Metacom

Metacom (1640-1676) was a Native American chief (sachem) whose tribe, the Wampanoags, waged the most devastating war against the Engish in early American history.

King Philip/Metacom was the son of Massasoit and the younger brother of Wamsutta, all three of whom were at one time sachem (chief) of the Wampanoag tribe of southern New England. Massasoit had befriended the English settlers at Plymouth soon after their arrival, and the two communities had become allies against the traditional enemies of the Wampanoags, the Narragansett tribe. But relations between the Wampanoags and the English deteriorated gradually in the succeeding decades. The problem was simple. When the English first arrived, they offered some Native American tribes leverage against neighboring unfriendly tribes. But as the English colonies expanded, they occupied more and more land that had belonged to the area tribes. Even tribes on good terms with the English, like the Wampanoags, eventually came to see the English as a threat. In New England, these tensions resulted in King Philip's War (1675-76), one of the most serious Indian wars in all of American history.

By the 1660s, the Wampanoags, the Mohegans, and the Pequots were seen as sympathetic to the English (despite the Pequot War of 1637), while the Narragansetts were considered troublesome. When Massasoit died in the 1660s, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Wamsutta. The English bestowed new names on Wamsutta and Metacom, Alexander and Philip, respectively. Some modern writers note that this showed little respect for Native American names, but the English thought it an honor. In any case, relations with Wamsutta and Metacom soured quickly.

Plymouth held no clear charter to "their" land, and what legal authority they did possess was tied to their obligations to protect the Wampanoags. But Plymouth was also determined to expand its territory, and the younger leaders of the Wampanoags were less compliant than had been their father. In 1662, Wamsutta was summoned by the English to answer questions about a suspected Indian plot against the English. Before he could return home, he fell ill and died. Though some Indians believed he had been poisoned, he may also have died of natural causes.

This left Metacom to become sachem, whereupon he renewed his father's alliance with the English. Rumors spread in the late 1660s that Metacom was planning an uprising, but he denied any such plans. Indeed, there were war scares linked to various tribes in 1667, 1669, and 1671, and it is impossible to determine who was planning what. In April 1671, Metacom was again questioned, this time at Taunton, about a possible Indian attack, and he was forced to surrender the weapons that various Indians had secured from the English. But Metacom may have used his influence to encourage other tribes in the area to resist. When they refused to surrender their arms, the Plymouth Colony made ready for war. A last-ditch effort to forestall fighting resulted in a meeting in September 1671, attended by the leaders of Plymouth and the Wampanoags, as well as the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Metacom apparently had little choice but to accept the terms offered him: to pay a fine of £100 to the colony, to agree to follow the colony's advice before resorting to war or selling land, and to accept the authority of royal government and of Plymouth over his tribe. It is quite clear that Metacom did not take this agreement seriously, for it, in effect, ended the autonomy of his tribe in return for very little.

Most of what Metacom did in the next few years is unknown, but it is clear enough he tried to arrange alliances with other tribes, even the Narragansetts, in order to prepare to drive out the English settlers who were overwhelming his lands. Yet when war did break out in 1675, it did so before Metacom was ready, either politically or militarily. His alliances were not yet in place, and the warriors of the region were not yet organized enough to withstand English resistance. Although the war would bear his name, it was far from under his control. By 1675, the Puritan population in New England had reached 50,000. Any Indian war designed to remove the English would require enormous cooperation between tribes which had worked against each other for years. According to historian Alden Vaughan, the Indians of the region divided, with a large minority supporting Metacom, a smaller number supporting the English, and a large group remaining neutral.

Was this war justified? Vaughan also insists that the Puritan legal system worked fairly and that the English did not abuse the tribes in their land purchases. But it is abundantly clear that the tribes had different notions of land-ownership and use than did the English. For example, if the English bought land but did not occupy it, some Indians thought the land available to them. When tribes sold land, they did not think they had renounced all hunting and fishing rights. The two cultures simply did not look upon land and its possession in the same way. Even if land disputes were not the only or even the most important issue, the tribes clearly feared that they were losing power in the face of the advancing settlers. Massasoit had allied with Plymouth to stave off the Narragansetts, but now Plymouth was the greater threat.

The events leading to the war began in 1675, with the death of John Sassamon. Sassamon was raised a Christian Indian and studied at Harvard College. For a time, he worked as Metacom's key assistant, writing many of his messages, but eventually he moved back to a Christian Indian community, finally becoming a preacher to the Indians near Middleborough. In January 1675, he warned Plymouth of Indian plans for war against the colony and suggested that his life might be forfeit because of his warning. At the end of the month, his body was found in a pond.

