Conflicts with Northeastern Tribes (1621–1697)

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Conflicts with Northeastern Tribes (1621–1697)


Early Conflict in the New World

In the seventeenth century, the New World experienced the growing pangs of conflict between the native peoples and new arrivals, tensions that arose first through the need for more land to support a rapidly exploding population. More food, more housing, and the trade associated with these demands, which resulted in expanded trade and transportation networks, also contributed to the wars that sprang up during this century.

This chapter of American history opened in a surprisingly peaceful way in 1621 with the completion of a treaty between the Plymouth settlers and Massasoit (c. 1580–c. 1661), leader of the Wampanoag, the largest Indian nation in the region. Although these two parties managed to keep their bargain for forty years, other Native American tribes and newly arrived Europeans were not so amenable to peaceful agreement.

The century neared its close with a great war, brought about by a confluence of factors, including ignored treaties. It ended with Native Americans scattered and their native lands fractured. As colonists continued trying to satisfy their voracious need for more and more land, mistreatment of Native Americans escalated, as did their enslavement. The Indian nations also fought among themselves, often over whether or not to ally with the new arrivals. Even the much-vaunted treaty of peace that was upheld for forty years really resulted from a combination of Native American maneuvering to use Puritan firepower for security, and Puritans using Native American connections to expand their presence and ensure their safety.

Acrimony and dissension were no strangers to the colonists either. Originally establishing themselves in the New World to worship freely, the colonists found themselves at odds with those who did not share their beliefs. Colonists fought among one another because of religious differences and land and class conflicts. Plymouth Colony was founded on a base of religious cohesiveness and central authority, but this cohesion collapsed with the appearance of newcomers whose agendas were grounded in acquisitiveness and survival, rather than religion. To many new arrivals, the treaty between Plymouth colonists and Massasoit was almost quaint and not worth consideration. As new generations emerged, this disregard for previous agreements grew, and the New World became increasingly unstable with each arriving newcomer and each deed of mistrust between settlers and the Native Americans. Great conflict was inevitable, and two major conflicts bracket this period of American history: the Pequot War of 1637 and King Philip’s War in 1675–1676.

The Pequot War

The first major conflict to break out between Indians and colonists was the Pequot War. Settlers arrived and began clearing huge tracts of land, which was contrary to native traditions of preservation. They brought with them smallpox and other diseases that decimated the native peoples, who had no natural resistance. In addition, many native tribes became dependent on European goods, including weaponry. Heightened tensions, bolstered by resentment over land and health issues and combined with access to guns, finally led to an outbreak of war in 1637.

At that time, the New England European population had peaked at about four thousand people. Within four years, it would almost triple. With the burgeoning growth, the settlers were encroaching westward, into Pequot lands. The Pequots already had reason to dislike the colonists because of their shaky alliance with their traditional enemy, the Narragansetts. The settlers just wanted the Pequots out of the way, but the economic power of the tribe was at least as great as that of the colonists.

The colonists, eager for an excuse to attack, found one when the captains of some English trading vessels turned up dead. Pointing the finger at the Pequots, the enraged colonists demanded that they turn over the murderers, even though the murderers’ origins were, in fact, unknown. The Pequots claimed ignorance and even offered to negotiate with the colonists. However, seeing their chance, the Europeans sent a colonial force led by John Endecott (c. 1588–1665) from Massachusetts to attack the tribe. The army made its attack on Block Island (which lies off of the coast of Rhode Island) the first salvo in the Pequot War.

Striking back, the Pequots laid siege to a colonial fort. After a lull and some sporadic sorties, the settlers hit back hard with an attack in 1637 in what is now Mystic, Connecticut, in which almost every Pequot was killed and their entire village burned to ashes. Behind this raid was an alliance between the English and the Mohegan leader Uncas (c. 1588–c. 1682), who was well on his way to becoming leader of the most powerful tribe in Connecticut after the fall of the Pequots. In addition, the settlers talked the Narragansetts, their reluctant allies, into joining forces with the Mohegans against the Pequots.

With this combined force, the colonists attacked the Pequots on the Mystic River, hacking to pieces or shooting anyone who tried to escape the conflagration. The death count for the Pequots was about four hundred men, women, and children. William Bradford (1590–1657), governor of Plymouth Colony and witness of the peace treaty with Massasoit, described this toll as a “fearful sight,” yet as a victory that seemed a “sweet sacrifice.”

The Narragansett and Miantonomoh

The colonists’ reluctant allies, the Narragansett, saw things differently. They did not fight like Europeans, razing villages and annihilating every living thing in sight. Their emphasis in fighting was on bravery, not body counts. The Narragansett leader, Miantonomoh (c. 1565–1643), had demanded assurances from the colonists that women and children would not be killed in the attack, but the assurances were not granted. When the Narragansett witnessed the brutal and merciless tactics of the colonists, he and his people were horrified. The sachem turned against the colonists, recruiting other tribes to fight with his people against them. Although this pan-Indian alliance was visionary, the sachem failed to execute it successfully because he was too focused on attacking Uncas and the Mohegans for their alliance with the colonists.

This distraction proved to be his demise. During a great battle with the Mohegans, Miantonomoh was captured. Uncas, the Mohegan leader, was eager to demonstrate his trustworthiness to the Puritans. He asked the colony authorities what he should do with the Narragansett sachem. The authorities left the decision to Uncas, and taking quick advantage, his brother dispatched Miantonomoh with a hatchet as they walked the path between Hartford and Windsor, Connecticut. The few Pequot survivors of the Pequot War either were later killed or scattered across the countryside. The Treaty of Hartford officially declared the end of the Pequot Nation in 1638.

King Philip’s War

King Philip’s War, begun by Massasoit’s son and heir, Philip (c. 1640–1676; also known as Metacom), closed this chapter of discord. Philip initiated the violence after becoming angry with the colonists’ treatment of Native Americans and violations of treaties. Philip also carried a powerful hatred for the colonists because his older brother, Alexander (1634–1662; also known as Wamsutta), had died under somewhat strange circumstances while in their custody. Philip responded to these offenses by arranging an uprising known as King Philip’s War.

The bloody attacks against the colonists during King Philip’s War engendered hatred against the Indians that ended in a vicious campaign of search and destroy. After the war ended with the colonists as victors, surviving Native Americans were killed or sold as slaves, some of whom had surrendered under promises of mercy from the colonial governments. In a very brief period of time, the northeastern landscape, once the domain of vast and powerful tribes, was devoid of Native American life and culture.

Major Figures


Massasoit (c. 1580–1661) was the leader of the Wampanoag. He was best known as the Native American who helped the original colonists forge and keep a peace treaty with the Wampanoag that lasted for forty years. Although history books have portrayed him as the beneficent and high-profile Indian who attended the first Thanksgiving, a closer look at his decisions and maneuvers reveals a shrewd leader who made some smart moves to position his people and himself in the best possible way given the rapidly changing landscape—literally and figuratively—of the world around them. Adding to this more nuanced understanding of the great sachem is the perception by his Native American contemporaries that he accommodated the settlers too much and primarily for his personal advantage.

Before the Settlers

Massasoit was born in about 1580 and grew to become leader of what is today known as the Wampanoag Nation, although the tribe may not have achieved its massive status until Massasoit was well into his tenure as leader. He had several names, including Ousamequin (Yellow Feather), but Massasoit is the name that has survived in English-language histories. The central seat of his people was Pokanoket, or Mount Hope (present-day Bristol, Rhode Island). Massasoit was also leader of some other related tribes in southeastern New England.

