The Tefft Papers

The Tefft Family and the Narragansett Controversy

Welcome to the Tefft Papers web site!

 Behold, a mystery! 

Join me as I delve into one of New England's 

most complex and intriguing historical records. 

January 1676, at the height of King Philip's War, Joshua Tefft was found guilty of high treason by the puritan colonies; his sentence, to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the only Englishman in New England history to suffer such a fate. 

What was his crime? Was it because he scalped a miller, or that he fought with the Narragansett Indians and killed a captain in the Connecticut army? Was it because he was a Rhode Islander who fell in love with an Indian maiden. 

Or was it all of the above?

The Celebrated Joshua Tefft


Our first knowledge of Joshua Tefft's existence comes from various accounts regarding his part in King Philip's War of 1675/76. Much myth surrounds many of these reports and perhaps we will never know the exact truth. Even his birth date remains a mystery. We do know that Joshua was born in the 1640's, in either Rhode Island or Massachusetts, to parents John and Mary Tefft. Joshua Tefft was a first generation English American.

Little is known of Joshua's early life. There are records for his uncle William in Boston dating to 1638, while records for his father John do not appear until 1643 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. From the documentary record it is possible to conclude that Joshua's brother Samuel was born circa 1644-46. While there are no such records for Joshua, circumstantial evidence seems to indicate that he was the older of the two.

The first extant record for Joshua is the birth of his son, Peter, in 1672. Joshua's wife Sarah died just two days later, perhaps due to childbed fever:
"Peeter Tifft Sonn of Josua Tiff by Sarah his
wife, was born ye 14th of march ye yeer
1672 in Warwicke"

Joshua and his brother Samuel are recorded in a 1674 census for Connecticut's disputed Plantation of Wickford in the present town of North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Joshua is also mentioned in his father's 1674 will. These three documents are all we know of Joshua Tefft prior to King Philip's War. Certainly there is nothing in these records to suggest the tragic fate that befell him at the height of the war.

In December 1675, over 1,000 troops of the United Colonies – that is Massachusetts, Plymouth and Connecticut – converged in southern Rhode Island intending to take the territory by 'right of conquest'. They attacked the Narragansett Nation's stronghold on an island in the Great Swamp, less than two miles from Joshua Tefft's farm. Tefft claimed that he had been taken captive by the Narragansett Indians – his life spared only on the condition that he serve as their slave. However, an Indian woman taken captive by the English of the United Colonies reported that Joshua was their 'encourager and conductor.' 

After the Great Swamp Massacre of December 19, 1675, Captain Oliver of Massachusetts reported that Joshua Tefft had "shot 20 times at us in the swamp." Records indicate that Tefft wounded Captain Nathaniel Seely of Connecticut, who subsequently died. An Indian spy reported that Tefft, "did them good service & kild & woonded 5 or 6 English in that fight & before they wold trust him hee had kild a miller, an English man at Narragansett, and brought his scalpe to them." 

Joshua Tefft claimed, "Himselfe had no Arms at all" during his interrogation recorded by Roger Williams in Providence. He was subsequently extradited to the Plantation of Wickford on January 16, 1676, into the custody of General Josiah Winslow, Governor of New Plymouth, and Connecticut's ambassador Richard Smith. Two days later, Joshua was executed for high treason. Major William Bradford of Plymouth wrote: "The Englishman that was taken had his doom yesterday, to be hanged and quartered; which was done effectually." 

A sorrowful record, indeed.

Yet, what happened after Joshua Tefft's execution seems to suggest that he was not guilty of high treason. He may have been merely of seeking to preserve his own life and property under duress, at the least, or what is considered to be petite (petty) treason, at the most. The Rhode Island government swiftly admonished the soldiers of the United Colonies as unwelcome intruders, but there was little else that they could do. Roger Williams was adamant that the affairs of the New England colonies not beleaguer the King and the issue was never legally resolved. 

After the war, the colonial government of Rhode Island took an almost solicitous posture towards the Tefft family. Joshua's brother, Samuel Tefft, with his brother-in-law, the future Governor Joseph Jenkes, became freemen of the colony in 1677. In 1681, Joshua's orphan son, Peter Tefft, was appointed three guardians including Jireh Bull, Justice of the Peace of Pettaquamscutt; the prominent John Greene of Warwick, who later became deputy governor of Rhode Island; and Peter's uncle, Samuel Tefft of Providence. The guardianship order makes it clear that Peter, a nine year old boy in 1681, was a landowner with right to all land and possessions of his father even though Joshua was executed as a felon by Puritan authorities that required the forfeiture of estate.

The colony of Connecticut relinquished its claim to southern Rhode Island in 1703. The Tefft family petitioned the Rhode Island General Assembly regarding their interest in the vacant Indian lands. Without a doubt, it must have been a most compelling argument. In 1709, three members of the Tefft family –  Samuel Tefft, his oldest son John and Joshua's orphan son, Peter –  were among twenty-six individuals granted the exclusive right to take part in the Shannock Purchase, which includes much of the present town of Richmond, Rhode Island. 

