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Bloody New England

The sachem Metacom nearly ended the experiment.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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King Philip’s War

Bloody New England

Photo Credit: MPI / Getty Images

Colonial Expansion, Native Resistance, and the End of Indian Sovereignty

by Daniel R. Mandell

Johns Hopkins, 176 pp., $45

Among the many curious episodes of New England’s early history, about the only event that has struck a chord among most Americans—at least the few who are conscious of their historical past—is the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s. Beyond that, much of the first century and a half of America’s emergence towards statehood is a murky blank, perhaps smudged in the later decades by the French and Indian War of the late 1750s.

This is unfortunate because one of the most terrifying threats to the survival of the colonists lodged precariously in the New England coast and hinterland was a conflagration called King Philip’s War, which lasted from 1675 to 1677. The war, of course, was eventually won by the colonists, but at a huge price: Of the approximately 80,000 residents of New England at the time, including both colonists and Indians, more than 10 percent—9,000 men, women, and children—lost their lives. One third of these were English immigrants to the New World. An incredible 52 of New England’s 90 towns were attacked, and 17 razed to the ground. (The list of pillaged towns, to be sure, does not include the numerous far-flung trading posts and infant settlement communities that were also attacked and burned.)

The Native Americans paid an even higher price for their rebellion against the colonists. Thousands of them were packed off to slave labor in Bermuda, and then to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Those fortunate enough to convince the English of their loyalty found their traditional tribal territory and their fishing preserves nibbled at inexorably over subsequent years by sometimes-shadowy real estate deals. 

In this lucid and enthralling account of the war, Daniel Mandell refrains from haranguing the reader, even though it will make few of us proud to learn how much of New England land was surrendered to Europeans in real estate deals characterized by the drunken stupor (usually induced by rum) into which the Indians had been lured before signing away their birthright. With hindsight, King Philip’s War was an almost classic case of ethnic mutual misunderstanding and a clash of cultures. Both sides understood sovereignty in a different way: the English as a perpetual cession of property and land usage to subjects of a king located 3,000 miles away, and the Native Americans as land usage inherited over generations by disparate tribal communities. Both sides exhibited bitter rivalries within their own communities—with Rhode Island often declining to be included in the generalized defense of English communities against the Indians, and the Indians themselves facing savage onslaughts in their rear from a fierce rival tribe, the Mohawks.

As Mandell makes clear, however, neither side at the outset wanted a full-scale war, and there were wise heads on both sides who might have headed it off. Once the first blood was spilled, however—Native American blood—the desire for vengeance against the English galvanized the Wampanoag followers of the sachem (chief) Metacom, or King Philip, into an orgy of bloodletting rendered more frightful by the savagery of the combat.

 The Native Americans would routinely capture their foes and subsequently torture them to death, and scalping was possibly the least unpleasant of their various ways of humiliating captive adversaries. The English responded to this savagery first with dismay and horror, but later with atrocities of their own, often against undefended civilian communities. One of the few redeeming features of the colonists’ culture was that, in the worst instance of white atrocity against the Indians, the culprits were brought to justice and hanged. It is, nevertheless, deeply troubling that, years after Cromwell’s Commonwealth had abolished judicial torture in England, the heads of defeated Native American leaders were mounted on poles in some New England Puritan towns.

Many Puritans, including Increase Mather, speculated that the war might have been God’s judgment on a rising tide of ungodliness among the Puritans. This was certainly the view of Mary Rowlandson, an English captive of King Philip and the Wampanoags for several months. Her memoir of the ordeal, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, published in 1682, was the first in a new genre in American literature, “captivity narratives,” that must have rendered nervous the waves of settlers rolling on rickety wagons through Indian territory to the West a century after King Philip’s War.

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