The years 1675 and 1676 were years of terrible experience for New England. The most dreadful of all the Indian outbreaks of that region—that known as King Philip's War—was raging, and hundreds of the inhabitants fell victims to the ruthless rage of their savage foes. Whole villages perished, their inhabitants being slain on the spot, or carried away captive for the more cruel fate of Indian vengeance. The province was in a state of terror, for none knew at what moment the terrible war-whoop might sound, and the murderous enemy be upon them with tomahawk and brand.
Everywhere the whites were on the alert. The farmer went to his fields with his musket as an indispensable companion. Outlying houses were guarded like fortresses. Even places of worship were converted into strongholds, and the people prayed with musket in hand, and, while listening to the exhortations of their pastors, kept keenly alive to the sounds without, for none could tell at what moment the foe might break in on their devotions.
In the frontier town of Hadley, Massachusetts, then on the northwestern edge of civilization, on a day in the summer of 1676, the people were thus all gathered at the meeting-house, engaged in divine service. It was a day of fasting and prayer, set aside to implore God's aid to relieve the land from the reign of terror which had come upon it. Yet the devout villagers, in their appeal for spiritual aid, did not forget the importance of temporal weapons. They had brought their muskets with them, and took part in the pious exercises with these carnal instruments of safety within easy reach of their hands.
Their caution was well advised. In the midst of their devotional exercises a powerful body of Indians made a sudden onslaught upon the village. They had crept up in their usual stealthy way, under cover of trees and bushes, and their wild yells as they assailed the outlying houses were the first intimation of their approach.
These alarming sounds reached the ears of the worshippers, and quickly brought their devotional services to an end. In an instant all thought of dependence upon the Almighty was replaced by the instinct of dependence upon themselves. Grasping their weapons, they hurried out, to find themselves face to face with the armed and exultant savages, who now crowded the village street, and whose cries of triumph filled the air with discordant sounds.
The people were confused and frightened, huddled together with little show of order or discipline, and void of the spirit and energy necessary to meet their threatening foe. The Indians were on all sides, completely surrounding them. The suddenness of the alarm and the evidence of imminent peril robbed the villagers of their usual vigor and readiness, signs of panic were visible, and had the Indians attacked at that moment the people must have been hurled back in disorderly flight, to become in great part the victims of their foes.
It was a critical moment. Was Hadley to suffer the fate of other frontier towns, or would the recent prayers of pastor and people bring some divine interposition in their favor? Yes; suddenly it seemed as if God indeed had come to their aid; for as they stood there in a state of nerveless dread a venerable stranger appeared in their midst, a tall, stately personage, with long white hair, and dressed in strange, old-fashioned garb, his countenance beaming with energy and decision.
"Quick," he cried, "into line and order at once! The Indians are about to charge upon you. Take heart, and prepare for them, or they will slaughter you like sheep."
With the air of one born to command, he hastily formed the band of villagers into military array, displaying such skill and ardor that their temporary fright vanished, to be succeeded by courage and confidence. Had not the Almighty sent this venerable stranger to their aid? Should they fear when led by God's messenger?
"Now, upon them!" cried their mysterious leader. "We must have the advantage of the assault!"
Putting himself at their head, he led them on with an ardor remarkable in one of his years. The savages, who had been swarming together preparatory to an attack, beheld with surprise this orderly rush forward of the villagers, and shrunk from their death-dealing and regular volleys. And the white-haired form who led their foes with such fearless audacity struck terror to their superstitious souls, filling them with dread and dismay.
The struggle that followed was short and decisive. Animated by the voice and example of their leader, the small band attacked their savage enemies with such vigor and show of discipline that in very few minutes the Indians were in full flight for the wilderness, leaving a considerable number of dead upon the ground. Of the villagers only two or three had fallen.
The grateful people, when the turmoil and confusion of the affray were over, turned to thank their venerable leader for his invaluable aid. To their surprise he was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished in the same mysterious manner as he had appeared. They looked at one another in bewilderment. What did this strange event signify? Had God really sent one of his angels from heaven, in response to their prayers, to rescue them from destruction? Such was the conclusion to which some of the people came, while the most of them believed that there was some miracle concerned in their strange preservation.
