The Great Swamp Fight – 332 years ago today

As I sit inside this stormy day, warm by the fire, my thoughts are eighty miles to the west, in a swamp in the town of South Kingston, Rhode Island, near the campus of the University of Rhode Island, a place still desolate by modern standards, off a boring stretch of Route 195 between Connecticut and Providence.

On a day like this, 332 years ago, the most significant “battle” of what has been called the bloodiest (per capita) conflict in the history of America — the Great Swamp Fight — took place in a Rhode Island swamp, an attack by the colonial militia from the Plymouth, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Bay Colony killed about 300 Narragansett Indians (precise figures are unknown) on an island in the middle of Rhode Island’s Great Swamp.

Led there by an Indian guide, the militia were able to reach the fort because an unusually cold late fall had frozen the swamp, making an assault possible.

The dead were mostly women and children. Those who fled into the swamp faced a long winter without food and shelter.

The irony of the assault was that the Narragansetts had been neutral in the King Philip War, staying out of the fight waged by Metacomet (King Philip) and the Wampanoag tribe. The Great Swamp Fight assured that neutrality would be forgotten, and the Narragansetts joined the terrible war.

Gerald Hyde, a state historian, wrote in 1938 on the occasion of a memorial marker being installed at the site:

“A fort in the Great Swamp had been built by the Narragansett Sachem, Canonchet, as a place of refuge. Because of its location on a small island of dry land in the midst of a great swamp, he no doubt considered it impregnable. It was, however, only partially completed and consisted of “pallisadoes stuck upright in a hedge of about a rod in thickness.” Two fallen trees formed natural bridges which were the only entrances and the principal one was guarded by a block house. Inside the fort the stores, harvests and accumulated wealth of the Narragansetts had been brought and there asylum had been offered the aged and infirm and the women and children of the Wampanoags of King Philip.

The United Colonies of New England declared war against the Narragansett Indians on November 2, 1675, charging them, among other things, with “relieving and succouring Wampanoag women and children and wounded men” and not delivering them to the English, and also because they “did in a very reproachful and blasphemous manner, triumph and rejoice” over the English defeat at Hadley. They voted to raise a thousand soldiers to be sent against the Narragansetts unless their sachems gave up the fugitive Wampanoags.

The forces of the United Colonies under Governor Winslow marched across Rhode Island and on December 14 attacked the village of the Squaw Sachem Matantuck near Wickford and burned 150 wigwams, killing seven Indians and taking nine prisoners. The Narragansetts then began a guerrilla warfare, sniping Colonial troops wherever occasion offered.

On the night of December 15 the Indians surrounded Jireh Bull’s large stone house on Tower Hill and massacred all but two of the occupants. The smoldering ruins of the house were found by English scouts the next day. It is possible that the Indians had learned of a plan for the Connecticut contingent to join the other forces at this house and had destroyed it in order to handicap the colonies. Three days later the two English forces joined at Pettaquamscutt and planned to attack the Indians the next day.

Ordinarily the swamp was practically impenetrable, as it is to this day, but due to the severe December weather the marshy ground had frozen and the English soldiers gained easy access to the island. The Indian outposts retreated into the fort where they were followed by the English. The terrible battle which then began took place amidst ice, snow, under brush and fallen trees.

At first repulsed, the English continued the assault, though with heavy losses. They contested almost every foot of ground until the Narragansetts, also suffering many casualties, were driven gradually from their fort into the swamp and woods.

Meanwhile, the English had set fire to the wigwams, some 600 in number, and flames swept through the crowded fort. The “shrieks and cries of the women and children, the yelling of the warriors, exhibited a most horrible and appalling scene, so that it greatly moved some of the soldiers. They were in much doubt and they afterwards seriously inquired whether burning their enemies alive could be consistent with humanity and the benevolent principle of the gospel,” says one early account.

The retreating Indians were driven from the woods about the fort, leaving the English a complete, though costly, victory. They had lost five captains and 20 men and had some 150 wounded that must be carried back to a house some ten miles distant. To the terrors of the battle and fire were added the bitter cold and blinding snow of a New England blizzard through which the English toiled back to Cocumcussa. The hardships of that march took a toll of 30 or 40 more lives. The Indians reported a loss of 40 fighting men and one sachem killed and some 300 old men, women and children burned alive in the wigwams.”

Nathaniel Philbrick wrote an outstanding account of the war recently in his book, Mayflower.  I decided to locate the site and to my sad distress I see it is somewhere near the Amtrak line, where, on countless occasions I have hurtled through on the Acela, oblivious to the fact that the fastest section of track between Boston and Washington runs somewhere near the scene of the massacre.

Call it my senescence, but I feel more and more aware and freaked out by the history around me, the paved over battlefields, the Old Post Roads, the historic paths now covered with subdivisions and strip malls. Reading David McCullough’s 1776 and the account of the British attack on New York, and then being there last week, and looking across at Brooklyn and thinking of the rustic wilderness there, the fighting along the Gowanus Creek, now a stinking cesspool — the landing of the British at Kips Bay. The battles of White Plains and Trenton … and then skip forward to the urban anonymity of both, marked by a bronze tablet or two where heroes and cowards fought centuries before ….

