Blood on the Blackstone: Part Three: The Peirce Expedition

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     Our story picks up on March 26, 1676, only hours after a fearsome battle between Narragansett Indians and Plymouth Colony soldiers along the Blackstone River at what is now Central Falls …

     For the second time in less than a year, Thomas Man had eluded death while others close to him met grisly ends at the hands of Indians. Bloodied, bruised, but alive, the 25-year-old Swansea man survived a Narragansett onslaught that left his commander Captain Michael Peirce and almost all of his fellow soldiers dead on the banks of the Pawtucket (Blackstone) River. That battle, one of the bloodiest of King Philip's War, is remembered as "Peirce's Fight."
     How Thomas Man escaped with his life and made it back to the town of Rehoboth is one of many unanswered questions associated with Peirce's Fight. The simplest explanation is that the Indians left him for dead. We know that a rescue party from Rehoboth combed the battlefield later that day (see Part 2) - maybe they found him clinging to life and transported him back to the village, though no mention of this appears in the records.
     Less likely, but still a possibility, Man somehow slipped past hundreds of Narragansett Indians, recrossed the river and then fled through five miles of field and forest until reaching the village on his own strength.
     Unfortunately, our primary source for this part of the story, Reverend Noah Newman of Rehoboth, furnishes no clue. "Thomas Man is returned with a sore wound," he wrote in a letter to Plymouth the following day, oddly omitting any details about how Man avoided death or capture.
     Perhaps Newman was still numbed by the news of Peirce's defeat. As far as anyone knew at that point, Thomas Man was the sole survivor of a battle that had wiped out more than 50 colonial soldiers and 20 friendly Indians. He had come through the ordeal, despite being badly injured. While a "sore wound" may not sound very serious to a modern audience, Rehoboth records show that the town was later billed twelve pounds for Thomas Man's medical treatment and recuperation, an amount that surpassed the cost of caring for any other wounded soldier on the town rolls.
     What makes Man's survival even more noteworthy (and Reverend Newman's economy of words more curious) is that Thomas Man had already suffered a terrible loss to the Indians just nine months earlier: his 24-year-old wife Rachel and infant daughter were killed when Wampanoag Indians raided Swansea on the first day of King Philip's War, June 24, 1675. The baby was so young that her name had not yet been entered into the town records, and ultimately never was. Reverend Newman almost certainly knew of the Man family tragedy because his own church deacon wrote the only existing account of the incident (see note at the end of this article).
     Upon returning to Rehoboth, Thomas Man would have been admitted to one of the garrison houses for medical attention - probably Newman's, given the Reverend's association with the Peirce expedition. As word of Peirce's defeat spread through Rehoboth, the remaining townspeople would have hurried to the garrisons for protection. Several families had already left the village in the months since the first hostilities at Swansea, choosing to relocate to Rhode Island and elsewhere to wait out the war.
     Rehoboth had a total of four garrisons: Newman's parsonage, which Captain Peirce had used as his base of operations (see Part 1), John Fitch's house , John Peren's and Nathaniel Paine's. We know that Newman's garrison was occupied but it is not entirely clear whether the other garrison houses were active at this time, although contemporary accounts suggest they were.
     In times of crisis, small contingents of armed soldiers would normally be stationed at the garrisons , but it seems the colony had none to spare. Apparently all the available fighting men had marched off that morning with Captain Peirce.
     With the windows shuttered and the doors bolted, the interior of the garrisons must have resembled the hold of a wooden ship - cramped, dim, a thin haze of smoke from the stove and candles … Did grim-faced men with muskets by their sides keep watch at the loopholes as women and children busied themselves preparing pots of boiling water to pour on attackers from the upper story? Out of necessity New Englanders who fled to garrisons were compelled to abandon their homes, livestock and worldly possessions, but they did not so easily forfeit their lives.
     The presence of Thomas Man may have steeled local resolve - or made it falter. Neighbors, friends and relatives had been among the soldiers killed at the river that morning. If they had fallen, what chance did anyone stand against this enemy? The people of Rehoboth had all night to consider the answer.
