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. Thanks for an interesting account of this history — and a moving personal reflection at the end. My father is the genealogist and amateur New England historian in my family, and I’ve spent the last year archiving his family history essays to a wordpress blog (with access limited to the family, so far). I’ve linked your essay in the archived edition of my father’s report on this same subject. (I imagine that you track links and might wonder.)

  2. I am a great grandson of John G Clarke who owned the portion of land upon which the fight occured in 1675. I have a number of his papers, including maps. What I found interesting about your article was the comment about passing so closely on the train-I have a newspaper article published in 1892 which begins “possibly few of those who occasion to hurry between New York and Boston on the shore-line are aware that their train passes a most interesting colonial battlefield.

  3. I am a great grandson of John Baker, who was wounded by musket fire to his leg in the Great Swamp Fight and was crippled the rest of his life. Later he received a colonial pension for his wounds of 10 pounds and 4 pounds per year thereafter. I didn’t realize until recently that the battle can be viewed as similar to the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado. However, knowing that John Baker was wounded, and dozens of militia wounded, there must have been some fire wielding enemy. Or is friendly fire likely? The John Baker line married into the Polley and Winn family lines, and from there into the Cleveland line. Thanks for posting this website, as it is most interesting.

    Frank Mielke (grandson of Susan Baker b. Minn. 1889)

  4. Frank — I highly recommend Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower for a contemporary account of the battle. Benjamin Church, a prominent colonial officer and the father of the modern “Rangers” wrote a first person account as well.

    Indeed, the Narragansetts were armed and fortified inside of a stockade or palisade. This was not a simple heinous act of a colonial army setting fire to some huts, but a real battle with casualties on both sides.

    It is also not the only “massacre” in the region, apparently another took place nearby in Mystic involving the Pequot tribe.

    Fellow blogger Tim Abbot at Walking the Berkshires also had an ancestor who fought in The Great Swamp Fight. For an excellent account please read:

  5. I live close to the Great Swamp Managment Area and hav been there several times including today. It’s a beatiful area but filled with much saddness for obvious reasons. Its a mus see area as the hicking is wondeful. And the moutain bike trails aren’t to bad either.

  6. The Great Swamp Fight was the largest engagement during King Phillip’s War and was in no way was a massacre like Sand Creek in colorado. Canochet and his warriors almost succeeded in thwarting the colonial assault. The many casualties attests to the the highly contested outcome. This engagement is a tribute to the colonial soldiers and the Narragansett warriors who fought it. December the nineteenth 1675 will always be a special date in my heart, and I thank God for the privilage on living in so great a nation. Many gave their lives for me.

    Joseph Michael Bonelli

  7. Our line of the Sheldon Family is descended from the progenitor, John Sheldon, who, according to a map assembeled by Carder H. Whaley, lived just north and east of the John G. Clarke (mentioned above by Norman C. Lynch). Actually, the map lists two John G. Clarkes, one living somewhat to the east of the other.

    The site of their homes, (according to the above map) was near the intersection of Route 2 and Liberty Lane (which is south and west of the intersection of 138 and Route 2) somewhat west of West Kingston, Rhode Island today.

    Interestingly, John Sheldon and his son John Jr., in a 1679 petition to King Charles II, cited their difficulities in this war of 1675-1676, in which many valuable possessions were lost. There are several other names on the map in that same area of Rhode Island.

    An interesting historical account can be read in a paper titled “Sheldons of South Kingstown”, ‘The First Two Generations’, by Margaret B. Jones, Ph.D. which includes a copy of the above mentioned map. I believe it is available from the Sheldon Family Assocation (online) for a small cost.

    I was fortunate to be able to read and study my brother’s copy.

  8. May I make a small editorial comment? In the first paragraph you write:

    “off a boring stretch of Route 195 between Connecticut and Providence”

    I believe this should read Route I-95, the interstate highway 95, rather than 195. I do not believe there is a route 195 (all numerals) in this area.

    Thank you for your otherwise informative article.

