Welcome to the eighth week of Bidwell Lore! Last week we finished our series about Adonijah Bidwell and his experience at the Siege of Louisbourg. Today we are going to switch gears a bit and go further back in time to learn about King Philip’s War with guest writer and local Berkshires historian Bernard A. Drew. This essay has been adapted by Mr. Drew from a chapter in his book Henry Knox and the Revolutionary War Trail in Western Massachusetts (McFarland, 2012). We will share Part I today and then Part 2 next week where we make a link back to the Bidwell family.
Indiscriminate and belligerent European encroachment brought Indian retaliation in New England, culminating in the audacious Metacomet’s Rebellion, better known as King Philip’s War, in 1675. And the uprising came within a few scalps of pushing the English colonists out of New England. Metacomet or Metacom (called King Philip by European settlers), son of Massasoit, united Wampanoag, Naragansett, Nipmuck and Pocumtuck warriors against the interlopers and attempted to drive them from New England, if not the earth.
Native victories including a raid on Plimouth Plantation gave brief hope of success to the Native Americans, but European settlers rallied. Metacomet was killed and beheaded 12 August 1676, but empowered militiamen weren’t satisfied. The war’s final, shocking clash came three days later.
The location of the last battle of King Philip’s War is reputed to be in Great Barrington. Contemporary written accounts only suggest it was in the Housatonic River valley. This admittedly unscholarly, embellished description, is from “Talcott’s Fight,” printed in The Berkshire Courier 2 January 1889. It borrows liberally from Ephapas Hoyt’s Antiquarian Researches:
“At the foot of Church street [in Great Barrington], near the residence of Sheriff W.W. Norton, there is a lane leading to the old Indian fordway across the Housatonic. Probably few who visit Great Barrington are aware that on this spot, in the summer of 1676, a battle was fought between the Indians and a body of Puritan soldiers.”
The site was believed to be at the foot of Bridge Street, though Bridge Street didn’t exist in 1889 (much less 1676). But there are not many places along the riverbank here that would allow fording.
The newspaper continued, “the remnant of the Naragansett tribe fled westward, hoping to find an asylum with the Mohawks. The New England settlers had suffered severely from the war and were inclined to show little mercy toward their savage foes. Thirteen towns had been burned by the Indians, and every eleventh man of the colonies had fallen.
“Major John Talcott with a detachment of Connecticut militia, and a body of friendly Indians, was stationed at Westfield, then an outpost far into the wilderness. One August evening this officer was informed by scouts that the fresh trail of about two hundred Indians had just been discovered a few miles south of his post, and though his force was somewhat inferior in number, he determined to set out in pursuit. Extra ammunition and rations were dealt out to the troops, and long before sunrise Major Talcott and his entire force were moving swiftly westward.
“The Narragansetts meanwhile supposing themselves now beyond the reach of the English, proceeded more leisurely, and arriving at the ford of the Housatonic, encamped in supposed security upon the western bank. Here they were discovered by Talcott late in the afternoon of the third day’s march and as his men were fatigued by the journey, he resolved to wait till morning before making the attack, and drawing back, his soldiers bivouacked in silence.
“Early the next morning he divided his troops into two bodies, one party under a lieutenant, to pass down the river for some distance, and then by a circuitous course to place themselves on the west side of the sleeping Indians, while Talcott himself with the remainder, after slowly approaching the enemy’s camp, would open fire from across the river and charge through the ford the moment the attack commenced.
“It happened, however, that one of the hostile Indians had left the camp before dawn and had proceeded down the river to spear a few fish for the morning meal. The troops, who had been ordered to cross the stream, had succeeded after no little effort, for the water then as now was quite deep and the current swift. As they were hurrying northward upon the west bank they were discovered by the wakeful Indian, who gave the alarm, crying out, ‘Awanux! Awanux!’ The English, The English! He was instantly shot, but he saved the lives of many of his comrades. The other troops who had stealthily crept forward to the verge of the eastern bank, hearing the report of the musket, instantly poured in a volley upon the half awakened and terror-stricken savages, a few of whom recovered from their fright and resisted with the bravery which had made them famous under the terrible Philip; but these were soon overcome and twenty were captured. The remainder fled in the utmost confusion, followed by Talcott and his division. The other party did not arrive in time to engage in the conflict, but succeeded in taking some of the prisoners.
“So swiftly did the Indians flee that after a few miles the English were obliged to give up further pursuit and return to their companions who had remained at the ford, where 25 Narragansetts lay dead from the first volley, among them being the famous sachem of Quaboag. Talcott reported that many of the fugitives were severely wounded as their trail was marked with blood. The major lost but one man in the encounter, and he was a Mohegan. The wretched Narragansetts were once more heard from as they passed by Fort Albany, from whence the report was afterward brought that many died of their wounds, and some from fever and exposure.
That bloody encounter was a violent coda to a violent engagement.
“Always brutal and everywhere fierce, King Philip’s War… proved to be not only the most fatal war in all of American history, but also one of the most merciless,” in the view of historian Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (1998).
As to the Great Barrington specifics of the newspaper story, the Naragansetts and their pursuers surely traveled the Indian path from Westfield to Blandford and through the Green Woods to the Housatonic River. They were in a hurry. It was the most direct route. As to the specifics, they’re probably made up.
Next week we will finish the essay and learn about a Bidwell connection to Major Talcott.