“That for his own part, tho’ he desired nothing more than Peace, yet if nothing but War would satisfie them, he believed he should prove a sharp thorne in their sides.”
Benjamin Church was one of the principal military leaders in King Philip’s War (1675–76.) Most notably, he commanded the expedition that led to the killing of the Wampanoag leader Philip (also known as Metacom) and the surrender of his remaining warriors, effectively ending the war in southern New England. Forty years after the events, Benjamin’s son Thomas used his father’s diary and remembrances to compose an account of the war featuring his father in the central heroic role; the work is presented as Church’s memoirs as told to his son. Published in 1716 as Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War, Which Began in the Month of June, 1675; As Also of Expeditions More Lately Made Against the Common Enemy, and Indian Rebels, in the Eastern Parts of New-England: With Some Account of the Divine Providence Towards Col. Benjamin Church, the book presented Church as an unconventional English colonist and military leader who disparaged the strategies of other commanders and the policies followed by colonial political leaders. He disagreed strongly with their treatment of Indians, both those friendly to the English and those who fought against them. Church’s respectful view of Indians distinguished his story from other accounts of the war. While he blamed Philip for the conflict, he did not regard all Indians as dangerous savages unable to coexist with English civilization.
Less than two weeks after Benjamin Church met with the Saconet leader Awashonks, members of Philip’s band of Wampanoags attacked and killed nine settlers at the Plymouth Colony settlement of Swansea, and the conflict known as King Philip’s War (Metacom’s Rebellion) began. The meeting occurred at a diplomatic crossroads where seemingly another path could have been taken, a path that did not lead to the devastation that followed. Church hoped that his relationship with the Indians would serve as a model for the rest of English society in New England. In his opinion the two groups could get along. Throughout the book, he chastises the military and political leaders for their lack of faith in the Indians and their inability to see the Indians as anything but enemies.
King Philip’s War dramatically changed the southern New England social and political landscape. The destruction of colonial settlements crippled the economy, and it would take decades to recover. More significantly, the war led to the near disappearance of the southern New England tribes as autonomous political entities with significant land holdings. Before the war, the two groups coexisted without firm demarcation between them. Their settlements were often within miles of each other and their economies were intertwined. It was, at times, a tense and mutually fearful relationship but not an impossible one. After the war English and Indian seemed even less compatible than they were before, and this sense of opposition and adversity would hold sway in American culture for more than two centuries.
Benjamin Church, however, did not view Indians in that light. From his meeting with Awashonks immediately preceding the war to the very end of the war, when he captured the last of King Philip’s band, he presented the Indians as similar to himself, people he could talk to, work with, and most importantly bring around to fight against a common enemy. Even though he helped eradicate the Indian presence, Church never embraced the role of one intent on destroying the Indians.
After his wartime successes, Church became a hero and an important military leader in future campaigns against the northern New England Indians. While his ideas about Indians as potential allies seemed validated, that did not greatly alter the Indians’ political situation and the prejudice and injustice that they faced from the expanding English colonies.
Benjamin Church was born in the Plymouth Colony in 1639. His father Richard was a carpenter who had emigrated from England in 1630. Richard Church married Elizabeth Warren, the daughter of one of the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. As a boy, Benjamin learned his father’s craft. In 1671 he married Alice Southworth, whose father Constant was the stepson of William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth. In 1674 Church purchased land in Sagkonate, now Little Compton, Rhode Island, and began building a house there. He writes that he was the first Englishman to settle in the area; until that time, the land was occupied by the Saconets. His father-in-law had acquired land in the same area, apparently obtaining the title through legal forfeiture by Awashonks, the leader of the Saconets.
Church participated in three significant military campaigns during King Philip’s War. At the end of July he joined the first failed expedition to try to capture Philip. In December, colonial military leaders launched a preemptive attack against the Narragansetts in Rhode Island, thinking they had allied with Philip. Church led a group of soldiers that breached the Narragansetts’ fortified main camp, and during this action he was wounded in the leg. Against Church’s advice, the military leaders burned the village. The soldiers then killed hundreds of men, women, and children as they fled the burning compound. The so-called Great Swamp Fight was the single most devastating encounter of the war for both the colonial forces and the Indians. In June 1676 Church received his first military commission and enlisted a company of English soldiers and Indian allies. In subsequent months Church’s unit succeeded in killing or capturing numerous groups of Indians. They caught up with Philip’s band on August 12, and an Indian serving with Church shot and killed Philip.
