- 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
Massasoit was a portly and dignified sachem of 41, grave of countenance and spare of speech. Once he had been subject to the Narragansetts, westward across the bay. A four-year plague, beginning in 1617, had so reduced his tribe that they were making ready to subdue him again. Once there had been three thousand Wampanoags; now there were hardly more fighting men than the sixty who attended the King to Plymouth. As a later governor put it, “Providence was visible in thinning the Indians to make room for the English.”
The dour John Winthrop in 1634 gloated that “The natives are neere all dead of the small poxe, so as the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess.” (There is reason to believe, however, that the plague was not smallpox, but jaundice.)
But the Pilgrims, so far, were the only Englishmen north of Virginia. They had hardly survived their first winter in the New World, and had nothing to lose by making friends with the Indians.
Four months later they sent an embassy to Mount Hope to return Massasoit’s visit. They brought him a horseman’s laced coat of red cotton, though he still had no horse, and a necklace of copper beads to serve as a passport for future visits. Since warm weather had come, the King had reversed his squirrel coat so the fur was on the outside. Not being forewarned of the visit, he had to do his hasty best. For the reception he donned his turkey-feather mantle, tied at the throat with twine. The English, squatting on skins outside his wigwam, shared the dried beef which the squaws brought from the storepit, and two tautog shot by the braves with bow and arrow. The King had forty guests that afternoon: two Englishmen and thirty-eight Indians. They smoked his pipe of hemlock and ground-up ivy. They played the dice game which their host called Hubbub.
The English ambassadors slept that night on the same plank bed with the King, his wife, and two of his chiefs.
“We were worse weary of our lodging,” they reported to Plymouth, “than with our journey. What with the savages’ barbarous singing (for they are wont to sing themselves asleep), with lice and fleas within door and mosquitos without, we could hardly sleep all the time of our being there.”
Claiming they must keep Sabbath at home, but actually “much fearing if we should stay any longer we should not be able to recover home for want of strength,” they started back on Saturday morning and rode into Plymouth on the same night.
In December, when the Pilgrims gave thanks for their first year of survival, Massasoit returned the visit. His braves killed four deer, and the King contributed them to the first Thanksgiving dinner.
Two years later, Winslow heard that Massasoit was on his deathbed. He visited him again. He found the royal wigwam so crowded with mourners that he could hardly elbow his way inside. Beside the pallet stood the King’s wife; his brothers, Ouadequina and Akkompoin; and his medicine men.
Massasoit, who suffered from constipation, had not eaten for two days. He lay among the howling sorcerers with his eyes closed. His sight had gone.
“Kéen Winsnow?” he asked faintly, meaning “Art thou Winslow?”
Indians could not pronounce the letter l .
“Ahhé,” Winslow answered for yes.
“Malta néen woncka.net nanen, Winsnow.” (“Ah, Winslow, I shall never see thee again.”)
But Winslow had brought with him from Plymouth “a confection of many comfortable conserves.” He forced it between Massasoit’s stiffening jaws with his knife blade. When the King had swallowed a little of it, the ambassador washed out his mouth and scraped his furry tongue. Next day he sent couriers to Plymouth for some chickens, for poultry was unknown to the Indians. While they were gone, he brewed a vegetarian pottage out of strawberry leaves and sassafras—all he could find in March—which a squaw ground up with a little corn and boiled in a pipkin. He strained the broth through his own handkerchief and fed it to the King. The next meal was goose soup, thanks to a pretty bull’s-eye of his blunderbuss at 120 yards. (The Indian word for goose was honck .) The soup restored the King’s eyesight but was too rich for his stomach. He vomited, and bled for four hours from the nose. But after the nosebleed, he slept for six. When he waked, Winslow washed his face and suppled his beard. By the time the chickens arrived, the King was well enough to order them saved for breeding instead of being slaughtered for broth. His friends came from as far as a hundred miles to see the miracle of his recovery and listen to his praises of his Enerlish friends.