on the Blackstone: Part Two: The Peirce
Thomas Man Part Four
From Part One: While
patrolling the woods north of Pawtucket Falls on Sunday morning,
March 26, 1676, Captain Michael Peirce and his troops spotted a
group of four or five Indians somewhere near the present
Attleboro/Pawtucket line. When the Indians made a break towards
the Pawtucket (now Blackstone) River, Peirce decided to follow,
either unaware or unconcerned that they were leading him into an
ambush. The full text of Part One,"The Peirce Expedition," can
be found in the July-August issue of Journeys or online at
Here now is Part Two,
"Blood On the Blackstone: Pierce's Fight."
On the west side of the Blackstone, in what is now the city of
Central Falls, a high ledge of native bedrock overlooked the
river and the lands beyond. From atop this ancient rise, it is
said, Narragansett Indians monitored Captain Michael Peirce's
every move that fateful Sunday morning. They watched Peirce and
his troops depart the Rehoboth garrison. They watched the line
of more than 70 men begin their march towards Pawtucket Falls.
Forewarned of the soldiers' approach, the Indians had sufficient
time to position their warriors and send out decoys to lead the
English into a snare. By the time the white men realized their
predicament, escape would be all but impossible
Peirce and his men raced to close the gap between themselves and
the small party of "wounded" Indians. Did the pursuit halt
abruptly at the river's edge or did the Indian decoys lead
Peirce's troops across the shallows to the west bank? We may
never know the exact sequence of events. But probably within a
matter of minutes, the woods along the river exploded in a
pandemonium of war cries and musket fire. "For on a sudden,"
wrote Boston merchant Nathaniel Saltonstall in a letter to a
friend in England a few months later, "they discovered about 500
Indians, who, in very good order, furiously attacked them, being
as readily received by ours."
Some historians believe the ambush occurred only after Peirce
and his men crossed to the west side of the river. Others
concede the possibility, but based on closer study think it more
likely that the attack began on the east bank of the river and
shortly carried over to the west bank. All agree, however, that
at some point Peirce and his men crossed the Blackstone.
The most convincing scenario was presented in 1889 by James O.
Whitney, M.D., of Pawtucket , who described himself as "having
been conversant, for over forty years" with the Many Holes area.
Whitney observed that the landscape had greatly changed since
Peirce's time; once virgin woodlands, it had since been
industrialized by Home Print Works and two municipal pumping
stations. The tracks of the Boston and Providence Railroad also
cut a path through. But traces of the old terrain were still to
In a paper presented the same year to the Rhode Island
Historical Society, Whitney drew attention to a 40-acre body of
water just over the Attleboro line called Cranberry Pond (not to
be confused with Cranberry Pond in nearby Lincoln, R.I.). This
pond, which still exists, was formed by the erection of a dam
sometime in the 19th century. But in Peirce's day, it was one of
the "Many Holes" that gave the area its unusual name.
Whitney wrote, "This hole or hollow, was probably a small pond
in its lowest part in 1676, unless in very dry seasons, yet it
could have sheltered hundreds of Indians from the view of the
whites as they came from the garrison
The land all about and
between the two Pumping Stations, which are half a mile apart
and east of the Blackstone, is hill and dale, and therefore well
calculated for Indian warfare
The chief ravine, through which
the Indians emerged from this shelter, to surround Pierce and
his men, it is easy to understand, was the bed of the rivulet,
which higher up, is called to this day the 'Sweetin Brook'
"Hidden in and among these Many Holes they emerged from their
shelter and either forced Pierce across the Blackstone or he was
decoyed across by his cunning foes, to the west side, where not
a doubt, the severest of the action took place," Whitney
concluded. To bolster this claim, he quoted Leonard Bliss's 1836
history of Rehoboth: "It commenced on the east side of the river
(the Blackstone) but the severest part of the action was on the
west, immediately on the bank of the stream."
