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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
“I am willing and do promise to pay unto the government of Plymouth one hundred pounds in such things as I have, but would entreat the favour that I might have three years to pay it in, forasmuch as I do not have it at present. I do promise to send unto the Governor, or whom he shall appoint, five wolves’ heads, if I can get them; or as many as I can procure until they come to five wolves yearly.”
The settlers no longer needed the friendship of Indians. Three times they summoned Philip, as they had summoned Alexander, to answer charges of conspiracy. The first time, he meekly gave up the seventy guns his braves had brought with them. The braves were disgusted, for thev had almost forgotten how to hunt with bow and arrow, and even though they did not know how to repair their guns themselves, there was a friendly English blacksmith named Uriah Leonard, near Fowling Pond, who was always ready to forge their spare parts from the bog iron nearby, though he broke the law when he did so.
In return for the seventy muskets, the settlers promised that all future charges should be arbitrated by the Puritans of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The Puritans were richer, more numerous and sharper than their Pilgrim brethren at Plymouth, but Plymouth had the advantage of seniority, and was respectfully referred to as the Old Colony. The Puritans deferred to the sanctity of the Pilgrims, who in return were forever asking their help and advice. A saying grew up that the Plymouth saddle was always on the Bay horse.
The second time the settlers complained, Philip went to Boston direct, and convinced the Puritans that the charges against him were unfounded. The third time, he wrote angrily back to Plymouth:
“Your governor is but a subject. I shall treat only with my brother, King Charles of England. When he comes, I am ready.”
By 1671 there were perhaps 40,000 Englishmen in all New England, and only half as many Indians. Before long there would be none at all, unless the English were driven out. They were beginning to surround Mount Hope itself. They had built a garrison house at Swansea to the north, and settled in numbers on Aquidneck Island, to the south, across the channel. Queen Awashonks of Sakonnet, whose kingdom adjoined Queen Weetamoe’s, had sold land on the east side of Mount Hope Bay, within sight of King Philip’s lodges, to an English carpenter named Benjamin Church. Philip himself, in spite of his resolution, sold off the present New Bedford in 1665, and in 1670 granted 100 acres, only a mile west of Pokanoket, to a certain John Gorham. In all, he sold some thirty-five square miles in the nine years after his brother’s death, at an average price of elevenpence an acre. But legally, Mount Hope was still sovereign Indian territory, hemmed in on the north by the Baptist colony of Providence Plantations, on the south by the Quakers of Rhode Island, on the east by the Pilgrims themselves, and on the west by Narragansett Bay.
Philip had many grievances. The English let their cattle destroy the Indian cornfields, which were never fenced. In any lawsuit, they took the word of a single Praying Indian against that of twenty unconverted ones. As Philip told John Easton, a Quaker who ferried over from Aquidneck to pacify him:
“The English are so eager to sell the Indians liquor that most of the Indians spend all in drunkenness, and then raven upon the sober Indians.”
The Pilgrim clergy kept one eye on Heaven and the other on earth. This land, they sincerely believed, belonged to God. He had chosen them to bring it back to Him, and the Indians with it, if they would come. The Indians did not share this view—not even the Praying Indians.
The Wampanoags alone were too weak to attack the English, but Philip dreamed of an alliance with other tribes, from the Kennebec to the Hudson. They had never united before; it was their jealousies which had given the English their power, as the English themselves well knew. In the winter of 1674–75 he dispatched John Sassamon, his Praying secretary, across Mount Hope Bay by canoe, with half a dozen others of his council, to draw the Squaw Sachem Awashonks into his conspiracy. She had an army of 300. She honored his envoys with a ceremonial dance. But as it began, the unreliable Sassamon, with one of her own council named Honest George, slipped down to Church’s farm to warn him of the plot. Church, unarmed, alone, and uninvited, followed them back to her wigwam. He found Awashonks herself, in a foaming sweat—the phrase is his—leading the dance. When he walked through the tent flap, she broke off the festivities and called him before her.
Church was a married man of 35. If his Bristol descendants favor him, he was not bad-looking. Awashonks was the widow of a chief called Tolony. Her age is unknown now and was perhaps a secret even then. She had a grown son named Peter, so can hardly have been younger than her uninvited guest. Church does not boast, but Awashonks” behavior made it clear that he pleased her.