Tommy Ten Canoes by Hezekiah Butterworth

A Tale of King Philip’s Scout

There once lived in New York an Indian warrior by the name of Peter Twenty-Canoes. Tommy Ten-Canoes lived in New England, at Pokanoket, near Mount Hope, on an arm of the Mount Hope Bay.

He was not a warrior, but a runner; not a great naval hero, as his picturesque name might suggest, but a news agent, as it were; he used his nimble feet and his ten canoes to bear messages to the Indians of the villages of Pokanoket and to the Narragansetts, and, it may be, to other friendly tribes.

Pokanoket? You may have read Irving’s sketch of Philip of Pokanoket, but we doubt if you have in mind any clear idea of this beautiful region, from whose clustering wigwams the curling smoke once rose among the giant oaks along the many waterways. The former site of Pokanoket is now covered by Bristol and Warren (Rhode Island) and Swansea (Massachusetts). It is a place of bays and rivers, which were once rich fishing-grounds; of shores full of shells and shellfish; of cool springs and wild-grape vines; of bowery hills; and of meadows that were once yellow with maize.

Tommy Ten-Canoes was a great man in his day. As a news agent in peace he was held in high honor, but as a scout in war and a runner for the great chiefs he became a heroic figure. There were great osprey’s nests all about the shores of old Pokanoket on the ancient decayed trees, and Tommy made a crown of osprey feathers, and crowned himself, with the approval of the great Indian chiefs.

Once when swimming with this crown of feathers on his head, he had been shot at by an Englishman, who thought him some new and remarkable bird. But while his crown was shattered, it was not the crown of his head. He was very careful of both his crowns after that alarming event.

Tommy Ten-Canoes was a brave man. He was ready to face any ordinary danger for his old chief Massasoit, and for that chief’s two sons, Wamsutta (Alexander) and Pomebacen (Philip). He would cross the Mount Hope or the Narragansett bay in tempestuous weather. He used to convey the beautiful Queen Weetamoc from Pocassett to Mount Hope to attend Philip’s war-dances under the summer moons, and when the old Indian war began he offered his two swift legs and all of his ten canoes to the service of his chief.

“Nipanset”—for this was his Indian name—“Nipanset’s bosom is his chief’s, and it knows not fear. Nipanset fears not the storm or the foe, or the gun of the pale-face. Call, call, O ye chiefs; in the hour of danger call for Nipanset. Nipanset fears not death.”

So Tommy Ten-Canoes boasted at the great council under the moss-covered cliff at Mount Hope.

 He was honest; but there was one thing that Nipanset, or Tommy Ten-Canoes, did fear. It was enchantment. He would have faced torture or death without a word, but everything mysterious filled him with terror. If he had thought that a bush contained a hidden enemy and flintlock, he would have been very brave; but had he thought that the same bush was stirred by a spirit, or was enchanted, he would have run.

Tommy Ten-Canoes had been friendly to the white people who had settled in Pokanoket. There was a family by the name of Brown, who lived on Cole’s River, that he especially liked, and he became a companion of one of the sons named James. The two were so often together that the people used to speak of those who were very intimate as being “as thick as little James Brown and old Tommy Ten-Canoes,” or rather as “Jemmie Brown” and our young hero of the many birch boats.

The two hunted and fished together; they made long journeys together; in fact, they did everything in common, except work. Tommy did not work, at least in the field, while James did at times, when he was not with Tommy.

When the Indian war began, King Philip sent word to the Brown family, and also to the Cole family, who lived near them, both of whom had treated him justly and generously, that he would do all in his power to protect them, but that he might not be able to restrain his braves.

Tommy Ten-Canoes brought a like friendly message to Jemmie Brown.

“I will always be true to you,” he said; “true as the north wind to the river, the west wind to the sea, and the south wind to the flowers. Nipanset’s heart is true to his friends. Our hearts will see each other again.”

The Indian torch swept the settlements. One of the bravest scouts in these dark scenes was Tommy Ten-Canoes. He flew from place to place like the wind, carrying news and spying out the enemy.

