THE PILGRIMS HAD BEEN DRIVEN by fiercely held spiritual beliefs. They had sailed across a vast and dangerous ocean to a wilderness where, against impossible odds, they had made a home. The purity of the Old Comers’ purpose and the magnitude of their accomplishments could never again be repeated.
From the start, the second generation suffered under the assumption that, as their ministers never tired of reminding them, they were “the degenerate plant of a strange vine.” Where their mothers and fathers had once stood before their congregations and testified to the working of grace within them, the children of the Saints felt no such fervor.
By 1660, church membership in Massachusetts-Bay had so lapsed that a group of ministers instituted the Half-Way Covenant, an easing of the requirements for membership intended to boost the number of communicants. The Plymouth church did not adopt the Half-Way Covenant until the following century (in part because its rules concerning church membership were less stringent than the Puritans’ requirements in Massachusetts-Bay). The fact remained, however, that as Governor Bradford had complained, the spiritual life of Plymouth, along with all the colonies of New England, had declined to the point that God must one day show his displeasure. For the children of the Saints, it would be impossible not to see the calamities ahead as the judgment of the Lord.
Instead of the afterlife, it was the material rewards of this life that increasingly became the focus of the Pilgrims’ children and grandchildren. Most Plymouth residents were farmers, but there was much more than agriculture driving the New England economy. The demand for fish, timber, grain, and cattle in Europe, the West Indies, and beyond was insatiable, and by the midpoint of the century, New England merchants had established the pattern of transatlantic trade that existed right up to the American Revolution.
To take full advantage of this lucrative trade, a colony needed a port, and Boston quickly emerged as the economic center of the region. The Pilgrims’ decision to remain at their shallow anchorage doomed Plymouth to becoming the poorest of the New England colonies. But there was always the teasing possibility of economic redemption. On the west shore of the Mount Hope Peninsula, just to the south of the Pokanoket village of Sowams, was a large, deep, and well-protected harbor. However, back in 1640, Plymouth officials had set aside the entire Mount Hope Peninsula, along with the territory known as Pocasset on the east shore of Mount Hope Bay, as an Indian reserve. At least for now, the future site of Bristol, Rhode Island, was off-limits to the English.
Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, New England had been left to do pretty much as it pleased. Unlike Virginia, there had never been a royal governor in the northern colonies, and with the outbreak of the English civil war, Puritan New England had enjoyed the benefit of a sympathetic government back in the mother country.
Then, in 1660, New England’s long-standing autonomy suddenly seemed in jeopardy. With the downfall of the Cromwell regime came the restoration of King Charles II. Since his father had been beheaded by Puritan revolutionaries, the new monarch was not inclined to look favorably on New England. But Charles’s initial interest in America lay elsewhere. The collapse of the wampum trade in America combined with the recent defeat of the Dutch navy in Europe had left the Dutch colony of New Netherland vulnerable, and Charles dispatched royal commissioners to oversee the conquest of the rival colony in 1664.
Several merchants in Plymouth traded with the Dutch colony but none was more closely linked with New Netherland than Thomas Willett. Willett had served his apprenticeship at the Plymouth trading post in Penobscot, Maine. He had then married the daughter of Massasoit’s confidant John Brown and moved with his father-in-law to Wannamoisett. In addition to being experienced in working with the Indians, Willett, who had immigrated to America from Leiden, was fluent in Dutch. By the 1660s he had established a lucrative trade with New Netherland, and one of the king’s commissioners may have had him in mind when he referred to the inhabitants of Plymouth Colony as “mongrel Dutch.” It was not surprising, then, that once New Netherland became New York in a bloodless takeover in 1664, Willett became Manhattan’s first English mayor.
The increasing amount of time Willett spent in Manhattan soon became a problem for Massasoit’s son and heir, Alexander. Since he lived so close to the Pokanokets, Willett had no choice but to develop a good relationship with the Indians, and he appears to have become for Alexander what Edward Winslow had been for Massasoit: the Englishman he trusted above all others.
Willett had inherited Miles Standish’s role as the colony’s chief military officer. But by 1662, he had been replaced by Edward Winslow’s thirty-three-year-old son Josiah. Despite his young age, Josiah was well on his way to becoming Plymouth’s most distinguished citizen. One of the few Plymouth residents to have attended Harvard College, he had married the beautiful Penelope Pelham, daughter of Harvard treasurer and assistant governor of Massachusetts Herbert Pelham. A portrait painted in 1651 when Josiah was visiting his father in England depicts a young man with a handsome, somewhat supercilious face and a shoulder-length shock of reddish brown hair. By the 1660s, Josiah and Penelope had taken up residence in Careswell, the Winslow family estate in Marshfield that was named for the home of Josiah’s great-grandfather back in England.