  9. I am a direct descendant of two of the participants of The Great Swamp Fight: Ensign Henry Bowen and his wife Elizabeth Porter Johnson the daughter of Capt. Johnson who was killed in the battle. My written family history records that Ensign Henry Bowen took over command from his father in law after he was killed. Henry Bowen was brought over from Wales by his father and mother Griffith and Margaret Bowen in 1637 as a child along with brothers and sisters.

    As I recall from my reading of the Great Swamp Fight the actual location has never been documented. There is a marker but that is apparently a rough guess.

  10. My colonial blood relation Thomas Abbe from Wenham, MA joined the Ipswich-based troopers led by Colonel Appleton, and marched with the United Colonies expedition that burned out the Narragansetts at the Great Swamp.

    As I understand it, Thomas was one of the seriously wounded men carried back through the frozen night march back to Smith’s Castle. He came back alive to Wenham — but I believe he suffered from a serious Vietnam-like PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

    In a document from 1682, his elderly Puritan father took the drastic step of disowning his son, citing unspecified “bad behavior” for cutting him off and rendering him a family outcast. I have to think Thomas was haunted by what he did and saw, in an ugly incident in an ugly war that fundamentally scrubbed southern New England clean of its First People.

    Eventually, Thomas made his way out of the Bay Colony, and recovered a successful frontier life down in the Connecticut Colony as a founder of the Enfield settlement. I hope he made peace with his part in a savage Puritan massacre and ethnic cleansing operation.

  11. I’ve visited the site of the battle a few times, once coming away with some musket balls, souveniers I treasure. This campaign was a preventative measure, voted on, with some reservations from the Ct. representatives, to contain the conflict which was not, at the time of the campaign, being won. There were concerns that if the Naragannsetts were allowed to remain without answering to the requirements of the treaty, they would be a formidable foe in the spring when the vegetation would hinder the colonial militia. This was the best organized campaign in any of the colonies before the American Revolution. Basically composed of farmers, their sons, artisans, merchants and apprentices the army endured in the 24 hour period before and after the battle hardships no modern army is trained for. They spent the night before in an open field, no tents, blasted by a snow storm; marched the next day at 5AM in the snow to the fort 14 miles away, fought 3 hours, and marched back 18- 20 miles to their HQ at Wickford. The general and his staff got lost and didn’t show up until the next day. Some of the dead were left behind. Capt. Church advised they not burn the fort but use it as a base as it was furnished with grain- stocked wigwams. His advise was over-ruled which resulted in the death of more wounded. The total number of colonial dead was over 80, eventually

  12. J.S.,
    I’ve canoed the Great Swamp many times. Could you tell me where the actual site of the battle was that you found musket balls? I find this story so facinating and truly feel remorse for the Naragansett Indians.

  13. The topography of the area, even though it is somewhat rural, has been affected by the elements and civilization has accelerated the process so the location of the Great swamp Fight doesn’t appear to be anything like what is described by historians who visited the area as late as the nineteenth century when the island in the swamp, the actual sight of the battle, was still there. I found the musket balls a few hundred yards to the west of the monument

  14. Greetings to all my Narragansett Country/Pettaquamscutt Purchase/”Unclaimed Lands”/”King’s Province”/”King’s County”/”South County”/Washington County, Rhode Island (Colonie[sic]) cousins…. With all our nearby Tucker and “(H)Wahley” and Worden and Holley/Holloway and Congdon and Cross and Tucker and Tucker and Tucker and Tucker cousins nearby, we’ve farmed the east side of Worden’s Pond and Cousin Roscoe oversaw for many years, the Aquapaug Boy Scout Camp on Worden’s east side, which as our Sheldon cousins will remember was given by the aforementioned (Cousin) Carder (Henry) (H)Wahley to them….the…..”Long Jacket” Tuckers lived, and live,all along Tuckertown Road and Worden’s Pond Road, the “Short-Jacket” Tuckers down in the woods south of Tucker’s Pond nearby….