In June 1675, three Wampanoag warriors were convicted by an English jury (with the affirmation of a second, Indian jury) of Sassamon's murder, largely based on the testimony of one witness. Though the three protested their innocence, the trial enraged the tribe, and all three were sentenced to hang. For some reason, the third man did not die when hanged; in the terror of the moment, he claimed that the other two had actually committed the crime. He was later hanged anyway, and his "confession" only further convinced the people of Plymouth that the three had been guilty.

War Begins Between Indians, New Englanders

Reports of Indian preparations for war circulated through the community and outlying settlements throughout the early summer and fighting erupted in July. The war that followed was a Wampanoag war to be sure, but historian Francis Jennings calls it also the "Second Puritan Conquest" because New Englanders had long been preparing for an opportunity to remove the remaining major tribes.

Initially the Wampanoags and some allies (both official and clandestine) ambushed New England settlements with great success. Though some tribes did not join in (the Mohegans and Pequots remained allied to Connecticut), the Wampanoags' early successes gained assistance from tribes throughout New England. Even tribes in New York prepared for an attack, but they were first attacked themselves by the Mohawks, at the instigation of New York's governor. The attacks reached within 20 miles of Boston, the largest town in New England. Greatly feared and occupying valuable land, the Narragansetts officially remained neutral, even though many of their warriors wanted to fight. In any event, a Puritan attack in December 1675 brought them into the war officially.

But King Philip's War was not a coordinated effort; although it bore Metacom's name, its combatants did not follow his direction. He never commanded a combined Indian force. Indeed, the war followed its own path, over which he had very little control after the summer of 1675. The Indians succeeded largely through surprise and ambush. This was the first war in which they had firearms, and their New England adversaries abandoned the use of the pike. Nearly every frontier village designated a garrison house for protection in case of attack.

Despite early successes and the expansion of the war, the Indian tribes found food and weapons difficult to obtain by spring 1676. Many fled westward, others surrendered—as many as 180 on one July day in Boston. With the war nearly over, on August 1, Captain Benjamin Church spied an Indian across Taunton River and raised his gun to fire. But an Indian in Church's party called out that the man was one of theirs. Church hesitated. The Indian across the way looked up—it was Metacom—and escaped before they could shoot him. They gave chase and captured several of Metacom's party, including his wife and son, who were sent back to Boston. But Metacom got away.

No sooner had Church arrived home from this mission than he learned from Captain Roger Goulding, another veteran of the war, that Metacom had returned to his original campsite at Mount Hope. Their informant was none other than a member of Metacom's tribe, who claimed that Metacom had ordered his relative killed for suggesting a truce. This informant had escaped, he said, and would willingly lead Church's and Goulding's men back to Metacom's camp. Church believed the story, and he and Goulding and their men set out for the site.

They approached the camp just after midnight on August 12, 1676. Church posted his men—not enough to be sure of trapping the Indians—while Goulding's men moved around to attack from the other side and drive Metacom's company toward Church. There were no Indian sentries—perhaps Metacom expected to die soon. As Goulding watched and waited for his men to take up their positions, one Indian emerged from their shelter. He stopped and stared in Goulding's direction. Thinking himself discovered, Goulding fired and thus launched the attack before the trap was fully set. His men opened fire. Some Indians were hit, others ran. Metacom himself ran toward two of Church's men, one English and the other an Indian. The white man's gun failed to fire, but the Indian felled Metacom with one shot. After the short skirmish, Church had Metacom's body decapitated and quartered; they carried his head back with them to Boston.

Although Indians were captured for months to follow, the war itself was over. In Boston, a debate raged over what to do with Metacom's son. Eventually, he and his mother were sold into slavery in the West Indies, where they disappear from the records. Although the Indian uprising had been unsuccessful, it had tremendous repercussions. Fifty-two of the 90 Puritan towns had been attacked, and 12 of these had been destroyed. Far worse damage was done to the Indian villages. As many as 1,000 colonists died from direct action; the Indian number is not known. Whole tribes practically ceased to exist. But even though New Englanders had won and their land claims were now secure, the line of frontier settlements would not achieve their pre-1675 limits until 1720. Although the New Englanders survived the most severe test of English survival in colonial history, New England's development was set back by decades.

Further Reading on Metacom

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. Norton, 1975.

Leach, Douglas E. Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip's War. Norton, 1966.

Nash, Gary B. Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America. 2nd ed. Prentice-Hall, 1982.

Vaughan, Alden T. The New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675. Little, Brown, 1965.

Bourne, Russell. The Red King's Rebellion: Racial Politics in New England, 1675-1678. Oxford University Press, 1990.

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