Volume I - No. 6
HISTORIC GREAT SWAMP OPENED AT LAST
By Gerald H. Hyde,
The Great Swamp at South Kingston, Rhode Island, was the site of the last stand of the Narragansett Indians in King Philip's War against the Colonists. In the bloody engagement which took place there on Sunday, December 19, 1675, troops from the Confederation of the United Colonies of New England including Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut and Rhode Island took part and because of the numbers participating, killed and wounded, the battle had been unequalled in New England up to that time. As a result of the battle, the military strength and resources of the most powerful Indian tribe in New England were broken forever.
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.
In 1906 a rough granite shaft about 20 feet high was erected by the Rhode Island Society of Colonial Wars to commemorate this battle. Around the mound on which the shaft stands are four roughly squared granite markers engraved with the names of the colonies which took part in the encounter and two tablets on opposite sides of the shaft give additional data.
Until this year, entrance to the Great Swamp Fight Site was possible only over private land and an admission fee was collected by the farmer who maintained the road. The site was overgrown and some of the markers were almost obscured.
The National Park Service CCC Camp on the nearby Burlingame State Reservation has constructed about a half-mile of road to a parking area on the only other island of dry land besides the battle site. A wide path leads from there through the dense swamp to the monument and this area is to be cleared of undesirable undergrowth and a few seats will be provided at the outer edge of the island. Vistas are to be cut into the swamp to give the visitor an idea of the conditions under which the battle was fought. No attempt will be made to restore any traces of the defenses which, after more than two and one-half centuries, finally become accessible as a public historical site.
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