Tommy grew proud over his title of “Ten-Canoes.” He felt like ten Tommies. He wore his crown of osprey feathers like a royal king. His ten canoes ferried the painted Indians at night, and carried the chiefs hither and thither.

There was a grizzly old Boston Captain, who had done hard service on the sea, named Moseley. He wore a wig, a thing that the Indians had never seen, and of whose use they knew nothing at all.

Tommy Ten-Canoes had never feared the white man nor the latter’s death-dealing weapons. He had never retreated; he had always been found in front of the stealthy bands as they pursued the forest trails. But his courage was at last put to a test of which he had never dreamed.

Old Captain Moseley had led a company of trained soldiers against the Indians from Boston. Tommy Ten-Canoes had discovered the movement, and had prepared the Indians to meet it. Captain Moseley’s company, which consisted of one hundred men, had first marched to a place called Myles Bridge in Swansea. Here was a garrison house in which lived Rev. John Myles. The church was called Baptist, but people of all faiths were welcome to it; among the latter, Marinus Willett, who afterwards became the first Mayor of New York. It was the first church of the kind in Massachusetts, and it still exists in Swansea.

Over the glimmering waterways walled with dark oak woods came Tommy Ten-Canoes, with five of his famous boats, and landed at a place near the thrifty Baptist colony, so that his little navy might be at the ready service of Philip. It was the last days of June. There had been an eclipse of the moon on the night that Tommy Ten-Canoes had glided up the Sowans River towards Myles Bridge. He thought the eclipse was meant for him and his little boats, and he was a very proud and happy man.

“The moon went out in the clear sky when we left the bay,” said he; “so shall our enemies be extinguished. The moon shone again on the calm river. For whom did the moon shine again? For Nipanset.”

Poor Tommy Ten-Canoes! He was not the first hero of modern times who has thought that the moon and stars were made for him and shone for him on special occasions.

In old Captain Moseley’s company was a Jamaica pilot who had visited Pokanoket and been presented to Tommy, and told that the latter was a very renowned Indian.

What are you?” asked the Pilot.

“I am Tommy One-Canoe.”


“I am Tommy Two-Canoes.”

“Indeed! Ah!”

“I am Tommy Three-Canoes.”

“Oh! Ah! Indeed!”

“I am Tommy Four-Canoes, and I am Tommy Five-Canoes, and I am Tommy Six-Canoes, and I am Tommy Ten-Canoes.”

“Well, Tommy Ten-Canoes,” said the Pilot, “don’t you ever get into any trouble with the white people, because you might find yourself merely Tommy No-Canoes.”

Tommy was offended at this. He had no fears of such a fall from power, however.

The old Jamaica pilot had taken a boat and drifted down the Sowans River one long June day, when he chanced to discover Tommy and his five canoes. The canoes were hauled up on the shore under the cool trees which overshadowed the water. The Pilot, who had with him three men, rowed boldly to the shore and surprised Tommy Ten-Canoes, who had gone into the wood, leaving his weapons in one of his canoes.

The Pilot seized the canoe with the weapons and drew it from the shore.

Tommy Ten-Canoes beheld the movement with astonishment. He called to the old Pilot, “I am Tommy Ten-Canoes!”

“No, no,” answered the Pilot. “You are Tommy Nine-Canoes.”

Presently the Pilot drew from the shore another canoe. Tommy called again:

“Don’t you know me? I am—”

“Tommy Eight-Canoes,” said the Pilot.

Another boat was removed in like manner, and the Pilot shouted, “And now you are Tommy Seven-Canoes.” Another, and the Pilot called again, “Now you are Tommy Six-Canoes.” Another. “Good-bye, Tommy Five-Canoes,” said the Pilot, and he and his men drew all of the light canoes after them up the river.


Xerxes at Salamis could hardly have felt more crushed in heart than Tommy Ten-Canoes. But hope revived; he was Tommy Five-Canoes still. He was not quite so sure now, however, that the moon on that still June night had been eclipsed expressly for him.

The scene of the war now changed to the western border, as the towns of Hadley and Deerfield were called, for these towns in that day were the “great west,” as afterwards was the Ohio Reserve. Tommy having lost five of his canoes, now used his swift feet as a messenger. He still had hopes of doing great deeds, else why had the moon been eclipsed on that beautiful June night?