Winslow had the polish of an English gentleman, but he had been born in America. Being Edward Winslow’s son, he had come to know the Indians well. But from the beginning of his public career, Josiah had a very different relationship with the leadership of the Pokanokets.
By the 1660s, the English no longer felt that their survival depended on the support of the Indians; instead, many colonists, particularly the younger ones, saw the Indians as an impediment to their future prosperity. No longer mindful of the debt they owed the Pokanokets, without whom their parents would never have endured their first year in America, some of the Pilgrims’ children were less willing to treat Native leaders with the tolerance and respect their parents had once afforded Massasoit.
Penelope and Josiah Winslow in 1651
For his part, Alexander had demonstrated a combativeness of his own. Even before his father’s death, he had ignored Massasoit’s agreement with the colony and sold Hog Island to the Rhode Islander Richard Smith. Then, in the spring of 1662, word reached Plymouth that Alexander had done it again. He had illegally sold land to yet another Rhode Islander.
Ever since Master Jones’s decision to sail for Cape Cod instead of the Hudson River, Plymouth’s patent had been less ironclad than its magistrates would have liked, despite repeated efforts to secure a new charter from the king. But even if Plymouth’s paperwork had all been in order, she would still have been subjected to the border disputes that plagued all the colonies. It was true that the United Colonies of New England had been created, in part, to address this problem, but Rhode Island was not part of the confederation. Plymouth could not allow Alexander to continue selling land to Rhode Islanders and summoned him to appear.
There were also unsettling rumors that the sachem had spoken with the Narragansetts about joining forces against the English. When Alexander failed to appear in court as promised, Governor Thomas Prence instructed Major Josiah Winslow to bring him in.
Winslow headed out in July of 1662 with ten well-armed men, all of them on horseback, trotting along the same old Indian trail that their forefathers had once walked to Pokanoket. They were in the vicinity of Nemasket, fifteen miles inland from Plymouth, when they learned that Alexander happened to be just a few miles away at a hunting and fishing lodge on Monponsett Pond in modern Halifax, Massachusetts.
It was still morning when Winslow and his men arrived at the Indians’ camp. They found the sachem and about ten others, including his wife Weetamoo, eating their breakfast inside a wigwam, with their muskets left outside in plain view. Winslow ordered his men to seize the weapons and to surround the wigwam. He then went inside to have it out with Alexander.
The Pokanoket sachem spoke to Winslow through an interpreter, John Sassamon’s brother Rowland, and as the exchange became more heated, the major insisted that they move the conversation outside. Alexander was outraged that Plymouth officials had chosen to treat him in such a condescending and peremptory manner. If there had been any truth to the rumor of a conspiracy would he be here, casually fishing at Monponsett Pond?
Winslow reminded the sachem that he had neglected to appear, as promised, before the Plymouth court. Alexander explained that he had been waiting for his friend Thomas Willet to return from Manhattan so that he could speak to him about the matter.
By this point, Alexander had worked himself into a raging fury. Winslow took out his pistol, held the weapon to the sachem’s breast, and said, “I have been ordered to bring you to Plymouth, and by the help of God I will do it.”
Understandably stunned, Alexander was on the verge of an even more violent outburst, when Sassamon asked that he be given the chance to speak to his sachem alone. After a few minutes of tense conversation, it was announced that Alexander had agreed to go with Winslow, but only as long as “he might go like a sachem”—in the company of his attendants.
It was a hot summer day, and Winslow offered Alexander the use of one of their horses. Since his wife and the others must walk, the sachem said that “he could go on foot as well as they,” provided that the English maintained a reasonable pace. In the meantime, Winslow sent a messenger ahead to organize a hasty meeting of the magistrates in Duxbury.
The meeting seems to have done much to calm passions on both sides. What happened next is somewhat unclear, but soon after the conference, Alexander and his entourage spent a night at Winslow’s house in Marshfield, where the sachem suddenly fell ill. One contemporary historian claimed that it was Alexander’s “choler and indignation that…put him into a fever.” More recently, a medical doctor has hypothesized that the sachem may have been suffering from appendicitis. Whatever the case, a surgeon was called for and gave Alexander a “working physic,” a strong purgative that would only have exacerbated his condition if he was indeed suffering from an irritated appendix. The sachem’s attendants asked that they be allowed to take him back to Mount Hope. Permission was granted, and Alexander’s men carried him on their shoulders till they reached the Taunton River in Middle-borough. From there he was transported by canoe back to Mount Hope, where he died a few days later.