With the Indians blocking all avenues of escape on the east
bank, Peirce may have immediately ordered his men to cross the
stream and establish a line of defense on the opposite bank,
perhaps hoping the river would slow or deter the enemy. One
tradition, mentioned in Saltonstall's 1676 letter and later
repeated in John Daggett's 1834 history of Attleborough, is that
Peirce at first tried to repel the assault and actually forced
the Indians to retreat somewhat. But given the reported number
of Narragansett warriors and the swiftness of the attack, it
seems unlikely that Peirce was able to gain any advantage, even
for a short time.
The place where Peirce and his men forded the river is said to
be near the railroad bridge on Branch Street in Pawtucket.
Whitney writes, "Captain Pierce and his little command crossed
the Blackstone, no doubt, where or near where it is crossed by
the Boston [Railroad] cars but above rather than below that
They rushed across the icy river, trying to keep their footing
sure and their powder dry. No doubt some tried to run through
the shallows as musket balls and arrows whistled past their
heads; no doubt some fell dead or mortally wounded in the water
before they reached the far shore. The more experienced
fighters, like 65-year-old Peirce and his friendly Indians, may
have backed across the river, firing and reloading their
flintlocks while never letting the Narragansetts out of their
But the beleaguered soldiers would find no refuge on the other
side of the river, no haven. Only the unthinkable - a second
a fresh company of 400 Indians came in," Saltonstall wrote,
"so that the English and their few Indian friends were quite
surrounded and beset on every side."
In 1908, Edwin Pierce, a lineal descendant of Captain Michael
Peirce, envisioned the scene:
On the west bank there was an open, or at least not heavily
wooded, plain, in which his men would be out of arrow shot from
the hills and where they could at least make a better defense
than was possible in the ravine
It seems probable that in
order to make the decoys successful, the warriors on the west
side lay in ambush a good distance from the river, so that the
colonials were able to cross the river, probably not without
loss, and gain the open space where they proposed to make their
stand. While the enemy was swarming down the ravine and across
the river in hot pursuit, a band of at least three hundred
Narragansett rushed upon the colonials from their concealment on
the west side, so that the colonials were now completely
The Narragansetts' retribution was at hand. Blood for
blood. Now the slaughter at the Great Swamp three months earlier
would be avenged. The Indian warriors cut down in the snow by
English guns, the mothers, children and elders burned alive in
their wigwams as English soldiers watched -- this day belonged
"No sooner was [Peirce] on the western side," historian Samuel
G. Drake wrote in 1836, than the Indians "like an avalanche from
a mountain, rushed down upon him."
To the colonial soldiers, it must have seemed as if all the
hosts of Hell had boiled out of a crack in the earth. Amid the
smoke from the muskets and the acrid smell of gunpowder,
hundreds of Indians advanced on them from all sides. An
undulating wall of menacing faces painted jet black. Eyes
utterly stripped of mercy. In their hands and at their sides the
Indians probably brandished an assortment of deadly weapons,
some traditional, others gotten from the English in trade before
the war or taken from dead Englishmen after the war broke out:
bows, war clubs, flintlocks, carbines, pikes, hammers, knives,
"This was a most trying moment," Daggett recorded, "but there
was no flinching - no quailing. Each [soldier] knew that in all
human probability he must die on that field, and that too, under
the most appalling circumstances - by the hand of a merciless
enemy who sought their extermination. But bravely and nobly did
they submit to their fate. Each one resolved to do his duty and
sell his life at the dearest rate. At such a time, the awful
war-whoop of the Indians would have sent a thrill of terror into
the hearts of the bravest men
Peirce and his troops had only one hope left. Before leaving the
Rehoboth garrison house that morn, Peirce had sent a messenger
to Providence asking Captain Andrew Edmunds and his troops to
join him in an attack on a large party of Indians near Pawtucket
Falls. If Edmunds had kept that appointment, he and his soldiers
were probably somewhere within earshot of the battle and should
already be racing to Peirce's aid.
Did Peirce exhort his men not to forsake hope? Did he command
them to stand their ground until reinforcements arrived? Some
historians suggest Peirce may have fought his way slightly north
along the riverbank before taking the brunt of the attack,
closer to where a marker (on High Street, Central Falls) now
commemorates the battle. But the earliest sources place him at
the river's edge: Reverend William Hubbard wrote in 1677, "he
drew down towards the Side of the River, hoping the better by
that means to prevent their surrounding of him, but that proved
his overthrow, which he intended as his greatest advantage."
