NIU Libraries Digitization Projects
Lincoln/Net Prairie Fire Illinois During the Civil War Illinois During the Gilded Age Mark Twain's Mississippi Back to Digitization Projects Contact Us

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe.. History of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Their Present Condition and Prospects, and a Sketch of Their Ancient Status. Volume 6. . Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co, 1857. [format: book; image], [genre: government document; report]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
Persistent link to this document:

Previous section

Next section

Chapter V. — The Ccolonists March to the Relief of the Frontiers. They Wage War Against the Narragansetts, Who are Defeated in a Stongly Fortified Position.

WITHOUT the details being given, it is impossible to conceive the harassing nature of this war. The English were ever on the alert, ever vigilant, active, brave, and enterprising. They were ready, at a moment's warning, to pursue the enemy, and retaliate his attacks; and, whenever they suffered defeat, it was owing to their impulsive bravery, and a disposition to underrate and despise their enemy. This induced them to make rash movements, in which they frequently neglected the ordinary rules of military caution. Bodies of men were suddenly aroused and inarched boldly into the forests and defiles, without sending out scouts to ascertain the position of the foe. Besides, it always required a large force to watch a smaller one, when the latter were secreted in the woods, ready to spring upon them when least expected.

Indian history demonstates that, in this guerilla warfare, the advantage is, generally, at first on the side of the natives, who are more intimately acquainted with the local geography, as well as with the natural resources of a wilderness country, and, also, with their own capacity for endurance; which circumstances generally determine their mode of attack and defence. Solid columns of men, encumbered with heavy baggage and a commissariat, when marching through a forest, must, necessarily, progress slowly. They soon become fatigued, and harassed by their encumbrances, while the light-footed Indians dart around them, and before them, like the hawk toying with its prey, until a suitable opportunity occurs for them to strike. If it be merely a war of skirmishes and surprises, these are their favorite and, generally, successful modes of attack. Another error, committed by the whites, in this war, was the employment of a multiplicity of separate commanders, frequently exercising discordant powers, and wanting in unity of action.

The good sense of the commissioners of the New England colonies, now confederated for defence, convinced the country of this. The war had been in progress scarcely three fourths of a year, during which time many valuable lives had been lost by Indian ambuscades, and a large amount of property had been destroyed. Although the settlers were kept in a state of perpetual alarm, no effective blow had been struck;

-- 162 --

nothing, in fact, had been done to subdue the daring spirit of the Indians, and their entire force was still in motion. In a council held at Boston, it was determined, therefore, to adopt more general and effective measures for the prosecution of the ensuing campaign. Agreeably to a scale then established, Massachusetts colony was directed to furnish 527 men; Plymouth colony, 158; and Connecticut, which now included the New Haven colony, 315; making a total force of 1000 men.

It was subsequently determined to fit out a separate expedition against the Narragansetts, whose hostility to the colonies, and complicity with Philip, could no longer be doubted. They were designated as the first object of attack. One thousand men were also mustered for this service, officered by experienced captains, and placed under the command of Josiah Winslow. Advanced as the season was, this force was marched in separate bodies through Seekonk and Providence, and over Patuxent river to Wickford, the place of rendezvous. On the route a system of wanton destruction of person and property was followed up, it being their design to make the Indians feel the effects of the war. The latter, being apprized of the movement, burned Pettiquanscott, killing fifteen of the inhabitants, and concentrated their forces on an elevation, several acres in extent, surrounded on all sides by a swamp — a position located in the existing township of South Kingston, Rhode Island.

At this place they had fortified themselves by a formidable structure of palisades, surrounded by a close hedge curtain, or rude abattis, leaving but one passage to it, which led across a brook, and was formed of a single log, elevated four or five feet above the surface of the water. At another point of the fortification was a low gap, closed by a log four or five feet high, which could be scaled. Close by was a blockhouse, to defend and enfilade this weak point. The whole work was ingeniously constructed, and well adapted to the Indian mode of defence. The authorities do not mention that Philip was present, but there appears to be no doubt that he had given every aid in his power to his allies. It was a death struggle for the Narragansetts, and their fate would determine his; for they were far superior in numbers.

