Edward Randolph’s Report of King Philip’s War in New England

“No advantage but many disadvantages have arisen to the English by the war. . . .”

Summary Overview

On June 26, 1675, members of the Wampanoag tribe attacked a Plymouth Colony settlement, sparking a year-long conflict that devastated the frontier settlements in southern New England and nearly annihilated the region’s Indian population. The Wampanoag leader Metacom, who adopted the English name Philip, had tried to keep peaceful relations with the colonists, but tensions over land and sovereignty led the Wampanoags and most of New England’s tribes to ally with one another in a war against the colonists.

A representative of the English government, Edward Randolph was primarily interested in King Philip’s War in terms of colonial administration. Because of his intent, his report on the causes of the war offers a broad perspective on the English understanding of the war. Randolph largely deflected the blame for the conflict from the Wampanoags and their allies onto the colonial government. By doing so he suggested that there were other possible directions that the colonists could have taken in their relationship with the Indians.

Defining Moment

Life in the New England colonies would never be the same after King Philip’s War. It crippled the financial structure of the colonies; it opened the door for tighter English rule and diminished Puritan control; it changed how colonists thought about Indians; and it decimated the Indian population in that region. In the view of some historians, the events surrounding King Philip’s War even forecast the American Revolution one hundred years later.

For much of the fifty years preceding King Philip’s War, the far-flung colonies of Plymouth (founded 1620) and Massachusetts Bay (founded 1628) had been given great leeway by an English government more concerned with its numerous wars against the Dutch, Spanish, and French, and the domestic chaos surrounding the English Civil War (1642–51). After Charles II assumed the throne in 1660, the English government started establishing a more direct administration of its empire. In 1664 a royal commission visited New England and reported back disapprovingly on the independent-minded colonies. Still, the king took no immediate action. The pressure, however, continued to mount as English merchants and proprietary landowners protested the situation. Of even greater concern, the Massachusetts Bay Colony seemed to flaunt its independence, willfully ignoring the English laws governing trade. In addition, the English government suspected the loyalties of the Puritans who had fled to the New World in search of religious freedom. By rejecting the Church of England, they symbolically rejected the English Crown, the head of the Church of England. Concerns about the Massachusetts colonies’ level autonomy brought Edward Randolph to New England in 1676. His subsequent report added force to the demands for greater Crown control of the colonies.

For Randolph and many in the English government, King Philip’s War was just one more example of a defective colonial administration. They felt that the colonial leaders had mismanaged the Indian situation, failed to request the Crown’s permission to engage in war, and seemed on the verge of losing the fight, which was still going on at the time Randolph filed his report. Although his report indicated an abusive Massachusetts Indian policy, Randolph and the rest of the English government probably cared little about what happened with the Indians. For the colonists, however, the events of the war caused a dramatic shift in the way they viewed their Indian neighbors. While before the war, Indians were looked on as potential religious converts, allies, and workers, after the war they were viewed more as barbarians controlled by the devil. From the New England Indian perspective, the war destroyed whatever hope they had of maintaining sovereignty alongside their English neighbors. Historians estimate that forty percent of the region’s Indian population was killed in battle, executed, sold into slavery, or dispersed into outlying tribes further north and west. Most of those who remained were relegated to mission towns.

Author Biography

Edward Randolph was born in Kent, England, in 1632. He attended Cambridge University and afterward studied law. For the sixteen years previous to his New England assignment he had served as a commissary of the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports, a group of important trading ports on the English Channel. One apparent reason for Randolph’s appointment, as well as his antagonism toward the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was his association with Robert Tufton Mason, whose father had been granted the proprietorship of New Hampshire, a colony to which Massachusetts Bay laid claim. Randolph commonly referred to Mason as his cousin, although they were connected because their wives were sisters.

After ten weeks at sea, Randolph arrived in Boston on June 10, 1676, with a commission from King Charles II to report on the political, religious, military, and economic situation in New England. He met with the Massachusetts governor and council and then traveled to both New Hampshire and Plymouth colonies to meet with their governors. At the end of July he returned to England and presented his report to the Privy Council Committee on Trade and Plantations. From that point on, his life became linked with the American colonies. Few people were as influential in shaping the colonial political landscape.

In 1679 Randolph returned to Boston as the “collector, surveyor, and searcher,” or customs inspector, of the New England colonies. He was also given a seat on the ruling council and the office of attorney general for the newly established royal government in New Hampshire. He played a significant role in having the Massachusetts charter nullified in 1685 and subsequently establishing a royal governor. When provincial leaders revolted against the governor in 1689, they arrested Randolph and imprisoned him for ten months before he was sent back to England. In April 1692, he again returned to the colonies as surveyor general, overseeing the activities of all customs offices.

Randolph became England’s most knowledgeable official on colonial matters, although probably few people were more despised in the colonies. By helping bring down the Puritan government in Massachusetts, he earned the enmity of Puritan leaders. He made enemies of several colonial government officials by charging them with corruption, and he angered colonial merchants whom he regularly took to court for their failure to observe the English laws governing trade. In 1702, after spending two years in England advocating for even greater royal control of the colonies, he returned to America and died in Virginia the following year.

Document Analysis

Edward Randolph’s report on King Philip’s War could have focused on such positives as the colonists’ success in bringing the war to a close, the diminishing Indian threat, and lands secured by removing the Indians. He instead emphasized the disadvantages, mentioning the death of six hundred men, the losses of houses and livestock, and the killing of three thousand Indians. That he chose to focus on those aspects was indicative of an overall prejudice against the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leadership, a perspective that allowed him to take into consideration that the Indians might not be completely at fault. His inquiry into the origin of the war, its consequences, and probable outcome was the eighth of the twelve questions that he had been instructed to answer by the English Privy Council’s Committee on Trade and Plantations. He was also to answer questions about New England’s government, laws, population, military preparations, lands claimed, interactions with neighboring colonies, commodities produced, commercial trade, taxes, universities, and the colonists’ loyalty to English Crown.

Although Randolph’s writing style was simple and direct, with limited condemnation or argument, underneath this administrative prose was a disdain for the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s political development as well as the colonists’ Puritan principles. This prejudice was reflected in a letter he wrote to the English secretary of state in June 1676, recommending that the English blockade the Boston harbor in order to force the Massachusetts Bay Colony to submit to royal authority and laws. At the time Randolph received his commission, the English government had yet to hear from the Massachusetts government about the war, and the most recent news, delayed by the long trip across the ocean, had been filled with accounts of the devastation caused by the Indians and the New Englanders’ lack of success in combating them. By the time Randolph arrived in the colonies in June 1676, the war that had raged throughout southern New England since the previous June was nearing an end. For the English colonists, it had been a devastating conflict. One contemporary report listed twenty-five southern New England towns that had been attacked by the Wampanoags and their allies, with many of the frontier settlements abandoned and destroyed. In the spring of 1676, colonial militia units and their Indian allies successfully attacked several Wampanoag camps, driving many tribal bands to surrender. King Philip (Metacom), the Wampanoag leader who had coordinated the uprising, remained at large, but not for long. In August, colonial soldiers and their allies led by Benjamin Church located Philip’s camp and killed him, thus bringing the war to a close.

Randolph’s mission was part of a larger effort by the king and his Privy Council to bring the empire’s various colonies under greater control. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had asserted dominion over the colonies of Plymouth, New Hampshire, and Maine, was especially problematic, its leaders having devised their own laws and government under a theocratic Puritan model. Ferdinando Gorges, the heir to the proprietorship of Maine, and the heirs of Captain John Mason, who had been granted New Hampshire, had been vocal in their opposition to the encroachments of Massachusetts Bay. Part of Randolph’s assignment was to submit the formal protests of Mason and Gorges to the Massachusetts council and to return to London with the council’s answer.

Randolph’s claim that “about 600 men have been slain, and 12 captains” appeared to be a factual statement. The way he shaped this comment, however, insinuated a bias against the colonies. Randolph particularly noted the loss of men with “loyal principles,” as compared with the Puritan elite, called “church members,” who stayed at home and did not fight. While the militia duty and subsequent deaths disproportionately occurred among young men who had not married or converted, to say that the elite did not fight or die was an overstatement by Randolph. Notably, he mentioned only men, seemingly not counting the losses of women or children. Perhaps he meant the term men to refer to both sexes, but if so he probably underestimated the number of casualties (scholars are uncertain about the numbers, but likely several thousand colonists perished during the conflict). Colonists’ accounts of the war tended to put great emphasis on the fact that women and children died, often in horrible ways. In presenting the deaths of women and children, these accounts brought forward the intense social trauma of the conflict. Even though the colonial forces indiscriminately and brutally killed Indian men, women, and children, the colonists’ depictions of savageries wrought upon them by Indian warriors made the colonists’ acts seem like mere retaliation. By not mentioning women and children, by portraying the conflict as a war between men, Randolph directed his readers away from condemning the Indians or distinguishing them from the settlers. He apparently did not want to elicit sympathy for the settlers.

Randolph directed his report to English officials who wanted their colonies to generate income for England and English investors, so while Randolph did not fully discuss the number of settlers killed, he specifically counted the loss of houses, livestock, and crops, estimating the financial losses at £150,000. Paying for the war he knew would sap the colonial treasury and perhaps necessitate assistance from England. By claiming the death of three thousand Indians as a disadvantage, Randolph did not necessarily mean to evoke sympathy for the tribes as much as present an account of the loss of their potential economic value, just like the houses and livestock. In his view they could have been employed as workers “very serviceable to the English.” Randolph’s economic focus was not unusual. English accounts of war losses often recorded material losses before human casualties.

In answer to the inquiry from the Committee on Trade and Plantations about the “original cause of the present war,” Randolph outlines five possible contributing factors identified in popular discourse: indiscriminate application of strict Puritan laws to Indian cases; Jesuit missionaries encouraging Indian revolt against the Puritans; colonists taking land from the Wampanoag leader King Philip; God’s retribution for the sins of the colonists; and colonists selling arms to the Indians for personal gain.

Although Randolph clearly held a low opinion of the “rude and licentious” native groups in the area, his comments suggest that their civilization and conversion was possible. The problem lay in the magistrates’ “imprudent zeal” in attempting to “christianize those heathen.” Magistrates applied strict religious principles to supposed crimes committed by Indians “before they were civilized.” For Randolph, this provided an example of an overbearing Puritan government that linked Christianity and civilization. Underlying his comment was perhaps a call for a more practical approach that would be instituted by the English government. Modern historians have often concluded that the Puritans’ efforts to convert the Indian tribes around them helped created a volatile situation by destabilizing the Indian social system. Undoubtedly those efforts provided a spark that ignited the conflict.

Led by the efforts of the missionary John Eliot, the colonies established “praying towns” throughout southern New England. When Indians chose to live in one of those towns, they agreed to give up their tribal customs and follow strict Puritan laws and practices. These missions created rifts within and between the various tribes as distrust grew between those praying Indians who seemingly joined with the English and those who resisted giving up traditional customs and sovereignty. While Eliot and the other missionaries had some success in establishing praying towns in the Massachusetts, they met resistance from tribes with strong leaders such as King Philip. To encourage Philip to convert, Eliot sent James Sassamon, a Christian Wampanoag who had been educated at Harvard’s Indian school. For much of the 1660s Sassamon served as an influential intermediary between Philip and the colonists. He failed to convert Philip, however, and by the 1770s the Wampanoags had grown hostile to missionary efforts. In 1674 Sassamon accused Philip of planning to go to war with the English. A few months later, Sassamon’s body was discovered in a frozen pond, and another Indian claimed to have seen him killed by three members of Philip’s band. Plymouth magistrates tried and convicted the three and they were executed. The war started two weeks later.

Although Randolph’s charge of an unjust legal system for the Indians in Massachusetts had a great deal of legitimacy, his comments were partly guided by his bias against the colony itself. The application of English laws upon the various tribes of the area depended upon where they lived in relation to the English colonies. Those villages farthest from English settlements were treated almost as foreign entities, with legal disputes settled by negotiation. Those who chose to live in one of the mission settlements came under the same strict Puritan laws that governed the colonists. Groups like that of King Philip who lived within or near the lands granted or claimed by the colonies, fell in the middle. English laws and the court system governed their interactions with the settlers, although the regulation of the Indians themselves generally fell outside the court’s purview. The required “strict observation of their lawes” that Randolph cited applied more to the mission settlements. Since only a small minority of Indians lived in the praying towns and since they were generally predisposed toward the colonists, the application of strict Puritan laws in their cases likely caused some discontent but did not cause the war.

Randolph specifically pointed to the laws governing drunkenness, laws that applied to any Indian or colonist found intoxicated within the English settlements. What Randolph failed to mention was that all the colonies had laws governing the sale of liquor to Indians, although those laws were often disregarded. Randolph’s accusation that the magistrates acted “for their profit” in prosecuting the Indians was another dig at the Massachusetts government. The magistrates at first offered an alternative punishment of whipping the Indians, but when that punishment proved to be “much trouble and no profit,” the magistrates then changed the alternative punishment to ten days of labor.

Some colonists, Randolph noted, attributed the war to the efforts of “vagrant and jesuiticall priests.” In large part, this imagined conspiracy derived from the anti-Catholic paranoia common in that day. Jesuit priests did, however, travel with various migratory tribes, notably the Abenaki of northern New England, who were allied with the French during the recent wars. The English colonists therefore had some reason to suspect collusion between Philip and the French and their Jesuit missionaries. In 1667, when France and England were at war, a Wampanoag informed the colonists that Philip had conspired with the French to attack the colonies. After being confronted by his accuser, Philip proclaimed his innocence and the English eventually accepted his denial, but not before Philip paid £40 to cover the expenses of the investigation. Soon after King Philip’s War erupted in southern New England, the Abenaki attacked and destroyed numerous English settlements in Maine, opening a conflict that would not be resolved until 1678.

Undoubtedly, land disputes contributed to hostilities in 1671, and played a significant role in bringing about the 1675 war, but Randolph again overstated the case against the colonists. To be fair, Randolph should have noted how the colonial governments attempted to prevent abuses by restricting private land transactions with Indians. As the English settled the lands surrounding Philip’s Mount Hope tract (now Bristol, Rhode Island), tensions over land use and ownership created a volatile situation. A large part of the problem was that instead of fencing their cattle in, the colonists let their animals roam free, resulting in damage to nearby Wampanoag crops and food supplies; in some cases natives responded by killing the animals. Philip, however, did not lose “a considerable part of his land” as a direct result of these land and livestock disputes. Randolph could have been referring to a 1671 confrontation in which Philip had been accused of plotting against the English and for a time the two sides seemed on the verge of war. To avert the conflict, Philip swore allegiance to the Plymouth Colony, surrendered some weapons, and paid a £100 fine; to raise this money, he was forced to sell some land.

While Randolph’s report does not make any derisive remarks against the Puritan leadership’s assertion that God’s displeasure with the colonists caused the war, he could be sure that his readers would have scoffed at the notion that wearing periwigs and fashionable clothing (such as they had) would have been a contributing factor in the conflict. They might have even considered it a humorous explanation. Many colonists, however, took this explanation seriously. Increase Mather, an influential Boston minister and a leading Puritan intellectual, attempted to use the war to reform a general population that was moving away from orthodox Puritan doctrine. Recent settlers were more interested in economic opportunities than religious principles, and the younger Puritans had become complacent, relinquishing some of the religious fervor of the founding generation. In his numerous publications and sermons on the conflict, Mather advanced a mythology that envisioned the Puritans as God’s chosen people who needed to purge sinfulness from society, just as they purged the Indians from the land.

In one of his more damning comments against the Massachusetts colonial leaders, Randolph charged that they had in the past sold arms and ammunition to the Indians in order to “enrich some few of their relations and church members” at the expense of the larger population. The arms business, in Randolph’s view, might not have caused the war, but did contribute to the devastation wrought by the Wampanoags and their allies. As he noted, the colonies attempted to restrict the arms trade beginning with laws passed in the 1630s, although enforcement was often lacking. Randolph also refers to a 1657 act by the Massachusetts council seeking to expand the fur trade by licensing more traders; the lucrative fur trade, however, depended upon supplying Indians with guns and ammunition for their hunting and protection. The law recognized and taxed such arms sales by licensed fur traders to Native Americans. In this way, implies Randolph, the colonists were arming their enemies. However, he does not mention that if the English colonists did not supply the Indians with arms for hunting, the Indians could easily have turned to trading with the French and Dutch.

The aftermath of King Philip’s War calls into question Randolph’s conclusion that there were “no advantages” to the war. While it would take decades for the colonies to recover financially from the devastation, the war proved to be the last significant Indian conflict of southern New England. Ultimately, the colonies acquired a great deal of land for settlement and placed many Indians who were involved in the conflict in servitude.

An advantage of the war for Randolph, although not for the colonial leadership, was that King Philip’s War marked a turning point in the rule of the colonies. Shortly after the conflict, the English government became much more directly involved in colonial administration. Some historians have drawn a causal link between the war and the English intervention. That the English government dispatched Randolph in 1676 suggests that it was contemplating greater intervention even without the war, although it may have helped shift some settlers’ attitudes toward the English Crown. Randolph’s report probably influenced the change, providing evidence of colonial mismanagement. He wrote about how the colonists flouted English trading laws, and many seemed disloyal to the king. In 1679 Randolph returned to the colonies. He would become a major force in colonial affairs for the next twenty-four years, although he never completely succeeded in bringing the often rebellious colonies under English control.

Essential Themes

Because of his antipathy toward the Massachusetts colonial government, Edward Randolph presented a report more sympathetic to the Wampanoags and their allies than might be expected. He was not the only one who took that view. Other accounts published in London, such as those in the London Daily News, had similar perspectives. Some colonists also took a critical view of their leaders’ handling of the war, notably Edward Wharton in New-England’s Present Sufferings (London, 1675), Richard Hutchinson in The Warr in New-England Visibly Ended (London, 1677) and John Easton in Relacion of the Indyan Warre (possibly published in 1676). Like Randolph, they faulted the Puritan leadership, but these writers had a different reason for their antipathy: They were Quakers, and therefore espoused principles of nonviolence. In addition, their religion had been assailed and their members persecuted by the Puritans. Easton, a Quaker from Rhode Island, met with King Philip just before the war’s outbreak in an effort mediate the dispute. By including a transcript of the complaints of King Philip, his account perhaps best presented the Indian side. Very possibly all of these critical accounts helped build unfavorable opinions in England of the colonial government, which led to the imposition of greater English control of the colonies a few years later.

However, despite these quibbles, the majority of accounts written by New England residents evinced little sympathy for Indians, and most often featured what Boston printer John Foster described as “the horrid Massacres, Murthers, Savage Crueltyes, cowardize, ungrateful and perfidious dealings of Bloud-thirsty Barbarians.” Such accounts, historian Jill Lepore argues, carried the day in the public consciousness, decisively altering English conceptions by rigidly defining “English” as separate from “Indian.” This had long-term impact on future encounters with Indians in America: Before King Philip’s War, some could imagine the coexistence and even eventual merger of natives and colonists; afterward, that appeared impossible, as the two societies seemed completely incompatible.

One of the major debates among modern historians is whether the conflict was inevitable—whether the settlers’ continual demands for more land, their fears of potentially hostile Indians, and the general cultural clash necessarily sparked a conflict. Douglas Edward Leach, in a standard military history of the war, stated that it was “virtually inevitable” because “two mutually incompatible ways of life confronted each other.” Randolph’s report indicated that he did not accept that the conflict needed to occur. The problem for him was to be found in the management of the situation by the colonial leaders. Whether or not English rule would have made a difference is an open question. Such an administration could have instituted fairer laws with less emphasis on puritanical judgment. It might have had more consideration of Indian traditions and sovereignty. Even so, the social pressures and conflicts over land use would have likely remained.


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  • Pulsipher, Jenny Hale. Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2005. Print.
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Additional Reading

  • Mandell, Daniel R. King Philip’s War: Colonial Expansion, Native Resistance, and the End of Indian Sovereignty. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006. Print.
  • Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676, the End of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 1984. Print.