Colonel Benjamin Church (c. 1639 – January 17, 1718) is considered the forerunner of the United States Army Rangers. He was the captain of the first Ranger force in America (1676). Church was commissioned by the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, Josiah Winslow to form the first ranger company for King Philip's War. He later employed the company to raid Acadia during King William's War and Queen Anne's War.
Church designed his force primarily to emulate Indian patterns of war. Toward this end, he endeavored to learn to fight like Indians from Indians. Americans became rangers exclusively under the tutelage of the Indian allies. (Until the end of the colonial period, rangers depended on Indians as both allies and teachers.)
Church developed a special full-time unit mixing white colonists selected for frontier skills with friendly Indians to carry out offensive strikes against hostile Indians and French in terrain where normal militia units were ineffective. His memoirs "Entertaining Passages relating to Philip's War" were published in 1716 and are considered the first American military manual.
Born in Plymouth Colony in about 1639, Church married Alice Southworth on December 26, 1667 in Duxbury, Massachusetts. He resided for a time in Duxbury and later moved to Bristol. Alice Southworth Church's table grave is a particularly historically
significant grave in Little Compton, Rhode Island.
King Philip's War
Church was the principal aide to Governor Josiah Winslow of Plymouth Colony. Holding the rank of captain, he fought during King Philip's War (1675–1678) on the New England frontier against the Wampanoag, Nipmuck and Podunk tribes of Indians. He is best known for his actions during this time in commanding a company of men independent of the governor's direct command. Church's men were the first colonial force successful in raiding the Indians' camps in forests and swamps. During previous decades, colonists were on the defense against the Natives, although relations were generally peaceful until 1675.
Church was eventually allowed to recruit Indians when traditional Army tactics of the times were unsuccessful. He persuaded many neutral or formerly hostile Indians to surrender and join his unit, where they operated skillfully as irregular troops. Some of these men had converted to Christianity in settlements before the war. These were known as Praying Indians. After being organized by Church, these troops tracked Indians into the forests and swamps and conducted effective raids and ambushes on their camps.
Great Swamp Fight
During the Great Swamp Fight, Church was wounded while playing a leading role in the battle in which an estimated 300 Narragansetts were killed.
After the Great Swamp Fight, Benjamin Church and the others hoped to follow the Narragansetts to their villages. The natives had fled leaving Church and others stranded in enemy territory and without provisions. Their expedition had to fight for survival and eventually were forced to eat their horses rather than starve.
The war soon ended after an operation by Church's company on August 12, 1676, when one of Church's Indian allies (John Alderman) killed the chieftain King Philip (also known as Metacomet). Upon inspection of Philip's body, Church is quoted as saying "a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast." Philip was then butchered in a manner standard with English punishment for treason, drawing and quartering.
King William's War
During King William's War (1688–97), Church led four New England raiding parties into Acadia (which included most of Maine) against the Acadians and Native Americans. On the first expedition into Acadia, on September 21, 1689, Major Benjamin Church and 250 troops defended a group of English settlers in the Battle of Deering Oaks (also known as the Battle of Brackett's Woods). The British were trying to establish themselves at Falmouth, Maine (present-day Portland, Maine). Although natives killed 21 of his men, he was successful and the natives retreated. Church then returned to Boston leaving the small group of English settlers unprotected. (The following spring, May 1690, over 400 French and native troops under the leadership of Castin returned to Falmouth and massacred all the British settlers in the Battle of Fort Loyal. When Church returned to the village later that summer he buried the dead.)
In Church's second expedition a year later on 11 September 1690 he arrived with 300 men at Casco Bay. His mission was to relieve the English Fort Pejpescot (present day Brunswick, Maine), which had been taken by natives. He went up Androscoggin River to Fort Pejepscot. From there he went 40 miles up river to Livermore Falls, Maine and attacked a native village. Church's men shot 3-4 native men when they were retreating. Church discovered five English captives in the wigwams. Church butchered six or seven prisoners and took nine prisoners. A few days later, in retaliation, the natives attacked Church at Cape Elizabeth on Purpooduc Point, killing 7 of his men and wounding 24 others. On September 26, Church returned to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Church's third expedition during the war was in 1692 when he raided Penobscot (present-day Indian Island, Maine) with 450 men. Church and his men then went on to raid Taconock (Winslow, Maine).
Four years later, Church went on his fourth expedition and carried out the Siege of Fort Nashwaak (1696) (present day Fredericton, New Brunswick) which was then Capital of Acadia, and the Raid on Chignecto (1696) in Acadia, now holding the rank of major. Despite weighing approximately 250 pounds, he led his troops personally in killing inhabitants of Chignecto, looting their household goods, burning their houses and slaughtering the livestock.
Queen Anne's War
During Queen Anne's War, Church went on his fifth and final expedition into Acadia. In retaliation for the Deerfield Massacre, in 1704 Major Church raided Acadia in the Raid on Castine, Maine, Raid on St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Raid on Grand Pre, Raid on Pisiguit (present day Falmouth and Windsor) and the Raid on Chignecto. (Church took a former prisoner of the Maliseet, John Gyles as his translator.) Church took prisoners and claimed to have left only five houses standing in Acadia. One of the prominent Acadian prisoners he took in the Raid of Pisiguit (1704) was Noel Doiron.
Tactics and war doctrine
Church held public office as the first representative of Bristol to the Plymouth Colony legislature between 1682 and 1684.
Church died at Little Compton in 1718 and was buried in the Little Compton Common cemetery.
Church kept notes on his tactics and operations in 1675-1676 which were eventually published in 1716 as "Entertaining Passages relating to Philip's War". Colonel Church was the great-grandfather of Dr. Benjamin Church, the first "Surgeon General" (though that title came later) of the Continental Army. Dr. Church, previously thought to have been a staunch Whig, would be arrested by George Washington as a spy for General Thomas Gage.
Famous Rangers such as Rogers Rangers and Gorham's Rangers would eventually follow in the tradition begun by Church.
In 1992, in honor of his innovative tactical methods, Church was inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame and a bronze Ranger Tab was affixed to his grave stone.
The Rhode Island Society of Colonial Wars placed a plaque near Colonel Church's grave in honor of his leadership and bravery during King Philip's War.