Anawan Rock and the Making of a Ghost Story

Church and his men capturing Anawan from an 1827 edition of "The History of Philip's War"

A number of people have made the claim that Rehoboth is the “most haunted town in Massachusetts.” I don’t know about that, but I am very interested in the history behind the legends. Some of the town’s stories are rooted in the events of King Philip’s War, which raged throughout New England in 1675 and 1676. Rehoboth was, so to speak, on the front lines of the war, located on the outskirts of Plymouth Colony and close to Mount Hope (now in Bristol, Rhode Island) which was the main village of the Pokanoket (now known as Wampanoag) people.

Plymouth Colony was then led by Gov. Josiah Winslow. The Pokanoket by Metacomet, who had taken the English name Philip. Their fathers had, for the most part, worked together to form an alliance. Winslow and Philip, however, would allow that alliance to descend into war.

Few people realize that King Philip’s War, in terms of percentage of the population, was the bloodiest war in American History. For the English settlers, the number of killed (by percentage) was double that of the American Civil War according to historian Nathaniel Philbrick. More than half of the towns in New England were attacked. For the Native Americans, the casualties were simply catastrophic–a terrible tragedy.

Anawan Rock was where one of the final episodes of the war played out on August 28, 1676. About two weeks earlier on August 12, King Philip had been killed near Mount Hope by a member of a war party led by Capt. Benjamin Church. Unlike most Englishmen of his time, Church had made alliances with Native Americans willing to fight against Philip. Church learned from them and knew how to fight a war of this sort.

Philip’s war chief and advisor, Anawan, now led Philip’s remaining warriors. Changing their camp every night, they sought to evade Church. But they were betrayed on August 28 and Church learned of their location. When Church received this crucial information, he had only six men with him. But he could not delay long enough to fetch the rest of his men. The next morning, Anawan would be on the move again. So, Church set out with six men against Anawan’s sixty, determined to capture or kill Philip’s “general.”

Anawan had made camp at the base of a huge dome of rock, 25 feet tall and 75 feet wide, in Squannakonk Swamp not far from the village of Rehoboth. When Church and his men stealthily approached that night, they found fires burning and Anawan and his men resting. Perhaps Anawan felt some degree of security with his back against that rock. It likely did not occur to him that Church and his men would attempt the outrageous and climb down the face of the rock to surprise Anawan from above. The scheme worked. Anawan was soon Church’s captive and Church’s Sakonnet companions talked Anawan’s men into surrendering. The warriors were to be released provided they agreed to remain peaceful. Anawan was to be taken to Plymouth for trial.

All of this done without any bloodshed.

By and by, Anawan was brought to Plymouth. And, while Church was in Boston consulting with Massachusetts officials over what to do about the remaining hostile Abenaki in what’s now Maine, Plymouth Colony officials found Anawan guilty of treason and executed him. Church was greatly disturbed to learn of this.

About 300 years later, Anawan Rock would become one of the most popular sites in the region for ghost enthusiasts. Stories began to circulate that “ghost fires” or spectral lights hovered over the rock at night. The smell of camp fires and roasting meat could be scented when no fires were lit. Visitors claimed to her voices chanting. Perhaps most alarming, several individuals claimed to hear a voice shouting, “Iootash! Iootash!” meaning, “Stand and fight!”

I do enjoy a ghost story. But it’s usually not spirits I’m thinking about when I hear a good yarn. I’m thinking about the history and wondering how the story got started. Take Anawan Rock. How did this tradition get passed down, complete with such specific details as a voice shouting, “Iootash!”

Turns out, the historical part of the tale comes essentially from the horse’s mouth. In 1716, Church’s son, Thomas Church, published The History of Philip’s War, written from notes kept by Benjamin Church himself. Does this mean the story is entirely accurate? Of course not. Church himself was biased and Church’s son undoubtedly added some embellishments. But at least the account verifies that the event actually happened. (Church, by the way, mentions that Anawan bellowed “Iootash!” in the battle during which Philip was killed…but not at Anawan Rock).

Samuel G. Drake who promoted Church’s history and the story of Anawan Rock

By the 19th century, copies of this obscure history were difficult to find, and the tale might have been utterly lost, if not for a Boston antiquarian named Samuel Gardner Drake who located a copy and reprinted it in 1825, heavily annotated with his own commentary. The book was highly popular and fit nicely with the Romantic era’s naive notions of the “noble savage.” Novels with Native American heroes were all the rage at the time, The Last of the Mohicans being the most famous. I can’t say that Drake inspired James Fenimore Cooper, but their works were part and parcel of the same cultural obsession–a Romantic nostalgia for the passage of the wild New England frontier with its brave settlers and frightening but noble Native Americans.

The Anawan Rock story from Drake’s edition was quoted again and again over the 19th century in history and folklore books. By the early 20th century, with the advent of the automobile, guidebooks began to be printed so that motorists could enjoy a day or weekend touring interesting sites. The Anawan Rock story is featured in several such guidebooks of Massachusetts written in the 1920s and 30s. Today’s Route 44 runs just 300 feet to the north of Anawan Rock. The site is easily accessible.

But none of these many re-tellings of Anawan’s story ever mentions ghosts. At what point did this become a ghost story? The answer to this, it would seem, is quite recently. The earliest book I can find that mentions ghosts at Anawan Rock is Charles Robinson’s 1994 New England Ghost Files (a good book, by the way). The story had probably been bandied about before then and there are probably slightly earlier publications. But it would seem this ghost story is an upstart as compared to many New England legends.

I’ve been to Anawan Rock twice. The site is certainly haunting…I don’t know about haunted. Maybe it’s the eeriness of the surrounding swamp. Perhaps it’s the image of Church and his men creeping slowly down the rock above their unsuspecting enemies. It was definitely one of those places that gave me the chills.

There’s a bit to the story that gets brushed aside in the more recent versions. Church and his men decided to camp with their captives that night. One would hardly have known, at least by Church’s account, that they had been enemies. They ate and fell asleep. All, that is, except for Church and Anawan. Unable to sleep, and suspicious, they stared at each other across a campfire. Eventually they started talking. They spoke of many things and purportedly earned each other’s respect that night. Church was a severe man and has sometimes been vilified. Whatever might be said of him, I do believe that he grieved for Anawan when he was killed.

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About Patrick Browne

I am the director of a museum, an author, Civil War reenactor, among other things. I specialize in early American History from colonization through the Civil War. View all posts by Patrick Browne

7 responses to “Anawan Rock and the Making of a Ghost Story

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