Utah War 1857-1858: Mormon Militarism & The War for Deseret

The conflict in Utah and parts of Western Wyoming from 1857-1858 between the Mormon militias of Brigham Young’s Church of Latter Day Saints, LDS, and the American Federal government & US Army, is one of the most unique conflicts in the study of 19th century warfare and diplomacy because it was very much a war of religion, culture, and of the shifting political and ideological union of the states and territories of the United States.

The Utah War or the Mormon Rebellion as the US government viewed it was most certainly influenced by religion both was known and speculated about the Mormon religion and its followers from a US, Anglo-Christian tradition. Furthermore the Mormons dating back to their early history had a good reason to distrust and fear ‘Gentile’ rule. Mormons were not unaccustomed to prejudice and targeted violence throughout 1830s into 1850 and as result they had become militarized to certain extent before and after the Utah War. After Joseph Smith Jr. the Prophet and founder of the Church moved to NauvooIllinois the first Mormon experiment in fielding a standing army resulted in the creation of the Nauvoo Legion.

The Legion in Illinois around 1844

The Nauvoo Legion was a Illinois state militia which was supplied and funded by Joseph Smith and the Church. Unlike other militias in just about every other state or territory the militia of Nauvoo was immaculately dressed in the best uniforms & outfitted with the best weapons & supplies that money could buy. The Legion attracted non-Mormons as well and grew to have 5,000 men or more in its ranks.

Relatively excellent (and perhaps shrewd) Mormon capital & financial skills would lead to subsequent economic prosperity for the Church when the LDS and its followers went West. In Illinois this prosperity was short lived following the arrest and subsequent murder of Smith and his brother by an anti-Mormon lynch mob. The death of the Prophet in Illinois 1844 was the precursor to this new type of LDS militarism centered on the Church-run militia under the overall command of either an elder member or the President of the Church himself. Historians have pointed to the Nauvoo Legion’s success as being partly to blame for Smith’s death and the Mormon exodus.

Joseph Smith reviewing the Nauvoo Legion.
An Interesting article about his sword and where it is today.

This type of militia system was useful for defense in the Western territories because of the fears of Native American attacks and banditry. However this system showed its susceptibilities when war broke out between the American government and the Saints as they referred to themselves in the militias. Eventually the Nauvoo Legion was reestablished serving throughout the Utah War, as home guards during the Civil War, and then as Indian Fighters against the Navajo in the 1860's and 1870's.

Utah Nauvoo Legion circa 1865-1870

15th President of America at this time James Buchanan (b.1791-1868) ordered a military force eventually commanded by General Albert Sidney Johnston, known for his death fighting for the Confederacy at the Battle of Shiloh (TN) in 1862, to march on the Utah Territory in 1857. A territory which was only a fraction of what had been originally a much larger Mormon planned state that was to be called the Deseret in the year 1849.

Map of the State Deseret imposed on the boundaries of the Utah Territory and the modern boundaries. (BYU)

Deseret never materialized and the Utah territory was established in 1850 after the LDS settled on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. This new Mormon ‘Zion’ was under the control of Brigham Young with implied and almost unchecked Church control, despite being a territory of the Federal government and therefore subject to US government control.

This was certainly at the heart of the issue which led to the US-centric view that this was an armed revolt, like the Shays 1786-1787 or Whiskey rebellions of 1791-1794. Looking back we can draw parallels to the Utah War and the American Civil War; not in how this short and relatively bloodless war was fought but in why it was fought as David L. Bigler has done in his book The Mormon Rebellion: America's First Civil 1857-1858 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011).

Albert Sidney Johnston shortly before his death in 1862 as the 
commander of the Confederate Army in the West

Sherman L. Fleek, Professor and US Army, Retired, summarizes the start of hostilities as follows:
“The two main factors that caused the Utah War can best be summarized as, first, the differences in policies between federal and Church authorities concerning relations with the Utah Indians. The second consisted of Americans’ absolute fear of Mormon power and religious teachings, including practices such as polygamy, combined with the fear of perceived Mormon vigilantism and oppression of non-Mormons.”

Part of the Native American-Mormon-US conflict was played out in the controversial events even to this day of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in September 1857. What is discernible is that around 120 settlers in the Baker-Fancher party from Arkansas were massacred in repeated attacks by Mormon militiamen disguised as Native Americans and their Paiute tribe allies. The Mormon overtures to theese tribes who they generally had good relations with, was at least part of the reason for the later occupation of Utah by the US army. The quagmire that was the US Army expedition which originally worried so many in the LDS leadership, came to be known as Buchanan’s Blunder thereafter. Johnston’s army suffered greatly on the long and disorganized march from Wyoming into Utah loosing men and many animals to the blizzard and minus degree temperatures when he insisted on making a punitive expedition to reach Utah.

