June 8, 1675 – Three Wampanoag warriors were executed by Plymouth colony, triggering King Philip’s War.
The Pequot War of 1636, during which English colonists slaughtered over 600 women and children by burning their village at Mystic, Connecticut to the ground, did exactly what the English had hoped it would: it absolutely terrified all of the New England tribes into submission. The English style of warfare, which involved relentless attack and indiscriminate slaughter, horrified the Indians.
Even the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims, who would not have survived their first year without help from the Wampanoag and their leader Massasoit, looked down upon the Indians. Governor William Bradford considered them a “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.”
Still, in the 40 years since the arrival of the Mayflower, the Plymouth colony had kept its peace with Massasoit and the Wampanoag. During that time the Plymouth Colony had prospered, multiplied and expanded, while the natives had slowly declined from European diseases. During Massasoit’s lifetime he had maintained good relations with the Plymouth Colony by being willing to sell a fair amount of tribal land to acquire English goods. For the most part, the Plymouth colonists only settled on land that had been fairly (at least in their view) purchased from the natives. Generally, the Wampanoag and Plymouth colonists lived side by side in peace.
By the 1660s, however, everything began to change. Most importantly, Massasoit and the original Plymouth colonists were dead. The new generation of colonists did not feel the same obligation to the Wampanoag that their parents had, despite the fact that the colony would not even exist had it not been for Massasoit’s help. Rather than friends and neighbors, they viewed the Indians as roadblocks to expansion. Basically, the Plymouth colonists of the 1660s viewed the natives as being in the way, living on land they wanted and felt that God had intended for them to own.
As the colonists grew to outnumber the Indians, their arrogance and colonizing attitude caused other problems beyond their constant demands for more and more Indian land. For one, Indian alcoholism was on the rise. Depressed by the epidemics and loss of their land and culture, many native men turned to drinking alcohol, which was happily sold to them by English merchants. The resulting problem of drunkenness caused trouble within native communities.
Another was the Puritan insistence that the natives adopt English customs and Christianity. Puritans outlawed the practice of native religions for those Indians living on “Puritan” land. In fact, the Massachusetts Bay colony imposed the death penalty for anyone caught worshiping the native gods. Christian Indians (called “praying Indians”) were herded into “praying towns,” where Puritan missionaries forced them to abandon their native culture and become fully “English”. In effect, these became Indian reservations where white law, religion, and cultural rules were enforced.
Into this rising tension stepped a new leader of the Wampanoag: Metacomet, also known as Philip. Metacomet, who was derisively called “King” Philip by the English, was the son of Massasoit. Philip took over leadership of the Wampanoag in 1662 when he was only 24. He was a man comfortable in both worlds: he was fluent in both his native tongue as well as English, had English as well as Indian friends, sported English clothing, and even owned pigs, which was unusual for a native at the time. Philip was also quite wealthy, by colonial standards, as his father, Massasoit, had greatly prospered from his trade with the Plymouth colony.
Nevertheless, Philip was also the leader of his people, a role that he took quite seriously. No fool, he clearly saw what was happening to the Wampanoag and what the ultimate intentions of the English were. By the early 1670s Philip came to the inevitable conclusion that the Indians of New England had to unite to make a final stand against the English, or the colonists would eventually take all of their native lands. In secret, he began planning a war to annihilate the Plymouth colony, or die trying. As he told an English friend of his, “But a small part of the dominion of my ancestors remains. I am determined not to live until I have no country.”
Slowly, quietly, Philip gathered weapons, gunpowder and allies, waiting for the right time to strike. Before he was ready, however, events outside of his control sparked the conflict. In January of 1675, John Sassamon, a Wampanoag “praying Indian” and Philip’s secretary, warned the governor of Plymouth Colony, Josiah Winslow, that Philip was planning an attack. Soon thereafter Sassamon went missing, and his dead body was subsequently found in the woods. Plymouth authorities suspected murder, and when another praying Indian fingered three of Philip’s men, they were eventually arrested, tried, and hanged on June 8, 1675.
Philip’s men, outraged by Plymouth’s actions, sought revenge by burning a Puritan settlement in Swansea, Massachusetts, to the ground, killing nine colonists. Colonial forces responded with an attack on a Wampanoag settlement in Rhode Island, and “King Philip’s War” had begun.
