Then and Now

Key figure in King Philip War: Captain Ben Church, Indian fighter continued


Benjamin Church, fearing the worst, sent his wife to the relative safe haven of Aquidneck Island and went to Plymouth to offer his services and advised immediate action. The Plymouth authorities were slow to act. They had heard through spies that Philip had received a message from his medicine men that the "side that shed first blood would lose the war" and that Philip, believing this, would not allow his braves to kill any of the English settlers.

What they hadn't taken into consideration was Philip's ingenuity. He ordered his warriors to Swansea, and on a Sunday late in June 1875 they began killing cattle and plundering the homes of the settlers there who were all attending church. A young boy, John Salisbury, came upon them while they were raiding his home and shot and wounded one of the Wampanoag raiders. First blood had been shed, and by the English. The very next day the Indians returned and killed John Salisbury and his father.

Plymouth and Boston both sent troops. By the time they reached Swansea, 14 whites had been tomahawked to death. On the way to Mount Hope the soldiers received the first taste of the atrocities that marked the war. The Indians, adapting the white man's extreme punishment of decapitation, put the heads of a number of white settlers on spikes along the trail. The horror of this war and its atrocities lived on for many years in the hearts of both whites and natives.

The English army was under Captain Matthew Fuller with Captain Church, second in command. The soldiers, encumbered by heavy equipment, moved much too slowly to catch Philip at Mount Hope and Fuller, realizing that Church was more understanding of the ways of the Indians and better suited to lead the troops, relinquished his command in the field to Church.

The new captain convinced his men that they had to fight in the style of the Indians. He made them put aside the heavy “matchlocks.” These early muskets took over 50 motions to fire and were so long and heavy that they had to be braced in order to be effective. Church led the soldiers to Aquidneck, where he correctly assumed that Philip had gone to join his sister-in-law, Weetamoe. Church was well aware of the great influence that Weetamoe, widow of Alexander, had on Philip. It was she who had convinced Philip that Alexander had been poisoned by the English and it was she who kept demanding revenge.

The English engaged the Indians at Peasefield in Portsmouth and a terrific battle followed. Led by Philip and Weetamoe, the stronger Indian force nearly succeeded in killing off the English. Luckily for Church and his men, a small schooner appeared offshore, and while Church and a handful of soldiers held off the enemy, most of the soldiers were able to make their way to safety. Church, under heavy fire, dashed across the field, retrieved some equipment he had left behind, and escaped to a waiting canoe. The Indians fired volley after volley at the canoe and sank it, but Church swam underwater to the waiting schooner. Weetamoe and some of the warriors actually cheered the feat.

Philip was worried and began to fear that Church possessed some great supernatural power and would eventually kill him. His medicine men tried to reassure him with the prophecy that he would not be killed by an Englishman, but the fear was so great that Philip left Aquidneck when Church reappeared with a larger force. This time the English were victorious and killed Philip's younger brother, who fought a rear guard action that allowed Philip to escape. Philip and Weetamoe were driven towards Taunton, and had Church been given the number of men he had asked for he might have been able to trap Philip there and end the war.

Throughout the summer, Church remained on Aquidneck and trained a small group of volunteers in the art of Indian fighting. Philip, in the meanwhile, conducted a number of lightning-like attacks in western Massachusetts, and the death toll and atrocities on both sides mounted.

With the coming of the cold weather, the fighting slowed down. The Massachusetts authorities received word that many of the Indian wounded, Weetamoe and possibly Philip sought refuge among the Narragansetts in Rhode Island. When Canonchet refused to surrender the Wampanoags’ wounded to them, Massachusetts declared war and proceeded to invade Rhode Island. The haughty Puritans refused any offer of Rhode Island troops as the Bostonians would not fight side by side with the "heretics" of the small colony. The English had 1,000 men under the command of Governor Winslow, who believed in fighting in the classic style of close formation and direct assault. The tactics might be well advised for Europe, but not the Rhode Island woods. Because of this, Church declined his commission and volunteered himself and his men as “reformadoes,” or guerrillas. His offer was accepted, and he was ordered to meet the army at Richard Smith's garrison in Wickford on December l8.

Fortunately for the English, Benjamin Church arrived early and captured 18 Indians while waiting for the "regulars." The regulars made their way down from Boston in the below freezing temperatures without tents, sleeping on the frozen ground. Many of them wore shoes ill-fitted for the occasion, and as a result their feet were cut and bleeding by the time they reached Wickford. The English didn't know where the Indians were camped until Captain Church persuaded one of his captives, Peter Freeman, to disclose the exact location of Canonchet's fort and to lead the soldiers to it.

The story of Captain Church will be continued.


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