Metacom (King Philip)

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Metacom (King Philip)

c. 1640

Southeastern Massachusetts

August 12, 1676

Mount Hope

Native American leader

Metacom (also known as King Philip) was the chief of the Wampanoag tribe. He headed the Native American resistance to colonial power in southern New England during the seventeenth century. Colonists celebrated his death, an event that marked their victory in the conflict named for him, King Philip's War (1675–76), and assured English dominance in the region. Critics of the Puritans (people who believe in a branch of Christianity that stressed strict moral and religious codes), however, portrayed Metacom as a hero and condemned those who pushed him to war. These differing opinions reflect the changing alliances and power structures that existed before King Philip's War.

Remains wary of colonists

Metacom was born around 1640 in present-day southeastern Massachusetts. As he was growing up he was sensitive to the increasing population of English newcomers. He was one of five children of Massasoit (see entry), a Wampanoag chieftain who had aided and cooperated with Pilgrim colonists in Plymouth. Massasoit has been criticized for selling too much Native American land to the English in exchange for their support. After Massasoit died in 1660, his eldest son, Wamsutta, told Plymouth settlers that he was now sachem (chief) of the Wampanoags. When Wamsutta asked for English names for himself and his brother Metacom, he was given the name Alexander and Metacom was dubbed Philip. Plymouth colonists captured Wamsutta when he began selling land to other colonies. Metacom suspected that his brother had been poisoned when he died in 1662. When Metacom himself became sachem, he remained wary of the Plymouth colonists.

Involved in land disputes

From 1662 to 1675, Metacom worked to maintain his power as chief and to ensure his people's welfare. Meanwhile, the English population—and English power—continued to grow. At the same time, the Wampanoag Confederacy, which consisted of many villages and families, apparently began to splinter. This was due in part to the influence of colonial authorities and missionaries. Metacom's territory formed a border zone between Plymouth Colony, Rhode Island, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony capital in Boston, each of which wanted the area. In order to hold onto his political influence, the sachem sold tracts of land in the region to various colonists. Resulting conflicts over the borders of these lands, however, were rarely settled to his satisfaction. Colonial courts seemed biased and insensitive to the concerns of Native Americans. The tribes were also angered by colonial efforts to influence their politics.

The conflict regarding landownership reached a crisis in 1667. In violation of an agreement with Metacom, the Plymouth Colony authorized the purchase of land within his territory for the town of Swansea. Tribal war parties, possibly led by Metacom, began to appear near Swansea in an effort to intimidate the colonists. In 1671 Plymouth demanded a meeting with the chief. When he arrived, the colony's leaders compelled him at gunpoint to surrender his people's firearms and to sign a treaty. This treaty placed Metacom—and even his dead brother and father—under Plymouth's authority and thus challenged previous land sales to other colonies. Metacom complained to Massachusetts Bay Colony authorities, but he received no assistance. Instead, both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay forced him to sign a new treaty that gave the Wampanoags no land rights.

Narragansetts: enemies of the Wampanoags

The Narragansetts were an Algonquian-speaking people who lived in the region that is now Rhode Island. During the seventeenth century they were the strongest Native American tribe in southern New England, and a major enemy of the Wampanoags. When the Narragansetts managed to survive the European plague that swept the area in 1617, they were joined by many smaller tribes. Although the Wampanoags were also struck by the plague, their chief, Massasoit (see entry), became allied to the English. In 1636 the Narragansetts sold land to Roger Williams (see entry), a founder of Rhode Island, who convinced them to join the Massachusetts colonists in the Pequot War (1637).

Although the Narragansetts were originally enemies of the Wampanoags and allies of the English, the situation changed dramatically in 1675. Late that year colonists began attacking Narragansett villages in the Connecticut River valley. In retaliation, the Narragansetts became allies of the Wampanoags during King Philip's War (1675–76) in effort to drive out white settlers. In response, the colonists then joined forces with the powerful Mohawks, and quickly defeated the Wampanoag-Narragansett alliance. This conflict, which ended with the murder of Wampanoag chief Metacom, led to English dominance in southeastern New England. Ironically, the Narragansetts suffered the same fate as their former enemy, as many Native American tribes were destroyed as a result of the war. The Narragansetts lost a thousand men in a battle known as the Great Swamp Fight. Survivors either migrated or joined other tribes. Although they had numbered five thousand in 1674, by 1832 there were only eighty surviving members of the once-great Narragansett tribe.

