King Philip’s War: the Unavoidable Conflict

Last Updated: 13 Dec 2022
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War between the Indians and the Colonists was unavoidable from the very moment the Pilgrims first set foot on what was to eventually become Massachusetts in 1620. As more and more settlers began arriving over the years, tension between the two began to steadily rise. The settler's insatiable hunger for land and their increasing mistreatment of the Indians began to break down an already somewhat fragile alliance between the two. The Indians were quickly losing land and their way of life as well to these new settlers and some of them believed the only way to stop this was to go on the offensive and push back them back.

The result of this was a short fought war known as King Philip's War. Though it only lasted a little over a year, it was an exceptionally brutal war that took a huge toll life wise and had a lasting impact on both the English and the Indians for many years to come. After landing in what is now known as Plymouth, some of the first Indians that the Pilgrims encountered were the Wampanoag's. They were led by their chief Massasoit and eventually the Indians and Pilgrims formed an alliance.

As a result of this alliance, both parties promised not to attack or harm one or another, and if something did happen, then the offender would be turned over to the ones harmed. Also, they would give assistance to each other if they should find themselves under attack (Rich 1-8). From the beginning, this alliance was somewhat uneasy, and it was obvious that politics on both sides was the main factor for forging it and played a major role leading up to and during the actual war. For the Pilgrim's, they absolutely needed the help of the Indians.

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They were on their own, over three thousand miles from the nearest help, and struggling to survive in this new land. The Indians on the other hand needed the Pilgrim's to increase their security. Because of disease that dwindled their numbers, they were always under the threat of attack from other warring tribes and needed the Pilgrim's and their weapons to defeat them. For almost forty years, the Wampanoag and the Colonists maintained this increasingly uneasy peace until Massasoit's death sometime around 1660 (Schultz and Tougais 14).

During this time Massasoit sold a lot of land to the English. It would seem he did so to maintain the peace and also because he probably didn't want the Wampanoag's to go the way of the Pequot's. Around 1634 a tribe known as the Pequot's went to war with the colonist's in Connecticut over trade disputes and were almost completely wiped out (Drake 27-29). With the deaths of most of the original Plymouth colonists and the passing of Massasoit, the alliance which had maintained peace between the two very different groups was gone forever.

After the death of Massasoit, his two sons Wamsutta and his younger brother Metacom went to Plymouth and asked that the Pilgrims give them Christian names. Wamsutta was named Alexander and Metacom became Philip. Since Wamsutta was the first born he became chief of the Wampanoag following his father's death. Wamsutta was soon accused of making war plans against the colonist's and also of selling land to the settlers cast out of Plymouth and living in Rhode Island. In 1662 the colonists demanded he appear before them and sent an armed party to fetch him.

During this time, Wamsutta suddenly fell ill and died shortly thereafter. Many Wampanoag strongly believed that he had been poisoned by the colonists and they wanted to retaliate but were talked out of it by their new chief, Metacom. Metacom certainly believed that Wamsutta had been killed at the hands of the colonists but probably felt that now wasn't the time to push the issue (Schultz and Tougais 22-24). As the colonies grew larger they began to band together which in turn weakened the Indians influence on them. The Indians were no longer needed for their aid nor their goods and all they had to offer was their land.

Metacom continued to sell land to the colonists as his father did before him, but found he and his people were slowly being forced closer together by the ever growing population of settlers. This close contact led to many minor disputes on both sides and raised suspicions about what the other side was doing. Metacom was constantly accused of trying to raise the other tribes to his cause and attack the colonists which eventually led to him signing a treaty with them that required them to pay an annual tribute and turn over their firearms to Plymouth officials.

Not all of his people gave up their rifles and this was seen as a threat which resulted in another treaty that in 1671 brought the Wampanoag under the laws of the Plymouth colony. Because of this, the Plymouth Colony made it unlawful for the Wampanoag to sell land to any other colony. This created friction not only with the Indians but with the other colonies such as Connecticut and Rhode Island (Bourne 100-102). It was about this time that Metacom became known as "King Philip" by the English (Lepore xvi). He was a king only by name, as he held power only over the Wampanoag.

He was onstantly bickering with rival tribes and because of this, could never really get the backing he needed to go to war with the colonists. The colonists were always suspicious of Metacom and felt he was quietly conspiring to attack them but could never prove it. In January of 1675 an Indian known as John Sassamon, who was a translator, believed that Metacom was plotting to overthrow them and tried to warn Plymouth Governor Josiah Winslow, but wasn't taken seriously. They found his body a few days later. A witness said he saw three of Metacom's people kill him and hide his body.

