Everyone knows the basic story, however ahistorical its specifics may be: When the Mayflower first disembarked on the land that would become Plymouth Colony, it was greeted by several tribes of Native Americans, among them Massasoit, the sachem, or chief, of the Wampanoags who lived in southern Massachusetts. These tribes provided substantial—and vital—assistance to the early colonists, without which they probably would not have survived the first few seasons in the so-called New World.
And yet, even during this period of relative peace, the first seeds of a grisly conflict had already been planted. Often considered the bloodiest conflict in the history of Colonial America—and the deadliest, per capita, in American history—the series of skirmishes known as King Philip’s War devasted both the fledgling colonies and the Native American tribes of the region, while also helping to pave the way for the coming revolution against the British.
During Massasoit’s lifetime, relations between the colonists and the Wampanoag and other Algonquin-speaking tribes of the region were often strained but remained relatively free of bloodshed. Yet tensions were growing, spurred on by attempts to enforce colonial laws upon the Native Americans or convert them to Christianity, even as colonists made ever increasing claims upon the lands and resources of those who were there before them.
By the time Massasoit’s younger son, Metacom, took the reins of leadership in 1662, the fuse of the coming war was already well and truly lit. In 1675, John Sassamon, a Native American who had converted to Christianity and become what was known as a “praying Indian,” reported to the governor of Plymouth that Metacom was making treaties with other tribes in the region, with the intention of attacking colonial settlements in retribution for various wrongs visited upon the Wampanoags by the colonists.
Metacom was brought to trial, but the tribunal had no actual evidence against him. In spite of this, they threatened to confiscate Wampanoag weapons and lands if they heard any further reports along similar lines. Not long after, Sassamon’s body was found in the ice-covered Assawompset Pond, and three Wampanoags were arrested for his murder, convicted, and hanged. It proved to be the last straw.
On June 20, 1675, a band from Massasoit’s home village laid siege to the colonial settlement of Swansea. Within five days, the town was destroyed. It was the beginning of a conflict that would shape colonial identity, devastate the population, and see numerous tribes all but wiped out. It came to be called King Philip’s War from Metacom's adopted English nickname of King Philip. The conflict is also sometimes called the First Indian War, the Great Narragansett War, or Metacom’s Rebellion.
Though the war lasted for little more than a year, it saw devastation across much of 17th-century New England. Both Plymouth and Rhode Island Colonies found their economies in ruins following the conflict, during which more than 17 towns throughout the region were almost entirely destroyed, and more than half of all the towns in the colonies were attacked. The battles were costly in lives, as well. It has been estimated that as much as 10 percent of the adult men in both Plymouth and Rhode Island Colonies were slain, with casualties in the hundreds.
Of course, the conflict ultimately went even worse for the Wampanoags and their allies. Several tribes were eventually involved, either due to alliances forged by Metacom or by dint of indiscriminate attacks by colonists. While the Narragansetts attempted to remain neutral, for example, they were attacked by colonial militias who were convinced that the Narragansett had been involved in raids, and were sheltering Wampanoag women and children.
Even as the Native tribes attacked and often destroyed colonial settlements, the colonial militias did the same or worse to Native towns, slaughtering even non-combatants, including children. The number of dead from among the tribes of the region is estimated in the thousands. Besides those killed in the fighting, hundreds more were executed or enslaved, even after being promised amnesty. Among these was Metacom himself, who was killed by members of the colonial militia at Mount Hope. His enemies not content with such a defeat, however, his corpse was beheaded and then drawn and quartered, in what was then the punishment for high treason. It is said that his severed head was displayed in Plymouth for two decades.
Most of the armed conflicts were extinguished by 1676, and the war officially drew to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Casco Bay in 1678, but peace didn’t last. The Wampanoags had been all but wiped out, and those few who remained were effectively left without lands or territories, but the conflict had spread to involve numerous tribes in the region. Though the treaty attempted to reaffirm peaceful relations on terms that were more favorable to the English settlers, the colonists nevertheless didn’t abide by it for long. Conflicts with the local Indigenous populations continued, eventually leading to the dark days of the French and Indian War.
The conflict known as King Philip’s War did have several lasting repercussions for the colonists, however, the most notable being that it helped to pave the way for the American Revolution. Though the colonists were technically still British citizens at the time of the conflict, it did not pass without notice that they had fought the war without any aid from Europe, defending their towns and settlements with only the strength of their own local militias.
This not only inculcated the idea that such large-scale military action was possible, it helped to solidify a shared identity among the colonists—one distinctly separate from their identity as British subjects. This alone may not have been enough, but the reaction from England to the devastation also had a chilling effect. According to the Bill of Rights Institute, “More than half the English settlements were attacked during the war, and many colonists were left homeless. The king of England responded by tightening the reins on New England’s freedom, which the colonists later resisted.”
King Philip’s War was only one of many such conflicts between Native Americans and the colonists who were settling in North America. Though it ranks among the deadliest, it wasn't the first nor the last, paving the way for the long and bloody French and Indian War of the mid-1700s. Ultimately, one could say that history was written by the victors in this case, and King Philip’s War has since been overshadowed by other moments in colonial history. Nevertheless, it proves an integral—if unsavory—piece of the puzzle of American independence.
Sources: History Channel