Archives: Thomas Munson (1) The Soldier

tales tidbits tributesMayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick is a recent New York Times best selling book.  It lays out the first fifty years of Plymouth and other New England colonies and devotes much effort to describing the relations of the colonists and the native Indians leading up to and through King Philip’s War (1675-76).  This history allows Thomas1 Munson descendents to put the facts of his life as gathered by Myron Munson in Volume I of the The Munson Record into a broader historical context and to flesh out a little more of the character and background of the man.

Thomas1 Munson is believed to have traveled overland from Boston to Hartford as part of a group given a charter by the Massachusetts Bay colony.  He was in his early twenties having been born about 1612 in England.  He could have arrived in Boston as early as 1632, but is more likely to have arrived with a subsequent wave in 1634.  He was a soldier of the lowest rank but was not indentured or otherwise bound.  He rapidly gained skills and reputation as a carpenter and homebuilder.  He was not well off enough to have been designated as a “freeman” in Hartford and he was thus unable to vote on community business.  His status changed, however, in 1637 when the Massachusetts Bay colony used the deaths of some traders as the reason to declare war on the Pequot Indian tribe.  Thomas1 Munson (age 25) was one of 90 Connecticut militiamen (plus 70 Mohegan under their chief Uncas) that joined other Massachusetts Bay Colony forces to attack the main Pequot village on the Mystic River northeast of New London.  It was a complete victory of the firearms over bows and clubs variety, and upon returning to Hartford the soldiers were rewarded with land parcels in addition to their pay.  Thomas1 received a two-acre lot and built a house and a barn on it.  He was granted at least two other parcels, both east and west of the Connecticut River, that he subsequently abandoned and they reverted to the town after 1640.

The reason these lots were abandoned is that Thomas1 sought and obtained permission in 1639 to join a new group of settlers who were going to an area of land purchased from the Quinnapiac Indians in a town to be named New Haven. It is likely that Thomas1 was ‘escaping’ Hartford after the death of his wife Susan (whether from child-birth or disease is not known) as he and his best friend (perhaps even brother-in-law) Samuel Whitehead were the only soldiers from Hartford to move to New Haven.  Thomas1 is listed as a “free burgess” and signed the Fundamental Agreement.  A year later he is listed as a ‘freeman’ and one of 70 men comprising the Court of New Haven.  There was plenty of work for a carpenter.  He was given land and built a house on George Street near the town green.  He was married to Joanna, who was two years older than he and perhaps a widow also.  In 1641 or 1642 their first child (Elizabeth2) arrived and the house they built on George Street needed expansion.  Also in 1642 Thomas1 was named Sergeant of the ‘trained band,’ a title he was to have for 19 years.  A year or so later a second child (Samuel2) was born.  New Haven continued to grow in that decade and quickly became the second largest town in the Connecticut colony.  Thomas1 prospered.

In 1651 (age 39) Thomas1 decided to leave New Haven with a group that was going to a parcel of land in southwestern New Jersey on the Delaware River.  The group was well organized, had support from the Connecticut colony including arms and funds, but was frustrated repeatedly by both the Swedes and the Dutch.  The Swedes (across the river in Delaware) had claims to the same land and the Dutch in New Amsterdam were vigorously trying to stop any English colony in New Jersey.   Two Connecticut vessels were sequestered in New Amsterdam and, along with them, an early band of colonists.  These events were minor parts of the larger conflict being played out on the Continent as the First Dutch War (1652 –1654).  Thomas1 had sold the George Street house in anticipation of moving, but finally in 1656 at age 44 he gave up his plans to move for good and bought a house on Church Street.  He had a wife and three children, the oldest of whom were teenagers.  He asked the town for land to open a shop and may have labored as a wheelwright briefly.  He continued to accept more responsibility from the town and was named a selectman in 1656 and a Deputy to the General Court in 1662.  His seat in the church was prominently located near the front.

Over the next two decades he increased his dedication to the colony of New Haven and was often given assignments suitable to his experience.  He assessed community buildings for repair, led an effort to start a school, laid out roads and bridge sites, evaluated estates in probate, and acted as a guardian for minors.  In 1661 (at age 49) he was selected for promotion to Ensign of the New Haven militia.  He at first declined, but must have been persuaded to accept it on a trial basis.  Three years later, at about the same time as his daughter Elizabeth2’s marriage to Timothy Cooper, he again asked to be relieved of his militia duty, but the town leadership instead promoted him to Lieutenant, which he accepted.  He also bought a larger house and barn on Temple Street where his family lived until his death.
Thomas1 participated vigorously in the great debate as to whether New Haven should join the Connecticut colony as a subordinate county.  This was a political reorganization being imposed by the English government and at first the Town declined.  New Haven did agree to join three years later in 1665 after obtaining a series of concessions concerning representative governance, the boundaries of the colony and the establishment of a General Court capable of appeals.  Thomas1 was chosen initially as the alternate Deputy to represent New Haven at the General Court in Hartford and two years later as the Deputy.  This would have required him to travel twice a year to Hartford for several weeks.  After several years of this life, and with no lessening of his other duties as a businessman, selectman and Court Commissioner, he petitioned the town at age 56 to relieve him of his duties as the Lieutenant, but again the town declined.