Peter first settled in Shannock where he and his first wife, Sarah (WITTER), had two children. Peter and his second wife, Mary (later NEWTON), had six children. Peter Tefft died in Stonington, Connecticut, in 1718, while involved in a very complex land transaction. It was in the present town of North Stonington, Connecticut, that one of the most litigated land transactions in early colonial history occurred, which ultimately would help define the present border between the colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut. And that border has remained to the present day.

Joshua Condemned

"Concerning the number of Indians Slain in this Battle, we are uncertain; only some Indians which afterwards were taken prisoners (as also a wretched English man that apostized to the Heathen, and fought with them against his own Country-men, but was at last taken and executed.)"

Increase Mather's "A Brief History of the VVAR R" 1676.

"Within a few days after, about Jan. 16th, the Scouts brought in one Joshuah Tift, a Renegado English-man of Providence, that upon some discontent amoungst his neighbors, had turned Indian, married one of the Indian Squaws, renounced his Religion, Nation and natural Parents all at once, fighting aginst them. He was taken by Captain Fenner of Providence, who with some of his neighbors were pursuing some Indians that had driven away their Cattel. This Tift being one of the Company, was wounded in the knee, and so was seized by the English; he had in his habit comformed to them amoungst whom he lived. After examination, he was condemned to die the death of a Traytor. As to his Religion he was found to be as ignorant as an Heathen, which no doubt caused the fewer tears to be shed at his Funeral, standers by being unwilling to lavish pity upon him that had divested himself of Nature it self, as well Religion, in a time when so much pity was needed elsewhere, and nothing left besides wherewith to relieve the Sufferers."

William Hubbard's "The Present State of New-England" 1677.

The supreme punishment for high treason:

Hanged, Drawn and Quartered


"For high treason, if a man, he being accussed 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, cut down alive, his entrails and privie members cut from him and burned in his view; then shall his head be cut off and his body quartered; his lands and his goods all forfeited."

The broad ax was typically used in this type of execution.



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Providence Sunday Journal article about my research: 


Researcher rewrites history behind 'oldest' gravestone
Craig Anthony discovers, among other things, that Sara Tefft died 30 years later than originally believed.
Journal Staff Writer
      WARWICK -- For more than a century, Sara Tefft's sole distinction was to be buried under the oldest marked gravestone in New England. As befits such an artifact, the 250-pound fieldstone was pried from her burial plot off Occupessatuxet Cove and stored with other things of rare vintage in what was once a wine cellar under the John Brown House in Providence.
       As far as historians were concerned, Sara Tefft was no more than that - a rough chunk of stone, crudely inscribed:
TEfft IN thE MARCH 16

       She was cast as a spinster, childless. Her presence in Warwick seven months before the first settlers purchased land there was a mystery.
       But Craig Anthony, an 11th-generation Rhode Islander with a fierce pride in his state's heritage, thought Sara Tefft's life was worth examining. After six years of trawling a sluggish sea of Colonial-era documents, Anthony has had the rare privilege of rewriting history.
       Sara Tefft actually died in 1672, and Rhode Island can no longer claim the oldest marked gravestone, Anthony has discovered. Far from being a barren, single woman, Tefft bore two children and was twice married to murderers who were executed for their crimes, Anthony maintains.
       "This is like detective work," said Anthony. "And it's a great story. It has everything in it: sex, murder, war."
       His conclusions have persuaded the steward of Sara Tefft's memorial, the Rhode Island Historical Society, to amend its documentation surrounding the stone, which is occasionally displayed, said Linda Eppich, head curator.
       More importantly, said Anthony, the fate of Sara and second husband Joshua's only son, Peter, is also the key to rethinking history's take on Joshua Tefft, one of the most notorious colonists of his time and the only Rhode Islander to be drawn and quartered for treason.
       "The recorded histories done by (the Puritan chroniclers) exhibited immense bias," Anthony said. "I wanted to write history from the point of view of a Rhode Islander."

       SHE WAS BORN Sara Greene, most likely an illegitimate daughter of John Greene Jr., a Warwick man who was eventually elected deputy governor of the colony in 1690. Anthony first found a reference to her in court records -- she was called to answer for the crime of fornication. Sara Greene avoided four sessions before the Colonial magistrates; her father eventually paid the 40-shilling fine.
       Greene next appeared as the wife of Thomas Flounders, Anthony's research shows. In 1670, two years after they were wed, Flounders had a land dispute with a man named Walter House. One day they came to blows over it in Flounders's Narragansett shop. Flounders beat House to death and fled.
       Rhode Island and Connecticut, which had been squabbling for decades over the boundary between their infant colonies, fought for jurisdiction over the case. But the Rhode Island constables found Flounders first. The court convicted him of felonious manslaughter and he was executed that November.
       Young widow Sara Flounders next married Joshua Tefft, who eventually became a prominent villain in the Puritan accounts of Colonial Rhode Island. But she did not live to see this ignominy. Sara died March 16, 1672, two days after giving birth to a son, Peter. There is no record of how old she was.

