OUR RIVER by Joe Doherty
Special companion piece to Blood on the Blackstone, Part 3: Ring of Fire
(The story of Thomas Man’s connection to earlier events in King Philip’s War is an interesting sidelight in the larger history of Peirce’s Fight. I hope you enjoy this Our River “extra.”)
“ONE HIDEOUS ACT NEAR US”
All who have sought after truth in matters of this kind, are well aware of the extreme difficulty of investigation. Twenty persons may write an account of an affair, to the passage of which all may have been witnesses, and no two of them agree in many of its particulars.
– Samuel G. Drake, Biography and History of the Indians of North America, 1836
King Philip’s War began abruptly, some say prematurely, in late June, 1675.
The fragile peace that had existed for more than 50 years between the Wampanoag Indians and the English settlers of Plymouth Colony was sorely tested by a controversial trial in which three Wampanoags were convicted of murder and, on June 8 1675, put to death.
During the trial, agitated Wampanoag tribesmen, led by their sachem, Philip, marched “up and down constantly in Arms” throughout the colony. English authorities hoped the Indians’ anger would soon blow over – even so, local militias were placed on alert.
But the trial and executions would be the final indignity the Wampanoags would tolerate from the English. They had a list of grievances dating back to 1662, when their sachem Alexander, or Wamsutta, Philip’s predecessor and older brother, mysteriously fell ill while being detained by Plymouth authorities. He died just days later, leaving Philip and the Wampanoags convinced the English had poisoned him. The ensuing thirteen years had brought only further conflicts. By 1671, the Wampanoags’ discontent was palpable. Hoping to avert an uprising, Massachusetts and Plymouth authorities pressured Philip to sign a confession that he had been plotting to attack them and to agree to surrender all of his tribe’s weapons. Reluctantly Philip signed, biding his time.
This war had been long in coming, and both sides knew it. Some historians believe that despite Philip’s show of force during the trial, he had not yet finalized his plans for all-out warfare against the English. The execution of the three Wampanoags seems to have forced his hand, or at least angered his younger warriors to a point where he could no longer hold them back.
The first incursions into English settlements began at a town called Swansea, which shared borders with Rehoboth and the Wampanoag peninsula of Sowams where Philip’s own village of Pokanoket was located. “Swansea was a tempting target for attack,” writes Douglas Edward Leach in Flintlock and Tomahawk. “The town consisted of only a few dozen families at most, living in homes which were scattered rather than clustered. A small subsidiary settlement of about eighteen houses was located some distance to the south of the main settlement, actually within the narrow neck of land leading to Mount Hope. The few families living here were living almost under the very shadows of their enemies.”
One of the families residing in Swansea was Thomas Man, his wife Rachel and their infant daughter, whose name was never recorded. The site of their home is unknown at present, although events suggest they may have lived in the southern part of town.
The Wampanoags’ increasing surliness in the days following the three executions worried some residents. On the 19th, Indians looted a house near the Kickemuit River; on the 20th, several other houses were looted, two of them burned. Historian Reverend William Hubbard reported that the Indians also began “not only to use threatning words to the English, but also to kill their Cattel and rifle their houses.” No one was harmed, however these incidents were sufficiently unnerving that many sought the safety of the local garrison houses. The town also sent a request to Plymouth pleading for immediate assistance.
On the 23rd, an altercation between a party of Indian looters and two Swansea men proved fateful. By this time, many of Swansea’s citizens were sheltered in the garrisons, having left their deserted homes and livestock vulnerable to looting and other Indian mischief.
“In this time some Indians fell to pilfering some houses that the English had left, and a old man and a lad going to one of those houses did see 3 Indians run out thereof,” wrote John Easton, Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island, in the first year of King Philip’s War. “The old man bid the young man shoot, so he did, and an Indian fell down but got away again.”
