Who Was King Philip?

Essay by Susan S. Martin, direct descendant
Copyright 2/2/99



“I am determined not to live till I have no country”
– King Philip


When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, it was in Massasoit’s territory that they invaded. His principle residence was with the Pokanokets at Sowwams in Rhode Island, but he was Grand Sachem (originally pronounced saw-kum) of the whole Wampanoag Federation, and listed 31 subtribes under him, which extended probably to a third of Massachusetts, some of Rhode Island and part of Connecticut. Thousands of his people had already died from sicknesses brought by the foreign explorers and traders, so he welcomed the Pilgrims as allies to help protect his territory from the now stronger Narragansetts.

For 40 years he signed many treaties with the English and kept every promise he made. He asked only one thing in return, and that was that they do nothing to turn his people away from their pagan superstitions. Almost immediately the first Praying Town was created. By then two of his sons were training to take over Massasoit’s kingdom, and to prove their friendship, they were given English names. Wamsutta was called Alexander, and Metacom was called Philip. That may have been a big mistake, as that gave the English the impression that these young men were now the subjects of their king.

Massasoit died and Wamsutta became Grand Sachem. Plymouth Colony demanded that he come in and treat with them, but he had pressing business elsewhere in his kingdom and didn’t show up at the appointed time. The English found and arrested him, forcing him to meet with officials at Major Winslow’s house. Wamsutta objected strongly, saying that he was a sovereign king and would treat only with their king in England, who was his equal. That night Wamsutta got violently ill and died on his way home. It is believed, but never proven, that he was poisoned. There is a record of an expense for rat poison “to kill a pest.”

Philip then became Grand Sachem in 1662 at the young age of 22. It appears that his name was changed at this time to Wewasowanuett. The English expected trouble from him, so forced him to come in often and prove his loyalty and friendship. One thing he had to do each year was to bring in 5 wolf heads on sticks. He had to sign very humiliating treaties, stating that he had been naughty by planning actions against the British, and deserved to be punished. It is highly doubtful that he knew what he was signing. Sassamon, who later proved to be a traitor, was the interpreter, so there’s no telling what he was telling King Philip was in these treaties. Every time he came in, he insisted that his people be allowed to worship in their own way, and that he would treat only with his equal, the King of England. Eventually he had to promise to turn in all his people’s guns, and that was a promise he never kept.

Philip was a very patient man and spent about ten years training all his subtribes how to fight in the old ways, without guns and ammunition. The people had become dependant on many of the British things, so he had a hard time convincing them that when war broke out, those weapons would be the first things taken from them, and ammunition would become unavailable. When it became clear that war could not be avoided, he also met with the other New England tribes and tried to get them to unite and fight together to dispel the English. To these councils, he brought with him a bundle of sticks. Each of the sticks represented one tribe, which was weak. But tied together in unity, they could not be broken. I’m sure that his young age made it difficult for him to command the respect he needed, yet he got many of the tribes to commit to war, which was to begin in 1676.

But a year early, Philip was betrayed by a relative, John Sassamon, and his plans were revealed to the English. The betrayer was killed, which was well within the rights of a sovereign King, but because Sassamon was a Christian Indian, Plymouth called it murder and hung three men for the crime. It is believed by some that those three men were Philip’s war captains, so he had to call upon Massasoit’s war captains, who were quite elderly. Philip could not control the anger of his warriors, so war broke out before the other tribes were ready.

Philip was a master of guerilla warfare, which was a shock to the English who were used to fighting out in the open. Philip set up a lot of decoys and ambushes, which worked very effectively, and he became known as “The Sly Fox” or “Circling Fox” and they never knew where he was going to be lurking next. As tribes all over New England began to attack the newer settlements through ambush, Philip got the reputation of being in all places at once, which was impossible. He became the most hated man in America, and every history book called him the most savage, blood-thirsty monster that ever lived. The woodcuts and pictures I’ve seen of him all reflect those feelings, so I am using an engraving from the Library of Congress that I think best represents what he might have looked like.

There are many accounts coming to light in recent years that prove his great compassion and love for his people. He often would warn his English neighbors to leave town before an attack, as they had been friends with his father or done something nice for his people in the past. And all of his prisoners were treated kindly, and not one of the women captives was ever raped by an Indian. There are theories that the Narragansett Bay area was a spiritual temple for all Native Americans, and that pilgrimages to pray on the hillside were made about every 65 years by hundreds of thousand of inland Indians from great distances away. The last one had occurred a few years before the pilgrims came, and exposed them to devastating epidemics brought to this shore by the foreign fur traders. With the next pilgrimage due to arrive in a few years, Philip realized that there was not enough hunting or planting area left for his people to prepare to feed the multitudes. This could well be one of the causes of the King Philip War.

Philip was also a brilliant strategist. The Mohawks were the biggest threat to his people, but he attempted to get them to join in the battle. In order to convince them that it was their battle, too, he had 3 of their warriors killed and made it look like the English did it. That plan backfired, however, when one of them came back to life and told the Mohawks what really happened. Had the Mohawks joined the war, the British would have been history.

The Indians destroyed whole villages by fire all over New England, and the loss of property and life has never been equaled in this country, but just when it looked like they couldn’t lose, the tide turned. The English got smart and brought in the Mohegans under Uncas and his son Oweneco to fight their battles, and brought in other friendly Indians to use as guides and scouts. Somehow they managed to convince other tribes to stop fighting and start helping them to destroy Philip. Even some of his own people began to defect and tell the British where he was hiding or where he was planning to attack next. Every time the British won a battle, more Indians would join their side, and some of them would even tell them where their own families were hiding!

In August of 1676, most of Philip’s relatives were killed and his wife and son taken captive. The next day a large company of soldiers came upon him quite unexpectedly, sitting all alone on a log in the woods. They didn’t recognize him at first, as he had chopped off his hair (probably as an expression of his grief). He hadn’t heard them approach, yet still managed to escape. But clearly he was devastated by all the losses. A week later he lost all that he had left to lose, his own life.

On August 12, 1676, Capt. Benjamin Church led a small company into a swamp near Philip’s hometown of Mount Hope, at the direction of the latest defector, named Alderman. They rudely awakened him, and Church’s gun misfired, so it was Alderman who got the honor of killing his own king. Church took great pleasure in dragging Philip’s body through the mud, until it was completely covered. Then he ordered the body chopped up into quarters. His head was placed on top of a pole and carried to the town common of Plymouth Colony, where it was displayed for 25 years. One of his hands was chopped off and given to Alderman. That hand had a big hole in it from a time when his gun had misfired, so Alderman made a pretty penny showing it off for many years to come.

The remnants of his tribe were gathered up and sold into slavery, along with the remnants of the Narragansetts and many of the other New England tribes. Those who escaped fled from tribe to tribe as each one in turn was destroyed. The war continued off and on for some time to come, but there never again was any real contest, and the tribes just kept moving west until they ran out of west.

Nobody knows how many children King Philip and Wootonekanuske had, or what happened to them. All the history books say that the captured wife and son were sold as slaves to the West Indies, but I’ve recently discovered that the West Indies wouldn’t take any more slaves from New England at that time because they already had too many to control. Thus far I have not found a record of their boarding a ship or of the authorities keeping track of their whereabouts, which one would expect to find, given their great fear of this family. I have good reason to believe that they were hidden away by missionaries to one of the praying towns, and their identities kept secret for 322 years.


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