|King Philip’s War
The Wampanoags and the English- Part 2
1. Two Deaths
Massasoit’s death left two sons, Wamsutta, and the much younger Metacom. Very soon after Massasoit’s death, Wamsutta and Metacom traveled to Plymouth Colony Court with a special request: To be given English names. On June 13, 1660, Wamsutta officially became “Alexander” and Metacom became “Philip.” Wamsutta believed that changing their Native American names to English ones would make the colonists less threatened by the two mighty brothers. It was a sign that Alexander had fully planned on remaining on the same peaceful path as their recently deceased father. Unfortunately, the name change did little to get rid of the paranoia growing inside the colonists now that Massasoit was gone.
Two years later, Alexander would be hunted down by leader of the Plymouth Colony militia, General Josiah Winslow, the son of Edward Winslow, Massasoit’s dear friend. Josiah Winslow had no curiosity whatsoever about the Wampanoags. He'd known them all his life. He considered them an obstacle. He considered them untrustworthy. He wanted nothing more than to find a means of starting a war that could lead to their extermination. General Winslow had orders to find Alexander and bring him to Plymouth Court for questioning. Alexander, his wife Wetamoo and his child were all marched down Satucket Path back toward Winslow’s homestead. Alexander would never march the way towards home again. He died leaving Winslow’s house. According to Winslow, Alexander was simply questioned about his motives toward the colonists, fell ill and was then released. To Wetamoo, Alexander’s death was no act of nature. It was murder, plain and simple. Alexander’s death helped lead to King Philip’s War.
2. Philip Becomes a “King”
After Alexander’s death, Philip, just 24 years old, took his father's place as the Wampanoag chief. He was leading in a very difficult and very dangerous time, where essentially every part of the Wampanoag society, was being stripped away. The wampum trade was declining. New metal tools made it easier to make the small beads out of shells. The fur trade was declining because the beaver population was being depleted and European fashions were changing. The demand for the English to acquire more and more Algonquian land was increasing because of a quickly growing European population in New England. More and more Native People were choosing to move to praying towns because it was the only way they felt they could be safe. The world that had created Philip was collapsing around him.
Though Philip tried to keep the peaceful alliance his father had worked so hard to achieve with the members of Plymouth Colony, history repeated itself around 1665. Philip was called for questioning by the Plymouth courts, just as his brother had been three years earlier. This time Josiah Winslow was accusing Philip plotting against the colonists. Philip responded to the request to appear in front of colony officials: “Your governor is but a subject of King Charles of England. I shall not treat with a subject. I shall treat of peace only with the King. When he comes, I am ready.” To the English, this was absurd. That Philip would regard himself on the level as the King of England spurned the colonists to give him the nickname “King Philip.”
In 1671, more rumors spread that Philip was growing angry, and preparing to act. Authorities in Plymouth -- Josiah Winslow among them -- summoned Philip to account for himself. Winslow accused Philip of gathering a large amount of weapons and plotting to start a war. Philip had two choices. Either give all the weapons up or admit to the English that he was preparing for war, as they were accusing him of. So he had to choose the lesser of the two evils. Before taking his leave, Philip was made to sign a confession in which he admitted disloyalty to the English, and promised to turn over any weapons the Wampanoag had amassed. This is a real turning point for Philip in that it's quite clear that the aims of the English are not just to gain more and more land, not just to undercut native people economically and spiritually, but clearly to make native people second-class citizens in their own country.
3. King Philip’s War
Philip was not eager to make a fight with the English; a war would shred his father's historic alliance. And put his entire tribe in peril. There were only a thousand Wampanoag remaining, and nearly half were living in the Praying Towns. Philip had few warriors. But the Wampanoag chief did prepare -- seeking allies among nearby tribes, and quietly buying up firearms. At home in Mount Hope, with his English friends nearby, Philip wrestled with the enormity of a war against Josiah Winslow and Plymouth colony. He was clearly a person caught in historical forces that gave him very difficult choices, and like many Indian leaders in those situations across the continent, he must have been weighing the options of peace and war, he must have been trying to balance conflicting pressures.
