What Was King Philip’s War?

King Philip’s War, also known as Metacom’s War or the First Indian War, was an armed conflict between English colonists and the American Indians of New England in the 17th century.

It was the Native-American’s last major effort to drive the English colonists out of New England. The war took place between 1675-1676 in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts and later spread to Maine and New Hampshire.

The war is named for King Philip (also known by his Wampanoag name of Metacom) who was the son of the late Wampanoag chief Massasoit.

Philip led his tribe and a coalition of the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck and Narraganset tribes in an uprising against the colonists and their allies, the Mohegans and the Mohawks, that lasted 14 months.

King Philip, illustration published in the Pictorial History of King Philip's War, circa 1851

King Philip, illustration published in the Pictorial History of King Philip’s War, circa 1851

The war was the single greatest disaster of 17th century New England and, in proportion to population, is considered to be the deadliest war in American history.

Some historians see King Philip’s War as more of a Civil War among members of the same society rather than a colonial war among invading forces.

One reason for this is due to the fact that various tribes of Native-Americans fought both with and against each other in the conflict.

Another reason for this is due to the fact that, prior to the war, the natives and colonists had merged into a singular society before turning on each other, according to the book King Philip’s War: Civil War in New England, 1675-1676:

“But King Philip’s War was obviously not just a Civil War putting Indian against Indian. The English and the Indians, as part of the same society with their polities interwoven, fought a civil war by fighting one another. Looking closely at the political culture of the Indians and the English, we see that Philip sought to preserve his people’s sovereignty by incorporating them into the English political system. The English, in turn, viewed Philip and his followers as subjects, traitorous ones after they waged the war in 1675. Thus King Philip’s War was not just an ‘Indian civil war’ but, more broadly, a civil war.”

Evidence of this can be seen in the various primary sources of the time, such as William Hubbard’s book A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England, published in 1677, which describes King Philip as a “notorious traitor.”

Who Fought in King Philip’s War?

Native-American Tribes:

Wampanoag tribe, led by King Philip against the English
Nipmuck tribe, allied with King Philip
Narragansett tribe, allied with King Philip
Pocumtuck tribe, allied with King Philip
Mohegan tribe, allied with the English
Mohawk tribe, allied with the English

English Colonies:

New England Confederation, an alliance of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, New Haven Colony, Plymouth Colony and Connecticut Colony

The colony of Rhode Island remained neutral in the war.

What Caused King Philip’s War?

King Philip came into power in 1662, when his older brother, Alexander, died suddenly after having been arrested by the English on suspicion that he was hatching plans for a war against the colonists.

While under arrest, Alexander pledged his loyalty to the English and was released had but contracted an illness while in Plymouth and died on the way home. Many Wampanoag believed he had been poisoned by the colonists.

After Philip came to power, the colonists believed that he was planning revenge for his brother’s death, even though there was no evidence of this claim. This added to the tension that already existed between the colonists and the natives.

Relations between the two groups had long been strained due to competition for land and resources. The natives had become increasingly dependent on English goods, weapons and food while their own resources dried up as the fur trade slowed, their tribal lands were sold, and Native-American leaders were forced to recognize English authority.

After rapid expansion of English settlements led to a steady succession of forced sales of the Native’s land, the relationship between the two sides began to deteriorate, according to the book Pictorial History of King Philip’s War:

“A second cause of war was the frequent demands of the settlers for the purchase of his lands. Philip was too wise not to discover that if these continued he would not have a home in all the territories which his father had governed. From a period long before the death of Massosoit, until 1671, no year passed in which large tracts were not obtained by the settlers. At length he made a kind of informal agreement with the Plymouth authorities, to sell no more land for seven years. After this, they endeavoured to entice him before the court, hoping that they could succeed better in negotiating with him there than in his own country. Philip evaded their invitation, but afterwards he sold several portions of land. All this was calculated to cause discontent among his people, and to arouse the suspicions of the chief as to the ultimate designs of his neighbours.”

In 1671, the colonists became suspicious that Philip was planning an attack against them and summoned him to Taunton, Massachusetts where they questioned him and demanded that he sign a peace treaty that required the Wampanoag to surrender their arms, which he did.

