Metacom (ca. 1637–1676) was the son of Massasoit, who had met the first immigrants from England in 1620 in what is now Massachusetts. The English called Metacom King Philip. He became grand sachem of the Wampanoags in 1662 and led his people and their allies in a devastating war with the English in 1675 and 1676, dying at its conclusion.
The efforts of Roger Williams, Puritan dissenter and founder of Rhode Island, helped to maintain a shaky peace along the frontiers of New England for nearly two generations after the Pequot War (1636–1637). In 1645, Williams averted another Native uprising against encroaching European-American settlements. By the 1660s, however, the aging Williams saw his lifelong pursuit of peace unravel yet again. This time, he felt more impotent than in the past: Wave after wave of colonists provided Native peoples with powerful grievances by usurping their land without permission or compensation, and yet Williams continued to believe that neither the Puritans nor any other Europeans had any right, divine or otherwise, to take Indian land. The final years of Williams's life were profoundly painful for a sensitive man who prized peace and harmony above all.
Massasoit, who had maintained peace with the newcomers since 1620, also was aging and becoming disillusioned with the colonists, as increasing numbers of European immigrants drove his people from their lands. Upon Massasoit's death in 1661, Alexander, one of Massasoit's sons, briefly served as grand sachem of the Wampanoags. However, visiting Boston in 1662, Alexander fell gravely ill and died as Wampanoag warriors rushed him into the wilderness. Upon his death, the warriors beached their canoes, buried his body in a knoll, and returned home with rumors that he had been a victim of the English. Metacom became grand sachem after Alexander's death.
Aged about twenty-five in 1662, Metacom distrusted nearly all European-Americans, Williams being one of the few exceptions. Metacom also was known as a man who did not forgive insults easily. It was once said that he chased a white man named John Gibbs from Mount Hope to Nantucket Island, about sixty miles, partially over water, after Gibbs insulted his father. Throughout his childhood, Metacom had watched his people dwindle before the English advance. By 1671, about 40,000 non-Native people lived in New England. The Native population, double that of the Europeans before the Pequot War, stood at about 20,000. European farms and pastures were driving away game and creating friction over land that the Indians had used without question for so many generations they had lost count of them. By 1675, the Wampanoags held only a small strip of land at Mount Hope, and settlers wanted it.
Metacom became more embittered by the day. He could see his nation being destroyed before his eyes. He and other people in his nation were interrogated by Puritan officials. Traders fleeced Indians, exchanging furs for liquor. The devastation of alcohol and disease and the loss of land destroyed families and tradition. These were Metacom's thoughts as he prepared to go to war against the English.
As rumors of war reached Williams, he tried to keep the neighboring Narragansetts neutral, as he had done in the past. This time, he failed. Nananawtunu, son of Mixanno, told his close friend Williams that, while he opposed going to war, his people could not be restrained. They had decided the time had come to die fighting, rather than to expire slowly as a people. Williams' letters of this time were pervaded with sadness, as he watched the two groups he knew so well slide toward war.
Shortly after hostilities began in June 1675, Williams met with Metacom, riding with the sachem and his family in a canoe not far from Providence. Williams warned Metacom that he was leading his people to extermination. Williams compared the Wampanoags to a canoe on a stormy sea of English fury. "He answered me in a consenting, considering kind of way," Williams wrote, "[saying] My canoe is already overturned" (Giddings, 1957, 33).
When Indians, painted for war, appeared on the heights above Providence, Williams picked up his staff, climbed the bluffs, and told the war parties that, if they attacked the town, England would send thousands of armed men to crush them. "Well," one of the sachems leading the attack told Williams, "let them come. We are ready for them, but as for you, brother Williams, you are a good man. You have been kind to us for many years. Not a hair on your head shall be touched" (Straus, 1894, 220–224).
Williams was not injured, but his house was torched as he met with the Indians on the bluffs above Providence on March 29, 1676. Williams watched flames spread throughout the town. "This house of mine now burning before mine eyes hath lodged kindly some thousands of you these ten years," Williams told the attacking Indians (Swan, 1969, 14). If the colony was to survive, Williams, for the first time in his life, had to become a military commander. With a grave heart, Williams sent his neighbors out to do battle with the sons and daughters of Native people who had sheltered him during his winter trek from Massachusetts forty years earlier. As Williams and others watched from inside a hastily erected fort, nearly all of Providence burned. Fields were laid waste and cattle were slaughtered or driven into the woods.
Colonists, seething with anger, caught an Indian, and Williams was put in the agonizing position of ordering him killed, rather than watching him tortured. The war was irrefutably brutal on both sides, as the English fought with their backs literally to the sea for a year and a half before going on the offensive. At Northfield, Indians hanged two Englishmen on chains, placing hooks under their jaws. At Springfield, colonists arrested an Indian woman, then offered her body to dogs, which tore her to pieces.
In August 1676, as the Mohawks and Mohegans opted out of their alliance with the Wampanoags, the war ended. The English had exterminated most of the Narragansetts, and nearly all of Metacom's warriors, their families, and friends had been killed or driven into hiding. Metacom himself fled toward Mount Hope, then hid in a swamp. When English soldiers found him, they dragged him out of the mire, then had him drawn and quartered. His head was sent to Plymouth on a giblet, where it was displayed much as criminals' severed heads were shown off on the railings of London Bridge. Metacom's hands were sent to Boston, where a local showman charged admission for a glimpse of one of them. The remainder of Metacom's body was hung from four separate trees.
In terms of deaths in proportion to total population, King Philip's War was among the deadliest in American history. About 1,000 colonists died in the war; many more died of starvation and war-related diseases. Every Native nation bordering the Puritan settlements—those whose members, in happier days, had offered the earliest colonists their first Thanksgiving dinner—was reduced to ruin. Many of the survivors were sold into slavery in the West Indies, which served the colonists two purposes: removing them from the area and raising money to help pay their enormous war debts. Metacom's son was auctioned off with about 500 other slaves, following a brief, but intense, biblical debate over whether a son should be forced to atone for the sins of his father.
Bruce E. Johansen
Giddings, James L. 1957. "Roger Williams and the Indians." Typescript, Rhode Island Historical Society.; Kennedy, John Hopkins. 1950. Jesuit and Savage in New France. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.; Slotkin, Richard, and James K. Folsom, eds. 1978. So Dreadful a Judgement: Puritan Responses to King Philip's War 1676–1677. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.; Srraus, Oscar S. 1984. Roger Williams: The Pioneer of Religious Liberty. New York: Century Company.; Swan, Bradford F. 1969. "New Light on Roger Williams and the Indians." Providence Sunday Journal Magazine, November 23: 14.; Vaughan, Alden T. 1965. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620–1675. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.; Wright, Ronald. 1992. Stolen Continents. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.