Words To Remember

"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Great Swamp Fight

King Philip's War {see separate entry} was an armed conflict between Native Americans of present-day southern New England and English colonists and their Native American allies in 1675–76. In little over a year, 12 of the region's towns were destroyed and many more damaged, its economy was all but ruined, and much of its population was killed, including one-tenth of all men available for military service.

After their somewhat disastrous campaign of the autumn of 1675 in the western parts of Massachusetts, the Commissioners of the United Colonies were determined to carry the war against the Narrangansetts whom they accused of sheltering the warring Wapanoags led by King Philip. The veteran troops were recalled and reorganized; small towns in various parts of the colonies were garrisoned; and an army of  1,000 men was equipped for a winter campaign. 

Gen. Josiah Winslow, Governor of Plymouth Colony, was appointed commander-in-chief of this army; Maj. Samuel Appleton to command the Massachusetts regiment, Maj. William Bradford that of  Plymouth, and Maj. Robert Treat that of Connecticut.  The full quota of Massachusetts was 527 soldiers, but there were  doubtless many others along as servants to the officers, scouts, camp-followers, etc.

Colonial soldiers at muster {Painting by Don Troiani}

To the soldiers, a proclamation was read, on the part of the Massachusetts Council, "that if they played the man, took the Fort, & Drove the Enemy out of the Narragansett Country, which was their great Seat, that they should have a gratuity in land besides their wages." The pay of soldiers, according to Mr. Judd, in his History of Hadley, was 6s. per week, and 5s. was paid for their "dyet." There is no way of determining the rate of pay, as all payments are "on acct" and do not specify time of service. Plymouth colony paid the private soldiers 2s{hillings}. per day, drummers 2s. b'd., Sergeant 3s., Ensign 4s., "Lieftenant " 5s., Captain 6s. A "chyrurgion" or doctor was attached to the expedition companies.

In the evening of Sunday, December 12th, the whole body advanced "from Mr. Carpenter's," crossed the Pautuxet River and marched a long way into "Pomham's Country," now Warwick, RI.  But from the unskillfulness of their Warwick scouts (who were probably Englishmen), their purpose of capturing Pomham and his people was defeated and, after a whole night spent in weary marching about, they arrived at {Richard} Smith's garrison-house at Wickford.

Richard Smith of Smith’s Castle, Cocumcossoc, was the Indian trader of the area whose fortress blockhouse trading post housed the United Colonies combined troops who came through to fight the battle.  Smith had bought the trading post and surrounding lands and had constructed a large house which was fortified, giving the house its nickname as a "castle."

The original Smith's Castle

Jeriah Bull’s blockhouse on Tower Hill to the east, where Quaker George Fox had preached, was burned to the ground a scant day or two before the battle.  Smith's son Richard Jr. inherited the plantation in 1666 and invited the militias from Massachusetts and Connecticut to use the property during King Philip's War. In retaliation for the Great Swamp Fight,  the house was burned in 1676. 

There, they were met with troops who had arrived by water and also by Capt. Samuel Mosely's company, which had captured 36 Indians that day, including the Native American called Peter, who proved afterwards to be an indispensable guide.

While the troops waited as other soldiers from nearby areas joined them, small raiding companies of Native Americans took turns sniping at, wounding or killing the soldiers.  A commander of one Boston regiment, Capt. James Oliver wrote, "I sent out 30 of my men to scout abroad, who killed two Indians and brought in 4 prisoners, one of which was beheaded. Our Army came home at night, killed 7 and brought in 9 more, young and old. Dec. 15th, came in John, a rogue, with pretence of peace, and was dismissed with this errand, that we might speak with Sachems. That evening, he not being gone a quarter of an hour, his company that lay hid behind a hill killed two Salem men within a mile of our quarters, and wounded a third that he is dead. And at a house three miles off where I had 10 men, they killed 2 of them."

The little army marched from the vicinity of Bull's Fort on Narragansett Bay. The English forces under command of Gen. Winslow of Plymouth had been gathered at Wickford. Capt. Oliver wrote: "Dec. 18th, we marched to Petaquamscot with all our forces, only a garrison left; that night was very stormy; we lay, one thousand, in the open field that long night. In the morning, Dec. 19th, Lord's day, at 5 o'clock we marched. Between 12 and 1, we came up with the enemy," after having marched some 20 miles through intense cold and a heavy snow-storm to the swamp. 

This Native American fort on the north side of Worden’s Pond was situated upon an island of some five or six acres in the midst of a cedar swamp, which was impassable except to the Indians by their accustomed paths. It is probable that the Indians depended chiefly upon the swamp to protect them, though their defenses were described as having been of considerable strength. A portion of the high ground had been enclosed, and from a careful comparison of the most reliable accounts, it seemed that the fortifications were well planned.

Map of the location of the Native American fort

"The Fort was raised upon a Kind of Island of five or six acres of rising Land in the midst of a swamp; the sides of it were made of Palisadoes set upright, the which was compassed about with a Hedg [sic] of almost a rod Thickness." A contemporary writer (whose account was published at the time in London, and was reprinted in Drake's publication called the "Old Indian Chronicle") says: "In the midst of the Swamp was a Piece of firm Land, of about three or four Acres, whereon the Indians had built a kind of Fort, being palisadoed round, and within that a clay 'Wall,' as also felled down abundance of Trees to lay quite round the said Fort, but they had not quite finished the said Work." It is evident from these, the only detailed accounts and from some casual references, that the works were rude and incomplete. At the corners and exposed portions, rude block-houses and flankers had been built, from which a raking fire could be poured upon any attacking force."

