When Metacom (King Philip) rose in 1675 they numbered, of themselves, five thousand people, and could put into the field two thousand warriors.
In the beginning, under their noble sachem Can-oni-cus, they were friendly to the English colonists. While Roger Williams lived among them they stayed friendly. They agreed to a peace with Sachem Massasoit's Pokanokets, who occupied the rest of Rhode Island, east across Narragansett Bay. They marched with the English and the Mohegans to wipe out the hostile Pequots.
Canonicus died, and Mi-an-to-no-mah, his nephew, who had helped him rule, became chief sachem. Miantonomah was famed in council and in war. The colonies suspected him, as they did Alexander, son of Massasoit. They favored the Mohegans of the crafty sachem Uncas. When Miantonomah had been taken prisoner by Uncas, at the battle of Sachem's Plain in Connecticut, 1643, the United Colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Plymouth directed that the Mohegans put him to death, as a treaty breaker.
Accordingly Uncas ordered him killed by the hatchet, and ate a piece of his shoulder.
Possibly Miantonomah deserved to die, but the hearts of the Narragansetts grew very sore.
It is scarcely to be wondered at that they favored the Pokanokets rather than the English, when King Philip, who also had suffered, called upon them to aid in cleaning the land of the white enemy. "Brothers, we must be as one, as the English are, or we shall soon all be destroyed," had said Miantonomah, in a speech to a distant tribe; and that looked to be so.
Ca-non-chet, whose name in Indian was Qua-non-chet (pronounced the same), and Nan-un-to-noo, was son of the celebrated Miantonomah. He was now chief sachem of the Narragansetts, and the friend of King Philip.
He was a tall, strongly built man, and accused by the English of being haughty and insolent. Why not? He was of proud Narragansett blood, from the veins of a long line of great chiefs, and the English had given his father into the eager hands of the enemy.
Presently, he was asked to sign treaties that would make him false to the memory of Miantonomah and double-hearted toward the hopeful King Philip.
The papers engaged the Narragansetts not to harbor any of King Philip's people, nor to help them in any way against the English, nor to enter a war without the permission of the English. He was to deliver the Philip and Wetamoo people, when they came to him.
Canonchet was not that kind of a man. He had no idea of betraying people who may have fled to him for shelter from a common enemy. A few of his men feared. It was suggested to him that he yield to the colonies, lest the Narragansetts be swallowed up by the English. He replied like a chief, and the son of Miantonomah.
"Deliver the Indians of Philip? Never! Not a Wampanoag will I ever give up! No! Not the paring of a Wampanoag's nail!"
The venerable Roger Williams, his friend, the friend of his father and the friend of the long-dead Canonicus, had advised him to stay out of the war.
"Massachusetts," said Roger Williams, "can raise thousands of men at this moment; and if you kill them, the king of England will supply their place as fast as they fall."
"It is well," replied Canonchet. "Let them come. We are ready for them. But as for you, Brother Williams, you are a good man; you have been kind to us many years. We shall burn the English in their houses, but not a hair of your head shall be touched."
The colonies did not wait for Canonchet to surrender the King Philip people. The treaty had been signed on October 28, and on November 2 an army from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Plymouth was ordered out, to march against the Narragansetts, and seize King Philip and Queen Wetamoo, and punish Canonchet.
It was known that Queen Wetamoo was with Canonchet, but not certainly that King Philip had "kenneled" there. At any rate, down marched the English, their Mohegan and Pequot allies, all piloted by one Peter who might have been the husband of Wetamoo herself, but who probably was a Narragansett traitor.
Canonchet stood firm. To his notion, he was not obliged to surrender anybody, while the English held his brother and three other Narragansetts. Besides—"Deliver the Indians of Philip? No! Not the paring of a Wampanoag's nail!"
