Metacomet, later known as King Philip, was born into a world of complex tribal dynamics and impending colonial pressures. His birth marked the beginning of a life that would be pivotal in the history of Native American resistance against European expansion.
Metacomet’s father, Massasoit, was a figure of significant influence and reverence. As the leader of the Pokanoket tribe and the grand sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy, Massasoit’s leadership extended over 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes across parts of modern-day Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
The Wampanoag Confederacy: A Coalition of Tribes
The Wampanoag Confederacy, under Massasoit’s leadership, was not just a loose association but a sophisticated network of tribes. It comprised key tribes such as the Pokanoket, Pocasset, Nauset, Patuxet, Nemasket, Agawam, Nashua, Massachusett, and Nipmuc.
Each tribe maintained local autonomy while uniting for common causes like defense and trade. And each had its unique characteristics and territory but shared the common Algonquian linguistic roots and cultural practices.
The Pokanoket tribe, led by Massasoit himself, was the largest and most powerful, influencing significant parts of modern Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts.
Massasoit’s Diplomacy with Plymouth Colony
Massasoit’s approach to the newly arrived Plymouth colonists in 1621 was a strategic masterstroke. Recognizing the potential of these settlers as allies against enemy tribes like the Narragansetts and valuable trading partners, he forged an early alliance that proved crucial for the survival of the Plymouth colony.
This alliance was not just a temporary arrangement but a sustained effort, as Massasoit continued to maintain positive relations with the Plymouth colony until his death around 1661. Growing up, Metacomet was deeply influenced by his father’s commitment to diplomacy and peace.
These early experiences were instrumental in shaping his worldview and leadership style. Metacomet’s childhood was a blend of traditional tribal upbringing and the evolving dynamics of Native-settler relations. This unique upbringing prepared him for the significant role he would play in the future as a leader of his people during a time of great upheaval and change.
Metacom’s Rise to Leadership Amidst Colonial Pressure
Massasoit’s passing saw the emergence of his son Wamsutta to the role of the confederation’s grand sachem. But just one year later, Wamsutta’s sudden and mysterious death after a meeting with Plymouth’s English authorities sowed seeds of distrust within Metacom.
Many Natives were convinced that Wamsutta had been poisoned. Were the English taking advantage of Massasoit’s death to shift the balance of power?
This event signaled a turning point, where Metacom’s perspective on the colonists moved from cautious engagement to defensive strategy. And that was significant because he was next in line to accept the Wampanoag leadership.
Aa Metacom stepped into the role of sachem, the English were no longer struggling pilgrims; they had become ambitious settlers. His ascent came with the weighty inheritance of his father’s diplomatic legacy and the rising challenge of protecting his people’s way of life against a backdrop of growing colonial ambition.
Tension in the New World: The Wampanoag and English Settlers
Metacom, now carrying the mantle of leadership, watched as the agreements and understanding his father had forged were increasingly disregarded by the colonists. Incidents of theft, dishonesty, and the unfair application of English law against the Wampanoag people began to sow seeds of discord.
Each transgression chipped away at the trust Metacom had for the English, leading to a series of confrontations that would escalate towards the inevitable conflict known as King Philip’s War.
The peace forged by Metacom’s father was unraveling, strained by the settlers’ relentless expansion and their increasing demands on the Wampanoag people. Metacom watched as the encroachment on his land and culture intensified, feeling the ever-growing weight of his people’s plight.
Tensions Escalate with Land Disputes
By 1663, the tension between the Wampanoag and the Plymouth Colony was exacerbated by land disputes. Plymouth’s purchase of a large tract of Wampanoag land violated the 1621 peace treaty’s clause limiting land sales, deeply angering the Wampanoag people.
Subsequent events, such as the establishment of the town of Swansea within Wampanoag territory in 1667, further strained relations. In 1671, the Plymouth authorities forced Metacomet to sign a new, less favorable peace treaty, requiring the Wampanoags to surrender their firearms, symbolizing a significant loss of autonomy and power.
The Sassamon Murder and Trial
The murder of John Sassamon, a Christian convert and advisor to Metacomet, in January 1675, marked a turning point. Sassamon had warned Plymouth’s Governor Josiah Winslow of a planned attack by Metacomet. Shortly after, Sassamon’s body was found in the icy waters of Assawompset Pond, with evidence suggesting murder.
