King Philip’s War. The bloodiest in US history

Town of Simsbury CT marker. Indian wars.

From the dust jacket to “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity” By Jill Lepore.

King Philip’s War, the excruciating racial war–colonists against Indians–that erupted in New England in 1675, was, in proportion to population, the bloodiest in American history. Some even argued that the massacres and outrages on both sides were too horrific to “deserve the name of a war.”

King Philip, leader of the Wampanoag Indians, retaliated against the hanging of two supporters by attacking English settlements in 1675. By the time this short war was over, half of the settlements and numerous Indian encampments were in ruin. Many were killed and the atrocities, tortures, murders, and rapes committed by all sides were beyond appalling.

But the book, which I’ve just started reading and will fully review soon, isn’t just about that war, it’s also about how it set the mold for future conflicts and mindsets and how the victors in a war create the history of that war, especially when the other side had no written language.

From the review on

Jill Lepore makes clear that it was after the war–and because of it–that the boundaries between cultures, hitherto blurred, turned into rigid ones. King Philip’s War became one of the most written-about wars in our history, and Lepore argues that the words strengthened and hardened feelings that, in turn, strengthened and hardened the enmity between Indians and Anglos. She shows how, as late as the nineteenth century, memories of the war were instrumental in justifying Indian removals–and how in our own century that same war has inspired Indian attempts to preserve “Indianness” as fiercely as the early settlers once struggled to preserve their Englishness.

The image is from a marker at the Simsbury CT Town Hall. The destruction of Simsbury in 1676 was part of King Philip’s War. King Philip’s Cave on nearby Talcott Mountain is one of several so-named caves where he and supporters hid out from the English. I bought the book at the amazing Half Moon Books in Northampton MA, location of another settlement that was razed in the war. Clearly, the Indians did not go quietly. And the echoes of this war still reverberate.

The more savage a war is, the harder it is to recover from it, something amply proven by both the Civil War and King Philip’s War. Whether the conflict was (and is) Black vs. White, North vs. South, or Indian vs. Anglo, the scars of these wars have yet to heal.

  • DJ

    A couple of comments are worth mentioning. First, when the Plymouth settlers first arrived, Edward Winslow (chief diplomat and later governor of Plymouth, as well as my distant-great uncle) negotiated peace with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag confederation. Relations were generally good, with many Wampanoags (including Massasoit) adopting English habits, though Plymouth’s westward expansion came at the expense of certain of the Wampanoag tribes (e.g. the Pequot War, 1637). Winslow was later dispatched to Maine, where he explored the coast and set up trade with the native peoples there. (He was by nature a peace-maker; perhaps that’s where I get my inclination from.)

    King Phillip’s War occured after the deaths of Winslow (1655) and Massasoit (1661). In that sense, it was a second-generation war, fought by the children of fathers who had generally lived in peace– and who resented the compromises that had resulted. It was, as you note, fought along racial lines. The English attacked even neutral tribes who were enemies of the Wampanoag, creating new enemies in the process.

    King Phillip’s War also saw the creation of the first Indian Reservations, notably Mashpee on Cape Cod. Also, something I was not aware of until now, the English sold captured Indians into slavery, to be transported to the West Indies.

    The English were not the only ones to commit atrocities. But since they are my forebears (and to the best of my knowledge, the Wampanoag are not), English atrocities trouble me more. Especially since I see the same patterns in our attitudes today. We can never, it seems, leave our past behind.

  • Ha, your ancestors might have known mine then back in 1640 or so!

    The English also captured converted Christian Indian tribes and shipped them to desolate islands to freeze and starve all the while congratulating themselves that they weren’t as barbaric as the Spanish.

    Indian atrocities were apparently hideous too, haven’t gotten to that part in the book yet.

  • The notion of “Kings”, such as Phillip, or “Chiefs”, as Massasoit, is wholly an English import. The illegal immigrants’ little minds were incapable of grasping the complexity of a social democratic society, so they conferred, as if it were their place to confer, such titles willy-nilly on those most compliant to their ambitions.

    Yes, that would be White Dogs, who killed far more than just the buffalo.

    Ten Bears

  • The book details how “Metacom” (his original name) was supplanted by “Philip”, as named by colonists and then he adopted it as his own. The Wampanoag took many names during their lives, usually a new name signified an important event or happening and the old name never used again. They also literally never spoke the name of the dead.

    Yes, the English figured a tribal leader must be a King, thus the name, even though the actual tribal structure, as you note, was much more complex and less hierarchical.

    The Metacomet Trail in Connecticut is derived from his name.

  • DJ

    1640? Ah, these newcomers…

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