The young marksman was John Salisbury. Tradition holds that his gun drew the first blood in King Philip’s War, fulfilling “a superstitious notion … among the Indians, that the party who fired the first gun would be conquered,” wrote 19th-century historian Samuel G. Drake.
The Indians retreated, but according to Easton soon reappeared at one of the Swansea garrisons. “It is reported that then some Indians came to the garrison and asked why they shot the Indian. They asked whether he was dead. The Indians said yea. An English lad said it was no matter. The men endeavored to inform them it was but an idle lad’s words, but the Indians in haste went away and did not harken to them.”
The Indian killed that day did not go to his grave alone, for with him perished two generations of peace between the English and the Wampanoags, first established by the great sachem Massasoit, father of Philip, friend to the Pilgrims. The next day, “the Indians immediately began to kill all the English they could,” Hubbard wrote, “so as on the 24th of June 1675, was the Alarm of War first sounded in Plymouth Colony.”
Troops mounted on horse had arrived in Swansea on or about the 21st, though not in numbers strong enough to lock down the town. “… seventeen were all that could be raised on the Sudden,” Hubbard writes. Sentries were posted at the garrisons, but anyone who ventured beyond the secured perimeter did so at their own peril.
There were at least two garrison houses in Swansea – the Bourne garrison to the south, in the part of town known as Gardner’s Neck, or Matapoiset, and the Miles garrison in the northwest corner, close to Rehoboth. The two were cut off from each other by roughly five miles of fields and woods, now in the hands of prowling Indians. Communication between the two houses was probably very limited. This may partly explain why accounts of what happened that day are vague and at times contradictory.
The Wampanoags’ random method of attack no doubt added to the confusion. They struck at several different places throughout the town that day, seemingly motivated more by impulse and opportunity than strategic planning. Groups of people coming and going from the garrisons were preferred targets, easy prey for warriors who could blend into roadside thickets.
The Indians first ambushed a party of Swansea churchgoers. Obeying a Plymouth Colony decree that the 24th should be “appointed and attended as a day of solemn
Humiliation throughout that Colony, by fasting and prayer, to intreat the Lord to give success” against the Indians, some townspeople apparently left their garrison and repaired to the local meetinghouse. When services concluded, they started back and were fired upon. One man was shot dead, two others wounded.
Elsewhere in town, some soldiers returning to Bourne’s garrison had a close brush with a band of about 30 Indians. Says Hubbard, “they were within shot of one another, but the English having no Commission to fight, till they were assaulted, and not being impeached in their Passage, they returned safe to their Garison.”
As the soldiers drew near Bourne’s they spotted “a Company of Carts going to fetch Corn from an House deserted near by, about a Quarter of a Mile off from Mr. Bowne’s,” Hubbard wrote.
The soldiers urged the people to abandon their plan and stay close to the garrison. “The soldiers gave them notice of the Indians which they had discovered; and withal advised them by no Means to venture any more, because of the danger,” Hubbard explains, “but they were resolved notwithstanding these earnest perswasions of the Soldiers, to have another turn, which they soon found to be the peril of their own Lives.”
Among this headstrong group was young John Salisbury, who shot the Indian the day before. His father, William Salisbury, perhaps the same “old man” of Easton’s account, accompanied him.
The procession of carts rambled up to the deserted house, believed to have been located almost two miles away from the garrison, in the neighborhood known as Swazey Corner (at the intersection of today’s Milford and Hortonville Roads in Swansea, Mass.). But the place was not quite as deserted as the the Salisburys and the others thought, for “as soon as they came to the Barn where was the corn,” Hubbard writes, they were “presently either killed right out, or mortally wounded.”
“… the lad that shot the Indian and his father and five more English were killed; so the war began with Philip,” Easton noted.
Thus young John Salisbury reaped the dubious distinction of being not only the first white man to kill an Indian in King Philip’s War, but one of the first white men to be killed by an Indian in King Philip’s War, all in the space of a day.
