The Great Swamp Fight on December 19, 1675 was the most significant battle of King Philip’s War, what has been called the bloodiest (per capita) conflict in the history of America. It was a critical blow to the Narragansett tribe from which they never fully recovered. In April 1676, the Narragansett were completely defeated when the Wampanoag sachem Metacom was shot in the heart by John Alderman, a Native American soldier. The Narragansett tribe was not recognized by the Federal Government until 1983 and today includes 2,400 members.
As I worked out our family genealogy, the Great Swamp Fight kept appearing again and again. Our family seems to have an especially intimate relationship with this battle, but I’m beginning to think that every family was equally involved. Nine direct ancestors participated, four were officers and one was killed. 27 close relatives were part of the fight of whom 6 were officers, six were killed or died of their wounds and six were wounded and survived. Of the three small regiments involved, eleven officers were our ancestors or their children.
In January 1676, Joshua Tefft was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smith’s Castle in Wickford, Rhode Island He was an English colonist who had fought on the side of the Narragansett during the Great Swamp Fight.
There is documentary evidence that both Joshua Tefft and his brother Samuel spoke the native Algonquin language. Accounts after battle say Joshua married an Indian woman, a Wampanoag. For fourteen years the Tefft family lived peacefully with their Narragansett neighbors, until the outbreak of King Philip’s War in 1675. While the Tefft family sought safety on Aquidneck Island, Joshua remained behind to care for the cattle.
Joshua Tefft’s farm was only two miles from the Narragansett stronghold in the Great Swamp. Tefft claimed that he had been taken captive by the Narragansett—his life spared only on the condition that he serve as their slave. However, an Indian woman taken captive by the English of the United Colonies reported that Joshua was their “encourager and conductor.”
Captain Oliver of Massachusetts reported that Joshua Tefft had “shot 20 times at us in the swamp. Records indicate that Joshua wounded Captain Nathaniel Seely of Connecticut, who subsequently died. An Indian spy reported that Joshua, “did them good service & kild & woonded 5 or 6 English in that fight & before they wold trust him hee had kild a miller an English man at Narragansett and brought his scalpe to them.”
Yet, Joshua claimed that “Himselfe had no Arms at all” at his interrogation recorded by Roger Williams in Providence He was subsequently extradited to Wickford into the custody of General Josiah Winslow, Governor of Plymouth, and Richard Smith on January 16, 1676. Two days later at Smith’s garrison, Joshua was executed for high treason, the only Englishman to suffer such a fate in all New England history. Major William Bradford of Plymouth wrote: “The Englishman that was taken had his doom yesterday, to be hanged and quartered; which was done effectually.”
As set out in the Incorporation of Providence Plantations in 1647, the following provision details the process, presumed to have been used against Joshua Tefft at Smith’s Castle. Frequently, the victim’s body or head was publicly displayed as a warning to others.
For high treason, if a man, he being accused by two lawful witnesses or accusers, shall be drawn upon a hurdell unto the place of execution, and there shall be hanged by the neck, cut down alive, his entrails and privie members cut from him and burned in his view; then shall his head be cut off and his body quartered; his lands and his goods all forfeited.
What happened after Joshua Tefft’s execution seems to suggest that he was not guilty of high treason, but merely of seeking to preserve his own life and property under duress. The Rhode Island government swiftly admonished the soldiers of the United Colonies as unwelcome intruders, but there was little else that they could do.
After the war, the colonial government of Rhode Island took an almost solicitous posture towards the Tefft family. Joshua’s brother, Samuel Tefft, and his brother-in-law, the future Governor Joseph Jenkes, became freemen of the colony in 1677 In 1681, Joshua’s orphan son, Peter Tefft, was appointed three guardians: Jireh Bull, Justice of the Peace of Pettaquamscutt; the prominent John Greene of Warwick, who later became deputy governor of Rhode Island; and Peter’s uncle, Samuel Tefft. The guardianship order made it clear that Peter, a nine year old boy in 1681, was a landowner apparently having right to all the possessions of his father, even though Joshua was executed as a felon by Puritan authorities, and even though colonial law required a convicted traitor’s lands and goods to be forfeited.
The Tefft Historical Park consists of at least five loci with American Indian artifact deposition, and multiple loci representing historic period occupation between the mid-17th to early 20th century.