The Execution of Joshua Tefft

The Execution of Joshua Tefft

He had guts.
by A. Craig Anthony

Detail of old drawing and quartering illustration.

The following article originally appeared in the Castle Chronicle, the newsletter of the Cocumscussoc Association, in Winter 2001, under the title "Local Historian Examines the Execution of Joshua Tefft at Smith's Castle in 1676." It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

On October 7, [2001,] Smith's Castle received a special visit from about twenty members of the Tefft Family Association. Members of the association are descendants of John Tefft (1614–c1680), his brother William (who died without a male heir), and John's sons, Joshua and Samuel.

During their reunion weekend, the group also visited the Tefft Homestead, a thirty-acre remnant of the family farm near the Great Swamp that was settled by brothers Joshua and Samuel in the seventeenth century and occupied by Tefft descendants until the early twentieth century. In addition to Tefft cemeteries and the foundations of several colonial homes and outbuildings, the site has also yielded evidence of a strong Native American presence. The Tefft Homestead has been recognized by the State of Rhode Island as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the most dramatic and horrific scenes in Cocumscussoc history involved Joshua Tefft. In the following article, A. Craig Anthony discusses Joshua Tefft's role in the Great Swamp Fight and his fateful encounter at Richard Smith's trading house and garrison in January 1676—just months before the structure was burnt in retaliation for the attack by the United Colonies against the Narragansetts.

Three hundred and twenty-five years ago Joshua Tefft, a resident of Kingstown, in Narragansett country, was executed for treason at Smith's garrison house under the direction of Captain Richard Smith and Josiah Winslow, the Governor of Plymouth Colony. Since no record of his trial has survived to this day, we must rely on contemporary accounts from those directly involved, as well as—to a lesser degree—the published histories of that time.

The time was King Philip's War of 1675–'76, when the colony of Rhode Island found itself the focus of hostilities resulting from the United Colonies' (Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, Plymouth) failed policies in dealing with their Indian neighbors. After several attempts to annex southern Rhode Island were foiled, the United Colonies attempted to claim the territory "By Right of Conquest" by reducing the great Narragansett Nation to submission. While the Tefft family had lived in peace next to their Narragansett neighbors for fourteen years, all but Joshua retreated to the safety of Aquidneck Island at the impending approach of hostilities.

Map showing the approximate location of the Narragansett fort.
Joshua Tefft's farm was adjacent to the Great Swamp. The site of the Narragansett fort is marked with a red X on the map. Larkin's (once known as Tefft's) Pond and Tefft's Hill were part of the Tefft property. (Rhode Island Society of Colonial Wars' Record of the Unveiling of the Monument Commemorating the Great Swamp Fight, 1906).

What do we know about the celebrated Joshua Tefft? Usually, our first knowledge of his 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 early 1640s, or so, in either Rhode Island or Massachusetts to parents John and Mary Tefft.

Little is known of Joshua's early life. While there are records for his uncle William in Boston dating to 1638,1 records for his father John do not appear until 1643 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.2 From the documentary record it is possible to conclude that Joshua's brother Samuel was born 1644–'46.3 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, most likely of childbed fever:4

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, the local seat of which was Richard Smith's fortified trading post in the present town of North Kingstown, Rhode Island.5 Joshua is also mentioned in his father's 1674 will.6 These 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 1,300 troops of the Puritan United Colonies converged in southern Rhode Island at Smith's garrison intending to take the territory by right of conquest.7 They attacked the Narragansett stronghold located on an island in the Great Swamp, two miles from Joshua Tefft's farm. Tefft claimed that he had been taken captive by the Narragansett—his life spared only on the condition that he serve as their slave.8 However, an Indian woman taken captive by the English of the United Colonies reported that Joshua was their "encourager and conductor."9

Illustration showing United Colonies entering the Narragansett fort via a fallen log.
According to tradition, troops of the United Colonies gained access to the Narragansett stronghold in the Great Swamp over a fallen log. (Library of Congress, negative #106518).