Betrayal forced Philip's hand. In January 1675, Philip's personal secretary traveled to Plymouth to warn Governor Winslow that Philip was arming for war. Three weeks later, the secretary was dead. English authorities arrested three of Philip's men, tried them for the murder, and executed them. For Indian people, a killing of an Indian by an Indian in Indian country was something that should have been settled by Indian people. After that blatant assault of Indian sovereignty, Philip was under incredible pressure from his warriors to step up and do something about this.
When Wampanoag warriors began their rampage in 1676, Philip stood with them, convincing other aggrieved tribes in the area -- including the Wampanoag's old rival, the Narragansett -- to join their fight against New England: a fight the English would come to call King Philip's War. Native American forces had devastating victories over the English in the early months of that war, destroyed large numbers of towns and people and property, and were very much winning that war and putting the English on a defensive. The war spread to Connecticut. The war spread into Rhode Island. The war spread into eastern New York. Tribe after tribe after tribe joined the Wampanoag’s fight.
English colonists from the outlying villages fled to bigger towns. Some simply boarded ships and headed back to Europe. The English looked at Indian people very differently, even those Indian people who have lived among them, even those Indian people who have committed to living a Christian life and are living in the praying towns. These Indians now come to be regarded as people who cannot be trusted, and who are liable to turn on you at any time. As winter approached, the colonists banished hundreds of Christian Indians living in praying towns, men, women and children. They took them on a forced march to the Charles River, put them in canoes, and put them on Deer Island in the middle of Boston Harbor, which at that time of year is a cold, blustery place. Over three or four hundred perished from lack of food and exposure, because they gave them no blankets or food, or anything, and just dumped them there.
The war ground on, month after month, with terrible consequences. 25 English towns were destroyed; more than 2,000 English colonists died. The shared danger united the colonies, and they lashed back. In early 1676 Philip could feel the tide turning; and then the powerful Mohawks -- longtime allies of the English -- made a surprise attack, killing almost 500 of Philip's men and dooming his mission.
A year into the war, scores of Indian villages had been burned to ash. 5,000 native people had died; hundreds of men, women and children who did survive were loaded onto boats, shipped to the West Indies and Europe, and sold into slavery. Josiah Winslow, the son of Massasoit’s great friend, now called them "heathen malefactors." Native tribes in southern New England had been crushed, and would never again control their destiny in their homeland.
4. King Philip’s Death
On August of 1676, King Philip’s luck had run out. Though he escaped capture by the skin of his teeth twice before, he now had nowhere to hide. Philip was shot in the chest by John Alderman, a praying Indian. Alderman was accompanied by Captain Benjamin Church himself, the most famous Indian hunter of the day. Church ordered Philip’s body to pulled up to higher ground to begin the act of his mutilation. His body was beheaded and dismembered. Quartered, Church picked four nearby trees and ordered four pieces of Philip’s body to be tied to them for the birds to pluck. His hand was given to Alderman as a trophy of the kill. Alderman took the hand happily and later would place it in a jar preserved with rum. Alderman would take the jar to taverns where he would allow the owners to display it in exchange for free drinks.
On the final day of thanksgiving, Philip's head is marched into Plymouth. This head on a pole is erected in the center of town and is cause for a great celebration among the colonists. Philip’s decapitated head was spiked and proudly carried through the streets of Plymouth before it would meet it’s final resting place upon Plymouth Colony Fort, where it remained on the fort for at least 25 years. It was a warning to other people, to other Indian people. It showed them how the English would deal with rebellion and treason. The English saw Philip as a traitor -- and this was the punishment given by 17th century Englishman to traitors. As if sight of Philip’s skull was not horrific enough, one day Cotton Mather removed the jawbone, to keep “the devil from speaking from the grave.”
Historians estimate that King Philip was 38 at the time of his murder. Massasoit's son was dead and scattered, but the colonists were taking no chances. They captured Philip's son and heir -- a nine-year-old boy -- and locked him in a jail in Plymouth. While English authorities deliberated on whether to sell the boy into slavery, or simply murder him, the Puritans gave thanks to their God. While Philip's son lived the rest of his life as a slave in the West Indies, the head was displayed in Plymouth, a reminder to the Indians about who was in charge, and a reminder to the English that God continued to smile on their endeavor.
It's hard to see how conflict could have been avoided and how the outcome of that war could have been different. Looking at the generation before this war, there is at least a moment, where things were different.