The soldiers back at the garrison heard gunfire in the distance but a slow start delayed them in getting to the scene. “The Soldiers at the Garison hearing the Guns, made what haste they could to the Place, but being most of them in that interim gone to look their Horses, they could not come Time enough to the Relief of their Friends.”
A chilling sight met them as they neared the house: a man named Jones, bloodied and “hard pursued” by two Indians. The Indians broke off the chase when they saw the soldiers, but it was too late for Mr. Jones. Hubbard observed that the soldiers’ arrival saved him “from the Extent of the Enemies Cruelty, but having received his mortal Wound, had only that favour thereby, to die in the Arms of his Friends, though by the Wounds received from his Enemies.”
The “Extent of the Enemies Cruelty” was soon learned. When the soldiers proceeded to the barn, they must have beheld a scene that resembled a slaughterhouse. Freshly butchered bodies robbed of their heads and hands, scalps peeled away from skulls … The missing body parts were discovered six days later by military officers crossing at the Wading Place on the Kickemuit River, roughly four miles west of Swazey Corner. They were greeted by a gruesome tableau of “some Heads, Scalps and Hands cut off from the Bodies of some of the English, and stuck upon Poles near the Highway in that barbarous and inhuman Manner bidding us Defiance.” These “gashed and ghostly objects struck a damp on all beholders.”
Back at the garrison, casualties continued to mount. Later on the 24th, Indians shot a soldier standing guard outside; when two men were sent to Rehoboth to find a surgeon, the Indians killed them, too. Their mangled bodies were found by the roadside the next day, “weltring in their own blood, having been newly murthered by the Indians, so that they could not proceed further.”
Nine people were buried at Swansea that day: the two Salisburys, and seven others, most of whom were probably among the group killed at the Swazey Corner barn: Gershom Cobb, Joseph Lewis, John Jones, John Fall, Nehemiah Allen, Robert Jones and William Lohun. Whether it was John Jones or Robert Jones who fled and collapsed into the soldiers’ arms is unknown.
It was a day of brutalities, and yet for centuries one particular scene of violence eluded history’s notice: the murder of Thomas Man’s wife and child. Man had married the former Rachel Bliss only eight months earlier; in that time the couple had welcomed a daughter into the world. If not for the writings of an amateur 17th-century poet -- and a modern local historian -- the story of how this young Swansea family was destroyed in the war may have remained lost forever.
Philip Walker was a Rehoboth sawmill owner and a deacon of Reverend Newman’s church in the days of King Philip’s War (it’s quite possible he was among those inside Newman’s garrison during the attack on Rehoboth). He also served as village constable. Like Reverend Noah Newman, Walker had first-hand knowledge of local incidents related to the war.
But where Mr. Newman recorded those events in letters, Mr. Walker preferred to immortalize them as poetry. He composed two poems about King Philip’s War that have survived to the present day, “The Courageous Captain Perce” and “The Stragamen of the Indians.” Both have a bearing upon our understanding of events related to Peirce’s Fight.
It was in “The Stragamen of the Indians” that Walker details the brutal slaying of a young Swansea woman and her baby:
The Impious actts of thes Infernal bests
accted abroad & in their helish nests
would Swell a volum to a magnitud
one hidious actt ner us I hear Includ
A Serious modist well disposid woman
Well Spoak of all and Ill bespok of no man
yt oft relevd a Sordid Cruil brute
yt like a beger to hir oft mad Sught
yt m[ ] [line not completed]
That many years had kept this Roage alive
& in a siknes had the best Contrivd
to doea what in hir lay the best & all
ffor ffoode and matters mettiphisckall
Yit when surprisd upon ye Saboth day
With stretchtout hands did Suplicate & pray
This Impious best to stay his fatall Stroke
a Littl time yt She might god invoke
Tis lik ffor pardon ffor Sinn in Christ hir Savour
this Cruil Roage dispatcht & would not leave hir
dasht out hir brains as he had dun before
hir Sucking Infant tumbling in its gore
firing the house & killing Seven more
He describes “A Serious modist well disposid woman Well Spoak of all” who found herself confronted by an Indian, or “Cruil Roage,” to whom she had given food and comfort in the past. Knowing she was about to draw her last breath, the woman begged the Indian “to stay his Fatall stroke a Little time that She might God invoke.” But rather than grant her a last prayer, the Indian “dasht out hir brayns as he had dun befor hir Sucking Infant tumbling in its gore, firing the house and killing Seven more.”