After the war, Church and his family settled on Philip’s former lands in what became Bristol, Rhode Island. In 1689 he received a military commission from Plymouth Colony, leading an expedition to Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, to fight against Abenakis allied with the French during King William’s War. The next year he led another Maine expedition and another one in 1692. In 1696 he led raids against French settlements in Nova Scotia. Hostilities ended the following year when France and England signed a treaty, but the peace did not last long. Five years later, the two powers went to war in what would be called Queen Anne’s War. In 1704 Church again led raids against Nova Scotia settlements. He resigned from the militia in 1705 and returned to Little Compton, Rhode Island, where he died on January 17, 1718.
This account of Benjamin Church’s participation in King Philip’s War (1675–76) begins by telling about his meeting with Awashonks, the “squaw sachem” (female chief) of the Sobkonate (Saconet) band of Wampanoag Indians. In the middle of June 1675, Awashonks invited Church to a gathering because she wanted his advice. Emissaries from Philip, the sachem of the Mount Hope (Pokanoket) Wampanoags were in her camp. They had told her that the English were about to invade Philip’s territory and so they wanted her band to join in the fight. Church informed her that the English had no intention of attacking the Wampanoags; instead, it was Philip who wanted to start a war. Church advised Awashonks “not to desert the English interest” and he promised to help her. The foundation of Church’s overall narrative of the war was established in his account of this meeting. It illustrated his friendliness toward the Indians and how they respected him. It showed that not all Indians should be automatically perceived to be enemies of the English. It points out that the war was not simply a conflict between the English and the Indians but a contest for the allegiance of the various tribes. While the overall story depicted Church’s actions on the battlefield as courageous (and often foolhardy), his ability to understand and negotiate with the Indians proved to be his most important attribute. This unusual war narrative focused more on talking with Indians than fighting them.
Throughout Church’s account he criticized the way other colonial leaders managed the war and their relationship with the Indians. Underlying this criticism was a contention about what made a good leader. The book intimates that Church had the proper leadership qualities, not the religious and political officials or the conventional military officers. For a society that confronted the Indians and the American wilderness, Benjamin Church was the model frontier hero. He had the qualities necessary to settle the land. Even before his account of meeting with Awashonks, the narrative introduced a fundamental aspect of Church’s character. By first writing about his purchase of land in what was then called Segkonate (now Little Compton), Rhode Island, Church stresses that he lived at the edge of English colonization. In the first sentence of the preface, Church similarly informs readers that “I was the first English Man that built upon that Neck, which was full of Indians.” This location defined him. He lived on an untamed borderland between the Indians and the English, a place that required “uncommon Activity and Industry” and “a good acquaintance with the Natives.” Practical knowledge, energy, courage, and an understanding of Indians allowed Church to both settle the land and later to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Because the other military commanders and political leaders lacked those essential qualities, they failed to contain the war and delayed its resolution.
The idea that Church could be the model leader for colonial settlement went against the founding precept of New England colonies. Puritans established the colonies of Plymouth (1620), Massachusetts Bay (1629), and Connecticut (1636) as religious refuges. Most of the first generation of settlers came to the New World because they held stricter and more fervent religious beliefs than those approved by the Church of England. They formed theocratic colonial governments where only full church members could vote and hold public office. Leadership in this system was based on a person’s relationship with God and the Bible. While Church did not directly contradict this premise, his narrative undermined it by emphasizing practical attributes. Some religious leaders would have viewed a person like Church as more heathen than Christian. His acceptance of and interaction with the Indians would have helped confirm this view. Church, who did not become a full church member until later in life, was not the model leader that the Puritan clergy wanted.
Church’s position was more evident to his readers because it contrasted with previous histories of the war that relied on theological interpretations. The principle historical accounts of the war had been written by prominent Puritan clergy immediately after the conflict. William Hubbard, the pastor of the church in Ipswich, Massachusetts, published A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England (1677). Increase Mather, an influential Boston minister and intellectual, published A Brief of the Warr With the Indians in New-England (1676) and A Relation of the Trouble Which Have Happened in New England (1677). Cotton Mather, the son of Increase Mather, more recently had contributed another theological interpretation in his book Magnalia Christi Americana: Or, the Ecclesiastical History of New-England (1702) in a section entitled “The Wars of the Lord.” Each of these writers saw a spiritual dimension to the war, seeing it as a test of the colonists’ virtue and piety. For Increase Mather the war was God’s punishment of the colonists because they had disregarded orthodox Puritan doctrine, abandoning the principles of the founding generation. Mather used parallels from Old Testament events and New Testament prophecies to produce a mythology that paralleled the need to purge Indians from the land with the need for the colonists to expel sinfulness from their own lives. Church, by titling his book Entertaining Passages Relating to King Philip’s War, indicated that he was offering pleasurable reading, not moral lessons.
