Captain William Turner
English, circa 1623 - 1676

Note: All narratives about people are, to the extent possible, based on primary and secondary historical sources. Some narratives necessarily contain invented, yet plausible, scenarios and personal attributes. Please see About This Narrative to learn more about how this person's narrative was created.

Captain William Turner - Prologue | Assault on Peskeompskut | Epilogue | About This Narrative |


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English-born William Turner, imprisoned in Boston for his religious beliefs, was released to fight in Metacom's (King Philip's) War. He raised a company of volunteers and led them to the Connecticut River valley when the Natives there joined the uprising.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

William Turner was born in the town of Dartmouth, in the county of Devonshire, England. The date of his birth is unknown, but it was probably between 1621 and 1625. He grew up during the rule of Charles I who reigned from 1625 to 1649. By the late 1630s, England was a country experiencing increasing religious and political turmoil as opposition to the king's policies grew both inside and outside of Parliament.

By 1642, Charles I was badly in debt and constantly at odds with Parliament, whose members disapproved of his spendthrift ways and his apparent disregard for the rights of his subjects. Refusing to yield to the demands of Parliament, on August 22, 1642, the King declared war.

As a Baptist, Turner and the people in the town of Dartmouth supported the parliamentary opponents of the king. The Baptists, called Anabaptists by their detractors, believed in strong civil liberties, separation of church and state, and complete religious freedom, all pursued in a peaceful way. Begun in Germany in 1520, the sect advocated baptism and church membership for adult members only.

Undoubtedly anticipating the chaos that civil war would mean, young Turner had determined to leave England and make his way to the New World. With help from some well-placed friends, he secretly booked passage on one of the last ships to leave England before Charles closed the ports, The Fortitude, bound for Virginia.

On the two-month journey at sea, Turner had time to develop a plan. Although the ship would dock in Virginia, he determined to sail on to Boston in Massachusetts, where he planned to look for work as a tailor's apprentice.

When the ship landed in Boston Harbor, William Turner walked from dockside to Dorchester where he had decided to look for work. By the afternoon of the first day there he was offered a place as a lodger in the home of Mary and John Pratt, just south of the center of the village. Turner had training and skills as a tailor and soon found an apprenticeship with master tailor, Henry Hibbard of Dorchester. (1)

Life In America

The Pratt family introduced young Turner to Puritanism and encouraged him to join the church. Unaware of any fellow Baptists in the community and unsure of the colony's attitude toward Baptists, he agreed to attend Sabbath Day services with the Pratts. When he succeeded in answering satisfactorily the questions put forth by the ruling Elders, Turner became a member of the Puritan Church on February 27, 1643. (2)

By 1645, William Turner had married Frances (last name unknown), and by the time Charles I of England was beheaded in 1649, Turner had become a master tailor and opened his own shop on the main road through Dorchester. He was self-employed, and he and Frances began to raise a family. Two years later, in 1651, a customer brought news of the persecution of Baptists in Lynn, Massachusetts, "for seducing and drawing off others to their own erroneous judgments and practices." (3) The charge awakened old feelings in the breast of former Baptist, William Turner. Angered and curious that Baptist dissidents in Massachusetts seemed to be treated the same as they had been in England, Turner determined to attend the trial of the three accused men in Boston. He watched while the men were accused of denying infant baptism—a tenet of the Puritan church—and fined. Two paid their fines, but one refused; he was whipped 30 lashes on his bare back in a public place.

Repeated persecutions of Baptists and Quakers during the 1650s challenged Turner's acquired Puritan beliefs. He saw the Puritans creating laws that he felt were not God's laws and that caused suffering among believers and non-believers. He was drawn back to the Baptist system of beliefs.

By 1660 a small Baptist community was forming in Boston and, two years later, Turner joined them. They planned to declare publicly their intent to form a Baptist Church. The tightly knit group of men knew that it was a bold step that could bring disaster upon all of them and their families, given the Puritan attitude toward religious dissidents. No one escaped punishment who had the audacity to go against the Puritan law forbidding the formation of irregular churches. Turner felt anxious about his decision, but also relief, since he could now worship according to his conscience, ungoverned by what he felt were unfair laws.

William Turner and Frances and their growing brood of children made plans to move to Boston near where the Baptists would build their new church. In 1664, he purchased a two-story dwelling in the southwest part of town with chambers above, and below, a kitchen, bedroom/parlor, and a room for his tailor business.

By August of the next year, the plan for the Baptist church was under attack, and Turner was arrested and ordered banished from the city. He refused to leave Boston, since his wife was seven months pregnant with their seventh child. Turner escaped punishment (banishment) until May 1668 when he and two other members of his church were declared by a court to be "obstinate and turbulent Anabaptists."(4) As a result, on July 21, 1668, Turner was arrested, bound in chains, and led away to the Boston prison. After 30 weeks of confinement in a dank, airless cell, he was given three days leave and the option of returning to prison or banishment to Noddles Island, east of Charlestown in Boston harbor. William Turner opted for banishment.