    …and the Great Swamp Fight encampment was in the swamp on the north side of Worden’s Pond, where….Mr. Easterbrooks mapped out the metes and bounds…and Pettaquamscutt Historical Society Craig Anthony, who did all the recent Tefft research….thinks that he knows where the actual site was….Craig having done the most current research on our fourth-great-uncle Joshua Tefft(Tift) who not only fought from inside the fort on the Narragansetts’ side, but was later punished for his unfortunate role by being the only New Englander ever drawn and quartered for high treason. The Mr. Clark(e) whom cousin Sheldon refers to, was also our cousin through the Tuckers….Chollie-(H)Winfield-Tucker’s…..great-grandparents….

    For those who know the region, we’re all related-to-each-other….(ahem!)…several times over… Richard Smith of Smith’s Castle, Cocumcossoc at Wickford, RI 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, and Jeriah Bull’s blockhouse on Tower Hill to the east, where Quaker George Fox preached, was burned to the ground a scant day or two before the battle. Tenth-great-grandfather Smith provided the burial ground for any number of those of the United Colonies killed that day, and they lie somewhere on the grounds of “Smith’s Castle” near nearby Wickford, RI today, and was a brilliant early “diplomat”, as he was a close friend to the Dutch, who claimed the area also, and whose trading posts were off Jamestown Island nearby, and at the “King Tom Farm” in nearby Charlestown. Smith’s daughter married the son of Lodowick Opendyck, who was a Dutch West Indies officer and who came to live at Smith’s Castle after the English took New Amsterdam in 1664. Sieur Opendyck was my…..tenth-great-grandfather as well… (as was Roger Williams). The “United Colonies”, by the way, did not include the Rhode Island Colonie, but protected the interests of Governor Winthrop “Pere” and Governor Winthrop, “Fils”, who were powers in the Bay Colonie and the Hartford Colonie, respectively, and who supported the Atherton Purchasers and finally, the Hartford/Connecticut Colony claim to the Narragansett Country, as against the Pettaquamscutt Purchasers. We local “Swamp Yankees” take a dim view of the Bay Colony and Hartford Colony folk who arrested any number of us and hauled us away, when good King Charles-the-son, granted US title to our lands….(it is said that Cousin Carder Whaley’s ancestor was the same Judge Whal(l)ey who signed his father Charles I’s death warrant), and through the King’s Commissioners, King Charles II gave the Rhode Island Colonie the right to govern the “unclaimed lands”, which were the Narragansett tribal lands, and which are the Washington County, Rhode Island of today. The Great Sachem Canochet and his people got a raw deal, and if it weren’t for Roger Williams, they would have lost much more than they lost, and in a much more rapid timeframe. As it was, the only one crafty enough to survive the depredations of the United Colonies interfering in our local lands, was Ninigret/Ninicraft I, Chief Sachem of the Narragansett’s subject tribe the (Eastern) Niantics, who managed to keep out of the conflict, and who in the end absorbed his former lead tribe the Narragansetts, and whose successors were all crowned on “coronation rock” at the Niantic tribal “King Tom Farm” at nearby Charlestown, which my late grandfather owned. The gentleman is quite right….this was hardly the only Indian swamp massacre in the area, as a mere 38 years before, in 1637, the United Colonies again stormed through the area, but this time, recruiting the Narragansetts who were at the time their allies….to proceed down the Pequot Trail from Wickford to massacre the Pequots at their swamp encampment fortress on the east side of where Mystic Seaport is today. Nor were these two the only local campaigns fought in the swamps against the Indians, as a punitive expedition by the Hartford Colony against Ninigret I was fought in swamps on the nearby lands of Charlestown and Westerly-Misquamicut townships at a time between the Pequot War and the Great Swamp Fight of the “King Phillip” Indian War of 1675. Happily for the Niantics, the Hartford forces failed to find them on that occasion. They had had enough of the United Colonies, who had taken Block Island away from them, and from us, and who created the somewhat-bizarre municipality on our western South County boundary of “Southold”, which belonged for a brief seven years, to the Bay Colonie and not to Hartford, so we South Countyites were bounded for awhile on the west, and the south, by the Massachusetts Colony. Such are the vagaries of history.