Then, in January of 1675, John Sassamon, a Christian Native-American, told Plymouth’s governor, Josiah Winslow, that King Philip was planning an attack against the colonists.

Winslow was slow to respond to the information until later that month, on January 29, when Sassamon was found dead at Assawampsett Pond and an Indian witness claimed he saw three Wampanoags murder him and throw his body into the war. The colonists arrested the three men, tried them and executed them at Plymouth plantation on June 8.

Death of Sassamon, illustration published in Pictorial History of King Philip’s War, circa 1851

This one act set the stage for war, according to the book Pictorial History of King Philip’s War:

“This affair was the signal of war. The two parties had suspected each other so long, that all ties of friendship had been dissolved. Add to this the steady extension of the English, and consequent limitations of the Indians; the disputes about land, the death of Alexander, the mortifying ‘examinations’ to which Philip was subjected, and the increasing excitement both amongst colonists and Indians, occasioned by the rumours of war, and we may perceive that the opposing elements required but a single further act of aggression on either side to result in an explosion.”

Raid on Swansea:

On June 20, 1675, a band of Pokanoket warriors entered the town of Swansea, Mass on the Sabbath, while all the inhabitants were at church, looted several homes in search of weapons and then set two homes on fire. A handful of Swansea settlers fled the town in response.

In response, on June 21, Plymouth Governor Josiah Winslow ordered 200 men to be raised, and Massachusetts Bay Colony officials prepared to negotiate with the Nipmuck, Narraganset, Niantic and King Philip.

On June 23, more houses were ransacked and burned in Swansea. Either that day or the following day, a Wampanoag warrior was shot and wounded by John Salisbury.

Later, Salisbury and six other settlers were ambushed and killed near Swazey Corner. Two other settlers were ambushed and killed when they went to seek help.

On June 24, King Philip responded to the skirmish by ordering an attack on Swansea, which became the first official battle of King Philip’s War.

According to Increase and Cotton Mather, in their book The History of King Philip’s War, the battle began when natives ambushed the Swansea residents as they were returning home from church after a day of praying to God for help with conflict:

“June 24. (Midsummer-day) was appointed and attended as a day of solemn humiliation throughout the colony, by fasting and praying, to intreat the Lord to give success to the present expedition respecting the enemy. At the conclusion of that day of humiliation, as soon as ever the people in Swanzy were come from the place where they had been praying together, the Indians discharged a volley of shot, whereby they killed one man, and wounded others. Two men were sent to call a surgeon for the relief of the wounded, but the Indians killed them by the way: And in another part of the town six men were killed, so that there were nine Englishmen murdered this day. Thus did the war begin, this being the first English blood which was spilt by the Indians in an hostile way.”

On June 26-29, the Wampanoags attacked the frontier towns of Rehoboth and Taunton, Mass. Meanwhile, colonial troops marched to nearby Mount Hope, King Philip’s base of operation, in search of him and his men but found that Philip had already left for Pocasset, Mass according to the book Pictorial History of King Philip’s War:

“The fact that Philip had been driven from Mount Hope, filled many of the troops with excessive joy. Some appear to have entertained the hope that the war was ended; while others indulged grateful reflections on the prowess which had so speedily delivered the country of its most formidable enemy. It was the opinion of [Benjamin] Church, however, that the war was not ended; and before congratulating himself for the present security, he deemed it proper to await the events of the future.”

In July, representatives of the Mohegans traveled to Boston and pledged their support for the English. This made the Narraganset tribe, which was a very large powerful tribe that the English desperately wanted on their side, reluctant to join the English because the Mohegans were their enemies and they were unwilling to side with them.

On July 8 – 9, the Wampanoags attacked Middleborough, Mass, burning most of the houses in the town which prompted the colonists to abandon it. The Wampanoags then attacked Dartmouth, Mass, killing several settlers and burning around 36 homes.

On July 14, the Nipmucks attacked Mendon, Mass and killed six colonists. The following day, the Narragansett signed a peace treaty with Connecticut.

From July 16-24, Massachusetts Bay Colony officials attempted to negotiate with the Nipmucks who wanted to remain neutral in the conflict.

