(This essay was originally published as “1676: Metacomet’s Death Ends Bloody Colonial War,” by the Newport Daily News on August 12, 2016.)
Three hundred and forty years ago today, Metacomet, chief sachem of the Wampanoags, was killed by the colonial militia and its Native American allies, essentially ending King Philip’s War in southern New England. This war, named after Metacomet who had earlier taken the European name of Philip, devastated both the English settlers and the Native Americans. About one-third of the towns of New England (Connecticut to Maine) were destroyed. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick estimates that per capita the war was twice as bloody as the Civil War and seven times as deadly as the Revolutionary War. Plymouth Colony lost about 8% of its adult male population; the Native Americans lost 60-80% of their total population in southern New England. Through it all Aquidneck Island never saw conflict.
There were several underlying causes to the conflict. First, the pressure of demographics from the wave of migration to America. While the first settlers in New England sought to maintain peaceful relations with native peoples, later groups came with various motives and did not necessarily share the same view. Over the succeeding decades, pressure on the land and the Native Americans increased. By 1676, it is estimated that the European population of New England was about 70,000.
Second, differing conceptions of agreements and of the relationship between humans and the land. The English came from a capitalistic society based on the right to own private property and on the rule of written law and contracts. Native Americans did not put much stock in written contracts and did not commonly accept that human beings could “own” land.
Third, power politics. Many different Native American tribes occupied New England, the largest being the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Narragansett, Mohegan, and Pequot. They could be friendly but also bitter enemies. European settlers entered this political environment, and complicated it.
Fourth, the death in 1661 of Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag and friend of the settlers, followed by the death of his eldest son, Wamsutta, in 1662. This brought Metacomet to the leadership of the Wampanoag. Unlike his father, he did not strive for peaceful relations with the settlers; rather he became more and more irritated by their increasing numbers and their ways.
Metacomet, Engraving by Paul Revere, 1772
Granger Collection, NY
The immediate cause for the war came in June 1675 when three Wampanoag were brought to trial for the death of a Christianized Indian, John Sassamon. He had earlier informed the English that Metacomet was building a Native American alliance to wage war against the English. The three men were found guilty and were hanged on June 8, 1675, at Plymouth. On June 20, a band of Pokanoket-Wampanoag attacked the Plymouth Colony settlement at Swansea, burning it and killing several people.
The spring of 1676 brought calamity to English settlements from the Connecticut River to Maine. After successful attacks on English militia and their Native American allies on the Blackstone River and then at Rehoboth, the Native Americans burned Providence on March 29. However during the succeeding months, the scales tipped toward the colonists and their Native American allies.
By August 11, most colonial forces were disbanded. However, Plymouth militia Captain Benjamin Church and the allied Sakonnets were still searching for Metacomet and his band. An Indian whose brother was killed by Metacomet decided to desert. During the early morning of August 12, he guided Church and about two dozens colonists and Sakonnets to Metacomet’s hideout near a swamp at Mount Hope. They surrounded the swamp and attacked.
Once attacked, Metacomet leaped to his feet, grab his powder horn, bullet pouch, and musket, and began to run into the swamp. He approached Caleb Cook and a Pocasset Indian named John Alderman. When Cook’s weapon failed to fire, Alderman shot Metacomet through the heart.
Church gathered his men and told them of Metacomet’s death. The group cheered “Huzzah!” three times, a common cheer at that time. Church stated that because Metacomet “had caused many an Englishman’s body to lie unburied and rot above ground, that not one of his bones should be buried.” He then directed a Sakonnet to quarter the body, a common treatment for criminals in that era. Church awarded Metacomet’s distinctively scarred hand to Alderman, who later preserved it in rum and exhibited it for “many a penny” for years to come.
On August 17, Pastor John Cotton led his Plymouth congregation in a day of Thanksgiving. Shortly after the service, Church and his men arrived with Metacomet’s head, a great prize of war. The church record states that the “head was brought into Plymouth in great triumph … so that in the day of our praises our eyes saw the salvation of God.” For more than two decades the head remained on a stake as the town’s main attraction.
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.