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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
It was true. He sent a file of them on Philip’s track, with Lightfoot in command, and bade them quit themselves like men. Away they scampered on the trail, like so many horses. Three days later they caught Philip at breakfast in Swansea, where the war had started. But he escaped again, leaving the kettles boiling on the campfire and the meat roasting on the wooden spits. On August 6, Weetamoe was drowned trying to float a raft to her kingdom of Pocasset. The tide washed her naked old body ashore, and the English added her head to the row of poles at Plymouth. Philip fled through the salt meadows toward Mount Hope as if he must, like her, go home to die.
Even then he would not surrender. With his own tomahawk he killed one of his braves for suggesting peace. Church could afford to wait, for Philip could not escape. A Connecticut troop blocked him on the west, the armies of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth on the north and east, and the sea itself on the south.
Church had sent his wife, Alice, to stay with the Quakers on Aquidneck for safety during the campaign. He deserved a visit with her. After breaking contact with Philip, he made his leisurely way overland to the Island, across the kingdom of the dead Weetamoe. En route he beat up the cedar swamp where he had fought the year before, and took supper with John Almy, overlooking the peasefield where he had so nearly lost his life. His wife fainted with surprise when he walked into her lodging.
The Indian whom Philip had slain for talking peace left a brother named Alderman. On the morning of August 11, Alderman stole down the two miles from Philip’s camp at Mount Hope to the ferry. He signaled over to the Island that he had news. (The abutment of the Mount Hope Bridge now rests on the sandspit where he stood.) Church, summoned by messenger the eight miles from his wife’s lodging on Aquidneck Island, left her at once. The vindictive Alderman paddled across the ferry to tell him that Philip and Anawon, with 180 braves, were encamped on an upland rise above the miry swamp at the foot of Mount Hope. It was a spot which Church knew well; he could see it from where he stood. His wife must be content with a short visit, said he, when such game was ahead. Having collected what men he could in one afternoon—eighteen Englishmen and twenty-two Indians—he paddled across to the mainland in the darkness.
It was a summer of drought. On Mount Hope a little corn had sprouted from the ears that he had trampled down the summer before, but its leaves were curling on the prostrate stalks. For coolness, Philip slept out that night on the flat top of the forty-foot rock called his throne. It faces the east. Anawon lay beside him. Their bed was a heap of the barren cornstalks.
Philip slept badly that night. He waked out of a nightmare to tell Anawon that he dreamed Church had caught him. Then he resumed his uneasy sleep.
At dawn on the twelfth, Church deployed his men in pairs, an Englishman and an Indian in each, to close in below the camp. As the swollen sun was rising over Pocasset, he sent a pair of scouts up the hill. At their first shot, the camp became alive. Philip leaped from the bed with nothing on but his breechclout and stockings. He seized his gun and slung his shot bag and powder horn over his shoulder. Only a few yards away, through the morning drizzle, he saw Church’s scouts. He rolled down the west face of the hill like a hogshead. By a miracle, he broke no bones and did not even lose his gun. When he struck the grass, he got to his feet and ran dizzily westward through the brush. He ducked into the swamp for shelter and halted twenty yards from the gun muzzles of a pair of Church’s beaters.
The Englishman was Caleb Cook; the Indian was Alderman. On the crest of the hill, Anawon shouted the war cry Iootash! Iootash! to rally the braves. (The word meant “Stand fast!”) He was too late. Cook’s gun misfired because of the dampness; but Alderman’s, which had two barrels, sent one bullet through Philip’s heart and another two inches above it. The King fell on his face in the mud, with his gun under him. The oracles were proved right: it was not an Englishman who killed him. But as Cotton Mather put it, the English had prayed that bullet through his heart.
Church did not relax his ambush at the news, but Anawon had seen the death from the hilltop. He guided the fifty survivors—all that were left of the Wampanoag tribe—through the trap over the very path the English had made when they set it. Soon the sun dried the dew; it was now too late to track him.
Church called his company together on the ledge where Philip and Anawon had slept. When he told them Philip was dead, the whole army, he says, gave three loud huzzas. His Indians pulled the body from the mud by its heels and dragged it before him. He knew it was Philip’s from the scarred hand.
“And a doleful great dirty naked beast he looked like,” says the Entertaining History .