One of the fascinating things about Marlborough is the degree to which it participated in the parade of American history. Oftentimes, by virtue of its location on the frontier and on the main road, armies or caravans would pass through the town in their passage from the west into Boston, or from Boston to the west. Such was the case on or about February 1, 1676 when the colonial Massachusetts army came through the town, starving and exhausted, from their weary and fruitless search for the Narragansett Indians who had escaped to Nipmuc country in central Massachusetts. It became known as the “Long March” or the “Hungry March.”
It all began on November 2, 1675 when the combined United Colonies of Connecticut, Plymouth, and Massachusetts declared war on the neutral Narragansett tribe of southern Rhode Island on the false information that King Philip and his men had retired to that area for the winter. Historian George Madison Bodge numbers the Massachusetts force at six companies afoot of four hundred sixty five and a company of horse numbering seventy five. These were accompanied by officer servants, scouts and teamsters. A proclamation to the soldiers read, in part, “If they played the man, took the Fort, & Drove the Enemy out of Narragansett Country, which was their great Seat, that they should have a gratuity in land besides their wages.”
The total number of English and allied combatants numbered over 1,100 including about 150 Indians. The battle was joined at the great Indian ‘Swamp Fort’ in present day South Kingston, Rhode Island on December 19, 1675. The battle was intense and hand to hand with many casualties on both sides. With a bad storm setting in and many of the Indian warriors retreating to the nearby forest, the English set fire to the fort, incinerating the mostly sick, young, women and elderly who had sought refuge within. In the midst of the storm, the English then retreated with their dead and wounded. Of the Massachusetts men, there were thirty one dead and sixty seven wounded. Of the combined forces, almost two hundred counted dead and wounded. Of the Narragansetts, near to six or seven hundred were killed, including three hundred non combatants in the fire.
The following months were filled with both sides consolidating their position, scouting the enemy’s movements and seeking terms of peace, albeit falsely in most cases. The English had reinforced their army and were finally prepared to move with about 1,400 men. In mid January, they set out from Narragansett to follow the Indians to Nipmuc country. The Indians were led by their intrepid warrior prince Canonchet.
Try as they might, the English were incapable of tracking the Narragansetts and after a few weeks of terrible weather, exposure, fatigue, and starvation they limped into Marlborough. It is said that they had killed and eaten their horses to survive. Most returned to Boston, but about forty were left in Marlborough under the command of Captain Samuel Wadsworth.
Those with Marlborough connections in the affair included Andrew Belcher, a sea captain who supplied the troops at Narragansett and was credited with saving the troops billeted there. His father was a non-resident and original grantee of Marlborough whose property bordered on Lake Williams, which was originally named by the English as Belcher’s Pond. Also involved were the above said Captain Wadsworth, and Captain Samuel Brocklebank both of whom served as leaders of the Marlborough soldier garrison and who were killed in the great ‘Sudbury Fight’ months later.
True to the commitment made by the Massachusetts authorities, over eight hundred men were, in later years, granted land, mostly in Indian country, for their participation in the attack on the Swamp Fort.