Our Beloved Kin: Remapping A New History of King Philip's War

Captivity at Cocheco

The Sham Fight

Cocheco, located in the area of present-day Dover, New Hampshire, was host to multiple events that marked major points of transition, and led to the continuance of the war on the northern front of Wabanaki. One event in particular stands out as a major cause for unrest: the “sham fight” at Cocheco. The most common narrative of this event, often repeated by historians, arises from  Jeremy Belknap’s History of New Hampshire. According to Belknap, on September 6, 1676, “Four hundred mixed Indians” gathered at the house of Richard Waldron, “with whom they had made the peace,” referring to the Treaty at Cocheco in July 1676. According to Belknap, the arrival of Massachusetts forces seems more like a fortuitous coincidence than a coordinated plan. He references the companies of Captain Joseph Syll and Captain William Hathorne, who, due to the “renewal of hostilities” at “Kennebeck” and “Ameriscoggin,” were sent eastward. Belknap continues: “In the course of their march, they came to Cocheco,” making it seem as if the military officers simply came upon those gathered at Waldron’s house. Belknap then describes Waldron’s trickery. “The two captains (Syll and Hathorne) would have fallen upon them at once, having it in their orders to seize all Indians, who had been concerned in the war,” Belknap writes, however, “the major (Waldron) dissuaded them from that purpose, and contrived the following stratagem.” Waldron conducted “a sham fight, after the English mode.[1]

In other words, he convinced the gathered Native peoples to participate in what was a somewhat routine activity for English armed forces. Waldron formed two parties, one consisting of his men and those of the English Captain Frost of Kittery, and the other of “the Indians,” implying a large group of men. Waldron “caused the Indians to fire the first volley,” and “by a peculiar dexterity, the whole body of them [were] surrounded,” and then “immediately seized and disarmed.” There was no death to either side, according to Belknap, and Waldron subsequently made a “separation,” splitting the party in half. Wanalancet and “others who had joined making peace” were dismissed. The others, referred to as “the strange Indians” describing those “who had fled from the southward and taken refuge among them,” consisted of about 200 people and were sent to Boston. “Seven or eight of them, who were known to have killed Englishmen” were hanged at Boston while “the rest were sold into slavery in foreign parts.”

William Hubbard’s A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New England, a contemporary account of the events of the war, features details similar to those found in Belknap’s account. Hubbard writes that “it was mutually agreed betwixt those several Commanders (Hathorne and Sill), to seize upon all those Indians that at that Time were met together about Major Walderns Dwelling at Quecheco.” Hubbard writes that “all the said Indians were handsomly suprized, September 6th, 1676 without the Loss of any Persons Life, either Indian or English, to the Number of near four hundred: by which Device, after our Forces had them all in their Hands, they seperated the Peaceable from the perfidious, that had been our Enemies during the late Troubles: finding about two hundred involved in the former Rebellion, more or less, accordingly they sent down to the Governour and Council at Boston, who adjuged seven or eight of them immediately to die…” Hubbard’s account serves as an early source spreading the notion that the group was split in half, separated into those “perfidious” persons found to be involved in the war and subsequently sent to Boston, and those “peaceable persons” freed. He writes, “Those who had been always either Peaceable and True to the English never intermedling in the Quarrel, as Wannalancet the Sagamore of Pennicook, and some others, were quietly dismissed to their own Places.” [2]

A More Complex Picture of Captivity

Belknap and Hubbard may have used local lore as the core source for their accounts. Over the years, even as historians gained access to more primary source documents, the narrative of Cocheco remained eerily intact. Although some historians raised questions about the end of the narrative, the “sham fight” and separation of the “peaceable” from “strange” Indians was often recounted as fact.
However, historians Mary Beth Norton and George Madison Bodge, through careful consideration of primary sources, each called into question Belknap’s oft-quoted narrative. Three letters featuring correspondence between military leaders present at Cocheco and the Massachusetts Governor and Council refute Belknap’s assertion that the party was separated into two groups before those deemed “perfidious” were sent to Boston as prisoners. These letters also present specific numbers for those sent down to Boston, noting consistently that 350 people were sent to Boston, more than 200.

In Soldiers in King Philip’s War, Bodge begins to dispel the standard narrative, citing a letter from Richard Waldron, Nicholas Shapleigh and Thomas Daniel dated September 10, 1676, from the Massachusetts Archives. Shapleigh and Daniel were leading settlers from local coastal towns who provided “Assistance” in “Securing” the “Indians,” at Cocheco. Moreover, Waldron, Shapleigh and Daniel comprised the "Committee to Treat with the Indians," signing the Cocheco Treaty of July 1676. Their collective presence in September would have been read by Wannalancet and other leaders as a sign of a continuing treaty process. Shapleigh and Daniel's letter shows, however, that there was no separation of the "peaceful" from the "perfidious." Rather, orders had come from the Council for all of the people taken at Cocheco to be sent to Boston, with the exception of a small number of men selected to serve as scouts, and their families. In responding to the Governor and Council, Shapleigh and Daniel noted that they followed their orders: “yor Pleasures being to have all sent down to determine their case at Boston, hath been Attended keeping here about 10 young men of ym to Serve in ye Army with their families.” As this letter and Bodge’s analysis demonstrates, Waldron did not free half of those he took at Cocheco and instead sent nearly all of the captives to Boston, regardless of whether or not they participated in the war.[3]