    The site of the Great Swamp Fight monument, which is somewhat near our Congdon cousins’ farm on “South County Trail”, which was/is the old Pequot Trail… generally believed now not to be the site, either of the Naragansetts’ fort nor of the massacre itself. Some state of the art archeology is called for, as it is for the Dutch trading post at Fort Neck in Charlestown. The “Queen’s Fort” in Wickford, where the Bay Colony troops killed so many of the Narragansetts prior to the Great Swamp Fight, also merits a careful archeological dig, as does the “Devil’s Foot” area of Wickford’s Quidnesset section where the main Narragansett encampment was.

    Thank you for your own reminiscences! We much appreciate your website.

    With my very best wishes,

    Barry Hale Browning, who is….hopelessly related to everyone in the area, and dearly loves his South County, Rhode Island.

  15. David Churbuck said:

    “…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.”

    So do I. I saw somewhere on your blog that you are interested in the American Civil War. I am too, specifically in the battle of Gettysburg.

    After traveling to several civil war battlefields in Virginia and lamenting the lack of preservation, I began a concentration on Gettysburg. It’s close enough to visit on day trips, and it takes a lot of day trips for someone like me to understand the field. For a Navy guy like me, Gettysburg was a complicated battle to understand. The water is generally flat, and the field at Gettysburg isn’t, and the commanders there were very sensitive to seemingly small, and also large, terrain features. It’s a fascinating field fought over by some fascinating people.

    The point, though, is that the park service is doing a brilliant job of working to return the battlefield to it’s state at the time of the battle. This involves actually cutting down a lot of trees that came up post battle, because farmers in the 1860’s wanted to maximize the amount or arable land at their disposal. They kept stands of hardwood trees for their wood needs, and planted the rest of their land.

    Why is that important? Because with the trees removed, we can see the field as the strategic and tactical commanders saw it, and that gives us a much better insight into how they made their decisions, and sometimes quickly (Hancock pushing the 1st Minnesota forward against Wilcox’s BRIGADE), during the battle. Example: stand at the spot where Hancock was wounded, and you can see both why he returned to that spot again and again during Longstreets assault on the second day, and how clearing the trees from the area between there and the Trostle farm has improved our ability to understand what went on there.

    All is not lost.

  16. Re: Thomas Bowen

    I am a descendant of Capt. Issac Johnson as well, through his son Nathaniel. Thank you for the information that I am now adding to my genealogy. I had no idea that this battle had taken place, let alone with my ancestors participating.

  17. I really enjoyed reading your article. I am a descendant of Joseph Tucker who was killed in the great Narragansatt war. I find it hard to trace him but I thank God he and others died so I could live the life I do today.

  18. Hello People:
    I am so glad to know there is so much interest in this history. I am decended from Capt. Nathaniel Seeley and have to also inform you of his father Lt. Robert Seeley of the Winthrop Fleet.
    I know there are strong feelings regarding this battle and can not say that the lose of life in any war doesn’t reflect what happened in this encounter. I think it would make a great movie and should be taught in school. These are our beginnings and can not be undone but, should be told and carried on through generations to come. This was an epic battle fought in the midst of a New England blizzard, in the middle of a swamp. The time was over three hundred years ago. It is hard to get our minds around it with all of the history that has passed.
    I have also read the book Mayflower by Nathaniel Philibreck and have had a lot of great reflections of how life was for our families to have lived in a time when everything you had came from the efforts of a joined community. These people were harrassed to come to America, due to there religious beliefs, from England, to a land were only 39 members of the original pilgrams remained. They came better equiped to last in this wilderness. Many were taught by the Native Americans to live and hunt and survive.
    This was truely a vast wild country that no one that is living today can frankly understand. It was a fight for survival and to them as anyone faced with a threat of impending doom, did what they had to do.
    They had no advanced science, it was worse off than Gilligans Island. I wish all of you that have come to learn from this site well.
    Blessings to all.
    P.S. I forgive Joshua Teft

  19. Hi David,

    I am an anthropology student taking a First Peoples of the Americas class and am thrilled to be writing about the Great Swamp Fight. My ancestor, Capt. John Gallup died in that battle. I visit relations every year in Charlestown and have made several attempts to find the sight of the battle. I was saddened to read that the monument isn’t where the site actually is.