No one really knows what Massasoit looked like. The only existing descriptions detail the traditional dress of a leader of his people: red face paint and a thick white-bead necklace. The settlers caught their first glimpse of this formidable figure as he stood atop a hill overlooking their colony. His appearance, with the red paint and his accompanying band of sixty warriors, struck the colonists with fear and sent them rushing for weapons. But his arrival really signaled their salvation. They had come to the New World without an inkling of how to plant appropriate crops, hunt the game that lived there, or fish the waters that surrounded them. Only half of them survived the first harsh winter of 1620–1621.

Cultures Meet

Although the sight of a “very lusty man” with an “able body” standing on a hillside with sixty warriors at first frightened the winter-weary settlers, they soon realized that Massasoit intended no harm. He gave them food in exchange for what they considered to be mere trinkets and offered protection for them against bands of warriors from other tribes.

Massasoit had made his appearance in March 1621 with two other famous Native Americans, Squanto (c. 1585–1622) and Samoset (c. 1590–1653). Both knew how to speak English, Squanto because he had been kidnapped by a sea captain, sold into slavery in Spain, and freed by some monks who taught him English. Squanto managed to make his way back to his homeland, only to find that his people had been completely wiped out by diseases brought across the ocean on European ships. Squanto joined the Wampanoags. When he and Samoset emerged from the forest for the first time, Squanto greeted the settlers in their own language. Tradition holds that Squanto served as a bridge to friendship between the colonists and Massasoit.

Treaty with the Colonists

Massasoit himself knew the costs of disease brought from overseas, having lost a substantial number of his people to foreign illnesses, such as smallpox and measles. He also was no stranger to the Europeans themselves, having encountered Captain John Smith (1580–1631) and others prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims. Whatever his agenda, Massasoit managed to see beyond the dangers of disease and land acquisition associated with Europeans and produce the peace treaty with the Plymouth colonists in which they agreed to live harmoniously and defend one another from outside attacks. The treaty had obvious benefits for both sides: The Native Americans could take advantage of the superior European weaponry, while the settlers had the advantage of friends on their home turf.

Even though Massasoit stuck to this treaty for so long, he did not earn accolades among other Native American tribes. They viewed his pact with the Europeans as a weakening of his own people for material goods, personal fame, and security against his greatest native enemy, the Narragansetts. Massasoit made his decision against a backdrop of death from European-borne disease and a history of previous conflict between Europeans and the native peoples. But Massasoit had a tough decision to make. The future seemed inevitable—Europeans were arriving no matter what he decided to do. Many of his people had died from disease, and other tribes may have wanted to attack his. With a choice between losing to another sachem or treating with the English and their superior weapons, he made the more secure choice.

Diplomacy and Disease

Massasoit’s willingness to enter into an alliance with the Plymouth colony left open the way for the colonists to use the Wampanoags just as the Wampanoags intended to use the colonists. Two Plymouth leaders, Edward Winslow (1595–1655) father of Josiah Winslow, who would clash with one of Massasoit’s sons, and Stephen Hopkins (c. 1582–1644) traveled to the Wampanoag home seat to visit. They were shocked to find the grounds littered with human skeletons, the remains of those who had died of disease in such great numbers that not enough survivors remained to bury them all. They also were shocked and displeased to spend two sleepless nights fighting off lice and other vermin in their sleeping quarters before returning to the colony. Yet, they and the leaders back at Plymouth believed that maintaining this friendship with Massasoit was of great importance, as subsequent events showed.

Winslow again went beyond the call of diplomatic duty when he was sent in response to a message from Massasoit in 1623 that he was dying. As Winslow approached the settlement, Massasoit sent word that he was actually dead, explaining to the perplexed diplomat after his arrival that this tactic was a custom intended to make people even happier when the “dead” person turned up alive. But Massasoit was, in fact, near death. His tongue was furred and he could not swallow food. Winslow did more than probably any diplomat before or since by scraping the furring off of the dying sachem’s tongue and then administering some fruit preserves to the starving man. Massasoit probably had contracted typhus, which was then called “pestilential fever.” It was spread by lice, and Massasoit, after a surprisingly quick recovery, requested that Winslow administer the same scraping treatment to other afflicted members of his tribe. Winslow reluctantly did so, but was apparently well repaid when Massasoit’s interpreter, Hobbamock, reported to him that the Massachusetts tribe planned to attack Plymouth.

The Plymouth leaders were at first unsure what to do with the information, but following a violent and vengeful raid by Captain Miles Standish (c. 1584–1656) against some Native Americans, the Massachusetts tribe solved the issue themselves by fleeing into the security of the wilderness. However, their safety was short-lived because they could not farm the land or otherwise accomplish their usual tasks to ensure food for the people. Hiding in the woods, they starved. Standish’s brief but decisive attack had, in fact, ended in the deaths of some of the most influential Indian leaders on Cape Cod, which, as it turns out, left the way open for Massasoit to step in and establish his Wampanoag nation as the most powerful in the region.

Massasoit eventually came to have less trust in his English partners. A few years before his death, he entered a kind of retirement away from the spotlight. His older son, Wamsutta, also known as Alexander, briefly took his place as leader. Massasoit died in the winter of 1661. Fourteen years after Massasoit’s death, his son Metacom, also known as King Philip, initiated one of the most devastating wars in New England’s history in rebellion against the colonists’ encroachment on native lands.

William Bradford

Early Life

William Bradford (1590–1657) was the second leader of the Pilgrims and its governor. Bradford was born in March 1590, in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England, to a family of yeomen farmers. His mother, Alice Hanson, was the daughter of the village shopkeeper, and William was the third child and only son.

Bradford exhibited preternatural solemnity even at a young age. By the time he was twelve, both of his parents, his sister, and his grandfather had died. Because of an illness of his own, the young Bradford was unable to engage in the usual work and play of children his age and instead turned to books for solace. He discovered the Geneva Bible, an annotated version of the Christian religious texts from the previous century, and also fell under the influence of John Foxe’s Foxe’s Book of Martyrs(1563). In his book, Foxe argued that England was a chosen nation and that a godly Englishman might sometimes be called on to die as a martyr in the cause of the true religion.


Just what exactly the true religion was formed the subject of life-or-death debate during Bradford’s childhood in northern England. Traditionalists—Catholics and conservative Protestants alike—held that the entrenched rituals and hierarchy of the church were the true roads to understanding God. But others formed a dedication to purifying the church, replacing the formalities and middlemen with a direct relationship between the individual and God. Some of these Puritans came to feel that the traditional church was not salvageable and that a complete separation was in order. These Separatists held that their congregations must consist of those who were “Elect,” God’s chosen at birth, with their godliness manifest in every aspect of the way they lived their lives. Although no one truly knew whether a person was Elect, members of the congregation closely monitored one another and themselves to ensure that members adhered to the true path. Willful, uncorrected straying ended in excommunication.

Separatists and Puritans were never completely welcome in England, but when James I took the throne following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, he swore to “harry” these rabble-rousers off the island. In spite of this oath, he made it almost impossible for them to leave, forcing anyone who traveled to other lands to freely practice their chosen form of worship to do so in secret. Bradford, at age seventeen, escaped with members of a congregation he had joined at age twelve, a move he made against the wishes of his uncles, who had become his guardians. Not only had he joined the congregation at that young age in the face of serious personal danger, but he also left for new lands in the face of strong counterarguments from his relatives. Among their points, they insisted that Bradford was due to come into his inheritance at the age of twenty-one. His connection to his church proved stronger, and he sailed with the congregation to Holland.


The congregation ultimately ended up in Leiden (or Leyden), Holland, in 1609, where Bradford became a fustian, or corduroy, maker. He came of age while living there, also coming into his inheritance, which he used to purchase a home and to marry Dorothy May. In the end, he suffered severe financial losses, which he interpreted as corrective messages from God. He continued to interpret events always in the context of God’s guiding hand.