Massacre of the Baker-Fancher party, Mountain Meadows 1857

The Mormons of Utah feared for the worst and prepared for a confrontation, echoed in Brigham Young’s mobilization proclamation: “We are invaded by a hostile force who are evidently assailing us to accomplish our overthrow and destruction. . . . Our opponents have availed themselves of prejudice existing against us because of our religious faith, to send out a formidable host to accomplish our destruction. . . . (I order) that all the forces in said Territory hold themselves in readiness to march, at a moment's notice, to repel any and all such invasion.

The Utah War developed into a war of sporadic skirmishing and small scale ambushes and raids. This benefited the very small number of Mormon forces who did actually exchange fire with the US army during the conflict, using some tactics resembling what we now refer to as guerrilla or insurgent warfare Casualties were low on both sides with almost every single US army casualty coming by way of exposure, disease & sickness, or accident. In fact many sources note that the Mormon militias were highly defensive and had orders to harass, chase off or steal the Federal horses and cattle to impend the march on Salt Lake City. In one case they ambushed a supply trained and burned many US army wagons and supplies in a undetected
lightning strike raid.

Don Stiver's depiction of Johnston's march through Wyoming (BYU)

In the end not one pitched battle was fought from May 1857 to July 1858 as the US Army could not, and did not engage Mormon militiamen who they almost never saw or came in contact with. Johnston did eventually march on Salt Lake City peacefully establishing a fort outside the city after most of the Mormons had left the city. He allegedly remarked to one of his officers that he "would give up his plantation for a chance to bombard the city for 15 minutes." Despite mobilization the Mormons avoided conflict and wisely so; losing very few men or civilians without incurring the wrath of an occupying army who was openly defied. The militiamen who were relatively small in number yet still vastly outnumbering the occupying Army merely faded back into civilian life as farmers, traders, merchants, and church clergymen, or whatever their daily trade or profession was before the "war' had broken.

Brigham Young and the Church leaders claimed that no rebellion had taken place; mitigating at least some of the anti-Mormon rhetoric and fire-eaters in the Army and in Washington pushing for results and punishment for the Mormons after the conflict. This helped ensure a peace settlement with President Buchanan and made sure that the LDS would remain in power within the Federal governments’ territorial law. Young and his men were pardoned easing Utah's entrance to a status officially under Federal control.

Suggested Further Reading


German Peasants War 1524-1526: Landsknechts and the Swabian League

In the summer of 1524 near the Black Forest in what is today Stühlingen, Baden-Wurttemberg in southern Germany, one of the largest and most significant popular uprisings of recorded history in the middle and renaissance ages began. A quibble between peasants and the ruling countess in the province of Swabia led to a greater revolt of a loosely confederated Serf/Peasant alliance that became the catalyst for great conflict, upheaval, and civil war in the early Renaissance age in the central European Germanic kingdoms associated with the Swabian League. The league was lead by Emperor Charles V; locked in continuous series of campaigns with the Italians throughout his reign from 1519-1556.

Period drawing, Landsknechts depicted with eerie symbolism 

The king appointed his brother and successor, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (sharing the same name of his late ancestor, who’s assassination sparked the Great War in 1914) to crush the rebellion in mostly the south & southwest of Swabian League territory. The Peasants Rebellion eventually ignited a near national revolution with hundreds of thousands fighting for the rights of religious and social liberty in Southwestern Germany.

For the Swabian League forces it was a war to defend property, the greater social order & culture, and also a secondary rebellion, between disaffected lower nobles and knights, many of whom were or who were at one time employed as landsknecht mercenaries, professional, well armed and trained soldiers from within and outside Austro-German provinces. Rather ironically the title of the Peasants War or Peasants Rebellion is somewhat misleading because many of the enemy rebel forces were laborers, artisans, or lower gentry. Many of the fighting men on both were outlaw knights, mercenaries and former soldiers from Switzerland and the other German kingdoms. The infrequent regional or national makeup of the rebels was most evident especially in the ever-lacking leadership of the Peasants movement itself.

Radical theologian, Protestant reformer, and leader of the 'Rainbow' band Thomas Müntzer

One of the early participants in the rebellion which opened up the conflict into a larger war was the disinherited Duke Ulrich of Württemberg, fighting with the help of peasant levies and with distraction of the Swabian League reeling from peasant risings throughout the kingdom. Many of these men certainly had no affiliation with the Peasants movement and though they tolerated, though most certainly disagreed and personally despised those of lower social class. Of the most important leaders was a man essentially thrust into a military role without any previous experience, the radical theologian and reformer Thomas Müntzer (b.1488-1525).

Many of the peasant bands small or large (most numbering from around 300-500 to as large as 5,000-<10,000) were indeed led and commanded by men with little or no military experience, who were elected or assumed command because the men under them thought they were best suited, a radical idea. However some bands did receive the services of less than savory types such as ruthless mercenaries, free lancer landsknechts who fought for payment and plunderalso  former robber knights who had taken to the cause for personal or culutural reasons.