    I have enjoyed all the comments from the other folks. Perhaps a reunion of sorts for descendants of the parties involved would be something to entertain in the future.


    1. After 40 years of researching my family I found a missing link that led to Capt. John Gallup. I am his 9th great granddaughter. The last few months have truly been an education. My college years were heavy on the sciences and low on history. I have toured the New England area several times and wish I had known about our family. Karen Ayers Connel

  20. This is a creepy and captivating thread. And yes, I AM related to the Brownings. But oddly (fortunately?) since my identifiable ancestors of that era are white Rhode Islanders, I can’t find any record of them being involved in the attack. Of course, there are plenty of Narragansetts around descended from the dispersed inhabitants of the village site.

    My wife and I have been editing Cooper’s Narragansett novel, THE WEPT OF WISH-TON-WISH, and of course have traipsed around the north shore of the pond as well as the memorial site. I’m curious about the hydrologic changes from damming and railroad-building, and it will be interesting to see if dam removal on the Pawcatuck will eventually reveal anything about the earlier landscape. Growing up in RI, there were two events that shaped all earlier South County history for me: one was the 1675 fight and the other was the 1938 hurricane. It seems there was never a time I was not aware of these two events–and I’m grateful for that aspect of my early childhood education. I’m not sure that even in South County this is a widespread phenomenon.

    If it were, I think Rhode Islanders would reverence the spot the way the Little Big Horn has captivated the national imagination. I have mixed feelings about identifying these places, weighing the knowledge of archeology against the possessive instincts of descendants. I think if there is a lesson to be learned, it has to be taught. My first visit to Gettysburg was one of the most powerful experiences of my life–but if the landscape had merely been left alone there would have been no lesson at all, just another poor Pennsylvania town where something happened once–we’re not quite sure where or what.

  21. Re: C. Flick

    Ensign Henry Bowen and Elizabeth Porter Johnson produced 11 children during their marriage (Dec. 20 1658) My family genealogist Daniel Bowen published a family genealogy history in 1893. He documented each one of these children and their birthdates, marriages and their children. He then folowed the line of Isaac Bowen the youngest child of Henry Bowen born April 20, 1676. If you need any info regarding any one of Henry and Elizabeth Johnson Bowen’s children I have all the details.

    My family genealogist records in his family history ” The word had gone forth. The Narragansetts must be stamped out. One thousand men under “the brave Josiah Winslow” waded through the deep snow for nearly two days to the hostile camp in the Kingston swamp. I was stockaded and to be approached only by the narrow bridge of a single log, under the protection of a block-house. On that log, at the head of his men, Captain Isaac Johnson fell, and so became for New England, for all time, a hero and a martyr. The Indians were soon over-powered and their wigwams and stored provisions burned. (Bancroft’s Hist of the U. S. vol.ii p. 105)”

    “The humane policy of John Eliot and the of William Penn, and that of a certain personage who lived in Galilee some 1800 years ago, might have led up to a happier issue; but when the crisis had come in 1675, there was no way out. It was kill or be killed.”

    John Eliot was the was the first pastor of the First Church of Roxbury and considered the”The Apostle of the Indians” as he translated the bible into the the indian language and “both Lieut. Henry and Isaac Johnson sat under that gracious ministry.”

