Dec. 19, 2022

The Great Swamp Fight

The Great Swamp Fight

December 19, 1675. During King Philip's War, colonial militias wage a devastating attack against the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island.


Cold Open

It’s January 1675, and snow is falling in Plymouth Colony in New England.

A Puritan fur trapper trudges through a forest, head down, trying to stop the snow blowing in his eyes. He’s feeling a bit down. The cold weather has driven the beavers inside their lodges and he isn’t confident he’ll catch any animals today. But such is life in the colonies. It's hard going, and he must return home with at least one or two pelts to trade, otherwise, he’ll go hungry.

The fur trapper carefully approaches the edge of a frozen lake to fill his water pouch.

He picks up a branch that’s fallen off a nearby tree, raises it above his head… and slams it onto the ice at the edge of the lake.

He begins to lower his water pouch into the cold, clear water. But there's something there floating just beneath the surface. He picks up the stick again and pokes at what he thinks might be a dead fish. But then realizes, it's a human hand.

The fur trapper uses the branch to widen the hole in the ice. Then he grabs hold of the hand and pulls.

The body of a man slides out of the water. He’s wearing the clothes of the native tribes. And his neck sits at an awkward angle, twisted and broken. From the looks of it, the fur trapper guesses that the man was probably murdered.

The fur trapper sighs. He knows he must report his grisly find to the authorities in Plymouth. But he suspects this suspicious death will test the colonists’ already-strained relationship with their native neighbors, and perhaps even push them to their breaking point.

When the body of Massachusett tribesman John Sassamon is discovered in a frozen pond, the exact cause of his death is unclear. But, eventually, a colonial court will decide that John was murdered by another tribe: the Wampanoags. Five months after his body is found, three Wampanoag tribesmen will be hanged for John’s murder.

Their executions will enrage Metacomet, the leader of the Wampanoag, better known to the colonists by his Anglicized name, King Philip. Metacomet will maintain the innocence of his men. And in retaliation for their hanging, he’ll order his warriors to attack and burn colonial settlements, sparking a vicious conflict known as King Philip’s War. Fighting will stretch on for months, drag in other native tribes, and eventually culminate in a devastating colonial attack on the Narragansett people, known as the Great Swamp Fight, on December 19th, 1675.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 19th, 1675: The Great Swamp Fight.

Act One

It’s June 24th, 1675, two weeks after the three Wampanoag tribesmen were executed for the murder of John Sassamon.

A Wampanoag warrior rushes toward a newly established village in Plymouth Colony, one that the white settlers call Swansea. Dozens of other tribesmen run with him, each screeching a war cry designed to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies.

Four days ago, this Wampanoag warrior was part of a Warband that raided Swansea in retaliation for the executions of his fellow tribesmen in Plymouth. The warriors lit fires in several farm buildings and burned their fields. No white settlers died—they all ran to the safety of the village’s stockade just in time. But yesterday, the conflict was reignited when a settler killed a Wampanoag scout spying on the village. Now, the Wampanoag have returned to get revenge for their most recently fallen brother.

As the warrior races toward Swansea, he spots a small group of settlers who have strayed too far from the protection of the stockade. With a yell of excitement, he sprints toward them. Closing in on the white settlers, he sees one of the colonists lift a musket, and with shaking hands, the settler fires. But the shot misses.

Before the man can reload, the warrior raises his arm and swings his wooden club striking the settler on the head and knocking him to the ground. But the Wampanoag warrior is in no mood for mercy. He hits the settler again and again. And when his blood lust is sated, the Wampanoag looks around, breathing heavily. He sees the other white settlers collapsed on the ground too, Wampanoag warriors standing over their lifeless frames. 

With no other enemies in sight, the warrior walks toward the stockade at the center of the small settlement. As he gets closer, he notices pale, worried faces peeking over the wooden fence frantically loading muskets. As soon as they can, the settlers fire and a billowing smoke appears from their barrels as they shoot in desperation. But the warrior knows that the white men’s guns can’t fire very far and he stands out of their range. As their shots continue to miss, the warrior tilts his head back and lets loose a war cry. He knows the settlers do not understand his words, but he’s certain that they can understand their meaning, this is Wampanoag land.