       IN 1675, WAR broke out between the English of Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag Indian nation of Southeastern Massachusetts. The United Colonies of New England, a confederation formed by the Plymouth, Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colonies, decided to make a preemptive strike against the Narragansetts, to prevent them from joining forces with the Wampanoags.
       Rhode Island sought to join the United Colonies, but was denied because of its policy of religious liberty. Most of the colony's inhabitants retreated to Aquidneck Island for safety.
       Joshua Tefft remained to defend his South Kingstown farm, where he was dragooned into the United Colonies troops. He escaped and went back to his home -- only to be captured by the Narragansetts who enslaved him.
       Anthony maintains that Tefft then fought willingly alongside the tribe during the Great Swamp Fight of December 1675, when several hundred Narragansetts -- mostly women and children -- were slaughtered at their winter refuge inside the West Kingston swamp. Tefft wounded Capt. Nathaniel Seeley, of Connecticut, who later died.
       Tefft was wounded while raiding the outlying farms around Providence and was captured by English troops. In January 1676, Tefft was taken to Richard Smith's garrison (now called Smith's Castle in North Kingstown). Various Colonial accounts laid out Tefft's crimes -- scalping a miller, firing at Colonial soldiers and wounding Seeley.
       The United Colonies tried him for high treason. The 1647 law dictated that the condemned person would be drawn and quartered and forfeit all of his land and possessions. The penalty stuffed as many bodily humiliations into one execution as possible. The traitor was hanged, then cut down while still alive. His private parts and entrails were cut from the body and burned in the traitor's sight. Finally, the convicted was decapitated and cut into quarters.
       Nonetheless, the Rhode Island government, in its guardianship order, saw to it that Joshua's son, Peter, inherited his father's land -- in defiance of the legal penalty.
       As Anthony sees it, Peter's inheritance and a handful of legal maneuvers to protect Tefft land proves that Rhode Island did not regard Tefft as the traitor that the United Colonies did. In his tidy Wakefield apartment, Anthony turns to a decaying set of history books atop his refrigerator. He plucks a volume from an 1864 edition of The Rhode Island Colonial Records, inherited from his great-grandfather, state Sen. Henry Clay Anthony, of Portsmouth.
       "Joshua Tefft's not in there," he said as he ruffled the pages. "There weren't that many people in Colonial Rhode Island and if things went wrong, it wouldn't have gone unrecognized. The more I became convinced he was unjustly executed, the more I wanted to exonerate him."

       THE MISINTERPRETATION of Sara Tefft's stone began in one cemetery and ended in another.
       Her bones lie in a grave on the Greene family homestead in Warwick, once a Colonial outpost. In the mid-1800s, Dr. Usher Parsons, a physician and an amateur historian, read the downward slant of the seven's top line as a four. In 1868, the historical society removed the stone for safekeeping. A descendant put up a slate copy that repeated Parson's transcription and tacked on the phrase "in the 67th year of her age."
       Three-and-a-half centuries transformed the 17th-century wilderness to the crowded bayside suburb of Conimicut. The "new" stone toppled from its foundation and lies in fragments in an overgrown tangle off Cole Farm Road. But subsequent scholars never changed the way they read that inscription.
       Craig Anthony began his journey to a new perspective on Sara Tefft -- and her place in Colonial Rhode Island history - at the Tefft family plot in South Kingstown.
       Anthony was exploring an abandoned rail bed that slices through the backwoods of South Kingstown when he stumbled on a field of stones, breaking the earth at regular intervals like teeth.
       Anthony, who had been working on a project to record all of the state's historic cemeteries, recognized it as a graveyard hosting people too insignificant to rate carved stones or settlers who predated such civilized pretensions.
       He reported this find to John Sterling, an authority on historical cemeteries and the head of the state transcription project. Sterling turned over everything he had on the cemetery plot, including an unpublished 1880 manuscript.

       ONE SENTENCE in the manuscript caught Anthony's eye: "It was in this sequestered place that the celebrated Joshua Tefft was captured and afterwards taken to Wickford where he was drawn and quartered, the only execution of the kind in Rhode Island so far as we know."
       Driven to know more about Joshua Tefft, Anthony, with some assistance from Sterling, relentlessly mined archives from Hartford to Portsmouth. One afternoon, Anthony became so engrossed in his research he was briefly locked in the Warwick City Hall vault when he failed to leave his work after the clerk turned off the upstairs lights.
       Hidden in court documents, marriage records, birth and death registers, wills and deeds were splinters of the plot Anthony has written. There's no doubt that Anthony has shattered the myths surrounding Sara Tefft's stone, Sterling said. He has included this historical correction in his 1997 book on Warwick's historic cemeteries. The oldest gravestone record will go out of state -- most likely to one in either Dorchester, Mass., or Connecticut, both dated 1644, he said.
       Robert P. Emlen, the Brown University curator who has written about the Tefft stone and teaches a course on gravestone studies, said that every monument is another piece of a faded mosaic that informs the present.
       "They are carved in a certain way and use language that is useful to us," Emlen said. "Gravestones provide a window into a historical past. They are the material evidence of lots of people for whom no other written record exists."