Today marks the 346th anniversary of the Great Swamp Massacre, one of the most brutal massacres in American history, and one that you’ve most likely never heard of. When most people think of Rhode Island, they think of Newport mansions, South County beaches, and mouth watering Italian food on Federal Hill – but on December 19, 1675, what is now West. Kingstown, Rhode Island was the site of a brutal attack on a Native American fort built to house hundreds of Narragansett, most of whom were aged, infirm, women, and children.
The month before the attack, as King Philip’s War raged, Plymouth Governor Josiah Winslow gathered roughly 1,500 troops from Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Although the powerful Narragansett tribe had remained neutral in the conflict thus far, Winslow and other settlers feared that the tribe was harboring members of Metacom’s (King Philip’s) Wampanoag tribe. The goal was to crush these warriors, and whomever might be helping them, before they could regroup in the spring.
When the Narragansett sachem Canonchet chose the location of the fort, he did so because its location in the middle of a swamp made it nearly impregnable. In December of 1675, however, the swamp was frozen, and the Confederation of the United Colonies of New England were able to gain access to and set fire to the hundreds of wetus and longhouses within. One early account of the massacre states that the “shrieks and cries of the women and children, the yelling of the warriors, exhibited a most horrible and appalling scene” as they were either burned alive or, if they managed to escape the fire, shot by English muskets. (Hyde) Those few who managed to flee the melee probably died of exposure in the swamp. Soon after, the Narragansett officially joined the war against the settlers, but they would eventually be defeated. Accounts vary, but somewhere between 500-1000 Narragansett elderly, disabled, sick, women, and children died on December 19, 1675 in one of the bloodiest massacres (per capita) in American history.
I bet you didn’t know that about New England history.
Daly, Ann. “The Monument at the Great Swamp | EnCompass.” Phillips Memorial Library, http://library.providence.edu/encompass/roger-williams-and-the-founding-of-rhode-island/secondary-sources/monument/. Accessed 14 December 2021.
Hyde, Gerald H. “The Regional Review (1938).” National Park Service, 1938, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/regional_review/vol1-6f.htm. Accessed 14 December 2021.
Mulvaney, Katie. “Narragansett Indian Tribe sees the return of Great Swamp Massacre land.” The Providence Journal, 27 October 2021, https://www.providencejournal.com/story/news/courts/2021/10/27/narragansett-indian-tribe-sees
-return-great-swamp-massacre-land/8567888002/. Accessed 14 December 2021.Nunes, Alex. “Site of ‘Great Swamp Massacre’ returned to Narragansett Indian Tribe.” The Public’s Radio, 23 October 2021, https://thepublicsradio.org/article/site-of-great-swamp-massacre-returned-to-narragansett-indian-tribe. Accessed 14 December 2021.