When Peirce shouted his next order, he had no idea he would be
setting the stage for one of the most memorable battle scenes of
King Philip's War. It has never been rendered by artist or
engraver in any published work, yet as soon as you read it you
will have a picture in your mind as clear as if it had been
painted on canvas.
"At this critical juncture," wrote Daggett, "Captain Pierce made
judicious movement, He formed his men into a circle, back to
back, with four spaces between each man - thus enlarging the
circle to its greatest extent - presenting a front to the enemy
in every direction, and necessarily scattering their fire over a
greater surface, whilst the Indians stood in a deep circle, one
behind another, forming a compact mass, and presenting a front
where every shot must take effect."
The Narragansett were known for targeting commanding officers,
so it is not surprising that Peirce was among the first to fall.
He slumped to the ground, "shot in his leg or thigh, so he was
not able to stand any longer," says Hubbard. As soon as Peirce
went down, Captain Amos, one of the friendly Indians helping the
English, pulled close to his commander's side and "would not
leave him, but charging his gun, fired stoutly upon the enemy
As Peirce lay dying, he may have resigned himself to the
probability that help would not be coming, or at least would not
arrive in time to save his men. Reeling from pain and blood loss
he may have wondered if Captain Edmunds' party had been ambushed
too, or if his messenger had been killed en route to Providence
Mercifully, Peirce would go to his grave never knowing the
truth. The messenger had reached Providence safely, but upon
arrival discovered that everyone was at church. As Drake tells
the Messenger by whom the Letter was sent, arriving at
Providence after the Forenoon Service had commenced (for it was
Sunday) waited till that was over before delivering it. As soon
as Captain Edmunds had read it, he impatiently exclaimed 'It is
now too late,' and sharply reprimanded the Bearer for neglecting
to deliver the Letter at once."
Other accounts say the messenger attended church services
himself before delivering the letter, while still others suggest
he didn't fully understand the urgency of his mission or that he
waited out of fear of disrupting the congregation.
"Whether through sloth or cowardize is not much material,"
William Hubbard observed, cutting right to the point, "this
message was not delivered to them to who it was immediately
The Plymouth men fought fiercely, but the numbers opposing them
were too great. One by one they collapsed on the riverbank, dead
or bleeding. Each time a new victim fell, those still standing
drew closer together and the circle shrank. It appears that near
the end the formation was abandoned and the remaining men fought
or fled as best they could, leaving the attackers free to move
in and finish off the wounded with war clubs or edged weapons.
The two sides clashed for upwards of two hours, or so the
histories say: "Yet they made a brave resistance for above two
hours, during which time they did great execution among the
enemy, whom they kept at a distance and themselves in order." (Saltonstall,
1676) But it seems unlikely the battle lasted that long,
especially since Peirce's troops were said to be outmanned by
more than 10-1. With those kind of odds, Peirce and his men
would have been wiped out in minutes.
The uneasy fit between the reported number of Indians and the
reported duration of the battle has led modern historians to
question whether there were really 900 Indians on the Blackstone
that day. Did Saltonstall exaggerate the number of Indian
combatants to make Peirce appear more heroic? It's possible.
Maybe the story came to him second- or third-hand, with each
teller adding more Indians. Whatever the truth, all accounts
agree that Peirce and his men were vastly outnumbered. On that
point there is no dispute.
The Indians left the English bodies where they lay, grim
testimony to what had transpired. Not until later that afternoon
did a rescue party from Rehoboth venture out to the battlefield.
Hubbard noted: "by accident only some of Rehoboth understanding
of the danger, after the evening exercise (it being on the Lords
day, March 26, 1676) repaired to the place; but then it was too
late to bring help, unless it were to be Spectators of the dead
Carkases of their friends, and to perform the last office of
love to them."
The Rehoboth contingent may have been led by Reverend Noah
Newman, for as early as the next day he had prepared a list of
the dead and sent it by messenger to Plymouth so that news of
the tragedy could be shared with the soldiers' families.
Visiting the battle site so shortly after the attack was a
dangerous proposition. Who could say the Indians weren't close
by, savoring their victory? It was probably late in the
afternoon by the time the Rehobothites arrived. They would have
seen little movement
maybe a breath of wind in the trees and
grasses at the water's edge. They would have heard only the
timeless voice of the river and perhaps the chatter of crows and
other carrion birds gathering for a feast.
The Indians had moved on. But to where?
It's safe to assume that the Rehoboth volunteers wasted no time
guessing. As quickly as possible they would have taken inventory
of the dead and hastened back to the safety of the garrison.
While many of the slain were probably concentrated in the area
where Peirce made his last stand, others must have been
scattered around the riverbank, some in the river itself. With
night coming on, it is doubtful any burials were attempted that
day. There are no reports that bodies were transported back to
Reverend Newman included the list of the dead in a letter sent
to Reverend John Cotton the following day, March 27th. He
reported a total of 63 slain - "52 of our Engl: & 11 Indians,"
referring to the friendly Indians in the Peirce expedition. "It
is a day of ye wicked's triumph," Newman lamented.
Mr. Newman didn't mention that more than 10 men were still
unaccounted for. In all likelihood their bodies still reposed by
the river somewhere, yet to be found. But the Reverend may have
privately kindled the hope that at least some had survived the
battle and escaped into the woods.
Could anyone have lived through that bloodbath? Was there the
slightest chance that one or more of Peirce's troops had slipped
past hundreds of raging Indians to fight another day?
Newman had reason to believe the answer to both questions was
yes. It's little more than a note, but at the bottom of his long
list of the dead, Mr. Newman recorded that Thomas Man of
Rehoboth, apparently one of the five local men recruited to
serve as Peirce's guides, "is returned with a Sore wound."
If Thomas Man survived the ordeal, perhaps others had too
where were they? Newman privately worried some might be
wandering in the unfamiliar woods, wounded and without food or
shelter against the cold.
Another possibility must have occurred to him, but had
implications so dark that he may have tried to put it out of his
mind the instant the question formed: Had the missing men been
taken captive by the Indians?
In the tumultuous days and weeks ahead, much more would be
learned of the bloody contest on the Blackstone River that
became known as "Pierce's Fight."
NEXT: PART THREE
SEEING THE SITES: The "high ledge of native bedrock" (or at
least a portion of it) still exists today and can be visited.
"Dexter's Ledge" stands in Jenks Park, Central Falls. It forms
the base of the Cogswell Memorial Clock Tower. There are stairs
you can climb to reach the top of the ledge and take in the
view. Things have changed greatly since 1676, but it will still
give you a sense of the role the ledge played in the story of "Peirce's
No one can say exactly where "Peirce's Fight" was waged, but the
general vicinity of Pierce Park and Riverwalk on High Street,
Central Falls, is the traditional location. The rear of the park
verges on the river (watch out for poison ivy). If you crane
your neck you can see the railroad bridge downstream, which
marks the approximate point where Peirce's troops crossed. There
is a commemorative plaque in the park (try to ignore the
profanity spray-painted on it) and another small monument
resembling a gravestone directly across the street near the High
Street entrance to Macomber Field.
Not very long ago, you could drive across the river and turn
down Branch Street in Pawtucket, which takes you beneath the
railroad bridge for a closer view of Peirce's crossing point.
But seekers today will be met with frustration -- Branch Street
has been closed to traffic for the last two years and it appears
that the land below the bridge has become thickly overgrown.
Keep an open mind and a watchful eye as you visit these sites.
Progress has left its mark. Even in 1889, Whitney wrote, "Since
my remembrance even quite a fraction of Dexter's ledge has been
blasted away and the ravines filled, for building purposes.
'Many Holes' will have been filled
" Whitney didn't foresee
graffiti and broken beer bottles, but there's plenty of that
Part Three: Blood on the Blackstone
© 2006 by Joe Doherty, PO Box 31, South Salem NY 10590-0031