“We said we knew the English said the Indians ronged them, and the Indians said the English ronged them, but our Desire was the Quarrell might rightly be decided, in the best Way, and not as Dogs decided their Quarrells.”
In June 1675, Metacom gathered armed Wampanoag men at his camp. The English settlers feared an attack by the Wampanoags, and the Wampanoags feared an attack by the settlers. To defuse this potentially explosive situation, John Easton, the deputy governor of Rhode Island, met with Metacom and proposed neutral arbitration to settle the dispute. His mission proved fruitless as the dispute soon escalated into King Philip’s War.
Easton composed this report of the meeting and sent it to colonial leaders. The remarkable document provided a statement of the Indian perspective. Easton appeared sympathetic to the Indians’ plight and critical of the Plymouth Colony magistrates whose unjust handling of the situation brought about, in his opinion, an avoidable conflict. As a Quaker, Easton recognized the intolerance of the Puritan clergy and knew that their Indian mission program had undermined the stability of the native community.
King Philip’s War forever altered the cultural landscape of New England. It virtually ended what had been a vibrant exchange between English colonists and their Indian neighbors. The Wampanoags had willingly joined in an alliance with the English, believing that both were politically united. Within this political system, the Wampanoags understood that they had equal rights and that they had the same claim to sovereignty as the English colonies. The colonial leaders felt differently, continually demanding greater political and social control. Metacom wondered why he was not treated with the same respect his father had shown the colonists when they first arrived in the country.
As the English became the dominant force in the relationship, their system of justice failed to protect the Indians, who felt that they had been abused and charged the settlers with deceptive and destructive actions. Land disputes became the most common and problematic issue in the relationship. During the 1660s, the Wampanoags regularly sold land to the English whose human and domestic animal population was increasing. The English settlements spread to the outskirts of the Indian settlements, and the land belonging to Metacom’s people became surrounded on all sides. With the two social groups living so close together, conflicting ideas about land use and discordant farming and livestock practices created a constant need for adjudication. In some ways, the colonial leaders tried to protect Indian rights, but the religious and social prejudices of the English, plus their desire for land twisted the system in the colonists’ favor and created a situation that the Indians no longer trusted.
Easton’s meeting with Metacom came at the apex of their difficulties with the social balance at a tipping point. Easton presented Metacom with a way out, a political and judicial system that did not work on confrontation and unilateral enforcement. He offered Metacom a degree of sovereignty, protection, and religious tolerance. Easton and the Rhode Island government might not have had the political power to change the Massachusetts and Plymouth systems of governance. Metacom might not have been able to quell an angry population that found its way of life threatened. Still, at this moment, both sides believed that they could coexist. Easton’s document reveals how close they came to averting conflict. It also reveals how problematic the situation had become and the difficulties involved in arriving at a long-term solution.
John Easton was born sometime between 1617 and 1624 in Hampshire, England, the son of Nicholas Easton, a tanner. In 1634, the family emigrated to join Massachusetts Bay Colony, first settling in Ipswich and then Newbury. Nicholas Easton became a follower of Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1638 because she preached religious tenets that did not follow the established Puritan law. Her followers established settlements in Rhode Island, including Newport, where the Easton family settled in 1639. Like many of Hutchinson’s followers, the Easton family later joined the Quaker church. Nicholas Easton became an important political leader in the colony, serving as its president (1650–51, 1654), deputy governor (1666–69, 1670–71), and governor (1672–74). John Easton became the attorney general for Portsmouth and Newport in 1653 and the attorney general for Rhode Island in 1652, holding that office for fifteen years. He served as deputy governor of the colony from 1674 to 1676 and as governor from 1690 to 1695.
Metacom, also known as Metacomet and Pometacom, was born around 1638. His father was Massasoit, the head sachem (leader) of a confederation of Wampanoag bands. After the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, Massasoit became a close ally of the colonists, helping the young colony survive by providing food, advice, and protection. This partnership helped protect the Wampanoags from their own enemies and secured Massasoit in his leadership role.
After the death of Massasoit in 1660, Metacom’s elder brother Wamsutta became sachem. That year, the brothers came before the Plymouth General Court and were given English names, Alexander for Wamsutta and Philip for Metacom. When Wamsutta died in 1662, Metacom became the leader. During the 1660s, the relationship between the colonists and Metacom began to sour. In 1667, the Plymouth General Court examined Metacom on a suspicion that he intended to attack the colonists. They fined him forty pounds to cover the cost of their investigation. Metacom admitted to a similar charge in 1671 and agreed to have his band surrender their weapons. After he protested to Plymouth colonial authorities later that year, he succeeded having their guns returned but was forced to pay one hundred pounds.
When war broke out in June 1675, Metacom and his band fled from their settlements at Mount Hope (now Bristol, Rhode Island) and participated in attacks on numerous Massachusetts frontier settlements. During the winter, he journeyed to northern New York to get supplies and to enlist Mahican allies. An attack by the Mohawks devastated Metacom’s band, and the remnants returned to the Mount Hope area, where the colonial militia raided his camp on August 12, 1676, and Metacom was fatally shot.
Numerous attempts at diplomacy marked Metacom’s interactions with the English settlers since he had assumed leadership of the Wampanoags in 1662. Following a pattern established by his father, Massasoit, when the Pilgrims first arrived in Plymouth in 1620, Metacom tried to accommodate and coexist with the settlers. With each passing year, however, this proved more difficult as the balance of power shifted toward the colonists who increasingly tried to impose their will upon the Indians. In June 1675, a Plymouth Colony court tried, convicted, and executed three Wampanoag men for the murder of James Sassamon, an English-educated Indian who served as a Christian missionary to the Indians. For Metacom and many in his band, this execution was one more injustice on top of many others that they had endured. With the colonists’ legal system weighted against the Indians, Metacom saw no fair way to adjudicate criminal cases, punish English wrongdoers, or resolve land and property disputes.
In December 1674, James Sassamon had gone to Josiah Winslow, the governor of Plymouth Colony, to report that Metacom was organizing the local Indian leaders behind a plan to go to attack the English. Sassamon told the governor that he feared for his life, thinking that Metacom would have him killed if his betrayal were revealed. At the end of the following month, Sassamon’s body was found under the ice of a nearby pond. Because of his earlier warning to the governor, the Plymouth magistrates suspected his death might not have been accidental. After interrogating numerous Indians, they found a Christian who stated that he had witnessed the act and accused three men, close associates of Metacom, of killing Sassamon and throwing his body into the pond. A Plymouth Court jury—made up of six Christian Indians and twelve settlers—convicted the three men, and on June 8, 1675, they were hanged. One of the Indians survived the hanging when the rope broke. He then confessed, accusing his two dead associates of doing the killing. This confession, however, failed to save him, and he was executed not long after.
After the execution, Metacom assembled armed men at his camp at Mount Hope. When the Plymouth leaders demanded that the Wampanoags disband, Metacom refused. In hopes of preventing hostilities, John Easton, the deputy governor of Rhode Island Colony, met with Metacom in June 1675. From Easton’s account of the meeting, neither side thought that the situation was untenable and that the conflict would inevitably be settled “as Dogs decided their Quarrells.” Metacom wanted his band to be treated as the Wampanoags had treated the settlers when the power balance was reversed, “when they were too strong for the English.” Easton seemed to acknowledge that Metacom had legitimate concerns regarding the abuses of the Indians’ rights. Easton proposed that their differences could be resolved by arbitration, but a skeptical Metacom noted how arbitration had not worked well in recent disputes because the English officials sided against the Indians. When Easton suggested using disinterested adjudicators, both an Indian leader and the governor of New York, Metacom seemed to consider it.
Easton left the meeting thinking that he had established the groundwork for a peaceful settlement. Within days, however, any such hope was dashed. On June 24, 1675, Wampanoags killed nine English settlers at the Plymouth Colony settlement of Swansea. The war that began that day lasted over a year, until August 12, 1676, when Metacom was killed by an Indian serving with the colonial forces. The conflict became known as King Philip’s War, taking its title from the name Metacom had adopted in 1660 as a gesture of comradeship with the English colonists.
Early in 1676, as the war raged, Easton reportedly sent various colonial officials his account of the meeting with Metacom, along with an introductory section about the Sassamon case. Perhaps Easton felt that if those officials understood the situation, then something could be done to end the war diplomatically. He clearly had doubts about the trustworthiness of the testimony in the Sassamon case. Several Indians whom Easton considered objective informed him that they did not believe Sassamon had been murdered but instead had fallen in the pond and drowned. Indians, according to these sources, would not have concealed the murder. The accuser fabricated the story, they said, because he was indebted to the accused and wanted to gain favor with the English by appearing to be “a better Christian.”
The Sassamon case brought to the surface issues of Indian legal rights, sovereignty, and impartial justice, as well as the one of the most precarious elements of coexistence between the English and American Indians: the threat of Christianity to the Indian social system. The American Indians, Easton noted, “had a great Fear to have any of their Indians should be called or forced to be Christian Indians.” Since the 1640s, some colonial leaders had looked to Christian missions as providing the best way to coexist with the Indians. A movement led by Puritan clergyman John Eliot sought to persuade the Indians to live in “praying towns,” where they would abandon their native traditions and adopt English housing, agriculture, laws, and religion. While Eliot met some success with the smaller Massachusetts bands that looked to the English for protection against their enemies, stronger bands like Metacom’s Wampanoags mostly resisted the efforts of the missionaries. To reach out to the Indians, Eliot translated the Bible and other religious texts into the Wampanoags’ Algonquian language and organized a group of Indian preachers, including James Sassamon. During the 1660s, Sassamon acted as an intermediary for Metacom in his interactions with the colonists. Metacom, however, rejected Sassamon’s conversion efforts, and early in the 1670s, the two men seemingly had a falling out. Easton told how the Wampanoags considered Sassamon a deceiver who had tricked Metacom into surrendering land.
Particularly troubling to Metacom was that the “mischievous” Christians were not subject to their Indian leaders and instead lied to hurt them. In his comments to Easton, Metacom seems to suggest that behind the accusations of sinister plots such as those made by Sassamon were attempts to force Indians into accepting the mission system. Metacom’s suspicions had some validity. Regardless whether Sassamon fabricated his charge, he knew that a similar accusation in 1671 had nearly brought a forceful response from the colonial leaders and resulted in diminishing Metacom’s power and landholdings. The missionaries might have thought that undermining Metacom’s authority would open the way for more Christian conversions. Metacom’s comments showed his agitation over the social divisions among Indians brought about by the introduction of Christianity. Not only did it undermine his authority and threaten Wampanoag sovereignty, but the problem extended to a legal system that privileged the testimony of Christian Indians. In the opinion of historian James Drake, the war did not arise from the distrust between the settlers and Indians as much as from the “rivalries among Indians at the time,” specifically the divisions created by the Christian Indians. He understands the Sassamon trial as the “symbol of a failed strategy,” because for the non-Christian Indians, it represented the growing impossibility of their retention of political power and sovereignty in an English political and legal system that favored Christian Indians.
Being a Quaker from Rhode Island meant that Easton did not entirely share the religious viewpoint of the Puritan leaders of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. Easton rightfully mistrusted their justice system and its enforcement of Puritan church principles. His own family had been expelled from Massachusetts in 1638 on account of their religious beliefs, and Quakers continued to be persecuted in those colonies. Perhaps because of his Quaker perspective, Easton stated, “We knew it to be true,” when Metacom complained about the injustices of the legal system. Easton indicated that the situation could be better managed by the more tolerant Rhode Island colony, assuring Metacom that “altho we were weaker than other Colonies,” Metacom’s band would be protected and equally treated if they submitted to Rhode Island’s authority. While Easton’s offer may well have been made for humanitarian reasons or to keep the region from being engulfed in war, it also had a political dimension, tied as it was to Rhode Island’s long-standing dispute with Plymouth over which colony had title to Metacom’s home territory. According to historian Francis Jennings, since Plymouth Colony’s claim to that territory was originally based largely on treaties with the Indians, Rhode Island’s land claim would have been strengthened if Metacom’s band came under that colony’s authority. The border question could have influenced Easton’s mission and his subsequent report. Peace would have helped his colony, while a war between the Indians and Plymouth would have helped secure Metacom’s land for Plymouth.
Easton did not feel that his group’s mandate was to address the specific complaints of Metacom, only to forestall a conflict by proposing a mediation venue. Metacom, however, insisted that Easton hear his grievances. The first one concerned an event that occurred thirteen years previously, in 1662. At that time, his elder brother Wamsutta (called Alexander) ruled the band, having inherited the leadership when Massasoit had died in 1660. After hearing rumors that Wamsutta conspired with leaders of the Narragansett band to attack the settlers, the Plymouth magistrates ordered Wamsutta to appear in court. When he did not come immediately, they sent an armed force to bring him in. This act signaled a shift in the power balance between the two groups, marking when the colonists felt they could bully the Wampanoags. Once Wamsutta appeared in court, the war rumors were found to have no merit, but on his return journey, he fell sick and died. As Metacom told Easton, the Wampanoags suspected that Wamsutta had been poisoned.
Since Metacom still dwelled on this affair so many years later, it surely marred his relationship with the colonists and helped create the atmosphere of distrust that underlay their engagements. A similar situation occurred in 1671 when Plymouth Colony leaders demanded that Metacom answer charges of conspiring against the colonists. To avert conflict, Metacom’s band surrendered many of their weapons, and he swore allegiance to Plymouth Colony. Metacom complained to Easton that when he demanded the return of the weapons, “The English having their Arms wold not deliver them as they had promised, untill they consented to pay a 100po [100 pounds],” a steep penalty that ultimately required his sale of a considerable amount of land. Metacom complained that this fine threatened his band’s livelihood.
The border controversy between Rhode Island and Plymouth was never far from either the incident with Wamsutta in 1662 or with Metacom in 1671. When Wamsutta appeared in court, he agreed to sell land only to Plymouth and not to any other colony. When Metacom appeared in court in 1671, he agreed never to sell lands without Plymouth’s consent. Accusations of hostile intentions were apparently common in the colonies. Over the previous forty years, Easton explained, “Reports and jealosys of War had bin very frequent.” Different groups, both English and Indian, used rumors of impending attacks as a political tool. Indian bands accused other bands in hopes of gaining favor with the English and protection from their enemies. Perhaps the Christian Indians wanted to demonstrate their allegiance to the English or to the English faith. Metacom thought that Christian Indians used such tales to undermine his authority and standing with the English. Since the 1662 and 1671 accusations allowed Plymouth Colony leaders to extract concessions and favorable land agreements from Metacom, their motivation might have been driven more by concerns about Rhode Island land claim than fears of Indian conflict.
For Metacom and his band, the most tangible evidence of their declining political status and problems of legal rights was their shrinking land base. A continual series of land sales over the previous several decades had benefited Metacom and the Wampanoags, likely making up for declines in hunting and the fur trade. Despite this, Metacom feared that the land loss had gone too far and that “they had no Hopes left to keep any Land.” Part of the problem, he asserted, involved cases where the Indians’ lack of English literacy led to their being deceived into signing deeds that gave more land than they agreed to sell. He accused the colonists of using unscrupulous methods of getting the Indians drunk and of bypassing legitimate Indian leaders to deal with those more willing to sell. Land sales brought the English settlements much closer to the Indian settlements, and this aggravated many of the problems of social compatibility and legal standing. English settlements provided Indians greater access to alcohol and more chances of conflict arising from the abuse of alcohol. With respect to this issue, Metacom’s biggest complaint was that the settlers were “eager” to sell alcohol and then the drunken American Indians “ravened upon the sober Indians,” committing acts beyond Metacom’s control.
For Metacom, a particular cause of trouble was that “English Catell and Horses still increased.” The historian Virginia Anderson argues that “no problem vexed relations between settlers and Indians more frequently in the years before the war than the control of livestock.” Instead of fencing in their livestock, the colonists let them roam free, resulting in damage to nearby Indian crops and food supplies. Metacom asserted that even when the Indians moved their villages thirty miles from the English settlements, their corn would still be “spoyled” because the English failed to keep their cattle on their own lands. In addition, drunken Indians, Metacom admitted, “hurt the English Catel,” and he could not prevent them. The settlers took the Indians to court for killing their wandering livestock, but when the Indians attempted to resolve livestock trespassing issues in colonial court, they found little relief. Anderson concludes that “whenever livestock were concerned, the English ignored the Indians’ property rights, while demanding that the natives recognize English rights.” The loss of land and the closeness of their English neighbors presented the Indians with a problematic economic situation, but some adaptation seems to have been possible, especially considering that the Indians farmed and had started to raise their own hogs.
Christian missions, cattle roaming, colonial border disputes, land loss, and alcohol sales all contributed to the tensions that flared into war in 1675. Did Easton’s plan for settling the conflict stand a chance, or would the issues at hand eventually have led to violence, anyway? To settle disputes, Metacom was apparently amenable to using neutral arbitration and had previously used the colonial courts, but he wanted a fair system. Still, conflict might not have been preventable since an increasing population of English settlers brought demand for more land and, along with it, pressure to rid the area of Indians by any means. Christianity in particular formed a barrier between the two groups, although this might not have presented an impossible situation. While the Puritan leaders of Plymouth and Massachusetts were generally intolerant of people who did not live or believe as they did, the Rhode Island leaders’ recognition of religious freedom could have given the Wampanoags a better political status. Metacom expressed contempt for Christian Indians, but coexistence between the two groups seemed possible as long as his authority was respected and that Indians were not forced to convert.
King Philip’s War decimated the Indian population in southern New England. Between the carnage of the war, the later executions, and transportation into slavery, the Indians lost about 40 percent of their population. Christian Indians suffered a great deal in the conflict. The Massachusetts government exiled Christian Indians to Deer Island in the Boston Harbor, where many died because of the poor living conditions. Some Christian Indians were attacked by the colonists and many were driven from their homes. The war also proved extremely costly for the colonists, not only in terms of casualties, but also in damage to their infrastructure and economy. Few people at the time probably predicted that a war between the Indians and the English colonists would have such devastating consequences.
By 1673, Metacom’s base at Mount Hope had been completely surrounded by English landholdings, and colonists had even acquired the sole rights to fish in the nearby waters. From his extensive study of Indian land deeds in seventeenth-century Plymouth, Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs argues that while other factors may have contributed in bringing about the war, the primary one was loss of land. Bangs dismisses claims such as those made by Metacom that some of the deeds were fraudulent, arguing that there was no demonstrable “ruthless defrauding of the Indians.” In making this case, Bangs specifically contended with the revisionist history of Francis Jennings, whose 1975 work The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest takes the Indian perspective, presenting numerous ways frauds could occur. Easton’s account of his meeting with Metacom did not specifically address land fraud, but the report’s overall sympathetic tone indicated that Easton did not trust the colonial justice system to regulate the situation.
Bangs argues that due to the economic situation, war presented a last hope of retaining their homeland and sovereignty. The picture that Bangs paints is one of inevitability. In this argument, Bangs agrees with Douglas E. Leach, whose 1958 work Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip’s War is a standard military history of the war. The colonists’ insatiable demands for more land and the confrontation of “two mutually incompatible ways of life,” according to Leach, made the war “virtually inevitable.” Using the benefit of hindsight, these historians conceive of a situation that apparently Easton did not comprehend at the time. He envisioned that conflict could be averted by establishing a just system of resolving disputes. That a top political leader like Easton was willing to believe Indian informants in the Sassamon case and sympathetically listened to Metacom’s complaints suggests that there could have been an alternative to the Puritan system, which seemed to remain deaf to non-Christian Indian voices. Even if Easton’s reforms went into practice, however, questions remain about whether a culture clash was inevitable, whether Christian Indians had destabilized the Indian political situation, whether land loss had gone too far, and whether Easton’s plan would have been too little, too late.
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