  22. A forgotten and unrecognised aspect of this campaign and war is the essential part the Natives played aiding the English to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion. There were companies of “friendly” Indians, either Mohegans/Pequots/ Niantics who were for the most part not Christian converts and the Praying Indians, members of the Massachusetts and Nipmuc tribes, whose expertise accelerated the war’s end. It was a disgruntled Narragansett, an”Indian Peter” who guided Winslow’s army through the snowy wilderness directly to the swamp fort.

  23. Thomas Bowen, I am a descendant of Griffith Bowen, and am trying to figure out whether it was through Lt Henry Bowen and his son John, or through Henry’s brother William and his son John.

    Since you have documentation of Henry’s children and their marriages, I am hoping you can help me. My family records show John Bowen marrying Ann Doyle. They had a son, Cornelius Bowen, b. 1719, who married Marijte Mary Putman.

    I don’t have a date of birth or death for John, just family history documented decades ago stating they were originally from Wales through Griffith.

    My Bowen descendants fought as Loyalists in Butler’s Rangers in NY.

  24. I am a descendant of Captain Isaac Johnson through his son Nathaniel Johnson. I have driven past the site of the memorial on my way to Newport, RI. It is a tranquil farming area, and I am glad it is still fairly rural. It is a nice contrast to I-95 in nearby northeastern CT. I agree that we should not view this battle through a P.C. 21st century lens, but realize our colonial forefathers had to fight to earn dominon over the territory. If they had been pacifists, there would be no U.S. today. We wouldn’t even be here to debate the morals of what took place.

  25. Great conversation. I’m slowly working on a photographic project that includes the Great Swamp Massacre. On one visit to the area in early 2010, I spoke with Christine Dudley (Supervising Biologist-Freshwater Studies) who works out on the Management land about the history and site of the GSM. She was very helpful. When I asked her if she knew the site of the former Narragansett fort, she was unaware of its location, but did explain that a team of students and archeologists from Brown University had come down to the area and located the site – uncovering remnants of palisades, and other items. She did not recall any names, but was certain they found something. I’ve been meaning to poke around at Brown: so much to do, so little time. Though I understand and respect of some to have it remain “unknown” if anyone knows for certain where it is, I’d (my leaky waders and 40 year old knees) would be much indebted.

  26. Re: Tonya Harmon

    Lt. Henry Bowen’s brother William Bowen b. C1632 was a mariner and was recorded as died “A Christian Captive to the Turks” about 1686. His church at Roxbury had actually taken up a collection to free him but were too late. The family genealogist records an “only son” William who was a taylor and sold his inheritence his share of the family farm at Muddy Brook for L80 on May 10th 1716. It is further recorded that “With Willliam that branch probably became extinct”.

    Henry’s son John b. July 7, 1662 married Hannah Brewer in Roxbury, Mass in 1695, daughter of Daniel Brewer. There were five children, Hannah b. 1696, Elizabeth b. 1698, Abigail, b. 1700, Sarahb. 1705 and John b. 1706. John the only son of John and Hannah married Mehetable May on June 6, 1734 and had three children Hehetable 1735, John 1737 and Penuel 1739.

    I looked for a Ann Doyle or Cornelius Bowen in that era but could find none. It is possible that he could be a descendent of Henry’s brother William as the research was done in the 1880s and 1890s and Daniel Bowen the author of “The family of Griffith Bowen Welsh Puritan Immigrant” could have lost track of William the brother of Henry. His comment that this branch of the family is “probably extinct” could mean that he just could not find any descendent.

    You can actually buy this book on line. It is 272 pages of wonderfully researched family history with many anecdotes.

  27. I recently visited the Great Swamp Fight monument. Its a great historical landmark.

    It is falling into dis-repair. Is any thing being done to preserve this site? What can be done to repair the markers?

  28. Thanks for the article; I was interested also to read the comments in response. I am descended from a brother of Joshua Tefft (also recorded as Tift or Tifft), a first-generation American born in Rhode Island to British immigrant parents. He was tried and convicted as a traitor in 1676 by colonial authorities for his part in the Great Swamp Fight. Several soldiers testified that they saw him shoot other colonial soldiers; this testimony along with other factors (including the fact that he hadn’t attended church in years) led to his conviction and execution. The story is a strange one, as some accounts paint him as a clear traitor to his own people, while in other accounts he seems more like a captive victim. It’s interesting to speculate.

