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The Yankee Express

The Ghosts of Great Swamp

By Thomas D’Agostino
The Great Swamp fight in Charlestown, Rhode Island was one of the most important battles of King Philip’s War. This is also known as the forgotten war as it does not appear in many scholastic history books or school curriculum which is rather unfortunate, as the conflict was the bloodiest war per capita ever fought on American soil. The Narragansetts had signed a neutral treaty with the English stating they would not get involved in the war but at the same time, felt obligated to help women and children from tribes that had been displaced during the conflict. Governor Winslow took this as a sign of treachery on the Narragansett’s part and ordered an attack upon their winter quarters.
On December 19, 1675, 1,150 English and Mohegans, with the help of a captured Narragansett named Peter, easily marched up to Conanchet’s five-acre fort in Great Swamp. At first, they found it difficult to penetrate the massive fortress until a Connecticut regiment found an opening from the rear of the fort and rushed in. The Indians immediately killed several of the English, including Captains Joseph Gardiner, Isaac Johnson and Nathaniel Davenport. The Indians, though great in numbers were mostly women, elderly men and children. They suddenly found themselves severely overpowered by the ingress of colonial militia. 
Ninety seven warriors fell that day and five hundred to one thousand women, children and other non-combatants were mercilessly slain. Most of the Narragansetts were killed, taken prisoner or ran into the woods where they succumbed to hunger or the elements. The brutal battle almost totally annihilated the Narragansett tribe. Upon retreat, the militia set the camp ablaze. The colonists, although victorious in the battle suffered greatly as well, having lost seventy men and one hundred and fifty wounded. Several of the casualties were English officers who fell early during this fight as they led the charge toward the fortress. More of the militia succumbed to their wounds on the long march through the deep snow and cold back to Smith’s Blockhouse, now Smith’s Castle in nearby North Kingstown. 
There is a great burial ground where the casualties of war were interred and at night, the disembodied battle cries, gunshots, and screaming echoes through the hours of darkness as the spirits of those who perished in the struggle relive their last mortal moments. 
Great Swamp Management Area is now used for hiking and scouting. In the fall and winter months, hunters grace the woodland looking for game. A long catwalk spans a section of the swamp where one can meander and imagine how difficult it must have been to navigate the terrain, especially in winter. Many artifacts within the confines of the old encampment have been unearthed over the centuries such as arrowheads and musket balls. There are other artifacts, those from the other side that also linger within the management area. Ghosts of those who suffered in the skirmish are seen wandering throughout the swamp where they met their untimely fate. Warriors in full war paint and battle clothing are heard screaming battle cries and are sometimes seen flitting through the trees and brush. English militiamen and the ghosts of women and children who met a tragic end are among the spirits that still roam the swamp eternally reliving their day of infamy. Hunters, hikers and park service people all swear to the unearthly phenomena lurking among the thick within these cursed woods. As one traverses the trails and woods of Great Swamp, take in the history and never let it be repeated; there are enough ghosts in the recreational area due to the mistakes of humankind.
    One more note; Since the 1930s, Narragansett and Wampanoag people have commemorated the battle annually at the site of the massacre in a ceremony initiated by Narragansett-Wampanoag scholar Princess Red Wing that includes ritual wailing by tribal women.