The Great Swamp Massacre -- 12/19/10

This is my 10th entry in my 5th year of taking part in Holidailies. If you have wandered in from Holidailies, you can scroll down to read a brief introduction.

So... a month ago I wrote two entries about history -- "History" on November 19th (in which I mentioned King Philip's War and the Great Swamp Massacre) and "Before the beginning" on November 20th (in which I talked about the Europeans who were here before the Pilgrims) -- and I had promised to tell you more about the Great Swamp Massacre. And here we are, exactly 335 years later...

I had planned to take a photograph of the memorial that was erected there (back in the 1930s) so I could put it here, but then I stopped to think about what time of year it is. The answer is: it is hunting season and I think hunting may be allowed in that area and state law mandates that anyone going in such an area (hunter or not) must wear a certain number of square inches of bright orange fabric. Not being a hunter, I don't have any such garment, but even if I did, wearing bright orange doesn't make you bullet-proof. So let me just point you to a Google satellite view.

There were a number of forces that led to King Philip's War, some of which I mentioned last month. The native tribes had already been in a weakened state when the first colonists had arrived. The European fisherman who had been fishing in the waters off the new world for generations had had encounters with the Indians, exposing them to European diseases, such as small pox, to which they had no immunity. These diseases spread from tribe to tribe, devastating them. This upset the balance of power between the various tribes and may have led to an increase in tribal warfare. Before the English had arrived, they had lost significant numbers to disease and to warfare with the Pequod and the Mimac tribes. The Pilgrims had settled near where an entire village had been lost to disease. Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag hoped that the English could be allies with them against the other tribes. Indeed, in 1632, when the Narragansett tribe attacked Massasoit's village, English settlers fought alongside the Wampanoag and drove off their attackers. Massasoit had two sons, Wamsutta and Metacom. He renamed them Alexander and Philip. Alexander became leader after Massasoit's death. When Alexander died (some believed he was poisoned by the English) Philip became the Wampanoag leader.

However, by the time King Philip had become leader of the Wampanoag tribal federation, the Wampanoag people were in serious trouble, faced with a question of survival. They had sold away much of their land to the settlers and were beginning to suffer food shortages. They were having problems with the English, ranging from disputes over property to disputes over crops and livestock. (English cattle would eat their way through an Indian corn field, the Indians would kill some cattle, the English would demand compensation, etc.) Philip was faced with angry warriors demanding war against the English, but by this time the Wampanoag were far out-numbered by the English. He began to gather other tribes

The Wampanoag and their allies were well-armed -- firearms had spread to all the New England tribes (mostly from the Dutch and the French) -- although King Philip's total forces were outnumbered by the combined total numbers of the colonists plus their allied tribes (especially the Mohegans). The Narragansett tribe was neutral -- some say because the war began before they were ready to join and other say it was because they had a harmonious relationship with Roger Williams and his followers (who had settled in what they called Providence Plantation). However, not all of the settlers in Rhode Island were with Roger Williams. The area where the village of Wickford now is was settled by some who apparently owed allegiance more to Connecticut. Both Connecticut and Massachusetts wanted to control Rhode Island and claimed large portions of it as being rightfully theirs.

A large number of Wampanoag women and children escaped a colonial attack. Many of them were apparently taken in by the Narragansett tribe. The Narragansetts had withdrawn to an island in the Great Swamp near Wardens Pond in what is today South Kingstown. They had fortified the island (although their fortifications were not fully complete at the time of the battle). Approximately five acres (surrounded by a wood palisade wall) was filled with wigwams, food supplies, the Narragansett tribe and hundreds of Wampanoag women and children -- plus at least one white settler who fought on the side of the Indians.

The United Colonies (Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Plymouth), who were growing desperate after the first few months of war because the Indians now essentially controlled central Massachusetts, raised a force of about a thousand men with a plan to attach the neutral Narrgansett tribe. (The fact that they were sheltering Wampanoag women and children seemed to be sufficient excuse... plus it might give them control of Rhode Island and help them get rid of Roger Williams and his followers.) They gathered in the Wickford area at Smith's Castle (a fortified trading post) -- during a burst of frigid and snowy winter weather -- and on December 19th they marched to the Great Swamp (which is at least ten miles in a straight line, but probably more like 15 or 18 miles via the route they would have had to have taken) where the bitter cold weather came to their aid because the swamp was frozen and made it easier for them to reach the Narragansett fortification. It was a bitter battle with high casualties among the fighters on both sides, but the colonists were able to overpower the defenders and enter the village, which they immediately put to the torch. The number of deaths is not known -- estimates say three hundred or five hundred or a thousand, apparently mostly women, children, and elderly.

The Narragansett tribe joined the Wampanoag side in the war and began attacking settlements. In March they attacked Providence and burned it to the ground.

The colonists, of course, won the war. The death toll as a percentage of the population among the English colonists was more than twice that of the American Civil War. The death toll was far worse among the Indians, many thousands died in combat, others from disease and starvation. After the war, many Indians were sent to the Caribbean as slaves. Others fled the area.

Joshua Teft, the settler who fought on the side of his Narragansett neighbors at the Great Swamp, was arrested and charged with high treason. He was drawn and quartered.

A brief introduction....
(edited to update it from 2006)
A brief introduction for anyone who wanders in here from the Holidailies site -- I'm a middle-aged (*cough* okay, 63 67 , but I don't look a day over 62 66 ) guy who lives in Rhode Island with my wife Nancy (a middle-school math teacher), daughter Gillian ("Jill" -- 24
28 yr old college student and baker), son Jeremy (21 25 yr old college student restaurant manager), and Tiger (senior citizen cat). Eldest child Adam lives in New York City with his wife Leah and our grandson s Sam and Milo . I'm a former programmer/systems analyst who got into doing software training and currently works from home doing quality assurance and editing on course material for both classroom courses and Web-based training courses. I've been writing this online journal since 1996.

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