By the destruction of Pettiquanscott and its little garrison, the troops composing Winslow's army, who had expected to take up their quarters there, were deprived of all shelter. They had no tents, and were, consequently, obliged to pass a very uncomfortable night in the open air. It was late in December, and bitter cold, with snow on the ground. On the next day (19th) Winslow put his army in motion at an early hour, as they had sixteen miles to march, through deep snow. At one o'clock in the afternoon, guided by an Indian, they reached the vicinity of the swamp, where a party of the enemy had been stationed as a corps of observation. They were immediately attacked, but fled to their citadel. A detachment, comprising four companies, immediately rushed through the swamp, at a venture, and accidentally reached the log-gap, which they began to scale; but they were compelled to fall back before the destructive fire from the Indian block-house. They were reinforced by two other companies, when,

-- 163 --

pressing gallantly forward, in the face of a severe fire, they scaled the log sally-port, and entered the fort, maintaining themselves in their position under a terrible fire.

While victory thus hung in suspense, the remainder of the army succeeded in crossing the swamp, and entered the works at the same gap, after which the contest was maintained with great obstinacy, during three hours. The Indians had constructed coverts in such a manner that the place could only be taken in detail. 198 Driven from one covert after another, the Indians kept up a galling fire, most resolutely contesting every inch of ground. At length they were compelled to abandon the fort, and effect their retreat by the log-gate, across the narrow bridge, which, though well adapted to them, must have proved a difficult feat to the English. During the contest it was observed that a large body of the Indians had assembled behind a certain part of the fort, whence they kept up a most annoying fire. Captain Church, the aid of General Winslow, having the command of a volunteer company, led them out against these Indian flankers, whom he silenced or dispersed, when, charging again with great gallantry, he re-entered the fort through the oft-contested gap, driving the Indians before him. He encountered them on every side, hunted from their coverts, and falling fast before the English musketry. The Narragansetts finally gave up the struggle and fled into the wilderness.

Six hundred lodges were found in this fortified enclosure. Being the winter season, and placing great reliance on the strength of their position, as well as on the long established custom of suspending operations during the winter months, the Narragansetts had conveyed their women and children to this place for shelter. It has been stated, and there is no reasonable doubt of the fact, that some of the most bold, daring, and reckless of the English officers, had been formerly sea-captains, and, probably, buccaneers, in the West Indies. Nothing short of the diabolical spirit, innate in men of that class, could have suggested the cruel scene that followed the flight of the warriors. The wigwams, containing the aged and superannuated, the wounded, who were unable to escape, and about 300 women and children, were set on fire. The miserable inmates ran shrieking in every direction, as the flames advanced; but there being no chance for flight, they were all consumed in this inhuman holocaust. This was not only an act of most barbarous cruelty, in General Winslow, but was also a mistaken policy.

The Indians who escaped took shelter in a swamp, near by, where they passed the night in the snow, and where many of their number died from exposure, and the want of both fire and food. The Narragansetts afterwards asserted that they lost about 700 warriors at the fort, besides 300, who subsequently died of their wounds. The entire number assembled at the fort has been computed at 4000; and, if we allow but five persons only to a lodge, it would sum up a total of 800 families.

-- 164 --

The conflagration of the lodges, after the Indian warriors had fled, was not merely unnecessary, cruel, and inhuman, but it was also an unwise measure on the part of General Winslow; for the Indian wigwams might have afforded shelter during the night for the wounded and exhausted soldiery. But the English were themselves driven out by the flames, and were compelled to retrace their way through a severe snow storm, carrying with them many of their dead and wounded. The intensity of the cold, added to the pangs of hunger, occasioned the death of many of the latter, whom ordinary care might have saved. They reached the desolate site of Pettiquamscott after midnight, and, the following day, thirty-four of their number were buried at that place, in one grave. Many were severely frost-bitten, and 400 were so much disabled as to be unfit for duty. Had the Indians rallied and attacked them at Pettiquamscott, not over 400 of the army could have handled a gun or a sword. Two hundred of the English were killed in the storming of the fort, including eight captains and several subalterns.