Additional letters, from the Maine Historical Society, provide further confirmation of the number of people sent to Boston following the meeting with Waldron at Cocheco. In a letter dated September 6, 1676, Shapleigh and Daniel reported to the Massachusetts Bay Governor and Council:

They Willingly & readily Surendred up there Armes & Submitted themselues to what was desir’d[,] their Number being about 350 of wch 100 are men[,] under pretensions of Imploying ym in ye Country Seruice (& to yt end [being] Mustered) gaue us ye fitt opportunity of Surprisal though wee think in reality had they been Soe Improu’d they being Soe Willing therto might haue proued Much for ye Publick good
ye Comandrs are earnest in ye Suddain Remoueal of al of ym wch may proue Very prejuditicall by Reason of diuers of their relations that are abroad in these parts whome wee now Expect to make Suddain Spoyle upon us & if ye Army leaue us Assoon wee Judge our Selues in a more danger[ous] Condision yn they found us in wee Leaue wt is further needfull to Aduise yr honrs to ye Realtion of ye bearer Majr. Waldron.

A second letter appears on the back side of the same page, sent by Waldron himself to the Massachusetts Bay Governor and Council. Waldron recounts the meeting and describes those taken at Cocheco in further detail. He writes: 

This Day I drew up ye Indians at Cocheco upon ye open Ground before my house under ye Notion of takeing them out into ye Seruice, such of y[m] as I saw meet, upon assembled I made them eate & Drink, & then surrounded y[m] with ye Army & calling ye chiefe Sagamores into ye Center I told y[m] what must bee don, only yt ye Innocent should not be damnified, they surrendered their Armes 20 in Numbr. We haue taken 80 fighting Men & 20 old men, & 250. Women & children 350 in all.

We find among y[m] (as I [have?]] Information) Naraganset Indians, Groton & Nashaway Indians &c I shall [torn] it very necessary & judge it safe to use severell of ours in ye Warre. I humbly request Advice to ye Army to stay a while to search ye Woods, at least an Expresse Order of yt Captn Hunting may stay with his Indians & 40. of the English, such as he shall chuse which may be suitable number to doe service among us. Wee expect eury houre to [several words torn] upon us but hope yt by yt meanes we now) bee capeable of I [several words torn] war.

In her book In the Devil’s Snare, historian Mary Beth Norton describes the discrepancies between the standard narrative, as recounted by Belknap and Hubbard, and the above correspondence. As she writes, the documents discredit Hubbard’s assertions that only half of the people gathered at Cocheco were sent south. Further, while “Hubbard claimed that  Waldron, Hathorne and the other commanders ‘mutually agreed’ to capture the Indians,” these letters confirm that “they acted in response to orders from Boston.” Further, Waldron and the officers sent down the total group of those taken at Cocheco in direct response to that directive from the Massachusetts Council, despite Shapleigh and Daniel’s concerns that sending “all” would likely make their local settlements more vulnerable to attacks by the relations of those captives still in the north. She writes that “both alterations of the historical record worked to reduce the responsibility of the Boston authorities for the unwarranted seizure of the peaceful group.”[5]

An additional letter, held by the Newberry Library, demonstrates that Waldron anticipated and awaited the arrival of the Massachusetts troops before proceeding with his stratagem. The Massachusetts Council was aware of his plans. On September 2, Waldron wrote to Governor Leverett that he could not “yet prosecute my Intentions, referring to our Indians here, for want of ye forces designed hither which I hope this night may Rendezvous with me.” Those “Indians here” included Wannalancet and his company, according to Waldron’s report.[6]

Perhaps most important, the letters from the Maine Historical Society also show that there was not a “sham fight” but rather the people were “surpris[ed]” into “surrender” under the pretence of peace, with Waldron offering a collective meal, including “food” and “drink,” as well as the possibility of recruiting some of the men into “service” as scouts. Only twenty people, of the whole group, were apparently armed. As Waldron himself reported, the majority were women and children. [7]

[1] Jeremy Belknap, The History of New Hampshire, (Dover, NH: Crosby and Varney, 1812), 75.
[2] William Hubbard, A History of the Indian Wars in New England, ed. Samuel Gardner Drake (Roxbury, MA: W. E. Woodward, 1865), 132
[3] Bodge, Soldiers in King Philip’s War, 307
[4] Maine Historical Society Collection 77, “Autographs of Special Note,” box 2/42
[5] Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, 351
[6] Richard Waldron to Gov. Leverett, September 2, 1676, Portsmouth, AYER Mss 962, no. 2, Newberry Library
[7] Maine Historical Society Collection 77, “Autographs of Special Note,” box 2/42

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