Either by chance or by the skill of Peter, their captured Indian guide, the English seemed to have come upon a point of the fort where the Indians did not expect them.  But the crude fort would have been almost impregnable to the troops had not the swamp been frozen by the extreme cold of the previous days.

Without waiting for any organized attack, the Massachusetts troops at the front of the march rushed forward across the ice in an impetuous charge and into the entrance of the Indian fort.  So the first colonists to enter were met with a terrible enfilading fire from front and flanks and were forced back for a time.  "But others coming on pressed into the breach, and, though suffering severe losses, at last stormed all the fortifications, drove the enemy from every line of entrenchments within the fort, and out into the woods and swamps beyond. They set fire to the wigwams and store-houses of the savages, in which were burned many of the aged, and women and children," states Bodge.

"We lost, that are now dead, about 68, and had 150 wounded, many of which are recovered. That long snowy cold night we had about 18 miles to {go to} our quarters, with about 210 dead and wounded. We left 8 dead in the fort. We had but 12 dead when we came from the swamp, besides the 8 we left. Many died by the way, and as soon as they were brought in, so that Dec. 20th we buried in a grave 34, next day 4, next day 2, and none since here. Eight died at Rhode Island, 1 at Petaquamscot, 2 lost in the woods and killed, Dec. 20, as we heard since ; some say two more died. By the best intelligence, we killed 300 fighting men ; prisoners we took, say 350, and above 300 women and children. We burnt above 500 houses, left but 9, burnt all their corn, that was in baskets, great store. One signal mercy that night, not to be forgotten, viz. that when we drew off, with so many dead and wounded, they did not pursue us...," wrote Capt. Oliver.

Of the officers, Capts. {Nathaniel} Davenport, {Isaac} Johnson and {Joseph} Gardiner were killed, and Lieutenants {Phineas} Upham, {Perez} Savage, {Jeremiah} Swain, and {Edward} Ting/Tyng were wounded. Of the Connecticut troops, 71 were killed and wounded; and according to the eminent historian of Connecticut, Dr. Benjamin Trumbull, only 70.

Maj. Treat, by tradition, is said to have been the last man to have left the fort, commanding the rear guard of the army; and of his captains, {John} Gallop, {Samuel} Marshall and {Nathaniel} Seely were killed and Capt. {John} Mason mortally wounded. By a contemporary account, Connecticut lost:

Of New Haven Company, 20

Of Capt. {Nathaniel} Siely [sic] his Company, 20

Of Capt. {Thomas} Watts his Company, 17

Of Capt. {Samuel} Marshal his Company, 14 — 71

Of the Plymouth forces, Maj. Bradford, the commander, and Capt. Benjamin Church of the General's staff were severely wounded and, of the soldiers, the killed and wounded in both companies were 20, by best accounts.

Ninigret, sachem of the English-allied Niantick tribe, sent to Gen. Winslow word that his people had buried the dead English who had been left at the fort and that the number was 24 and he asked for a charge of powder for each. This information was given in a letter from Maj. Bradford to Rev. Mr. Cotton of Plymouth.

The only vestiges of the Native American fortification found in latter days were here and there a grain of Indian corn burned black in the destruction.

The full loss of the army was 31 killed and 67 wounded.  Such, at least, was the "official" return at the time.

The only incident of an individual being hanged, drawn and quartered for treason on American soil took place at Smith's Castle in 1676. Joshua Tefft, an English colonist accused of having fought on the side of the Narragansett during the Great Swamp Fight, was executed by this method.

Architect Clifford A. Renshaw's drawing (2000) of how the c. 1678 house built by Richard Smith Jr. may have appeared. According to tradition, many timbers salvaged from the burned blockhouse were reused in the construction of the new house. Upper beams in the current house provide evidence of the two garret gables and stone rubble found in front of the current entrance may be the foundation of the projecting central "porch." Framing for a door, which can be seen today through the view-port to the right of the front door, suggests the main entry was to the right of the porch.  The May 1692 inventory of the estate of Richard Smith Jr. describes a kitchen, hall and dairy (first floor); a porch chamber, kitchen chamber, hall chamber and lean-to chamber (second floor); and a porch, kitchen and hall garrets (third floor). {Drawing from Smith's Castle website}


Bodge, George M., Soldiers in King Philip's war; being a critical account of that war, with a concise history of the Indian wars of New England from 1620-1677, official lists of the soldiers of Massachusetts colony serving in Philip's war, and sketches of the principal officers, copies of ancient documents and records relating to the war, also lists of the Narragansett grantees of the United colonies, Massachusetts, Plymouth and Connecticut; with an appendix. (Leominster, Mass., Printed for the author, 1891)

Drake, Samuel G., History and Antiquities of Boston, the Capitol of Massachusetts and the Metropolis of New England, From Its Settlement in 1630, to the Year 1770. Also, An Introductory History to the  Discovery and Settlement of New England. (Boston: Luther Stevens, 1856)

Smith's Castle information taken from the website; accessed 22 Jan. 2012 at http://www.smithscastle.org/.