At this point in his life Thomas1 and Joanna had no children at home.  In 1664 Elisabeth2 was married to Timothy Cooper, the son of fellow militiaman Lieutenant Thomas Cooper.  Thomas’1 son Samuel2 was married in 1665 at age 22 to Martha Bradley.  He had been set up in business as a shoemaker in the town and was himself recognized as a freeman. In 1667 his youngest daughter Hannah2 married Joseph Tuttle who was a friend and co-worker of her brother.  In 1670 Samuel2 relocated 10 miles north to a new community called Wallingford, where he was among the first 28 ‘planters’ to sign an agreement in organizing the new community.  At about the same time Elisabeth2 and Timothy moved their family to Springfield along with her father-in-law and his large family.

In 1673 the Connecticut Colony paid extra attention to its militia and its ability to defend itself with the onset of the Third Dutch War and a continuation of the border dispute with New Amsterdam to the south and west of New Haven.  By this time New Haven had ‘not more than 500 households’ (including its three or four outlying settlements) and was still the second largest town after Hartford in the Colony.  A larger militia was authorized and funds to pay for and train ‘dragoons’ (mounted infantry) were provided with part of them coming from New Haven.  Captain Robert Treat and Lt. Thomas1 Munson were named to command this larger force.  Additionally, a Council of War comprised of the ‘…Governor, Lt Governor, Assistants [four others] and Lt Thomas1 Munson.’  was created to govern between the semi-annual meetings of the General Council.  Even though a peace had been concluded between the English and Dutch before the next session convened, the preparations were to stand them in good stead.

King Philip’s War of 1675-76

Philip was the second son of Massasoit and became chief of the Pokanokets after the death of his brother in 1662.  The main Pokanoket village was at New Hope in the northern part of Narragansett Bay.  The English in the area were headed by Roger Williams, the exile from the Puritans of the Massachusetts Colony, who had established a religiously tolerant Rhode Island Colony in 1636.  The Pokanokets had once been a large tribe exceeding 12,000 that could field 3000 warriors.  However, in the decades following contact with the first European traders and fishermen they had suffered heavily from disease outbreaks for which they had no cure.  By the third decade after the Plymouth colony they numbered less than a thousand and had become subservient to the Narragansett to their west and north.  Sales of their lands, the increasing stream of colonists and the pressures to change their lifestyle added to their dissatisfaction.  The spark that started the conflict was the trial and execution of Sassamon by the governor of the Plymouth Colony in early 1675.  He was one of Philip’s insiders who had been seen in the act of murdering one of Philip’s rivals.  It is likely that Philip had been planning an uprising against the colonists, but that his own braves got ahead of him.  For this reason he was not able to stockpile the food and weapons or to conclude the alliances that he needed to make a war into the type of success that he wanted.

The Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies, warned by friendly Indians that the Pokanokets were preparing an attack, alerted their militias and moved towards Swansea (where some homes had been burned) and Philip’s New Hope settlement in June 1675.  There were some skirmishes and a fight at the Pocasset Swamp, but Philip and his people largely evaded the militia and over the period of three weeks moved northwest towards central Massachusetts and the Nipmunk tribe with whom they had friendly relations.  On the first of July the New Haven militia commanded by Lt.Munson1 was activated and ordered to the towns of Stonington and New London to protect those towns against the missing Pokanokets.  Two days later additional forces were sent from New Haven to Saybrooke at the mouth of the Connecticut River and the New Haven militia commander, Captain Bull, arrived to take charge.  At this point the action shifted north and east as bands of Indians began to attack and burn outlying farms and smaller villages.  The towns of Dartmouth and Middlesboro in the Plymouth colony and Mendon, 20 miles west of Boston, were attacked by large bands and burned.  A key move at this time was that the Plymouth colony approached and secured a treaty from the Narragansetts pledging that they would not fight.  The same assurances were asked for and obtained by the Connecticut colony of the Pequots, Mohegans, and, importantly to New Haven, the Quinnipiacs.  On August 1, 1675, the New Haven militia was allowed to return to their homes.  The uprising north of Springfield continued.  The Indians attacked and burned Brookfield (2 Aug), Lancaster (22 Aug), South Deerfield (25 Aug), and ambushed an evacuation column from Northfield (3 Sep).

The Connecticut War Council activated the militia again on September 6,1675.  This force gathered at Hartford, and under newly promoted Major Robert Treat, moved up the Connecticut River valley into central Massachusetts to both protect settlers and engage the Indians.  A number of other Massachusetts Colony militia groups were also there.  One of these was under Captain Thomas Lathrop from Essex County and numbered 70-80 men.  They were ordered to South Deerfield with the mission of moving grain south twelve miles to Hadley where the militia had established a fort near a mill where they intended to convert the grain into the supplies needed to feed the militia.  The returning convoy included eighteen Deerfield men and their filled wagons.  It was attacked by ‘some hundreds’ of Indians at a stream ford several miles into their journey.  Another militia band under Captain Samuel Mosely with 60 men from the Boston area, who had been sent to relieve and protect Deerfield, heard the shooting and moved south to help, but arrived too late.  Mosely’s men were in turn set upon and surrounded.  They fought for six hours before Treat and Munson’s Connecticut company of 100 men and 90 Mohegan warriors arrived to help them move to a more defensible site.  The next day they returned and 77 were buried in a mass grave near the stream that was renamed Bloody Brook.

A week later, as a result of the need to improve force response time, the Council of War directed Lt Thomas1 Munson to activate and move the dragoons of New Haven to Northfield and place them under Major Treat.  With the addition of the Mohegans and the dragoons to his force, and given that the populace was fortifying larger houses as garrisons and abandoning more isolated farms, Major Treat was able to use more aggressive patrolling to search for and attack the Indians and thus better protect the colonists.  Despite these actions and some early warnings on the part of friendly Indians, a large force fell upon Springfield on 5 Oct and burned it leaving only thirteen of seventy houses, barns and outbuildings standing.  Treat’s force with Munson’s command was in Westfield, only eight miles to the west, and they moved quickly to Springfield.  They were able to rescue many, but were unable to prevent the destruction, largely for lack of boats to quickly cross the Connecticut River in force.  This attack was particularly disheartening to Thomas1 Munson because his friend and his daughter’s father-in-law Lieutenant Thomas Cooper was killed in the attack.  Elizabeth2 and 10-year old grandson John3 Cooper were likely in one of the ‘garrison houses’ and were spared.
Seven weeks later Lieutenant Thomas1 Munson appeared before the New Haven Town Council and asked for another to be appointed in his place.  He was 63 years old and had served in the militia for over 40 years.  They must have agreed because they appointed him as the ‘commissary’ officer and approved his recommendation of a tax rate increase of a penny to fund the provisioning and the pay of the New Haven militia.  At the next meeting of the War Council in Hartford, Thomas1 Munson was appointed as Captain of the ‘North (?) New Haven County’ soldiers.

The Great Swamp Fight

After the destruction of Springfield in October, the Nipmunks and Pokanokets continued attacks on isolated farms and small settlements.  Other tribes in New Hampshire and coastal Maine rose up and conducted large-scale attacks in their areas.  Both colonists and Indians in October tried to harvest or secure food to last them through the winter.  The colonists became concerned about the large tribe of Narragansetts in western Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut.  Even though the Narragansett’s leaders had signed a treaty only six months before, there were indications that large numbers of braves had left to join the renegades.  By early December the War Council declared war on the Narragansetts and ordered 1000 militia (an estimated 5% of the total adult male population) from the ‘United Colonies’ to invade the Narragansett’s land.  Roger Williams, now elderly, refused to join in this attack and many Quakers in the Rhode Island colony supported him.  The Connecticut commander was again Major Treat and he had four companies that he moved to New London despite weather that had turned very cold.  Captain Thomas1 Munson was not one of his commanders, so presumably he was organizing the supply train as the ‘commissary’ officer.

Major Treat’s force of 300 militia and 150 Mohegans and Pequots were the last large force to arrive for the battle that was to become known as The Great Swamp Fight.  The Narragansetts were discovered to have used their six-month respite well.  They had secretly constructed an English style fort set on a five-acre island in the middle of a swamp.  The fort had blockhouses at the corners and ‘flankers’ at intervals to allow the defenders to fire at invaders trying to scale the walls.  The fort had one entrance with a massive tree trunk spanning a moat-like body of swamp water.  The militia force-marched eight hours through heavy snow to get to a point where they could see the fort, and then spent the night before the battle in snowstorm conditions and bitter cold.  The only good news was that the cold weather had frozen the swamp allowing the colonists to rush in groups at many points.
The colonists attacked the next day and were fiercely resisted.  The Massachusetts Bay force was the largest and moved first.  The Connecticut militia and their ‘friend indians’ attacked next at the main entrance.  Both sides had muskets. The colonials had initial difficulty in the approach and were repulsed at several points.  In the middle of the fight parties of Narragansetts went outside the walls and attacked the colonists who were peppering the fort’s defenders.  Even after the colonists had broken through the main entrance, the Indians used wigwams packed with stored food as barriers behind which to fight.  When it began to get dark and full control of the fort could not be guaranteed, the colonists started fires to burn the huts and wigwams of the inhabitants and moved away from the fort.  The Narragansetts could be seen moving across the ice in the other direction.  The colonial casualty rate was high and would have been the same or higher for the fort’s inhabitants.  Treat’s force lost four of its five Captains in the first rush at the entrance and 80 of his 300 militiamen were killed or wounded that day.   The entire militia force moved north in the dark, cold and snow to Smith’s Garrison (Wickford) about twelve miles away.  The force of 800 carried more than 200 dead and wounded with them.  Pursuit of the Narragansetts was delayed by the injuries the militia sustained.  It is not clear whether Thomas1 Munson was present.  Perhaps it’s better that he was not.

Ten days later (28 December) and over the objections of Josiah Winslow, the overall force commander, Major Treat decided to withdraw his Connecticut force back to Stonington.  It’s not unlikely that Thomas1 had established a supply point in Stonington.  Remember that he had commanded there six months before and would have known the town and its people well.  Other factors in the withdrawal would have been the number of the wounded, the losses in the chain of command, the men’s morale and the supply situation.  In all cases the Commissary Officer would have been responsible for supplying food, shelter and forage for the force in the field, as well as arranging for the care and transport of the wounded.

The Connecticut militia recovered and returned northward on 25 January where they reunited with the militias of the Plymouth and the Bay Colonies and together began the pursuit of the Narragansetts.  The bitter weather of the previous month had turned milder.  On balance this favored the tribesmen as they could not be tracked as easily and the footing was better.  The Narragansetts fled north and west and the militia pursued.  Both sides ambushed the other as the Indians retreated, trading space for time. Thomas1 Munson would have had to make arrangements to shift his supply base from Stonington to somewhere north of Hartford.  After two weeks (5 Feb) the Indians reached the vicinity of Marlborough and the safety of the more heavily wooded Nipmunk territory.  Winslow, without a military objective, was forced to disband his force and the militiamen returned to their homes.

The colonists had forced the Narragansett tribe into the hands of the most activist of the English enemies — a bad thing.  But they had forced them to abandon their winter food supply and go into an area where the other tribes had not been able to stockpile provisions.  In the end it was this lack of food that was to determine the winner of King Philip’s War.  But that Spring, the outcome was in serious doubt.  Over the next two months, the now larger Indian force redoubled their attacks.  They attacked larger towns like Lancaster, Providence, Rehoboth and, most alarming of all, conducted a massacre far to the east at Clark’s Garrison on the outskirts of Plymouth. The War Council again recalled the militia and approved a new militia strategy of combining colonists with woodsman skills and friendly Indians to seek out the campsites and carry the attack to the Indians.

These new tactics were more successful.  By June, larger and larger bands of Nipmunks and Narragansetts in central Massachusetts began to sue for peace and ask to return to their former lands.  The colonists gained better intelligence of who the remaining leaders were and how many men they still had under their control.  They used this information to focus on their greatest threats.  Philip and his now reduced band of Pokanokets had slipped back south and continued to attack colonists and towns throughout the Plymouth and Rhode Island settlements, as well as the approaches to Boston.  Finally, by August 1676, Philip and his major commanders were each tracked down and killed or captured by combined forces of friendly Indians and militia.  This is regarded as the end of King Philip’s War despite the fact that some militia forces were fighting north of Boston until the late fall.

A Life Well Led

At the end of King Philip’s War Thomas1 Munson was 65 years old and had three grown children and ten grandchildren.  He had been promoted from the ranks to Captain and had led his neighbors and friends in a conflict that had consumed the entire colony for eighteen months.  His hard soldiering was done at the beginning and at the end of his career.  He continued to serve as an elected official but his ‘soldiering days’ were over and, although he retained his title as Captain, other younger men were appointed to the tasks for which he had previously been in charge.  He had made a life for himself in New Haven as a homebuilder and carpenter, but had excelled as a town official in various roles and as New Haven’s representative to the Colony’s Council.  He was to live eight more years and outlive his wife Joanna by five years.  He was a soldier all of his adult life.

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John Hewett Munson is a thirteenth generation descendant of Thomas1 and a member of the Waitstill Clan. He can be reached at bobbiandjackmunson@yahoo.com or in Dagsboro, Delaware where he is retired.