  29. One more thing to add: if anyone has come across this story in their own historical/genealogical research, please let me know ( Thanks very much!

  30. A classmate at a former all-Indian school in Muskogee, Oklahoma, hailed from Rhode Island and identified with his Narragansett people, telling me how his elders kept the memory of the Big Swamp killings alive and how sad it was.

    I am glad that the consciences of some of the soldiers who killed “mostly women and children” wondered about the rightness of their actions against the very people whose assistance was critical to their survival on Indian Land. Thou Shall Not Steal/Kill was not as important to the colonists, who would justify their deeds, by believing a better day lay ahead. In a very short time, there is pollution, contamination of the air, water and lands beyond repair that the “savages” preserved for centuries.

  31. I am a descendant of Capt Isaac Johnson through his son Nathanial. He was one of the 5 Captains that died.

  32. I am not convinced that the USA would not be here today had battles like the Great Swamp Massacre not taken place. The European invasion would have continued regardless of whether colonists decided to do a preemptive strike against the Narragansets. Greed caused the situation to arise and that is counter to Christian teaching. Greed on both sides to some degree, it must be said, since people are people. A similar situation occurred when the Spanish beat the Aztecs – they used some natives resentment towards the Aztecs to their advantage. It is a story echoed around the world. But a massacre is a massacre.

  33. Glad to see such intrerest in this and hope all SOMEDAY will realize what a truly amazing civilization we wiped out. The Christian could not be stopped for they were guided by the hand of God! RUBBISH I say! A belief they were a superior being to the wild savages with their childlike religions lets abominate these inferior wretches with greed, disease, two faced war schemes, pitting a greedy and powerful Sachem to extinguish equal and lesser powers then weaken them with alcohol and buy them out when drunk with mere trinkets and tucking cloth while the unsuspecting native didnt even understand what it meant to sell a piece of land. We took advantage of a simple yet complex in nature civilization. IF THERE EVER WERE A GODS PEOPLE..WHO COMES CLOSER TO GOD THAN THE NATIVE AMERICANS. THESE PEOPLE LIVED ON THE SOIL WE CALL OURS FOR THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS OF YEARS AND DID NOTHING BUT PRESERVE HER..LOOK WHAT WE HAVE DONE TO THIS COUNTRY IN LESS THAN 400 YEARS. WILL WE LAST FOR TEN THOUSAND YEARS AT THE RATE WERE GOING…CALL THEM PRIMITIVE I SAY PRISTINE!!

  34. I have had an interest in the battle since I was a teenager in the 70’s, living just up the road from the monument during the summers.
    I finally located the site of the actual battle several years ago, and the description of the events of that night with the surrounding topography fit it to a “T”.
    It is very difficult to get to, by kayak only, and is protected by the State. I also noted several markers which I believe the Narragansetts use for landing when they conduct ceremonies.
    The outline of the fortress location itself is clearly visible.
    I plan on visiting the outlying, unprotected areas of the site when the weather warms up a tad. It is about 1.5 miles away from the monument itself.
    I don’t know if any archaeological digs have been performed but I should would like to know what they found if there were!

  35. What a wonderful discussion. I’m so glad that other people find this topic as interesting and important as I do. I agree that it should be taught – as many of the comments illustrate, there are a lot of complex moral and historical issues involved in this tragedy. I would be so fascinated to see the site of the actual fort, and to explore the surrounding area. John, from your description it sounds like there’s no easy way to describe the location. Could you provide any more information about the immediate site? What is there to see, and are the palisades still visible? I’m going to try to contact people at Brown to see if anyone knows anything about archaeological digs at the fort.