Unfortunately for Philip, only a few New England tribes joined his effort. Many remained neutral and a few, such as the Mohegan and Mohawk, allied with the English and sent warriors to fight against Philip’s forces. As was typical, the Indians failed to see beyond their own tribal interests. Once again, they did not realize that the English colonists were a common enemy to all Indians. They were more interested in having trading partners who could provide them with iron tools and muskets.
The English, however, were not so narrow in their view of the conflict. To the English colonists of New England the struggle was not a local one of the Wampanoag against the Plymouth colony, but a larger racial war of English versus Indian. In fact, many colonists welcomed the war as giving them an excuse to take over more Indian land.
Consequently, all of the other New England colonies rallied to Plymouth’s defense, joining together as the “United Colonies” and attacking tribes that were allied with Philip (and even some that were not). As a result, a number of tribes who preferred to remain at peace were forced to join Philip to protect themselves from the English.
Despite the unity of the English, the war did not start out well for the colonists. During the summer of 1675 one of Philip’s allies, the Nipmuck Indians, burned several colonial settlements in Connecticut to the ground. In September they destroyed the Massachusetts towns of Brookfield and Deerfield and then ambushed and killed 71 colonial soldiers who came to the town’s rescue, in what later became known as the Battle of Bloody Brook.
After these disasters the English colonists were dismayed. Many believed that they were being punished by God for not being religious enough. In true Puritan fashion, they then lashed out at easy scapegoats, persecuting Quakers and imprisoning Christian Indians.
One of the biggest fears of the English was that the powerful Narragansett tribe, their old allies against the Pequot, might enter the war on Phillip’s side. Consequently, in December of 1675 the colonists decided to make a preemptive strike against the neutral Narragansett.
A thousand soldiers from the Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and Connecticut colonies marched into Narragansett territory in southern Rhode Island. Without warning, they attacked the main Narragansett camp located in a swamp, killed everyone they could, and burned the camp to the ground. Like Mystic 40 years before, many Indians burned to death in the flames. Over 500 natives (many women and children) were killed in what became known as the Great Swamp Fight.
Not surprisingly, the surviving Narragansett immediately entered the war on Philip’s side. During the winter of 1675 and spring of 1676 they raided and burned dozens of settlements all over southern New England, killing scores of colonists. They even attacked the original settlement of Plymouth and burned the capital of Rhode Island (Providence) to the ground. Despite these early victories, however, the natives were running low on food, muskets and powder, and still faced superior numbers of colonists. Eventually, the tide would turn against them.
In May of 1676 colonial forces, along with Mohegan and Mohawk allies, launched a sneak attack on the Philip’s main camp on the Connecticut River. Surprising the Indians at dawn, they slaughtered scores of natives. Although warriors from the surrounding area launched a counterattack that killed the colonial commander, the damage had been done. Philip’s major war camp had been wiped out. Soon afterward, the Indian alliance collapsed and several of Philip’s allies made deals with the English, signing treaties in which they gave up large tracts of land to the colonists in exchange for peace.
Philip was eventually caught and killed. His body was mutilated; his head was cut off and displayed on a pike at the entrance to the Plymouth colony. Philip’s wife and 9 year old son — Massasoit’s grandson and daughter-in-law — were captured and sold into slavery in the West Indies. This was considered an act of mercy by Puritan ministers, who had originally wanted them executed.
Although the War lasted only a year, it is considered the bloodiest war, per capita, in American history. Out of an estimated total Indian and colonist population of about 80,000, over 9,000 were killed – more than 10% of the total population. Thousands of Indians who survived were sold into slavery in the West Indies, and17 English towns were burned to the ground.
While sporadic fighting between Indians and colonists in New England would continue for the next 50 years, the death of Philip effectively ended united Native American resistance to colonization. This pattern of encroachment, war, and loss of more and more land would plague Native Americans until the end of the 19th century, when European conquest of North America would be complete.
The colonists’ Mohawk and Mohegan allies, moreover, did not long enjoy their victory. As with the Pequot and Wampanoag, the English methodically took their land and destroyed their fields and hunting grounds, while at the same time growing in population as the natives’ decreased. By the end of the 18th century, every tribe on the East coast of North America lived as a small minority, on a tiny reservation, surrounded by European colonists.