The next year passed peacefully for the Turner family. With the help of friends, William built a house to serve as shop and home for himself, his wife, and their three youngest children, while son Joshua maintained the tailor shop in Boston. Tragedy struck in December of 1669 when Frances died giving birth to their ninth child and soon after, in 1670, Turner was arrested on a forbidden trip to Boston. His former landlady, Mary Pratt, now a widow, had volunteered to care for the youngest of the Turner brood after the death of their mother, and his clandestine trip was to visit his family.

Turner's arrest resulted in another prison sentence when he again refused to recant his Baptist convictions. Conditions in the damp, cold cell caused his joints to stiffen and he complained of pain that spread to his arms, shoulders, and neck. His agony was further compounded when Mary Pratt, whom Turner had married the year before, died in January of 1672, leaving his young children once again without care.

William Turner must have been a man with strong appeal, because by 1673, a second widow proposed to him, and in October of that year, he was given a short leave from prison to marry Mary Alsop.

Release from Prison

June 1675 saw the outbreak of King Philip's (Metacom's) War and by the next year, the English colonists, with too few volunteers among them, feared that the war was going in favor of the Indians. The desperate need for both soldiers and competent leaders led Governor John Leverett of Massachusetts to agree to William Turner's repeated appeals for release from prison. The Governor retained his strong feelings against the prisoner's religious beliefs, but agreed that if Turner would raise a company of men to fight Philip's troops, he would grant him his freedom and give him the rank of captain.

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Metacom, called King Philip by English colonists, was a Wampanoag sachem who lead an allied force of Native people from present-day New England in a war to stymie English expansion in Native homelands.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Assoication. All Rights Reserved.

Although Turner had remained in contact with his fellow Baptists while serving his time in prison, he doubted his influence was as strong as before and despaired of finding 70 willing men to form a company. After scouring the streets of Dorchester, Turner was finally able to produce 46 volunteers, many of whom were convinced Baptists, but who were willing to fight for the colony.

Turner was told they would be fighting Indians in Wenimisset in the western part of Massachusetts towards the Connecticut River Valley, and on the morning of February 21, 1676, four companies of 300 men, including Turner and his recruits, marched out of Boston – three of the companies were on foot and one company on horseback. They reached Dedham, southwest of Boston, by late afternoon. After supper, they marched to Medfield where they found a village of smoking ruins, with only chimneys standing. The troop reached Marlborough by the afternoon of February 22.

To the Connecticut River Valley

By March 3, 1676, Turner was at Quaboug fort (Brookfield) with orders to leave ten men under Sgt. William Ingraham and continue west with the remainder to Hadley on the Connecticut River. When they reached Hadley on March 5, they were immediately sent across the river to garrison the recently palisaded town of Northampton. Captain Turner was put in command of the valley men in the garrisons in Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, and Springfield. While the main charge of the garrison soldiers was to guard the inhabitants of the town as they went about their daily lives, the recruits were ordered to be in readiness to take the field at an hour's notice.

The Natives in the area had been quiet over the winter months, but the feeling among the Valley settlers was that when planting and fishing were over and the trees were in full leaf, the whole valley would be filled with them. To counter that possibility, offensive, not defensive, action was the main topic of talk in the English towns along the Connecticut River.

The quiet was broken on March 14, 1676, when Northampton's single line of palisades, erected just that past winter, was breached by the enemy in three places. Surprised by the presence of the newly-garrisoned soldiers there—46 had been posted—the Indians were routed, but not before they had burned five houses and as many barns, killed five residents, and wounded six more. The invaders next attacked the town of Hatfield, up the river from Northampton, where they were quickly repulsed by the 45 soldiers stationed there. Success for the Indians lay in Hatfield's north meadows, however, where they confiscated a number of horses, sheep, and other livestock left grazing unattended. The war was thus renewed.

The military leaders in the Connecticut Valley determined that "now is the time to attack the enemy." They believed that if they could interrupt the Indians' annual spring fishing, food would be in short supply for the coming year and many Natives would starve.

A Plan for Attack

By May the officers began to develop a plan. A large group of soldiers, under Capt. William Turner, would attack the fishing camp at Peskeompskut, one of the most favorable fishing places along the Connecticut River. Native peoples traditionally gathered there in the spring to fish for shad and salmon and to hunt the surrounding woods for game. The attack plan was fueled by a report on May 12 that Indians had again struck at Hatfield, this time stampeding 70 cattle into the woods. Three days later reports were received that the Indians were planting in the Deerfield meadows, a sure sign that they intended to resettle there. The feeling was that with no retaliation from the English, the Indians grew bold.

Captain William Turner - Prologue | Assault on Peskeompskut | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

Assault on Peskeompskut
May, 1676

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Illustration copyright Francis Back.

The offensive began on May 18, when Captain Turner assembled his "army" at Hatfield. Each man carried a flintlock musket, one pound of powder, four pounds of lead shot, and two flints. All but ten of the troops were mounted. Eighty-nine were garrison soldiers and the remainder were volunteers. (5) Two guides were appointed—Benjamin Waite and Experience Hinsdale—and each participant was furnished with provisions for three meals.

