Philip's War: America's Most Devastating Conflict
By Walt Giersbach
King Philip's War (1675-76) is an event that has been largely ignored by the
American public and popular historians. However, the almost two-year conflict
between the colonists and the Native Americans in New England stands as perhaps
the most devastating war in this country's history. One in ten soldiers on both
sides were wounded or killed. At its height, hostilities threatened to push the
recently arrived English colonists back to the coast. And, it took years for
towns and urban centers to recover from the carnage and property damage.
The war is named for King Philip, the son of Massasoit and chief of the
Wampanoag nation. In his language, his name was Metacom, Metacomet, or
Pometacom. In 1662, the court at Plymouth Colony arrogantly summoned the
Wampanoag leader Wamsutta to Plymouth. Major Josiah Winslow (later Colonel) and
a small force took Wamsutta, Philip's brother, at gunpoint. Soon after
questioning, Wamsutta sickened and died and his death infuriated the Wampanoag
Upon the death of his brother, whom the Indians suspected the English of
murdering, Philip became sachem and maintained a shaky peace with the colonists
for a number of years. Friendship continued to erode over the steady succession
of land sales forced on the Indians by their growing dependence on English
goods, and Plymouth's continued unyielding policy toward Native leaders, it is
reported by the Connecticut Society of Colonial Wars (www.colonialwarsct.org)
and other sources.
Suspicions of the Indians remained, and in 1671, the colonists questioned
Philip, fined him and demanded that the Wampanoag surrender their arms, which
Metacom, chief of the Wampanoag, known also as King Philip.
Col. Josiah Winslow, 1628-80, the first American-born governor of Massachusetts.
War Flames Are Ignited
In January 1675, the Indian John Sassamon died at Assawampsett Pond, about 15
miles north of present-day New Bedford. Sassamon was literate and a Christian
convert. He may have been acting as an informer to the English and was
murdered, probably at Philip's instigation. Increase Mather, writing after the
war, suggested he was killed "out of hatred for him for his Religion, for he
was Christianized, and baptiz'd, and was a Preacher amongst the Indians...and
was wont to curb those Indians that knew not God on the account of their
Events moved quickly, and on June 8 Sassamon's alleged murderers were tried and
executed at Plymouth. Three days later, Wampanoags were reported to have taken
up arms near Swansea, about 15 miles from Providence.
By the mid-17th century, settlements had been established throughout southeast
Massachusetts. "Though there were many events that led to the war, the attack
on the settlement on the banks of the Kickemuit River may be attributed to the
growing perception that Indian land had been increasingly encroached upon by
settlers, leaving cornfields overrun by settlers' livestock and traditional
hunting grounds inaccessible. In fact, since the arrival of the English at
Plymouth Rock in 1620, land under Native control had been reduced from all of
Southeastern Massachusetts to merely the area of the Mount Hope peninsula." (A
map and local points related to the war can be found at http:members.cox.net/drweed/kingphilip.htm.)
Less than a week later, authorities in Rhode Island, Plymouth, and
Massachusetts attempted negotiation with Philip, and sought guarantees of
fidelity from the Nipmucks and Narragansetts. However, before the end of the
month, Wampanoags made a sudden raid on the settlement of Swansea on the
Taunton River. On June 26, Massachusetts troops marched to Swansea to join
When news of the attack on Swansea reached Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Colony
quickly came to the aid of The Plymouth Colony. An example of the orders of the
General Court is the following: "To the Militia of the Town of Boston, Cha.
Camb. Watertown, Roxbury, Dorchester, Dedham, Brantrey, Weymouth, Hingham,
Maulden—You are hereby required in his Majesty's name to take notice that Govr
& Council have ordered 100 able shouldjers forthwith impressed out of the
severall Towns according to the proportions hereunder written for the aid and
assistance of our confederate Plymouth in the designe afoote agst the Indians,
and accordingly you are to warne and proportions to be ready at an hours
warning from Capt Daniel Henchman who is appointed Captain and Commander of the
Foote Company that each souldjer shal have his armes compleat and Snalsack
ready to march and not faile to be at the randevous."