This long-lost episode was brought to light in 1947 by Rehoboth historian Richard Lebaron Bowen, who identifies the murdered woman as Rachel Man and the child as her unnamed infant daughter. Bowen implies that Walker’s line firing the house and killing Seven more indicates that the murder of mother and child occurred at the same Swazey Corner house where the seven men fetching corn were massacred:
Deacon Walker’s statement that at the time the Indians killed the mother and infant they also killed seven others and set fire to the house is partly corroborated by William Hubbard, who writing at approximately the same time said: “On the 24th of June 1675 was the Alarm of War first sounded in Plimouth Colony when eight or nine of the English were slain in and about Swanzy: They first made a Shot at a Company of English as they returned home from the Assembly where they had met in a way of Humiliation that Day, whereby they killed one and wounded others: and then likewise at the same time they slew to Men on the High-way, sent to call a Surgeon and barbariously the same Day murdered six men in and about a Dwelling-house in another Part of the Town: All of which Outrages were committed so suddenly, that
the English had no time to make any Resistance.” (Early Rehoboth: Documented Historical
Studies of Families and Events in This Plymouth Colony Township, Volume III, Richard LeBaron Bowen, 1948, pp. 21-22)
Bowen seems to regard Deacon Walker’s poem as a factual record, but there are several nagging inconsistencies that argue against treating it as anything more than a subjective interpretation of events.
Bowen states that William Hubbard’s history “partly corroborated” Walker’s version, but ignores another passage in Hubbard that seems to partly refute it. Remember, Hubbard wrote of “a Company of Carts going to fetch Corn from an House deserted near by …”
If we accept Hubbard’s assertion that the house at Swazey Corner was deserted, the question arises: how did the woman and infant come to be there? Were they part of the group gone to fetch corn? It seems highly unlikely. The nine buried at Swansea that day were all men. It’s hard to imagine they brought a young woman and “sucking Infant” along on an errand so perilous, especially when more than 50 other women and children were safely sheltered back at the garrison.
The other possibility is that the mother and child were already at the house before the corn-fetchers arrived. Bowen leans in this direction, suggesting Rachel Man may have had relatives at the house but offering no reason why she would have been there instead of at the garrison.
There’s also the matter of the mutilated bodies. The early histories report that the heads and hands of the victims at the deserted house were taken by the Indians and later impaled on stakes. There is no mention of a woman or baby among the dismembered.
Nor does it seem likely that decorum would have deterred the early chroniclers of King Philip’s War from explicitly recording such a barbaric act, had it occurred. The slaughter of the seven men at Swansea was the first atrocity of the war and widely reported. If an innocent young mother and her baby had been bludgeoned to death in that incident and their bodies dismembered, chances are it would not have gone unreported.
However you look at it, the events described in Walker’s poem and the historical accounts of the slaughter at the “Dwelling-house” are an awkward fit. And maybe trying to make them fit is the problem.
A poet’s first allegiance is to rhyme, meter and imagery, not historical fact. If we step back from Bowen’s interpretation and read Deacon Walker’s poem less literally, the line of verse -- firing the house and killing Seven more – may actually refer to two separate incidents. Walker states that the Indians killed the woman and baby, then set the house afire. Hubbard’s account of the Swansea massacre contains no mention of fire. Could it be that the Indians killed Rachel Man and her child at some other location and the “Seven more” at the deserted house later the same day? And the less sensational of the two stories was overlooked or forgotten when the histories were written months later?