The three were arrested and after an very quick trial, were found guilty and on June 8, 1675, two of them were executed (Philbrick 220-223). The mysterious death of Wamsutta years earlier, the taking of the land and mistreatment by the colonists, and now the execution of two of their own were the last straw for Metacom and the Wampanoag. He told his people to prepare for war and sent the women and children to safety. For a little while it appeared that war could be averted as the Governors of Rhode Island and Plymouth tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

Unfortunately it was a little too late for negotiations because the Wampanoag's were out for revenge. On June 24, 1675, King Philip's War began when the Wampanoag struck the first blow by attacking the settlement at Swansea in the western part of the Plymouth Colony (Drake 57). Since there was no real coordination between the Wampanoag and their allies such as the Nipmucks, Pocumtucks, and the Abenaki; the war dissolved into a series of ruthless Indian raids on frontier settlements from Connecticut to Massachusetts and eventually into New Hampshire and Maine.

This was followed by brutal retaliation by the colonists on the Indians. Some of the brutality by the Indians was documented by Mary Rowlandson, who was captured in Lancaster and held for 11 weeks before being ransomed for twenty pounds. She wrote about her captivity in A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. In it she wrote "There were five persons taken in one house; the father, and the mother and a sucking child, they knocked on the head, ...

There were two others... one was knocked on the head, the other escaped; another there was who running along was shot and wounded, and fell down; he begged of them his life, promising them money (as they told me) but they would not hearken to him but knocked him in head, and stripped him naked, and split open his bowels" (Rowlandson 118-119). She also wrote " Some in our house were fighting for their lives, and the bloody heathen ready to knock us on the head, if we stirred out ...

But out we must go, the fire increasing, and coming along behind us, roaring, and the Indians gaping before us with their guns, spears, and hatchets to devour us ... my brother-in-law ... fell down dead, whereat the Indians scornfully shouted, and hallowed, and were presently upon him, stripping off his clothes ... William, had then his leg broken, which the Indians perceiving, they knocked him on [his] head. Thus were we butchered by those merciless heathen" (Rowlandson 119). The brutality wasn't limited to the Indians.

The colonists launched a pre-emptive strike against the Narragansett tribe even though they weren't actively involved in the war. The colonists believed that they were sheltering the families of the warring Wampanoag and on December 16, 1675 they attacked the settlement in Rhode Island in what is now known as the Great Swamp Massacre. The settlement was burned and many of the Indians were killed, including women and children, and most of the food stored for winter was destroyed, effectively impairing the Narragansett's ability to fight (Drake 119-120).

Figure 1 (http://iron. lcc. gatech. edu/~ntrivedi6/blog/? p=272) In the beginning the war went very badly for the colonists. They were surprised and wholly unprepared for war with the Indians. The Indians launched many successful raids on most of the major settlements in New England and by the beginning of 1676 they even attacked Plymouth itself. They had effectively driven the colonists out of the smaller settlements and forced them into the larger towns. Unfortunately they were beginning to run out of supplies and failed to get any help from other tribes.

It was the beginning of the end for Metacom and his allies as not all Indians were on his side. Other Indians ,like the Mohegan's, joined with the colonists and helped turned the tide of war. All support for Metacom and his war was falling apart. His allies were deserting him and surrendering to the colonists. On August 12, 1676 he was cornered at Mt. Hope, Rhode Island and killed. He was beheaded and his head was placed on a stake in Plymouth, where the gruesome reminder of the war remained for 25 years (Schultz and Tougais 290).

Some eight hundred colonists and three thousand Indians lost their lives during King Philip's War. This might seem small in comparison to other wars in history , but you have to keep in mind that there were only fifty-two thousand English settlers and twenty thousand Indians in New England at the time (Schultz and Tougais 5). Even though the colonists were victorious in the war, the cost was tremendous. Half of the estimated ninety settlements were attacked and burned and it would take many years before the colonists returned and rebuilt them.

What happened to the colonists pales in comparison to what happened to the Indians. Fifteen percent of the Indian population was wiped out because of the war and several hundred of the Indian captives were put on trial and were either executed or were sold into slavery. Metacom's family was sold as slaves and shipped to either Bermuda or the West Indies (Schultz and Tougais 128). As a result of all this, the Indians of New England never again got in the way of the colonists expansion. King Philip's War ended a forty year period of relative peace.

The colonists and the Indians coexisted because in the beginning they needed each other economically and politically. One couldn't really survive without the other. But as the number of settlers grew, the need for the Indians went away. The only thing the Indians had left was the land and that was being taken up by the colonists very quickly. Knowing this, the war between the two was unavoidable. You can't expand a country without someone else being displaced. This was repeated time and time again throughout American history as we pushed ever westward.

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King Philip’s War: the Unavoidable Conflict. (2016, Oct 03). Retrieved from

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