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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
Inside the lodge, King Philip’s men crowded around him, “in the posture of war ” Their fares and chests were painted with totems of yellow and red. Their hair was trimmed to a coxcomb. Some wore rattlesnake skins down their backs. Their shot bags and powder horns hung from their shoulders. Church felt the shot bags and asked what they were for.
“To shoot pigeons with,” was the mocking answer.
Church turned to the Queen in their presence and told her:
“If Philip is resolved to make war, the best thing for Your Majesty will be to knock all these Mounthopes on the head and shelter yourself with me for protection. For my part, I desire nothing more than peace, yet if nothing but war will satisfy them, I believe I shall prove a sharp thorn in their sides.”
His boldness drew him a promise that Awashonks and her army would at least be neutral if war should come. Enraged at her defection, Philip had Sassamon murdered. (Among other knaveries, he had drawn up a will for Philip, who could neither read nor write, which left all the Mount Hope lands to himself.)
Philip’s assassins broke Sassamon’s neck on the shores of Middleboro Pond. There was still ice on the pond that March of 1675. To pretend he had drowned on a hunting trip, they pushed his corpse under the ice and left his gun and a brace of ducks on the bank nearby. The English caught them anyway and tried them before a mixed jury of white men and red. The Reverend Increase Mather from Boston attended the trial. (To the Plymouth Colony, Increase and his son, Cotton, were the very voice of God.) He reports that Tobias, one of the three accused Indians, was proved guilty by the fact that Sassamon’s body bled afresh when he approached it. All three were convicted. Two were hanged. The third was reprieved for a month, then shot.
The execution enraged Philip. He claimed that foreigners had no right to punish Indians who murdered other Indians. Worst of all, the trial exposed his conspiracy. Now he dared wait no longer to attack, though he was not quite ready for war. He spent the rest of the spring, afoot or in a canoe or astride his black horse, hurrying among the tribes as far west as the Connecticut River, bribing and cajoling them to join him and rid the country of the English forever. His father’s old enemies, the Narragansetts, across the bay, promised him 4,000 fighting men, though it is doubtful they had that many. The Nipmucks from the west promised to attack the exposed English settlements along the Connecticut.
Philip held a two-week war dance atop Mount Hope. The visiting chieftains, the medicine men, and the oldest squaws squatted in a ring around the bonfire. The braves stood behind them and die rabble milled on the outskirts. Each brave, as the name of an English settlement was called out, picked up a firebrand, danced around the circle in a mock battle with the flame, and finally conquered the town by quenching the torch in the earth.
Philip was ruthless and sentimental, wily and indecisive, noble and niggardly, all at the same time. His sorcerers, in snakeskin cloaks and wooden masks, consulted their oracles—the notes of the whippoorwill? the entrails of the owl?—and reported that no Englishman would ever kill him. That was enough for him. He sent a canoe up Mount Hope Bay to warn his English friend Hugh Cole to fly before it was too late. It was a favor that might have cost him the war, if Cole had warned his fellow Englishmen. Then he let the war begin, though it is said he threw himself weeping to the ground as he gave the command.
It was a superstition that the side which drew first blood would lose. On Sunday, June 20, 1675, while the settlers of nearby Swansea were at meeting, the Indians shot some of their cattle. This did not count as bloodshed, perhaps, but was enough to drive the white men from their scattered thatch-roofs to the shelter of their garrison house. Philip ransacked their farmsteads without hindrance. On Wednesday a lad named John Salisbury, emerging from the garrison to salvage his geese, found their necks wrung and a band of Indians searching his father’s keeping room for rum. He fired into the band and wounded an Indian. First blood was thus drawn by the English. Next day the Indians returned. They murdered the boy and his father.
The frightened settlers sent a messenger to Plymouth for help. A troop of 36 under Captain Matthew Fuller (not the doctor who had physicked King Alexander) reached Swansea on the twenty-eighth. Benjamin Church was second in command. Weighted down by their heavy buffcoats, their breastplates, swords, carbines, and pistols, they had taken four days to march from the Old Colony. Behind the infantry lumbered the pack train. The troops’ ration was biscuit, dried fish, pork, oil, raisins, sugar, peas, wine, and rum. Another “army” arrived from Boston, under command of General Cudworth. It was equipped with hunting dogs. One-third of each troop was armed with fourteen-foot pikes; and two-thirds with matchlock muskets so long that they required a forked rest for the barrel. It took 56 separate motions to fire a matchlock.