By 1620, the congregation in Leiden, which consisted of about five hundred people, was no longer welcome in Holland because of shifting relations in the European map, and Bradford was with the first group that sailed on the Mayflower for the New World. After playing a leading role in insisting that the tradesmen involved in the Mayflower venture adhere to their original terms and not cheat the colonists, he took his first steps toward becoming a major figure in the new colony. He also was a signer of the Mayflower Compact, the document that the settlers drew up to ensure representative government and rule of law. This compact was, in fact, the first written constitution in the New World. His life was not, however, a series of positive events and successes. He lost his first wife almost immediately after their arrival in Plymouth Harbor, where she mysteriously drowned as the Mayflowerstood anchored more than a mile off shore.

Bradford and the Native Americans

The colonists barely scraped through the terrible winter of 1620–1621 during which many of their group died. As new arrivals, the people had no idea how to hunt, fish, or grow the food they needed to subsist. The survivors of that first dreadful, demoralizing winter elected Bradford their governor when he was only thirty years old, after the death of their first leader, John Carver (c. 1576–1621). One of Carver’s most important acts as governor was negotiation of a peace treaty with Massasoit, shortly before his death. Bradford oversaw the peace that Carver negotiated, and probably dined with his couonterpart Massasoit at what was to be known as the first Thanksgiving.

Another of Bradford’s major achievements was his book Of Plymouth Plantation, in which he detailed the events of his life as a colonist and governor. Among other things, this chronicle traces Bradford’s own evolution in attitude regarding the Native Americans. When he arrived in the New World, he described the native people as savages, wild beasts, and cannibals. By the end of his chronicle, however, he was using the term “Indian” in almost every case. By that time he had so much experience with untrustworthy Europeans who had tried in various ways to swindle the colony that the Native Americans compared favorably. As an example of his change in perspective, Bradford listened to a case in which several colonists murdered an Indian, and he upheld the court’s decision to sentence the perpetrators to death, even though some members of the colony felt the sentence was too harsh.


Even though Bradford attributed the positive events of his tenure as governor to divine Providence—including meeting Squanto and Samoset, whose help pulled the colony through the first rough years—the successes were also due to his leadership. He proved clever at obtaining information about different tribes by playing informants off one another and maintained a policy of fairness to the native people that earned their friendship in many quarters and kept his own people safe. He also managed to find the best use for people who were not in Plymouth for religious reasons, including adventurers like Miles Standish and John Alden (c. 1599–1687). Bradford maintained Plymouth colony’s position and rights in the face of difficulties with other, newer colonies who did not care as much about good relations with the native peoples or even with other colonies. The Plymouth people liked his leadership enough to elect him governor of their colony thirty times. After a life of adventure, loss, gain, and the stressful decision making required of a leader under great pressure, Bradford enjoyed some quiet sunset years, dying peacefully at his home in May 1657.


Wamsutta (c. 1634–1662), also known by the Christian name he selected, Alexander, was the older son of Massasoit. Wamsutta and his brother, Metacom (also called Philip), were not as strongly interested in keeping the peace as their father. Indeed, by the time they became leaders of the Wampanoag, William Bradford and similar leaders of the previous generation had been replaced by less peace-oriented colonial leaders, as well.

Early Events

Although his father survived into his eighties or nineties, Wamsutta lived a comparatively short life, meeting an early, violent death before the age of thirty. He was born around 1634, a prince among the Wampanoag, which came to be the largest tribe living among the colonists. The tribe’s principal seat was in Pokanoket (present Bristol, Rhode Island), and Wamsutta and his followers consistently returned to these lands in times of trouble or great success, especially Mount Hope overlooking Hope Bay.

He encountered plenty of trouble in his short, violent life. At first, Wamsutta followed his father’s lead, confirming with his father in 1639 an original treaty with the colonists at Plymouth pledging mutual support and assistance. He and his father also worked together in selling off some of the native lands, including Dartmouth in 1652 for thirty yards of material, eight moose skins, and some axes, hoes, shoes, and an iron pot. The next year, the two sold more lands of their people for twenty-five pounds (almost $10,000 today).

Interaction with Colonists

Massasoit, world-weary and in need of rest, entered a quasi-retirement with the Quabaugs in 1657, leaving a void that Wamsutta willingly stepped in to fill as the new leader of the Wampanoag. Prior to this, in 1654, Wamsutta had sold Hog Island, which lies in Narragansett Bay, to a Rhode Island man named Richard Smith. He made this sale without the approval of either his father or of the Plymouth leaders, which was required for such transactions. Smith, who had been booted from Plymouth, claimed ignorance about the rules. Even Massasoit eventually came around and approved the sale in 1657, right about the time he entered his retirement phase.

Just following this transaction, Wamsutta rebelled and attracted further attention by refusing to sell land his father had promised to the people of Taunton. The documents for the sale had listed as a witness John Sassamon (c. 1620–1675), a Native American who had become one of the “Praying Indians,” converts to the settlers’ Christian faith. Sassamon was also an interpreter who had attended Harvard College and served as a scribe for Wamsutta. It may have been at Sassamon’s urging or suggestion that Wamsutta and his brother, Metacom, came before a Plymouth court in 1660 to change their names to Alexander and Philip, respectively.

His Confidant

Wamsutta had also placed his faith in a merchant from Plymouth named Thomas Willett (1611–1674), who traded with the Dutch colony New Netherland, destined eventually to be New York. Willett had married the daughter of John Brown, who was Massasoit’s close confidant among the colonists. Willett eventually became the first mayor of Manhattan because of his frequent trade with the Dutch and his fluency in the language. As he began to spend more time in and eventually move to New York from Plymouth, Wamsutta lost his confidant and saw Willett’s replacement, Josiah Winslow (c. 1629–1680), as no replacement for his friendship with Willett.

Josiah Winslow and the New Generations

Winslow was a different breed from the Bradfords, Browns, and Willetts who had preceded him. Well educated at Harvard, married to a beautiful wife, Winslow viewed the Native Americans with eyes very different from those of previous colonial leaders like William Bradford. This new generation saw the native peoples as an obstacle to prosperity, whereas William Bradford had wisely seen how the native peoples could help the colonists. The younger generation had forgotten the debt of gratitude they owed the Indians for their very existence in the New World.

At the same time, the new generation of Native Americans also differed from their elders. Wamsutta had already shown himself able to dismiss his father’s previous promises, not once but twice selling land that his father had agreed to dispose of otherwise. There also were rumors circulating that Wamsutta was agitating the Narragansetts, trying to get them to join forces with him to fight the English. The English, for their part, were becoming increasingly fearful and summoned Wamsutta before the court to explain his behavior regarding the illegal land sale. Wamsutta did not appear as summoned.

Wamsutta’s Death

Josiah Winslow saw Wamsutta’s failure to appear as an opportunity to deal with this upstart, agitation-fomenting Wampanoag leader, and he set out in July 1662 with ten armed men on horseback. They tracked Wamsutta to his fishing and hunting lodge on Monponsett Pond (present-day Halifax, Massachusetts), arriving in the morning to find the sachem and his wife, Weetamoo, enjoying a breakfast as their weapons rested out of reach. Winslow’s group immediately surrounded them and seized the weapons. A tense confrontation both inside and outside the lodge ended with Winslow holding a pistol to Wamsutta’s chest, saying, “I have been ordered to bring you to Plymouth, and by the help of God, I will do it.”

The interpreter intervened at this point, suggesting that Wamsutta go with Winslow, which the sachem agreed to do as long as he was escorted like the leader he was, not as a prisoner. He and his attendants walked long miles that hot July day. Shortly thereafter, while lodging in Winslow’s home, Wamsutta became ill with a fever that some historians today believe may have been appendicitis. If it was, the treatments he received, primarily powerful purgatives, could only have worsened his condition. His attendants were allowed to transport him back to Mount Hope, where he died a few days later. Hundreds and possibly thousands of Native Americans assembled at this gathering place of their homeland to mourn the death of their leader and celebrate the ascendancy to leadership of his younger brother, Philip.