It was an astonishing and disturbing sequence of events that put into bold relief just where matters stood between the English and Indians in Plymouth Colony. In 1623, Edward Winslow had earned Massasoit’s undying love by doing everything in his power—even scraping the sachem’s furred mouth—to save his life. Thirty-nine years later, Winslow’s son had burst into Alexander’s wigwam, brandishing a pistol. Within a week, the Pokanoket leader was dead.
In years to come, the rumors would abound: that Alexander had been marched unmercifully under the burning summer sun until he had sickened and died; that he had been thrown in jail and starved to death. In an effort to counter such hearsay, one of the men who’d accompanied Winslow—William Bradford’s son William junior—provided an account of the incident in which he insisted that Alexander had accompanied Winslow “freely and readily.”
Alexander’s younger brother Philip, on the other hand, became convinced that Winslow had poisoned the sachem. Indeed, Philip’s hatred of the Plymouth military officer became so notorious that once war did erupt, Winslow felt compelled to send his wife and children to Salem while he transformed his home at Marshfield into an armed fortress. Intentionally or not, Winslow had lit the slow-burning fuse that would one day ignite New England.
For days, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Indians gathered at Mount Hope to mourn the passing of Alexander. Then the despair turned to joy as the crowds celebrated Philip’s rise to supreme sachem of the Pokanokets.
On the eastern shore of Mount Hope is the huge outcropping of rock from which the peninsula gets its name. More than three hundred feet high, Mount Hope provides panoramic views of Narragansett and Mount Hope bays. It is a towering, majestic chunk of gneiss and quartz that puts the relatively minuscule Plymouth Rock to shame.
Approaching Mount Hope from the south
There is a legend that Philip once stood upon the summit of Mount Hope and, turning west, hurled a stone all the way across the peninsula to Poppasquash Neck more than two miles away. It is a tradition that reflects the sense of power and strength that many Pokanokets may have projected upon their new leader, who was just twenty-four years old in August 1662. That summer, the “flocking multitudes” at Mount Hope became so uproarious that the Plymouth magistrates feared Philip had convened a council of war. Only a few weeks after hauling his brother into court, Governor Prence made the same demand of Philip.
The young sachem who appeared at Plymouth on August 6, 1662, was not about to cower before the English. As Philip made clear in the years ahead, he considered himself on equal terms with none other than Charles II. All others—including Governor Prence and the deceitful Major Josiah Winslow—were “but subjects” of the king of England and unfit to tell a fellow monarch what to do. Philip’s “ambitious and haughty” demeanor at the Plymouth court that day moved one observer to refer to him mockingly as “King Philip”—a nickname he never claimed for himself but that followed the sachem into history.
No matter how self-possessed Philip appeared that day in court, he knew that now was not the time to accuse the English of murdering his brother. Alexander’s death had thrust him into a difficult and completely unexpected situation. If Philip truly suspected that his brother had been assassinated, he must have believed that Alexander’s boldness had gotten him killed. Philip was young enough to be his late brother’s son. He had no choice but to be very careful, particularly in the early days of his sachemship.
Instead of indignantly accusing Winslow of murdering his brother—something he did not say openly to an Englishman until near the outbreak of hostilities thirteen years later—Philip told the members of the court exactly what they wanted to hear. He promised that the “ancient covenant” that had existed between his father and Plymouth remained inviolate. He even offered his younger brother as a hostage if it might ease the magistrates’ concerns, but it was decided that this was not necessary. As far as Governor Prence was concerned, relations with the Indians were once again back to normal.
Over the next few years, as Philip settled into his new role as leader of the Pokanokets, New England grew more and more crowded. Both the English and the Indians depended on agriculture, and only about 20 percent of the land was suitable for farming. Adding to the pressure for land was the rapid rise of the English population. The first generation of settlers had averaged an astonishing seven to eight children per family, and by the 1660s those children wanted farms of their own.
The English were not the only ones whose world was changing. The Indians of Philip’s generation had grown up amid the boom times of the fur trade and had come to regard expensive Western goods as an essential part of their lives. But now, with the virtual extinction of the beaver, the devaluation of wampum, and the loss of so much land, this new generation of Native Americans was beginning to confront a future of radically diminished opportunities.