By attributing King Philip’s War to the colonists’ moral failings, the Puritan historians discounted the idea that the conflict involved problems in understanding and cooperating with the Indians. Within these writers’ theological interpretations, Indians served as agents of God’s wrath. In this role they were not viewed as individuals or even necessarily as human. Church’s narrative stood in stark contrast to that sentiment. Awashonks and many other Indians (whom Church pointedly identifies), were individuals, not demons. The book suggests that only after this view was adopted could the war be brought to a successful conclusion. Winning the war required pragmatic solutions, bold countenances, and friendly engagement with the Indians, not reformation of the colonists’ religious practices.
Even though he exhibited more understanding of the Indians than other writers, Church showed limited concern for Indian problems. When he encountered Philip’s men in Awashonks’s camp, he made it clear that any conflict was the fault of the Indians. Philip’s band “thirsted after the blood of their English Neighbours, who had never injur’d them, but had always abounded in their kindness to them.” This statement showed a willful distortion or blindness to the Indians’ situation. Likely most of the Indians present, both Philip’s men and Awashonks’s group, would have detested such biased remarks. Most of his English readers, however, probably welcomed Church’s message, because it confirmed that the war was unprovoked and its outcome justifiable.
Both Philip and Awashonks had a long history of trying to accommodate and negotiate with the English while attempting to maintain some degree of sovereignty. Their alliance with the English helped protect them from other Indian bands, and their two economies were intertwined. As the colonists became the dominant power, however, they seemed more inclined to impose their will upon the Indians. Negotiations and legal solutions seemed unsatisfactory, as the English authorities regularly dismissed Indian complaints. By the 1670s, Indian land holdings had been greatly diminished and their ability to survive in the region had been compromised. As a settler on lands recently surrendered by the Indians, Church surely recognized the problems, but his narrative ignored them and failed to consider that settlers might have committed wrongs against the Indians.
Awashonks had had two recent court decisions go against her band. In 1671 leaders of the Plymouth colony threatened to attack the Saconets if they did not swear loyalty to Plymouth. The charge against them was a supposed threat they posed to Christian Indians living nearby. Such rumors of impending hostilities had become a regular occurrence in the colonies. They were used for political purposes by both the Indians and the settlers. Christian Indians, in particular, often served as English informants as they tried to navigate their vulnerable position between the two societies. Whether or not there were justifiable reasons to believe this particular accusation against the Saconets, the Plymouth authorities used the opportunity for political gain as they made Awashonks guarantee that her lands would only be sold to that colony and not to the colony of Rhode Island, which also claimed the territory. The Plymouth authorities also made the Saconets surrender their weapons and fined Awashonks the hefty sum of fifty pounds to cover the cost of the court’s investigation. Such a fine would have likely meant that she had to sell land.
A dispute over land ownership had also brought Awashonks into court. The year before, another Saconet leader named Mammanuah sold lands that her band occupied. When they refused to move, he took the case to the Plymouth court and received a judgment in his favor. Church’s father-in-law, Constant Southworth, provided the bond for Awashonks in this case and perhaps benefited by obtaining some of her land in the process. Because of those two decisions, it was likely that many in her band held a grudge against Plymouth Colony.
Philip’s difficulties living under English rule had become even more acute than those faced by Awashonks. He had also been brought before the Plymouth court in 1671, made to swear allegiance, and forced to guarantee his land would only be sold under their authority. In order to forestall hostilities, he agreed that his band would surrender their weapons. When later that year he protested to Massachusetts Colony authorities, they ruled that Plymouth should return the weapons, but that Philip should pay a fine of one hundred pounds to cover costs.
After his meeting with Awashonks, Church encountered Peter Nunnuit, another Wampanoag. In their discussion Nunnuit brought up the recent court decision that had sparked the controversy then threatening to ignite into war. In January 1675, the body of a Christian Indian named John Sassamon had been discovered in a frozen pond. Plymouth magistrates suspected murder because Sassamon had recently warned colonists that Philip was trying to unite local bands in opposition to the English. Months later, a Christian Indian came forward claiming that he knew another Indian who witnessed three members of Philip’s band kill Sassamon and hide his body in the pond. A Plymouth jury made up of colonists and Christian Indians convicted the three men. They were hanged in early June. One survived the hanging when the rope broke and likely in an effort to save his life, he testified that the other two had committed the crime. His effort at obtaining clemency failed, and a few days later he was executed. Supposedly he also stated that Philip had ordered the killing. Philip reasonably thought that the colonial authorities would soon come for him and so feared for his life. At least one colonial leader, John Easton, the deputy governor of Rhode Island, questioned the fairness of the trial. Church, however, had no doubts that Philip was “guilty of contriving that Murder.”