One knight of noble birth and status who surprisingly threw his lot in with the Peasants was Sir Gottfried, Götz von Berlichingen (b.1480- 1562), a knight known alternatively as Götz of the Iron Hand, because he wore a prosthetic iron gauntlet after loosing his sword hand in the year 1504 at the Siege of Landshu whilst in the service of the Bavarian Duke Albert IV. Ironically he too had helped crush the earlier Peasants Rebellion of the Poor Conrad band, the truth being that the Peasants rebellion was fought by many men who were not indeed peasants at all. This greater period from dating back as far as the 1480’s during the tail end of England’s Wars of the Roses 1400-1499. In the same time-frame many of the German states can were rife with similar princely wars, upheavals, and civil conflicts.

Knight and at one time rebel commander, Götz of the Iron Hand

However the influence of the peasantry and the oppressed serf classes on the overall conflict cannot be overlooked, as highlighted by the many 1930's-1980’s contemporary, and more recent histories & narratives, from Frederick Engels 1850, The Peasant War in Germanyto modern socio-religious and military studies of the conflict, which examine the conflict through alternative viewpoints. Engel’s originals study has since become a classic in revolutionary or Marxist historical revisionism, alongside perhaps similar comparative studies of the English Civil War, like historian Christopher Hill’s (b.1912-2003) The English Revolution 1640 (1940, Lawrence & Wishart).

Warfare & the Peasants War

Chronologically the first organized rebellion of the Peasants movement against Swabian League rule begins from October 1524 to the winter of 1525, as Peasant armies from Tyrol in the South to Upper Swabia in the North mobilized for total war with the League’s forces. Looting and sacking keeps, manors, or monasteries was common and peasants often overwhelmed lightly defended keeps of the rich upper class where treasures with most certainly plundered in great abundance.

One of the first pitched battles of the German Peasants War was the Battle of Leipheim April 1525. Coupled with Sir George Truchsess and the Swabian League’s campaign in Northern (Upper) Swabia, and the revolts in south and in the Black Forest, the Swabian League military fought a two front campaign against a much larger force that was most certainly ill trained and ill equipped to face a more modern, trained, and disciplined force.

Period interpretation of a landsknecht mercenary who could have fought for either side

Though no precise numbers can be ascertained anywhere between 100,000-350,000 peasants may have mobilized between 1525-1526, especially if one counts the rebellions of the early 1500’s including the revolts of Poor Conrad’s band against Duke Ulrich of Württemberg in 1514 and other revolts around Stuttgart and the Rhine valley in the prelude to the Peasants War in 1524. The military of the Swabian League depended heavily on the feudal service of lowly to middle social strata knights to form the ‘vanguard’ of their military force, centered around the mounted soldier who could fight dressed in full or half armor, fighting with a heavy sword.

Pikemen in a more ‘Swiss’ style were also most common and landsknechts, mounted and infantry, were key to the advanced military prowess of the Swabian League forces, which outclassed the Peasants in every respect. The great problem for the Swabian League was whether or not they could find the coin to finance these landsknechts; many of whom held little allegiance to the League. If they were not paid and compensated with plunder for their service they would likely mutiny thus threatening the resistance to the rebellion.

Against the peasant armies who fought mostly unarmored with improvised (farm & industrial tools) or looted weapons, with little or no artillery, the path to victory was simple for the Swabian League commanders like ‘Bauernjörg’ Sir Truchsess- break the peasant ranks with cannon and then with steel in a charge that kills or scatters them in one fell, decisive action. This tactic proved throughout the war to be the decisive factor in defeating the more numerous but scattered and often independent Peasant bands. Those who were captured faced certain execution and possible torture at times, the dukes and princes of this era taking a very blooded minded stance toward the rebels.

Battle of Frankenhausen 1525: The Conclusion & Greater Legacy of the German Peasants Revolt

Though it was not the final battle or skirmish of the war, the Battle of Frankenhausen was one of the most decisive and overall crushing defeats of the peasants at the hands of the Swabian League throughout the rebellion. The battle fought in Thuringia in May of 1525 broke the peasants will and means to field an army. It was here that the ‘Rainbow’ band of reformers, radicals, and landsknechts under Thomas Müntzer were defeated, their wagon/war van besieged, and eventually stormed by the combined armies of Hesse-Brunswick and George the Duke of Saxony. Despite the initial safety of the laager (chained wagons formed in a defensible oval or circle) formation, a the ferocious charge by the Swabian forces many of whom were landsknechts themselves, broke the Peasant line capturing Müntzer.

At Frankenhausen, Müntzer’s band was finally defeated with heavy casualties by the Swabian League army of Saxony intent on defeating and capturing this dangerous rebel leader. Müntzer was dragged from the safety of the wagon laager to a dungeon after the battle, humiliated and utterly defeated. The rebel leader was then tortured by his Swabian League captors before being executed in late May of 1525, a historically important religious martyr in the Catholic-Christendom (Protestant) reformation period

Sir George Truchsess III, known as Bauernjörg, The Scourge of the Peasants

By 1526 with perhaps 75,000 or more casualties in the war already, uprisings in Tyrol were crushed yet again and the Peasants War had all but ended in a bloody Swabian League victory. In concluding a narrative of the Peasants Rebellion one must be led to believe that it as a general uprising and military campaign. However the uprising of the peasants bands succeeded in spawning a greater declaration of human rights and religious reformation, as well as a new conscious of personal rights and freedoms. 