The pressure was particularly intense in Plymouth. Unlike Massachusetts-Bay and Connecticut, which had large hinterlands, the Indians and English in Plymouth had almost nowhere left to go. Pushed south to the neck of Mount Hope, Philip and his people were hemmed in from almost every side. Looking out from the summit of Mount Hope, Philip could see chimney smoke from the houses of the English to the north in Wannamoisett; to the south, just a half mile from the tip of Mount Hope was Rhode Island (known today as Aquidneck Island), home to the thriving English settlements of Portsmouth and Newport. Off in the distance to the west were the Narragansetts; closer to home was Hog Island, which, thanks to his brother Alexander, had become a part of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, back in 1654. Philip’s only relief came when he looked east across Mount Hope Bay to Pocasset in modern Tiverton, Rhode Island, the homeland of Weetamoo, Alexander’s widow and the “Squaw Sachem” of Pocasset.
Adding to the Pokanokets’ growing sense of claustrophobia were the Englishmen’s livestock. Domesticated creatures such as cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs were constantly straying off English farms and feasting on the Indians’ corn. Despite attempts to address the Indians’ complaints (a fence was built across the northern edge of Mount Hope), livestock remained a major irritant in English-Native relations.
But if Philip had inherited a diminished and pressure-filled world, he proved remarkably resourceful in making the most of what was available to him. Yes, the Englishmen’s livestock were a nuisance. Well, then Philip would get cattle of his own. In 1665 he acquired a horse; in 1669, his large herd of hogs got him in trouble with the proprietors of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Philip had the audacity to ferry his pigs out to Hog Island. His brother had sold the island fifteen years ago, but to Philip’s mind it was just the place for his swine to forage.
As Philip knew, losing land had the most direct impact on the well-being of his people. If the Pokanokets were to survive as an independent entity, they must hold on to what land his father and brother had not yet sold. Soon after becoming sachem, he and Governor Prence agreed to a seven-year embargo on the sale of Indian land. It was an extraordinary agreement that marked a bold and high-minded departure from the practices of the past, and Philip instructed John Sassamon to write the governor a letter. “Last summer [Philip] made that promise with you,” Sassamon wrote, “that he would not sell no land in seven years time…. [H]e would have no English trouble him before that time.”
But Philip’s idealistic resolve soon wavered. The following year, in April 1664, Philip agreed to sell a piece of land bordering the towns of Bridgewater, Taunton, and Rehoboth for a record £66 (roughly $12,000 today)—almost twice the amount his father had received for the Pokanoket homeland of Sowams. If the embargo had proven fleeting, Philip had at least succeeded in getting the English to pay a decent price for his land. Philip was doing just what his father had done forty years before—adapting to the inevitable forces of change.
Paul Revere’s engraving of King Philip
Because Philip was the supreme sachem of the Pokanokets, his power over his people was, according to Roger Williams, that of “an absolute monarchy.” In reality, however, there were practical limits to his authority. If he should do something to lose the trust and respect of his people, the sachem might find himself without anyone to lead. “[V]ery frequently their men will leave them upon distaste or harsh dealing,” wrote Daniel Gookin, Massachusetts-Bay’s superintendent of the Praying Indians, “and go and live under other sachems that can protect them; so that their princes endeavor to carry it obligingly and lovingly unto their people, lest they should desert them, and thereby their strength, power, and tribute would be diminished.”
Philip was also expected to conduct himself with the dignity befitting a supreme sachem. In addition to dressing more elaborately than the common people, he possessed a larger wigwam than most and traveled with an entourage of warriors and wives. When a person of lesser status greeted him, that person must say, “Cowaúnckamish,” meaning, “My service to you,” as he stroked both of the sachem’s shoulders.
An elm bowl attributed to King Philip
By all accounts, Philip looked the part. One admiring Englishman who saw the sachem on the streets of Boston estimated his clothing and large belts of wampum to be worth at least £20, approximately $4,000 today. But if Philip was to maintain himself as sachem of the Pokanoket without continuing to rely on the sale of Indian land, he needed to find an alternative to the fur trade that had once supported his father.
Ever since the Pilgrims had watched the gambols of whales around the anchored Mayflower, the English had sought to exploit these large sea mammals as a source of oil and baleen. Nowhere were there more whales than in the waters surrounding Nantucket Island—a fifty-square-mile sandbank twenty-four miles off the south shore of Cape Cod. Massasoit had long since determined the rules by which the Nantucket Indians divided up the whales that washed up on the island’s shore. As whale oil became an increasingly sought-after commodity in New England, it was crucial that Philip reassert his father’s claims over the Indian whalers of Nantucket.
In 1665, Philip received word that a Nantucket Indian named John Gibbs had broken a Native taboo: he had spoken the name of Philip’s dead father. Philip decided he must personally oversee Gibbs’s punishment, and he set out on an expedition that might also help to strengthen his influence on the island.