On July 19, a skirmish occurred near Pocasset swamp when Massachusetts and Plymouth troops ran into a party of natives and two of their advance guard were killed.

The troops pursued them through the swamp but couldn’t engage the warriors in battle. Philip and his troops escaped the swamp on rafts and fled Pocasset, Mass for Nipmuck territory.

King Philip Escaping from the Swamp on a Raft, Illustration published in Pictorial History of King Philip’s War, circa 1851

Siege on Brookfield:

On August 2-4, a company led by Captain Edward Hutchinson had arranged to meet with some Nipmucks, who claimed to be neutral, at a town called Quaboag.

En route to meet the Nipmucks, the company was ambushed by the tribe on a narrow trail surrounded by a swamp on one side and a steep hill on the other. Chaos ensued as the Nipmuck opened fire on the company with rifles. Eight soldiers were killed.

The survivors of the ambush fled to Brookfield, Mass where they gathered in a garrison house. The Nipmuck converged on the house, shooting flaming arrows onto the roof, firing at soldiers in the windows, beating on the doors with poles and clubs, and making repeated attempts to burn the house down.

The siege continued until August 4 when Major Simon Willard and his troops arrived from Lancaster, Mass and the Nipmucks withdrew.

On August 13, the Massachusetts Council ordered all Christian Indians (Natives who had converted to Christianity and lived in designated Christian Indian villages known as Praying Towns) to be confined to their Praying Towns.

On August 22, a group of unidentified natives kill seven colonists at Lancaster, Mass.

On August 25, a skirmish took place at Sugarloaf Hill, about ten miles north of Hatfield, Mass, after a band of Nipmucks being pursued by a company led by Captain Thomas Lothrop engaged in a three hour battle at the hill. Nearly 40 natives and several members of the company were killed.

On August 24-25, raids on Springfield, Mass were carried out by bands of Nipmucks.

On September 1, Wampanoags and Nipmucks attacked Deerfield, Mass. The following day they attacked nearby Northfield. Half of the buildings in the town were burned and eight men were killed.

On September 4, a company of 36 men led by Captain Richard Beers headed to Northfield, Mass to rescue the survivors but were ambushed. Over half the soldiers, around 21 men, were killed, including Captain Beers.

Attack on the Wagon Train (Beers ambush), illustration published in Pictorial History of King Philip’s War, circa 1851

The survivors joined another company, led by Major Treat, and succeeded in evacuating the town on September 6, but only after discovering the bodies of those slain, according to the book A Narrative of the Troubles with Indians in New England:

“Here the barbarous villains shewed their insolent rage and cruelty, more now than ever before, cutting off the heads of some of the slain, and fixing them upon poles near the highway, and not only so, but one (if not more) was found with a chain hooked under his jaw, and so hung up on the bough of a tree, (it is feared he was hung up alive) by which means they thought to daunt and discourage any that might come to their relief, and also to terrify those that should be spectators with beholding so sad an object: Insomuch that Major Treat with his company, going up two days after to fetch off the residue of the garrison were solemnly affected with that doleful sight..”

The area where the ambush occurred is now called Beers Plain. Beers was buried at the spot and his grave can be found next to the Linden Hill School near the intersection of South Mountain Road and Lyman Hill Road.

On September 9, 1675, the New England Confederation, which was a military alliance between the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, New Haven and Plymouth, officially declared war on the natives and voted in favor of providing military assistance for the war.

On September 12, colonists abandoned the settlements of Northfield, Deerfield and Brookfield after the earlier attacks there.

On September 18, the Narragansetts signed a treaty with the English in Boston. Meanwhile, Captain Thomas Lathrop and his company of 80 men were ambushed near Northampton while en route to harvest abandoned cornfields in Deerfield. Lathrop and about 60 to 70 of his men were killed.

On October 5, Pocumtucks attacked Springfield, Mass and burned 30 houses.

On October 13, the Massachusetts Council ordered all Christian Indians relocated and confined to Deer Island.

On October 19, a band of natives, led by Muttawamp, attacked Hatfield, Mass but were eventually repelled and retreated.