Naturally, many suspicions arose about the circumstances of Wamsutta’s death, with blame assigned to the hot July march or suggestions that Wamsutta was starved in custody. His younger brother, Metacom (Philip), was convinced that Winslow had poisoned the sachem, and his hatred against Winslow was so bitter that when the inevitable war finally broke out, Winslow felt compelled to secure his wife in another settlement and to fortify his home against Philip’s wrath.


Metacom (1640–1676) was the younger son of Massasoit and the leader of the most severe Indian war in the history of New England. Metacom was also known by his British-bestowed name of Philip. He was a complex figure during his lifetime, and to historians who have studied him since.

Early Life

Metacom’s older brother, Wamsutta (Alexander), became sachem when Massasoit retired, and from the time of his accession, relations between the Wampanoags and the colonists deteriorated rapidly. The previous generation, led by Massasoit and Plymouth’s John Carver, had forged a forty-year peace treaty, but the peace fell in tatters as the new generation stepped in.

Metacom as Leader and Legend

Wamsutta’s brief rule came to an abrupt end after he died following a short stint in colonial custody. His death led to charges of murder, and Metacom never forgave the colonists for what he believed was their role in his brother’s death. Metacom took his brother’s place as sachem in a memorial service/celebration at his people’s seat of power on Mount Hope. He renewed his alliance with the English, yet rumors that he was planning an uprising soon circulated. Although it was true that several tribes were planning rebellions of some kind in 1667, 1669, and 1671, no one knew with certainty whether the Wampanoags were involved.

Metacom began his rule with an aura of legend that only grew with time. His people said that when he stepped into his brother’s shoes as sachem, he stood on top of Mount Hope and hurled a stone two miles to the other side of the peninsula. He was only twenty-four years old and destined to live only a few years more.

Serious conflict over land rights emerged in 1667 when the Plymouth colonists decided to violate an agreement and allow a land purchase in Wampanoag borders. The Native Americans tried to intimidate the colonists by assembling war parties around the disputed territory. In 1671, the worried colonists demanded a meeting with Metacom. They couched the meeting as nonthreatening and diplomatic, yet when Metacom arrived with his well-armed entourage, the colonists held them at gunpoint and bullied them to sign a document admitting Metacom’s “naughtiness” in his heart. The sachem ultimately was forced to sign a treaty placing the Wampanoag under colonial rule.

Metacom’s response was to really begin planning an uprising, and the ensuing conflict became known as King Philip’s War, which lasted from 1675 to 1676. His strategy was to enlist help from other native peoples, including the Nipmuck (or Nipmuc), who were unhappy with the colonists’ attempts to acquire more lands. His efforts to recruit the Narragansetts, erstwhile English allies, and traditional Wampanoag enemies, were unsuccessful. This failure would end in tragedy for Metacom and the Narragansetts and victory for the colonists.

Strangely enough, the British could claim as their allies the Pequots, in spite of the outcome of the Pequot War. Also on the British side were the Mohegans, loyal allies of the Connecticut colonies. Without the Narragansett, who were the most powerful group in the region, Metacom did not have the fighting force he needed to defeat the English, and when the war began, he was unprepared. Tensions reached the snapping point in 1675 with the death of John Sassamon, a Native American and convert to Christianity who had attended Harvard College and spoke fluent English. Sassamon had served as Metacom’s assistant and translator before returning to the “Praying Indian” community, where he eventually became a preacher. Metacom despised Sassamon for turning his back on his people and ordered Sassamon’s murder, if the scaffold confession of one of three Wampanoags executed for the crime is to be believed. Sassamon had been found dead in a pond, and the three suspects had been convicted by both British and Native American juries, based largely on the testimony of a single witness. Although two of the men died without confessing, the third did not die instantly when the rope around his neck drew taut, and he attempted to save his life by implicating the other two men. The colonists later hanged him anyway.

King Philip’s War Begins

The outrage over this execution triggered the war, whether Metacom was ready or not. The colonists had the opening they needed to achieve their real goal of removing the Native Americans completely. On June 23, 1675, an Englishman shot and killed a Wampanoag who was thought to have looted some of the homes in the settlement of Swansea. In response, Metacom’s people killed nine members of the Swansea settlement. Attacks on towns in Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth followed, in a wave of violence that trapped both colonists and Native American groups who initially had no intentions of engaging in conflict. King Philip’s War spread through the colonies like a plague, coming at one point within twenty miles of Boston, the largest colonial city. In addition to natives attacking colonists, tribes were attacking tribes, as the Mohawks did at the behest of the New York colony’s governor.

Metacom was not ready for the war: His planned alliances were not in place, and he did not have enough people to fight the larger colonial forces. Helpless to stop an uprising and touched off by rage instead of calculation, he turned to escape. When the colonial army attempted to lay siege to Metacom and his people near their home on Mount Hope, Metacom slipped away with a group of his warriors and their families. After attacking and burning some villages, Metacom finally managed to join forces with the Narragansetts, who had been goaded into the alliance by the colonists’ behavior. During the ensuing winter of 1675–1676, these allied tribes burned several colonial towns, sending a river of refugees streaming into Boston.

Nevertheless, a lack of coordination would be the downfall of the native peoples. Even though the war bears his English name, Metacom was no protogeneral, organizing and directing troops. The course of the war meandered through random surprise attacks and ambushes, with few attempts at organizing them for maximum effect. For the first time, the Native Americans could use firearms in battle, but the colonists simply responded with better-defended garrisons. The colonists also always had their overseas motherland to turn to for supplies and to replenish their arms, whereas the Native Americans had only themselves.

Metacom Is Killed

Even as Metacom sought more alliances, some tribes grew weary of their losses and sought terms of surrender or tried to take advantage of colonial offers of mercy, many by the spring of 1676. On a single day in Boston, 180 Native Americans surrendered, having run out of food and weapons. By the time August rolled around, the war had fizzled to its end. That month, Captain Benjamin Church (1639–1718) encountered Metacom in disguise by the Taunton River, but the sachem escaped. Captain Church instead captured Metacom’s wife and son and transported them to Boston. Shortly afterward, a Native American informant—bitter against Metacom for killing a relative for suggesting a truce—told Captain Church where to find the sachem.

On August 12, 1676, Captain Church and his troops surprised Metacom at Mount Hope, where Metacom met his end, killed by a single shot from a Native American named Alderman who was fighting with Church’s troops. Metacom’s body was quartered and the pieces sent for display around the colonies, his head ending up on public display in Boston. Alderman received the sachem’s hand and preserved it in a bottle of rum, making a tidy sum from exhibiting it to curious colonists. Metacom’s wife and son were sold into slavery in the West Indies.

Metacom’s people were not the only ones to pay a heavy price for the war. The hatred engendered against the native peoples resulted in a campaign of search and destroy in which surviving tribal members were killed or sold as slaves. Many of the Native Americans who surrendered under the mercy offered by the colonial leaders ended up sold into slavery, while others barely hung on in isolated settlements. In the short period of King Philip’s War, Native American life had essentially vanished from the northeastern landscape.

Benjamin Church

Early Life

Benjamin Church (1639–1718) was responsible for the capture of Metacom. Church was born in 1639 into a well-connected Plymouth family. He was the son of Richard and Elizabeth Church and reared to be a carpenter, like his father, an apprenticeship that took him all over Plymouth Colony in his early years. By 1674, he had acquired a patch of land of his own near the southeastern edge of Narragansett Bay, at Sakonnet (present-day Little Compton, Rhode Island), and had taken Alice Southworth for his wife. As he began building his family a home, he became well acquainted with the native Sakonnet people who lived in the area, befriending especially their female sachem (leader), Awashonks. The Native Americans, for their part, greatly respected Church. His fellow Puritans, on the other hand, eyed him suspiciously for his friendship with the native peoples and with the possibly even more suspect Baptists and Quakers who lived nearby.