Church’s account of the meeting with Awashonks structured the overall book narrative, because only when he eventually won over Awashonks and other Indians could he win the war. At their meeting in June, Church felt that he had been on the verge of convincing her to join with the English, but when the war began two weeks later, her band allied with Philip. Church, however, never abandoned his plan to win over Awashonks. Soon after the war began, he sought to return to her band, but he could not convince the other military leaders of that strategy. In December, after repeatedly failing to get the colonial and military leaders to take his advice regarding Indians and strategy, he retired from service. Six months later he decided to rejoin. Since in the meantime, the war had not gone well for the English, and the colonial leaders were ready to listen to him. They accepted Church’s proposal to assemble units partly made up of allied Indians. In Church’s narrative, this decision proved to be the turning point in the war.
On his way to recruit troops, he came upon some Indians fishing on the shore and saw his opportunity. He asked them to deliver a request that Awashonks meet with him in two days at a designated rock. He then informed the Rhode Island government officials about his plan to try to get Awashonks to switch sides, but once again, colonial leaders would not condone his course of action. Although the officials did not stop him from going to Awashonks, they discouraged his actions and would not give him any soldiers. However, he succeeded in convincing Awashonks to abandon Philip and took several Saconet men for his fighting force. By making the longest story in the book be about his efforts to meet with Awashonks and their subsequent negotiation, Church emphasized the book’s overall theme of diplomacy.
Church and his unconventional militia unit then went in search of Philip. Success after success followed, each time accomplished with intelligence acquired from the Indians. The Indians cooperated, according to Church, because he treated them well and rewarded loyalty. When this force finally found and killed Philip, the encounter is told in one paragraph. For Church, this was clearly not the high point of the war. He continued with the story of his subsequent chase after Philip’s captain Annawon, the supposed real leader of the warriors. The end point of this story, however, was not a great battle. Church and a handful of soldiers snuck into Annawon’s camp and rather than kill him, Church had a long conversation with Annawon and convinced him to surrender. In a symbolically significant moment Annawon presented Church with a broad belt of wampum and Philip’s chiefly regalia. With these adornments Church essentially became the Indian king, the proper successor to Philip.
King Philip’s War devastated the New England colonies. It is uncertain how many colonists died during the conflict. Likely casualties neared two thousand military-age men and numerous other men, women, and children. More than thirty southern New England towns and garrisons were attacked by the Indians, with most of the frontier settlements abandoned and destroyed. Many of the contemporary accounts of the war focused on the barbarity of the Indians, perhaps partly to excise the trauma of their experience and also to justify the equally brutal way that the English treated the Indians. Church did not dwell on the atrocities of the war. In fact, he seemed happy to have Indians as his neighbors, friends, soldiers, and servants—even those Indians who fought against the English.
The southern New England Indian population was decimated by the war. Some Indians survived by leaving the region or living in Christian mission towns and in other small pockets. Remarkably, Church succeeded in protecting Awashonks and her band and they continued to live in the area after the war. Church, however, did not seem to care about the Indians and their culture in general. They seemed part of the wilderness that would be conquered by the English. In his acceptance of Philip’s adornments, Church symbolically replaced the Indian leader. This intimated that the English, by adopting the qualities exhibited by the frontier hero, could effectively replace the Indians as a group.
The predominant theme throughout Thomas and Benjamin Church’s Entertaining Passages involved the personal and diplomatic relationships with Indians. Church undoubtedly thought that the conflict could have been contained if the colonial authorities had a better understanding of Indian culture and tactics. Church, however, did not offer many clues as to whether or not he thought the conflict could have been avoided altogether. With his condemnation of Philip as acting without provocation, he suggested that there were Indians with “bloody dispositions” who incited violence and therefore should be killed. Winning Indians over to his side rather than killing them, however, was his preferred method. He seemed to think that the English and the Indians could be neighbors and have a working relationship. Because of this view, Church provided a more multidimensional portrait of the Indians, one not matched by the Puritan historians.
By 1716, when Church’s account of King Philip’s War was published, colonial politics and culture had dramatically changed. Puritans still retained considerable influence in the New England colonies, but their political power had waned and their rigid theology had softened. With his practical ruggedness and courage, Church spoke for the new generations of settlers who marched westward across the country, encountering Indians and domesticating the land. While the accounts of the war by the religious interpreters faded from public memory, Church’s book continued to find new audiences. Entertaining Passages was published again in 1772 and in 1825, followed by at least fourteen more editions before 1860.
By the 1820s American readers had developed a fascination with the frontier hero. Benjamin Church fell into the same mythological category as Daniel Boone and the heroes of James Fenimore Cooper’s influential series of novels called the Leatherstocking Tales. These heroes were all borderline figures living between the wilderness and civilization, both friends and foes of Indians. Each of them exhibited courage, humor, and disregard for political and social authority.
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