambush. The Indians killed as many as seventy-four men and suffered minimal losses. And yet, the Sudbury Fight failed to be the total, overwhelming triumph the Indians had hoped for. “[T]hey came home,” Rowlandson remembered, “without that rejoicing and triumphing over their victory, which they were wont to show at other times, but rather like dogs (as they say) which have lost their ears.” Even though they had inflicted terrible damage, there were still plenty of English left to fight another day, and for the Indians the days were running out.
The negotiations with the English took on a new urgency. The sachems ordered Rowlandson to appear before them in what they described as their “General Court.” They wanted to know what she thought she was worth. It was an impossible question, of course, but Rowlandson named the figure of £20. In the letter accompanying their ransom request, the sachems, led by the Nipmuck known as Sagamore Sam, adopted a far less arrogant tone: “I am sorry that I have done much wrong to you,” the note read, “and yet I say the fate is lay upon you, for when we began quarrel at first with Plymouth men I did not think that you should have so much trouble as now is.”
In early May, the Praying Indians Tom Doublet and Peter Conway arrived with the Englishman John Hoar from Concord. In addition to the ransom money, Hoar had brought along some provisions to help facilitate the negotiations. It soon emerged that Philip was against the ransoming of English captives, while the Nipmucks were for it. However, since Rowlandson was owned by Quinnapin, it was ultimately up to him.
Traditionally, Native Americans relied on the ritual of the dance to help them arrive at important decisions. The dance that day was led by four sachems and their wives, including Quinnapin and Weetamoo. Even though both of them had been almost constantly on the run for the last few months, the couple still possessed the trappings of nobility. “He was dressed in his Holland shirt,” Rowlandson wrote, “with great laces sewed at the tail of it; he had his silver buttons; his white stockings, his garters were hung round with shillings, and he had girdles of wampum upon his head and shoulders. She had a kersey [a twilled woolen fabric] coat and covered with girdles of wampum from the loins upward: her arms from her elbows to her hands were covered with bracelets; there were handfuls of necklaces about her neck and several sorts of jewels in her ears. She had fine red stockings and white shoes, her hair powdered and face painted red that was always before black.”
That night, Quinnapin sent a message to John Hoar that he would release Rowlandson the next day if in addition to the ransom of £20, “he should let him have one pint of liquor.” Hearing of the Narragansett sachem’s offer, Philip ordered Rowlandson to come before him. “[He] asked me what I would give him to…speak a good word for me.” She asked what it was he wanted. Philip’s reply: two coats, twenty shillings, a half bushel of seed corn, and some tobacco. It was the same ploy he had used ten years before on Nantucket Island—an extortion attempt that once again made him appear bullying and opportunistic. As his earlier acts of kindness toward Rowlandson had indicated, Philip was better than this.
As the night wore on, Quinnapin became roaring drunk. “[He] came ranting into the wigwam,” Rowlandson remembered, “and called for Mr. Hoar, drinking to him and saying, ‘He was a goodman,’ and then again he would say, ‘Hang him, rogue.’” Quinnapin then ordered Rowlandson to come before him, and after drinking to her, but “showing no incivility,” he began to chase his young wife around the wigwam, the shillings attached to his pants “jingling at his knees.” His wife proved too fast for him and escaped to another wigwam. “But having an old squaw,” Rowlandson wrote, “he ran to her and so through the Lord’s mercy we were no more troubled that night.”
The next morning, the sachems held another meeting—a meeting that Philip, who apparently did not receive his coats and tobacco, refused to attend. To Rowlandson’s great joy, it was decided that she should be released. To this day, the place where she gained her freedom, marked by a huge, glacier-scored boulder, is known as Redemption Rock.
By sundown Rowlandson, Hoar, and the two Praying Indians had reached her former home of Lancaster, where they decided to spend the night. “[A]nd a solemn sight it was to me,” she wrote. “There had I lived many comfortable years amongst my relations and neighbors, and now not one Christian to be seen, nor one house left standing.”
They reached Concord the next day around noon, and by evening they were in Boston, “where I met,” Rowlandson recalled, “my dear husband, but the thoughts of our dear children, one being dead and the others we could not tell where, abated our comfort each to other.” Over the course of the next few months, both their children were released, and they spent the rest of the war living among friends in Boston.
But Rowlandson found it difficult to leave her captivity behind. “I can remember the time when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together,” she wrote, “but now is other ways with me….[W]hen others are sleeping, mine eyes are weeping.”
It was a new era in the war. With the success of Tom Doublet and Peter Conway in negotiating the release of Mary Rowlandson and with increasing numbers of Massachusetts-Bay officers using Praying Indians as scouts (even Samuel Moseley came to see the light), New Englanders began to realize that it was both stupid and inhumane to keep hundreds of loyal Indians sequestered against their will. In the middle of May, the Massachusetts General Court ordered that the Praying Indians be removed from Deer Island. “This deliverance…,” Daniel Gookin wrote, “was a jubilee to those poor creatures.”
On May 18, Captain William Turner with 150 volunteers from Hatfield, Hadley, and Northampton attacked a large Native fishing camp on the Connecticut River. Although Turner and his men were ambushed during their retreat and more than 40 Englishmen, including Turner, were killed, they had succeeded in killing hundreds of Indians. On June 9, the Nipmuck leader Sagamore Sam lost his wife in another English assault. The Nipmucks decided they must sue for peace.
Unwilling to become a Nipmuck bargaining chip, Philip, accompanied by Quinnapin and Weetamoo, left Wachusett Mountain and headed south into familiar territory. With his brother-in-law Tuspaquin, the Black Sachem of Nemasket, leading the charge, Philip’s people attacked towns throughout Plymouth and Rhode Island.
From his temporary home on Aquidneck Island, Benjamin Church could see the smoke rising from locations up and down Narragansett Bay. Communication was difficult in these dangerous times, and they were all anxious for any word about their loved ones and friends. On May 12, Alice gave birth to a son named Constant in honor of her father.
A few days later Church took up a knife and stick and began to whittle. He’d been out of the war now for more than three months, and he wasn’t sure what he should do now that his son had been born. Perhaps he should take up carpentry. But as he whittled the stick, his hand slipped, and he badly gashed two of his fingers. Church smiled. If he was going to injure himself, he might as well do it in battle.
It was time he returned to the war.