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The Beginning of the End
King Philip's War, 1670s (Moments that Made America)
Metacomet hadn’t expected to become sachem—elected chief—of the Wampanoag confederation of New England. He was only the second son of Massasoit, who had greeted the Pilgrims on their arrival at Plymouth and had held that leadership position for the four decades since. But Metacomet’s elder brother died shortly after their father’s death in 1661, and the confederation turned to Metacomet.
The Wampanoags were in bad shape. Massasoit had formed an alliance with the English newcomers against the Narragansetts, the Wampanoags’ traditional rivals. But the diseases the Europeans brought decimated his people, and the huge influx of Puritans, following the Pilgrims, tilted the balance even further against Metacomet’s people.
Yet the newcomers brought items that made the Indians’ life much easier. Steel knives were a huge improvement on stone blades. Woven cloth was more comfortable as clothing than animal pelts. Muskets were more lethal—against both animals and humans—than arrows and spears. So the Wampanoags cultivated good relations with the whites as long as they could. Some of them adopted English names; Metacomet became Philip.
But as the settler population continued to grow, good relations came harder. The children and grandchildren of the first colonists encroached on territory their fathers and grandfathers had promised to leave to the Indians. Meanwhile, the Indian population declined further. The novel diseases, although now less novel, periodically wreaked new havoc on the villages.
Metacomet concluded that time was working against his people. If they were ever to mount a successful defense of their land against the interlopers, they had to act quickly. Each passing year left them at an increasing disadvantage.
Benjamin Church witnessed the start of Metacomet’s campaign. “The enemy, who began their hostilities with plundering and destroying cattle, did not long content themselves with that game,” recalled Church, a grandson of one of the Mayflower arrivals. “They thirsted for English blood, and they soon broached it, killing two men in the way not far from Mr. Miles’s garrison. And soon after, eight more at Mattapoiset, upon whose bodies they exercised more than brutish barbarities—beheading, dismembering, and mangling them in the most inhumane manner.”
Metacomet hoped to persuade the Narragansetts to join the struggle. At first they remained aloof. But in time he convinced them that they were in the same straits as his own people, and the fighting spread. Before long much of southern New England had become a battleground.
The Indians had the better of the first phase of the conflict, catching the English unprepared and inflicting heavy damage to life and property. Precisely what Metacomet and the other Indian leaders hoped to accomplish is unclear; possibly they didn’t know themselves. They certainly sought to prevent expansion of the white settlements; conceivably they intended to drive the English into the sea.
They had waited too long. After absorbing heavy losses, the New Englanders regrouped and mounted a punishing counteroffensive. Metacomet hoped to expand the Indian alliance to tribes farther west, but the Mohawks, the most formidable fighters in eastern New York, took the side of the English. In doing so they revealed the chronic weakness of Indian resistance against whites: the belief of some tribes and bands that their Indian neighbors were a greater threat than the whites.
Meantime the whites rallied together as they hadn’t before. The “United Colonies” of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut raised an army of a thousand militiamen, augmented by more than a hundred Indians, and they turned the tide of battle against the Wampanoags and Narragansetts.
Benjamin Church, at the head of a company of colonists and Indians, gave chase to Metacomet, pursuing him relentlessly and wearing him down. “Some of the Indians now said to Capt. Church,” he wrote later, in the third person: “Sir, you have now made Philip ready to die, for you have made him as poor and miserable as he used to make the English, for you have now killed or taken all his relations.”
Church and his company tracked Metacomet through the Great Swamp of Rhode Island, where they cornered his dwindling band. Metacomet was killed by musket fire from one of the Indians allied with the English. “The whole army gave three loud huzzahs,” Church recalled.
He continued, “Capt. Church then said that forasmuch as he”—Metacomet, or Philip—“had caused many an Englishman’s body to lie unburied and rot above the ground, that not one of his bones should be buried. And calling his old Indian executioner, bid him behead and quarter him. Accordingly, he came with his hatchet and stood over him, but before he struck he made a small speech, directing it to Philip, and said he had been a very great man, and had made many a man afraid of him; but so big as he was, he”—the executioner—“would now chop his ass for him. And so he went to work.”
King Philip’s War, as the colonists called the conflict, was the bloodiest war ever fought between whites and Indians in what would become the United States. The casualties were comparable on the two sides: some three thousand Indians killed or wounded, and nearly as many whites. But because the population of the whites was growing and that of the Indians already declining, the war proved a devastating defeat for the latter.
Two centuries would pass before the final armed resistance by indigenous people within the borders of the United States ended. But King Philip’s War predicted that outcome and the means by which it would be achieved. Outnumbered, diminished by disease, and divided by historic rivalries, the American tribes would be worn down and ultimately overwhelmed by the tribe of invaders from across the Atlantic.