  36. Hi John D. if you need a companion to take a gander at the site, I am up to it.
    Canoe or kayak fits the bill. I live in Saunderstown. This is on my mind and
    it would be a high light of my seeking local information. Most of my time
    is spent with the Narrow River Watershed. See

  37. It is very sad to me that in all history of everywhere, there are horrible wars and bloodshed, and that was how all nations are founded. It seems we as “the most intelligent creatures” on earth should have learned better after thousands of years of “development”. My ancestor was Captain John Gorham of Plymouth colony who died due to wounds received at the Great Swamp Fight when his powder horn exploded against his side. Other ancestors include Capt George Denison, Captain James Morgan, Captain Richard Beers, and Thomas Stanton, the Indian interpreter from the first Pequot war. I feel sorrow for the losses, on all sides, and wish that everyone would appreciate the sacrifices that were made, on all sides. When I look at New England today, I’m grateful to be here, but can’t forget any of them.

  38. I too am a descendant of Isaac Johnson. After finding this website and unblocking my hard to follow Johnson line, I am delighted to hear all of this information and great history involved. Also a Seely descendant I truly see how we are all related. Thank you for your hard work and the answers I needed to know.

  39. What a satisfying number of comments, most of which are descendants of soldiers and settlers. I am descended from Nathaniel Seeley and Mary Turney. Nathaniel died in the Great Swamp Fight it seems. Like others, I am documenting family history on my blog pages and would like to link to this post of yours.

  40. I am a descendent of Gilbert Forsyth who was under Captain Oliver’s command during The Great Swamp Fight. Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Mayflower has a great chapter dedicated to the battle.

  41. a war which attacks a know tribe that didn’t want to fight. huh. that’s what many of the battles (as you call them) end up. it was only a matter of achieving more land and eliminating a local tribe. whats happened from coast to coast of the American continent. my own tribe the yakama in the state of Washington in 1855. many many years later from this. as more and more arrived from Europe, the more land you needed,so you killed all the was in front of you. 300 men, women and children. you call kllling children a battle. burning them alive, you call that a battle.

  42. It is a wonder that it has taken some 300 yrs of History still observed ,uligy of whites

    without a real native Narative available, excurps by by non native secular writings at


    As a Rhode Islander I have heard from Trazan Brown and others a very different version
    forced into a choice of defeat by both sides and a culmination of false hand writen documents of land sales that never happen in reality.

    The business men of Mass and RI were haters of native people right up to 196s were it eased a bit but still lingers.

    I have visited the great swamp long before such college bred wimps ventured out of the esoteric beliefs in what really happen in December 19 1675.
    No one Portrays Roger Williams a s a blood thirsty man who avenged the peoples desire to grab land at any cost,idea, treachery.

    Did any jury ever try ,to verify by witnesses,the so called burning a a Babtist church in Providence or did the people further vent there hated. The scars are there and no one can excuse the genocide of Men women Children who were thought of as fleas in a massacre a BLaCK ,Dark, Greedy HISTORY Pat that no clever editorial will wash away with tainted words.

    All Colonial Army that took Part Conn, mass, RI ,are still Guilty of Genocide and that Legacy of in humanity will never swept away at clever wordings of Those who participated and covered up afterwards? What Guns and cannon amo did natives have ,bows and arrows?

    I found the site in great Swamp Monolith desecrated, in 1950s bad ,1960s worse ,1970s major damage , at this mass grave site.

    This is a tribute to what was a TRUE Massacre of defenseless peoples ,women children ,being hunted down by hates cause . JUST Before CHRISTMAS?

    I also have photos take of the memorial made by RI Historical society I feel who knew the guilt and, who were in grief ,Mans inhumanity to man ,a legacy of USA history to date?

    What a great Christian father Roger Williams was,a Entrepreneur of deceit?

  43. Please forgive typos above ,I have no PHD. at only bad eyes, for T crossings and periods , and or a thesis.

    Thank you,

    ole man swanson

  44. I am a descendent of Captain William Raymond who fought in this war. He also fought in King Philip’s battle. What sad events for all involved.

  45. 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.

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