In the coming days, Wampanoags attacked Rehoboth and Taunton, eluded colonial
troops, and left Mount Hope for Pocasset. Meanwhile, the Mohegans of
Connecticut traveled to Boston and offered to fight on the English side.
Other raids followed; towns were burned and many whites—men, women, and
children—were slain. Unable to draw the Indians into a major battle, the
colonists resorted to similar methods of hit-and-run warfare in retaliation,
and antagonized other tribes. The Wampanoag were joined by the Nipmuck and by
the Narragansett (after the latter were attacked by the colonists), and by that
summer of 1675 all the New England colonies were involved in the war.
While English encroachments on Native American land may be a general cause of
the war, three cultural points are worth noting as incendiaries that inflamed
- The English, many of whom were veterans of Europe's Thirty Years War, were
introduced to guerrilla warfare by necessity. Indians fought from behind trees
and, according to a poet of that period, "every stump shot like a musketeer /
And bows with arrows every tree did bear."  Worse yet, the new continent
featured dark forests and swamp lands that made it impossible to maintain
orderly battle lines. "To the colonists, swamps were hideous and dangerous
places, thae most foreign and un-English land in all the New World. The word
itself, swamp only entered the English language with the first reports
from North America in 1624. 
- English houses had evolved from wattle and daub huts to framed structures by
the mid-17th century, and the loss of "English houses" was a major crisis of
the war. The loss of property was, at that time, often counted first before the
loss of human life.
- And, the English had insurmountable differences with the Native Americans.
They were deeply suspicious even of Indians who had learned to read and write
English. Further, nakedness signaled both cultural and spiritual depravity. In
other words, the Native Americans were not "civilized." Adding indignity to
injury during the war, the Indians sometimes stripped dead men and women of
their clothes, leaving them lying prominently naked.
Other raids followed; towns were burned and many whites—men, women, and
children—were slain. In September, George Ingersoll described in a letter how
he arrived at a neighbor's farm after hearing gunshots: "When I came to the
place, i found an house burnt down, and six persons killed, and three of the
same family could not be found. An old man and a woman were halfe in, and halfe
out of the house neer halfe burnt. Their owne Son was shot through the body,
and also his head dashed in pieces. The young mans Wife was dead, her head
skinned." The woman was "bigg with Child," and two of her children he reported
as "haveing their heads dashed in pieces." The three missing family members
were taken captive. 
Unable to draw the Indians into a major battle, the colonists resorted to
similar methods of hit-and-run warfare in retaliation, antagonizing other
tribes. The Wampanoag were joined by the Nipmuck and by the Narragansett (after
the latter were attacked by the colonists), and by that summer of 1675 all the
New England colonies were involved in the war.
On July 8, Wampanoags attacked Middleborough and Dartmouth. On the 14th,
Nipmucks attacked Mendon. In the quickly changing tide of alliances, the
Narragansetts signed a peace treaty with Connecticut on July 15th, while a
Massachusetts envoy attempted to negotiate with the Nipmucks.
On July 19th, Philip and his troops escaped an English siege and fled Pocasset
for Nipmuck territory. In a matter of a few days, the Nipmucks attacked
Massachusetts troops and besieged Brookfield about 10 miles west of present-day
Most Natives who had converted to Christianity—called "Praying Indians" or
"Christian Indians"—fought with the English or remained neutral. The English,
however, did not always trust these converts and interned many of them in camps
on outlying islands. Also, some Native communities on Cape Cod and the Islands
did not participate in the war. On Aug. 13, the Massachusetts Council ordered
Christian Indians confined to praying towns—a dark foretaste of America's
suspension of civil liberties in later wartimes. But the carnage was
continuing: On Aug. 22, a group of unidentified Indians killed seven colonists
at Lancaster, Mass. Perhaps in retaliation, on Aug. 30, Capt. Samuel Moseley
arrested 15 Hassanemesit Indians near Marlborough for the Lancaster assault and
marched them to Boston.
