Joshua Tefft

Joshua Tefft

Birth
Portsmouth, Newport County, Rhode Island, USA
Death 18 Jan 1676
Rhode Island, USA
Burial Unknown
Memorial ID 53256534 · View Source
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THE ONLY ENGLISHMAN EXECUTED FOR HIGH TREASON IN NEW ENGLAND HISTORY

SPOKE THE ALGONQUIN INDIAN LANGUAGE

MARRIED A NATIVE AMERICAN

THE STORY OF JOSHUA TEFFT (TIFT), by Laurence Overmire (7th great grandson), genealogist and family historian, updated Aug. 2017:

Joshua's story is somewhat of a mystery and probably will remain so. The fact is that he was executed for treason during King Philip's War, but the circumstances of what actually led to his execution are not clear.

Accounts say that Joshua married a Wampanoag Indian girl. She may have been an illegitimate daughter of Maj. John Greene, a prominent figure in Rhode Island. Joshua, as the story goes, went to live with or near his wife's people and did not attend church services after that time. One story claims that Joshua's father went to convince him to return home when some Indians attacked and killed the old man.

In any case, Joshua's wife Sara died shortly after giving birth to their only child Peter in March of 1671/72. Joshua was left a widower with an infant son and a farm to take care of. As fate would have it, he would be a man caught in the middle of two cultures in violent conflict and would pay with his life.

Unfortunately, no records of Joshua's trial remain in existence, but Rhode Island historian A. Craig Anthony, who has been doing extensive research on Joshua and Sara, believes events unfolded this way: The colonies of Plymouth, Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony had formed a confederation called The United Colonies of New England, intentionally excluding Rhode Island because of its policy of religious freedom. In 1675, the failed Indian policies of this confederation ignited hostilities with the tribes in what became known as King Philip's War. The United Colonials sent 1300 troops to Smith's garrison to try and take southern Rhode Island from the Indians by force.

The Teffts (or Tifts), meanwhile, had lived in peace with their Indian neighbors in Rhode Island for 14 years.

The Rhode Island government obviously was not happy with the invasion of the Colonials, but could do little except admonish them as "unwelcome intruders." As tensions increased, Joshua's extended family and most of his fellow Rhode Islanders fled to Aquidneck Island for safety, but Joshua chose to remain in Kingstown to defend his farm, which was adjacent to the Indian stronghold at the Great Swamp. At first, he was conscripted by the United Colonial troops, but escaped and returned to his farm, only to be captured and enslaved by the Indians soon after.

The colonials attacked on Dec. 19, 1675, and Joshua was apparently forced to fight for the Indians in The Great Swamp fight, in which several hundred Narragansetts, mostly women and children, were killed. In that battle, records show Tefft mortally wounded Capt. Nathaniel Seeley of Connecticut.

In January of 1676, Tefft himself was wounded while raiding farms around Providence and was captured by the Colonials. Charged with treason, Joshua made his confession in Providence, recorded by Roger Williams. In that confession, Joshua claimed he was at his farm making preparations to secure his cattle and join his family in Newport when the Narragansetts led by Chief Canonchet came to kill him, but when he begged for his life, they agreed to make him their slave instead, and took him to their fort. There he waited on his master Canonchet until he was wounded in the fight, then fled with the chief to a spruce swamp where they rested. He insisted however that he had never been armed. His story was not believed.

Williams extradited him to Wickford in the custody of General Josiah Winslow (Governor of Plymouth) and Connecticut ambassador Capt. Richard Smith on Jan. 16, 1676. The prisoner was taken to Capt. Smith's garrison (now called Smith's Castle in North Kingstown). Two days later he was executed, having been convicted of high treason because of various accounts contending that he scalped a miller, fired on Colonial soldiers and wounded Capt. Seeley. The fact that he married an Indian woman and was known not to have attended church did not help his case either. These were considerable offenses to the strict Puritan sensibilities of the United Colonials.

Maj. William Bradford (1624-1703), the son of Gov. William Bradford of the Mayflower and the 9th great grandfather of the author of this sketch, noted in a letter dated January 20: "The Englishman that was taken had his doom yesterday, to be hanged and quartered; which was done effectually."

Tefft's execution must have been horrific. The 1647 Rhode Island statute read: "For High Treason (if a man) he being accused by two lawfull witnesses or accusers, shall be drawn upon a Hurdell unto the place of Execution, and there shall be hanged by the neck, cutt down alive, his entrails and privie members cutt from him and burned in his view; then shall his head be cutt off and his body quartered; his lands and goods all forfeited."

After the execution, tradition says Joshua's head was used for sport by the soldiers and stuck upon the fencepost at Smith's garrison.

But Joshua's story doesn't end there. After the war, the Rhode Island government, separate from the United Colonial government that prosecuted the case, defied the legal penalty and through a series of legal maneuverings restored Joshua's inheritance to his son Peter, leaving historian Anthony to speculate that Rhode Island did not consider Tefft to be the traitor that the United Colonial government did. In fact, Anthony believes Tefft may have been unjustly executed, and might even be considered a patriot.

The truth may never be known, but certainly Joshua Tefft was a man caught in the middle. The Native Americans were no doubt his relatives, friends and neighbors, while the English were his countrymen, to whom most of his contemporaries would say he owed his allegiance. Whether Joshua was truly a villain, or merely an unfortunate victim of the violent times in which he lived, remains an open question.

KING PHILIP'S WAR, 1675-76, by Laurence Overmire
King Philip was the chief of the Wampanoag Indians and the son of Massasoit, the chief who had befriended the Pilgrims and celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1620. King Philip resented the intrusion and domination of the colonists and led an uprising of several tribes, including the Narragansetts, in 1675-76, terrorizing New England in what would become known as the bloodiest Indian War ever to take place there. By the time the war ended 52 out of 90 New England settlements had been attacked, 12 completely destroyed. King Philip himself was trapped and killed in Aug. 1676.

THE GREAT SWAMP FIGHT, 19 DEC 1675, by Laurence Overmire
The Narragansetts signed a treaty to remain neutral during King Philip's War, but when they gave refuge to King Philip's wife and children, the English considered this a treaty violation and laid siege to their village. The tribe was virtually destroyed in the ensuing massacre, losing over 600 warriors and 20 sachems. Their chief Canonchet escaped the carnage and joined forces with Philip. He was captured in April of 1676 and executed by the English and their Mohegan allies.


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See more Tefft memorials in:

  • Created by: Laurence Overmire
  • Added: 4 Jun 2010
  • Find a Grave Memorial 53256534
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  • Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Joshua Tefft (unknown–18 Jan 1676), Find a Grave Memorial no. 53256534, ; Maintained by Laurence Overmire (contributor 46950879) Unknown.