     The next day, the 27th, Reverend Newman dispatched a letter to his friend Reverend John Cotton in Plymouth. Newman broke the news of the Peirce massacre and confessed to "the great sadning of all our hearts filling us with an awfull expect[ation] of [what] further evills it may be antecedaneous too both respecting our[selves] and you." He described what he knew of Peirce's fatal encounter with the Indians, including a list of the men who were killed and the Plymouth Colony towns where they lived. (This was the same letter in which he noted Thomas Man's survival.)
     "There Sir you have a sad account of the Continuance of God's displeasure against us," he concluded, "yet still I desire steadfastly to Looke unto him who is not only able but willing to save all such as are fit for his salvation. It is a day of ye wickeds tryumph but the sure word of God tell us his tryumphing is brief ... [signed] your ever Assured Friend Noah Newman."
     It was shortly after the messenger galloped off with Reverend newman’s letter that the Indians made their appearance at Rehoboth. When Rehoboth was founded by Reverend Samuel Newman (Reverend Noah Newman's father) in 1643, the town was laid out according to a circular plan that soon earned it the name "The Ring of the Green of Rehoboth." This excerpt from the East Providence Historical Society explains:
     The new settlement was a circular layout with five gates for entrance. The center area was to enclose the animals which the settlers would bring with them. There would be a continuous fence around this area and the house and farm lots would encircle the outside extending outward in six, eight and twelve acre lots. The Newman Meeting House for church services and settlement business and the cemetery would also be in the center of the circle. There would be five garrison buildings scattered throughout for security reasons to protect settlers from possible attack by the Indians.
     Upon entering Rehoboth on the 27th, the Indians' first priority was to steal cattle, probably out of the pasture on the town green. Reverend Newman's garrison house stood near the center of the Green, affording its occupants a good vantage point to monitor the enemy's movements. It's possible that the owners of the cattle watched from inside as their valuable cows were led away.
     The Indians did not show themselves again that day. Some in the garrison may have silently prayed that the Indians would observe the biblical meaning of Rehoboth - "a good place to pass through" - and keep going. But instead the Indians merely withdrew, giving themselves time to eat and replenish their strength after Peirce's Fight. They made camp close enough to be "in hearing" of the anxious Rehobothites.
     The tension inside the garrison must have been unbearable as families and neighbors clung to each other, calling on God to deliver them from the murderous horde that had so easily wiped out Captain Peirce and his men, for these Indians were one and the same. Thomas Man, with his bloodied and "sore wound," was a living reminder of what these Narragansetts were capable of.
     Why don't they strike? Why do they wait? Surely these frantic questions were muttered throughout the garrisons that night.
     The suspense ended at sunrise. Shortly after daybreak, the Indians fell upon Rehoboth. "The 28 of March the enemy appeared early in the morning very numerous & overpowered our towne," Reverend Newman wrote.
     More than a thousand Indians tore through the town. They burned homes and barns as mercilessly as English soldiers had torched the wigwams containing Narragansett women and children at the Great Swamp three months earlier. But the Rehoboth houses were empty, so only timber perished in the flames that day.
     Hardly content to lay waste to the town's dwellings, the Indians also destroyed its means of subsistence. They dug up and plundered the villagers' hidden caches of corn. They burned the grist mills and broke the grindstones inside, so even if by some miracle the English could get their hands on some corn they would have no means to grind it into meal. Nor would they have meat. Horses and livestock were either driven away or slaughtered where they stood.
     The lessons of the Great Swamp Fight were fresh in the Narragansett mind: many of the warriors terrorizing Rehoboth remembered being driven into the snowbound wilderness without food or shelter. They had not forgotten the brutal hunger or the hardships of trying to survive after their families and homes had been destroyed.
