A sense of the battle

A sense of the battle

‘By traveling to the battleground in Rhode Island, I was trying to get a better sense of the place and event where John Bosworth — a 19-year-old at the time — was wrenched violently into adulthood.’

BRATTLEBORO — The monument in West Kingston, Rhode Island to the Great Swamp Fight of Dec. 19, 1675 commemorates the vicious clash between colonial militia (and some of their Native American allies) and the Narragansett people. I can trace the portion of me who is a Bosworth back to one of the colonists who fought that day, John Bosworth.

While I was growing up, my family was proud that my father's paternal line, though not among the 1620 Pilgrims, had immigrated to the New World in 1634, but we did not dwell on it or its implications. We certainly never discussed at our dinner table how we were among the waves of English who inundated the New England shores to such an extent that the Native inhabitants were forced off their land. The Indian sachem Metacom was never mentioned, nor was the two years of searing, devastating war tagged with his colonial name, King Philip.

This short account is not a mea culpa to expiate the sins of my family. My parents never taught me to feel guilt over something I was not directly a cause. They did, however, inculcate my brother and sister and me with a deep sense of fairness to others. However imperfectly, we have tried to live our lives by that guidance.

I have entered a phase of my life where I want to better understand the context within which my forebears lived and within which they affected others. I want to reach a clearer sense of empathy with those I can trace my roots back to and with those others, so to speak, whose lives they impacted.

In this case, by traveling to the battleground in Rhode Island, I was trying to get a better sense of the place and event where John Bosworth - a 19-year-old at the time - was wrenched violently into adulthood.

At the same time, this was a site where his indigenous enemies - as they were considered at the time - tried to overwinter in a fort they built in a swamp, complete with shared wigwams and stores of corn, but their plans were obliterated.

* * *

John Bosworth was born about 1656, the son of Nathaniel Bosworth, who had come to the Boston area as a 17-year-old on the Elizabeth & Dorcas in 1634. It was, of course, because John had taken part in the Great Swamp Fight that I was going to see the site of the clash.

My family, though bit players in the greater history, were among the colonizers who slowly but inexorably took over lands from the Native population, and John's participation in the battle was a symbolic indication of that.

Some prefer to view the Rhode Island fight as the Great Swamp Massacre, which does give a more accurate picture of what took place. The colonial side had a substantial advantage in number of combatants, approximately 1,000, to less than half that on the side of the Narragansett people. (Accounts vary somewhat.)

While a substantive number of the English militia lost their lives, 100 to 300 or more Native warriors were killed, although a number of the Indigenous fighters did manage to escape.

For those deaths alone, the battle would have been memorable but, additionally, many Narragansett women, children, and elderly were killed. The English soldiers burned their wigwams, sometimes with the inhabitants still inside and destroyed their stores of corn. Others Indians died trying to escape.

Although the Narragansett warriors who escaped the Swamp Fight did live to fight another day in confederation with other tribes and under their chief Canonchet, their numbers were considerably depleted, and so, to a certain extent, the colonial mission was accomplished.

The overall Native rebellion, however, continued to wreak havoc upon outlying English towns during the remainder of the winter of 1675-76. The colonists had all they could do for a while just pulling back to the coast and surviving on a much-more-limited basis than their earlier expansive settlements.

* * *

Based on my research, I determined the monument was located in what today is the Great Swamp Management Area.

My wife, Naomi, and I headed into the management area's entrance, which, yes, did get us to the headquarters of the management area, complete with some Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management buildings, vehicles, and employees. No, however, it was not the right place to be.

The staff patiently directed us, and Naomi shortly spotted the Great Swamp Monument Road sign. It was no bigger than any other sign for a side road and so could easily have been missed. There was certainly no roadside historic site marker, though subsequent online querying did show that such a marker once did exist.

Our trip's purpose was to get a sense of the battle, yes, but more so it was to recall John Bosworth and envision him in the middle of it.

It is well documented that he was there and part of Massachusetts Bay Colony Regiment's 4th Company, commanded by Captain Isaac Johnson. There are no known personal accounts of John's life, however, so there are no extant remembrances by him of what must have been an immensely significant event in his young life.

It is quite possible that he killed one or more Native Americans at the Swamp Fight, and maybe there were women and children among them. Certainly, he saw a lot of death that day, including of his comrades (and of Johnson, his captain), up close and personal. This is not a lighthearted family connection to contemplate.

