Here is this week’s Memo from Moderator David Grimsted, continuing his thought-provoking exploration of our church’s roots.
In “King Philip’s War,” 1675-1676, 5,000 Indians died, about half killed in battle and half starved to death. Around 1,000 were sent as slaves to the West Indies, where they quickly died. North American Indians proved non-adaptive to slavery. About 3,000 remained in New England, scattered with tribes disintegrated. White deaths were over 1,000, with eight towns wholly destroyed and over thirty, including large settlements like Providence and Springfield, badly demolished. The numbers are guesses; certainly the Indians didn’t count much. It was the worst of the English colonies’ Indian-white battles, and prelude to what would happen across the United States later on, though Natives would never have similar brief success.
Was it avoidable? Probably not.
The earlier Pequot War was a fight of whites and some Indians against the tribe that had long war-brutalized Its many tribal rivals. It was a war caused by a foolish attempt at dubious justice, bungled at every stage. It is remembered primarily for the bonfire of 400 Indian men, women, and children in its centerpiece.
Tribal Desperation. Forty years later, the situation had changed to create tribal desperation. Indians declined in numbers, and whites increased—and were determined to spread widely outside the towns and areas they’d originally settled, taking land Indians had thought would be theirs. The early fight began near small Plymouth with its need to find new lands that the Wampanoags had thought theirs. Such was the crux of the explosive situation.
When Philip, or Metacomet, came to power in 1761, the Wampanoags gained a strong leader with clear sense of what was happening. Tensions rose, and Plymouth’s governor, Josiah Winslow, determined on action. When a small tribe attacked and killed some whites at Swansea, Winslow raised a large army that attacked, not the Swansea perpetrators, but the Indians of Rhode Island, destroying a large village, in which some Narragansetts lived. This, the area’s largest tribe, then joined Philip’s war.
That summer of 1765 the Indians sacked at least a dozen towns, killing many settlers. Only in the fall did Puritans fully organize and declare war. All towns had militia, but they were not well-organized or trained. People soon noted that the Puritan groups fought best when aided by their one early native ally, the Mohegans.
King Philip’s Worst Mistake. Winslow now organized an army of 1,000 that rampaged across Rhode Island destroying Indian settlements. In December of that year his men attacked the Narragansetts in a swamp fort, aided by its being iced over. Winslow won, killing about 600, while having seventy casualties and two or three times that many wounded. This victory was aided by Philip’s worst mistake. He went to New York to try to get support from the Mohawks. They turned out—to fight on the side of the whites, probably because of their traditional enmity with the New England tribes. In the swamp, a substantial group of Mohawks, including some remnants of the Pequots, much aided Winslow’s victory.
The battles went on into early summer, 1676, but were ended by the killing of Philip—by a Christian Indian. Winslow’s men chopped up his body and poled his head to decorate Plymouth. In a few cases Indians elaborately tortured whites to death, in line with their traditional practice.
After other hostilities ended, war came to Northern Maine where scattered settlers decided to to take the guns of the Wabinakis with whom they had lived peaceably. Many of this hunting tribe starved in the harsh winter, but the Wabinakis recovered, drove most whites out, captured their fishing boats, and established control. In a peace treaty all returning whites promised to pay a yearly corn bounty to these unusual victors.
In the struggle, Roger Williams could do little to protect the Indians. So they attacked and destroyed his colonies’ towns, most notably Providence, where Williams’ own home was, burned to ashes. Still, at war’s end, Williams vigorously and rightly blamed the Puritan colonies as the aggressors and immediate cause of the war.
Lost Decencies. Some sadness here grew from some of the decencies lost in the war. Philip’s father, Massasoit, had long lived in cooperative harmony with Plymouth. Both his sons, Alexander and Philip, chose early their English names. The immediate cause of the war came when John Sassamon—an important Wampanoag, Christian, and graduate of Harvard—told Plymouth there was some danger of war. His body was soon found in an iced over pond. Three Wampanoags, on reasonable evidence, were tried and convicted—by a jury composed of six whites and six Indians—and hanged. For Philip it was the handwriting on the wall.
So war came, providing its usual bloody joke of justice, and, for good or ill, its usual temporary final solution.