But an event followed the loss of his five canoes that quite changed his opinion. As a messenger or runner he had hurried to the scene of the brutal conflicts on the border, and had there discovered that Captain Moseley, the old Jamaica pirate, was subject to some spell of enchantment; that he had two heads.

“Ugh! ugh! him no good!” said one of the Indians to Tommy; “he take off his head and put him in his pocket. It is no use to fight him. Spell set on him—enchanted.”

Tommy Ten-Canoes’ fear of the man with two heads, one of which he sometimes took off and put in his pocket, spread among the Indians. One day in a skirmish Tommy saw Moseley take off one of his enchanted heads and hang it on a blueberry bush. Other Indians saw it. “No scalp him,” said they. “Run!” And run they did, not from the open foe, but from the supposed head on the bush. Moseley did not dream at the time that it was his wig that had given him the victory.

Across the Mount Hope Bay, among the sunny headlands of Pocassett, there was an immense cedar swamp, cool and dark, and in summer full of fire-flies. Tommy Ten-Canoes called it the swamp of the fire-flies. It was directly opposite Pokanoket, across the placid water. A band of Indians gathered there, and covered their bodies with bushes, so that they might not be discovered on the shore.

One moonlight night in September Tommy went to visit these masked Indians in four of his canoes. He rowed one of his canoes, and three squaws the others. On reaching the fire-fly cedar swamp the party met the masked Indians, and late at night retired to rest, the three Indian squaws sleeping on the shore under their three canoes.

Captain Moseley had sent the old Jamaica pilot to try to discover the hiding-place of this mysterious band of Indians. The Pilot had seen the four canoes crossing the bay from Pokanoket under the low September moon, and had hurried with a dozen men to the place of landing. He surprised the party early the next morning, when they were disarmed and asleep.

The crack of his musket rang out in the clear air over the bay. A naked Indian was seen to leap up.

“Stop! I am Tommy Ten-Canoes.”

“No, Tommy Five-Canoes,” answered the Pilot; “and now you are only Tommy Four-Canoes.” Saying which, the Pilot seized the sixth canoe.

A shriek followed; another, and another. Three canoes hidden in the river-weeds were overturned, and three Indian squaws were seen running into the dark swamp.

“And now you are Tommy Three-Canoes,” said the Pilot, seizing the seventh canoe. “And now Tommy Two-Canoes,” seizing the eighth.

“And only Tommy One-Canoe,” taking possession of the ninth canoe. “And now you are Tommy No-Canoes, as I told you you would be if you went to war,” said the Pilot, taking according to this odd reckoning the Indian’s last canoe.

But Tommy had one canoe left, notwithstanding the dark Pilot had taken his tenth. He was glad that it was not here. It would have been his eleventh canoe, although he had but ten. He knew that the Pilot was one of Moseley’s men, the Captain who put his head at times in his pocket or hung it upon a bush. Poor Tommy Ten-Canoes! He uttered a shriek, like the fugitive squaws, and fled.

“Don’t shoot at him,” said the old Pilot to his men. “I have taken from him all of his ten canoes; let him go.”

Tommy had not a mathematical mind or education, but he knew that somehow he had no eleventh canoe, and that one of his ten canoes yet remained. And even the old Pilot must have at last seen that his count of ten was only nine. Tommy fled to a point on the Titicut River at which he could swim across, and then made his solitary way back to the shores of Pokanoket and to his remaining canoe, which did not belong to mathematics.

One morning late in September Tommy Ten-Canoes turned his solitary canoe towards Cole’s River, near which lived his boy friend, James Brown. He paddled slowly, and late in the dreamy afternoon reached the shore opposite the Brown farm. He landed and tied his one canoe to Jemmie Brown’s boat, in which the two had spent many happy hours before the war.

 The canoe was found there the next day; but Tommy Ten-Canoes? He was never seen again; he probably sought a grave in the waters of the bay.

But he had fulfilled his promise. He had been true in his heart as “the north wind to the river, the west wind to the sea, and the south wind to the flowers.”