The war was spreading to the West, and on Sept. 1, Wampanoags and Nipmucks
attacked Deerfield, Mass. Massachusetts forces under the command of Capt.
Moseley attacked the town of Pennacook. By the 12th of the month, colonists had
abandoned Deerfield, Squakeag, and Brookfield.
Warfare continued throughout the fall months. The Narragansetts signed a treaty
with the English in Boston. Massachusetts troops were ambushed near
Northampton. Pocumtucks attacked and destroyed Springfield.
For their part, the Colonists retaliated forcefully. The Massachusetts Council
relocated Christian Indians to Deer Island in Boston Harbor and repelled
Indians from Hatfield. And Commissioners of the United Colonies ordered a
united army to attack the Narragansetts at the Great Swamp. The Christian
Indians may have been perceived as a possible threat, but they were also the
enemy to the hostile Indians. Before the end of 1675, the Nipmucks had taken
captive Christian Indians at Magunkaquog, Chabanakongkomun, and Hassanemesit,
including James Printer. Printer was not only a literate Christian Indian from
Cambridge, he took the surname of the trade he pursued.
A University of Massachusetts study notes, "During September, 1675, bands of
warriors roamed the Connecticut River valley, attacking villagers as they
worked in the fields or traveled between villages on business. Unlike the
English who were accustomed to fighting fixed battles on open plains,
Amerindians fought from concealed spots and attacked small groups. This
'American' way of fighting would be a problem for the British during the next
century also. The colonists used these same guerilla tactics, which they
learned fighting the Amerindians, to fight against the British troops in the
American Revolutionary War." 
The Indians, it was said, were warrior societies. Despite the imbalance of
arms, since they lacked cannon and depended upon the English or French for
muskets and powder, they were effective against European military formations.
Colonial militia, which quickly adopted the Indian's style of guerrilla or
insurgency warfare, were better able to deal with Indian tactics than the
English officers, some of whom had fought under Cromwell in England.
The new year of 1676 saw Philip weakened—somewhat. In January, he and his band
traveled further west to Mohawk territory, seeking, but failing to secure, an
alliance. The winter months saw pitched battles as the Narragansetts attacked
Pawtuxet; Nipmucks attacked Lancaster then Medfield. As Philip and the
Wampanoags returned and attacked Northampton, the Massachusetts Council debated
erecting a wall around Boston; assaults were taking place within ten miles of
Fighting continued in March, as Nipmucks attacked Groton; Longmeadow,
Marlborough, and Simsbury were attacked; Nipmucks attacked English forces near
Sudbury. Then, Indians attacked Rehoboth, and Providence was destroyed.
The Massacre at Cumberland
One of the bloodiest massacres—and darkest moments for the English—occurred at
On Sunday morning March 26, 1676, after receiving word that a party of the
enemy lay near Blackstone's house at Study Hill in Cumberland, Capt. Michael
Pierce marched from Rehoboth, leading a company of 63 English and 20 friendly
Wampanoag Indians. Pierce was born about 1615 in Bristol, England, and
emigrated to America in about 1645. He settled in Hingham, Mass., in 1646,
moved to Scituate the following year, and was commissioned a Captain by the
Colony Court in 1669.
Upon reaching a ravine near Attleborough Gore on the Blackstone River above
Pawtucket Falls, his company were ambushed by about 500 to 700 Narragansett led
by chief sachem Canonchet. According to an account related by Hon. Edwin C.
Pierce of Providence, the English retreated across the river to set up a
defense on the west bank (now part of the City of Central Falls), but were
attacked by a blocking force of about 300 Indians. Pierce formed his men into a
circle and they continued to fight in ever decreasing numbers for about two
hours, until only a few remained. Pierce was killed early in the battle. A few
of the Wampanoags managed to escape by disguising themselves as attackers. Nine
English were captured and taken to a spot in Cumberland, now called Nine Men's
Misery, where they were tortured to death.
