When the bloodiest war in American history broke out, Brighton was a rural village. Known as Little Cambridge, it was home to several prominent Cambridge families who had relocated south of the Charles River. Livestock grazed on the meadows and saltmarshes within sight of their owners’ saltbox-style houses. Three roads connected the village to surrounding communities, skirting several areas of high ground – among them Nonantum Hill and a dry region called “the Pines,” situated just west of the Speedway’s present location. Before development eroded the hillsides and drained the wetlands, these areas were fixtures of the Little Cambridge skyline. And both were settings for one of the most tragic events of King Philip’s War.
In June 1675, decades of simmering tensions and violence between white settlers and Native tribes erupted into a full-scale indigenous uprising against the colonies’ encroachment, led by the Wampanoag grand sachem Metacomet (known to the English as King Philip). Over the next fifteen months, brutal conflict raged throughout New England, pitting the Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuc, and Naragansett against the English and their Mahican, Pequot, and Praying Indian allies. The war wrought untold devastation on English and Native communities. By the time Metacomet was felled in August 1676, sixty-seven European settlements had been destroyed or damaged, and the frontier nearly abandoned; five percent of New England’s colonial population had been slain; and as much as forty percent of the region’s Native people – already weakened by disease and previous wars – had been killed, starved to death, or sold into slavery. The bitter colonial victory crippled local tribes’ power. Never again would they launch a major war against the settlers who poured into the New England frontier.
Praying Indians were particularly hard-hit by King Philip’s War. They were viewed with suspicion and vulnerable to attacks from both sides of the conflict. Many chose to serve alongside colonial militias against Metacomet, but their loyalty brought them little reward. Fearing treachery, in the summer of 1675 the Massachusetts General Court disbanded the Praying Indian companies and confined all Christianized Natives to their villages. They were forbidden from traveling more than one mile from the town centers, engaging in commerce with the colonists, and entering Boston without an escort. Ironically, many Praying Indians defected to Metacomet’s allies and the French to escape the harsh treatment.
Then in late October, the Court ordered all Christian Natives to be interned on Deer and Long Islands in Boston Harbor. Soon after, Captain Thomas Prentice of Newton and his troops entered Natick, the largest praying town, and announced to its residents that they had two hours to prepare for departure. The militia marched five hundred men, women, and children thirteen miles from Natick to a launching point on the Charles River. According to a nineteenth-century tract, the site was at “the Pines” of Little Cambridge; the Natick Nipmuc, however, recall that it was in Watertown. There they met an elderly John Eliot – the man who had originally established Natick and its predecessor praying town Nonantum. Having argued unsuccessfully against the Natives’ internment, he prayed with them before they boarded a fleet of boats to the Harbor Islands. They journeyed down the Charles River past the Dana and Sparhawk estates, the rutted road that later became Market Street, and the saltmarshes where the Speedway and Charles River Reservation are today. They floated beneath the wooden Great Bridge (now the Anderson Memorial Bridge) and around the Shawmut Peninsula, its few trees an autumnal blaze. Before them stretched the harbor, spiked with ship masts; in the distance, the islands where they would endure a hard winter alongside Christianized Indians from other towns. Forbidden from cutting down trees or killing the sheep that grazed on the islands, and with only shellfish for sustenance, hundreds of Natives died.
Little Cambridge had not seen the last of the Natick Praying Indians, however. Following an especially bloody winter, the colonies decided to reconstitute the Christianized Indian militia companies. They forced men from Deer and Long Island to fight, leaving behind approximately four hundred women, children, and elders. These survivors soon left the islands as well. Several sympathetic colonists, including Eliot’s partner Daniel Gookin, persuaded the Massachusetts General Court to resettle small groups of Praying Indians in towns across the colony. Seventy-five were brought to Nonantum Hill in Little Cambridge. Several families lived near the Sparhawk and Champney homes, where the men were employed to chop wood and build stone walls, and the women as spinners. Only a few of the original Praying Town communities recovered.
Today, little remains in Brighton of King Philip’s War. The Pines was paved over and served as the site of the Brighton abattoir in the nineteenth century. Nonantum Street coils around the base of Nonantum Hill, now crowded with modern houses, and connects to Faneuil Street – tracing the ghost of Old Indian Lane. Sparhawk and Champney Streets commemorate the families who employed a few survivors of Deer and Long Islands, but give no indication of where the Praying Indians lived. But what the physical landscape hides, people strive to reveal. Since 2010, the Natick Nipmuc have held a Sacred Run and Sacred Paddle between South Natick and Deer Island to commemorate their ancestors’ forced removal. They board traditional canoes called mishoons and paddle past the Speedway down the Charles River. In so doing they help to tell the full history of Brighton’s early years.