This severe blow crippled the power of the Narragansetts, but did not humble them. On the contrary, the survivors cherished the most intense hatred against the English, from this period becoming the open and fearless allies of Philip; and the majority of them, under Canonchet, a short time subsequently, joined the Nipmucks, and Philip's allies, near Deerfield and Northfield. Driven from their villages and their country, they turned their backs on their once happy homes, with a feeling akin to that which had, at a prior period, animated Sassacus. It might naturally be supposed that many of them must have suffered greatly from want of food; but the forests were still filled with game, and they also frequently seized the cattle which were straying about, on the borders of the settlements. Early in February, they made a descent upon Lancaster, and captured forty-two persons; and a short time thereafter, they killed twenty of the inhabitants of Medford, at the same time burning half the town. Seven or eight buildings shared the same fate in Weymouth. On the 13th of March, four fortified houses were reduced to ashes in Groton; a few days later, Warwick, in Rhode Island, was burned; and, before the close of the month, the largest portion of the town of Maryborough was likewise consumed.

The Indians had been taught the efficacy of fire by their bitter experience at Kingston fort, and they soon became expert in using it against the English. The torch was now their most potent weapon. This novel mode of warfare created such a panic, that a large force was kept on the alert, both day and night. Before the depredations could be checked in one direction, they were duplicated at another, and, frequently, distant point. Captain Pierce, of Scituate, and fifty men, together with twenty Cape Cod Indians, were suddenly attacked on the Patuxent, and almost entirely annihilated. Two days subsequently, forty dwelling houses and thirty barns were burned at Rehoboth, Rhode Island. Eleven persons were killed, and their bodies consumed, in the flames of one house, at Plymouth. Chelmsford, Andover, and Marlborough suffered

-- 165 --

by the torch early in April, and Sudbury experienced the next visitation. On this occasion a party of colonists, who pursued the Indians, were all waylaid and killed.

The Indian army which committed these depredations numbered some five hundred men. Finding that they were not closely pursued, after their attack upon Sudbury, they encamped in the neighboring forest. Meantime, a force of fifty men, under Captain Wadsworth, who were marching to protect other towns, learning that a body of Indians was concealed in the woods near Sudbury, determined to find them. Seeing a small number of the enemy returning, they instantly started in pursuit of them, and were thus led into an ambush, from which the entire force of the Indians issued, and commenced a fierce attack. Flight being out of the question, the English fought bravely, and finally gained an eminence. But nothing could withstand such numerical odds, and Wadsworth and all his command were killed, not a man escaping. The same day, a provision-train was attacked in Brookfield, and three men killed, or captured. The ire of the Indians was next directed against the old Plymouth colony, which they probably hated on account of its having been the nucleus of the colonists. Nineteen buildings were burned at Scituate, seventeen at Bridgewater, and eleven houses and five barns in Plymouth itself. A short time subsequently, several buildings were consumed at Namansket, in old Middleborough. Very few persons were killed in these depredations; but the Indian fire-brand was constantly in operation against every isolated house, or unguarded village. Their marauding parties stealthily traversed miles of territory every night; and no man could step out into his field to look at his farm or stock, without incurring the danger of being pierced by the swiftwinged arrow, or the unerring ball of a savage foe. The hills and valleys of New England resounded anew with the terrible war-whoop.

-- 166 --

Previous section

Next section

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe.. History of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Their Present Condition and Prospects, and a Sketch of Their Ancient Status. Volume 6. . Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co, 1857. [format: book; image], [genre: government document; report]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
Persistent link to this document:
Powered by PhiloLogic