On November 1, the Nipmucks took a number of Christian Indians captive at Magunkaquog, Chabanakongkomun, and Hassanemesit.

On November 2-12, fearing that the Narragansetts were planning to join King Philip’s forces in the spring, the Commissioners of the New England Confederation ordered forces to attack the Narragansetts. Around 1000 soldiers were raised for an expedition against the Narragansetts.

The Great Swamp Fight:

On December 19, United colonial forces attacked the Narragansetts at the Great Swamp in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, according to the book The History of the United States of North America:

“On the 8th of December, the Massachusetts forces marched from Boston, and were soon joined by those of Plymouth. The troops from Connecticut joined them on the 18th, at Petaquamscot. At break of day the next morning they commenced their march, through the deep snow, toward the enemy, who were about fifteen miles distant in a swamp, at the edge of which they arrived at one in the afternoon. The Indians, apprized of an armament intended against them, had fortified themselves as strongly as possible within the swamp. The English, without waiting to draw up in order of battle, marched forward in quest of the enemy’s camp. The Indian fortress stood on a rising ground in the midst of the swamp, and was composed of palisades, which were encompassed by a hedge, nearly a rod thick. It had but one practicable entrance, which was over a log, or tree, four or five feet from the ground; and that aperture was guarded by a block-house. Falling providentially on this very part of the fort, the English captains entered it, at the head of their companies. The two first, with many of their men, were shot dead at the entrance: four other captains were also killed. When the troops had effected an entrance, they attacked the Indians, who fought desperately, and compelled the English to retire out of the fort; but after a hard fought battle of three hours, they became masters of the place, and set fire to the wigwams, to the number of five or six hundred, and in the conflagration many Indian women and children perished. The surviving Indians fled into a cedar swamp, at a small distance; and the English retired to their quarters. Of the English, there were killed and wounded about two hundred and thirty; and of the Indians, one thousand are supposed to have perished.”

In January of 1676, Philip and his warriors travel westward to Mohawk territory in New York, seeking an alliance with the tribe. Governor Edmund Andros of New York reportedly countered Philip’s request by offering the Mohawks alliance in exchange for assistance against Philip.

The Mohawks accepted Andros’s offer, attacked Philip’s winter camp at Schagticoke and drove the Wampanoag back to New England, where they continued to pursue and attack them.

On January 27, the Narragansetts attacked Pawtuxet, Rhode Island. A company of soldiers led by Josiah Winslow pursued the Narragansets, in what later came to be known as “the hungry march,” but came under attack themselves and eventually ran out of food and had to eat their own horses. The company gave up their pursuit in February and returned home.

Lancaster Raid:

On February 10, around 400 Nipmucks attacked the village of Lancaster, Mass. Around 50 colonists were killed or wounded and 24 were taken captive, including the minister’s wife Mary Rowlandson and their child.

On February 14, Philip and his warriors attacked Northampton, Mass killing a handful of settlers and burning many houses, according to the Pictorial History of King Philip’s War:

“The object of the Indians, was as usual, to surprise the village. Their approach appears to have been unknown, until they had made a furious attack upon the more remote houses. Four men and two women were killed while fleeing toward the village, and several dwelling-houses set on fire. Four or five barns containing large quantities of grain were likewise consumed. The villagers fled toward the garrison, and the Indians, sure of victory, pursued with such haste, that they entered the palisades which surrounded the fort. When too late to correct the fatal error, they found themselves within full range of the guns of the garrison. [Major] Savage lost no time in opening upon them. The fire of the soldiers told with terrible effect, while the Indians, completely surprised, crowded into a small space, and overcome with impotent rage, stood for a moment stupified. At that moment the major charged. The Indians turned and fled in confusion, crowding together and falling over each other to reach the palisades. Many of the villagers who who had by this time seized their arms, fired upon the retreating crowd, so that the savages, abandoning all hope of success, retired precipitately into the woods. Their loss in killed and wounded was considerable.”

Attack on Northampton, illustration published in Pictorial History of King Philip’s War, circa 1851

On February 21, around 300 Nipmucks infiltrated the town of Medfield, Mass at night and began firing upon farmers and soldiers as they emerged from their homes in the morning. Around 40 to 50 homes were burned in the attack.

