Beginning in 1675 and encompassing a little over a year, King Philip’s War destroyed New England in what would become Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maine. A Native confederacy led by Metacom, also known as King Philip, would face off against English settlers in a battle to the death. Check out these 10 shocking facts about King Philip’s War.
1. Philip’s Father Saved Plymouth
Metacom’s father was the sachem, or chief, in the years before Metacom’s reign. His father, Massasoit, is remembered today not only for his efforts in maintaining peace with the English settlers who landed at Plymouth in 1620 (often known as the Pilgrims) but for saving their lives. Massasoit and his people shared techniques for hunting, growing food, and fishing that the settlers lacked, enabling them to survive in this new wilderness. Despite this support, forty-four of the 105 Pilgrims died during the winter of 1621, but it is highly likely that number would have been increasingly larger without Massasoit’s support. Primary sources indicate that Massasoit was among those present at the harvest feast that would later become known as the first Thanksgiving. Unfortunately for all parties involved, this amity would not last, and just a few short decades later, the relationship would decay into bloodshed and mistrust.
2. Special Laws Applying Only to Natives Increased Tensions
Later during Massasoit’s reign and particularly after his death, tension started to rise between the English settlers and the Native tribes, including the Wampanoag confederacy led by Massasoit’s family. Adding to this strain were new laws that were put on the books that applied only to Native Americans, not their white counterparts. In some colonies, Native people were forbidden from activities such as consuming alcohol. Their rights to own firearms or other objects were severely restricted and monitored. Some areas had curfews or restricted movement of Indigenous people between certain areas. The goal of these laws was likely multifaceted. It allowed white colonists more control over their Indigenous neighbors, and it provided the colonists with a way to confront their fear of the unknown: a culture they knew little about. In fact, the questionable conviction of three Wampanoag men for the murder of John Sassamon by a white jury would be the kindling that finally started the fire of King Philip’s War.
3. The Fight Went as Far North as Maine
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Though a great deal of the fighting centered around Plymouth Colony, the devastation of King Philip’s War spread throughout New England. As far north as the coast of Maine, the fighting was vicious. For example, the entirety of the Wakely family was murdered in a Native raid at their home in Pejepscot in what is now Topsham, Maine, in September 1675 while concurrent struggles took place to the south. While the bloodshed in Maine paled in comparison to some other areas during the war, it is important not to discount it. There were thirteen English settlements in Maine when the war began, many poorly equipped militarily. The majority of the action in Maine would be focused in 1675, despite the war carrying through to late 1676. Though casualty figures vary widely, low estimates consider that King Philip’s War in Maine resulted in 50 dead English settlers and 90 Natives killed, not to mention the dozens of destroyed properties.
4. King Philip and His Brother Were Named After Historical Icons
King Philip’s given name was not Philip but Metacom or Metacomet. His older brother, Wamsutta, was known to the English as Alexander. However, these English names did not necessarily result from colonists trying to anglicize their names out of convenience. Philip and his brother asked for English names as a gesture of goodwill toward their neighbors to maintain their father’s legacy of peace. These names originated in ancient history, honoring Philip II of Macedon and his legendary son, Alexander the Great.
5. King Philip’s War Was the Bloodiest in US History
While the war had momentous effects on colonial policy and changed the dynamic between settlers and Indigenous people in America for eternity, what it is often most remembered for is the bloodshed that enveloped it. By percentage of population, King Philip’s War was the bloodiest in US history. Thousands died, with total estimates varying considerably. However, it is believed that Native casualties were at least double that of the colonists. Not only did people die from battle, but they also died from disease and starvation associated with the conflict. In addition, thousands of Native people were sold into slavery during and after the war. Dozens of New England villages were completely destroyed, and others were damaged extensively.
6. Mary Rowlandson Wrote About Her Captivity During the War
Native Americans were not the only people taken captive during King Philip’s War. English people were taken as hostages by various Indigenous tribes and often ransomed or used in negotiations. Mary Rowlandson was in her late thirties when she was kidnapped from her home in the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, along with 24 other citizens of the town who had taken refuge in her home. Three of her children were also captives, one of whom died in captivity. Mary survived as a hostage for three months, earning special treatment due to her skills in knitting and sewing. One of her captors gave her a stolen Bible, a treasure that she later said gave her great comfort. Eventually, Mary was ransomed back to her husband for 20 pounds sterling, almost five thousand dollars today. Her two children who survived the ordeal were returned sometime later. Mary decided to write a retelling of her time in captivity, originally for her children, then to be published. In 1682, the novel was printed four times. Thirty editions would be printed over the years to come. This book became a classic representation of the captivity narrative, a genre that would boom in popularity during the late seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth centuries. Mary lived to her early seventies, surviving two husbands.
7. Hundreds of Native Americans Were Interred at Deer Island
Today, Deer Island in Boston Harbor is home to one of the most technologically advanced wastewater plants in Massachusetts, offers hiking and dog walking trails, and is a friendly place open to the public. However, the island has a disturbing history, as it was used as America’s first internment camp during King Philip’s War. During the course of the war, around five hundred Indigenous people were held on the island by the English. Many imprisoned on the island died, as food, water, and shelter were inadequate. The majority of the internment took place during the winter, and extreme New England temperatures exacerbated the already precarious situation. These five hundred people came from the Nipmuc tribe near South Natick. They were “Praying Indians,” or those who had converted to Christianity and assimilated into some aspects of English culture.
8. Metacom’s Head & Hands Were Severed & Displayed
On August 12, 1676, Metacom’s forces were depleted, as they had been killed, chosen to surrender, or devastated by disease. With his remaining supporters, the sachem retreated to his home at Mount Hope, in what is now Bristol, Rhode Island. He was eventually overtaken and killed by John Alderman, a “Praying Indian” working with militia leader Benjamin Church. The English were not satisfied with his simple death, and his body was badly mistreated after his death. Metacom was drawn and quartered, beheaded, and his hands chopped off. The quarters of his body were hung in trees. His hands were preserved in rum, and one was given to Alderman as a reward. His head was displayed on a pike outside Plymouth Colony for 25 years following his death.
9. As a Result of the War, Natives Began Allying with the French
After the horrendous trials of King Phiilp’s War, there was little hope of reconciliation between the Native Americans and the English. For reasons consisting of both self-preservation and revenge, Indigenous peoples of various tribes would start siding with the French as time progressed. The French were present in Canada and the Old Northwest, creating their own colonies largely based on fur trapping. The French and English had a long history of competition and war in their own right, making this a classic example of the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” paradigm. These alliances would come to a head just a few decades later, with the onset of the French and Indian War.
10. The War Contributed to the Development of American Identity
The English colonists proved something with their victory in King Philip’s War: they were able to defend themselves and their interests without support from the mother country. Although many lives were lost and property ruined, the settlers had managed to survive the conflict without any help from England proper. This came with a sense of pride and led to the development of a new identity separate from that of the “Englishman.” As the colonists continued developing their new land and eventually moved into yet another war in the eighteenth century, they developed their own distinct character and sense of patriotism. The budding of these ideas would eventually bloom into rebellion, creating America itself.
King Philip’s War was momentous and brought tremendous change to New England and its future states. These are just ten shocking facts about King Philip’s War, but it is a story full of legendary characters and events that deserve historical recognition.
By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”