An Engraving of King Philip by Paul Revere, illustration from the 1772 edition of Benjamin Church's The Entertaining History of King Philip's War
Between 1675 and 1678 war raged across much of the New England colonies. This war would be the single greatest conflict to occur in seventeenth century Puritan New England and is considered by many historians to be the deadliest conflict in the history of European colonization of North America in proportion to total population. It would pit the colonists of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut against the combined forces of several native tribes led by the second son of Massasoit, the late Sachem of the Wampanoag tribe, Metacomet or Metacom, also known by his adopted English name, Philip. In the span of a little more than a year a dozen of the region’s towns would be destroyed and many more damaged, the colonial economies would be in shambles, and when the dust finally settles one in ten male colonists would be dead and some of the Indian tribes involved would be decimated.
In the autumn of 1621, fifty-three colonists and ninety Wampanoag men under Sachem Massasoit came together for three days of feasting which would come to be known as the “First Thanksgiving”. It would be the beginning of an alliance between the two parties that, due to different world views, would be fated to end badly. With Massasoit’s passing in 1661 the old regime of peacekeeping would pass with him. As Metacomet, better known as King Philip to the colonists, rose to power as Sachem of the Wampanoag peace would be the last thing on his mind. Fearing that his older brother, Sachem Wamsutta’s, mysterious death was due to poisoning and growing tired of colonial expansion into their ancestral lands, Metacomet would use tribal relations to forge alliances with surrounding tribes that included the Narragansett, Nipmuck, and the Podunk. The first major cause of violence would be in 1671 when colonists forced Metacomet to sign a new peace treaty which stipulated the surrender of native armaments. The second and what would start the war drums beating would be the execution of three Wampanoag tribesmen by Plymouth for the killing of a Christianized Indian. Soon after Metacomet’s allies would begin a united assault on colonial towns throughout the New England region.
There would be considerable destruction in the first year with Metacomet’s forces seeing many successes. The attack and eventual destruction of the colony of Swansea and several ambushes in the Plymouth area not only struck fear in the hearts of the colonists but also forced military action on their part. They attacked and burned an Indian town on Mount Hope in present Day Bristol, Rhode Island and orchestrated the deadliest single engagement during the war. It would not take place against the Wampanoag but against their ally, the Narragansett.
James Drake, in his book King Philip's War: Civil War in New England, 1675-1676, describes the event as “one of the most brutal and lopsided military encounters in all of New England's history”. In December of 1675, a combined colonial force from Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut with contingents of native warriors from the Mohegan and Pequot tribes surrounded and attacked a Narragansett fort located in the Great Swamp of present day South Kingston, Rhode Island. Hundreds of Narragansett women and children as well as refugee Wampanoag were slain or taken prisoner while the united forces of the colonies suffered seventy killed and twice that wounded. This would incite the Narragansett to side with Philip as up until that point, through the intercession of Roger Williams, they had been neutral.
After the Great Swamp fight things would begin to turn sour for the colonists. Throughout out the winter of 1675 and 1676, Indian raids spread quickly through southern New England with attacks on several frontier settlements. Providence would also be attacked with many building destroyed forcing the colonist to flee to the island colonies of Newport and Portsmouth. It would culminate with a combined spring Indian assault on the colony that started it all, Plymouth. Though Plymouth would withstand the assault it showed just how deep the Indian raids could penetrate into colonial territories. This would be the high water mark of the Indian assaults in southern New England.
By July, many of Metacomet’s allies began to desert him. Some four hundred had surrendered at months beginning as the number continued to grow. Feeling disillusioned with his dwindling force Metacomet retreated by himself to Mount Hope, his ancestral seat of power and where the war truly began. Colonial forces under Benjamin Church, with contingents of native allies began raiding parties into the Mount Hope area and on August 12 the finally had some luck. Spotted, Metacomet was shot and killed by a praying Indian named John Alderman. Metacomet would be drawn and quartered as was expected with someone who had commited treason against the colonies and for an entire generation his head was on display in Plymouth for the next generation. His wife and son would be captured and sold into slavery down in Bermuda. Within fifty years of the first thanksgiving, the onetime good feelings had all been buried or destroyed.
Though Metacomet would be killed in August of 1676 the war would still rage in northern New England for another year and a half, finally ending in 1678. This would be overshadowed by several other Indian conflicts and by 1776 King Philip’s War would be New England’s Forgotten war save for the handful of markers buried deep within the forests. It was a tragic way to end colonial- Indian relations and would set the stage for future sour relations for years to come.