A Brief History of Metacom's War - Project Staff
Relations between English settlers and Indian nations in Massachusetts deteriorated after the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, one-time ally of the Plimoth colony, and the father of Metacom, died. In the intervening decades between the settlement of Plimoth in 1620 and the outbreak of Metacom's War, or King Philip's War, in 1675, English settlements had increased exponentially until they threatened to overrun Native populations. Indians throughout the region the English claimed as New England resented being forced to comply with colonial laws and being punished for maintaining tribal traditions, beliefs, and practices.
Land disputes also caused friction, when Europeans refused to allow Native peoples to jointly inhabit areas that were now considered English land. Native leaders signed deeds as documents of alliance and mutual use, reserving rights to hunt, fish, set up wigwams, and otherwise continue to inhabit and make use of the natural resources, while the English believed they were buying the exclusive right to use and live on that land. Native peoples' very real fear that these newcomers would soon take over all of the land and destroy their way of life exploded into a violent uprising.
By 1675, many Nipmuc, Narragansett, Wampanoag, and other southern New England Native nations had tried to accommodate the rapid changes brought by English settlement; some had adopted Christianity and settled in what were called "praying villages." In a council with Rhode Island Deputy Governor John Easton in 1675, Metacom complained that the Indians "had been the first in doing good to the English, and the English the first in doing wrong. . . if 20 of their honest Indians testified that an Englishman had done them wrong, it was as nothing, and if but one of their worst Indians testified against any. . . when it pleased the English, that was sufficient." When a Christian Indian, John Sassamon, was murdered by the English, and two innocent Wampanoags were hanged, Metacom (whom the English called "King Philip") could restrain his warriors no longer.
The fighting in Metacom's War began in June of 1675 when a group of English fired upon some Pokanoket looting a house in Swansea, Massachusetts, and the Natives retaliated by killing several settlers. As news of the incident spread, colonists and Native people in other areas joined the conflict. Although the English believed Metacom was the head of a unified Indian uprising, many groups actually acted independently.
New England's Native communities and English settlers lived in a constant state of terror for one and a half years. Native warriors remained constantly on the move, launching surprise attacks and ambushes that bewildered and demoralized the English. One carefully targeted raid wiped out a convoy bringing supplies from the soon-to-be-abandoned town of Deerfield, Massachusetts. The English named the attack the Bloody Brook Massacre, and it remains one of the best-known events of Metacom's War in western Massachusetts. Indian attacks were often brutally symbolic, as Native fighters destroyed goods and cattle, and burned Bibles and homes. At the burning of Medfield, a Nipmuck tacked a note to a tree, reading: "Thou English man hath provoked us to anger & wrath. . . we have nothing but our lives to loose but thou hast many fair houses, cattell & much good things." Warriors attacked over half of New England's ninety-two towns. Panic-stricken colonists abandoned outlying farms and settlements and crowded into garrisons. It seemed as though only a few seacoast cities would survive.
Although most of the Wampanoag, Narragansett and Nipmuc joined Metacom, other Native nations chose different courses for community survival. The Iroquois refused to offer any assistance at all, and the Kanienkehaka closed the "eastern door" by refusing to shelter refugees. The Wôbanaki groups, like the Cowasuck and Pennacook, and other tribes along the Connecticut River offered shelter to refugees from southern New England. The constant movement of war parties made growing and harvesting food difficult, and settlers destroyed or took precious food stores.
By the summer of 1676, Metacom, himself, was on the run with a small band of followers. A Pocasset scout, fighting with the English, killed Metacom in a muddy swamp in Bristol, Rhode Island. Metacom's head was placed on a pole in Plymouth, and his body was quartered and sent to the four colonies. The date of his death, August 12, was thereafter celebrated as a "Thanksgiving Day" for all of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. The colonial governments executed other Native leaders, and Metacom's chief captain, the Sunksqua Weetamoo, was drowned, and her head was exhibited on a pole in the town of Taunton. Like many other captured men, women and children, Philip's wife and son were sold into slavery. Many non-combatant Praying Indians were sent to starve in internment camps on Deer Island.
Metacom's war, by proportion, counts as the bloodiest war in American history, having claimed over 5,000 Indian lives, 40 percent of the population, and at least 2,500 English lives. Metacom's War was both a terrible blow to southern New England Native people and a formative event in American history.
Some Native peoples who escaped the war joined other tribes to the north, in what are now the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, or went west, to Connecticut and western Massachusetts. Others remained in southeastern New England, returning to praying villages or living on the margins of English towns. In the English records, Indian voices and memories retreated, and the process of re-interpreting the war began.
For the English, Metacom's War seemingly settled forever who would control this region. It cleared the land for colonial expansion and settlement, despite the continued presence of Native peoples. Metacom's War became a touchstone, a rallying cry, a trial and triumph recounted in the history of almost every New England town. Local historians began recalling, recording, and, eventually, re-enacting the struggles of Metacom's War. Perhaps most importantly, the actions, and recollections, of Metacom's War set the tone for future relations between Native American Indian tribes and the United States.