By Michael Tougias
The bloodiest war in America’s history, on a per capita basis, took place in New England in 1675.
At the center of this cataclysm was one man, Metacom, leader of the Pokanokets, a tribe within the Wampanoag Indian Federation. At an early age, when relations between the natives and settlers were less stressed, Metacom was given the nickname of King Philip by the English, because of his haughty mannerisms. One of the many ironies of this conflict is that Philip was the son of Massasoit — the same Massasoit who had helped the Plymouth Pilgrims survive their first winter in the New World. A father’s kindness would became a son’s curse.
In the 55-year span between the arrival of the Mayflower and the outbreak of King Philip’s War, the English had prospered, multiplied and expanded their settlements while the natives were in a slow state of decline from diseases introduced by the Europeans and loss of tribal lands to the whites.
By 1675, with the stage now fully set for conflict, Philip stepped forward to make a stand. In a prophetic moment he warned the whites of his intentions, saying “I am determined not to live until I have no country.” The war actually began after Wampanoag braves killed some English owned cattle near their tribal headquarters in what is now Bristol, Rhode Island. English livestock was always a source of friction as cattle repeatedly trampled Indian corn.
A farmer then retaliated by killing an Indian, setting in motion a native uprising that would eventually threaten to wipe Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Bay Colonies out of existence.
The Nipmuck Indians, who lived in what is now central Massachusetts, joined forces with Philip’s Wampanoags. Together they presented a very formidable force. One of the first towns they attacked was Brookfield, a frontier settlement deep in the land of the Nipmucks. The siege of Brookfield would turn out to be one of the most dramatic incidents of the entire war. The natives first laid an ambush for soldiers led by Captains Hutchinson and Wheeler. Eight soldiers were killed in the trap. The rest of the company barely made it back to the garrison at Brookfield.
The native warriors pursued them and burned every building in the town. They surrounded the wooden garrison where surviving soldiers and settlers huddled, then pushed a flaming cart to the side of the building and watched as the flames began licking their way up the wall. Using the last of their drinking water the settlers succeeded in slowing the blaze. The settlers now faced an awful choice — to stay inside meant death by fire, to flee meant being scalped and killed by enraged Nipmucks. But luck was with the settlers. The clouds opened and a seemingly miraculous heavy rain shower fell and doused the flames. Soldiers soon arrived from eastern settlements and the survivors were rescued. The town of Brookfield, however, was abandoned and lay in ashes for eleven years, until 1686. Next the Nipmuck and Wampanoag warriors turned their attention to the settlements along the Connecticut River Valley. The fertile valley along the Connecticut River produced thousands of bushels of grain each year and was known as the breadbasket of New England. English farms were scattered throughout the region. The natives knew the population was sparse there compared to the Boston area.
In autumn of 1675, the Nipmucks and Wampanoags were joined on the warpath by tribes that lived along the Connecticut River including the Pocumtucks (residing in along the northern part of the river), Squakheags (residing in present day Northfield) and the Norwottocks (greater Hadley). They concentrated their attacks on the area known as Pioneer Valley and attacked town of Deerfield (known to natives as Pemawachuatuck “at the twisted mountain”) causing the town to be abandoned by the English. After the attack on Deerfield, Captain Lothrop was ordered to march his soldiers back there to retrieve any remaining grain and bring it to the garrisons at Hadley Northampton and Hatfield. The trek to Deerfield went without incident. The soldiers and farmers were able to load several wagons with grain and crops for the return trip. But on this particularly warm day, the soldiers let their guard down while marching back to the south, placing muskets in the wagons and stopping to pick wild grapes to quench their thirst. At the point where their path crossed a brook, large trees felled by the Indians, blocked their way. As the English bunched together on the trail, the Indians sprang their trap. Within minutes 71 soldiers were killed. The brook ran red with blood, earning it the name ‘Bloody Brook.’ Period writer William Hubbard called the loss “the saddest day that ever befell New England.”
Troops led by Captain Moseley heard the muskets firing at Bloody Brook and raced to the scene but arrived too late to save Lothrop and his men. They attacked the Indians but could not surround them. The natives recognized Moseley and were said to have taunted him: “Come, Moseley, come! You seek Indians, you want Indians? Here is Indians enough for you!” By nightfall, after several hours of exchanging fire, Moseley’s men were forced to abandon the field of battle. They returned the next day to bury the dead, many of whom were still lying in the stream.
After this disaster, the English were in disarray, even concluding the war was the result of God punishing the Puritans for not abiding by strict religious codes. The Puritans then lashed out at easy scapegoats, persecuting Quakers and imprisoning or hanging neutral and Christian Indians. In October, hostile Indians struck again with raids on the towns of Hatfield, Northampton and Springfield where 30 houses were burned. Attacking warriors now included members of the Agawam tribe. This tribe had been peaceful but became hostile after settlers took some of their children as hostages as a precautionary move against an attack. That only served only to enrage the Agawams and they extracted their revenge at the burning of Springfield.
