King Philip was there, wild and proud as he had been in life, with the great gash in his head that gave him
his death wound.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the fifth in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty, here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet, here to read the biography of Major Walter Butler and here to read the biography of Thomas Morton. Our focus today is on King Philip.
Metacom, known to the white settlers as King Philip, was the second son of Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag, who had helped the Pilgrims survive during the first years of the colony. He became chief in 1662 when his brother Wamsutta, King Alexander, died. King Philip attempted to preserve peace with the whites. The Wampanoag were in a bad strategic situation, squeezed between ever-increasing white settlements in the East and an ever-expanding Iroquois Confederacy in the West. King Philip made major concessions to the whites, but war came anyway.
The great war of Seventeenth Century New England, King Philip’s War raged from 1675-1678 with the New England colonists, now numbering about 80,000, and their Mohican and Pequot allies confronting the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Podunk, Narragansett and Nashaway tribes. The war was savage on both sides, with quarter rarely given.
The conflict began due to the suspicions of the New England colonists that Metacomet, named by them King Philip, Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy, was attempting to rally the Indian tribes of New England into a great alliance for war against the whites. John Sassamon, a Christian Indian, graduate of Harvard and an advisor to Metacomet, informed the Governor of Plymouth colony of this plan. Metacomet was brought to trial in Plymouth. Lacking evidence the court merely warned him that further rumors of plots by him could lead to severe consequences for the Wampanoag.
Soon after Sassamon was murdered by some of King Philip’s warriors. Three Wampanoag’s were arrested for the murder, tried by a jury which included six Indian elders, and executed on June 8, 1675. The war began immediately thereafter and spread quickly until it engulfed all of New England. The New England Confederation, consisting of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, New Haven and Connecticut colonies formally declared war on September 9, 1675. Initially the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations attempted to stay neutral, but they were drawn into the conflict eventually on the side of the New England Confederation, as the Indian tribes in New England would all eventually participate in the war. The time of neutrality had passed.
The Indians had some initial successes, including the destruction of much of Springfield, Massachusetts on October 5, 1675. The New Englanders struck back fiercely, attacking the Narragansett who had sheltered some of the Wampanoag. In the Great Swamp Fight, the largest engagement of the War, some 300 Narragansett were slain.
The winter of 1675-1676 saw many Indian attacks on New England settlements, culminating with an attack on Plymouth on March 12, 1676. Forced back into their towns, the settlers went into total war mode, organizing large volunteer forces to attack the Indian settlements. The War ground on as a war of attrition in 1676, with superior numbers of the settlers sealing the eventual defeat of the Indians. Little mercy was asked for or granted on either side in this increasingly savage conflict.
King Philip did not live to see the defeat. He was shot and killed by a force under the command of Captain Benjamin Church, creator of the first American ranger unit, dedicated to fighting the Indians with the tactics of the Indians. King Philip was beheaded and his head was displayed on a pike outside of Fort Plymouth for two decades. His wife and nine-year old son were captured and sold as slaves in Bermuda. More settlers died per capita in King Philip’s War than Americans died per capita in any subsequent conflict.