The first battle: Painting commissioned by NSHA depicts history at Nipsachuck

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Artist Tap Dibner. and NSHA chief genealogist and board member Lynn Pelletier stand with the new artwork to be hung in Memorial Town Hall.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Nearly 350 years ago, militiamen from colonies in Massachusetts pursued Metacomet, or King Philip, from Swansea, Mass. to Nipsachuck – an area in North Smithfield inhabited by the Wampanoag Tribe.

Early in the morning on August 1, 1675, more than 50 militiamen opened fire on five native women who were heading to the planting fields to pick beans, killing two of them. Philip and his warriors ran to the sound of gunfire. 

After a day of fighting, Philip and his band escaped north to join forces with the Nipmuc Tribe. 

The skirmish became known as the First Battle of Nipsachuck – and was the second engagement of King Philip’s War, fought between the Wampanoag Tribe and their allies against the New England colonies from 1675 to 1676.

Now, the historically significant event has been memorialized in a painting, set to hang on the walls of the former North Smithfield Town Hall.

“The NSHA Board of Directors agreed that a very good way to promote and preserve the Nipsachuck area was to commission a historical painting that helps to tell its amazing story,” explained Richard Keene, president of the North Smithfield Heritage Association.

Keene’s group commissioned the piece from historical artist Tal Dibner, of Needham, Mass., who painted the scene, portraying the opening moments of the battle.

Locals can now visit and view the painting – if not the exact site of said battle. Keene notes that no one is sure exactly where that first battle took place because it was a running fight that lasted from dawn to dusk – and it covered a lot of ground. 

He noted that there is also little first-hand documentation available on the subject.

“We know that the first land purchases made from the natives in what is now North Smithfield included ‘Indian Planting Grounds’ in the Primrose/Nipsachuck area,” he said. “Although we can’t prove it yet, we think much of the battle took place along the Woonasquatucket River bank where Material Sand and Stone as well as Goodwin Brothers Farm fields are currently located, and that it ended near the Blunders.”    

An exact location is known for the other major town-based encounter in King Philip’s War – known as the Second Battle of Nipsachuck – which happened a year later. That fight took place in the vicinity of Cat Hill, which is now registered as a National Battlefield by the National Park Service thanks, in part, to an archaeological survey funded by NPS’s American Battlefield Protection Program in 2009.

The inclusion of the battle site speaks to the region’s importance, not just to local preservationists, but on a national scale. The NSHA has hosted school and public field trips to Nipsachuck over the past four years, where members explain the area’s historical and cultural significance. Keene said that in the future, they hope to commission another painting that portrays the Second Battle of Nipsachuck and eventually, to obtain grant money to film a documentary.

As for that first battle where Philip ultimately escaped, contemporary critics and historians have condemned the militia for not pushing on further and ending the war that day. Scholars have noted the colonists may have been uncertain of battle tactics in the densely-vegetated swampland and instead, the war would continued for another year.

The NSHA will frame the new painting and display it at the Memorial Town Building at 1 Main St., where locals will be able to view it in person.

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