History | Travel

A Visit with Benjamin Church

A seasonably warm Sunday lured me from a visit with friends in Mattapoiset, Massachusetts to Little Compton, Rhode Island to finally meet Benjamin Church. Church was appointed Captain of the first Ranger force in America in 1675 by the Governor Josiah Winslow of Plymouth Colony. He was famous for being the guy leading friendly Native Americans that finally killed Metacomet (King Philip). His greatest innovation was in imitation: adopting the Native American style of fighting to allow his forces to survive and find success in battles with the French and hostile native population.

What made Church honorable was his respect for the native population and his desire to coexist with them. While many around him were inclined to encroach and eventually push aside native tribes, Church wanted to coexist and work with them. This led to recruiting friendly tribes to assist in King Philip’s War and in later battles with the Abenaki and French in Acadia. War is a dirty business, and there was plenty of atrocity committed on both sides, but Church seemed to live by a code of honor untarnished by historical perspective.

Today Church lies in rest in a quiet triangle-shaped graveyard in the middle of Little Compton with his wife buried next to him. A monument honoring him stands at his feet, and someone glued an Army Ranger tab just above his engraved name. That engraving is fading away now, barely legible after 300 years of exposure to the elements. If you asked a thousand people in New England who Benjamin Church was, maybe one or two would know. Time fades memory faster than it does engraved stone.

Here lyeth interred the [body]
of the Honorable
Col. Benjamin Church, Esq.,
who departed this life, January 17, 1717-8 in
the 78 yeare of his age.’

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon I was the only visitor, but a group of teenagers were playing basketball nearby. I wondered if they knew the story of the soldier buried nearby? Does their local school teach children about the war that happened right across the river, or about the man quietly marking eternity in a faded grave in the middle of town? I hope so.

Fading history

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