Colonial America – King Philip’s War

Indians Attacking a Garrison House, from an Old Wood Engraving This is likely a depiction of the attack on the Haynes Garrison, Sudbury, April 21, 1676

By 1675, the founders of the New England Colonies had either died or been replaced in power by a younger generation did not place the same importance on the values that their elders had. An uneasy truce still existed between the colonists and Native Americans, but English encroachment into Indian lands and disease had stretched the peace to the breaking point.

Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem that shared the first Thanksgiving with the Plymouth colony had died, leaving the leadership to his son Wamsutta, known to the Puritans as Alexander. (The Puritans traditionally called the Indian leaders by “Christian” names). In 1662, Alexander was called to Plymouth to answer charges that he was selling land that belonged to the English. Alexander sickened while at Plymouth and died shortly after returning to his home.

Alexander was succeeded by his brother Metacom, or King Philip. Metacom began to resist English encroachment into Indian territory, finally declaring in 1675 “I am determined not to live until I have no country”. Prior to that, King Philip had been called before the English judiciary and subsequently humiliated over rumors that he was stockpiling weapons. Then, when the body of a Christian Native was found murdered, three Wampanoag men were identified as the killers. The Natives were tried at Plymouth as the victim was considered an English subject since he was a Christian.


The war actually began in mid-1675, not over land, but over cattle. English cattle often roamed into Indian cornfields, trampling the crops. Wampanoag braves killed some cattle near Bristol, Rhode Island and a farmer retaliated by killing an Indian seen running from his house. A native uprising ensued. The Nipmuck Indians from central Massachusetts joined the Wampanoags and the first great English casualty occurred, the siege and destruction of Brookfield.


Following Brookfield, the Nipmucks and Wampanoags turned to the Connecticut River Valley in the autumn of 1675. The Pocumtucks, Squakheags and Norwottocks, all tribes who resided in that area joined them. The English abandoned Deerfield to the attacking Indians, and Captain Lothrop lost his life and that of 71 of his men in an Indian ambush. This attack marked a low point for the English, who began to believe that God was punishing them for abandoning the strict religious adherence of their forebears. The towns of Hatfield, Southampton and Springfield followed the same fate as Deerfield. The Agawam tribe destroyed Springfield after settlers took some of their children as a pre-emptive measure against attack.


During the winter of 1675/1676, the Indian attacks diminished. As winter progressed, the Indians found themselves lacking food that was not farmed over the summer, but still firmly held on the central Massachusetts. The colonists, fearful that the powerful Narrangansett tribe might side against them, made the same mistake as they did with the Agawam tribe. In an attempt to head off the neutral tribe, the colonists attacked them in December of 1675. An Indian traitor told the English where the Narragansett’s had their winter fort, and colonists from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Plymouth Colony, and the Connecticut Colony marched into Southern Rhode Island and what would become the Great Swamp Massacre. Let by General Winslow and Benjamin Church, over 500 Narrangansetts were killed. The remaining Narrangansetts joined King Philip and the towns of Medfield, Groton, Sudbury, Plymouth, Rehoboth, Providence and Marlboro fell to their rage. In February 1676, the town of Lancaster was attacked and the ministerr’s wife, Mary Rowlandson, was taken prisoner. Her account of the attack and her six weeks in captivity has become one of the most important documents to come out of the war.


In May of 1676, the colonists got another break from an escaped English captive, (or from an Indian, accounts vary), who informed them where the Wampanoags had their main war camp. At dawn on a calm May morning, Captain Turner and Captain Holyoke attacked the camp. Turner lost his life but the camp was destroyed. The Indian Alliance soon fell apart, with only a few Indians fighting on and the majority fleeing north. Philip made his way back to Swansea, his headquarters, but was tracked there by Benjamin Church. Ironically, King Philip was shot by the Indian guide who had led Church to the camp.

The remaining hostile Indians were either killed or sold into slavery. Many children were forced into servitude until the age of 24. Tribes that remained neutral or fought with the English eventually came under colonial jurisdiction and many converted to Christianity in order keep their communities intact.

The repercussions of the war went far beyond physical damage. New England suffered major structural damage and King Philip’s war resulted in the greatest loss of life, proportionately, than any other war in American History. Although some Indians remained in New England, King Philip’s War effectively ended any Native American control in the region and the portrayal of the war by the Puritans influenced all future perceptions of the war and racial relations.