Families like mine with roots in Puritan America invariably had ancestors in direct conflict with the native peoples they supplanted. I have not featured the Abbott branch of the tree in my posts on family history as prominently as those in my mother's line, given the rich trove of primary source material to draw from in the maternal archive. Still, my Abbott kin were original settlers in Andover, Massachusetts where my parents now make their home - returning our particular branch of the Abbott tree to its origins after a 200 year absence - and my ancestors were deeply embroiled in the signature events in the early history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Our association with the 1692 "Witch Hysteria" deserves its own post, so you shall have to wait to learn about my collateral ancestor Benjamin Abbot, an Andover witch accuser who helped send his neighbor Martha Carrier to the gallows, and others in our line who were on the receiving end of such accusations and one (Rebbecca Nurse) who was condemned as a witch and hanged. My interest here is in an earlier slaughter of innocents in which my family also played a shameful part, though sadly just one of many atrocities large and small perpetrated on both sides during King Philip's War.
In 1675, a regional conflict erupted between an alliance of New England tribes under Wampanoag sachem Metacomet (known to the colonists as King Philip) and the Plimoth, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut colonies. Rhode Island, which neither sought nor declared war with Philip, suffered greatly during the conflict, for the Narragansett of Rhode Island offered sanctuary to Wampanoag women and children which the English viewed as a violation of their neutrality. In December 1675, a 1,000 man colonial force, along with 150 Mohegan scouts, marched against the fortified Narragansett settlement deep in in a ceder swamp in present day South Kingston, Rhode Island. Among the soldiers who participated in what became known as The Great Swamp Fight were twelve men from Andover in Captain Gardiner's company, including my 8th great uncle Joseph Abbot(t).
Historian Jill Lepore describes the English attack and its aftermath:
"...a coalition of English soldiers from each of the United Colonies, aided by an Indian guide, entered the Great Swamp...where they found a palisaded fort sheltering hundreds of wigwams and, by some estimates, as many as three or four thousand Narragansetts. Most were women and children hidden in the swamp for protection during the war, along with storehouses of winter supplies. English soldiers first set fire to the wigwams and then waited as the Narragansetts began fleeing over the palisade and through its doors and windows. Then the soldiers ' ran on the very musles of thyr guns, up to the Indeans port holes: & fyred in at them, & leped over thyr brest workes, & run into theyr forte, & beat them out: & slew many of them.' The fury of the English was so great that, rather than preserve the wigwams for their own shelter, or to save the food, they burned everything and were forced to march back out of the swamp all through the night and the next several days, in driving snow, during which many English soldiers froze to death." (Lepore; The Name of War 1998: 88).
Captain Gardiner was killed in the first charge of the gate, and one report lists Joseph Abbot(t) of Andover as wounded. Two hundred of the attackers were killed or wounded, but over 1,000 Narragansett perished, most of whom were noncombatants, and the destruction of 500 wigwams and corn supplies condemned many more to starvation in the winter wilderness. The surviving Narragansett joined the war against the English.
Such slaughter was unprecedented in this war, and it made a deep impression on the English soldiers who participated. The carnage seems to have affected Joseph Abbot(t) and the other Andover men, for during the long journey home they committed an atrocity of their own.
Where the Concord River meets the Merrimack in present day Lowell, Massachusetts, there was a village of Christianized Indians called Wamesit. During the war most of the inhabitants of these "praying towns" were interred under appalling conditions on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. The Wamesits took a different path, nailing the following message to a tree that November before abandoning their town and going "towards the French" in Canada:
"As for the Island, we say there is no safety for us, because many English be not good, and may be they come to us and kill us...we are not sorry for what we leave but we are sorry for the English have driven us from our praying to god and from our teacher." (Lepore 1998: 138)
The long trek north in winter would have been impossible for the old, blind and infirm of the tribe, so these were left behind at Wamesit. And here the returning Andover soldiers found them.
Joseph Abbot(t) and his comrades may have been drunk on cider, or just inflamed by what they had seen and done in the Great Swamp Fight, but when they reached Wamesit they entered the village and burned it to the ground. The Andover men later claimed they did not know the old people were there, but those who had stayed in the village perished in the flames.
It is unclear whether any Wamesits were among the Indians who subsequently attacked Andover two months later on April 18th, 1676. Philip's Nipmuc allies had burned neighboring Chelmsford to the ground several days before, making Andover now the frontier of English settlement in the Merrimack Valley. The Abbot(t) family established a blockhouse for the security of themselves and their neighbors, to which most of the family fled when the Indians approached. Joseph Abbot(t) and his 13 year old brother Timothy, however, had been cutting elder bushes in a swampy field by the Shawsheen River and did not hear the alarm. When the Indians burst from the trees, the Abbot brothers discovered that young Timothy had mistakenly brought a horn not filled with gunpowder but with sand for whetting scythes. Joseph defended his brother with his clubbed musket, killing one of his attackers at least before he was pulled down and slain.
Timothy Abbot(t) was taken as captive to Canada but was returned gaunt and famished that August by an Indian woman, who according to Andover legend had formerly been known to his mother and treated kindly by her. A less romanticized explanation may be that at the close of hostilities, those Algonquin peoples who survived in the Massachusetts Bay and Plimoth Colonies, regardless of what part they might have played during the war, were required to produce either English captives or two heads of other warriors as security for their parole.
It was a brutal time, and many New Englanders interpreted the calamities they faced as evidence that "God had withdrawn his favor, making apparent both his terrible anger at their backsliding and their terrible vulnerability without his protection (Elinor Abbot; Our Company Increases Apace: 2007:130)." A third of the English settlements in Massachusetts were destroyed during King Philip's War and over 600 colonists lost their lives. The Algonquin of southern New England fared far worse, and only 400 Wampanoag survived the war, mostly on Cape Cod and the offshore Islands where these bands had managed to remain neutral.
Joseph Abbot(t) was by contemporary accounts an admirable young man, just 24 years old and involved in a war of survival that threatened the very foundations of his world. He participated in a savage campaign of extermination in the Great Swamp Fight in which his side suffered 20% casualties and his company (the Sixth Massachusetts) lost its Captain, 1st Lieutenant and 5 others killed and 10 wounded. He had done and seen too much to remain unchanged by the experience, and so he committed an atrocity at Wamesit in which the only Indians killed were Christian, non-combatant, old and sick. From this great distance one can see how it happened. There were decent young men like him at My Lai, too.