After the Great Swamp Fight of December 19, 1675, Captain Oliver of Massachusetts reported that Joshua Tefft had "shot 20 times at us in the swamp."10 Records indicate that Joshua wounded Captain Nathaniel Seely of Connecticut, who subsequently died.11 An Indian spy reported that Joshua, "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."12

Yet, Joshua claimed that "Himselfe had no Arms at all" at his interrogation recorded by Roger Williams in Providence.13 He was subsequently extradited to Wickford into the custody of General Josiah Winslow, Governor of Plymouth, and Richard Smith on January 16, 1676. Two days later at Smith's garrison, Joshua was executed for high treason, the only Englishman to suffer such a fate in all New England history. Major William Bradford of Plymouth wrote: "The Englishman that was taken had his doom yesterday, to be hanged and quartered; which was done effectually."14

A sorrowful record, indeed. Yet, what happened after Joshua Tefft's execution seems to suggest that he was not guilty of high treason, but merely of seeking to preserve his own life and property under duress. The Rhode Island government swiftly admonished the soldiers of the United Colonies as unwelcome intruders, but there was little else that they could do.

After the war, the colonial government of Rhode Island took an almost solicitous posture towards the Tefft family. Joshua's brother, Samuel Tefft, and his brother-in-law, the future Governor Joseph Jenkes, became freemen of the colony in 1677.15 In 1681, Joshua's orphan son, Peter Tefft, was appointed three guardians: 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.16 The guardianship order made it clear that Peter, a nine year old boy in 1681, was a landowner apparently having right to all the possessions of his father, even though Joshua was executed as a felon by Puritan authorities, and even though colonial law required a convicted traitor's lands and goods to be forfeited. (see below)

In the early eighteenth century, 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 exclusive right to take part in the Shannock Purchase, which included much of the present town of Richmond, Rhode Island.17

Hanged, drawn, and quartered—The supreme punishment for high treason
Drawn and quartered is often popularly believed to be a torture that involved pulling a person's legs and arms in four directions by horses or on a rack. Viewers of the movie Braveheart know that it is an even more gruesome act. As set out in the Incorporation of Providence Plantations in 1647, the following provision details the process, presumed to have been used against Joshua Tefft at Smith's Castle. Frequently, the victim's body or head was publicly displayed as a warning to others.

For high treason, if a man, he being accused by two lawful 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.18

Old illustration of drawing and quartering.
Some of the gruesome details of drawing and quartering from an old illustration. (Original source unknown).


  1. New England Historical and Genealogical Register. New England Historic Genealogical Society. 1857, 11:310.
  2. Chapin, Howard M., The Documentary History of Rhode Island. Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society. 1921, 2:148.
  3. South Kingstown Land Evidence. MS. 2: 61–62. Fiske, Jane Fletcher, ed. Gleanings from Newport Court Files 1659–1783. 1998, 105, 185.
  4. Record of Marriages—Warwick 1649. MS. A1:15.
  5. Colonial Boundaries. MS. Connecticut State Archives. 1:97a.
  6. Rhode Island Land Evidences. Rhode Island Historical Society. 1921, 1:162.
  7. Bartlett, John R., ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Providence, 1856, 2:473.
  8. LaFantasie, G. ed., The Correspondence of Roger Williams. Rhode Island Historical Society. 1989, 2:711.
  9. Bodge, G., Soldiers in the King Philip's War. 1896. p.194.
  10. Ibid., p. 175.
  11. Ibid., p. 191 and Trumbull, J. Hammond, ed., Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut. 2:401.
  12. Temple, J.H., The History of the Town of Brookfield, Massachusetts. 1887, p. 116.
  13. LaFantasie. 2:712.
  14. Trumbull. 2:40.
  15. Bartlett. 2:564.
  16. Warwick General Records No.1 1681. MS. A1:27–28.
  17. Westerly Land Evidence. MS. 2:48.
  18. Bartlett. 1:160–161.

A. Craig Anthony formerly worked for the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society in Kingston. An eleventh-generation Rhode Islander, he is the author of King's Province: Samuel Tefft's Narrative of the Narragansett Country, and was instrumental in the creation of the Tefft Historical Park.

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