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

65 thoughts on “The Great Swamp Fight – 332 years ago today”

  1. Truly a sad State of affairs of peoples who sremmed from a Colony based on Religious doctrines of peace.

    Instead of sharing beliefs and land uses with natives ,the possible thoughts of that new England culture was to acquire land mass , at any cost? They being must have been as mostly farmers with die hard the desire of the lands natives had at any devisive costs.

    Most English well educated and military commanders knew that aboriginal legal rights even in late 16oos that it can and would haunt them if they left native souls alive.

    Yes,the Government Cheeze story’s on how in providence Rhode Island ,most records concerning this massacre and other matters were destroyed ,of native men women and children as well as honorable land sales.

    I witnessed my mother entered a long house in south county near Charleston breachway in 1952 and as part Micmack /French ,Doris my mother ,was introduced and was tutored as a princess by then Native Narragansett ,given a princess name and such. Some who fled massacre in 1675 Great swamp massacre or who were somewhere else when it happen ,there relatives , Descendants,were at that lodge .Some Narragansett native fled to niantic Tribe,after Colonial massacre .

    My father Carl a big Tough Sweed who worked in Wood River junction Sun Chemical plant said to me while picking up my mother in 52 at lodge ,,in old hudson car” If you open your mouth about this to anyone ,I will beat you within an inch of your life” He and most RI people hated Natives at that time a lot. Most along Tiverton to Perryville/Wakefield ,to Conn. said the same to me as a kid .

    The State of Rhode Island has dishonored the great swamp areas in many ways ,making ponds . many dams, and roadways changing the landscape in many ways raising water levels in some areas and drop in others to this day. I use to work for fish & game in 1960s and saw much.They introduced the Northern Pike to wordens pond a project I had first hands on in raising them at Arcadia warm water fish hatchery.

    I also snuck in many times in 1970s/80s walking miles in swampy ways ,brush, to observe wild life especially eagles that nested there taking many photographs.

    Life is beautiful to those who are such , and see the common needs and humanity of man and it is also Demonized by hate.

  2. Supplemental notes :PS I also dig clams and quahogs very well .

    1950s Clam bakes were few and held in a large hole with sea weed fresh from ocean atop fire hot large round rocks,covering Clams oysters ,Quahogs ,Blue Crabs,Lobster,Corn, rabbits and game,all heated by these white hot stones buried under seaweed causing a lot of steam heat. Hole was covered with tarp canvas and dirt for a few hours and unearthed to great delights of all a gift from the Narransette my mother said.

    Chowder and clam cakes, were made to perfection in abundance as well.

    In Newport today ,it is scantily prepared ,done in tiered Stainless cookers ,UGH!

  3. Well, guess who I’m related to?

    Very interesting discussion here, and I don’t really know what to make of my ancestor’s actions…

    I would love to see the location of the swamp fort however!

  4. I am a Hazen Descendant and my ancestor was Lt. Thomas Hazen who led the attack over the felled trees at the Fort. He is infamous for having put Captain Appleton’s tent to fire.
    He was granted land in Greenwich MA, but he never benefited from it and it is now several hundred feet under the Quabbin Reservoir!

    I have visited the monument on several occasions and would be honored to be told where the location is.

  5. Pingback: Family History
  6. Captain Isaac Johnson was my 9 times great Grandfather. I have only recently learned of my family history and also this battle at Swamp Creek. I have spent 7 years working to improve education and opportunities for Native Americans on the West Coast. I can’t speak more highly or respectfully of the Native Americans that I have worked for and with. They are loving, caring and FORGIVING people. As Americans we need to come face to face with all aspects of our history and stop trying to romanticize the truth. Thanks for posting this story of the Battle at Swamp Creek.

  7. Chuck,

    This fills afew positions held by History and yhose who wrote ,write them but falls short of what I saw ,was told as a young boy, felt in South County hates and angers that will never be erased in my heart as a knife wound to all of of in humanity of earths peoples prefessing english protestants values of tolerances. Bigots shall always be such as we move into unchartered Pilgrim activities.

    Happy new Year and Fortunes you find in your knowledge and heart.

    old man swanson

    Holbrook Arizona pioneer

  8. Hi Elizabeth,

    I am a also descendant of Capt. Issac Johnson, who was my 9 x great grandfather. I’m a 4th generation Australian so finding these roots in America is quite fascinating. Aboriginal people all over the world have suffered great tragedies as a result of colonisation and it’s important, as you rightly say, that we acknowledge what happened in a mature way where regret, acceptance of the past and forgiveness are sincerely comingled on both sides. The spirit and the courage of the colonists in creating new lives and communities was truly admirable, but so too was the courage and spirit of the Narragansett in defending their homelands and families. The horror of warfare clearly took a terrible toll and I hope, as descendants of these people, we can teach our own children how ugly, tragic and ultimately futile war can be.

    On a brighter note I’d really like to thank everyone who has posted here, especially David Churbuck, for so many extraordinary insights into this episode, the places and the people – you’ve brought it alive for me!

    Best wishes to all,
    Robynne