On the anniversary of Wampanoag King Philip’s death

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In 1675, his name sparked intense fear and dread across English Massachusetts and throughout New England. Tall, muscular and a great leader of men, he was perceived by colonial ancestors to be the evil-doing devil incarnate.

To resist his forces and protect all of Salem, a tall timber palisade wall made of large and sturdy tree trunks was erected in a newly dug ditch between the South and North rivers, crossing Broad Street west of Flint Street, Essex Street west of Boston Street, and Boston Street east of Gallows Hill.

Feared as much as the so-called Salem witches who were later hanged on Gallows Hill, he was monumentally misunderstood and used as a scapegoat for other problems. Many called him Metacom or Metacomet. Yet to the English he was King Philip. He was caught, captured and finally beheaded at the end of King Philip’s War – on Aug. 12, 1676.

Born about 1639, Philip was a Wampanoag. He was a son of the fabled Massasoit or Ousamequin (Yellow Feather) who negotiated long-lasting peace with the Mayflower Pilgrims. By the 1670s, however, the peace was repeatedly broken.

Native and English forces brutally attacked each other, desiring to eliminate the other. King Philip’s people worked to push the English back into the sea, and to reclaim the ancestral cemeteries, forests, and undisturbed natural resources that for millennia had been managed by their ancestors. English leaders desired, on the other hand, a tamed wilderness and to fulfill the vision of John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill.”

What happened through King Philip’s War, and why is it remembered as a defining moment in our region’s history? To start with, it resulted in the expulsion as slaves of many captured Native Americans.

What happened through King Philip’s War, and why is it remembered as a defining moment in our region’s history? To start with, it resulted in the expulsion as slaves of many captured Native Americans.

In 1668 and 1669, Metacom was given the name King Philip by the English after the classical Greek conqueror “for his ambitious and haughty spirit.” The title “king” also exaggerated his role in the war that bore his name. Philip was asked to sign a waiver of any land claim to ancient Wampanoag territories that would allow for full European expansion. This transparent and audacious request was met with refusal and tensions only mounted.

In 1671, English authorities demanded Philip surrender his arms and “voluntarily” give up more land. Two years later Peter Tallman of Mount Hope, Rhode Island “won” his legal claim to more Wampanoag land.

The crisis was at fever pitch in 1674 when one of Metacom’s soldiers assassinated a Native collaborating with the English. Three of Metacom’s soldiers, Wampapaquan, Mattashunnamo and Tobis, were arrested and hanged on June 8, 1675 for this crime.

That was the final straw. On June 24, King Philip’s War broke out at Mount Hope and Swansea and swept across that area and on to Rhode Island where Providence, Cranston and Warwick were all attacked including Roger Williams’ house and papers.

Many towns were burned, including Taunton, Middleborough, Brookfield, Deerfield, Northampton, Springfield, Groton, Medfield and 16 houses in Plymouth. More than half the 90 towns of New England were attacked in this campaign.

In 1675 in the Dartmouth, Mass. area at Poneganset, having been promised to be fairly treated, the Native Americans surrendered as requested. But in fact, they were promptly transported to Plymouth and some 160 were sold as slaves to be exported.

A culminating event was on Dec. 19, 1675 during the Great Swamp Fight, when 700 Narragansetts, mostly women and children, were killed near Kingstown by 1,500 English soldiers lead by Commander Winslow. The Rhode Island militia did not actually participate. English losses were 93 and some 300 Native Americans were captured for sale as slaves. Slavery began early in the war in 1675 to refill coffers drained by military costs and to rebuild Providence.

Had King Philip’s War been won by Metacom or King Philip and his allies, the Northeast might be a very different place today. Great towering old growth forests and abundant cornfields might still define rural landscapes. Abundant cod and fish might still populate our shores.

This article, like the place names Saugus, Swampscott, Naumkeag and Massachusetts, would likely have been orated in Metacom’s melodious Massachusett or Wampanoag language. English expansionism would have been stopped in its tracks.

Different attitudes towards land, nature, the environment, and human spirit and human potential would likely have prevailed. On the 334th anniversary of his death, let us now remember the high-principled Metacom, son of Massasoit.

John Goff is the president of Salem Preservation Inc., a nonprofit organization. He is also the principal of Historic Preservation & Design, a consulting business. E-mail him at jgoff@salempreservation.org.

Julianne Jennings (Strong Woman) is a Native American historian of Pequot and Nottoway descent. She is an adjunct professor at Pima Community College, Tucson, Ariz.