Church was an ambitious man who became a soldier, rather than entering into the carpentry trade in which he was trained. His homestead lay only five miles away from where Metacom began agitating for a rebellion against the colonists. These rumors reached Church thanks to his friendship with Awashonks, who warned Church of Metacom’s intentions, telling him that Metacom had asked her people to join forces with his Wampanoags. Metacom’s warriors were, in fact, threatening Awashonks. When Church arrived to consult with her, he found himself serving as a negotiator between the female sachem and Metacom’s intimidating emissaries. He also attempted to seek aid for Weetamoo, the widow of Metacom’s brother Wamsutta, who was reluctant to go along with Metacom’s agenda and sought safety. Before Church could execute either of his plans to help Awashonks, Weetamoo, and their people, the war began. This tendency to negotiation and aid, however, would become a trademark of his impulse to confer and compromise, rather than to kill and brutalize.

King Philip’s War

When King Philip’s War broke out in June 1675, Church joined up with the Plymouth forces and fought in several skirmishes over the course of the ensuing summer, leading small groups of soldiers. For some time, he did not participate in any major battles, although he managed to glean quite a bit of information about native tactics, including their technique of spreading themselves thin and wide across a large area to make it difficult for the enemy to destroy their core. Church also campaigned vocally in favor of taking the offense and actively pursuing and destroying the enemy, rather than taking a defensive position and focusing on fort building; however, his superior officers failed to listen to him, not for the last time.

One of Church’s chief characteristics that emerged during the course of this war was his almost foolhardy recklessness and bravery in battle. Accompanying this Churchill-like disdain for flying bullets was an apparently endless run of good luck. In one battle, a comrade, Andrew Belcher, was gravely injured. The other troops, who had taken frightened cover, were too scared or too sensible to risk their lives to rescue Belcher in a rain of native weapons fire. Church, scorning their fear, braved a volley of bullets from the native fighters to rush into the field and pull his fellow soldier out from under the horse that had pinned him to the ground. Church also retrieved the body of another fallen soldier at the same time and sent the two back on the horses he had brought with him. Not satisfied with these acts of bravery, he then rescued Belcher’s horse, completely ignoring a second volley of fire. Not a single bullet hit him. This aura of invincibility followed him to the end of his long life, when ironically, he died as a result of a fall from his horse.

It was during the Great Swamp Fight, a major battle during King Philip’s War, that Church made his name as a fighter and as a man with powers of foresight. The battle, which took place on December 19, 1675, in a swamp near the site of a large Narragansett fort near present-day South Kingston, Rhode Island, was devastating both for the colonial troops and the Narragansetts they fought. Church was captain of a Plymouth company and was wounded twice in the battle. After the fighting ended and the colonists had prevailed, Church lobbied to have the troops remain at the Narragansett fort to recuperate. Yet again, the colonial leaders refused to heed him. They chose instead to burn the fort to the ground, along with hundreds of native elderly, women, and children who died terrible deaths in the flames. As a result of this decision, the number of colonial troops who died on their return march from the battle, lugging more than two hundred of their dead and wounded with them, was much greater than it would have been had they rested at the fort. In the end, the English lost a fifth of the troops who had engaged in the Great Swamp Fight. Between 250 and 600 Narragansetts died that day.

As the war dragged on with hit-and-run attacks from the native troops and bloody responses from the colonists, Church expanded the ranks of Native Americans allied with the troops by offering his captives the choice of fighting by his side or being sold into slavery. Many opted to risk their lives in battle rather than succumb to a brutal death in the heat of a Caribbean sugarcane plantation. With his expanded force, Church managed to capture one of Philip’s wives and one of his sons, both of whom were transported to Boston and sold into slavery.

The Capture of Metacom

In August 1676, Captain Church accidentally stumbled across a disguised Metacom lurking near the Taunton River, but the Wampanoag sachem escaped after being recognized by one of Church’s native companions. The English captain then learned from a vengeful informant that Metacom had returned to Mount Hope, the seat of the Wampanoag Nation. The informant said he was revealing Metacom’s whereabouts because the sachem had killed his relative for suggesting a truce.

On August 12, 1676, Church and his troops surprised Metacom at his home-base camp at Mount Hope, and the native leader died from a single shot delivered by a Pocasset who was accompanying Church’s troops. This Pocasset, who went by the name of Alderman, was one of the Native American captives who had chosen to fight with Church rather than be sold into slavery.

Church swore that no bone of Metacom’s would find rest in a grave. The body of the Wampanoag sachem ended in pieces that were sent to colonial capitals for decades of public display, his head being placed for public viewing in Boston. The war was over.

After King Philip’s War ended, Church went on to lead five expeditions against the French and Indians in Maine and Nova Scotia on behalf of King William III (1650–1702) and then Queen Anne (1665–1714) from 1689 to 1704. The loyalty of the Sakonnets he had known was so great that many of them joined him in these forays. He achieved the rank of colonel but was not well compensated for his hard work and retired in 1704. He became obese in later age and required two aides to help him get over fallen trees. In spite of his heft, he could apparently still ride a horse. He died of injuries sustained from a fall from his horse on January 17, 1718.

A Different Point of View

One of Church’s archrivals was Samuel Mosley (1641–c. 1680), an English captain who believed in the idea that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Church had a very different attitude, choosing to try to understand another culture and reach compromises, rather than brutally slaying every Native American in sight. His final act of the war underscored his attitude, which was distinctive for his time. Church’s men had captured a Native American elder who called himself “Conscience.” The Puritan captain took such a liking to the older man that instead of allowing the captive to be taken to Plymouth and sold into slavery, Church instead quietly released him to one of the man’s friends in Swansea.

Plymouth officials had offered clemency to any Native Americans who surrendered to them during the course of the war and its aftermath. However, many of those who did surrender were sold into slavery instead. The colonial leaders felt that this reneging on a promise was justified, reasoning that because some Native Americans were guilty of attacking settlers, all of them were guilty. Benjamin Church strongly demurred, being repulsed by the decision and writing that he had opposed it “to the loss of the good will and respect of some” who had previously been his friends.

As this iconoclasm illustrates, Church was a new kind of man fit for the New World, an amalgam of the civilized and the frontier, someone who knew his way around the wilds and understood Native American culture. He provided the prototype for the American frontiersmen who followed him. Church also satisfied his strong ambition by personally reviewing and approving his son’s hair-raising accounts of his exploits, Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War (1716), which cast the older Church as the first American hero—brave, smart, and lucky beyond belief.

Major Battles

The Battle of Bloody Brook

The battle between settlers and Native Americans over land and ascendancy in Massachusetts Bay began in earnest in August 1675 when the Nipmucks (also given as Nipmuc) attacked the town of Brookfield, Massachusetts, an isolated settlement in the colony. The tiny town, consisting of only twenty houses and lying at least a day’s travel from its nearest neighbor, saw the beginning of its end with an ambush. The Nipmucks laid in wait for a diplomatic delegation from Boston that had ventured into their territory to try to make peace with them. Instead, eight colonists died in the attack, including three townsmen from Brookfield. To the horror of the remaining inhabitants, hundreds of Nipmuck then emerged from the surrounding countryside and laid siege to the town. Eighty townspeople hunkered down in the home of a man who had died during the initial ambush. They fended off the Nipmucks for twenty days. For their part, the Indians tried various tactics to burn out the settlers, including firing flaming arrows into the house and rolling a cartful of burning rags into the side of the home at one point. Luckily for the settlers, a quick squall of rain doused the flames.

