Holmes: Battlefields of a forgotten war
Other than its name, First Encounter Beach gives no hint of the battle that ripped a quiet December morning in 1620.
The Pilgrims had landed first at the tip of Cape Cod, where Provincetown is now. They sent off a party of men in a smaller boat to explore the coast for a site for their settlement.
What followed was the Pilgrims' first encounter with native Americans, but it wasn't the Indians' first encounter with Europeans. They had had run-ins with traders and didn't want more.
On their way down the coast, the Pilgrim party stole some food stores from an empty Indian village. On the beach near a tidal creek now known as Herring River, they made a barricade of driftwood before camping for the night. The natives fell upon them just before dawn, screaming like banshees and showering arrows on the invaders. The English fought back with blazing muskets that soon sent the Indians running.
It was more of a skirmish than a battle, truth be told, but it was the first violence between natives and these newcomers. It wouldn't be the last.
Today, the beach in Eastham is a gentle expanse of sand and grass, swept clean twice a day by the tides. It doesn't remember last night's beach party, let alone the fight 387 years ago, and there's nothing there to remind us.
The settlers who followed those who fought here don't remember either. We prefer to dwell on a turkey dinner the Pilgrims and Indians shared a year later, during a brief truce in the buildup to the war that would drive New England's native people from the land they had inhabited for centuries.
The Great Swamp massacre
The Great Swamp, near South Kingston, R.I., is green and lush today, and the dirt roads make it more accessible than when the Narragansetts took refuge there in 1675. They had learned that the swamps were a good place to lay low, which is what the Narragansetts wanted to do.
Metacom, a chief of the Pokanoket band of Wampanoags - he was known to the English as King Philip - had started a war with the colonists. Philip was the son of Massasoit, the chief who had dined with the Pilgrims that first Thanksgiving, but disputes over guns, money and especially land - the English wanted it and the Indians thought it was theirs - had soured relations between newcomers and natives.
Under King Philip's instigation, Wampanoags and their Nipmuck allies raided settlements in Swansea, Deerfield, Middleborough and Mendon. They burned villages, took scalps and kidnapped women and children.
But the Narragansetts wanted no part of King Philip's War. They signed a treaty with Connecticut in July and with Massachusetts in September. Then they retreated to the Great Swamp, where they built a log fort that historian Nathaniel Philbrick describes as "eloquent proof of who were the true aggressors in this conflict."
"Instead of joining the Pokanokets and Nipmucks, the Narragansetts had spent the fall and winter doing everything in their power to defend themselves against an unprovoked Puritan attack," Philbrick writes in his best-seller "Mayflower."
But in December the colonists attacked anyway, aided by a deep freeze that made the impenetrable swamp easier to enter. They found a huge wooden structure with 500 or more wigwams inside, housing thousands of Indian men, women and children.
After hours of furious fighting, the English pushed their way into the fort, and drove most of the Indian warriors outside. Then they went through the settlement, setting fire to the wigwams and shooting anyone who tried to escape.
No one counted the bodies, but Philbrick cites estimates that between 350 and 600 Indians were shot or incinerated, most of them women and children.
In a poem praising the valor of the English, written shortly after the battle, Benjamin Thompson painted a grim picture:
"Sundry the flames arrest and some the blade
By bullets heaps on heaps of Indians laid
The flames like lightning in their narrow streets
Dart in the face of everyone it meets
Here might be heard an hideous Indian cry
Of wounded ones who in the wigwams fry."
Those cries don't echo through the Great Swamp today. The swamp is still there, or some semblance of it. The area where the Narragansetts' fort stood is preserved, but as a wildlife management area, not a historical site.
Somewhere there's a granite marker, erected in 1906, where the site of the fighting was, but I couldn't find it. All I could find was a fading roadside sign that reads: "Three quarters of a mile southward on an island in the Great Swamp the Narragansett Indians were decisively defeated by the united forces of the Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and Plymouth colonies December 19, 1675."
That's no way to tell the story of what historian Jill Lepore calls the Great Swamp massacre, but maybe it's another story we who followed the English settlers don't want to hear.
King Philip's end
King Philip's Pokanoket home turf was on the other side of Narragansett Bay, on Mount Hope, which today is part of Bristol, R.I. Bristol is a pleasant town that attracts a modest number of tourists and summer folk, but it makes no effort to advertise its history.
That history includes King Philip's beginning and his end. There were as many as 500 warriors living in Philip's village when fighting broke out, Philbrick writes, tending 1,000 acres of corn where Bristol's homes and shopping centers now stand.
After Wampanoag attacks on Taunton and Rehoboth in June 1675, English troops marched on Mount Hope. Along the way, they were infuriated to find pages of a desecrated Bible, then the mutilated remains of eight settlers captured in Mattapoisett. But by the time they reached the village, it was empty. King Philip and his band had escaped, fleeing in canoes across Mount Hope Bay.