Wants support for uprising

At about this time Metacom evidently began planning the uprising that came to be known as King Philip's War. Although he received the backing of other Wampanoag leaders, Metacom knew that the tribe was too small to fight the English alone. Therefore, he sought support from other tribes. He managed to gain the support of groups such as the Nipmucks, who also felt threatened by the colonists. He had difficulty, however, in establishing an alliance with the Narragansetts, who were major enemies of the Wampanoags. The rivalry between the two tribes dated back many years. In fact, it was this conflict that had compelled Metacom's father, Massasoit, to sell Native American land to the English for protection against the Narragansetts. Metacom was now seeking the support of the Narragansetts only because they were the most powerful tribe in the region.

The events leading up to King Philip's War put Metacom in a difficult position. At the time, he still had not gained enough support to launch an uprising. He was thereby forced to play a waiting game, whereby he tried to prevent his angry warriors from raiding colonial villages and still keep them loyal to him. Rumors of Metacom's efforts soon reached colonial authorities. About this time, the body of John Sassamon, a Native American, was found in a pond. It turned out that Sassamon had told the English about Metacom's plan. The colonists tried three Wampanoags for the murder; they were subsequently found guilty and hanged. The English based their case entirely on the testimony of another Native American. On the scaffold (platform where criminals are hanged or beheaded) one of the three supposedly confessed Metacom's guilt in the murder of Sassamon.

King Philip's War begins and ends

In July 1675 Metacom's men, angered by the recent events, launched the conflict that became known as King Philip's War. The uprising was apparently touched off more by the rage of Metacom's people than by any master plan. When a colonial army tried to capture the sachem near his home on Mount Hope (present-day Bristol, Rhode Island), he escaped with his warriors and their families. Then, joining forces with his Nipmuck allies, Metacom attacked and burned villages west and south of Boston. Native American groups in the Connecticut River valley also rose in revolt when anxious colonists overreacted to the violence. Finally, in late December, the Narragansetts joined the uprising after English forces attacked their village. During the ensuing winter, joint Native American raiding parties burned several colonial towns, sending refugees streaming into Boston. Although Metacom did not actually command this informal army—in December he had gone to theHudson River valley to seek the support of other Native groups—his power seemed to extend throughout the entir region.

Metacom's flaming star was soon extinguished, however. While on his quest for new alliances, the Mohawk tribe and their New York colonial allies attacked his band, killing all but forty of his men and destroying the sachem's prestige. The Mohawks continued their attacks from the west, while colonial forces, joined by other Native American allies, became more effective. These groups, who were not Wampanoag allies, eventually brought about Metacom's downfall. Disease and hunger also took a terrible toll. By the spring of 1676 the informal Native alliance broke apart. Many bands moved north or west out of harm's way, and some made peace with the colonists. Metacom headed for home after his allies threatened to send his head to the English as a peace offering.

As the uprising dissolved, some of the sachem's former supporters formed a squad and hunted Metacom. The chief's wife and son were captured and apparently, like most captured Native Americans, sold in the West Indies as slaves. Finally, on August 12, 1676, Metacom and his dwindling band were surrounded. Metacom was shot by a Native American serving with the colonial forces. The sachem's head was cut off and hacked into quarters, then the pieces were sent to the colonial capitals. A Wampanoag legend, however, holds that Metacom's warriors stole his head and secretly buried it near Mount Hope, where his spirit still periodically speaks.

Causes of King Philip's War

King Philip's War demonstrates the changing alliances that had long existed in southern New England. Originally, the central conflict was between the Wampanoags, their enemy the Narragansetts, and the newly arrived English settlers. It was this conflict that had prompted Metacom's father, Massasoit, to maintain friendly relations with the English by selling them land. Some historians believe that Massasoit sold his tribe's birthright for protection against the Narragansetts. They also believe that King Philip's War was Metacom's attempt to win back the land his father had given away. The participation of the Narragansetts in the war represented a major shift in alliances and disrupted many long-standing relationships between Native American groups. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Metacom was murdered by other Native Americans. The defeat of Metacom and his allies decimated (reduced drastically in number) the Native population. The colonists also suffered high casualties, but they eventually regained dominance in the region. While many Indian communities survived, Metacom's death marked the end of Native independence in southern New England.

For further research

Cwiklik, Robert. King Philip and the War with the Colonists. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett Publishers, 1989.

The Indian Wars. Available July 13, 1999.

Sewall, Marcia. Thunder from the Clear Sky. Old Tappan, N.J.: Simon and Schuster Children's, 1995.

Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 1984.