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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
Massasoit begat three sons—Wamsutta, Metacom, and Suconewhew—and two daughters, one named Amie and one whose name is lost. He lived to see his two older sons marry two sisters from across Mount Hope Bay. Weetamoe, the wife of Wamsutta, was in her own right Queen of Pocasset—the hillside which is now Tiverton, Rhode Island.
Over the rest of his long reign, Massasoit recklessly ceded tracts of his depopulated kingdom to the Pilgrims in exchange for their weapons, horses, rum, and currency.
The English converted some of the Wampanoags to Christianity, and a good many more of the inland Nipmucks. Massasoit clung to his traditional gods: Kichtan, for good, and Abemecho, for evil. He believed vaguely that Heaven lay in the southwest, the direction of fair-weather winds. Kichtan had made the first man and woman out of stone; when they proved unsatisfactory, he destroyed them and made another couple out of a tree. The Pilgrims’ story of Noah and the flood was not much different. He was willing to let the Nipmucks, and even his own Wampanoags, accept the English God, provided he did not have to give up his own. He did not object when John Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians, carried away Sassamon, his secretary, to study the new religion at Harvard, nor even when his youngest boy, Suconewhew, went there, too. But for himself, he was too old to change.
Other sachems were more receptive. When the Pilgrims asked them “to worship ye only true God, which made Heaven and earth, and not to blaspheme Him,” one of them answered wistfully:
“We do desire to reverence ye God of ye English, and to speak well of Him, because we see He doth better to ye English than other gods do to others.”
The English always paid for their land, but they seemed always to buy the best. The deeds, written in English, were witnessed and recorded in the General Court at Plymouth. They took over the choicest fishing grounds and cleared the woods of game. When their trade goods had long been spent or drunk up, the land was still theirs. Even so, Massasoit was so grateful to his allies that he petitioned the General Court at Plymouth to assign English names to his two older sons. The Pilgrims would not grant them Christian names, and the only two close relatives from pagan history who came to mind were the warrior kings of Macedon. In 1656 Wamsutta became Alexander; Metacom became Philip. The brothers were flattered by the comparison. Aware that the Greek name Philip means “a lover of horses,” the governor gave the young prince a black stallion.
The English called their converts Praying Indians. They made them bailiffs and marshals in the villages around Boston, let them attend court and serve on juries, and even placed some of them over the white constables. The copper-skinned magistrate of the Praying Village at Natick issued this mandamus to his white assistant:
“You, you big constable! Quick you catch urn Jeremiah Offscow, strong you hold um, safe you bring urn before me—Waban, Justice of Peace.”
When a new magistrate asked Waban what he did when the non-praying Indians got drunk and quarreled with each other, he told him, “Tie urn all up and whip urn plaintiff, whip urn fendant, whip urn witness.”
The converted Indians hung around the fringes of the settlements, helping the English cultivate their corn, butchering their hogs in the fall, and digging clams or treading eels for them in exchange for food and rum. The English settlers at Weymouth, a village between Plymouth and Boston, complained that the Indians plucked their food from the kettles before they could get at it themselves.
Most of the sachems resented the conversions, and the tolerant Roger Williams at Providence agreed with them. In 1654 he wrote the Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay: At my last departure for England, I was importuned by the Narragansett Indians to present to the high sachems of England that they might not be forced from their religions, and, for not changing them, be invaded by war. For they say they are daily visited with threatenings by [Praying] Indians that come from about the Massachusetts, that if they would not pray, they should be destroyed by war. Are not all the English of this land generally a persecuted people from their native land? And hath not the God of peace and Father of mercies made the natives more friendly to us in this land than our countrymen in our own? Are not our families grown up in peace amongst them? Upon which I humbly ask how it can suit with Christian ingenuity to take hold of some seeming occasions for their destruction.