     Now the English would taste the same torment. John Kingsley, an old man sheltered in one of the garrisons (probably Newman's), wrote a letter to a preacher friend at Hartford about a month after the attack. Kingsley implored his friend to send some corn meal to Rehoboth because he and others in the garrison were starving. In his letter, Kingsley described what the Indians did that day:
      They burnt our mills, broke the stones, our grinding stones & what was hid in the earth they found, corn & fowls, killed cattle & took the hind quarters and left the rest, yea, all that day the Lord gave them license, they burnt cart wheels, drive away our cattle, sheep, horses, in a word had not the Lord restrained [them], they [would] had not left one to have told of our woeful day … now every rod of ground near garrison is broken up & where house & barn stood now put in beans and squashes but alas, what will do against famine …
     According to Reverend Newman, the Indians later bragged they were "about 1500" strong that day. Old John Kingsley gave this sobering estimate: "they were enough to have swalowed us all up."
     The Indians plied their fiery craft through noon into night, burning between 40 and 45 houses, 21 barns, two grist mills and Deacon Philip Walker's saw mill -- almost 70 buildings in just one day.
     Across the Seekonk River, the people of Providence watched as wreaths of black smoke plumed above the bare trees, heralding Rehoboth's doom. They sent no soldiers to render assistance, nor made preparations for their own defense. "Providence though they saw us in a flame incouraged themselves the enemy would steer another course," Reverend Newman wrote some weeks later.
     As the day waned and the skies darkened, the Indians piled up large haystacks and set them ablaze. They butchered several cattle and "pitcht their Camp by the side of ye towne," Newman observed. With Rehoboth reduced to cinders, the Indians took their rest, "rose up at day light the next morning tooke their walk over to providence and theire did likewise…"
     Rehoboth was left a smoldering ruin. The Ring of the Green, an ash heap. The only buildings still standing were a dwelling house on the south end of the common owned by a Mr. Fuller and the several garrison houses. "The 29th of March the Enemy burnt the deserted Houses in Secunck or Rehoboth, but the Garrison'd Houses were not carried by them," wrote Boston merchant Nathaniel Saltonstall four months after the attack.
     "Thanks be to God we have yet the most of our lives given us as a prey though many of our habitations are desolate & in ashes, " Reverend Newman wrote to Reverend Cotton. He reported that only one man had been killed in the attack - a Robert Beere or Beers, said to have been an Irish brickmaker who had "Gone at a distance from his Garrison early in the morning."
     Why the Indians did not set fire to Newman's or the other garrisons is the most puzzling aspect of the raid on Rehoboth. There's no question that the Indians knew of the garrisons and the people within, for John Kingsley mentioned in his letter that the Indians had approached and taunted them: "I am not able to bear the sad stories of our woeful days, when the Lord made our wolfish heathen to be our Lords, to fire our town, shout & holler, to call us to come out of our garrisons."
     Earlier in the war, Nipmuck Indians burned the town of Brookfield, Massachusetts, but had been unable to break the defenses of the local garrison house. Had the Rehoboth garrisons proven equally impervious? It seems unlikely that the Rehobothites could have fended off 1500 Indians by themselves, no matter how many men, muskets or pots of boiling water they had at their disposal. These were the same Indians who virtually annihilated Captain Peirce's fully-armed unit on a field of battle just two days earlier.
     And while certainly not conclusive, Reverend Newman's account does not contain even the slightest hint of an enemy attempt on his or other garrisons.
     Adding to the list of inconsistencies is the Fuller House. In 1836, Rehoboth historian Leonard Bliss wrote that the Fuller house at the south end of the common "was preserved by black sticks having been arranged around it so as to give it, at a distance, the appearance of being strongly guarded."
     Would more than a thousand marauding Indians, natural lords of the forests, be deceived by a bunch of sticks planted in the ground and visible in broad daylight? By the same token, could a force of such might and fighting skill be held at bay by civilians like Reverend Newman and his people?
     If the Indians were truly deterred by such defenses, it may indicate that their forces were not as numerous as everyone seemed to think. Similar doubts about the size of the Indian contingent at Peirce's Fight have been expressed by historians of the last century (see Part 2).
     Another explanation might be that the Narragansetts were in a weakened state, having expended the bulk of their energy and ammunition in the battle with Captain Peirce. Perhaps they decided that destroying the town and its food stores was all they could accomplish without placing themselves at unnecessary risk.
     Or is there a further possibility? John Kingsley, like Reverend Newman, credited God for their preservation: "had not the Lord restrained [them], they [would] had not left one to have told of our woeful day …"
     This reasoning might suffice if what happened at Rehoboth were an isolated incident, but when the same Indians set fire to Providence they did not burn anyone alive in the garrisons of that town either.
     But indeed the Reason that the Inhabitants of the Town of Seaconicke [Rehoboth] and Providence generally escaped with their Lives, is not to be attributed to any Compassion or Good Nature of the Indians, (whose very Mercies are inhumane Cruelties,) but, (next to God's Providence,) to their own Prudence in avoiding their Fury, when they found themselves too weak and unable to resist it, by a timely Flight into Rhode Island, which now became the common Zoar, or Place of Refuge for the Distressed …"
     Nathaniel Saltonstall wrote those words shortly after the Rehoboth attack. He was making the point that because many families in Rehoboth and Providence had fled before the Indians struck, they were not killed.
But he fails to adequately address the fact that almost all who stayed behind were also left alive. Only one man in each town lost his life - both having made the fatal mistake of not taking refuge in a garrison.
     This hint of a pattern suggests that something akin to "Compassion or Good Nature" may indeed have had a hand in sparing most of the lives at Rehoboth and Providence. While it pleased this particular group of Narragansetts to repay the English in kind for the destruction of the Great Swamp fort, they may have rejected the idea of burning people alive in their houses, even though the English had visited that same horror upon them.
     The English believed that the Bible sanctioned such drastic tactics in wartime - and indeed, some of the Indians fighting with Philip in Massachusetts had adopted such practices themselves -- but these Narragansetts at least, seemed to operate according to a different code.
     Almost 40 years earlier, during the Pequot War, the Narragansetts and Mohegans had joined with the English to attack a Pequot fort near Mystic, Connecticut.
     The Narragansetts were said to be aghast when the English surrounded the Pequot fort as the Pequots slept inside and set it on fire. "These Indian allies were shocked by the horrible scene as hundreds of men, women and children perished in the blaze or were cut down as they tried to escape," writes historian Patrick Malone in his book, The Skulking Way of War. "An Indian with Captain John Underhill objected strenuously to this strange and terrible form of warfare: he 'cried mach it, mach it, that is, it is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious, and slays too many men.'"
     The truth of what happened at Rehoboth will probably never be known. Whether it was a strong defense by the English or an ancient code of warrior conduct that stayed the Narragansetts' fury, the Rehoboth garrisons survived the siege. Reverend Newman, Thomas Man, John Kingsley and others all lived to tell the story of Peirce's Fight and the attack on Rehoboth.
     It is regrettable that Thomas Man, who by far had the most interesting tale to tell, never set his experiences down in writing. By July of that year his wounds had healed sufficiently for him to marry 19-year-old Mary Wheaton of Rehoboth. In 1735, Plymouth Colony posthumously awarded him a parcel of land for his military service in the "Narraganset campaign." It was claimed by his son, Thomas Man Jr. The land was part of what was known as "Narraganset Township No. 4.," which later became the town of Greenwich, Massachusetts, and now sits at the bottom of the Quabbin Reservoir.
     As for Reverend Newman, he and his townsmen still had a somber and dangerous duty to perform in the days ahead …

NEXT: MASS GRAVE ON THE BLACKSTONE

Note: The story of Thomas Man's wife and child is an important element in the overall history of Peirce's Fight, but for reasons of length could not be included here. I have published it separately at www.blackstonedaily.com/tman.htm. If you do not have internet access, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to my address below and I will be happy to mail you a printed copy.

© 2007 by Joe Doherty (riverwritr@aol.com)
PO Box 31, South Salem, NY 10590-0031