Since the attack was planned to take place before daylight, the men traveled at night. After sunset they set out, crossing Hatfield's north meadows where they vowed vengeance for the stolen cattle. Winding their way up the Pocumtuck path, they followed the same route taken by those unlucky souls ambushed at Bloody Brook nine months before. Thoughts of that earlier attack undoubtedly passed through the minds of many as they crossed the brook and viewed the grape vines growing there—the very vines hanging heavy with fruit that had tempted the unfortunate wagon train in September of the previous year.

Northward through the ruined village of Pocumtuck (Deerfield) at midnight, its houses burned and the cellar holes gaping, Captain Turner led his troops. In the distance, Pine Hill, known to be a Pocumtuck post, was a possible danger point. Fortunately for Turner's men, the thunder and clouds of a threatening storm obscured their march from enemy eyes and ears.

Every snap of dead wood, every rustle of last fall's leaves, every human noise was translated as a threat by the colonists, most of whom were already full of superstitions. Even the familiar lightning and thunder, rumbling down the river bed, seemed ominous to them.

Turner and the two guides led the men down a narrow trail for two miles where they crossed the Green River, skirted a swamp, and reached a plateau south of Mount Adams. It was still dark. There Turner ordered the horses left under a small guard and led his men through the Fall River, up a steep hill and out onto a slope near the rear of the Native camp. The water crashing over the falls disguised any unanticipated lapse in the invaders' stealthy movements. The sleeping Indians were unaware of their attackers' presence.

Quickly the soldiers surrounded the sleeping enemies, bracketing the encampment between themselves and the Connecticut River. At a given signal, the crash of one hundred shots pierced the air.

Many of the enemy were killed at first fire. The others, crying out that the attack came from their old enemies, the Kanienkehaka (Mohawks), ran to their canoes, many pushing into the water without paddles; others, in their confusion plunged into the torrent hoping to swim to safety, only to be swept over the cataract and drowned. Those left on shore were hunted down, their wigwams burned and the camp dismantled. The scene was one of smoldering wigwams, smashed canoes, and broken bodies—people, many of whom were women and children, dying violently.

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Captain Turner likely carried a pistol in the attack at Peskeompskut. Click here for more information.
Courtesy Centre de conservation du Québec, Michel élie photographer.

Although courage was not lacking in Turner or in his men, discipline was in short supply and there was little semblance of order in their withdrawal. Captain Turner, weakened by previous illness from his long months in prison and suffering from extreme exhaustion, perhaps failed to forcefully take command once the deed was done. Possibly, the 'army' lingered too long at the scene, allowing Indians from another nearby camp enough time to gather and strike back. As a result the rush to the horses was a scene of complete disorder. The retreat became a rout when someone shouted that Philip with 1000 men was approaching. Confused and fragmented as they tried to re-arm, the soldiers panicked when they became aware that many of them were nearly out of powder. To further compound the disarray, guide Experience Hinsdale led his group into a swamp and all, including Hinsdale, were lost. Captain Turner, enfeebled from chronic pain in his joints, was unable to keep up with the company and received a fatal shot as he crossed the Green River near Nash's Mills, in what is now Greenfield.

Command then fell to Capt. Samuel Holyoke, who led the men through a patch of dense forest, a landscape more to the advantage of the Indians who were on foot than to his own mounted soldiers. The Indians pursued the soldiers across Deerfield's North meadows, down the Pocumtuck (Deerfield) town street, and all the way to a place two miles south of the former village, before turning back toward Peskeompskut.

When the army straggled into Hatfield late in the afternoon of May 19, 45 men were missing. Five of those believed lost eventually found their way to Hatfield.

Captain William Turner - Prologue | Assault on Peskeompskut | Epilogue | About This Narrative |


The balance of victory was on the side of the English in this fight at Peskeompskut although their leader, Capt. William Turner, was killed. It was seen not only as a victory for the English settlers but also as a victory for the Baptists, since their brave efforts proved their unquestioning loyalty to the government of Massachusetts.

On July 26, 1905, members of the Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts held a field day at Greenfield, Massachusetts, to dedicate a memorial stone and tablet in honor of Captain William Turner and his men who were killed May 19, 1676, on the retreat after the "Falls Fight" at Peskeompskut. (6) The stone can be viewed at the Greenfield Municipal Swimming Pool Area on the Green River, near where he fell.

Captain William Turner - Prologue | Assault on Peskeompskut | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

About This Narrative

William Turner was a real person, an Englishman who came to America as a young man at the outset of the English Civil War in 1642. Little is known of his years in England. We believe he came to America looking for economic opportunities and, perhaps, to escape persecution for his religious views. He was a Baptist. The bulk of the information about Turner came from reading Larry Cadran's historical novel about Turner's life, published in 2001. Information about the attack at Peskeompskut is available in numerous publications including George Sheldon's A History of Deerfield. This narrative was written by Susan McGowan Titus.

See Further Reading for a list of sources used in creating this narrative. For a discussion of issues related to telling people's stories on the site, see: Bringing History to Life: The People in The Many Stories of 1704.

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