King Philip’s War & the Great Swamp Fight

United States - Scott #1420 (1970)
United States – Scott #1420 (1970)

On November 2, 1675, the governor of the Plymouth Colony Josiah Winslow led a combined force of over 1,000 colonial militia, including about 150 Pequot and Mohegan Indians, against the Narragansetts living around Narragansett Bay, leading to a massacre known as the Great Swamp Fight on December 19. The Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower and founded Plymouth Plantation in 1620 had expended great effort forging friendship and peace with the Indians around Cape Cod. They traveled long distances to make peace with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe, and Governor William Bradford made a gift of his prized red horse coat upon seeing that the chief admired it. Yet over the next 50 years, frictions and misunderstandings multiplied as wave after wave of Puritans and non-religious “strangers” (fortune-seekers not motivated by religion) kept arriving, often oblivious to the fragile peace carefully woven since the earliest arrivals. By 1675, the early efforts at friendship failed.

A band of Pokanokets attacked several isolated homesteads in the small Plymouth colony settlement of Swansea on June 20, 1675. They laid siege to the town, then destroyed it five days later and killed several more people. On June 27, a full eclipse of the moon occurred in the New England area, and various tribes in New England thought it a good omen for attacking the colonists. Officials from the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies responded quickly to the attacks on Swansea; on June 28, they sent a punitive military expedition that destroyed the Wampanoag town at Mount Hope in Bristol, Rhode Island. The war quickly spread and soon involved the Podunk and Nipmuck tribes. During the summer of 1675, the Indians attacked at Middleborough and Dartmouth, Massachusetts (July 8), Mendon, Massachusetts (July 14), Brookfield, Massachusetts (August 2), and Lancaster, Massachusetts (August 9). In early September, they attacked Deerfield, Hadley, and Northfield, Massachusetts.

Metacomet, aka King Philip, chief of Wampanoags. “Philip. King of Mount Hope” caricature by Paul Revere — a plate from The Entertaining History of King Philip’s War, 1772 edition, by Benjamin Church (whose father was directly responsible for the death of Metacomet). -Church, Benjamin The entertaining history of King Philip’s war, which began in the month of June, 1675: As also of expeditions more lately made against the common enemy, and Indian rebels, in the eastern parts of New-England: With some account of the divine providence towards Col. Benjamin Church”, Second Edition; Soloman Southwick; Newport, R.I., USA; 1772, facing page 88. (First Edition published 1716 – Boston, Mass.)

The New England Confederation comprised the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony, New Haven Colony, and Connecticut Colony; they declared war on the Indians on September 9, 1675. The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations tried to remain neutral, but much of the war was fought on Rhode Island soil; Providence and Warwick suffered extensive damage from the Indians.

The Narragansett tribe had not yet been directly involved in what became known as King Philip’s War — named for Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief who adopted the name Philip because of the friendly relations between his father Massasoit and the Mayflower Pilgrims — but they had sheltered many of King Philip’s men, women, and children, and several of their warriors had participated in Indian raiding parties. The colonists distrusted the Narragansetts and feared that the tribe would join King Philip’s cause in the spring, which caused great concern due to the tribe’s location. The militia burned several abandoned Narragansett villages as they marched around Narragansett Bay, as the tribe had retreated to a large fort in the center of the Great Swamp near Kingston, Rhode Island.

On November 2, Plymouth Colony Josiah Winslow led a combined force of colonial militia against the Narragansett tribe. The Narragansetts had not been directly involved in the war, but they had sheltered many of the Wampanoag fighters, women, and children. Some of their warriors had participated in several Indian attacks. The colonists distrusted the tribe and did not understand the various alliances. As the colonial forces went through Rhode Island, they found and burned several Indian towns which had been abandoned by the Narragansetts, who had retreated to a massive fort in a frozen swamp. The cold weather in December froze the swamp so that it was relatively easy to traverse. The colonial force found the Narragansett fort on December 19, 1675 near present-day South Kingstown, Rhode Island; they attacked in a combined force of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut militia numbering about 1,000 men, including about 150 Pequots and Mohican Indian allies. The fierce battle that followed is known as the Great Swamp Fight. It is believed that the militia killed about 600 Narragansetts, many of them women and children. They burned the fort which occupied over 5 acres (20,000 m²) of land) and destroyed most of the tribe’s winter stores.

Site of the Great Swamp Fight of 1675 between the English colonists of Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Plymouth against the Narragansett Tribe. Located in the Great Swamp State Management Area, South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Photo taken on July 16, 2013.
Site of the Great Swamp Fight of 1675 between the English colonists of Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Plymouth against the Narragansett Tribe. Located in the Great Swamp State Management Area, South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Photo taken on July 16, 2013.

Most of the Narragansett warriors escaped into the frozen swamp. The colonists lost many of their officers in this assault; about 70 of their men were killed and nearly 150 more wounded. The rest of the colonial assembled forces returned to their homes, lacking supplies for an extended campaign. The nearby towns in Rhode Island provided care for the wounded until they could return to their homes.

The Indian coalition was then taken over by Narragansett sachem Canonchet. They pushed back the colonial frontier in Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Rhode Island colonies, burning towns as they went, including Providence in March 1676. However, the colonial militia overwhelmed the Indian coalition and, by the end of the war, the Wampanoags and their Narragansett allies were almost completely destroyed. The Narragansetts were completely defeated when their chief sachem Canonchet was captured and executed in April 1676, then female sachem Queen Quaiapen drowned on July 2 attempting to cross a river. Metacom (Philip) fled to Mount Hope where he was finally killed by John Alderman, an Indian soldier in the company of Benjamin Church.

The site of King Philip's death in Miery Swamp on Mount Hope, Rhode Island. The inscription reads,
The site of King Philip’s death in Miery Swamp on Mount Hope, Rhode Island. The inscription reads, “reads: “In the ‘Miery Swamp,’ 100 feet W.S.W. from this spring, according to tradition, King Philip fell, August 12, 1676, O.S. / This stone placed by the R.I. Historical Society. December, 1877.”

King Philip’s War was the greatest calamity to occur in seventeenth-century New England and is considered by many to be the deadliest war in the history of American colonization. In the space of little more than a year, 12 of the region’s towns were destroyed and many more were damaged, the economy of Plymouth and Rhode Island Colonies was all but ruined and their population was decimated, losing one-tenth of all men available for military service. More than half of New England’s towns were attacked by Indians. The began the development of an independent American identity. The New England colonists faced their enemies without support from any outside government or military, and this gave them a group identity separate and distinct from Britain.

Scott #1420 was released on November 21, 1970, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to mark the 350th anniversary of the group of English separatists known as the Pilgrims landing there. The success of Plymouth Colony proved that man could live and prosper in New England. The 6-cent stamp was lithographed and engraved by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing with 129,785,000 copies printed, perforated 11.

Note: I’d never heard of most of the events surrounding King Philip’s War and the Great Swamp Fight and found them too interesting to severely condense. Although today is the first day of the school term, I don’t start teaching again until Monday and found enough free time to put this article together. Unfortunately, I will not have time for a proper article tomorrow due to having to visit the Immigration Offices for my own work permit and visa renewals (which are actually due at the end of this month but the staff is trying to speed my process since I will be stuck up in Phang Nga from next week).

Flag of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1636-1686. After Roger Williams stated the cross was a symbol of the antichrist, John Endicott, a former governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, led an attempt to have part of the cross removed from the militia colours of the troops at Salem. The Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony found Endicott had
Flag of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1636-1686.

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