We Americans like to remember our wars, especially the wars we win. We celebrate Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and label those who came of age during World War II as our “greatest generation.” References to those who sacrificed their lives in our many wars are a part of every political speech. It’s sometimes said that every generation of Americans has its own war. But one of our earliest and most transformative wars is left out of our history books. And even though it is, to this day, the bloodiest war per capita that’s ever been waged on American soil, most of us have never even heard of it.
King Philip’s War began in June of 1675, fifty-five years after the Pilgrims landed on the shores of New England. A lot had happened in that half century, most significantly the Great Migration of Puritans from England. They came by the thousands, fleeing the hostile political and religious climate in England. Whole families boarded ships setting sail for New England and the West Indies. Between 1630 and 1640, 20,000 settled in towns along the New England coast. They were literate, educated, and pious people who risked their lives and health to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to pursue religious freedom. They wanted to be free of English religious restrictions and to worship in the way they chose. And they wanted land.
It’s estimated that there were about 7,000 natives living in New England at the time the Pilgrims landed. Not long before 1620 there had been tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands more. The population had recently been devastated by European diseases, carried by fishermen who’d been visiting the New England coast for nearly a hundred years.
The Puritans saw the unused (“unimproved”) land – the remnants of native fields and villages – and believed that God had “opened” the way for them. They quickly settled in. As their families expanded and more and more people flooded in from England, they sought to expand their land holdings through barter, trade, and the English King’s charters.
The natives who had occupied this land for millennia were not a unified group, but an assortment of tribes loosely linked by a family of similar languages usually labeled “Algonquian.” These tribes had a long history of shifting alliances and political tensions. When the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit, befriended the Pilgrims, he was acting strategically. He viewed the English as allies who would help strengthen his people against their Narragansett enemies. With his death in 1661, and the passing of the sachem role to his son, Wamsutta, the era of peace between the colonists and natives drew to a close.
Metacomet (a.k.a. Philip) was Massasoit’s second son; he took over as sachem when Wamsutta died suddenly after a brief imprisonment in Plymouth. His warriors blamed the colonists and pressured Metacomet to go to war against the English. When the body of one of his advisors was later found under the ice in a pond, three Wampanoag men were arrested, tried, and executed.
Soon after, a group of Wampanoag warriors – probably without Metacomet’s approval – raided several English homes in Swansea, set two of them on fire, and killed nine colonists in retribution. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, which were separate colonies at the time, quickly united and dispatched several companies to destroy Montaup, Metacomet’s base of operation. Metacomet made a daring escape north, and eventually united with the Pocasset, Nipmuc and even the Narragansett, (who had long been the Wampanoags’ traditional enemies) to drive back the colonists.
Though the war lasted until the spring of 1678, the worst hostilities were over by August, 1676, when Metacomet was killed . The toll in human life was high on both sides; it’s estimated that the English lost about 800 people out of a population of 52,000. The natives, however, fared far worse. One source estimates that about 3,000 natives were killed in battle, out of a total population of 20,000. More were sold into slavery or “relocated” in widely scattered places throughout New England.
After the war the English colonists were no longer motivated to continue pursuing peaceful coexistence with native tribes. They firmly established themselves as the dominant culture in the region. It was a pattern that would be repeated many times in the years to come as Americans confronted indigenous people.
They say that those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it. It’s past time that we remember King Philip’s War. Though it’s too late to restore the Wampanoag and other native people to their full strength and power, it’s still appropriate for us to learn and take to heart the lessons of this forgotten war.