The Peasants War is notable and perhaps today infamous because of religious implications behind much of the conflict. Indeed much of religious teachings bordered on the occult, touting apocalyptic visions in the name of the Protestant reformation. These were essentially radicalist ideologies which in-turn spawned a massive militia and peasants upheaval in Renaissance Germany and Austria during the period. Besides the important religious reformation and societal radicalism of the individual religious leaders during the rebellion, the peasant combatants of this period also tried to enforce idealized Laws of War predating modern codes enforced by the United Nations and other institutions today by centuries.

Notable Peasant rebel groups

‘Poor Conrad’ band 1514- Failed Revolt against the Duke Ulrich of Württemberg led by the peasantry in Rems ValleyStuttgart

The Allgäu band

‘Baltringer Haufen', Baltringen band- Active December 1524-1525, known for making a series of demands to abolish serfdom and increase living standards.

Christian Brotherhood-Formed by the Upper Swabia peasant bands, including Allgäu, Baltringen, and Thuringian in March 1525.

The ‘Lake’ bands-Peasant army of the villages, manors, forests that surrounded Lake Constance.

Müntzer’s ‘Rainbow’ Thuringian band-Led by the populist radical anti-Lutheran but pro-reform theologian Thomas Müntzer. One of the leading bands in any of the German regions during the great rebellion of 1524-1525.

Swabian League lords and armies
   War council and supreme command headquarters at Ulm, on the River Danube, Baden-Württemberg

Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, Ferdinand I (b.1503-1564), King of Hungary & Bohemia. Archduke of Austria, 1521-1564, Holy Roman Emperor 1531-1564. Fought a great war with the Ottoman Empire for most of his reign as Holy Roman Emperor.

Ferdinand I

George Truchsess of Waldburg (b.1488-1531)-Governor of Waldburg, Austria, a knight, lord, and general of the Swabian League armies during the German Peasants War. Nicknamed Bauernjörg, meaning the scourge of the peasants, he was literally the ‘Field Marshall’ of the Swabian League armies during the conflict.

George Duke of Saxony (b.1471-1539), Son of Albert III, Duke of Saxony. Known as George the Bearded, opponent of the Reformation who commanded Swabian League forces at the Battle of Frankenhausen.

George, Duke of Saxony


New England Ablaze: King Philips' War, 1675-1676

King Philips' War, fought from 1675-1676 in the region known as New England in the Northeastern United States, predominately in the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, was one of the most devastating and bloody wars in America's early colonial history. Named for the powerful and greatly revered chief Metacomet (b.1676), the conflict precipitated the virtual extinction of New England's greatly varied and long established Native American tribes in favor of the rapidly growing American colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Two great figures dominate the military study of King Philips' War in New England, colonial officer and the "First American Ranger" Captain Benjamin Church (b.1639-1718) of the Plymouth Colony, what is today South Shore and Cape Cod of the state of Massachusetts, and the engimatic and greatly respected Wampanoag sachem (chief) Metacomet (d.1676) known to the colonists of the time as King Philip (Metacom), the most revered leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy. Son of sachem Massasoit, Metacomet was the paramount leader of the Wampanoag people who stretched throughout southern New England from Western Massachusetts into Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southern Massachusetts on the Atlantic Ocean. From Mount Hope Bay on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Metacomet ruled over a dwindling but still powerful nation of differing native tribes and bands.

Color etching depicting sachem Metacomet, the "King of Mount Hope", engraved by Paul Revere 1772


Plymouth was apart of a loose confederation (United Colonies) of New England territories and colonies which included Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut Colony, and the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, all of whom had banded together to protect New England territory after war broke out with the powerful Wampanoag Confederacy. The native tribes of New England before King Philips' War consisted of the Narragansetts in Rhode Island and parts of southern Connecticut, the Wampanoag of Massachusetts, the Pocumtucs in western Massachusetts, the Nipmuc in what is today mostly Worcester county (central Massachusetts), amongst several other smaller tribal bands. In Connecticut the Pequot and Mohegan had assimilated following the Pequot War and become allies of the colonial government

Plymouth born Rhode Island officer Capt. Benjamin Church

The Native populace of New England had suffered continually both due to the indirect and direct actions of the English colonists throughout the region from 1630-1675. Diseases brought by the large Pilgrim and Puritan emigrations to the Massachusetts colonies killed tens of thousands in less than a decade. Culturally their vast differences between the white men and the Native American tribes of New England were exacerbated out of indifference, ignorance, and at times pure malice and greed on the part of the New Englanders. The first major conflict between the two sides took place in 1636-1638 during the Pequot War. 