On the afternoon of December 19, this year 1675, the bold English and their allies struck the great fortified village at Sunke-Squaw. Out from the heat and Smudge of the blazing wigwams fled Philip and Wetamoo and Canonchet, with their shrieking people, into the wintry swamp where the snowy branches of the cedars and hemlocks were their only refuge. Canonchet had lost a third of his nation; large numbers surrendered to the English; but, like his friend Philip, with his warriors who remained true he carried the war to the English themselves. And a terrible war it was.
In March Captain William Peirse was sent out with seventy stout men to march from Plymouth and head off the raging Narragansetts. Plymouth had heard that the haughty young sachem Canonchet was on his way to Plymouth, at the van of three hundred warriors.
Captain Peirse made his will and marched southward, to the Pawtucket River not far above Providence. Canonchet 's spies had marked him, and Canonchet was ready.
On March 26, which was a Sunday, Captain Peirse saw upon the other side of the river a party of Indians limping as if worn out and trying to get away. Therefore he crossed, near the Pawtucket Falls, in glad pursuit—and "no sooner was he upon the western side, than the warriors of Nanuntenoo, like an avalanche from a mountain, rushed down upon him; nor striving for coverts from which to fight, more than their foes, fought them face to face with the most determined bravery!"
There were Narragansetts still upon the east side of the river, also, to cut off retreat. The captain, fighting desperately, with his men ranged in two ranks back to back, sent a runner to Providence, only six or eight miles, for assistance; but so quickly was the work done, by Canonchet, that of all the English force, only one Englishman escaped, and not above a dozen of the scouts.
"Captain Peirse was slain, and forty and nine English with him, and eight (or more) Indians who did assist the English."
Canonchet lost one hundred and forty, but it was a great victory, well planned and well executed. Captain Peirse had been a leader in the storming of the Narragansett fort at Sunke-Squaw, the last winter; that is one reason why the Canonchet warriors fought so ravenously, to take revenge.
On the day after the dreadful battle, from Connecticut, southwest, there marched a larger force of English and friendly Indians, to close the red trail of the Sachem Canonchet. He was feared as much as King Philip was feared.
Canonchet did not proceed against Plymouth. With thirty volunteers he had set out south for the Mount Hope region itself, in order to gather seed corn. The abandoned fields of the English along the Connecticut River waited. They ought to be planted to Indian corn.
On his way back to the Connecticut River with his seed corn, near the close of the first week in April he made camp almost upon the very battle ground above Providence, where yet the soil was stained by the blood of March 26.
He did not know that now the enemy were upon his trail indeed; but at the moment a company of fifty English under Captain George Denison of Southerton, Connecticut, and eighty Indians—the Mohegans led by Chief Oneka, son of Uncas, the Pequots by Cas-sasin-na-mon, the Niantics (formerly allies of the Narragansetts) by Cat-a-pa-zet—were drawing near.
Three other companies were in the neighborhood.
This day Canonchet was lying in his blanket, telling to a party of seven warriors the story of the battle-ground. The other warriors were scattered through the forest. Two sentries had been placed upon a hill.
Not far away the Captain Denison party already had killed one warrior, and had seized two old squaws. The squaws confessed that Nanuntenoo was yonder, the Indian scouts picked up the fresh trail, the Denison men hastened at best speed.
In the midst of his story, Canonchet saw his two sentinels dash headlong past the wigwam, "as if they wanted for time to tell what they had seen." At once he sent a third man, to report upon what was the matter. This third man likewise suddenly made off at full pace, without a word. Then two more he sent; of these, one, returning breathless, paused long enough to say that "all the English army was upon him!"
"Whereupon, having no time to consult, and but little time to attempt an escape, and no means to defend himself, he began to fly with all speed. Running with great swiftness around the hill, to get out of sight upon the opposite side, he was distinguished by his wary pursuers," and they were hot after him.
In fact, running hard around the hill, Canonchet wellnigh ran into the Niantics of Chief Catapazet, who were coming down right over the hill. He swerved, at the view-halloo, and lengthened his stride. Some of the English had joined the chase. Canonchet tore like a deer for the river.
They had not recognized him, for he was wearing his blanket. But so hotly they pressed him, that he needs must cast aside his blanket. This revealed to them his fine lace-embroidered coat, which had been given to him as a bribe, at Boston last October. Now they knew that he was a chief, and a personage, and they yelled louder, and ran faster.
Presently Canonchet stripped off his lacy coat, and dropped it. And soon loosening his belt of wampum, he droppcd that also. By this chief's belt they knew that he was the great Canonchet, and faster still they ran.
However, he was out-footing all except one Indian. That Indian was a Pequot named Monopoide—the best runner of all, and better than Canonchet himself.
With only a single pursuer to be feared, Canonchet turned sharply and leaped into the river, to cross by a strange trail. As he splashed through, wading and plunging, seeing escape close before him if he could gain the opposite bank, he stumbled upon a stone. Falling forward he not only lost valuable time but soused his gun.
"At that accident," he afterward said, "my heart and bowels turned within me so that I became like a rotten stick, void of strength."
Before he might stand straight and fib his useless gun, with a whoop of triumph the lucky Pequot, Monopoide, was upon him; grabbed him by his shoulder within thirty rods of the shore.
The Pequot was not a large man, nor a strong warrior. Canonchet was both, and might yet have fought loose, to liberty. But he had made up his mind to quit. He offered no trouble; the guns of the pursuing party were covering him again, and he obeyed the orders.
He did not break his silence until young Robert Staunton, first of the English to reach him, asked him questions. This was contrary to Indian usage. Canonchet looked upon him disdainfully.
"You much child. No understand matters of war. Let your brother or chief come; him I will answer."
Robert's brother, John Staunton, was captain of one of the Connecticut companies that had been sent out to find the Narragansetts; but Canonchet was now turned over to Captain Denison.
He was offered his life if he would help the English. This brought from him a glare of rebuke.
He was offered his life if he would send orders to his people to make peace.
"Say no more about that," he replied. "I will not talk of peace. I do not care to talk at all. I was born a sachem. If sachems come to speak with me, I will answer; but none present being such, I am obliged, in honor to myself, to hold my tongue."
"If you do not accept the terms offered to you, you will be put to death."
"Killing me will not end the war. There are two thousand men who will revenge me."
"You richly deserve death. You can expect no mercy. You have said that you would burn the English in their houses. You have boasted that you would not deliver up a single Wampanoag, nor the paring of a Wampanoag's nail."
"I desire to hear no more about it," replied Canonchet. "Others were as eager in the war as myself, and many will be found of the same mind. Have not the English burned my people in their houses? Did you ever deliver up to the Narragansetts any of the Narragansetts' enemies? Why then should I deliver up to them the Wampanoags? I would rather die than remain prisoner. You have one of equal rank here with myself. He is Oneka, son of Uncas. His father killed my father. Let Oneka kill me. He is a sachem."
"You must die."
"I like it well. I shall die before my heart is soft, or I have said anything of which Canonchet shall be ashamed."
Even his enemies admired him. The English compared him to some old Roman.
He was not killed here. Forty-three of his people, men and women, had been taken by the troops and scouts; a number of these were given over to death by the scout Indians. But Canonchet was borne in triumph to Stonington, Connecticut.
In order to reward the friendly Indians, the Pequots were permitted to shoot him, the Mohegans to behead and to quarter him, the Niantics to burn him. As a return favor, the Indians presented the head of Canonchet, or Nanuntenoo, to the English council at Hartford, Connecticut.
In the above fashion perished, without a plea, "in the prime of his manhood," Canonchet of the Big Heart, last Grand Sachem of the Narragansetts. Presently only the name of his nation remained.
The Story of Canonchet
This story of Canonchet is featured in the book entitled Boy's Book of Indian Warriors, by Edwin L. Sabin, Philadelphia, George W. Jacobs & Co. Publishers, 1918