Arriving too late, a relief force found and buried the bodies of the nine. A
few days later, Canonchet was captured and executed.
These were the essentials of the battle. A more personal and detailed account
of the massacre of Pierce's party by the Indians gives us a flavor of the
emotion felt by the English:
"Sunday the 26th of March was sadly remarkable
to us for the Tidings of a very deplorable Disaster brought unto Boston about 5
a Cloak that Afternoon, by a Post from Dedham, viz., that Captain Pierce (of)
Scituate, in Plimmouth Colony, having Intelligence in his Garrison at
Seaconicke, that a Party of the Enemy lay near Mr. Blackstones, went forth with
63 English and twenty of the Cape Indians, (who had all along continued
faithful, and joyned with them;) and upon their March, discovered rambling in
an obscure woody Place, four or five Indians, who, in getting away from us,
halted, as if they had been lame or wounded. But our Men had pursued them but a
little Way into the Woods, before they found them to be only Decoys to draw
them into their Ambuscade: for on a Sudden, they discovered about 500 Indians,
who in very good order, furiously attacqued them, being as readily received by
ours. So that the Fight began to be very fierce and dubious, and our Men had
made the Enemy begin to retreat but so slowly that it scarce deserved that
Name, when a fresh Company of about 400 Indians came in; so that the English
and their few Indian Friends were quite surrounded, and beset on every Side.
Yet they made a brave Resistance, for about two Hours: during all that Time
they did great Execution upon the Enemy, whom they kept at a Distance, and
themselves in Order. For Captain Pierce cast his 63 English and 20 Indians into
a Ring, and fought Back to Back, and were double-double Distance, all in a
Ring, whilst the Indians were as thick as they could stand, thirty deep.
Overpowered with those numbers, the said Captain, and 55 of his English and ten
of their Indian Friends were slain upon the Place; which, in such a Cause, and
upon such Disadvantages, may certainly be stiled 'The Bed of Honour.' However,
they sold their worthy Lives at a gallant Rate; it being affirmed by those few
that (not without wonderful Difficulty, and many Wounds) made their Escape,
that the Indians lost as many Fighting Men, (not counting Women and Children,)
in this Engagement, as were killed at the Battle in the Swamp, near
Narraganset, mentioned in our last Letter, which were generally computed to be
above three Hundred." 
The Turning of the War
The battles were not all in favor of the Natives. An early history records that
on May 18, "At North Hampton, Hadly, and the Towns thereabout, two English
Captives, escaping from the Enemy, informed that a considerable body of Indians
(30) seated themselves not far from Pacomtuck, and that they were very secure:
so that should Forces be sent forth against them, many of the Enemy would (in
probability) be cut off, without any difficulty."
Peskeompscut, the Indian name for present-day Turners Falls on the Connecticut
River, was a favored site for fishing with the local tribes. The narrow river
at that time plunged over a 40 to 50 foot drop. In May 1676, warriors, women,
children and old people were gathered there to catch and cure fish. "Months of
war with the English had used up their limited food stores. While some people
fished, others went down river to the abandoned fields at Deerfield where they
planted seed. With luck they would be able to harvest a crop in the late
summer. Warriors organized cattle raids on the nearby English settlements." 
Local colonists, some from Springfield 30 miles south, and a few garrison
soldiers, responded to the call. By May 18, 150 men and boys assembled in
Hatfield. Capt. William Turner led the group past Bloody Brook and the edge of
Deerfield, where they crossed the Deerfield River. Then they wound through
about two miles of unbroken forest, crossed the Green River, and then pushed on
to Mount Adams which was within a mile of the falls.
The history continues, that the English "sent to their neighbors in Conn. for a
supply of men, but none coming, they raised about an hundred and four score out
of their own towns, who arrived at the Indian Wigwams betimes in the morning,
finding them secure indeed, yea all asleep without having any Scouts abroad, so
that our Soldiers came and put their guns into their Wigwams before the Indians
were aware of them, and made a great and notable slaughter amongst them. Some
of the souldiers affirm, that they numbred above one hundred that lay dead upon
the ground, and besides those, others told about an hundred and thirty, who
were driven into the River, and there perished, being carried down the Falls."