The siege ended when fifty troopers arrived and battled off the Nipmucks, but the tribe surfaced only two weeks later in an attack in Lancaster, Massachusetts, that killed eight people. To add to the injury, a hurricane slammed into the east coast at the end of August, an event that the Indians saw as the fury of the gods targeting the settlers.

Bloody Brook Gets Its Name

At the beginning of September 1675, Richard Beers (c. 1616–1675) took thirty-six men to evacuate the town of Northfield, Massachusetts, which was under threat of attack. Beers apparently was unaware of the Native American battle tactic of using concealment and walked straight into an ambush in which twenty-one people died.

Following on the heels of this attack only two weeks later, a military company accompanied a group of carts carrying grain straight through Nipmuck territory. The wheat was the fruit of the harvest of Deerfield, a settlement that had been abandoned under threat of Indian attacks. A military garrison at Hadley would benefit from these cartloads of wheat, which warranted saving. On September 19, Captain Thomas Lathrop (c. 1610–1675) conducted his eighty men toward Hadley, which had a mill for grinding the grain. They approached a small brook known as Muddy Brook, where the early autumn grapes bending their vines apparently were so irresistible that many members of the company laid down their weapons to pick them. This foolhardy choice in the midst of an area known to be packed with hostile Native Americans ended in tragedy for the garrison. As Lathrop’s soldiers plucked the grapes, a huge force of several hundred Nipmucks emerged from the dense forest and attacked.

The soldiers did not have a chance. Lathrop died instantly. Bullets and arrows seemed to come from all directions, taking out colonial troops before they could even reach for their discarded weapons. All of the cart drivers died, and only a few of the soldiers survived the attack. Within minutes, the rest lay bleeding to death or dead, their blood flowing red into the muddy stream that had halted their progress. From that time, the brook became known as Bloody Brook, where the waters mingled with the blood of the fallen troops.

Samuel Mosley

The Native American victors took the moment to celebrate, joyfully beginning to plunder the soldiers and the wagons. Their celebration was short-lived. As it turns out, Captain Samuel Mosley was nearby with his men and heard the gunshots. Unfortunately for the Nipmucks, he also ascribed to the idea that the “only good Indian was a dead Indian,” and was the most fierce Indian fighter in Massachusetts Bay. His hatred for Native Americans extended so far that he never believed in the genuineness of the “Praying Indians,” those who had converted to Christianity, and he always distrusted Native American scouts. Even though just the year before he had burned to the ground the wigwams of a friendly tribe in New Hampshire and also had strung together a group of Praying Indians with a rope and marched them into Boston, no one had ever moved to stop him. Part of his power lay in the fact that the governor was a relative, and Mosley himself had achieved popularity for his exploits. His cruelty was breathtaking—in one letter, he casually dropped that he had ordered a captive Native American woman to be torn to pieces by dogs.

Mosley hurried to the scene of the bloody ambush, only to be greeted with shouts of “Come on, Mosley. Here are enough Indians for you,” from the Nipmucks. His response to these taunts was to battle the Native Americans for six hours, keeping his men together and moving as a single unit, moving back and forth in front of the Nipmuck lines, firing away. Even though the Nipmucks greatly outnumbered Mosley’s sixty troops, the English soldiers held off the Indians until Major Robert Treat (1622–1710), commander-in-chief of the Connecticut troops, arrived just at sunset with one hundred English fighting men and enough Mohegan allies to bring a stop to the action. In the end, the settlers buried sixty-seven of their own in a single mass grave at Bloody Brook.

The evening after the battle, the Nipmucks, who had vanished into the forest, taunted Mosley and his men by emerging periodically and waving articles of clothing from their dead comrades. The colonists ultimately abandoned Deerfield completely, which was then destroyed by Metacom and his warriors during the course of King Philip’s War.

The Great Swamp Fight

This key battle of what became known as King Philip’s War took place on a freezing winter day on December 19, 1675. The colonial forces attacked a fort held by the Narragansett people in the middle of the Great Swamp (near present-day South Kingstown, Rhode Island), near Narragansett Bay. This tribe had initially been the colonists’ shaky ally against the Wampanoags, but eventually turned against the English, who had decided on somewhat flimsy evidence to view the Narrangansetts as enemies.

Rampant rumors drove the British to attack the Narragansetts, who compounded the perceived threat by refusing to surrender to the English any Wampanoag refugees taking shelter with the Narragansett people. Slogging through the snow, one thousand British troops under the leadership of colonial Governor Josiah Winslow (c. 1629–1680) made their way to an island in the Great Swamp where the Narragansett fort stood. The first British assault at one in the afternoon was a disastrous failure initially; the colonists sustained tremendous losses. By five that evening, however, they had breached the rear of the fort and ordered it set on fire after fighting within the structure. Women and children screamed as they died in their flaming homes.

Before the fort was set aflame, Captain Benjamin Church, who fought in this battle and was wounded twice, urged Winslow and his other superiors to let the wounded spend the night in the fort. Winslow declined to take Church’s advice, a decision that undoubtedly led to more deaths among his men as they made the difficult march back to their garrison, carrying their two hundred dead and wounded with them. By the time the Great Swamp Fight ended, twenty percent of the colonial soldiers lay dead, as did several hundred Narragansett people.

The destruction of the fort by fire not only destroyed any potential shelter for the injured soldiers from the cold of a December night, but it also reduced to ashes the huge store of food and supplies the Narragansetts had accumulated. The English lost six captains and 120 men in the fighting, but they lost many more during the arduous and deadly march back to their garrison in what is now Wickford, Rhode Island. The march incapacitated another four hundred soldiers so seriously that the army had to halt its winter campaign, although Winslow had mustered another large army within a month. These troops, however, were so poorly supplied that after a few weeks of chasing the remaining Narragansetts all over the colonies, the soldiers were forced to eat their horses and the pursuit itself became infamous as the Hungry March.

In spite of the large number of casualties, the English had achieved their primary goal, which was the routing and destabilization of the Narragansett people, one of the most powerful Native American groups in the region.

The Home Front

Salem Witch Trials

One year in the early 1690s, a group of girls gathered around a bowl in a house in Salem, Massachusetts. Among them was the daughter of the house, nine-year-old Elizabeth (Betty) Parris, whose father was a Puritan minister, and her cousin, eleven-year-old Abigail. Most of the other girls worked as servants in the village of Salem. The girls had secretly convened a few times, to try out some of the magic rites the Parris girls had picked up from their West Indian slave, Tituba. One girl cracked an egg into the bowl, and they all leaned forward to see the egg white. Gradually and to their horror, the albuminous white took on the shape of a coffin, a sure sign of death approaching. The girls began having hallucinations and strange physical ailments, some of them babbling incoherently. Doctors were called in and diagnosed witchcraft.

Many people consider their behavior to be the kickoff of the infamous events known as the Salem witch trials. But the atmosphere necessary for a doctor to diagnose witchcraft as a serious cause of illness began forming long before the Parris girls and their friends met for their secret magic ceremonies.

The Cultural Backdrop of the Trials

As many cultures have done, the colonists tended to attribute anything they could not readily explain to supernatural phenomena, especially to beneficent or malevolent forces. Their strong religiosity fed their belief in magic, as it has done in many cultures, including the Native Americans and Africans brought into slavery in their homes. Beliefs in evil spirits and in the ability to inhabit animals or use talismans for healing were widespread and considered the norm. Research has shown that these beliefs generally help people feel some measure of control over phenomena that affect them. These beliefs are held especially by spiritual people, such as shamans or ministers, who might even have special powers of healing.

