- Historic Sites
The Tragedy Of King Philip And The Destruction Of The New England Indians
The most serious threat to white colonization of New England was the Indian uprising of 1675-76, known as King Philip’s War. What follows is the story of the tragic man who led that futile struggle, Philip, chief of the Wampanoags. But perhaps it is just as much the story of Philip’s erstwhile friend and resourceful pursuer, Benjamin Church. This account is taken from George Howe’s superb history of Bristol, Rhode Island, Mount Hope, due in February from the Viking Press.
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
The English divided the privilege of his execution among three tribes in their service. A Pequot shot him, a Mohegan quartered him, and a Niantic burned his corpse. His head was sent to Connecticut “as a token of love and affection.”
Worst of all for Philip, Church’s wounds were healing. Governor Winslow offered to put him in command of sixty men as soon as he should be well enough to take the field. Church answered that he would need 300, half of whom must be friendly Indians. He knew that he could never win without Indians, and added that if the English intended to defeat Philip, they must make a business out of war as he did. The governor answered that the colony could not afford so large a force and would not recruit Indians in any case.
While they argued, Philip struck again. On May 11, astride his black horse, he burned sixteen more houses in Plymouth. Governor Winslow, outraged and frightened by this second raid on the capital, yielded to Church. He offered him a captain’s commission, the command of 60 Englishmen and 140 Indians (if they could be found), and the right, which Church demanded, to grant clemency to any of the enemy except Philip himself. It was Church’s very softheartedness that had so far slowed up his promotion.
His first task was to recruit his 140 Indians. The obvious source was Queen Awashonks, if only because she was his neighbor. He knew better than to approach her directly, but arranged a meeting through her son Peter and Honest George, the courtier who, with the late Sassamon, had invited him to her dance before the war began. The parley was set for the beach at Sakonnet Point in her kingdom. Church arrived by sea and was rowed ashore from his sloop to meet the Queen. Her troops, fully armed, stood sullenly behind her on the dunes. Church carried nothing with him except a twist of tobacco and a calabash full of strong water. The result of this parley was that Awashonks’ chief captain stood up and said to Church with a bow:
“Sir, if you will please to accept of me and my men, and will head us, we will fight for you, and will help you to Philip’s head before the Indian corn be ripe.”
Church understood swamp warfare as well as Philip himself, and the Indian character a little better. Awashonks’ men were as good as bloodhounds at following a trail. They led the force, skimming the tussocks as lightly as the enemy ahead of them. The English came ponderously behind for fear of being mired. A whistle from Church was the signal of danger; every man dropped to the ground when he heard it.
He tracked Philip to the Bridgewater swamp, between Plymouth and Mount Hope. They made contact on Sunday, July 20, 1676. In the action he captured or killed 173 Indians. Among the captives were Philip’s wife and son: the lusterless Nanuskooke, so dim beside the lusty Weetamoe and the coquettish Awashonks; and the princeling whose very name is unknown. Philip’s uncle, Akkompoin, was killed. Philip just missed death himself, crossing a tree trunk with his hair loosened for disguise. Church recognized him, but an instant too late to bring the musket to his shoulder. The King escaped again.
“It must be as bitter as death to him,” Mather gloated, “to lose his wife and only son, for the Indians are marvelously fond and affectionate toward their children.”
Church sent 153 prisoners into Bridgewater pound that afternoon. Being well treated with victuals and drink, he says, they had a merry night, and the prisoners laughed as loud as the soldiers, not having been so well treated for a long time before.
It was not his long retreat that broke Philip’s spirit “so that he never joyed after,” nor Canonchet’s death, nor even the capture of his wife and son, but the knowledge that many of his own tribe had deserted to the English. Even before Bridgewater, 300 of them had begged Governor Leverett of Massachusetts Bay to intercede with Plymouth for pardon. They seem to have thought that the Puritans would be more lenient than the Pilgrims.
If Leverett did plead for them, he was unsuccessful. Plymouth spared their lives, but sold them into slavery at the new low price of one pound apiece or seven bushels of corn in trade.
Church’s own magnanimity was repaid. At Bridgewater he captured Lightfoot and Littleyes, two of Philip’s men who had threatened to kill him the night of Awashonks’ dance. Instead of hanging them, as his own Indians urged, he spared them. He even made Lightfoot a sergeant. It was not Englishmen’s fashion, he said, to seek revenge; they should have the same quarter as other prisoners. He would go up to a likely-looking prisoner, clap him on the back, and say: “Come, come; you look wild and surly, but that means nothing. My best soldiers, a little while ago, were as wild and surly as you are now. By the time you’ve been with me a day or two you’ll love me, too, and be as brisk as any of them.”