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What if the Narragansett had won the Great Swamp Fight?

By Jeff Provine

This article was originally posted on This Day in Alternate History and the original article can be found there. Please check that blog for more like this.

Engraving depicting the colonial assault on the Narragansetts' fort in the Great Swamp Fight in December 1675

With the arrival of the first English settlers in 1620, a new player with steadily growing power came into the complex politics of the “New England” region. It was already home to several tribes, including the Wampanoags, who would serve as allies with the English. Their sachem (“high chief”) Massasoit worked tirelessly to maintain peace in a land ravaged by disease and strained resources, balancing his own power with that of the English and the Narragansetts to the south. Following Massasoit’s death, his voice of peace faded, and his youngest son Metacom arrived as sachem with a plan to re-establish Wamanoag authority in the face of the English and end an era of broken treaties, theft, oppressive laws ordering native disarmament, and executing natives under colonial jurisdiction rather than native law.

Raiding began in the summer of 1675 in what the English called “King Philip’s War” after Metacom’s Christian name. Metacom organized attacks on Swansea, Dartmouth, and Springfield. Colonists fled to the fortified ports, and farmers worked to harvest and transport their wagons under the watch of militia. The United Colonies of New England pooled their defences while other players, such as the Colony of New York and the Narragansetts, struggled to maintain neutrality.

When winter approached, many of the Wampanoags retreated toward the frontier between New York and New Englan, while others sought shelter among the Narragansetts. Colonists remained nervous, and despite the Treaty of Neutrality between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Narragansetts signed that October, the colonists decided to make a pre-emptive attack on the Narragansetts in Rhode Island before the war would likely expand next spring. That winter Governor Josiah Winslow assembled over 1,000 troops, including allies from the Pequot and Mohegan tribes, the largest Army New England had ever mustered.

The military action proved correct the warning cries of Metacom, which he had spread among the neighbouring tribes. He had used the example of historical English atrocities such as the Mystic River Massacre, which had occurred in 1637 during the Pequot War, wherein a militia led by Captain John Mason sieged a Pequot fortification with wooden palisades and set the village inside on fire. Those trying to escape the flames over the palisades were shot as they appeared. Of the hundreds of men, women, and children in the village, only five escaped.

Metacom’s diplomats had argued that this and other such massacres proved that there was no long-term solution that would allow for survival for tribes while the colonies continued to grow. Metacom’s storytellers had visited the Pequot, Mohegan, Narragansetts, and Mohawk of New York, stirring those who distrusted the colonists. While there were many natives who had converted to Christianity (known as “praying Indians”), the stories swayed many of those who had been undecided in allegiance. In August 1675, the Nipmuc joined Metacom’s side and he clearly wished to convince the Narragansetts to do the same.

The unprovoked attack by Winslow on the 19th of December 1675 only proved him right but it also largely neutralised his potential new allies because it was ruthlessly effective. The low temperatures froze the natural moat that surrounded the Narragansett encampment, allowing the colonial troops to pass easily. Fearing that war was coming, that encampment had been turned into a massive fort that occupied about 5 acres of land and initially held over a thousand people, but it was not entirely finished, an area of the fort was incomplete and the English, directed by a turncoat from among the Narragansett known only as 'Indian Peter', got in through this gap and eventually overran it after a fierce fight because the Narragansett had begun to exhaust their supply of gunpowder. The settlement was burned, its inhabitants (including women and children) killed or evicted, and most of the tribe's winter stores destroyed, the fight quickly became a massacre. The warriors and their families that did survive escaped into the frozen swamp; hundreds more died there from wounds combined with the harsh conditions.

The battle was described by James Drake as “one of the most brutal and lopsided military encounters in all of New England's history.” and it was both a critical blow to the Narragansett tribe from which they never fully recovered, and a turning point in the overall war of extermination fought between the English Colonists and the Native nations, in terms of boosting English morale and proving they were capable of winning victories, after a lot of losses. Shortly after the Great Swamp Fight, in the following February, the Mohawk people, allies of English New York and traditional enemies of the Algonquian people, launched a surprise assault against a 500-warrior band under Metacom's command which further crippled his forces. Those two blows, coming so soon after each other, were ones the Wampanoag never recovered from. Battles through the latter part of the war went largely to the New Englanders, who killed Metacom at Mount Hope in August of 1676 and hung his head at Plymouth until 1701. By the end of the war, much of the native population had died, fled, or were sold as slaves to Bermuda.

King Phillip's War was a landmark in terms of Settler-Native relations. Hundreds of “praying Indians”, Christian converts who had lived under English Law were banished and interred out of paranoia that they would side with Metacom. Likewise nations who had sided with the English during King Philip's War were often attacked for taking in refugees from the Narragansett and Wampanoag. The Pennacook were, for instance, betrayed at a peace feast with the English and either killed or sold into the slavery. The war had both radicalised the English and removed limits upon their power. When the war had started, there was a balance in power between the settlers and the natives, but by the time it ended, the White Man ruled New England and natives were exterminated.