As winter set in, the attacks diminished. The natives moved some of their warriors, women and children from the camp at present day Turner Falls to another camp at the foot of Mount Wachusett. From there they could easily strike towns to the east and hopefully tighten the noose around their ultimate prize, Boston. But it would be a difficult winter for the Indians. The Algonquins usually grew most of their food in garden plots. But with the constant movement during the first few months of the war the crops had gone untended. Now hunger, as much as skirmishes with the English, took its toll. The English meanwhile, were also becoming desperate, with the central part of Massachusetts now firmly in the hands of the natives. One of the biggest fears of the English was that the powerful Narragansett tribe might soon enter the war. The Narragansetts resided in what is now Rhode Island and had lived peacefully with the followers of Roger Williams. But neutrality meant little in Colonial New England. December of 1675 found the colonists so desperate they decided to make a preemptive strike against the neutral Narragansett tribe. The result would become known as the Great Swamp Massacre.Led by General Winslow and celebrated Indian fighter Benjamin Church, a thousand soldiers from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony and Connecticut Colony marched into Narragansett territory in southern Rhode Island.
An Indian traitor betrayed his people and told the English the location of a large Narragansett winter camp. The fortress-camp was surrounded by a palisade deep within a swamp. The soldiers descended on the camp during a blizzard. A single felled tree across a moat provided entry and the English swarmed over the log. Many soldiers were shot, falling into the moat. But repeated waves of English finally breached the fort. The horrors and confusion of the raid are best told in Benjamin Church’s own words when he came upon a fallen comrade, Captain Gardner:
“…blood ran down his cheek, (and I) lifted up his cap, and called him by name.
He looked up in (my) face, but spoke not a word, being mortally shot through the head. And, observing his wound, found the ball entered his head on the side that was next the upland where the English entered the swamp. Upon which, having ordered some care to be taken of the Captain, (I) dispatched information to the General that the best and forwardest of his army that hazarded their lives to enter the fort, upon the muzzle of the enemy’s guns, were shot in their backs and killed by them that lay behind.”
The Narragansetts, however, fared worse as over 500 (mostly women and children) were killed in the Great Swamp Massacre with many wigwams put to the torch.
The surviving Narragansett warriors entered the war on the side of Philip and their rage knew no bounds. Medfield, Groton, Sudbury, Plymouth, Rehoboth, Providence and Marlboro, were just some of the towns that were raided and burned. The Indians descended on the town of Lancaster in February of 1676 and succeeded in storming the garrison where settlers had taken refuge. Among those inside was Mary Rowlandson, who gave this account: “At length they came and beset our own house (which served as the garrison) and quickly it was the dolefullest day that ever mine eyes saw. The house stood upon the edge of a hill. Some of the Indians got behind the hill, others into the barn, and others behind anything that would shelter them, from all which places they shot against the house, so that the bullets seemed to fly like hail.” And inside the house: “Some in our house were fighting for their lives, others wallowing in their blood, the house on fire over our heads, and the bloody heathen ready to knock us on the head if we stirred out. Now might we hear mothers and children crying out for themselves and one another, ‘Lord what shall we do?'”
Rowlandson was taken captive and spent the next six weeks of the winter being taken back and forth across Massachusetts, barely clinging to life. She was eventually ransomed, an indication of the declining power of the Indians, who were now without food, short on muskets and powder, and facing superior numbers of colonists. And now they were about to suffer another massacre, this time at their main camp on the Connecticut River. Captain Turner (for whom Turners Falls is named) and Captain Holyoke (for whom the city of Holyoke is named) launched a surprise raid in May on the Indian camp at the northern end of the Connecticut River. An English boy who had escaped captivity from the Indians told the captains the exact location of the camp (at the great falls where the natives could spear fish) and the soldiers immediately marched. Surprising the Indians at dawn, they slaughtered scores of natives as they fled their wigwams. Others tried to swim across the Connecticut River to escape the soldiers’ muskets but drowned as the swift spring current swept them over the falls.
Warriors from surrounding areas launched a counterattack, killing Turner as his men fled back to the safety of Hadley. But the damage had been done. This major war camp of the Wampanoags and Nipmucks had been wiped out. As a result the Indian alliance soon collapsed. The few Native Americans who survived either fled north or went on fighting in a lost cause.
Philip, with only a few warriors left, made his way back to his tribal headquarters near Swansea at Mount Hope, where the war had started. Benjamin Church, using friendly Indians as scouts, tracked him throughout the summer while Philip made hit and run attacks on isolated farms in the region. But Church eventually caught up with him. An Indian who was guiding Church fired his musket and sent a musketball through Philip’s heart. The death of Philip effectively ended Native American resistance in New England. But true to his word Philip had gone down fighting “determined not to live until I have no country.”
King Philip’s War : The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict
by Eric B. Schultz, Michael Tougias