A year later, after a string of defections and defeats, King Philip and his dwindling band of warriors came home to Mount Hope. There, a small party of colonials and their Indian allies finally caught up with him.
King Philip was always better at running than fighting, Philbrick writes, and he was running through the Mount Hope swamplands when a bullet shot by a native Pocasset named Alderman hit him in the heart.
One of the themes of Lepore's "The Name of War" is the contagion of savagery in time of war. The English thought themselves more noble than the Indians, and were outraged by the natives' violation of European rules of war and Puritan ethics that forbid such practices as the burning of homes, the killing of innocents and the desecration of bodies.
But by calling the Indian villages encampments and their homes wigwams, the colonists convinced themselves there was nothing immoral about burning the Narragansetts' Great Swamp fort with the women and children inside, Lepore writes. They used the Indians' brutality to justify their own.
Benjamin Church, the leader of the party that caught up with Philip, decreed that "for as much as he had caused many an Englishman's body to lie unburied and rot above ground, that not one of his bones should be buried." So King Philip was drawn and quartered, his body cut into four parts, to be scattered or given away. His head was brought back to Plymouth, where it was mounted on a pike near the entrance to the Pilgrims' fort and stayed there for years, a gruesome sentry for the colony founded by a community of faith.
What's left of King Philip at Mount Hope can be found on the grounds of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, owned by Brown University. A path through a rusted iron gate leads to a fork marked by a stone with "Metacom's Seat" painted on it. If you squint, a formation at the foot of a tall rock outcropping looks something like a chair.
From the top of that rock, Philip could look out on Mount Hope Bay, they say, watching for the advancing English. Maybe so, when Philip's peninsula was planted in corn, not the tall trees that today block the view. There are King Philip's Rocks all over New England with similar tales attached.
I wandered down another path in search of the spot where King Philip was killed, but had no luck. Then I saw a shape in the woods, and came upon a Wampanoag wigwam huddled in the pines: a sturdy dome of tree bark and saplings lashed together, part of a museum display.
A plaque nearby told a lot about how the wigwam was made. It said nothing of the story of King Philip's War, which ended somewhere nearby.
When battlefields talk
If you count casualties as a proportion of the population at the time, King Philip's War ranks as the bloodiest in American history.
It also marked a turning point in the relation of European settlers with North America's native peoples. A century and a half later, Andrew Jackson would subjugate Florida's Seminoles and drive the Cherokees from their homes on a Trail of Tears. Fifty years after that, the Plains Indians notched their last victory at Little Bighorn and suffered their final massacre at Wounded Knee.
With the help of Hollywood, most people today think the destruction of the American Indians is a story of the Old West. The story of New England's Indians is as hard to find in popular culture as their battlefields are in the woods of Rhode Island. And that is tragic.
I've been to other battlefields, from Fredericksburg to Little Bighorn, and they all have stories to tell.
In Gettysburg, you can stand on the exact spot where Robert E. Lee watched Pickett's Charge. You can see the copse of trees where the highwater mark of the Confederacy crashed against the unyielding Union line. A statue of Lee sits on horseback at the spot where he rode out into the field to greet the retreating survivors, apologizing for his miscalculation.
They say by the end of that battle in 1863, you could walk on dead bodies from one end of the battlefield to the other, without your feet ever touching the ground. When you look over that field, you know what that means.
Every year, more than 1.5 million people visit Gettysburg National Military Park to witness again the horror and valor of that battle. They hear the stories and learn again whatever lessons the blood of 51,000 casualties offers the generations that follow.
In Concord, you can stand on a replica of the Old North Bridge where the Minutemen stood and trained their guns on the advancing British troops. Exhibits provide a minute-by-minute account of the battle that launched America's war for independence.
At the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument you can feel the wind sweeping over the plains as you trace on the landscape the movements of Custer, Reno and Sitting Bull. The story is told - and remembered.
Battlefields can provide lessons for military strategists and tears for those who remember the fallen. Who can visit the beaches of Normandy and not be humbled, the watery grave of Pearl Harbor and not be moved?
Battlefields can also provide inspiration for citizens and their leaders. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter slipped away from Camp David to take Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on a tour of the nearby Gettysburg battlefield. Then they went back to the negotiating table, where they forged a peace between Middle East enemies.
Somewhere back in time, the ground at First Encounter Beach, the Great Swamp, Mount Hope and the other battlegrounds of King Philip's War soaked up the blood of settlers and Indians whose fight opened an ethnic conflict that continued for another 200 years.
Over the years, that blood has washed away with the tides, become overgrown with weeds and been lost in the amnesia of a culture that confuses history with nostalgia. History holds lessons, and at a time when ethnic conflicts still plague the world and claim American lives, there are still lessons to be gleaned from King Philip's War.
But we only learn if history's stories are told. And on the forgotten battlefields of New England, no one is bothering to tell the story of America's first war.
Rick Holmes is opinion editor of the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.