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King Philip’s War and the Great Swamp Fight of 1675

I had never heard of the Great Swamp Fight until I came across mentions of several of my ancestors having fought in King Philip’s War (1675-1676), an on-going conflict between English settlers and Indians, led by Chief Metacom, named King Philip by the colonists, who wanted to drive the English out of the Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts areas. It turned out to be the bloodiest war in New England history.

What piqued my interest in this battle is the fact that I earned my B.A. degree at the University of Rhode Island, which is located close to the presumed location of the Indian fort. The National Park Service has marked the site in South Kingston, Rhode Island.

The first attack of the war happened on 20 June 1675 when Indians attacked colonists in Swansea, Massachusetts. During the next year and a half, the Indians and colonists attacked, inflicting death and damages on each other.

Several Indian tribes had joined King Philip’s coalition, but the Narrangansett Indians had remained neutral in southern Rhode Island. However, colonists feared that they might decide to join Metacom’s forces.

The last stand of the Narragansett Indians was the brutal battle of the Great Swamp Fight of 1675, also called the Great Swamp Massacre, because of the way many Indians, including  women and children, met their end in the massive Indian fort. Up to 1,000 Indians are thought to have been killed, while colonists lost about 70 men.

A detailed description of the battle is found in “The Great Swamp Fight the 19th of December 1675,” a talk given by Hamilton B. Tompkins to the New York Chapter of the Colonial Order in April 1906. (Archive.org, Public Domain)

An excerpt:

Early in December, the Colonial troops commenced to gather. There were six companies from Massachusetts, under the command of Major Appleton and Captains Moseley, Gardner, Davenport, Oliver and Johnson; from Connecticut, five companies, under Major Treat and Captains Seeley, Gallup,Mason, Watts and Marshall; two companies from Plymouth,under Major Bradford and Captain Gorham….

On the 15th, Bull’s Garrison House, in South Kingstown, at what is now known as Tower Hill, intended for a place of shelter, had been attacked by the Indians and demolished. At Pettaquamscutt, where shelter was also expected, it was found that the Indians had destroyed the buildings and butchered the inhabitants…….

Captain Oliver in his account says: “In the morning, Dec. 19th, Lord’s Day, at five o’clock, we marched; snow two or three feet deep and withal an extreme hard frost so that some of our men were frozen in their hands and feet and thereby disabled from service.”……..

The stronghold of the Narragansetts, fifteen miles away, was reached at one o’clock. This fort which the Indians had fortified to the best of their ability, was on a solid piece of upland, encompassed by a swamp. In it were gathered according to the best authorities, about thirty-five hundred Indians. On the inner side of this natural defense they had driven rows of palisades, encircled about with a hedge nearly a rod in thickness; and the only entrance to the enclosure was by a fallen tree or log; four or five feet from the ground, ” this bridge being protected by a block house right over against it, from which,” says Hubbard, “they sorely galled our men that first went in.” In spite of the fact the English were wearied by their long march through the snow, scarcely halting to refresh themselves with food, immediately upon arriving they commenced the onset. The Colonists had been so long in making their preparations that the Indians were well apprised of their approach and had made the best arrangements in their power to withstand them. The beginning was most disastrous to the officers. Captain Johnson,of Roxbury, was shot dead on the bridge as he was rushing over at the head of his company. Captain Davenport, of Boston, had succeeded in penetrating within the enclosure when he met the same fate. Captain Gardner, of Salem, and two of the Connecticut Captains, Gallup, of New London, and Marshall, of Windsor, were also killed outright, while Lieutenant Upham, of Boston, and Captain Seeley, of Stratford, received wounds which afterwards proved fatal. Major Bradford, of Plymouth, was sorely wounded, as well as Captain John Mason, of Norwich, and Captain Benjamin Church. Notwithstanding the fall of their leaders, the rank and file pressed on, and although the entrance was choked by the bodies of the slain yet, over the mangled corpses of their comrades, the assailants climbed the logs and breastworks in their efforts to penetrate the fort. Once they were beaten out, but they soon rallied and regained their ground. The conflict raged with varying success for nearly three hours. “The struggle,” says Arnold, “on either side was one for life;” ‘ ‘ Whichever party,” he adds, “should triumph, there was no hope for the vanquished; Christian and savage fought alike with the fury of fiends, and the sanctity of the New England Sabbath was broken by the yells of the savages, the roar of musketry, the clash of steel and all the demoniac passions which make a battle ground an earthly hell. ‘ ‘ The carnage was fearful; the result was yet doubtful; until an entrance to the fort was effected in the rear by the reserve guard of the Connecticut troops.” The Indians, who were all engaged at the first point of attack, were surprised and confused by a heavy fire behind them ; their powder was nearly consumed ; but their arrows continued to rain a deadly shower upon the charging foe. The wigwams were set on fire within the fort, contrary to the earnest entreaty of Captain Church, who, with his knowledge of military matters and the condition of the assailants, realized the importance of shelter and food to the exhausted conquerors.’ ‘ He says in his narrative that “he begged them to forbear and spare the wigwams in the fort from fire,” for, he adds, “they were all lined with baskets and tubbs of grain and other provisions sufficient to supply the whole army until Spring, and every wounded man might have a good warm house to lodge in, which otherways would necessarily perish with the storm and cold, and, moreover, that the army had no other provisions to trust unto or depend upon; that he knew the Plymouth forces had not so much as a biscake left, for he had seen their last dealt out.”….

