King Philip’s War is one few people know about – even in New England – but is considered by many to be the deadliest war in Colonial American history. It took place in the 17th century and involved the existing colonies: New York, Connecticut, Providence (Rhode Island), Plymouth, Massachusetts and the Maine territory. These colonies had each developed separate relations with the Wampanoags, Nipmuks, Narragansetts, Mohegans, Pequots and Massachusetts tribes, whose territories historically had differing boundaries. Many of the neighboring tribes had been traditional competitors and enemies.
At this time, the population of New England colonists totaled about 80,000 people. They lived in 110 towns, of which 64 were in the Massachusetts Bay colony, which then included the southwestern portion of Maine. The towns had about 16,000 men of military age who were almost all part of town militias.
Sometimes called Metacom’s War, King Philip’s War raged from 1675 to 1678 and consumed the Native Americans of New England, the colonists and their Indian allies. Metacom was the son of the great Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit, who together with Plymouth governor John Carver, forged a mutually beneficial agreement by which the Wampanoags would defend any attacks on the Plymouth colonists and the Plymouth militia would defend against any attacks on the Wampanoags. At the time (1621), the Wampanoags had been greatly reduced in number by disease, and Massasoit believed they could be attacked by other tribes. This agreement lasted for fifty years, until Massasoit’s death.
Metacom, who took the English name Philip Pokanoket, signed another agreement with the Plymouth colony but did not hold to its terms, selling land to raise money to buy arms. The war’s proximate cause was Plymouth Colony’s execution in June 1675 of three of Philip’s warriors. They had been tried and found guilty of murdering John Sassamon, a Harvard-educated convert to Puritanism, who had served as an interpreter and advisor to Philip but whom Philip had accused of spying for the colonists. His murder ignited a tinderbox of tensions between Indians and whites that had been smoldering for 55 years over competing land claims (including disputes over the grazing of colonial livestock on hunting and fishing grounds), interracial insensitivities, and English cultural encroachment on Native America.
The war began on June 20, 1675, when a band of Pokanokets attacked several isolated homesteads in the small Plymouth colony settlement of Swansea, then laid siege to the town and destroyed it five days later, killing some of the colonists. The war raged on, with more than half of all New England towns attacked by Indian warriors, and many were completely destroyed.
In the end, Plymouth Colony lost in the war close to eight percent of its adult male population and a smaller percentage of women and children. Its economy was all but ruined. Indian losses were much greater, with about 2,000 men killed or who died of injuries in the war, more than 3,000 dying of sickness or starvation. Many were sold into slavery and transported to other areas, such as the British-controlled islands in the Caribbean. It has been estimates that the war reduced the Indian population of southern New England by about 40 to 80 percent.
Some of the orphaned Wampanoag children were taken into Pilgrim households as servants. I incorporated this fact into my book, The Last Pilgrim, the story of Mary Allerton Cushman, who came on the Mayflower. Here is an excerpt:
Governor Josiah Winslow and the Plymouth Council of War had a problem: what to do with 112 Natives, at least eight of whom were women and children left behind by Philip’s retreating army. They decided to sell them to other countries as slaves. Thomas, as a member of the Council, and an Elder of the church, did not concur, but the losses from the war had generated so much anger and pain, there was little the governor could do. The next month, Thomas brought news that the Plymouth Court planned to arrange for many of the Wampanoag children, orphaned in the war, to be placed as servants in the colony’s families, until they reached twenty-four or twenty five years of age.
In our bed that evening, with the curtains opened to let in some air, Thomas whispered to me, “I should set a good example for our congregation and take one of these Indian children.”
I had been thinking much the same. “So we shall, husband, but not to be our servant. We can raise him or her in righteousness and make him a part of our family. I refuse to use a child as a servant.”
The firmness of my words must have resonated in my husband’s thinking, for after a long moment, he let out a great sigh and replied, “I agree. It is the same as slavery, to which I do not subscribe.”
Samuel came to us in August, brought by Thomas, and my first memories of him are of a small, stick thin, long-haired waif, hiding behind my husband’s legs. I had anticipated he would be unbearably dirty, but he was in fact quite clean, and as I later learned, the members of his tribe bathed nearly every day.
I walked over to Thomas, leaned around him and offered my hand. “Welcome.”
To which he replied, “Welcome,” without taking my hand.
Thomas then said, “He knows very little English, so for the nonce we will have to use our hands to communicate. I have given him the name we decided on – Samuel – and he knows that is what we will call him.”
“What is his Wampanoag name? Do you know it?” I withdrew my hand.
“Yes, it is Sokanon.”
“Does it have a meaning?”
Thomas smiled. “It pours, it rains.”
While we were having this conversation, Samuel’s dark eyes followed our faces, back and forth, his face lighting when he heard ‘Sokanon.’
“Then his name will be Samuel Sokanon,” I decided.
Thomas turned and taking the boy by the shoulder in one hand, gestured to his stomach and mouth with the other, something Samuel understood and nodded immediately. Gestures for hunger are never misunderstood.
Samuel will grow up in the Cushman household, coming to regard Thomas and Mary as his mother and father. He will eventually leave them to live in a settlement of ‘praying Indians’ – Native Americans who had accepted Christianity as their religion – on Cape Cod.