The Nipmuck then withdrew, burned the bridge heading toward nearby Sherborn to prevent the soldiers from following them and proceeded to hold a celebration on a nearby hill in plain view of the devastated town, according to the Pictorial History of King Philip’s War:

“The Indians, on leaving the town, retired to the nearest hill, where they indulged in a dance and feast. The revel was kept up for several hours in full view of the town; but as the bridge had been destroyed, no pursuit could be attempted. After insulting the misfortunes of Medfield by dancing and singing, they continued their march toward other settlements of Plymouth.”

On February 25, the town of Weymouth, Mass was attacked and partly burned.

On March 12, a band of warriors led by Totoson attacked William Clark’s garrison at Eel River near Plymouth, Mass, killed 11 settlers and seized the garrison’s provisions, guns and ammunition before burning the garrison down.

On March 13, a band of Nipmucks attacked Groton, Mass where they killed one settler and burned 65 homes. Groton was evacuated but the refugees were ambushed en route and two more were killed.

On March 17, natives attacked and destroyed Warwick, Rhode Island.

On March 26, Longmeadow and Marlborough, Mass and Simsbury, Connecticut were attacked.

On March 27, the Nipmucks attacked English forces near Sudbury, Mass.

On March 28, Natives attacked Rehoboth, Mass (now called Seekonk) and set fire to the houses, destroying around 40 homes and 30 barns. Only one inhabitant was killed, an Irishman who refused to seek refuge in the garrison house.

On March 29, Natives attacked and destroyed Providence, Rhode Island. Around 30 homes were burned but no lives were lost.

Unable to farm or hunt due to the chaos of the war, the natives began to run out of food, as well as gunpowder for ammunition, and many of them began to starve.

Unlike the colonists, who had access to supplies from England, the natives had no way of obtaining more supplies. Some of them started to doubt they could defeat the English and began to desert the war and surrender themselves to the English.

A major turning point in the war came in April of 1676 when the leader of the Narragansett, Canonchet, was captured by Captain Dennison’s company.

Canonchet, illustration published in Pictorial History of King Philips War, circa 1851

He was handed over to his Mohegan enemies and brutally executed, according to the book The History of the Indian Wars in New England:

“And he was told his sentence was to die, he said, he liked it well, that he should die before his heart was soft, or had spoken anything unworthy of himself. He told the English before they put him to death, that the killing him would not end the war; but it a considerable step thereunto, nor did it live much longer after his death, at least not in those parts.”

Canonchet was shot, beheaded and his body was cut into quarters. His head was presented as a token of loyalty to the council at Hartford.

On April 21, around 500 Algonquins attacked Sudbury, Mass. In response, a group of 60 soldiers chased a band of Algonquians and found themselves in a trap on Green Hill. The natives set the grass on the hill on fire and when the soldiers tried to escape, they attacked and killed around 30 soldiers.

On May 2nd or 3rd, Mary Rowlandson was released and returned to Boston.

On May 18-19, the Battle of Great Falls took place when Captain William Turner and 150 English attacked the Indian camp “Tuner’s Falls.” Around 200 Natives and 38 English were killed.

On May 20, natives attacked Scituate, Mass.

On May 30, Hatfield, Mass was attacked in retaliation for the Turner’s Falls attack and seven English were killed.

On May 31, Christian Indians were moved from their confinement on Deer Island to Cambridge.

On June 12, the natives attacked Hadley, Mass but were repelled by Connecticut soldiers. While the attack was occurring, a band of Mohawks went to the native’s camp and killed a number of the Wampanoag and Narraganset women and children.

On June 19, Massachusetts issued a declaration of amnesty for Indians who surrender.

In July, Philip and his Wampanoags returned to the Pocasset region, where the war had begun a year earlier, and continued to evade soldiers by hiding in the local woods and swamps.

On July 1, Major Tallcott’s Connecticut Allied Force attacked the Narragansetts at Nipsachuck in Rhode Island and killed 171 natives.

