The Great Swamp Fight: Colonial Militia Assault Indian Stronghold

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The Great Swamp Fight: Colonial Militia Assault Indian Stronghold

Great Swamp Fight, image from "Annual Record of the Ancient and Honorable
Artillery Company of Massachusetts" circa 1900; author unknown
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: December 19, 1675

For this week's journey into the military past, we travel to the year 1675, and what is today the state of Connecticut. European settlers have been in New England for more than 50 years, and are starting to interfere with the Native American populations. We all know this leads to armed conflict, one remembered in history as "King Philip's War."


The Plymouth settlers of 1620 tried for many years to work with the indigenous natives, learning how to plant, trap, and hunt. For almost 40 years, things went well. But, as the new settlers began to hunt out many of the local fur-bearing animals, the Indians became dependent upon European trade goods. Soon, some tribes began selling their lands to the Englishmen, and were soon feeling squeezed out of their ancestral living and hunting lands. Attempts by some of the Puritans to convert the Indians did not go over well.

In about 1661 (English records vary), an event occurred which started the ball of history rolling downhill for the Native Americans. One of the best Indian friends of the colonists, namely Ousamequin, died. He was a sachem (chief) of the Pokanoket and Wampanoag tribes. He was better known as "Massasoit," which means "great sachem," as he was recognized as the leader of a small confederation of Indian tribes in the Massachusetts-Rhode Island area. Prior to his demise – probably sensing the changing wind in relations between whites and Indians – Massasoit went to the house of a Pilgrim neighbor, bringing along his two sons Wamsutta (called Alexander by the English) and Metacom (known as Philip). With his white neighbor as a witness, Massasoit expressed the hope that his sons and the English settlers would continue to enjoy an amicable relationship.

Statue of Massasoit by Cyrus Edwin Dallin (1920); Located opposite Plymouth Rock, Plymouth MA
Statue of Massasoit by Cyrus Edwin Dallin (1920)
Located opposite Plymouth Rock, Plymouth MA

Upon Massasoit's death, his son Wamsutta assumed leadership of the tribal confederation. However, within a year he died a mysterious death (historians believe he died of appendicitis which was poorly treated by a colonial physician). His brother Metacom – now known as King Philip – became the tribal leader during the year 1672. Philip had never trusted the English settlers, and the death of his brother did nothing to strengthen that trust. Relations between the Indians and the settlers deteriorated over the next decade.

During that decade, Philip began laying careful, secret plans to attack and exterminate the English settlers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. He slowly built a confederation of neighboring Indian tribes. He also gathered muskets and gunpowder for the eventual attack, but only in small numbers in order that the English would not be alarmed.

However, the spark that set off the powderkeg of war occurred in 1675. Philip retained a Christianized Indian named John Sassamon who acted as his interpreter and advisor; he had even received an education at Harvard College. In addition, Sassamon had married Philip's sister. John was fully aware of Philip's dealings with other tribes in the area, as well as Philip's antipathy towards the English settlers. Early in 1675, John Sassamon went to the Plymouth colony and told Governor Josiah Winslow about Philip's outreach activities with the regional Indian tribes.

Shortly afterwards, John Sassamon's body was found beneath the ice of a pond near Lakeville, MA. An investigation was begun, and in March of 1675 Philip in Plymouth to answer questions about his brother-in-law's death. Philip displayed a defiant attitude toward the colonist, denied any involvement in the killing. In fact, he even disputed whether Sassamon's death had been a murder or not. Finally, Philip stated he felt that the whole event was an internal Indian affair and was no business of the colonists.

'Philip, King of Mount Hope' (1772); Hand-colored line engraving by Paul Revere; Currently in Yale University Art Collection, New Haven CT
"Philip, King of Mount Hope" (1772)
Hand-colored line engraving by Paul Revere
Currently in Yale University Art Collection, New Haven CT

Consequently, three Wampanoag Indians – including Philip's chief counselor Tobias – were arrested and brought to trial for Sassamon's murder. Their jury included 12 colonists and six "praying Indians" (Christian converts). An alleged eyewitness testified against the 3 accused, and they were unanimously found guilty. Two were hanged on June 8, while the third was shot and killed soon afterwards. This incident proved to be the spark which led to war.