Thus, to the colonists, witchcraft was very real and a very real threat. They believed that witches could control peoples’ thoughts and force them to behave in evil ways. An old woman, probably childless and living alone, usually fit the typical profile of the European witch, and these women were thought to fly through the air, engage in orgies with the devil, and cause any number of terrible things to happen, including a child’s death, crop failure, or birth defects. In short, witches and their evil intent and activities explained what otherwise was inexplicable.

With witchery all around them, people devised ways to determine whether or not someone was a witch or had been affected by a witch’s spell. One way to pinpoint a witch was to bake into a cake of grain something from a victim’s body, such as urine. When the victims consumed the cake, they would then utter the name of the sorceress. Among colonists, people suspected of being witches had the opportunity to confess their sins and be welcomed back into the religious fold after repenting. The outcome of the Salem witch trials was an exception to this practice.

Accusations Begin

Betty Parris was well aware that her religion forbade her from taking part in witchery, but as a curious young child, she did so anyway. When the doctors diagnosed witchcraft, Betty and her counterparts eventually “confessed” that the perpetrators were Tituba and two other old women from the village.

What followed was a witch hunt in the original sense, as the girls went on a spree of witch identification, even pointing the finger at a former minister. The frenzy spread across the colony as newly identified and confessed witches then turned around and named more witches. By the time the uproar had quieted, 156 people sat in prison, charged as witches.

The Trials

The trials themselves were an infamous circus conducted by men who were not trained lawyers, and who judged suspects who had no legal representation. In addition, the judges decided to allow “spectral evidence” as valid, even though it was evidence from only one witness, the victim. The wisdom held that only victims could see the witches in spirit form committing their evil deeds, so by definition, spectral evidence could be given only by single witnesses, regardless of whether or not others were around at the time of the “crime.”

In what amounted to the peak of witchcraft hysteria that had been building in Europe and the New World for more than two centuries, a special court was convened in June 1692 to judge the accused. Increase Mather (1639–1723) and his son, Cotton (1663–1728), had contributed to this backdrop of hysteria that allowed the wild imaginings of young girls to bear fruit. Their writings included a collection of proofs of witchcraft that had helped inflame feelings against witches and created an army of experts. In spite of their belief in witchcraft and their claim to expertise, however, the Mathers decried the conduct of the trials, and Increase Mather called for dissolution of the courts trying the case. He also disapproved of allowing spectral evidence as valid in the court.

Not heeding the Mathers, the authorities continued the trials, which ended in one hundred guilty verdicts and twenty executions, most of them women. Of those sentenced to death, nineteen were hanged, and one accused witch was crushed to death by stones during “questioning.” An additional four people died during their imprisonment; some of the prisoners learned about the capital punishment and managed to escape. Many of the accused were offered the chance to confess and repent, but being staunchly pious, they refused to lie in this way to save themselves.

Magnalia Christi Americana

Cotton Mather, son of Increase Mather, authored Magnalia Christi Americana(1702) the story of Christ’s works in the New World. His book has tormented and fascinated historians ever since, although at its initial publication, it failed to impress some critics.

Mather himself described his writings as a history and a rhapsody, and historians have argued since about whether or not the book is truly a history or more of an extended hosannah. In the conventional sense, it is not a history—it lacks order or chronology and throughout climbs to heights of religious ecstasy and celebration or descends to condemnation as the occasion requires. The book has been criticized for its mercurial tone, and Mather relied heavily throughout the writing on boilerplate quotes and proverbs typically associated with tract writings and sermons of the time. In fact, some scholars have argued that the book is much less history than one long, extended sermon filled with examples of what Mather perceived to be Christ’s work.

In spite of these criticisms, Magnalia Christi Americana may be, more than anything else, a serial biographical look at the people of the New World. Two of its seven books focus on biographies—in fact, they are packed with biographies, some extremely sparse, others extensive. In Book II, Mather focused on the lives of the godly New England magistrates, and in Book III, on the lives of ministers in the New World. Even his Book IV, which he intended as a history of Harvard College, devolves primarily into a series of yearbook entries of the school’s famous alumni.

His approach to documenting the people and times has, to some historians, come to exemplify a uniquely American form of biography. Even though Mather fell into inaccuracies and lapsed into strange but interesting asides, his intensely personal approach to his historical writing is perceived to be an American invention and to mark a turning point in biographical writing.

He did stick to the conventional, formulaic approach through much of the tome, however, tossing in classical and biblical references aplenty, and also including bizarre but interesting allusions that required some genuine facility with lateral thinking. For example, he quotes Pliny’s description of the lantern fish or lucerna fish, “whose Tongue doth shine like a Torch,” as an analogy for a minister whose speech was so spectacularly glowing that his tongue appeared also to have been illuminated from within.

As these allusions indicate, Mather litters his text with references to primarily European sources, yet scholars consider his work to be a uniquely New World production. This paradox is not the only confusion that arises over Magnalia Christi Americana. In addition to his extensive list of biographies, Mather tosses in a kitchen sink’s worth of other information, including his opinions about the Salem witch trials. Historians have disagreed about the role that Mather played in setting the stage for the hysteria that surfaced during this time and about his and his father’s efforts to halt the trials or condemn them.

Before writing Magnalia Christi Americana, Cotton Mather expressed disapproval over the conduct of the trials and the treatment of the “witches,” yet he also included in his book a spirited defense of the judges who oversaw the proceedings. This latter has left the erroneous impression that he did, in fact, approve of the trials themselves.

Early reviews of his work were not necessarily favorable. One reviewer, William Tudor, who was the first editor of the North American Review, compared Mather’s liberal use of quotes from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew to “so many decayed, hideous stumps” that “deform the surface” of the writing. He also dismissed Mather as pedantic and wordy. Some later critics have agreed with this assessment, whereas others have found much that is worthwhile and interesting in Mather’s rhapsodic history.

Mather himself had lofty goals for his book. His opening to Magnalia Christi Americana is famous: “I write the Wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the Depravations of Europe, to the American Strand.” His pages begin with a history of the New World as told through his filter, starting with its discovery and covering the founding of Connecticut and New Haven. Perhaps not surprisingly, he dedicated his book to Jesus Christ.

Public Backlash

Even before the trials ended, public distaste for the court conduct and outcome had begun to grow. Feeding this sentiment were the gallows statements of those executed, many of whom refused to confess but still forgave their accusers and judges. Within a year, people began publicly doubting the conduct and results of the trial, and interestingly, the Mathers again led the public sentiment, this time in opposition to the proceedings.

The authorities conducted retrials for some of the prisoners, but excluded spectral evidence. The result was that forty-nine of fifty-two accused prisoners were released because of a lack of evidence. By 1697, Massachusetts leaders had realized the terrible error of the trials. The governor ultimately pardoned the condemned, and the legislature eventually designated a special day of atonement for the sin of executing innocent people. Samuel Parris, the father of Elizabeth, lost his salary.

The Causes of the Hysteria

In seeking to identify the causes of this hysteria and the willingness of presumably rational people to believe the outrageous claims of a group of young girls, historians have turned primarily to socioeconomic causes. Many of the accusers were girls from rural Salem, some from the same family, who worked in the town as servant girls. Many of the accused were well-to-do older women who lived in Salem Town. Quite a few of the girls who made the initial accusations also had lost a parent to Indian raids, and the colony itself was in a state of transition and upheaval, awaiting the arrival of a new governor. The ailing current governor, Simon Bradstreet (1603–1697), had done nothing to stop the growing hysteria, even as the accusations began reaching to the town’s borders. The new governor, Sir William Phips (c. 1651–c. 1695), tried to address the issue by establishing what he perceived to be proper courts to conduct the trials. Yet his courts, in addition to allowing spectral evidence, also revived an old law that made practicing witchcraft a capital offense, resulting in the death penalty.