On July 3, the Warwick Massacre took place after 80 Narragansett surrendered at Warwick, Rhode Island and were attacked and massacred by Major Talcott’s Connecticut Colony troops.
Meanwhile, Captain Benjamin Church and his soldiers began sweeping Plymouth, Mass for Philip and the Wampanoags.

On July 15, natives attacked Taunton, Mass but were repelled. That same day, the Ninigrit and Niantic tribes formally signed a peace treaty with Massachusetts Bay

On July 20, Benjamin Church led a company of soldiers on an attack on Philip’s camp near Bridgewater. Philip escaped but his wife and son were captured and sold into slavery in the West Indies.

On July 25, the Narragansett were defeated near Dedham, Mass. That same day, around 180 Nipmuck surrendered in Boston.

How Did King Philip’s War End?

By the summer of 1676, fighting was slowly drawing to a close but King Philip still remained at large and the war would not end until he was captured.

Then, in August, an Indian deserter told Church and his troops that Philip had returned to an old Wampanoag village called Montaup near Mount Hope.

On August 12, Church led a company of soldiers to the area and found Philip’s small camp of warriors near the spot that later came to be known as King Philip’s seat.

Philip tried to flee but a native named John Alderman, an Indian soldier under Church, opened fire on Philip, according to the book The History of King Philip’s War:

“Capt. Church with his company fell upon them; Philip attempted flight out of the swamp, at which instant both an Englishman and an Indian endeavoring to fire at him, the Englishman’s piece would not go off, but the Indian presently shot him through his venomous and murderous heart; and in that very place where he first contrived and commenced his mischief, this Agag was now cut into quarters, which were then hanged up, while his head was carried in triumph to Plymouth, where it arrived on the very day that the church there was keeping a solemn thanksgiving to God. God sent ’em the head of a leviathan for a thanksgiving feast.”

Alderman sold Philip’s head to Plymouth authorities for 30 shillings, which was the going rate for Indian heads during the war, and it was placed on a stake in the village where it remained for 25 years.

One of Philip’s hands was sent to Boston for display and the four quarters of his mutilated body were strung up in four trees where they hung until they wasted away.

The war didn’t immediately end with the death of Philip though. By the summer of 1676, the war had spread to Maine and New Hampshire, where the Abenakis attacked some of the towns where colonial traders had cheated them.

Random raids and skirmishes continued in northern New England until a treaty was signed at Casco Bay in April 1678.

How Did King Philip’s War Affect the Colonies?

The effects of the war, on both the colonists and the natives, were disastrous. By the end of the war, more than 600 colonists had died, around 1,200 homes had been burned and around 12 out of 90 new settlements were destroyed.

The wide scale destruction caused such devastating financial losses the English expansion in the region completely stopped for 50 years.

The losses were far worse for the natives though. Out of the total population of 20,000 Native-Americans in southern New England at the time, an estimated 2,000 were killed, another 3,000 had died of sickness and starvation, around 1,000 were captured and sold into slavery, and an estimated 2,000 fled to join the Iroquois in the west or the Abenaki in the north. This adds up to a loss of between 60 to 80 percent of the native population in the region.

The war also ruined New England’s economy by nearly halting the fur trade, killing 8,000 head of cattle, interrupting the importing and exporting of goods and causing a decline in the fishing industry. In addition, wartime expenses of around 80,000 pounds led to high taxes.

As destructive as it was, King Philip’s War was a turning point in American history though because it gave the colonists control of southern New England and cleared the way for English expansion in the area, according to the book Pictorial History of King Philip’s War:

“Philip’s war had admirably prepared the colonies for this result. They had suffered, but they had also triumphed; and the triumph was of that sure nature which leaves for the victor no future apprehensions of his foe. That foe was extinct; he had left the wilderness, and the hunting-ground, and the stream from whose waters he had often drawn his daily food, and the hills where his ancestors sat viewing their noble domain, when the coming of the white man was announced to them, to his conqueror. Though the colonists were at this time so poor that they could scarcely defray the expense of the government, yet there never had been a period in their history when they had more solid grounds of encouragement. Almost the whole country was before them; and, what was still a great advantage, there were no enemies to oppose their immediately taking possession.”

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About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the owner and operator of this website and all the articles are written and researched by her. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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