Fought predominately in Rhode Island and Connecticut, this conflict saw the near complete eradication of the Pequots following the Mystic massacre of 1637 in which 400-700 Pequot men, women, and children were killed by a force of New England militia and Narragansett indians. Pequot resistance ended when their chief Sassacus who escaped the massacre was murdered by Mohawk indians and the last Pequot warriors in arms were defeated in Fairfield, Connecticut in the Great Swamp Fight of 1637. A year later the Treaty of Hartford ended inter Colonial-Indian warfare for nearly forty years.

Battle between colonial militia and Pequot Indians during the Pequot War, 1646-1648

Following the dreadful conclusion to the Pequot War, relations between the Native tribes and New Englanders did not improve. Native males were underemployed and slowly loosing their warrior identities in the lead-up to conflict; something King Philip and his more hawkish chieftains tried to exploit. Both hunting lands and agricultural lands were being lost continuously as the land approved for use by the tribes of New England shrunk further into the west and north. Many living in the immediate vicinity of New England towns and cities detested being subjected to the strict and utterly confusing Puritan law system which could fine and in some cases imprison them for endless trivial offenses. 

New England natives could not legally own or purchase firearms until 1665-a "privilege" frequently taken away when the colonials became nervous about their "red skinned" neighbors intentions. All of these facts betrayed the relative trust and friendship between many New England colonials and Indians before King Philips' War began. In fact  inter-European/Native trade was common and was indeed a staple of colonial economics during this period. Metacomet himself owned tribal and "English" lands in Massachusetts and enjoyed trading and hoarding a variety of finely made English goods including steel knifes, buttons, and cloth jackets.

New England tribal distributions during the time of King Philips War

Act I

King Philip’s War came about after further English colonial encroachment on tribal lands in New England. Another major factor was the belief that Metacomet’s brother, Wamsutta, had been killed perhaps by poison after meeting with colonial representatives in 1662. Sometime in the winter of 1675, one of Metacomet's interpreters John Sassamon went missing and was later found murdered. It was known by few among the colonials, Benjamin Church among them, that the Wampanoags and their allies were clandestinely preparing for total war with the English. Evidently when Sassamon learned of this he went to Massachusetts authorities to tell them of the news. By the time Sassamon's murderers were arrested and later executed, the tribal confederacy of Wampanoag and Nipmuc amongst others had already begun attacking settlements and killing colonial homesteaders from June-November 1675. Frequent raids were carried out throughout MassachusettsRhode Island, and Connecticut with several cities burned and put under siege as a result of the conflict. Captain Benjamin Church left his quiet coastal home at Little Compton, Rhode Island in June of 1675 with the area's militia to search for Metacomet and hostile native tribes throughout Rhode Island and parts of southern Massachusetts.

Attack on Church's company at Tiverton during the Battle of Peas Field 8 July 1675

The first major engagement of King Philip's War was fought at Fogland Point nearby the Almy's Peas Field, known colloquially as the Battle of Peas Field as a result. Captain Benjamin Church and a company of 30 soldiers stumbled upon a large war party near the Fogland Point in what is today Tiverton, Rhode Island. They fought desperately against nearly 300 Indians for two hours, nearly overtaken several times until rescued by a vessel commanded by Captain Roger Goulding, only sustaining minor casualties in the heated attack on the beach. In early August of 1675 the town of Brookfield, Massachusetts was put under siege by Nipmuck natives led by the warriors Muttaump and Matoonas. Known also as Wheeler's Surprise or Wheeler Ambush, the town was raided and then the Nipmuck attempted to burn the 75 inhabitants and a Massachusetts Bay platoon of 40 men led by Capt. Thomas Wheeler alive in the town's fortified manor house. For three days and two nights the Nipmuck continually attempted to immolate the blockhouse and/or drive the colonials from the safety of the manor. Wheeler's men killed half a dozen or more of the Nipmuck by the time Major Simon Willard and 48 Massachusetts Bay troopers came to their rescue and chased the Nipmuck band off.

On the first day of September, Nipmuck warriors attacked again in north-central Massachusetts, killing and scalping a man in Deerfield and then slaying eight more homesteaders fifteen miles north in Northfield. Three days later a mounted detachment of 36 Massachusetts cavalry led by Capt. Richard Beers was ambushed outside Northfield and massacred. Capt. Beers and four of his men made a last stand atop what later came to be known as Beers Mountain before they were killed by native musket balls. The slain Massachusetts troopers were beheaded by the Nipmucks who had become drunk on pilfered rum. Several survivors of the doomed columns' supply train made it back to the settlement of Hadley to report the bloody massacre. Connecticut Major Robert Treat evacuated the Northfield settlers the next day. As his mounted column and the refugees of Northfield rode down the trail they noticed and despaired over the grotesque heads of their slain countrymen atop pikes lining the trail south.