The much-needed victory immediately turned sour. Turner's attack had alerted
other Indians camped along the river. One groups crossed the river below the
falls and took up a position across the trail leading to Deerfield. Capt.
Turner apparently had not thought about securing his retreat, reasoning that
the attack had been successful and several hundred of the enemy had been slain
at the cost of only one English life.
Then, they heard from a captive that Philip was coming. The English party was
torn by indecision. Which route should they take in retreat? The Hatfield force
broke into small groups, some insisting on one route, others taking a different
path back to where the horses had been left. A few fortunate men managed to get
to their horses just before the warriors got to them. Other settlers were
forced to push homeward on foot.
Warriors followed the panicking English, inflicting casualties whenever
possible. Capt. Turner was killed as he tried to cross the Green River. Of the
150 English participants, at least 40 were killed on the retreat. Some got
separated from the main body and had to find their way alone; a few were
successful while others never returned.
Fear was contagious, as this account shows:
"An English Captive Lad who was found in the
wigwams spake as if Philip were coming with a thousand Indians which false
report being famed among the Souldiers, a panick terror fell upon many of them,
and they hasted homewards in a confused rout: In the mean while a party of
Indians from an Island (whose coming on shore might easily have been prevented,
and souldiers before they set out from Hadly were earnestly admonished to take
care about that matter) assaulted our men; yea, to the great dishonor of the
English, a few Indians pursued our Souldiers four or five miles, who were in
number near twice as many as the Enemy. In this disorder, he that was at this
time the chief Captain, whose name was Turner, lost his life, he was pursued
through a River, received his fatal stroke as he passed through that which is
called Green River, etc. as he came out of the Water he fell into the hands of
the Uncircumsised, who tripped him (as some who saw it affirm) and rode away
upon his horse; and between thirty and forty more were lost in this Retreat.
The power of the Indians was broken in this battle."
War's End, and the Aftermath
By mid-year, the war had turned. The Narragansett were completely defeated and
their chief, Canonchet, had been killed in April. The Wampanoag and Nipmuck
were gradually subdued. In June, Indians attacked Hadley but were repelled by
Connecticut soldiers. Massachusetts issued a declaration of amnesty for Indians
who surrendered. And by July, Maj. John Talcott and his troops begin sweeping
Connecticut and Rhode Island, capturing large numbers of Algonquians who were
transported out of the colonies as slaves throughout the summer.
On July 4, Capt. Benjamin Church and his soldiers begin sweeping Plymouth for
Wampanoags. Two weeks later, nearly two hundred Nipmucks surrendered in Boston.
Capt. Church was finally successful in capturing Philip's wife and son. An
Indian soldier named Alderman in the service of Capt. Church killed Philip
after his hiding place at Mt. Hope (Bristol, R.I.) was betrayed. Philip's body
was drawn and quartered and his head exposed on a pole in Plymouth. Increase
"Captured, King Philip was taken and destroyed,
and there was he (like as Agag was hewed in pieces before the Lord) cut into
four quarters, and is now hanged up as a monument of revenging Justice, his
head being cut off and carried away to Plymouth, his Hands were brought to
"We should not be surprised that the colonists, often hard pressed to win these
all-out assaults, developed not only a fear of Indians but a hatred as well.
Treating with the Indians as equals, or even as pseudo-equals was quite beyond
their comprehension or in most cases their abilities. This problem conflicted
with the general imperial policy to improve relations, especially in peace
A Land in Desolation
The war, which was extremely costly to the colonists in life and property,
resulted in the virtual extermination of tribal Indian life in southern New
England and the disappearance of the fur trade. The New England Confederation
then had their way completely clear for white settlement.
Rhode Island found itself the victim of a war it had neither instigated nor
declared, and suffered as much as its Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth neighbors.
