Metacom’s War Begins

Metacom’s War was the most devastating and largest-scale Native American war of resistance against the European colonists, destroying many colonial settlements and claiming the lives of more than one-tenth of the total population of New England.

Summary of Event

Metacom’s War, also known as King Philip’s War, began on June 20, 1675, when Wampanoag Wampanoags , or Pokanoket, warriors began looting English houses in southern Plymouth Colony (now in Massachusetts) on the edge of Wampanoag country. Serious fighting began at Swansea on June 24. Plymouth Colony
[kw]Metacom’s War Begins (June 20, 1675)
[kw]War Begins, Metacom’s (June 20, 1675)
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 20, 1675: Metacom’s War Begins[2590]
Colonization;June 20, 1675: Metacom’s War Begins[2590]
Diplomacy and international relations;June 20, 1675: Metacom’s War Begins[2590]
American Colonies;June 20, 1675: Metacom’s War Begins[2590]
Metacom’s War (1675-1676)[Metacoms War (1675-1676)]
Church, Benjamin

The causes of the conflict were both economic and cultural. Through a series of treaties, much land had passed from the possession of the Wampanoags into the hands of English settlers, and the remaining Wampanoag homeland, Mount Hope Peninsula on Narragansett Bay, was in danger of being completely surrounded by English settlements. This expansion of English-controlled territory had brought many Indians under English political control, with the imposition of alien social mores. English courts, for example, sometimes sentenced tribesmen to fines or whippings for violating the Sabbath by such activities as firing a gun on Sunday. There also was growing pressure on Native Americans to convert to Christianity Christianity;Native Americans and
Native Americans;Christianity and . Tribal chiefs (called sachems in New England) and religious leaders (powwows) strongly opposed conversion, because it tended to weaken their traditional influence.

Massasoit Massasoit , the paramount sachem of the Wampanoags and an ally and friend of the English since 1621, had died in 1661, and after his death, tensions rapidly mounted. Massasoit’s eldest son, Wamsutta Wamsutta , called Alexander by the English, became sachem on his father’s death. Wamsutta died in 1661, shortly after being required by English authorities to explain rumors that he was considering an uprising. Another son, Metacom Metacom or Metacomet, known to the English as King Philip, became sachem, and the next few years witnessed a series of disputes. By 1671, friendly Native Americans were warning Puritan authorities that King Philip was organizing an alliance of tribes to join with the Wampanoags in a war of extermination against the English.

While the evidence for such a conspiracy is strong, war, sparked by the trial and execution at Plymouth of three Wampanoags for murder, seems to have broken out before Metacom’s alliance was perfected. In January, 1675, a Christian Wampanoag named John Sassamon, Sassamon, John who had just warned Plymouth of Metacom’s plans, was found murdered. On the testimony of an Indian who claimed to have witnessed the deed, three Wampanoags, including an important counselor of Metacom, were convicted and hanged on June 8. Metacom apparently was unable to restrain the rage of his warriors, and violence broke out before he was ready.

The war quickly spread to Connecticut Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony Massachusetts Bay Colony and later to Rhode Island Rhode Island , as other tribal groups, drawn in by Metacom’s diplomacy or angered by threats from colonial authorities, went on the attack. The Wampanoags were joined by the related Sakonnet Sakonnets and Pocasset Pocassets bands to the east of Narragansett Bay, by Nipmucks Nipmucks from the interior of Massachusetts, by the Narragansetts Narragansetts of present-day Rhode Island, and by smaller groups such as the river tribes of the Connecticut Valley.

The English colonists were supported by American Indians who often were the traditional enemies of tribes in Metacom’s alliance, so Indian New England was not united in Metacom’s War. The Mohegans Mohegans and Pequots Pequots of southern Connecticut served with the English, as did hundreds of Christian Indians from the “praying towns” of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Niantics of southern Rhode Island remained neutral. Metacom sought the assistance of the Mohawks Mohawks of New York Colony to the west, but the Mohawks aided the English by attacking their old Wampanoag enemies.

Metacom, grand sachem of the Wampanoags.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

In the early months, the Wampanoags and their allies, well armed with trade muskets, were too skillful and aggressive for the English. They repeatedly ambushed parties of colonial militiamen and assaulted and burned outlying English towns. Unskilled in forest warfare and distrustful of friendly tribesmen, the colonists were unable to pin down the enemy. The English usually had no inkling of the town chosen for attack, so they had to spread their forces over a large territory to protect it all. The hostile sachems, on the other hand, concentrated their forces and often greatly outnumbered the defending garrison.