King Philips War Campaign Map, 1675-1676

Hadley to the south became a military garrison and headquarters as well as a safe haven for the wars' refugees. Northwestern Massachusetts remained under siege throughout the harvest threatening the food supply of the now swollen Hadley garrison. A Massachusetts Bay colony militia column of 80 men led by Capt. Thomas Lathrop was sent in late September to retrieve grain, corn, and wheat from the town of Deerfield's harvest. The militia set forth at a slow pace north in a long running wagon train, some men having placed their weapons in the carts meant to transport the grain back to Hadley. Forgetting even rudimentary lessons about how their native opponents liked to fight-no scouts rode ahead nor were pickets posted on their flanks, the Lathrop column was massacred in the ensuing rout. Some were filled with arrows or clubbed and then scalped following their retreat into the forest after the ambush. A small piddling stream running through a swampy area known as the Muddy Brook soon became choked with dead bodies, blood, and gore-hence, the Bloody Brook Ambush. Only five or so men lived to tell the tale of the massacre.

The Ambush at Bloody Brook, South Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 1675

In October the Pocumtuc launched a brazen attack on their literal neighbors in Springfield when they poured out of their fort on Long Hill in what is today Springfield's south end neighborhood and burnt the town down. They killed two Massachusetts Bay colony officers before sacking the town and scattering its inhabitants. Many were wounded and thousands of dollars in property lost as a result of the Springfield attack. Dozens more would have been slain or taken captive had not Toto, known to history as Toto the Windsor Indian, ran nearly twenty miles from Windsor, Connecticut to Springfield in order to warm them of the impending attack. The burning of Springfield had been particularly shocking because the Pocumtuc people had been at peace with the settlers of Western Massachusetts and the Pioneer Valley for many years beforehand and had essentially no provocation to attack Springfield.

The tide of war turned in the colonists favor following the Great Swamp Fight (or Great Swamp Massacre) of over 300 Narragansett at their winter lodgings in December 1675. Governor of the Plymouth colony and General of the United New England militia Josiah Winslow (b.1628-1680), led the New England army of around 1000 Englishmen and another 150-200 allied natives in person along with a slew of officers from all the colonies. Their target was the winter redoubt of sachem Canonchet in what is today South Kingstown, Rhode Island.

Colonial militia attack a native fort during King Philips' War

Canonchet had created a veritable refuge camp and colony in the middle of the frozen swamp. In this winter fort, 2,000-3,000 mostly women and children including 800-1,000 warriors kept bundled and hidden from the snowy and cold New England winter. The assault began on the morning of 19 December when Massachusetts men stormed across the frozen swamp and amazingly penetrated the large but lightly defended fort in their first attempt. Massachusetts militia captains Isaac Johnson, Davenport, and Joseph Gardiner were all slain by native New England sharpshooters in the first assault. Further Plymouth and Connecticut reinforcements were quickly shot down as well, killed or mortally wounded in the snow where they fell. Many militia members froze or attempted to retreat when there officers had been mortally wounded or slain until Major Appleton of Massachusetts rallied them to continue the assault through the breach in the fort.

The Great Swamp Fight, December 1675

Act II

The Great Swamp Fight was to be the largest battle of the conflict and the most significant colonial victory as well. Benjamin Church was given permission by Governor Winslow to reconnoiter the fight for the fort with a handful of men, his rangers killed several Wampanoag before charging into the fort to take part in the prodigious slaughter now ensuing from within. Warriors and non-combatants were being cut down and shot, some burned alive in their wigwams as dozens of warriors fled the flort. The cost of the battle was staggering for both sides, no less than 400 Wampanaog were killed and at least that number were captured or later killed. The New Englanders lost 70 killed and 150 wounded of which 50 or more later died from their wounds.

For many months after the bitter defeat in the Great Swamp Fight, the war entered a steady cycle of raids and counter-raids. Philip's tribes raided New England settlements in small raiding parties or in larger groups of 20-40 warriors. In some cases a small band of three of four natives would attack a home. They might kill one or two colonists and then escape into the nearby forest or countryside to terrify the white man again. In other instances horses or property were stolen. As the conflict continued, food became a scarcity and many native warriors were forced to steal provisions from farms and homesteads across the New England frontier. This type of guerrilla warfare continued whilst the United Colonies militias' searched for and killed "bad indians" in the hunt for Metacomet.

Raid on Lancaster 10 February 1676

Once bustling towns and productive frontier settlements fell under a shadow of war for well over a year as the brutal guerrilla war on the frontier continued. The native and colonial populations suffered dearly as a result in both Rhode Island and in Massachusetts. In February of 1676, the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts was raided and the Rowlandson's fortified house was burned to the ground. Twelve were killed and twenty-four taken captive by the Nipmucks, including Pastor Rowlandson's wife Mary and several of his children (b.1637-1711) who remained a captive of the Wampanaog for more than four months thereafter. In late February attacks and large movements of warriors were seen less than ten miles outside the city of Boston.

Weeks later, Metacomet's warriors attacked their furthest south in the war when they burned down the settlement of Simsbury on the Farmington River in Connecticut just fourteen miles northwest of the colonies capital at Hartford. Local legend maintains that Metacomet watched the burning of Simsbury and parts of what is Farmington from atop what is now known today as Metacomet Ridge. Longmeadow, Marlborough, and Rehoboth in the Plymouth colony were all attacked in the same week with great loss of life and property. Led by the colonies aged patriarch Roger Williams, Providence was abandoned by its inhabitants (b.1603-1683) and later burned down on 29 March by the Narragansett. The town of Warwick in Rhode Island save for one house was completely destroyed and raised to the ground as well.