Providence lost 72 homes and was deserted by most of its inhabitants. Warwick
was burned to the ground except for one stone house, while places like Wickford
and the ancient settlement of Pawtuxet were utterly destroyed. By March 1676,
the area south of the Pawtuxet River had been largely deserted by the English,
and by the war's end only the village of Portsmouth and the town of Newport had
been spared the ravages of King Philip's War.
Connecticut's military played a crucial role in the war, and the colony escaped
assault with the exception of Simsbury, which was abandoned and burned to the
ground. The colonists of Connecticut did not suffer much from hostile Indians,
excepting some remote settlers high up the Connecticut River. "They furnished
their full measure of men and supplies, and their soldiers bore a conspicuous
part in that contest between the races for supremacy," according to the Society
for Colonial Wars.
In all, more than half of New England's 90 towns were assaulted by native
warriors. For a time in the spring of 1676, it appeared to the colonists that
the entire English population of Massachusetts and Rhode Island might be driven
back into a handful of fortified seacoast cities. Between 600 and 800 English
died in battle during King Philip's War. Measured against a European population
in New England of perhaps 52,000, this death rate was nearly twice that of the
Civil War and more than seven times that of World War II. The English Crown
sent Edmund Randolph to assess damages shortly after the war and he reported
that 1,200 homes were burned, 8,000 head of cattle lost, and vast stores of
foodstuffs destroyed. One in ten soldiers on both sides was injured or killed.
Nathaniel Saltonstall noted in 1676, the Indian attacks left "in Narraganset
not one House left standing. At Warwick, but one. At Providence, not above
three. At Potuxit, none left.... Besides particular Farms and Plantations, a
great Number not be reckoned up, wholly laid waste or very much damnified. And
as to Persons, it is generally thought that of the English there hath been
lost, in all...above Eight Hundred."
The outcome of King Philip's War was equally devastating to the traditional way
of life for Native people in New England. Hundreds of Natives who fought with
Philip were sold into slavery abroad. Others who might be rehabilitated,
especially women and children, were forced to become servants locally. As the
traditional base of existence changed due to the Colonists' victory, the
Wampanoag and other local Native communities had to adapt certain aspects of
their culture in order to survive.
It is curious that such a conflict is little remembered today, not because of
its bloody devastation but for the extent that such a great proportion of the
population—English and Native American alike—was affected. Jacques Arsenault,
writing for the University of Georgetown,
indicates this is because many of the realities of King Philip's War do not fit
the classical myth of America as the Land of the Free. He states, "The final
reason for the poor understanding of King Philip's War is that the events of
the war really don't fit into American Mythology. The evidence of King Philip's
resistance to an encroaching colonial population would not sit well with
peaceful images of the first Thanksgiving, or with the vision of the founders
of our nation gathering together to create a nation of freedom, equality and
* * *
. Increase Mather, Brief History, 49-50, b. 1639-d. 1723, Mather
was pastor of North Church in Boston and father of Cotton Mather.
. Benjamin Thompson, New-England's Crisis, p. 220.
. Jill Lepore, The Name of War, p. 85, First Vintage Books, 1999.
. George Ingersoll to Leif Augur, Sept. 10, 1675.
. Narratives of the Indian Wars 1675-1699, edited by Charles H.
Lincoln, Ph.D: A World Wide Web Site Containing Information About the Biology,
History, and Geology of New England's Largest River,
University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
. The battle in which Captain Michael Pierce lost his life is detailed in
Drakes Indian Chronicles (pp. 220-222).
. http://www.pilgrimhall.org/philipwar.htm, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA.
Written by Walter Giersbach. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Walter Giersbach at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author:
Walter Giersbach’s fiction has appeared in a score of online and print publications. He also writes extensively on American history, with 10 pieces published in Military History Online. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, published by Wild Child (www.wildchildpublishing.com) were available from online retailers until his publisher ceased operations. He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and moderates a writing group in New Jersey.
Special Note about the Author:
Walter Giersbach is descended from four colonists who fought in King Philip's War, including Michael Pierce, who died in the Cumberland Massacre.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.