By William F. Hanna
The earliest legible gravestone in Taunton stands in the Walker-Blake Cemetery, on present-day Somerset Avenue. It belongs to Elizabeth Philips* Walker, a woman who had a front row seat to some of the worst times in American history. Born in County Somerset, England in 1619, she was the daughter of William and Elizabeth (Parker) Philips. We don’t know when her family immigrated to New England, but in 1638–39 Elizabeth’s father was among the original forty-six purchasers of Cohannet, the settlement that would be called Taunton beginning in 1640. Her mother was the sister of William Parker, another of the earliest settlers.
In 1646, Elizabeth married James Walker, who had come to America eleven years earlier as a 16-year old. Together they had nine children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Over the span of three decades, James became one of Taunton’s most trusted men. He and Elizabeth were stalwarts of the first church, and as a large landholder, he held a number of important civic posts, including a long period as one of Taunton’s deputies to the General Court at Plymouth. James was a shareholder in both the sawmill and iron works and was also authorized to marry people within the tightly knit Taunton community.
The most trying time of Elizabeth’s life came during King Philip’s War. Animosity between the English settlers and their Wampanoag neighbors increased after Massasoit’s death in 1661, and within five years relations between natives and colonists had become badly strained. In 1662, after the sudden and unexplained death of Wamsutta, Massasoit ’s older son and successor, leadership of the Wampanoag federation had fallen to Metacomet, known to the English as Philip. Chafing at the loss of tribal lands and continued English encroachment, by 1671 the natives were on a course toward armed resistance.
James Walker was a member of the councils of war for both Taunton and the Plymouth Colony, and as such was almost certainly present in April 1671, when Metacomet appeared before English officials in the Taunton meetinghouse. There the native leader proclaimed his peaceful intentions and agreed to surrender all the firearms then in Indian hands. His failure to keep that promise resulted in a second summons issued two months later, this time ordering Metacomet to appear in Plymouth. It’s quite possible that James Walker was in attendance then as well.
Relations between the colonists and the natives continued to deteriorate and open warfare began in the third week of June 1675, when a band of Indians attacked Swansea and nearby settlements killing several Englishmen. As word of the raid spread throughout southeastern Massachusetts, many of those settlers living on the frontier hurried to find protection in nearby towns, where makeshift garrisons had been constructed.
In the week after the attack on Swansea the violence spread northward, following the course of the Taunton River. On June 27, 1675, Indian warriors appeared at theWalker farm, located on the Three Mile River near the present-day Dighton line. It’s likely that James and Elizabeth, whose children ranged in age from 30 to less than10-years old, had already sought shelter elsewhere. Their farmhouse, and a lifetime of work, went up in flames as the natives torched the place. Fortunately, there is no record of anyone being injured there.
Across the river in Assonet, however, the situation was much worse. On the same day that Indians burned the Walker place, they also attacked the Assonet farm of John and Sarah Tisdale. Sarah was James Walker’s sister, and fortunately, she and her children were not at the farm that day, perhaps having fled to the safety of the Taunton garrison. John Tisdale, however, was at home when death came calling. Having recently described himself as “sicke and weake,” the 61-year old husband and father perished in the ashes of his farmhouse. Sarah Walker Tisdale, having lost home and husband on that June day, loosened her grip on life and died six months later.
For more than a year the so-called King Philip’s War raged throughout New England. “We are a distressed people,” wrote one soldier billeted in Taunton at the beginning of the conflict. As the violence spread throughout New England, gruesome atrocities perpetrated by both sides attested to their eagerness to annihilate each other. While the colonists came to call the period from February through May 1676 “A Time of Troubles,” it was it much worse for the natives, who suffered through a brutal winter as their stores of food neared exhaustion. They could not, and would not, win a war of attrition.
In 1676, Elizabeth Walker, having lost her home and the comfort of the Tisdales, found that the war was not yet through with her. James Philips, her brother, and four other men were surprised and slaughtered by Indians as they worked in a field adjacent to the Taunton River. Not long after that, Metacomet, trapped in a swamp near Mount Hope, was shot down and killed, and the fighting ended.
It took decades to heal the economic and emotional wounds left by the war, a dream perhaps that Elizabeth Walker never saw realized. She died at age 59 in August 1678. James buried her on Walker land within sight of the Taunton River. Her simple gravestone, carved no doubt by a local craftsman, stands yet atop the hillside, giving stark and rueful testimony to the austere life she lived.
James, in the manner of his time, took a second wife within three months of Elizabeth’s death. He married Sarah Richmond Rew, the widow of another of Taunton's first settlers. In the thirteen years left to him, James found comfort and companionship with Sarah, but when he died in February 1691, it was to the grave next to Elizabeth that his body was committed. They lie side by side today, on the rise above the river, content to let their simple, eloquent headstones stones tell their story.
* Philips also appears as Phillips in the ancient records.