The alleged exchange between the woman and her attacker should also raise eyebrows. If all souls at the Swazey Corner house were slain, how could Deacon Walker claim it was an Indian of long acquaintance who killed the woman and her baby? And how could the mother’s pathetic plea to the Indian be known if none survived to tell the tale?
The possibility that Deacon Walker exercised a bit of poetic license cannot be ruled out. In the attack on Rehoboth, the Indians burned Philip Walker’s house and his sawmill. Bowen himself acknowledges that Walker was a hawk when it came to the war: “He advocated an all-out war to kill the Indians as fast as possible; that the English leave the garrison-houses and fight; that more friendly Indians be employed to help kill the enemy Indians; and even offered the novel plan of giving the enemy poisoned liquor.”
Is it implausible that a man of such extreme opinions -- and who had lost valuable property in the war -- might slant a few details in his poem to characterize enemy Indians as not only cruel and godless savages, but also ungrateful for the past kindnesses of a Christian woman?
I have no Hesitation but that this was a false Report. At that time any Stories to the Indians’ Discredit however improbable, were caught up and circulated, and generally believed.
Historian Samuel G. Drake wrote that in 1836. Remarkably, he wasn’t referring to Deacon Walker’s account of the Man tragedy, but to a similar story of the times related by Boston merchant Nathaniel Saltonstall and also said to have unfolded at Swansea on the first day of the war. Some elements of the tale will seem very familiar:
By this Time the Indians have killed several of our Men, but the first that was killed was June 23, a man at Swansey, that he and his Family had left his House amongst the rest of the Inhabitants; and adventuring with his Wife and Son, (about twenty Years old) to go to his House to fetch them Corn, and such like Things: He having just before sent his Wife and Son away, as he was going out of the House, was set on and shot by Indians; his wife not being far off, heard the Guns go off, went back: They took her, first defiled her, then skinned her Head, as also the Son, and dismist them both, who immediately died. They also the next Day killed six or seven Men at Swansey, and two more at one of the Garisons …
The similarities between Saltonstall’s story, Deacon Walker’s account and events as reported by Hubbard – people going to fetch corn, a mother and child killed at the same time, the mutilation of victims – seem more than coincidental. Drake rejects the story out of hand, but when read alongside the others there’s a sense that they may all contain some element of truth, long since fused with tradition.
Alas, there are no other accounts of the Man tragedy to provide further clues. Hubbard and other early historians are silent on the matter.
But one hard fact does emerge from Walker’s poem: “There can be no doubt,” writes Richard Bowen, “that the mother and her ‘sucking infant’ mentioned by Deacon Walker can be no other than Rachel Mann and her unnamed daughter.”
To make a positive identification, Bowen sifted through local archives and found the burial records of Rachel Man and her baby. "This is the only Rehoboth or Swansea record during King Philip’s War where a mother and child are both buried on the same day,” he verified. His research was made more difficult by the fact that the recorded date of the Man burials are off by a year, “The burial entry ‘—June 1676” in the Rehoboth records is clearly an error,” Bowen writes, “and should read June 24, 1675.”
The great unspoken question, though, the one neither Richard Bowen nor Deacon Walker addressed, is simply this: Where was Thomas Man on the day his wife and child were killed? Away from home? Somewhere close by?
History offers not even a hint. From the loss of his family to his survival at Peirce’s Fight, Thomas Man left a legacy of mysteries and unanswered questions. In the end, we part with few certainties, one of them being that it was Thomas Man’s melancholy lot to endure in the face of wartime horrors, even as his family and comrades were cut down around him.
For the further story of Thomas Man and his role in King Philip’s War, please see www.blackstonedaily.com/ourriver.htm
A very interesting website called “King Philip's War & the Colonial Contact Period in and around Barrington & Warren, RI, & Swansea, MA,”
featuring photos and maps of many places mentioned in this story, may be found at:
© 2007 by Joe Doherty