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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
Philip himself was 120 miles to the northwest. From a camp on the Hudson among the Mohawks, at what is now Schaghticoke, New York, he directed the summer campaign. Though there is no record that he appeared in battle himself, all the western reaches of the English colonies were terrorized by the lightning raids of his warriors. On August 4 they besieged Brookfield. In September they burned Deerfield and attacked Hadley and Northfield. On the eighteenth they killed ninety Englishmen guarding a provision train from Deerfield to Hadley. On the twenty-eighth, at Northampton, they scalped Praisever Turner and Unzakaby Shakespeare when they ventured too far from the garrison house in search of firewood. On October 5 they burned 32 houses in Springfield, and on the nineteenth, with a troop of 800, they attacked Hatfield, but were repulsed.
Clad in the wamus , a slipover buckskin hunting jacket, and shod with noiseless moccasins, they shot flaming arrows into the settlers’ thatched roofs. They pushed fire wagons against the log walls, edging them forward at the end of lashed poles from as far away as seventy yards. That distance was about the effective range of the colonists’ muskets. When they broke through, they had no mercy.
Luck was not always on Philip’s side. Sometimes a providential rain extinguished the firebrands. The settlers’ own muskets, if the range was close enough, accounted for many of the enemy. At the attack on Hadley, says legend, a bearded stranger emerged from Parson Russell’s attic, rallied the defenders, and vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared. They thought he was an angel. Long afterward they learned that he was William Goffe, one of the Roundhead judges who had condemned Charles I to the axe in 1649. He was hiding now in the New World from the long-armed vengeance of Charles II.
The Indians were merciless to the men they captured, but never mistreated the women. At Northfield they hung up two Englishmen on chains, with hooks under their jaws. The colonists, whose status as God’s chosen exempted them from conscience, were no less cruel. At Springfield they ordered an old squaw “to be torn in pieces by dogs, and she was so dealt withal.” At Natick they massacred 126 Indians, including a squaw whom Increase Mather describes as “an old piece of venom.”
Crudest of all were the Indians who fought for the English. In Boston once, the Puritans were in the long process of executing an Indian prisoner by hoisting him to the gallows with a rope at his neck, and letting him down again three or four times to prolong his departure. Another Indian, a friend of his, stepped forward, drove a knife into him, and sucked out his heart-blood. He explained to the spectators, “Me stronger as I was before. Me be so strong as me and he too. He be very strong man fore he die.”
The war was no longer local. It was known that the Narragansetts had a great fort in the swamp west of what is now Kingston, Rhode Island. Hospitality was sacred to them. Beside the women and children whom they already sheltered, and in spite of the bounty offered by the July treaty, they gave refuge to Philip’s wounded and the aged who could not keep up with his fast-moving campaign. There was a chance that Philip might himself be in the camp, for he had not been seen since his escape at Pocasset. Spies reported that Weetamoe, his sister-in-law, was surely there, with her current husband. The fact that the Narragansetts had not surrendered her was excuse enough for the English to attack them. As one colonist put it, “If she be but taken, her lands will more than pay for all the charges we have been at in this unhappy war.”
Canonchet, the Narragansett sachem, was summoned to Boston. On October 18 he signed a second treaty, agreeing to give her up within ten days. The governor of Plymouth, Josiah Winslow (he was the son of Massasoit’s friend, Edward), gave him a silvertrimmed coat as a reward. The ten days passed, but Weetamoe was not delivered. The ultimatum having expired, Plymouth sold off the 150 Narragansetts who had surrendered in July. They were shipped to Cadiz, Spain, as slaves—“sent off by the Treasurer,” in the politer words of the official record. They averaged two shillings and twopence a head.
On November 2 the United Colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut declared war on the Narragansetts. (The peaceful Quakers of Aquidneck Island and the Baptists of Providence, separated from each other by Mount Hope itself, took no part in the hostilities.) They mustered an army a thousand strong, under the command of Governor Winslow. There were 158 from Plymouth, 527 from Massachusetts Bay, and 315 from Connecticut, not counting teamsters, servants, and “volunteers.” Winslow offered Benjamin Church the command of a company. Church, who had no taste for the classic warfare that was the only kind the Governor understood, declined. But he promised, as he puts it, to “wait upon him through the expedition as a Reformado,” which means what is now called a guerrilla.
The three contingents were to make contact at Richard Smith’s garrison house, which still stands, greatly altered, near Wickford on the west shore of Narragansett Bay. Church got there by sloop several days before they arrived overland. He had captured eighteen Indians by the time the regulars marched in.