The trial of three of Metacomet’s men by a jury of colonists and natives resulted in their execution, igniting outrage among the Wampanoag, who maintained their innocence. This incident sharply escalated tensions, leading Plymouth to raise an armed force and fortify blockhouses near Wampanoag territory, viewed by Metacomet as an act of aggression.
The Spark of King Philip’s War: Conflict Ignites
That conflict began on June 20, 1675, when some of Metacomet’s men raided Swansea, looting and vandalizing homes and killing several colonists. This raid is considered the start of King Philip’s War.
Then, the Wampanoag launched a major attack on Swansea on June 24, forcing colonists to abandon it. The colonists responded by sending forces to Mount Hope, Metacomet’s base, resulting in initial fighting and casualties on both sides.
By the end of June 1675, war had fully broken out between the Wampanoag and other tribes against the colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and their Native American allies.
Battle of Nipsachuck (July 2-3, 1675)
In early July 1675, the escalating conflict saw the Narragansett warriors, led by sachems Canonchet and Pessicus, engage in the Battle of Nipsachuck in northern Rhode Island. They were attempting to recover cached corn amidst the ongoing conflict with the English colonists.
A colonial force, anticipating this move, attacked the Narragansetts. Despite the Narragansetts’ initial defense, they were forced to retreat, and the battle resulted in significant casualties on both sides.
This early colonial victory, however, didn’t stop the Narragansett warriors from continuing their resistance.
Battle of Bloody Brook (September 18, 1675)
Another significant confrontation was the Battle of Bloody Brook on September 18, 1675. Captain Thomas Lathrop, leading a colonial militia, was ambushed by a large force of Native American warriors near Muddy Brook in South Deerfield.
The surprise attack led to the death of Lathrop and a majority of his men. This ambush underscored the unpredictability and ferocity of the conflict, further intensifying the hostilities between the colonists and Native Americans.
Attacks on Springfield, Massachusetts (October 5, 1675)
The war’s reach extended to Springfield, Massachusetts, on October 5, 1675. A coordinated dawn attack by Native American warriors led to the burning of about 30 houses, including significant structures like the town’s grist mill and saw mill.
The attack on Springfield dealt a substantial blow to the colonists’ morale and resources, highlighting the extensive reach and impact of the Native resistance.
Great Swamp Fight (December 19, 1675)
One of the most pivotal battles of the war was the Great Swamp Fight on December 19, 1675. Colonial forces attacked the main Narragansett fort in the Great Swamp near West Kingston, Rhode Island.
Despite the Narragansetts’ neutrality in the conflict until this point, the colonists’ attack resulted in a devastating loss of life and resources for the Narragansett tribe. This battle significantly weakened the Narragansetts, a key factor in the overall progress of the war.
Attack on Lancaster (February 10, 1676)
On February 10, 1676, Lancaster faced a severe attack by Native American warriors led by Monoco. The assault led to the destruction of most of the town, with many buildings burned and a significant number of colonists killed or wounded. The attack on Lancaster was a stark illustration of the war’s brutality and its widespread impact across the New England region.
The Tide of War
Despite initial successes, the tide of war began to turn against Metacom and his allies. The colonial forces, bolstered by superior weaponry and their own Native American allies, started to gain the upper hand in this brutal conflict.
Battle of Great Falls/Peskeompskut (May 19, 1676)
The Battle of Great Falls, or Peskeompskut, on May 19, 1676, was marked by a pre-dawn surprise attack by colonial militia against Native American encampments. The militia’s attack resulted in the deaths of a significant number of Native inhabitants, most of whom were non-combatants. The battle is often regarded as a massacre, highlighting the tragic toll of the conflict on the Native American population.
Attack on Hatfield (May 30, 1676)
The war’s impact continued with the attack on Hatfield on May 30, 1676. Native American warriors launched a large-scale assault, nearly overwhelming the town’s defenses.
The attack led to further determination among the colonists to confront Native American resistance, indicating the escalating cycle of violence.
Battle of Hadley (June 12, 1676)
On June 12, 1676, the town of Hadley was targeted by a band of Native warriors, leading to the death of around 20 colonists.
This attack was another example of the widespread and persistent Native resistance across New England, challenging the colonial forces’ efforts to quell the uprising.
The Battle of Mount Hope and Metacomet’s Fall
By mid-1676, the tide of King Philip’s War was turning against the Native American tribes. They faced significant defeats and a loss of territory.