Soon afterwards the Plymouth and Massachusetts militia were called out, gathering at the town of Swansea, very near to Philip's Mount Hope Indian village. Governor Winslow declared June 24 as a day of prayer and fasting. On that very day, some of Philip's warrior – likely without his knowledge – attacked a party of colonials going home from religious services. Thus began King Philip's War.

Prelude to the Battle

Over the next six months, colonial militia and native Indian raiding parties ranged over modern-day Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Philip had only about 250 warriors to begin his war. After several months of constant raiding and fighting, Philip's warriors were whittled down to only about 40 or 50 effectives. Therefore, he induced several other tribes to join him. Indian bands attacked isolated farms, massacring the inhabitants. Several towns were assaulted as well, notably Brookfield, MA in August, and Deerfield and Northfield, both in September. Several times small groups of colonial militiamen would pursue fleeing Indian raiders – straight into well-laid traps. In October, the town of Springfield was burned to the ground, and Indian attacks on settlements on the Maine coast were reported.

One major Indian band which tried to remain neutral was the Narragansetts, a band neighboring Philip's Wampanoags who had given shelter to Wampanoag women and children. In addition, Narragansett warriors had been reported to be participating in several Indian raids. As a result, the united colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Plymouth gathered their militias together, comprising a force of 1000 men with about 150 allied Pequot and Mohegan Indians as scouts and guides. On December 8, with Governor Winslow in command, the militia army marched south and west, with the intent of attacking the Narragansetts to force them to remain neutral in the war.

It was a bitterly cold New England winter, with blizzard-like conditions for several days. The militia marched into Rhode Island territory, burning several deserted Narragansett villages along the way. At one point, they captured an Indian named Peter (a Christianized Indian, perhaps). He had come into conflict with the local sachems, and was willing to talk to the English. He told the militia the Narragansetts had 3000 warriors (an obvious exaggeration, with modern historians putting the number closer to 1000), and were holed up in a large palisade in the middle of a nearly-impenetrable swamp. However, the extreme temperatures had frozen the swamp, allowing access to the Narragansetts' base. The Englishmen spent a terrible night sleeping in the open, with no tents, few blankets or winter gear, and little food.

At 5:00 am on December 19 the colonist began to march through the bitter cold and deep snow to attack the Indian strongpoint. After struggling through the blizzard for eight hours – with wicked winds and three feet of thick snow on the ground – the militiamen encountered some Narragensett pickets, who sniped at the marching colonials as they continued to approach the fort. Finally, militiamen's scouts reported seeing the Narrangansett fort. It was situated on an island about five acres in size. Its walls were constructed of upright tree trunks, with further strengthening from a 16-foot thick brush and clay barrier. A number of watch towers were situated at the fort's corners, providing covering fire. A moat surrounded the whole construction, with a large tree trunk spanning the moat providing entrance to the stronghold. Inside the enclosure were about 500 wigwams, with a large number of women, children, old men, and warriors feeling themselves perfectly safe, until the 1000 English militiamen materialized.

The Great Swamp Fight

'Capture of King Phillip's [sic] Fort'; Engraving from Harper's Magazine, 1857 (engraver unknown)
"Capture of King Phillip's [sic] Fort"
Engraving from Harper's Magazine, 1857 (engraver unknown)

The English quickly realized that trying a head-on assault over the moat was virtual suicide. Scouts were sent to reconnoiter the fort's perimeter. A section of the fort wall was discovered that had been left unfinished. Tree trunks had been laid horizontally to a height of about four feet, and the section was wide enough for several men at a time to scramble through into the fort. Plans were hastily formulated to attack this section.

The militiamen spread out around the fort's perimeter, and a lusty fusillade of firing commenced. At least one militia company made a feint at the tree trunk bridge, and was immediately thrown back with its officers dead and many wounded. At the unfinished section, a similar assault was met with similar results, followed by two more attempts which resulted in dozens of militiamen pinned down by furious firing from the Narragansett defenders.

Finally, Major Samuel Appleton and Captain James Oliver formed their commands into attack columns – not the broad front tried by the previous assaults. With little trouble, their men broke into the fort, and began attacking the Narragansett defenders. Soon, between 300 and 400 Englishmen poured into the stronghold. The firing by the colonials outside the fort did not slacken, but probably intensified. Word was sent to Governor Winslow to cease firing; the militiamen inside the fort were now becoming victims of friendly fire.

