It was March 28, 1676, and Zoeth Howland was riding through the deep woods of Tiverton. According to the story that has been told for more than 300 years, Howland never made it to his destination. Later that day, town residents discovered his tortured and mutilated body, a casualty of the bloodiest war in American history.
Relations between native people and New England settlers had been tense since the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. Colonists encroached on local lands, and natives retaliated by raiding settlers’ homes and property. By the 1670s, the English colonists had abandoned diplomacy and resorted almost exclusively to force in their dealings with local tribes. Wampanoag leader Metacom—known by the English as King Philip—struck back. An alliance of Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Nipmuck people led by Metacom embarked on a guerilla campaign that, over the course of fourteen months, left an indelible mark on the landscape and history of New England.
The English colonists responded to the “many notorious and execrable murders, killings, and outrages” committed by Metacom’s men with extreme violence of their own. Three months before Howland’s murder, English soldiers shot and burned alive up to 600 Narragansett men, women, and children in what the victors named the “Great Swamp Fight.” Tribes that remained neutral early in the war sided with Metacom as the war spread across New England, devolving into a racial struggle.
On that day in March 1676, Howland’s journey from his home in Dartmouth to worship in Newport with fellow Quakers should have been an easy one. Howland had moved to Dartmouth in 1657 from Plymouth, where his religious beliefs led to persecution from Puritan clergy, including time spent in the stocks. As Howland rode alongside a small brook, six Native Americans suddenly beset him. Seemingly attacked without provocation, he was tortured until he died, his mutilated body thrown into the brook.
By late summer of 1676, King Philip’s War was nearly over. Metacom had been shot and killed in August, and the English commander ordered his body cut into pieces. The Pocasset Indian who killed him received one of Metacom’s hands as a reward. His head was carried back to Plymouth and mounted on a palisade of the town’s fort, along with the proudly exhibited dismembered heads of other “heathen malefactors.” Metacom’s head remained on display for twenty years, a clear message that the colonists had staked their claim on this land.
Only one of the men involved in Howland’s murder was ever identified in court records. “Manasses,” alternatively written as “Molasses,” was turned over to colonial authorities and sold as a slave.
Many Natives Americans who survived the war were sold into slavery. Colonial authorities shipped more than 1,000 Natives to labor on Caribbean sugar plantations. Of a total Native population of about 20,000, at least 2,000 had died as a result of battle, another 3,000 died of sickness and starvation, and thousands fled the region. The total Native population declined by 60 to 80 percent as a result of the war. Plymouth Colony lost about 8 percent of its men, compared to losses of 4 to 5 percent of American men during the Civil War.
The unnamed brook where Howland’s body was found became known as “Sinning Flesh Brook.” Did this refer to the sinful killing of a pious Englishman? Or did some people consider Howland a sinful man for going against Puritanical teachings? Perhaps you can ask Zoeth Howland yourself. Some say his spirit still flits along the hiking trails that crisscross what is now called “Sin and Flesh Brook.”
(Sin & Flesh Brook runs southwesterly from the area around Fish Road near Route 24 and empties into Nanaquaket Pond. The best place to see it on foot is by hiking on the trails in Fort Barton Woods.)