News of the Swansea raids quickly reaches Plymouth, spurring the colonial militia into action. More than 100 men rush to the village as quickly as they can, but they don’t arrive in time to stave off the second raid. So, the militia commanders decide to advance toward Mount Hope, where Wampanoag leader Metacomet has his home village.

The march into enemy territory is not easy, and fraught with danger. One colonial militiaman clutches his musket tightly as they close in on the Wampanoag village. He’s drenched in sweat after a long day hiking in the hot sun. But he knows now is no time to take a break. They’re deep in hostile territory, and an ambush can come at any time.

But, so far, there are no signs of an enemy attack. No Wampanoag sentries. No shouts of warning. No signs of life at all. In fact, it’s eerily quiet. Then, near the outskirts of the village, the militiaman spots a pole sticking up out of the ground with something on top. He moves closer, then flinches when he realizes what sits atop the pole is the decapitated head of a white settler.

Shaken, the militiaman carefully advances into the village. But it’s already deserted. The Wampanoag must have known they were coming. And as he pokes his head into empty buildings, the militiaman spots pieces of paper blowing around the village. He bends to pick one up and is enraged they're the torn and desecrated pages of the Bible. The militiaman’s anger rises. The Wampanoag must have deliberately torn up the holy book as an insult to the colonists.

With no Wampanoags left to defend their village, the militiamen set fire to every wooden hut and tent. They slaughter abandoned animals and break any tools they find. They try to leave the village uninhabitable in case Metacomet and his tribespeople return. Then, they turn and march away, leaving the village in flames.

The raids on Swansea and Mount Hope will be the first acts of King Philip’s War. Over the next six months, fighting between the Wampanoags and the colonists will escalate. Soon, other native tribes will also be drawn into the conflict, spreading conflict throughout New England, and plunging the region into a bloody war.

Act Two

It’s the evening of December 15th, 1675, six months into King Philip’s War.

15-year-old James Eldred sits in the darkness of an outhouse at a stone fort in Rhode Island Colony. James is part of a family of white pioneers who clear land to farm and feed the steadily expanding colonies. But the recent spread of King Philip’s War has driven James and his family away from their home.

Since Metacomet ordered his tribesmen to attack Swansea six months ago, the native warbands and colonial militias have launched dozens of raids on each other’s settlements. Hundreds of lives have been lost on both sides in an escalating conflict. Many of the other native tribes chose to ally with Metacomet and the Wampanoag, but the Narragansetts who live in this part of Rhode Island chose to remain neutral.

However, the colonial authorities suspect that the Narragansetts are harboring fugitive Wampanoags in their villages. So the colonists launched strikes on the Narragansett villages. Worried that the tribe will now seek revenge, James and his family decided to seek sanctuary with the small garrison at this blockhouse.

As James finishes up in the latrine, he opens the door of the outhouse and starts to head back toward the fort. But before he can make it back, a blood-curdling scream breaks the evening silence. James freezes as he hears more screams and shouts, the sound of an assault. He peers around the corner of the outhouse and sees several Narragansett warriors as they rush into the fort.

James isn’t sure what to do. His family is in the blockhouse of the fort. But he’s unarmed and he has no way to defend himself or anyone else. But another scream spurs him into action. He knows he won’t be able to do anything to stop the attack. But maybe, he might be able to summon help.

James breaks into a run. He prays the darkness will hide his movements. But a shout behind him lets James know that he’s been seen. His heart lurches into his throat, but he keeps running until he reaches a stream he knows will lead him to the nearest colonial settlement. As he approaches the water, he pauses and listens, straining to hear whether he’s being followed. And soon, he hears footsteps crashing through the nearby undergrowth.

James sets off running again, sprinting as fast as he can. The moonlight is dim and James struggles to find his way. He trips over roots and stumbles over rocks. But when he falls, he gets straight back up and keeps going. He knows he’s running for his life, and he can still hear someone following him, seeming to be getting ever closer. James's panic deepens when he looks back and sees a Narragansett warrior chasing him.

