While the majority of people associated with our Special Operations Forces consider Robert Rogers as the father of the Ranger Regiment, his troops weren’t the true first American Rangers, that distinction, which outside of historians in New England many people don’t know, falls to Benjamin Church.
Benjamin Church created the first true Ranger force, circa 1676, and then took an active role in leading his Rangers during King Philip’s War as well as in King Williams and Queen Anne’s War in the early 1700s.
Benjamin Church was an Englishman, although a colonist and was born in Plymouth Colony in 1639. He lived in nearby Duxbury, where he married Alice Southworth on the day after Christmas 1667.
Church was unlike many of his contemporaries and he was close to his Native American neighbors and according to many accounts from the day, adopted much of their lifestyle for living on the frontier.
Many of his fellow Englishmen rejected his embracing of the Native American ways. But after several successes in battling the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and Nipmucks during King Philip’s War, they changed their tune.
Combining Two Distinct Cultures – A True Coalition Force:
Church trained his men and Native Americans in a true Special Operations sense, taking the tactics and some of the weaponry of the Native Americans and folding them into a true coalition unit that was successful on the battlefield.
When King Philip’s War broke out, the English colonial militia was at a disadvantage against their Native American foes. The Indian forces fought as small units and at times as individuals. The English colonists wanted to and tried to fight as large units.
The English built forts which protected them from Indian attack but were totally dependent on Native Americans to guide them to hostile villages when going on the offensive.
The English used flintlock and matchlock muskets, pikes, and swords while Native Americans used bows and arrows, spears and war clubs. Church expertly blended the two together. Having acquired land in Sakonnet, he learned the ways of life and warfare of his Wampanoag neighbors. He learned to speak their language which was a major plus in building relationships.
One of his close friends among the Native Americans was Awashonks, a female sachem of the Sakonnet Wampanoags.
During the early fighting in King Philip’s War, the Indian foes wouldn’t attack the forts that the colonists would occupy, but would then burn their homes, crops and slaughter the livestock in an attempt to wipe out their civilization. They’d attack small groups of colonists or individuals who would leave the forts.
Church volunteered to lead and create a special unit to fight the Indians by using their own tactics. He recruited colonists and Native Americans both and adopted the Native American tactics and melded them with some of the English.
He, like his Native American members of the unit, wore moccasins, used cover and concealment and conducted the war as irregulars, often working far in front of the other colonial militias to provide an early warning network.
But they were also adept at conducting raids and ambushes like their foes. During what was called “The Great Swamp Fight”, the Narragansetts had constructed a fort of their own at the edge of a large swamp. However, by late December, the swamp had frozen over and Church and his men expertly crossed the ice, fought their way into the fort, allowing more of the colonists to enter and take it.
Church advised the commander, General Josiah Winslow to rescind his order to burn it as that was the normal M.O. for the English. Church told him that the fort would offer protection and the wigwams would give the men shelter and food. Winslow ignored his advice and burned the fort to the ground, thereby killing many villagers who hid among the wigwams in the fort. Many more women and children died of exposure after being forced to flee into the swamp with no supplies.
In August of 1676, men (both English and Native American) of Church’s Rangers killed Metacomet, also known as King Philip thereby ending the conflict. In English custom at the time, Metacomet was beheaded, had his hands cut off and was drawn and quartered.
King Williams War, Queen Anne’s War:
After King Philip’s War ended, about a dozen years later, Benjamin Church would be embroiled in another war. Church led four different forays into Acadia against French-Acadians and Native Americans, the Abenaki.
In Queen Anne’s War, the Abenaki, supposedly after being provoked by the French-Acadians raided the Massachusetts town of Deerfield in late February of 1704. They killed several citizens and took over 100 as hostages and forced them to walk all the way to Montreal.
Church was approached by Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley and given a Colonel’s commission. He led another long foray in Acadia by conducting successful raids on Castine, Maine, St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Grand Pre, Pisiguit (present-day Falmouth and Windsor), and on Chignecto.
While Church’s Rangers didn’t have published standing orders that later characterized Rogers’ Rangers, from his writings after the wars, he had several principles that were characterized by several items that his units had as their philosophies. From Wikipedia:
- Planning each operation in advance, not leaving anything to chance.
- Ensuring that soldiers under his command were properly trained, fed, and equipped.
- Building alliances with potential allies (i.e. Native Americans), who may have been overlooked or mistrusted by other commanders.
- Not inflicting unnecessary damage or harm.
- Using stealth and surprise to tactical advantage.
- Understanding how a tactical operation fits in with strategic objectives.
- Leading by example and from the front.
- Maintaining communications with higher and lower echelons.
He was mentioned in the book, “Ranger Dawn: The American Ranger from the Colonial Period to the Mexican War”, by Robert W. Black. While Church and his Rangers are given but a few pages of mention, Black did write that Church and his men were carrying out tactics that Rogers made famous many decades later.
Church was elected as a representative of Bristol to the Plymouth Colony Legislature and lived in Little Compton where he died in 1718. He is buried in Little Compton Cemetery.
In 1992, Church was elected to the Ranger Hall of Fame and a bronzed Ranger Tab was erected on his tomb.
Illustrations: Wikipedia, a re-enactment of Rangers and English troops by the author