Sunday, December 19, 2021

December 19, 1675 - Narragansett Victory in Great Swamp Fight

With the arrival of the first English settlers in 1620, a new player with steadily growing power came into the complex politics of the “New England” region. It was already home to several tribes, including the Wampanoags, who had served as allies with the English. Their sachem (“high chief”) Massasoit worked tirelessly to maintain peace in a land ravaged by disease and strained resources, balancing his own power with that of the English and the Narragansetts to the south. Following Massasoit’s death, his voice of peace faded, and his youngest son Metacom arrived as sachem with a plan to reestablish Wamanoag authority in the face of the English and end an era of broken treaties, theft, oppressive laws ordering native disarmament, and executing natives under colonial jurisdiction rather than native law.

Raiding began in the summer of 1675 in what the English called “King Philip’s War” after Metacom’s Christian name. Metacom organized attacks on Swansea, Dartmouth, and Springfield. Colonists fled to the fortified ports, and farmers worked to harvest and transport their wagons under the watch of militia. The United Colonies of New England pooled their defenses while other players, such as the Colony of New York and the Narragansetts, struggled to maintain neutrality.

When winter approached, the Wampanoags retreated toward the frontier between New York and New England as well as seeking shelter among the Narragansetts. Colonists remained nervous, and despite the Treaty of Neutrality between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Narragansetts signed that October, the colonists decided to make a preemptive attack on the Narragansetts in Rhode Island before the war would likely expand next spring. Governor Josiah Winslow assembled over 1,000 troops, including allies from the Pequot and Mohegan tribes.

The military action proved the warning cries of Metacom, which he had spread among the neighboring tribes. Using the example of the Mystic River Massacre, Metacom’s diplomats had argued that there was no long-term solution that would allow for survival for tribes while the colonies continued to grow. In 1637 during the Pequot War, colonists and Pequots battled one another with raids on trading. A militia led by Captain John Mason sieged a Pequot fortification with wooden palisades and set the village inside on fire. Those trying to escape the flames over the palisades were shot as they appeared. Of the hundreds of men, women, and children in the village, only five escaped.

Metacom’s storytellers had visited the Pequot, Mohegan, Narragansetts, and Mohawk of New York, stirring those who distrusted the colonists. While there were many natives who had converted to Christianity (known as “praying Indians”), the stories swayed many of those who had been undecided in allegiance. Word from spies among the Pequot gave the Narragansetts advance warning about the colonial attack, which planned to cross the frozen defensive moat for a direct assault. Narragansett warriors spent the night before the attack drilling small holes in the ice of the moat, making it so that only a few men could walk on it at a time. When the militia marched over the ice, they were caught by surprise when it suddenly gave way beneath them after enough troops marched onto it. The Narragansetts then charged out from the village, wiping out many of the militia and sending the rest to retreat in disarray.

In the spring of 1676, attacks by the natives resumed with new allies that included more than 2,000 Narragansett warriors under Canonchet. These marched on Providence, Rhode Island Colony’s capital, and burned it. Metacom swept through southern Massachusetts while guerilla warfare scattered settlers in the northern reaches of Massachusetts called Maine. Colonists went into disarray, many boarding overcrowded ships to sail south and others working to fortify their towns. A delegation traveled to London to appeal for military aid, but the court of Charles II was battle-weary from the Third Anglo-Dutch War and far too concerned with internal religious strife.

The colonists at last sued for peace. A permanent border was set at the Blackstone River for the rump Massachusetts Colony, which absorbed the remains of Rhode Island and New Hampshire. An allied Algonquian Nation formed among the Abenaki and others, ranging from southern ports on Narragansen Bay and stretching north to New France on the St. Lawrence River, bordering Connecticut and New York. Through Metacom’s contacts with the Mohawk and western Algonquins, he served as a mediator to secure a growing alliance that came to rival French and English in the region. English colonists preferred to settle southward, challenging Spanish control, while French interest in the western hemisphere faded when the fur trade died out.

The spirit of Metacom’s native alliance continued beyond the French interest, which had long supplied weapons and manufactured goods to the growing nation. Periodic wars with the English continued, but natives were always able to find new allies among the Dutch or Spanish to until they became self-sufficient with their own foundries and ports. Today North America is a patchwork of native countries with economic focus along the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes region, where a free-trade agreement keeps the waterways busy with craft from the Algonquin, Odawa, Mississaugs, Chippewa, and Iroquois.


In reality, the battle was a New England victory, described by James Drake as “one of the most brutal and lopsided military encounters in all of New England's history.” Once the militia crossed the frozen-over moat without issue, they stormed the fortifications and utterly destroyed the village. Following Wampanoag defeat by Mohawk in New York, battles through the latter part of the war went largely to the New Englanders, who killed Metacom at Mount Hope in 1676 and hung his head at Plymouth until 1701. By the end of the war, much of the native population had died, fled, or were sold as slaves to Bermuda.

1 comment:

  1. Metacom sounds like a futuristic high-tech warrior. Otherwise, it was another important, but often forgotten war among the inevitable chain of wars among the invaders and natives.


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