Thus, many historians conclude that issues of social upheaval and class standing may have operated under the surface of the hysteria, although that does not explain Elizabeth Parris’s involvement. Her participation as an accuser, however, is attributable to her probable fear of having violated the sacred tenets of her religion, in which her father was a recognized leader. One of the trial judges, Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), felt such great regret about his role that he made a public statement in which he took the “blame and shame” of having been associated with the proceedings and asked for God’s pardon for “that sin.”

International Context

French and English Conflict in North America

The British founded Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and only a year later, the French settled the capital of “New France” in Quebec. These two New World settlements lay separated by a vast and tangled wilderness that ensured few encounters between representatives of these archrival European countries.

Different Intentions

The two nations initially had very different intentions for the New World. To the French, the Canadian territories were a rich repository of furs and other natural resources to exploit, but not a place to establish permanent settlements. The British, on the other hand, looked further into the future and saw the New World as a vast territory where they could deposit the disgruntled of their people while reaping the bounty of resources the rich lands had to offer. From the beginning the British aimed to promote emigration and establish settlements they intended to be permanent and even installed a king-appointed governor to oversee each colony.

Once the vast resources of North America—including wood, fur, agriculture, and ore—became more evident overseas, the heads of Europe’s nations turned toward the New World. Competition for control began in earnest, involving not only France and England, but also Spain and Denmark. England and France were the clear front-runners in the north and east of the continent, having acquired dominion over most of the land east of the Mississippi by the early 1700s. British settlements dotted the landscape from Maine to Georgia, marching north to south along the Atlantic coast. The French, for their part, had control over eastern Canada, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River basin.

Native Americans Caught in Between

Caught between these occupying countries were the Native Americans, who had, of course, been living in the Americas for thousands of years. Over that time, many different cultures and traditions had arisen, shaped in part by the natural resources around them. The French, initially lacking interest in land acquisition and focusing primarily on trade, did not seek to remove the Native Americans from their lands and established good relations with them. The British settlers, on the other hand, had a completely different agenda. Only a few decades had passed since the establishment of Jamestown before all-out war broke out between the colonists and the native peoples. These devastating conflicts, including King Philip’s War, ended in the decimation of the native peoples and cultures in the northeastern colonies. In the end, the only groups that remained on friendly terms with the colonists were the members of the Iroquois Confederacy, which included the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. The Iroquois and French had been enemies since the French explorer Samuel de Champlain (c. 1567–1635) had shot several Iroquois people during one of the first French expeditions to the New World in the early 1600s. His weapons were the first guns the Iroquois had ever seen.

In a New World reflection of tactics used for centuries in Europe, the British and French allied themselves with tribes who were in turn traditional enemies of one another. The greatest Native American allies of the French colonies were the Algonquian peoples, longtime enemies of the Iroquois. The Iroquois, in their alliance with the British, sought to control trade in the region and keep the French from acquiring any more territory. At the same time, across the Atlantic, England and France continued their centuries-long struggle for European dominance, fighting three wars from the late 1600s to the early 1700s. The effects of these conflicts reverberated across the waters to the New World colonies.

European Wars Carried Across the Atlantic

One of these wars, King William’s War (known as the War of the League of Augsburg in Europe), lasted from 1689 to 1697. King James II of England (1633–1701), a staunch Catholic, had fled to France after unsuccessful attempts to convert his largely Protestant nation to his religion. The French King Louis XIV (1638–1715) sided with James II against James’s daughter, Mary II (1662–1694), and her husband, William III of Orange (1650–1702), who jointly stepped up to the English throne to become William and Mary of England. The North American version of this war involved conflict between the British and French over who would control the rivers—highways to the colonists—through the Appalachian Mountains. The French leaders triggered the American war with their encouragement of Indian raids that ended in the deaths of hundreds of British settlers. In revenge, the British attacked New France and took Port Royal in Nova Scotia, although they did not take Quebec. When the two sides agreed to a peace settlement, the British returned Nova Scotia to France.

This fragile peace broke with the onset of Queen Anne’s War (called the War of Spanish Succession in Europe), which began in 1701. As with many European conflicts, this war began with a vacant throne, this time in Spain. Each major European power wanted to place an ally in the Spanish seat. Again, the clash spread across the Atlantic and began with French-triggered Indian raids on British settlements, which again set off a series of British attacks on Canada. The British were serious this time, going to Canada with the goal of taking over the territory, and took six thousand troops on ships up the coast to the St. Lawrence River, which they expected to travel into the heart of French-Canadian territory. But their plan fell apart when several ships foundered on rocks in heavy fog and more than one thousand people drowned.

The British never made it to Canada on that expedition, but they did win the war in Europe in 1713, leading them to claim supremacy over French-Canadian territories, including the resource-rich Hudson Bay region. Another peace treaty followed, but its language was so vague that further conflict was inevitable. Eventually, the tensions would erupt again in the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763.

Subjugation of the Northeastern Tribes

With the end of King Philip’s War, Native American lands and cultures lay fractured, never to be made whole again. In the war’s aftermath, the colonies engaged in a systematic destruction of corn, the food base for the native peoples, as well as the tracking and capture of Native Americans throughout the summer of 1676.

During the war, the colonists had invited the native peoples to surrender to them, promising mercy for anyone who did so. Yet the Native Americans who accepted this option found themselves sold into slavery instead of receiving mercy. The authorities rationalized that because some of the native peoples had participated in attacks on settlers, all of the native peoples were guilty by association.


Slave ships carrying Native Americans began departing from the northeast as early as 1675. The Plymouth colonial leaders had formalized a process by which Native American males over the age of fourteen were automatically deported as slaves to the sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. There was some dispute about what to do with Metacom’s nine-year-old son, who had been captured along with his mother. Execution was considered, but the boy was instead made a slave.

At least one thousand Native Americans were shipped to Caribbean sugarcane plantations during King Philip’s War, where most of them died in the brutal, unfamiliar heat. Mount Hope, the seat of the once-sprawling and powerful Wampanoag Nation, lay empty. By 1680, after a methodical and merciless purge, the Native American population had plummeted by more than fifty percent, the result of death in battle, disease, and slavery. In the southern parts of New England, losses reached between 60 and 80 percent.

The Fate of the Remaining People

The Narragansetts, who had remained ostensibly neutral for so much of the war, paid a heavy price for shifting their loyalty to the side of the native peoples. At one point during the war, the colonists tested the loyalty of the Narragansetts by demanding that they turn over any Wampanoag refugees taking shelter with them. The colonial authorities were most interested in getting their hands on Weetamoo, the female sachem of the Pocasset people. When the Narragansetts failed to meet the colonial deadline, the English used this as yet another excuse to remove the Narragansetts as an obstacle to their ability to acquire native lands.

In reality, the colonists were relieved that the tribe had not joined forces against them before that point. If they had allied themselves with Metacom’s people at an earlier time, the combined power of the tribes in the opposition would have overwhelmed the colonial forces. Yet, even though the colonists owed the Narragansetts a modicum of patience for not having taken the opportunity to destroy them, they saw their chance and wiped the Narragansetts off the New England map, along with most of the other Native American peoples.

Of the remaining Native American groups, only the Iroquois Confederacy, which included the Mohawk and Seneca nations, survived colonial efforts to eradicate the native peoples. The Iroquois worked as allies with the English settlers well into the mid-eighteenth century.



Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006.


Schultz, Eric B. “Time Line of Major Dates and Events.” Cobblestone 21.7 (2000).

Stievermann, Jan. “Writing to ‘Conquer All Things’: Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana and the Quandary of Copia.” Early American Literature 39.2 (2004): 263–98.

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Conflicts with Northeastern Tribes (1621–1697)

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