But what if it hadn't gone that way?

We often think of all Indian wars as being like that of the 1880s, where in small nations of a few thousand were hunted down and exterminated by a nation of 60 million, with the winner already decided. But that wasn't the case in the 1670s, the Wampanoags won numerous tactical victories and it was only a lack of overarching command that prevented them from converting that to an overall strategic victory. The English colonists were poorly led, poorly armed (at the beginning of the war, they had worse weapons than the natives due to being given England's worse stock, with the good stuff either kept in Europe or traded for furs with the natives) and didn't yet have the numbers advantage they did in later wars. While the English had around 6 times the number of people in New England as the Wampanoags, they had more civilians and both sides could muster about the same amount of fighting men while English reinforcements could only arrive very slowly from Europe. Nor was this a war fought on the frontiers, with the colonial heartlands untouched, more than half of New England's towns were attacked by Natives, few areas were outside of the war. The economic damage and casualty rates among White Americans in this war were proportionately much higher than the American Civil War.

England could have lost, not only to the extent that their expansion was curtailed, but to the extent that the entire enterprise of their New World colonies came undone. After all while the English won in the Southern Campaign of the War, in the Northern Campaign in Maine against the Abenaki, who had closer access to their weapon suppliers in New France, they lost handily. English presence east of the Saco River was destroyed and the English were forced to acknowledge that in the resulting treaty, which illustrates the balance of power at that early state. The English not winning King Phillip's War is probably the last chance of preventing a White America and the Great Swamp Fight is probably their last chance of losing.

So what if they did lose that battle?

The Narragansetts had advance warning about the colonial attack, thanks to spies among the Pequot and the difficulty of hiding such a large force. The English were badly equipped and lacked basic supplies and it was well known they planned to cross the frozen defensive moat for a direct assault. If Indian Peter had been a double agent who led the English into an ambush instead or if the fortress had been complete with no weak spot, things could have gone very differently. Another option is that Narragansett warriors could have spent the night before the attack drilling small holes in the ice of the moat, making it so that only a few men could walk on it at a time. When the militia marched over the ice, they would then be caught by surprise when it suddenly gave way beneath them after enough troops marched onto it. The Narragansetts could then charge out from the village, wiping out many of the militia and sending the rest to retreat in disarray, thus removing pretty much all of New England's experienced fighters from the board, meaning they must then rely on green troops afterwards.

In this scenario, news of the result of the Great Swamp Fight being yet another English loss encourages the Mohawk to remain neutral and not try and go for Metacom, so instead he spends the winter recovering without being attacked.

In the spring of 1676, attacks by the natives could then resume with new allies that include more than 2,000 Narragansett warriors under Canonchet. These march on Providence, Rhode Island Colony’s capital, and burn it. This happened in OTL, in vengeance for the Great Swamp Massacre, but here the Narragansett are stronger and the English weaker so Canonchet's men are not trapped and destroyed in the aftermath. Moreover Metacom is far stronger as well and so he can sweep through southern Massachusetts while guerrilla warfare by the Abenaki scatters settlers in the northern reaches of Massachusetts called Maine. The colonists go into disarray, many boarding overcrowded ships to sail south and others working to fortify their towns. A delegation travels to London to appeal for military aid, but the court of Charles II was battle-weary from the Third Anglo-Dutch War and far too concerned with internal religious strife to try and reinforce a colony that has been incompetently run, overly independent and openly feuding with each other (Connecticut and New York had spend 1675 on the brink of war).

The colonists at last sue for peace. A permanent border is set at the Blackstone River for the rump Massachusetts Colony, which absorbs the remains of Rhode Island and New Hampshire. As in our timeline, the threat of the English encourages the alliance and unification of native peoples through federations and an allied Algonquian Nation forms among the Abenaki and others, ranging from southern ports on Narragansen Bay and stretching north to New France on the St. Lawrence River, bordering Connecticut and New York. Through Metacom’s contacts with the Mohawk and western Algonquins, he serves as a mediator to secure a growing alliance that comes to rival French and English in the region. New English colonists, being well aware of the horror stories of this war, prefer instead to settle southward, challenging Spanish control, while French interest in the western hemisphere fades when the fur trade dies out.

The spirit of Metacom’s native alliance continues beyond the French interest, which had long supplied weapons and manufactured goods to the growing nation. Periodic wars with the English still happen, but the natives are always able to find new allies among the Dutch or Spanish until they became self-sufficient with their own foundries and ports. In this universe, North America in the 21st Century is a patchwork of native countries that bears more resemblance to modern day Africa. Along the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes region, the economic heartland of the continent, a free-trade agreement keeps the waterways busy with craft from the Algonquin, Odawa, Mississaugs, Chippewa, Iroquois and other nations.


Jeff Provine is an author who, among other works, has written a story in the Sea Lion Press anthology N'Oublions Jamais and runs the blog On this Day in Alternate History.


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