- Historic Sites
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
The regulars were uniformed in leather jerkins and breeches, and wore Monmouth caps on their heads. Each man carried a six-foot flintlock musket and a bandolier which held a pound of powder, twenty bullets, and two fathom-length of match. They had no tents; each night of the march down from Providence they had slept under blankets on the frozen ground. But they had taken 47 prisoners themselves. Captain Nathaniel Davenport of the 5th Massachusetts Company bought them in for his own account as slaves at a bargain: eighty pounds for the lot.
The Narragansett fortress, which was under Canonchet’s command, covered a four-acre rise in the middle of the trackless swamp, eighteen miles inland from the garrison house. The English might not have found it at all if Peter Freeman, one of Church’s Indian prisoners, had not guided them. It was hidden from sight, even on a clear day, by a jungle of cedars. On December 19, 1675, the day of the assault, it was snowing hard, and there was a two-foot fall by afternoon. That was almost the shortest day of the year, with the sun setting by four o’clock. The fort had been designed by an Indian engineer called Stonewall John, with the help of Joshua Tift, a renegade white man. Inside it, 3,000 Indians were crowded into 500 wigwams. Their winter provisions, in tubs hollowed out of sawn-off butternut trunks, were stacked against the walls to deaden the English bullets. The fort was even equipped with a forge for the repair of ordnance. Around its perimeter a sixteen-foot abatis of felled trees, with the branches forward, was backed by a stockade of logs. The only bridge between the fort and the tussocks of the swamp was a single log, with the inner end set between four-foot palisades with loopholes in them.
The attack began at two in the afternoon while the squaws were preparing dinner inside the fort. As fast as the English ventured onto the log, the Indians shot them from the loopholes, and they toppled into the icy stream. Six captains went down. Among them was Davenport, who had just paid eighty pounds for his slaves.
Away from the stream, the stagnant swamp was frozen over. Church, who had been stationed on solid ground with the governor’s staff, saw his chance. With thirty men, he crossed the ice and broke into the fort from the flank, through the tangle of the abatis. It was a feat that, under heavy armor, would have been impossible in a thaw, and was almost a miracle now in the twilight and the snow. In his own modest words, He encouraged his company and ran right on, till he was struck with three bullets; one in his thigh, which was near cut off as it glanced on the joint of his hip-bone; another through the gatherings of his breeches and drawers with a small flesh wound; a third pierced his pocket and wounded a pair of mittens he had borrowed of Capt. Prentice, which, bring wrapped together, had the misfortune of having many holes cut through them with a single bullet.
His troop poured through the breach behind him. After a hopeless hand-to-hand fight, the Indians fled through the dark across the ice into the fastness of the swamp. “They run, they run!” someone shouted over the tumult. A few squaws strapped their papooses to their backs and plodded away through the drifts. They had no time nor strength to carry anything else into the blizzard. Most were left behind, cowering in the wigwams.
The regulars prepared to fire the camp. Church tried to dissuade them, if only because the English would need the shelter and provision for themselves. Since he was only a “reformado,” no one listened. In the darkness and terror, it was easier to burn the wigwams than to spare them. He dragged himself back to Governor Winslow, who also bore the title of general, to plead against the burning.
The general [his story goes on] moved toward the fort, designing to ride in himself and bring in the whole army; but just as he was entering it one of his captains met him, and asked whither he was going. He told him, “Into the fort.” The captain laid hold of his horse and told him his life was worth a hundred of theirs, and that he should not expose himself. The general answered that he supposed the brunt was over, and that Mr. Church had informed him the fort was taken, and he was of the mind that it was most practicable for him and his army to shelter themselves therein. The captain replied in a great heat that Church lied, and told the general that if he moved another step toward the fort he would shoot his horse under him.
Then bristled up another gentleman, a certain doctor, and opposed Mr. Church’s advice, and said that if it were complied with, it would kill more men than the enemy had killed. And looking upon Mr. Church, and seeing the blood flow apace from his wounds, told him that if he gave such advice as that was, he should bleed to death like a dog before he would endeavor to stanch his blood.