The infuriated Colonists had already commenced the work of destruction; in a few minutes the frail material of five hundred Indian dwellings furnished the funeral pyre of the wounded and dying; the blazing homes of the Narragansetts lighted their path to death.” More than a thousand of the enemy perished. The English lost, in killed and wounded, according to Hubbard, over two hundred; and other accounts place the numbers still higher. A large proportion of these might have been saved if the advice of Church had been followed. When night fell there was no shelter or provisions for the conquerors or conquered. The Indians escaped to an open cedar swamp in the neighborhood, where many perished for want of food or covering. “The fate of the English,” says Rhode Island’s historian, “was no better. They had taken a weary march of fifteen miles since daybreak, without halting for food, and had spent the remainder of the day in desperate combat. They had now to retrace their steps in the dark, through a dense forest, with a deep snow beneath their feet and a December storm howling about their heads. By the glare of the burning wigwams they formed their line of march back to Wickford, bearing with them their dead and wounded,” a march, says Cotton Mather, ” made through hardships than an whole age could not parallel.” It was two o’clock before they reached the camping ground. The cold was severe ; many died on the way ; the limbs of the wounded were stiffened; and fatigue had disabled most of the remainder. There was no shelter or provisions of any sort, and when morning dawned it was found that death had done a melancholy work. The heavy storm during the night had wrapped many a brave soldier in his winding sheet, and the depth of the new fallen snow made it difficult for the survivors, in their weak condition, even to move. Captain Church truthfully says in his narrative: “Having burned up all the houses and provisions in the fort, the army returned the same night in the storm and cold, and I suppose that every one that is acquainted with that night most deeply laments the miseries that attended them, especially the wounded and dying men. But it mercifully came to pass that Captain Andrew Belcher arrived at Mr. Smith’s from Boston with a vessel laden with provisions for the army, who must otherwise have perished for want.” After the Great Swamp Fight the sick and wounded were carried to the Island of Rhode Island, where they were cared for by the people of Portsmouth and Newport.

The propriety of a winter campaign on the part of the Colonists might be questioned ; but, by delay, opportunity would have been given to the Indians to make greater preparations, and this was to be considered. Cotton Mather, who saw the Providence of God in every undertaking, says: “Had the assault been deferred one day longer, there fell such a storm of snow that for divers weeks it must have been impracticable, and at the end of those weeks there came so violent and unusual a thaw as to have made the way to the fort impassable. “Just now,” he says, “was the time for the work, and the work was accomplished.”

It is evident from this description that the colonists were so determined to extinguish the Indian threat that they were willing to suffer the consequences of losing both food and shelter, sorely needed, after the battled ended.

If you have colonial families in Southern New England in the 1670s, it is likely that you have one or more ancestors who took part in one or more conflicts in King Philip’s War.

Resources about King Philip’s War:

Soldiers in King Philip’s War

The Great Swamp Fight 19th of December 1675, Archive.org

Great Swamp Fight, Wikipedia

Great Swamp Fight, Britannica

King Philip’s War – Wikipedia

King Philip’s War in New England – The History Place

The History of King Philip’s War on The History of Massachusetts Blog