Col. Benjamin Church, hand-colored engraving by Paul Revere; Yale University Art Collection, New Haven CT
Col. Benjamin Church, hand-colored engraving by Paul Revere
Yale University Art Collection, New Haven CT

After about three hours of fighting into the early evening (remember, sunset probably took place about 4:15 pm), the Narragansetts began running out of gunpowder. Many of the warriors began escaping the fort, going over the walls into the swamp, dragging their dead and wounded with them. Others returned over the palisade to sow further confusion. At this point, Gov. Winslow gave the order to destroy the Indians' stronghold. One colonial leader, a Captain Benjamin Church who commanded the first company of American rangers, urged Winslow to preserve the fort, as the militia had no food or shelter of their own and the dusk was thickening. Winslow ignored Church's advice, and the militiamen began setting fire to the Indian wigwams, destroying their food stores, and indiscriminately killing any Indians still inside the fort. One account of this aftermath stated:

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…

The militiamen left the battlefield after nightfall, marching through the freezing weather for the second time in less than 12 hours. Some of the wounded died during this march, while others died of exhaustion and exposure (probably some frostbite thrown in for good measure). The lead militia elements reached a garrison house at 2:00 am, though the remainder did not finally come in until nearly daybreak of December 20.


It is believed that about 300-650 natives were killed though exact figures are unknown. Many of the warriors and their families escaped into the frozen swamp; there hundreds more died from wounds combined with the harsh conditions. Facing a winter with little food and shelter, the whole surviving Narragansett tribe was forced out of the quasi-neutrality some had tried to maintain in the ongoing war and joined the fight alongside Philip.

The colonists lost many of their officers in this assault and about seventy of their men were killed and nearly 150 more wounded. The dead and wounded colonial militiamen were evacuated to the settlements on Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay where they were buried or cared for by many of the Rhode Island colonists until they could return to their homes.

Footnote #1: The victory by the New England militias at the Great Swamp Fight opened a new phase of King Philip's War, as many previously neutral tribes – like the Narragansetts – began to take sides. Rather than keeping them neutral, the Narragansetts chose to join Philip's alliance and began fighting the colonists more openly.

Footnote #2: Philip journeyed westward to attempt an alliance with the Mohawks in the Hudson River valley. He failed, and he returned to New England to continue his resistance to European settlement. The war had taken on a life of its own, and Philip had no real control over the various tribes.

'Death of King Phili' from
"Death of King Phili" from "A School History of the United States" (1884)
Author unknown

Footnote #3: On August 12, 1676 Philip and a small band of his followers were cornered in the Assowamet Swamp, below Providence. Philip tried to escape a cordon of Church's rangers, and was shot by John Alderman, a Christianized Indian. Philip's body was described as "a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast." Church ordered Philip's body chopped into four pieces, and the head was removed. The four pieces were tied to trees, where they were left to be consumed by birds and the elements. His head was sent to Plymouth, where it was put on display for many years. Years later, famed clergyman Cotton Mather would rip the jawbone off Philip's desiccated skull, proclaiming, he would not allow "this bloody and craft wretch" to speak from Hell."

Footnote #4: John Alderman was given one of Philip's hands as a trophy, which he preserved in a jar of rum. For the remaining years of his life, he would go into local inns and taverns and display the hand for free drinks.

Footnote #5: Despite the death of Philip, the war continued under control of various other Indian leaders, finally ending in April of 1678. This war, fought without any substantial help from Great Britain, allowed a more independent American personality to evolve among the colonist. This would eventually lead to the American Revolution a century afterwards.

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I think that if you go to your local library & pick up a book on this war. You find that it was more of a massacre in the great swamp fight. There where many oid men & women & chidren in the fort ,which by the way is in Rhode Island,South Kingston in fact, the colonist`s went there knowing this ,but attacked & killed most of the indian`s. Very few getting away. The colonist`s where afraid that the Narragansett`s would join the war. Has they were one of the largest tribe`s at that time,but where not interested in the war. scince they where a very prosperous people,trading with the local settler`s & other tribe`s This swamp fight got them involved !!

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