John was conscripted to fight in this colonial campaign, as were other men of his age. Perhaps they did it to seek glory. This was not a paid fighting force. Many (including John) were not, in fact, remunerated in their lifetimes. Perhaps they wanted to protect their families and community. Did they - did he - even want to go?

My guess is that John was scared to the bottom of his soul as the colonial forces entered the swamp, as they approached the Narragansett fort. He may have shot to kill, after entering a mind state that he had never been in before, one that he never wanted to be in and had no preparation for.

This doesn't mean his attitude wasn't in line with the expectations of his family and community. He could have been aggressively accepting of doing what he considered his duty.

Did John have nightmares afterward? Did he have great regrets? Did he feel pride, or did he try to forget? No matter what, he must not again have been the same person he had been in his first 19 years.

We do know that John would become a functioning adult member of society, later serving on the Selectboard of Hull and in other capacities there. He would also own land in Hull given him by his father, Nathaniel. He would later purchase land in Bristol, Rhode Island, near (ironically) the earlier tribal home of Metacom (King Philip) and where Metacom would later be killed. It was a hill named Montaup - Mount Hope.

Quite clearly, much of this contemplation is about land - the occupation of indigenous land by the colonists.

* * *

I had thought about much of this before Naomi and I even got to the point of seeing the monument, but being there brought it all home to a higher degree. It is a peaceful walk of a mile or two into today's swamp, on a wide, flat path sometimes used by hunters. We did not actually hear gunfire, for which we were thankful.

The Narragansett people's own feelings about this monument must be a very mixed bag of honor and anger. Their people had fought valiantly, but their people had been massacred. They did choose to attend the monument's dedication in 1906.

The main plaque, which is worn and difficult to read today, begins: “Attacked within their fort upon this island, the Narragansett Indians made their last stand in King Philip's War and were crushed by the united forces.” This represents a simplification, as we know some escaped and lived to fight another day. It also represents the perspective of the victors who would prefer to show they vanquished their foes on that day.

To this day, a portion of the tribe has remained nearby. In 1983, the Narragansett people finally gained federal recognition and, in 1991, land of their own in Charlestown, Rhode Island.

Princess Red Wing, however, a tribal historian and eventual female chief earlier in the 20th century (and eventual speaker before the United Nations), helped convince her community never to forget the historic event. They continue to recognize and commemorate it every year.

We would later learn that, only three days after our visit, on Oct. 15, 2021, ownership of the 5 acres surrounding the monument would be transferred to the the tribe.

One big purpose of such memorials is to help educate the next generation and the general public. There does not seem, however, to be any prominence or priority given the monument by the public relations arms of the local area or the state.

Perhaps now that they own the site, the Narragansett people will do more to get the word out. Or perhaps they will be happier to leave it a quiet, out-of-the-way place for contemplation and occasional ceremonies.

* * *

At least part of confronting the monument comes down to personal journeys and personal searches, as was certainly so in my case.

The irregular stone shaft at its center - perhaps 25 feet high - is striking and captures one's attention when first viewed.

Then one's gaze also takes in the four irregular, 3-to-4-foot-high stones in a rough circle 20 feet from the main monument. These are significant if you are seeking your particular colonial roots for there is one each for the Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut and Rhode Island colonies.

I took this all in for a while. The journey here was one I had wanted to make for some time. Now, standing on this ground, I still could not envision the full and horrible confrontation. No doubt I did not really want to see it. I did not want to fully relive John's own horrors or the horrors of those on the other side.

Out of respect for and sorrow at all the lives affected nearly 350 years before, however, I did offer - insignificant, yes - regrets on behalf of at least one Bosworth, me, who would never have even been alive had his forefather John not been lucky enough to survive this clash. I did it to feel deeply for John having had to participate at all and end his youth on these grounds.

The monument, hidden though it was in this swamp in these woods, was at the same time a strong reminder of all those others who lost more than just their youth here.

Before we left, Naomi pointed out the small basket sitting on the base of the main pillar. She noticed it was made of sweet grass, a natural material often used by Native Americans in the South. The basket held a number of small shells and other offerings.

We would not find out whether it was a Narragansett or other indigenous person who left it there.

I choose to believe that it was.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates