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Benjamin Church
Background & Notes

Created December 1997

Benjamin Church is most famous for his actions during King Philip's War. He has been painted as a true Indian Fighting Hero by most and as a cold blooded killer by some.

He was a devout man of God and loyal to his King. Like any human being, he had his good days and his bad ones. Many of his tactics appear cruel, especially from the perspective of his enemy. Native Americans generally have a very dim view of him.

He did accept that Indians were human beings - as long as they were Christian - and treated his Indian soldiers better than most. He generally recruited Indians to fight against Indians. Most of his actions seem to have come from the belief that war was bad and everything conceivable (and deceivable) should be done to end it quickly.

Many Indians surrendered to him during Philip's War under his promise that they would be treated kindly. This was a promise that was not in his power to keep. The Government sold most of Church's Indian captives into slavery to help defray the costs of the war, except the warriors, who were hung. Church did express his distaste for this policy. If he had not been the hero of Philip's War, he might have been hung as a traitor or banished from Plymouth for questioning Government policy.

Major Benjamin Church's orders of Sept. 1689 specified that his soldiers should have "the benefit of the captives, and all lawful plunder, and the reward of eight pounds per head, for every fighting Indian man slain by them, over and above their wages..." They landed at Casco Bay just in time to assist Falmouth defend itself from a attack of several hundred warriors. After which, they scouted throughout the area, found nothing of interest, and returned to Boston.

Major Church received a new commission on 2-Sep-1690. Church raised his army of old friends and Indians from his "King Phillip's War" days. They sailed to Piscataqua [Portsmouth] where additional men were added. He had between 300 and 350 men which may or may not have included the Indian soldiers who probably numbered about 100. (Indian soldiers were not always counted as men!) His Indian soldiers were mostly from southern New England (Church refers to them as Seconet and Cape Indians).

When Church returned home after this expedition he found that a day of humiliation had been ordered "because of the frown of God upon those forces sent under my command, and the ill success we had, for want of good conduct." Apparently some of Church's Plymouth Captains, who had returned ahead of him, spread some rumors. Church was accused of taking cattle and other items from the eastern settlers and shipping it home for personal profit. This appears to be unfounded, for in June of 1691, the gentlemen of Portsmouth requested Major Church's return ASAP to finish the job he started. They surely would not have requested him if he had usurped his powers against them the year before.

Part of this 'disgrace' may have occurred because of the murder of Indian women and children on the Androscoggin. Who was killed and in what number, we will never be certain. But, if he killed women, we expect he killed children for children would be present whenever women were - but are almost never counted or mentioned in documents. The killing of any and all Indians were within the limits of his orders. Did he give the order or was it a vote of the officers? His orders specified that he should consult his officers whenever possible and that a majority should rule.

Why were they killed? Another question that will never get answered. We suspect the army was concerned about being slowed down. They were interested in getting to Wells before any attack. Of course, Abenaki women and children would be able to travel circles around a large army.

Another possibility is given by an unknown writer who suggests that the captives were given to the Indian soldiers, "as was customary", to do with as they saw fit. We have not found anything to prove or disprove this theory. We do not know if they were scalped or if a bounty was to be paid for scalps. A bounty was clearly stated in his 1689 commission, but not mentioned in his 1690 commission. The Indians killed at Laurel Hill were buried. It is possible that the burials found in the Laurel Hill area are not traditional Native Burials, but the bodies of those killed in 1690.

Major Church returned to the east in 1692, as second in command under Governor Phips, who led the expedition in person. During the 1692 expedition, they put in at Casco, buried the bones of the English dead there, and took the great guns of the fort with them to Pemaquid. Phips and Church split up. Phips' orders to Church allowed him to command without a vote among his officers. This may support the idea that problems on his previous expedition were related to his officers. Church's own men (the English and Indians recruited by him personally) were very loyal to him, but there may have been problems with those recruited by others. Phips' orders also specified that captives were to be taken and their safety insured. This order may have been issued as a result of the 1690 incident on the Androscoggin. Church returned to the East again in 1696 and 1704, but most of his action was in the Penobscot region and further east.

On his 1689 expedition, most of the lead shot sent with them was too large for their guns. The lead had to be melted and recast before it could be used. This almost cost them their lives at Falmouth. Church wanted to make sure this never occurred again. Before agreeing to lead the 1704 expedition, he compiled a very detailed list of requirements for fitting out the expedition and recruiting men. This list shows that he was a very capably military leader and was concerned for the safety of his men.

Now in his 60s and very overweight, he continued to lead men against the enemy in the east. But, the compassion of earlier years towards captives was diminishing rapidly. News of the raid on Deerfield affected Church - he wrote of it several times. Perhaps he was tired of war, his age was catching up to him, or he personally knew too many that suffered at Deerfield.

His tactic with captives at this time was very cruel but very effective. He allowed them to believe that he was giving them to his Indians, who would like to roast them. The Indians would gather nearby and begin to prepare a large fire. Church would than indicate (after the captive had sufficient time to contemplate the situation) that his life might be spared if he cooperated and truthfully told all he knew. It worked well with two young French brothers. We do not know if it always worked or what actually happened if it didn't.

On this last expedition, when a family would not come out of their wigwam, he writes "I hastily bid them [his soldiers] pull it down, and knock them on the head, never asking whether they were French or Indians; they being all enemies alike to me." Towards the end of this same letter he wrote, "But I ever looked on it, a good providence of Almighty God, that some few of our cruel and bloody enemies were made sensible of their bloody cruelties, perpetrated on my dear and loving friends and countrymen; as they had been guilty of, in a barbarous manner at Deerfield ..." At another time, a French woman ran from her house into the woods. His men wanted to catch her, but Church said no, "he would rather have her run and suffer, that she be made sensible, what hardships our poor people had suffered by them..."

In these last incidents, he expected attack from a large body of Indians at any moment. So we learn that under stress he was capable of ordering the murder of noncombatants!

Benjamin Church died the 17th of January in 1718, at the age of 78.

We leave it to the reader to decide if Benjamin Church was a war hero, a murderer, or a human being with character flaws - like the rest of us!

Written by: Canyon Wolf for Ne-Do-Ba