An English captain scouts for Wampanoag with two native allies c.1676

In April of 1676 the sachem of the Narragansett tribe Canonchet was captured by a group of Connecticut and Pequot Indians led by Capt. George Dennison in a raid of Narragansett tribal land in Eastern Connecticut. After he was ambushed Canochet escaped to the woods however he was run down by a young Pequot warrior and then detained by the Connecticut militia. Taken in chains to Stonington, Connecitcut, Canonchet was offered generous peace terms if he surrendered the Narragansett to colonial authorities and gave up the hiding place of his chief Metacomet. Canonchet replied "I will not surrender a Wampanoag nor the paring of a Wampanoag's nail." When the brave chieftain was told he'd be shot the following morning by the Pequot he replied, "It is Good-I shall die before my heart is soft, or I have said anything unworthy of Canonchet." After his execution his head was sent to Hartford where it was displayed publicly for weeks.


Battles and massacres continued on however without the capture or death of the paramount leader of Wampanoag, Metacomet. On 20 April, 500 warriors came down from Mount Wachusett in Worcester county and attacked the important hub settlement of Sudbury. Upon hearing of the attack on Sudbury the captain of the Milton militia, Samuel Wadsworth, an experienced soldier by all accounts, took 50 Massachusetts Bay colony militia on a march from Marlborough to relieve Sudbury. As they neared the township a band of native New England warriors made themselves visible then quickly disappeared into woods. Wadsworth ordered his men in pursuit and right into the clutches of a rather obvious ambush. His men fought bravely from underneath the rocky cover at Green Hill until the native warriors set their defenses on fire forcing Wadsworth men's out into open where they were shot down to a man. Wadsworth and his second-in-command Capt. Brocklebank were later found with thirty or so of their militiamen; all had been scalped, stripped, and left to rot atop Green Hill.

In late June, Connecticut Major Talcott with 250 mounted troopers and 200 Pequots launched a punitive expedition towards Providence burning Narragansett settlements and killing or capturing 238 on the Connecticut-Rhode Island border, many in the former category. Capt. Church's rangers took to the forests outside Middlebourough in mid July, an area Church had known since he was boy, scouring the forests of the peninsula for traces of the elusive King Philip. On 1 August, a large band of natives was spotted outside Bridgewater in the Plymouth colony. Church's rangers and some Bridgewater militiamen gave chase and soon routed the Wampanaog near Monponsett Pond. Capt. Church was nearly killed in the skirmish before his men killed, captured, or scattered this mysterious rogue Wampanoag band. Among the few who escaped this raid was sachem Metacomet who fled with nothing but the clothes on his back and his rifle into the woods. His wife and son were left behind and captured by Benjamin Church. Following the skirmish one of Metacomet's captured braves when questioned by Church told him frankly, "You have now made Philip ready to die. For you have made made him as poor and miserable as he used to make the English. You have killed or taken all his relatives. You will soon have his head, for you have broken his heart."

Assassination of King Philip outside Mount Hope August 1676

Metacomet met his end on 12 August 1676, assassinated near Mount Hope in what is today BristolRhode Island. Church and his friendly indians ever on the trail of the "doomed sachem" was tracked down and shot by a 'Praying Indian', a native who had converted to Christianity and taken up the "white man's ways" named John Alderman. Metacomet's assassin had been working for Capt. Church since he had a chance meeting with him following the Plymouth colony militias' return from the wars first' campaign after the Battle of Peas Field. Metacomet was beheaded and quartered as a traitor to colonies though he had sworn no allegiance to New England or Plymouth Colony.

The regal chieftain's skull was placed on a pike in Plymouth where for over twenty years it stood until it turned bleached and began to crack. Alderman supposedly took one of the revered sachems hands as a war trophy; later preserving it in rum he made a small amount of coin the rest of his life showing it to curiosity seekers at taverns and barrooms outside throughout the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies. Despite Metacomet's death the war would continue on until the final pitched battle of the war was fought at Turner's Falls outside Springfirled in May of 1676. In this battle the last remnants of Nipmuck warriors were finally defeated and driven from the northern reaches of the colony. In June the last organized band of Wampanaog natives was defeated and killed or captured outside of Marlborough and thus King Philips' War came to an end.

Opposing Forces: Colonial Militia and Native Warfare, 1637-1675

New England's militias were the only military force in the colonies since England had no standing army in American at this time. Male colonists were required by law to remain armed, supplied, and ready to muster out with their units whenever called upon, though one could buy one’s way out (few did) or could give a younger son or two, permission to join, as was customary at the time. In fact very few volunteered especially early on in the conflict; many had to be pressed into service with the threat of fines or jail time creating a rag-tag, poorly trained and disciplined force led by inept officers who had been appointed because of political and social connections. Following the Bloody Brook Massacre in September of 1675, New England Confederation commissioners proscribed added quotas of 158 men for Plymouth, 315 for Connecticut, and 527 for Massachusetts Bay. In theory, New England had an "English" army of well over 1000 soldiers plus an additional 500-750 friendly Indian allies amongst the Pequot, Mohegan, Tunxis, and Sakonnet tribes.