James turns his gaze back in front of him and continues racing forward. A little further on, James runs past a tree just as something whacks against its trunk, a tomahawk clatters to the ground – the Narragansett warrior’s throw just missed him. James feels his adrenaline spike, and spur to run even faster.

But, soon, James begins to tire. As he slows, the Narragansett warrior gets closer and closer. Until, eventually, James feels a heavy weight leap onto his back. He crashes to the ground as the warrior tackles him and draws a knife from his belt.

James kicks and screams, striking the kneeling Narragansett on the nose. The warrior is momentarily stunned and drops his blade. James reaches out and grabs it, thrusting it into the warrior’s stomach.

The warrior howls and slumps onto the ground. James almost laughs with relief. But before he can relax, he hears somebody else running through the undergrowth, another pursuer. James jumps up and sprints away from the warrior’s body, trying to find the energy to keep going.

But the second warrior isn’t as close to him as the first. This time, James is able to look for a place to hide, and soon finds a cluster of rocks by a bend in the stream. He ducks behind them and listens as the Narragansett chaser runs right by his hiding place. James remains behind the rocks for as long as his cold, aching body will allow. Until, eventually, he is brave enough to re-emerge and begin the rest of his trek to safety.

Before long, James will reach a nearby settlement and a local militia will rush to save the inhabitants of the stone fort. But the help will come too late. The militiamen will return with the news that the Narragansetts killed every person inside the fort, including James’s family.

This attack will spur the colonists into another tit-for-tat act of retribution. In just a few days, they will set their sights on the Narragansetts’ main village. And there, the colonial militia will lead a vicious assault that will turn into a massacre, one from which the tribe may not recover. 

Act Three

It’s December 19th, 1675 in the Rhode Island colony, four days after the Narragansett attack that killed James Eldred’s family.

Captain Samuel Mosely furrows his brow as he scans the defenses surrounding a Narragansett village, searching for a gap that will let the colonial militia into the settlement. 

After the recent Narragansett attack, militia commanders from Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Plymouth Colonies surrounded the region known as the Great Swamp, near what is now Kingston, Rhode Island. The Narragansetts retreated to a village in the middle of the marsh, hoping to use the waterlogged ground to hold the colonial forces at bay. But they did not have time to build sturdy defenses or finish the wooden fence around their settlements, leaving weak spots for Captain Mosely and his militia to exploit.

Spotting a gap in the stockade, Captain Mosely signals for his men to follow him through the opening. But as they stream through, he and his men come under heavy fire. Gunshots ring out as Narragansett warriors fire muskets taken in past battles. Others shoot arrows from bows. And while men fall on both sides of him, Captain Mosely enters the village unharmed. He fires his musket at a warrior crouched by the stockade. Then he draws his sword and charges ahead, determined to bring the Narragansetts to their knees.

The Great Swamp Fight, as this battle will come to be known, will be brutal and bloody. Around 70 militiamen will be killed and over double that amount wounded by the fierce Narragansett defense. Exact figures of native casualties remain unknown. But some estimate as many as 1,000 Narragansetts perished - many of them women and children. Some Narragansett warriors will escape the attack and lead more reprisal raids across Rhode Island. But the tribe will never fully recover from this bloody massacre.

Eight months after the Great Swamp Fight, Metacomet’s death at the hands of a colonial-allied native will bring King Philip’s War to a close in a victory for the colonists. And after 14 months of fighting, the Wampanoags will be nearly wiped out. Meanwhile, the British colonists will expand their borders and push further inland, the beginning of the white settlers’ slow 200 years march west.

But victory will come at a cost. Around 1,000 colonists will die in King Philip’s War. Half of the colonial settlements will be destroyed or damaged. But no clash will be as devastating as the colonial attack that almost exterminated the Narragansetts at the Great Swamp Fight on December 19th, 1675.


Next onHistory Daily. December 20th, 1989. President George H.W. Bush launches a US invasion of Panama to depose the country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.