The colonial forces were gaining the upper hand, applying relentless pressure and increasingly sophisticated military tactics against Metacomet and his allies. This shift in the balance of power was a pivotal moment in the conflict, signaling a potential end to Native American resistance in the region.
Metacomet’s Return to Mount Hope
Metacomet, known to the colonists as King Philip, returned to his tribal home at Mount Hope in present-day Bristol, Rhode Island, in a strategic attempt to evade the pursuing colonial forces.
This move was both a tactical retreat and a return to his ancestral land, symbolizing a deep connection to his heritage and an unwavering commitment to the defense of his people’s rights and lands.
The Decisive Battle at Mount Hope
On August 12, 1676, a colonial force led by Benjamin Church tracked King Philip to Mount Hope. They launched a surprise attack, culminating in a fierce confrontation that marked one of the most significant moments of the war.
In the heat of the battle, one of Church’s Native allies shot and killed King Philip. The fall of Metacomet was a dramatic and symbolic event, signifying the end of a formidable resistance against colonial expansion.
Aftermath of Metacomet’s Death
Following Metacomet’s death, many surviving Native warriors and their families faced dire consequences. Some were sold into slavery, while others fled west and north to join other tribes, seeking refuge and a chance to preserve their way of life.
This dispersal marked a tragic dispersion of once-cohesive tribal communities, fundamentally altering the cultural and demographic landscape of the region.
A Decisive Victory for the Colonists
King Philip’s death marked a decisive colonial victory, opening much of southern New England to increased English settlement. The colonists displayed Metacomet’s head on a pole in Plymouth as a grim symbol of their triumph over the Native tribes.
This event, while a victory for the colonists, represented a profound loss for the Native American peoples, signaling the end of a significant chapter in their resistance against colonial encroachment.
The Aftermath of King Philip’s War
Following the death of Metacomet, colonial militias did not cease their offensives. Instead, they continued attacking other Native tribes, such as the Abenaki in Maine, throughout 1677.
This extension of conflict beyond King Philip’s War illustrates the broader colonial agenda of expanding territory and subduing Native resistance.
Despite the significant losses on both sides, the tide of war had decisively turned in favor of the colonists, leading to further displacement and subjugation of Native tribes in the region.
The Treaty of Casco Bay
In April 1678, a crucial step towards formalizing the end of the conflict in northern New England was the signing of the Treaty of Casco Bay. This treaty, negotiated between the colonists and Chief Squando, marked an official end to King Philip’s War in this region.
However, the treaty was more than a mere cessation of hostilities; it represented a significant shift in the balance of power, with Native tribes conceding considerable ground to colonial forces.
Native Resistance in Northern New England
While Native resistance was effectively crushed in southern New England, tribes like the Wabanaki Confederacy in the north remained powerful. These tribes continued to fight against colonial expansion in later conflicts.
This ongoing resistance highlights the enduring spirit and resilience of Native tribes, even in the face of overwhelming odds and the devastating impact of King Philip’s War.
The Grisly Symbol of Colonial Victory
One of the most haunting symbols of the war was King Philip’s severed head, which remained on display in Plymouth for over 20 years. This macabre trophy served as both a warning and a symbol of English victory over the Native tribes.
Its prolonged display underscores the brutal nature of the conflict and the colonial desire to assert dominance and instill fear in the Native population, furthering the narrative of colonial superiority and Native subjugation.
Remembering King Philip
In the present day, Metacomet, also known as King Philip, is commemorated through various plaques and memorials. These sites, including Mount Hope and the Miery Swamp, offer a perspective that honors Metacomet as a defender of his people against colonial expansion.
These memorials serve not only as a reminder of the past but also as a symbol of the enduring spirit and resilience of the Wampanoag people. They provide a counter-narrative to the colonial view, highlighting Metacomet’s role as a leader who fought valiantly to protect his tribe’s land, culture, and sovereignty.
The Wampanoag Perspective and Ceremonies
Groups like the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe continue to hold ceremonies in honor of Metacomet, particularly on Memorial Day. These ceremonies are a testament to Metacomet’s enduring legacy as a significant figure in the resistance against colonial oppression.
The Mashpee Wampanoag, along with other Native American communities, view Metacomet as a symbol of resistance and resilience. These observances are a way to keep alive the memory of their ancestors’ struggles and to acknowledge the long history of resistance against external domination and control.