September 23, 2014
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Then and Now
Key figure in King Philip War: Captain Ben Church, Indian fighter
Terry D'Amato Spencer

Often in history we have witnessed a struggle between races or countries that developed into a battle between two great men as adversaries. As Marc Anthony had his Octavian, Hannibal his Scipio and Napoleon his Wellington, so, too, did King Philip, Wampanoag sachem, have his nemesis, Captain Benjamin Church. The Indian leader was so relentlessly pursued and driven by Church that he cried out in his sleep that his enemy had come to capture him.

Benjamin Church, born in Duxbury in 1639, soon found himself more interested in the ways and customs of the Indians than in his trade as carpenter. After spending a year living with them, he had gained a great deal of knowledge of Wampanoag customs, and through his great physical abilities and keen intelligence he won their respect. He was one of the few whites regarded as a welcome guest by the Seaconnet tribe and their squaw-sachem Awashonks. King Philip had persuaded many tribes in this area to refrain from selling land to the white man, but when Church married Alice Southworth he decided to move to the area today called Little Compton and persuaded Awashonks to sell the land to him. His land was within sight of Philip's lodge at Mt. Hope.

In 1675 Philip, son of Massasoit, decided to drive the Englishmen from his ancestral lands. In his attempt to unite all the tribes against the “strangers” he sent Sassamon and some warriors to urge his relative Queen Awashonks to ally her 300 warriors with his. The mission was to be secret, but on the ambassadors Sassamon, a “praying” or Christian Indian who spoke English well and who had studied at Harvard, was very ambitious and betrayed Philip. He persuaded Philip to sign a document written in English that Philip could not read. This document made Sassamon heir to all of Philip's land. The wily ambassador seized this opportunity to eliminate Philip by exposing the conspiracy to the English. While Awashonks was listening to other Wampanoag ambassadors, Sassamon disappeared from the conference and went to warn Benjamin Church. He hoped that this would bring soldiers to arrest and execute Philip.

When Church received the news he reacted immediately. All alone and unarmed, he boldly walked into the Indian camp interrupting a war dance led by Awashonks herself. The Indians, stunned by his boldness, stopped their activities and the Englishman began to talk to the Seaconnet leaders explaining the folly of alliance with Philip. He urged them to ally themselves with the whites at Plymouth and receive their protection. Wampanoag warriors, dressed in war paint and carrying pouches loaded with bullets, could not deny the plot or that the element of surprise was lost. The white man was one step ahead, and Awashonks promised not to ally with Philip.

When the news of the incident reached Mount Hope, Philip quickly guessed who the traitor was and instructed his warriors to kill Sassamon. They did, and in March of 1675 Sassamon's body was found beneath the ice at Middleboro pond. Quickly, the English authorities arrested three of Philip's warriors and tried them before a court made up of whites and “praying” Indians. The warriors were found guilty and executed. Philip, realizing his own arrest was imminent, protested saying that English had no right to punish Indians for crimes against other Indians and war was declared. Messengers were soon sent south to Canonchet, sachem of the Narragansetts, and west to the Mohegans. The Narragansetts, who controlled most of Rhode Island, agreed to send 4,000 warriors to help Philip. Roger Williams tried to stop this alliance as he had done before, but Canonchet, whose father, Miantonomi, had been badly used by the English, agreed with Philip that Indians must unite or perish.


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