CUMBERLAND, R.I. - It is often described as the eeriest spot in town: the site, deep in the woods, where nine colonists were killed, possibly after being tortured, by Native Americans during King Philip's War. There are reports of dismembered bodies, of men digging up skeletons years later, of ghosts prowling the unmarked paths near the place known as Nine Men's Misery.
Not much is known about the ambush that led to those deaths more than 300 years ago. But the pile of stones to memorialize the colonists, stones gathered in 1676 by British soldiers who found the bodies and buried them, is believed to be the country's oldest veterans' memorial.
"A cairn of stones has been there in one form or another ever since," said Betty Havrylik, reference services coordinator for the nearby Cumberland Public Library.
The killings took place against the backdrop of King Philip's War, a particularly bloody and expensive conflict between Native Americans and colonists that ended a period of tenuous peace. The war erupted in 1675 after disagreements over land rights and a series of hostile incidents between Plymouth Colony and King Philip, the nickname for Metacom, grand sachem of the Wampanoags.
The war, which largely wiped out Native American culture in southern New England, ended when King Philip was killed in August 1676.
The battle that killed the nine soldiers began on the morning of Sunday, March 26, when Captain Michael Pierce led 63 English colonists and about 20 Wampanoags loyal to the settlers toward Cumberland. Pierce had heard that some hostile Native Americans were stationed nearby.
When the colonists got to a ravine on the Blackstone River, they found some injured Native Americans. As they approached, they discovered it was a trap: The small group was surrounded by as many as 700 Narragansetts. Pierce was killed early on but his men fought for about two hours.
"Just about everybody was killed," said John McNiff, a ranger with the National Park Service at the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence. "At some point during the battle, these nine guys broke away and ran north."
They were captured, and no one knows exactly what happened next. But a day later, a rescue party found the bodies.
Fueling rumors that the site is haunted is the fact that the unidentified bodies were repeatedly dug up in ensuing years. In the late 1700s, a group of men reportedly examined the skeletons and identified one of them by a double set of teeth as Benjamin Bucklin, a soldier from Rehoboth who died when he was 35.
At some point, the pile of stones was cemented into a more lasting memorial. And in 1928, the State of Rhode Island added a plaque: "On this spot, where they were slain by the Indians, were buried the nine soldiers captured in Pierce's Fight, March 26, 1676."
For years, rumors have persisted that Nine Men's Misery is haunted. Some say they've seen a man on horseback; others report a monk, or a child.
Nine Men's Misery can be reached by a 15-minute walk along unmarked trails in the 500 acres behind the Cumberland Public Library. The library sells a map of the trails and the memorial for 25 cents. Occasionally, the library arranges for McNiff, dressed in period costume and carrying a musket, to lead tours to the memorial.
The library site, on the land where one of the country's first Trappist monasteries was built, has its own fascinating history. The monks, officially known as the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, moved south from Nova Scotia in 1900 and bought 530 acres along the Blackstone River from the Town of Cumberland. They quarried granite from the property to build their monastery, which eventually grew into an imposing campus, with dormitories, a church, an infirmary, guesthouse, and novitiate.
The monks lived by strict rules: They got up each morning at 2 and spent much of their day in silence, praying and doing manual labor. They had simple meals; only those who were sick ate meat. They slept on straw mattresses on wooden boards. (Snorers slept in small, enclosed rooms to block their noisy habits.)
In 1950, a fire destroyed most of the monastery, though all 140 monks escaped. Rather than rebuild, they moved to land they owned in Spencer, Mass., where they remain today. Part of the library uses sections of the monastery that withstood the fire.
"They also say we have a ghost in here," Havrylik said. "It's possible. I've never seen one."
Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.