The Great Swamp Massacre, a Conversation with James A. Warren

This interview with Rhode Island author James A. Warren was conducted over email in December 2020, anticipating the 345th anniversary of the Great Swamp Massacre, which originally occurred on December 19, 1675. Warren is the noted author of God, War, and Providence:: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England (2018)

1. Where did the battle take place?

The fighting took place on an island in the Great Swamp in what is now West Kingston, Rhode Island. The Indians were encamped in a large palisaded fort about 4-5 acres in size. Several participants said it was the largest Indian fort they had ever seen. In 1675, the [Great Swamp] was deep in the heart of Narragansett Indian territory. Only a handful of white men lived in that territory at the time of the battle—probably less than a dozen. One can walk through the Swamp today, but the exact location of the fort remains in dispute. Archeologists and ethno-historians haven’t been able to find material remains of the fort itself, but they have made some progress in locating the general area of the fighting, and many artifacts of the battle have been recovered over the years. Researchers and scholars don’t publicize the exact location of where these artifacts have been found.

2. Who fought in the battle, and how many casualties resulted?

The Puritan Army consisted of 1,000 men from the three Puritan colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut, and 150-200 Mohegans and Pequots, the traditional adversaries of the Narragansetts. No one knows with any certainty how many Narragansetts were inside the fort. One thousand is as good an estimate as any. Of those 1,000, an estimated 300-600 Narragansett people were killed in the battle. Surely half that number and probably more were old men, women, and children, most of whom were killed when the Puritans set the fort alight. Estimates of the number of Indian fighters killed range from 40 to 300. As for Puritan casualties, we are on much surer ground. Eighty soldiers of the Puritan army were killed or died of wounds or frostbite. 120-150 were wounded and shipped off to Newport to recover. Forty of the dead are located in a mass grave on the grounds of Smith’s Castle—the site of the headquarters of the Puritan army in the days before the attack.

Source: Reproduction of a painting from “Annual Record of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachussetts” By Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts. (1900)

3. Why did the battle happen?

The causes of the battle are varied and complex. The Narragansetts at this time were the most numerous and powerful confederation of Indians in Southeast New England, and they had been engaged in a 40-year struggle to maintain their independence from an aggressive and expanding Puritan confederation that saw them as a significant threat. The Puritan confederation, I should note, did NOT include the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which was viewed as a cesspool of religious heretics and oddballs. Roger Williams, John Easton, and a number of prominent Rhode Islanders worked assiduously to preserve peace between the Narragansetts and the Puritan powers, but war was declared against the Narragansetts twice in the mid-1600s, and only narrowly averted thanks largely to Williams’s efforts. In the late 1660s, King Philip of the Wampanoags, whose village was located near what is now Bristol, RI, began to plan for a pan-Indian uprising against Plymouth, which had managed to strip the Wampanoags of their land, and their sovereignty. That uprising began in June 1675 and did not go well initially for the Puritans. They feared that if the powerful Narragansetts joined in the rebellion, much of Puritan New England would be Destroyed. Roger Williams and three emissaries from Massachusetts Bay, the dominant power in the Puritan confederation, secured a promise of neutrality from the tribe’s sachems at a meeting at Worden Pond, just south of the Great Swamp right after the war commenced. But as the war progressed badly in the fall of 1675, the Puritans decided they had no choice but to attack the Narragansetts pre-emptively.

4. Who are some notable individuals involved in the fight?

The most notable Narragansett in the battle was Canonchet, the son of Miantonomi, one of the two great sachems (political and military leaders) of the Narragansetts who befriended Roger Williams and gifted him the land to settle Providence. He survived the attack and went on to lead as many as 1,000 Narragansett warriors in campaigns in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In April 1676, he was captured and executed. Josiah Winslow, the governor of Plymouth Colony, served as the commander of the Puritan army. He was the first colonial governor born in America and played a very prominent role in the politics of King Philip’s War as well as the fighting. Benjamin Church, a farmer, and carpenter from Little Compton, which was a part of Plymouth Colony then, led a troop of mounted scouts (including friendly Indians) in the battle and wrote a lively and much quoted account of the entire war. Church is considered today to be the father of the US Army Rangers. 

5. How did the battle affect the development of Rhode Island?

The [Great Swamp Fight] brought the Narragansetts into King Philip’s War full throttle, thereby destroying a fascinating and unique bi-cultural experiment in Rhode Island that Williams and the Narragansett leaders had worked so hard to maintain. In the Spring of 1676, bands of Indians, Narragansetts included, burned down pretty much every dwelling in Wickford, Warwick, and Providence. Most white Rhode Islanders sought refuge on Aquidneck Island. The [Great Swamp Fight] was the largest and most dramatic battle in a war that pushed Indian communities to the margins of New England life for 300 years.

Monument for the “Great Swamp Fight”. ca. 1920. Source: Society for Colonial Wars, Rhode Island Chapter.

6. Was the struggle at the Great Swamp a battle or a massacre?

One could make a decent argument for either, and in a sense, it was both. The casualty figures among the Puritans confirm that the Narragansetts put up fierce resistance, which, to my mind, makes the engagement a battle. The Narragansetts had good reason to expect an attack, given the general turbulence that prevailed at that time in southeastern New England. The burning and the killing of non-combatants that followed after the Puritans gained control of the fort, however, could certainly be called a massacre.

James A. Warren is a former visiting scholar in the American Studies Department at Brown University. A regular contributor to The Daily Beast, Warren is the author of God, War, and Providence; Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam; and American Spartans: The United States Marines: A Combat History from Iwo Jima to Iraq, among other books. His articles have appeared in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Vietnam Magazine, Society, and The Providence Journal. For many years Warren was an acquisitions editor in the fields of history, religion, and ethnic studies at Columbia University Press.

~Interviewer: Miguel Youngs, R.I.H.S

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author being interviewed. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the RIHS or its members.

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