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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
Massaoit died in 1661 at the venerable age of 81. The haughty Alexander, his oldest son, succeeded him. The Pilgrims at once ordered him to Plymouth to show proof that he would be as loyal as his father. They offered him a horse for the hot midsummer trip. Since they did not offer one to Queen Weetamoe too, he declined it and walked beside her, at the head of eighty braves, the whole forty miles of the Plymouth trail. The Pilgrims’ suspicions, which seem to have been well-founded, so outraged him that he broke into a burning fever before his trial began. Fuller, their doctor, gave him a “portion of working physic,” but it made him worse. Weetamoe got their permission to take her husband home for treatment by his own medicine men, leaving their two sons with the Pilgrims as hostages. She suspected Dr. Fuller had poisoned him. Alexander’s braves hoisted him on their shoulders and started westward through the woods. On Taunton River they saw that his end was near. Beaching their canoes, they laid him on a grassy mound beneath an oak tree. Weetamoe cradled his head as he died. He had reigned only a year.
Philip succeeded his brother. He was 24 years old. On the rock now called King Philip’s Throne, on the east side of Mount Hope, he donned the nine-foot stole of wampum, fringed with red deerskin and embroidered with beasts and birds, the headband with two flags behind, the breastplate engraved with a star, and the scarlet cloak that were his “royalties.” Paul Revere’s crude portrait of him, engraved a century later from imagination, and a hostile one at that, shows him as a square-set man of medium height, with a trace of a beard below his chin, standing before Mount Hope in his regalia, with bare legs above his moccasins, a musket in his hand, and a tomahawk and powder horn at his feet. But it is likely that he was taller than most of the English.
One of Philip’s hands was scarred from the explosion of a pistol. He had undergone the tests of manhood. He had spent the winter alone in the forest with only a bow and arrow, a hatchet, and a knife to defend himself against the wolves and wildcats. He had drunk the juice of poisonous herbs, with the medicine man standing by with emetics in case of danger, until he had proved himself immune. Legend says that, with the Devil to help him, Philip could throw a stone across the harbor from the crest of Mount Hope to Poppasquash, two miles away.
Like Weetamoe, he believed that it was English poison, and not a broken heart, that had killed Alexander. He was determined to avenge his brother. So fierce were his loyalties that he had once pursued the Indian called John Gibbs all the way to Nantucket Island, across forty miles of open water, because he had spoken ill of the dead Massasoit. Somehow the traducer escaped him in the dunes, but Philip would not leave the island until the English gave him all the money they could scrape together. It came to nineteen shillings.
By Massasoit’s treaty, the English had agreed to respect the Indians’ land. There was certainly enough for both. The treaty made it illegal for an Englishman to buy land from an Indian without the consent of the General Court at Plymouth. This rule was designed to protect the Indians from fraud, for it had never occurred to them that they owned the land anyway; they simply occupied it. Massasoit’s generosity, and the greed of the colonists, made the law impossible to enforce. When Philip belatedly saw that he was not sharing his territory with the white settlers, but losing it to them, he determined to retain what little was left. His English friend John Borden reports that he told him:
“But little remains of my ancestor’s domain, I am resolved not to see the day when I have no country.”
One of his surviving letters to the Governor of Plymouth Colony, probably in the hand of John Sassamon, shows his state of mind: KING PHILIP desire to let you understand that he could not come to the Court, for Tom his interpreter has a pain in his back, that he could not travil so far, and Philip sister is very sick. Philip would entreat that favor of you and aney of the majestrates, if aney English or Enjians speak about aney land, he pray you to give them no answer at all. This last somer he made that promis with you, that he would sell no land in y yers time, for he would have no English trouble him before that time. He has not forgot that you promis him. He will come as sune as possible he can speak with you, and so I rest
Your verey loveing friend
Philip, dwelling at mount hope nek.
In 1671 he confirmed his father’s treaty at a conference in the Taunton meetinghouse, where the English sat on one side of the aisle and the Indians on the other. Later in the same year he even agreed to pay tribute to the Pilgrims, but did all he could to evade it by pleading poverty: