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The Tragedy Of King Philip And The Destruction Of The New England Indians
The most serious threat to white colonization of New England was the Indian uprising of 1675-76, known as King Philip’s War. What follows is the story of the tragic man who led that futile struggle, Philip, chief of the Wampanoags. But perhaps it is just as much the story of Philip’s erstwhile friend and resourceful pursuer, Benjamin Church. This account is taken from George Howe’s superb history of Bristol, Rhode Island, Mount Hope, due in February from the Viking Press.
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
By the time the two details converged at Swansea, six Englishmen had been tomahawked in the village. The troops killed six Indians in revenge. Marching down the Kickemuit River, one hundred and seventysix strong, to besiege Mount Hope, they found eight more flayed heads on poles, and the torn leaves of a Bible scattered blasphemously on the ground below. It did not reassure them to see an eclipse that night, with a shadow on the moon in the shape of a human scalp.
Although General Cudworth of the Massachusetts militia was ranking officer, this was a Plymouth war. Command devolved on Captain Fuller, but he excused himself from action as being “ancient and heavy.” He sent Lieutenant Church ahead with half of the army to attack Mount Hope frontally, and set the other half to building a fort in case Philip should attack him . Church did not believe in static warfare. He fought as the Indians did themselves. He had heard one of them say, “The English always keep in a heap together, so it is as easy to hit them as to hit a house.”
Church’s troop of Englishmen crept down to Mount Hope, sometimes waist-deep in the swamp and sometimes on their bellies in the grass, but always deployed at a distance from one another.
They found the hill deserted. Philip was too wily to let himself be trapped on a peninsula. He had shipped the squaws and papooses across Narragansett Bay to shelter with his allies on that side of the water.
Church decided that there was only one direction Philip could have taken: eastward across Mount Hope Bay to the kingdom of his sister-in-law, Weetamoe. He ferried across to Aquidneck Island and wheeled left to the straits which divide it from Pocasset. On the far side he caught sight of the enemy, lurking in the bushes at the top of the hill. Church was a humorist as well as a soldier and a diplomat. In his Entertaining History of King Philip’s War he writes: The Indians had a fort on the opposite side of the river, and showed themselves, and acted all manner of mockery to aggravate the English, they being at more than a common gunshot off. At one time one made his appearance, and turned his backside in defiance as usual; but someone having an uncommonly long gun fired upon him and put an end to his mimicry.
He lashed some logs together into a raft and led a detail of seventeen men across the strait. On the far side he took cover under the fence’in John Almy’s peasefield. There were more Indians on the hill than he had thought: 300 of them, it turned out afterward. The “Battle of the Peasefield” lasted six hours. The English advanced as far as a well on the far side of the field, but were driven back by a rain of bullets from the stumps and boulders above them. At last their ammunition gave out, and they retreated to the shore. By luck, a Quaker sloop from Aquidneck Island came sailing through the strait just in time to rescue them. Two by two she took them oft’ in a canoe, but not before Church, under fire, made his way alone once more across the peasefield to retrieve his hat and cutlass, which he had left behind at the well.
A few days later, with some reluctant reinforcement from Captain Fuller, he made another assault on the hill. This time he had better luck. The Indians fled before him. At the Pocasset cedar swamp, in the kingdom of Queen Weetamoe, the first of the royal family fell: Philip’s young brother, Suconewhew, who had studied at Harvard.
Church. drove the Indians northward toward the Taunton River, where an English fort commanded the ford. He hoped to trap them between two fires, but Philip outflanked the fort by crossing the river above it on a raft at low tide. He escaped to the open west with his dogs and his black horse. His army was almost intact.
He was now outside the borders of Plymouth Colony. Except for a skeleton guard over the prisoners taken in the Pocasset cedar swamp, the armies of Plymouth and Massachusetts, which had taken the field on June 24, disbanded on July 19. The campaign had been short. Church got back to his farm in Awashonks’ kingdom in time for the fall harvest.
The strategists of the two colonies saw that Philip’s escape meant that the war might spread westward toward the Hudson, and that he might return with reinforcements to attack them again. On July 15 they forced a treaty on the Narragansetts, who were still sheltering the Wampanoag women and children. It promised them immunity and set a bounty of two yards of cloth, worth five shillings the yard, for each Wampanoag scalp they brought in, four yards for each live Wampanoag, forty for Philip’s scalp, and eighty for Philip alive. Trusting to the treaty, 150 Narragansetts trudged into Plymouth to put themselves under the colony’s protection. No Wampanoag scalps were ever delivered, but for three months the Narragansetts were at least neutralized.