This interesting story, which tradition has preserved in the form here given, has a no less interesting sequel. We know, what most of the villagers never knew, who their preserver was, and how it happened that he came so opportunely to their rescue. To complete our narrative we must go back years in time, to the date of 1649, the year of the execution of Charles I. of England.
Fifty-nine signatures had been affixed to the death-warrant of this royal criminal. A number of the signers afterwards paid the penalty of that day's work on the scaffold. We are concerned here only with two of them, Generals Whalley and Goffe, who, after the death of Cromwell and the return of Charles II., fled for safety to New England, knowing well what would be their fate if found in their mother-land. A third of the regicides, Colonel Dixwell, afterwards joined them in America, but his story is void of the romance which surrounded that of his associates.
Whalley and Goffe reached Boston in July, 1660. The vessel that brought them brought also tidings that Charles II. was on the throne. The fugitives were well received. They had stood high in the Commonwealth, brought letters of commendation from Puritan ministers in England, and hoped to dwell in peace in Cambridge, where they decided to fix their residence. But the month of November brought a new story to Boston. In the Act of Indemnity passed by Parliament the names of Whalley and Goffe were among those left out. They had played a part in the execution of the king, and to the regicides no mercy was to be shown. Their estates were confiscated; their lives declared forfeited; any man who befriended them did so at his own peril.
These tidings produced excitement and alarm in Boston. The Puritans of the colony were all warmly inclined towards their endangered guests. Some would have protected them at all hazards; others felt inclined to help them to escape; a few thought it might be their duty to take them prisoners.
The illustrious fugitives settled this difficulty by privately leaving Cambridge and making their way overland to New Haven. Here they were well received. In truth, the Rev. John Davenport, one of the founders of the colony, did not hesitate to speak to his congregation in their behalf. We quote from his bold and significant words, whose slightly masked meaning his hearers failed not to understand.
"Withhold not countenance, entertainment, and protection from the people of God,—whom men may call fools and fanatics,—if any such come to you from other countries, as from France or England, or any other place. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers. Hide the outcasts, betray not him that wandereth. Let mine outcasts dwell with thee, Moab. Be thou a covert to them from the face of the spoiler."
Mr. Davenport was not afraid to live up to the spirit of his words. For several weeks the regicides dwelt openly in his house. But meanwhile a proclamation from the king had reached Boston, ordering their arrest as traitors and murderers. News of its arrival was quickly received at New Haven. The fugitives, despite the sympathy of the people, were in imminent danger. Measures must be taken for their safety.
They left New Haven and proceeded to Milford, where they showed themselves in public. But by night they covertly returned, and for more than a week lay hid in Mr. Davenport's cellar. This cellar is still in existence, and the place in it where the fugitives are said to have hidden may still be seen.
But their danger soon grew more imminent. Peremptory orders came from England for their arrest. Governor Endicott felt obliged to act decisively. He gave commission to two young royalists who had recently come from England, empowering them to search through Massachusetts for the fugitives. Letters to the governors of the other colonies, requesting aid in their purpose, were also given them.
These agents of the king at once started on their mission of death. They had no difficulty in tracing the fugitives to New Haven. One person went so far as to tell them that the men they sought were secreted in Mr. Davenport's house. Stopping at Guilford, they showed their warrant to Mr. Leete, the deputy-governor, and demanded horses for their journey, and aid and power to search for and apprehend the fugitives.
Deputy Leete had little heart for this task. He knew very well where the fugitives were, but managed to make such excuses and find so many reasons for delay that the agents, who arrived on Saturday, were detained until Sunday, and then, as this was Puritan New England, could not get away till Monday. Meanwhile a secret messenger was on his way to New Haven, to warn the fugitives of their danger. On hearing this startling news they hastily removed from their hiding-place in Mr. Davenport's house, and were taken to a secluded mill two miles away.
