Metacomet: From Heathen Savage to American Archetype

(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on December 14, 2019.)

One hundred and ninety years ago, the play “Metamora; or, the Last of the Wamponoags” opened in New York City. The play written by John Augustus Stone re-interpreted Metacomet and many events of Metacom’s/King Philip’s War (1675-76). Rather than a brutal barbarian heading a heathen race, Metacomet was presented as a hero. The play also dramatized his death. Rather than dying silently in a swamp, he gave an impassioned monologue ending in a curse on white men.

In 1662, Metacomet became chief sachem of the Wampanoag after the deaths of his father, Massasoit, and his brother, Wamsutta. 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.

Named after Metacomet who had earlier taken the European name of Philip, the war 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 in his book “Mayflower” 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. (Aquidneck Island was untouched.)

Metacomet print by Paul Revere, 1772

Granger Collection, NY

By August 11, 1676, the fighting was ending and 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 inform on him. During the early morning of August 12, he guided Church and about two dozen colonists and Sakonnets to Metacomet’s hideout near a swamp at Mount Hope, surrounding it and attacking.

Metacomet leaped to his feet, grabbed 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. For more than two decades, the head remained on a stake as the town’s main attraction.

One hundred years later, as Americans fought for their independence from the British, the image of Metacomet was still negative. Americans generally viewed him and the indigenous peoples as savages who wanted to oppress them, just as the British were doing. As the colonists fought the Indians to live in freedom, so now patriots had to fight British tyranny. In the earlier war they were fighting to remain good English citizens in America; in the War for Independence they fought not to be English, but rather to be American.

In the first decades of the 19th century, Americans were still trying to define themselves. It appears that American writer Washington Irving started the transformation of Metacomet in the American mind with his “Philip of Pokanoket,” first published in 1814. In it, Irving encouraged his readers to see beyond the prejudices of earlier historical accounts of such writers as Increase Mather and John Cotton Jr. He argued that the sachem should be seen as a brave leader who struggled to free his people from the tyranny of colonial authorities.
At opening night, December 15, 1829, Edwin Forrest, one of America’s leading actors and the man playing Metacomet, ended with a curse: “My curses on you, white men! May the Great Spirit curse you when he speaks in his war voice from the clouds! Murderers! The last of the Wamponoags’ curse be on you!”

As Jill Lepore indicates in her book, “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,” “…the audience at the Park Theater rose in wild and reportedly ‘rapturous’ applause.” Americans were now looking to the native peoples to help define themselves.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University.

Sources:

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. NY: Random House, 1999.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. NY: Penguin Group, 2006.
Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians Against the Puritans of New England. NY: Scribner, 2018.

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