By using Indian allies as scouts, English militia officers learned to avoid ambush and to operate more effectively in the forest. Eventually, special colonial units that could remain in the field for weeks were used to pursue American Indian bands; disease, cold, and starvation aided the colonists in wearing the tribes down. The most effective such unit was a small, mixed force of English militia and Indian allies commanded by Captain Benjamin Church Church, Benjamin of Plymouth Colony. It was Church’s company that eventually ran down Metacom and the handful of Wampanoags still with him, directed by a surrendered Wampanoag to a swamp where they had taken refuge.

Metacom was killed, shot by an Indian while trying to slip away once more, on August 12, 1676. By this time, as starving groups of Indians straggled in to surrender, the war was dragging to a close. The much larger population and economic resources of the English had won out. In spite of the warriors’ initial successes, it had become clear that there was no real prospect of driving the English into the sea. To the northeast in New Hampshire and Maine, where the Abenaki Abenakis peoples had risen against the English, the war continued into 1678.

Both sides used ruthless methods, often killing women, children, and the elderly. Indian attackers regularly attempted to burn colonists’ houses with the inhabitants inside them and sometimes tortured prisoners. Perhaps the most strikingly ruthless act committed by the English took place in the Great Swamp Fight Great Swamp Fight (1676) , December 19, 1676. A force of a thousand militiamen marched into a frozen swamp deep in the Rhode Island forest, led there by a Narragansett turncoat, and attacked perhaps one thousand Narragansetts sheltered in a log-walled fort. Forcing their way inside, the English set the fort afire. As many as six hundred Narragansetts, many of them women and children, perished in the blaze. Some eighty Englishmen were killed or later died of wounds.


Metacom’s War has been called the bloodiest war, proportionally, in the nation’s history, with some nine thousand of the eighty thousand people in New England killed. Of these, one-third were English and two-thirds Indian. Of New England’s ninety towns, fifty-two were attacked and seventeen completely burned. The frontier of settlement was pushed back many miles. The military power and the independence of the tribal people of southern New England had been crushed forever. Hundreds of Native American captives, including Metacom’s wife and small son, were sold into slavery by the colonial governments to help defray the war’s cost. Other captives, considered to be important war chiefs or those responsible for particular atrocities, were tried and publicly executed.

Further Reading

  • Bourne, Russell. The Red King’s Rebellion: Racial Politics in New England, 1675-1678. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A detailed treatment of the war that is especially critical of the motives and acts of the colonists. Maps, illustrations, and index.
  • Drake, James David. King Philip’s War: Civil War in New England, 1675-1676. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. Unlike many authors, who maintain King Philip’s War was a battle between two different cultures—one Native American and the other British—Drake argues the conflict was a civil war within a more cohesive New England culture.
  • Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. “The Betrayal of King Philip.” In Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Resistance. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. Josephy devotes a chapter of his book to Metacom’s relations with the British colonists.
  • Leach, Douglas Edward. Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip’s War. New York: Norton Library Edition, 1966. This elegantly written study, long considered the standard modern account of the war, indicts English land hunger as a cause of the war. Maps, illustrations, and index.
  • Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. A very readable text filled with interesting and pertinent anecdotes and little-known facts. Examines the cultural implications of the ways in which the settlers chronicled the war.
  • Lincoln, Charles A., ed. Narratives of the Indian Wars, 1675-1699. New York: Scribner’, 1913. Reprint. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1941. Contains a number of contemporaneous accounts of the war, including The Soveraignty & Goodness of God . . . the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs Mary Rowlandson, Rowlandson’s account of her capture in the attack on Lancaster, Massachusetts, in 1676. Her often reprinted classic is the earliest American captivity narrative. Rowlandson reports firsthand exchanges with Metacom, who at times traveled with the mixed band that held her prisoner.
  • Malone, Patrick M. The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. Study of Native American military tactics and their evolution under the influence of European weapons and methods. Argues that New England’s natives adopted the more ruthless methods of total war through English influence and example. Map, illustrations, and index.
  • Schultz, Eric B., and Michael J. Tougias. King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict. Woodstock, Vt.: Countryman Press, 1999. An in-depth history of the war as well as a guide to the sites of the raids, ambushes, and battles.
  • Slotkin, Richard, and James K. Folsom, eds. So Dreadful a Judgment: Puritan Responses to King Philip’s War, 1676-1677. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1978. Six contemporaneous accounts, including Rowlandson’s narrative and the liveliest, best contemporary description of the fighting, Thomas Church’s Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War (1716), based on the recollections of his father, Captain Benjamin Church.

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