"First Muster of Massachusetts Bay Militia in Salem 1637" by Don Troiani

Several units were what would be considered “elite”, known as "brisk blades"; such as Benjamin Church’s Rangers, a force of less than 200 Plymouth militia and Praying Indians. Though very few groups of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth infantry and cavalry companies were well regarded, some led by a handful of officers who were veterans of the English Civil War 1642-1651, the average militia unit from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth, Connecticut, or Rhode Island was made up of men who did not know how to soldier and who did not care to know how.

For many militia captains it was agonizingly laborious to get these men to march quickly, to get into battle formation, and to attack or retreat as a unit with a modicum of discipline and order. Armaments and weaponry were fairly standardized across most of the New England army. Smoothbore matchlock muskets were used by the average militia soldier. These were heavy and cumbersome .75 caliber "shoulder breakers" which were horribly inaccurate even at close ranges and which took nearly a minute to reload. Swords were commonly in use by the gentry and cavalry troopers. Pikes were also popular throughout the New England militia system during this period.

Wampanoag attacking English colonists 1675-1676

The native tribes of New England fought similarly across the frontier theaters of King Philips' War. The element of surprise was always paramount. The ambuscade and raid were prized above all methods of warfare though Metacomet's warriors fighting in large numbers were also high effective against the untrained rabbles of New England militia. Long and short spears were used for medium ranged combat while bows and arrows and an increasing number of muskets were also used at long range by the Wampanoag indians and their allies. For close quarters combat they used the ever-famous tomahawk, war clubs, and steel hunting knifes sold to them by French and British traders. During King Philip's War the Wampanaog fought to the death. Though civilian prisoners (often women and young girls) were taken to be ransomed later, any man or boy in arms was almost always slain.

King Philips' War in Northern New England, 1676-1689

King Philips's War spread to the further reaches of northern New England and French North America when the Wabanaki Confederacy, partly inspired by Wampanoag rebellion in southern New England and with taciturn French support, natives attacked English forts and settlements in what is today Maine, New Hampshire, and Northeastern Canada throughout 1675-1677. Many of Maine's scattered settlements and homesteads were later laid to waste by the Abenaki in retaliation. Maine and New Hampshire residents organized militias and fortified their homesteads like their southern brethren. In 1676 Wampanaoag warriors and their families fled to Cochecho, New Hampshire, near what is today Dover, to seek refuge with their cousins the Abenaki.

Shrewd local trader and militia major Richard Walderne (or Waldron) organized a mock battle between a band of 400 warriors, comprised of roughly half local Abenaki and the rest fugitive Wampanoag. The supposed friendly display of arms was actually a cleverly devised trap; Walderne's militia and two companies of Massachusetts troopers quickly descended on the warriors and arrested all of the Wampanoag but spared the Abenaki braves. Several known warriors or minor chieftains were taken to the Boston for execution and the rest sold into slavery. The Abenaki never forgot nor forgave Walderne and the settlers of Cocheco for this act of treachery. In 1689 Abenaki braves attacked Cocheco killing 23 and capturing 29 of the township's settlers. Walderne though in his 60's was among the first the die; tortured and mutilated by the Abenaki who had despised his unfair trading practices, gaining their revenge following the betrayal of Wampamnoag some thirteen years before.

'Major Waldrons Terrible Fight'-19th century depiction of Walderne's death

Eventually agents acting on behalf of James the Duke of York, future King of England as James II, brought an end to conflict by 1677. They allegedly threatened the Wabankai peoples with Mohawk intervention if they did not cease their campaign of violence.


Around 600-800 New England soldiers and militia were killed during King Philips' War. Close to 2,000 homes or properties were burnt or destroyed in addition to 300-500 English colonials who were killed, wounded, or otherwise displaced. At least 3,000- 4,000 indians if not more died during the conflict. Kyle F. Zelnor remarks, unequivocally, in A Rabble in Arms (NYU, 2009) that “King Philips' War was the most deadly and important conflict in the history of colonial New England.” 

Many thousands of New England's native peoples, both enemy combatants, loyalists, and Praying Indians, had been systematically slaughtered, imprisoned, enslaved, relocated, or exiled following King Philips' War. After the conflict had concluded, enslaved Wampanoags and Narragansetts were sent by the hundreds from New England to the Caribbean and West Indies including King Philip's wife and young son. Today the legacy of the colonial wars against the New England Native American peoples is both a deeply shameful but celebrated episode of the collective history of New England

Suggested Further Reading
A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen During King Philip's War Kyle F. Zelnor (NYU, 2009)

Flames over New England: The Story of King Philip's War 1675-1676 By Olga Hall-Quest (Dutton, NY, 1969)

Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philips' War D.E. Leach (1958-2009)