Who Was King Philip?
It is probable that you heard the name before and never inquired further of his identity. He was not Spanish, English or German. He was a native North American, living in southern Massachusetts. His proper name was Metacom or Metacomet, and his title was Sachem[i] of the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck and Narragansett people, that coalesced against the invasive English settlers.
The name King Philip and his lineage is a bit complicated. Philip’s brother petitioned the Plymouth court for an English name for him and his brother. They were awarded the Christian names of Philip and Alexander. It appears that English settlers came close to Anglicizing the brothers.[ii] John Eliot, famous for establishing the Natick Praying Indians, took the brothers under his influence. Two years later Eliot concluded he could not convert the brothers. In the end, due to the mysterious deaths of Philip’s father followed a few months later by the death of his older brother, Philip developed a plan to push the English into the sea.
John Sassamon (aka Wassausmon), Eliot’s scribe, was embedded in Philip’s sachem, either as a Biblical educator or a spy. Sassamon was a Praying Indian from Natick, Massachusetts, sixteen miles from Boston. He was converted to Christianity. To King Philip, he was the chief counselor in matters of administration and land transactions with the English. In time, Sassamon was given a new assignment with a related sachem. He learned of the timing of Philip’s uprising and was assassinated by the Wampanoag for fear he would reveal their plan. Two months later, his body was recovered from an icy pond.
The murder of John Sassamon triggered a reprisal by the English. Three Indians were prosecuted and hanged for Sassamon’s murder. The combined events led to the King Philips War.
Initially, the war progressed badly for the English. They had superior numbers: perhaps 50,000 Englishmen against 20,000 Indians. Several towns were torched to the ground including Springfield, Massachusetts. A captive on either side was subject to the cruelest of slow deaths. Ironically, John Alderman, another Natick Praying Indian shot and killed King Philip. Philip’s head was displayed on a pike for twenty years, at his burial site in Plymouth. Other anatomical parts of King Philips too gruesome to define, suffered further exhibition.[iii]
Thirteen months after the initial battle of June 24, 1675, the war ended with 4,000 surviving Indians, including most of the Natick Praying Indians, sold into slavery. Boston survived unscathed but contributed many soldiers to the final effort. Neither side was worthy of sympathy in this war.
54 major engagements over 13 months
600 English died[iv]
1200 homes burned
12 of 90 settlements destroyed
2,000 Indians killed
3,000 died in captivity of illness or starvation
4,000 sold into slavery
8,000 head of cattle killed
50 years to recover economically
[i] A Sachem is more than a chief of a tribe; typically the chief of several tribes in a region. A Sachem is chosen by his people, though English settlers equated Sachems to a native king, leading to some direct negotiations with King George II, in London.
[ii] Lepore, Jill. The name of war: King Philips War and the origins of American identity. New York: Knopf, 1999. Print. available also in Google Books, Chapter 1, p.1-7.
[iii] Lepore, Jill. The name of war: King Philips War and the origins of American identity. New York: Knopf, 1999. Print. Online Google Scholar Chapter VII, pages 1,2.
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