The royal messengers reached New Haven and demanded the assistance of the authorities in their search. They failed to get it. Every obstacle was thrown in their way. They equally failed to find any trace of the fugitives, though the latter did not leave the immediate vicinity of the town. After two days at the mill they were taken to a hiding-place at a spot called Hatchet Harbor, and soon afterwards, finding this place too exposed, they removed to a cavern-like covert in a heap of large stones, near the summit of West Rock, not far from the town. Here they remained in hiding for several months, being supplied with food from a lonely farm-house in the neighborhood.
The royal agents, finding their search fruitless and their efforts to get aid from the magistrates vexatiously baffled, at length returned to Boston, where they told a bitter story of the obstinate and pertinacious contempt of his Majesty's orders displayed by these New Haven worthies. The chase thus given up, the fugitives found shelter in a house in Milford, where they dwelt in seclusion for two years.
But danger returned. The king demanded blood-revenge for his father's death. Commissioners from England reached Boston, armed with extraordinary powers of search. The pursuit was renewed with greater energy than before. The fugitives, finding the danger imminent, and fearing to bring their protectors into trouble, returned to their cave. Here they lay for some time in security, while the surrounding country was being actively scoured by parties of search. On one occasion, when out of their place of shelter, they were so nearly overtaken that they only escaped by hiding under a bridge. This was what is known as Neck Bridge, over Mill River. As they sat beneath it they heard above them the hoof-beats of their pursuers' horses on the bridge. The sleuth-hounds of the law passed on without dreaming how nearly their victims had been within their reach. This was not the only narrow escape of the fugitives. Several times they were in imminent danger of capture, yet fortune always came to their aid.
The Cave of the Regicides.
A day arrived in which the cave ceased to serve as a safe harbor of refuge. A party of Indians, hunting in the woods, discovered its lurking occupants. Fearing that the savages might betray them, to obtain the large reward offered, the fugitives felt it necessary to seek a new place of shelter. A promising plan was devised by their friends, who included all the pious Puritans of the colony. Leaving the vicinity of New Haven, and travelling by night only, the aged regicides made their way, through many miles of forest, to Hadley, then an outpost in the wilderness. Here the Rev. John Russell, who ministered to the spiritual wants of the inhabitants, gladly received and sheltered them. His house had been lately added to, and contained many rooms and closets. In doing this work a hiding-place had been prepared for his expected guests. One of the closets, in the garret, had doors opening into two chambers, while its floor-boards were so laid that they could be slipped aside and admit to a dark under-closet. From this there seems to have been a passage-way to the cellar.
With this provision for their retreat, in case the house should be searched, Mr. Russell gave harbor to the hunted regicides, the secret of their presence being known only to his family and one or two of the most trusty inhabitants. The fugitives, happily for them, had no occasion to avail themselves of the concealed closet. Their place of hiding remained for years unsuspected. In time the rigor of the search was given up, and for many years they remained here in safety, their secret being remarkably well kept. It was in 1664 that they reached Hadley. In 1676, when Colonel Goffe so opportunely served the villagers in their extremity, so little was it known that two strangers had dwelt for twelve years concealed in their midst, that some of the people, as we have said, decided that their rescuer must be an angel from heaven, in default of other explanation of his sudden appearance.
There is little more to say about them. General Whalley died at Hadley, probably in the year of the Indian raid, and was buried in the cellar of Mr. Russell's house, his secret being kept even after his death. His bones have since been found there. As for General Goffe, his place of exit from this earth is a mystery. Tradition says that he left Hadley, went "westward towards Virginia," and vanished from human sight and knowledge. The place of his death and burial remains unknown.
It may be said, in conclusion, that Colonel Dixwell joined his fellow-regicides in Hadley in 1665. He had taken the name of Davids, was not known to be in America, and was comparatively safe. He had no reason to hide, and dwelt in a retired part of the town, where his presence and intercourse doubtless went far to relieve the monotony of life of his fellows in exile. He afterwards lived many years in New Haven, where he spent much of his time in reading,—history being his favorite study,—in walking in the neighboring groves, and in intercourse with the more cultivated inhabitants, the Rev. Mr. Pierpont being his intimate friend. He married twice while here, and at his death left a wife and two children, who resumed his true name, which he made known in his last illness. His descendants are well known in New England, and the Dixwells are among the most respected Boston families of to-day.