In 1665, the Indian population on Nantucket was huge—somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 at a time when the total number of Pokanokets and their allies, including those on Nantucket, is estimated to have been about 5,000. The island’s English population, on the other hand, barely reached one hundred. On Nantucket, Philip would experience what it had been like in 1621 when the Indians had still been the overwhelmingly dominant force in New England.
By canoe, it was about sixty-five miles from Mount Hope to Nantucket. Philip landed on the west end of the island and then used the sand cliffs along the south shore to conceal his progress east to Gibbs’s home near a pond that still bears his name. Soon the Indian was in Philip’s custody. But as the sachem prepared to execute the transgressor, some members of the English community offered to pay for his release. Gibbs was a special favorite of the island’s interpreter, Peter Folger, and would soon become a minister to Nantucket’s Christian Indians. Philip named a price, but the English were unable to meet it. A standoff ensued as Philip refused to lessen his offer, using “threatening language,” the island historian Obed Macy later reported, “pronounced with an emphasis which foreboded no good.”
Philip appeared to be in control of the situation, especially given that the English were outnumbered by more than ten to one. But as may have become increasingly clear to Peter Folger (whose daughter Abiah would have a son named Benjamin Franklin), Philip did not have the support of the local Indians in this matter. The English “concluded,” Macy wrote, “to put all to risk. [T]hey told [Philip], that, if he did not immediately leave the island, they would rally the inhabitants, and fall upon him and cut him off to a man.”
Both sides knew it was an empty threat, but it was Philip who backed down. With £11 in hand, he “happily took the alarm, and left the island as soon as possible.”
Instead of Philip, it had been the English who had proved their loyalty to the local Indians, and in the years ahead more and more of those Indians would turn to Christianity. With the outbreak of war a decade later, the Indians of Nantucket became one of the first Native groups in New England to “disown” Philip. For a young sachem seeking to assert his authority over one of the most populous and potentially lucrative portions of his territory, the voyage to Nantucket had been a disaster.
By 1667, Philip was five years into his reign as sachem of Mount Hope. Almost thirty years old, he and his wife Wootonekanuske had just had a son, and the birth of the boy appears to have prompted Philip to draft a will. When Philip’s interpreter, John Sassamon, read the will back to him, all seemed as the sachem had intended. But, as it turned out, Sassamon had written something else entirely. Instead of leaving his lands to his intended heirs, Philip had, according to the will as written by Sassamon, left his lands to his interpreter. As had happened forty years before with Squanto, a cultural go-between had surrendered to the temptations of using his special powers to his own advantage. When Philip discovered what his trusted interpreter had done, Sassamon, it was reported, “ran away from him.” Soon Sassamon was back with his former mentor, John Eliot, working as a teacher and minister to the Praying Indians.
Philip came to blame the interpreter’s disloyalty on the influence of Christianity. He later claimed that the Praying Indians were “only dissemblers” and intended “by their lying to wrong their [Indian] kings.” John Eliot reported that Philip told him he cared less for Christianity than he cared for the button of his coat. The sachem was talking metaphorically, but his newfound bitterness toward the religion flowed from one man: his former confidant, John Sassamon.
Sassamon’s betrayal was just one setback in what proved to be a difficult year for the Pokanoket sachem. That spring Plymouth governorPrence heard a disturbing rumor. Informants from Rehoboth reported that Philip had been talking about joining forces with the French and Dutch against the English. Not only would this allow the Indians to get back their lands, Philip had claimed; it would enable them to “enrich themselves with [English] goods.” Once again, it was time to send Major Josiah Winslow to Mount Hope.
After confiscating the Pokanokets’ guns, Winslow found an Indian who asserted that Philip had indeed been talking about a possible conspiracy against the English. Described as “one of Philip’s sachem’s men,” the witness described the circumstances of Philip’s boast with so many specific details that Winslow felt the accusation was “very probably true.”
Philip, on the other hand, claimed a Narragansett sachem named Ninigret had put the Indian up to it. When that did not prove to be the case, Philip continued to insist that he had been set up, “pleading how irrational a thing it was that he should desert his long experienced friends, the English, and comply with the French and Dutch.” As he stood before the Plymouth magistrates, more than a hint of desperation began to creep into Philip’s increasingly urgent plea for forgiveness. Should the English decide to withdraw “their wonted favor,” he asserted, it would be “little less than a death to him, gladding his enemies, grieving and weakening his friends.”
In the end, the Plymouth magistrates decided that even if Philip’s “tongue had been running out,” he was not about to attack anybody. Quite the contrary, they were now concerned that this most recent debacle had so weakened Philip’s stature that he was in danger of being spurned by his own people. From the colony’s perspective, it was better to have a vacillating and ineffective leader in place among the Pokanokets than a sachem who might rally his people against them. “[N]ot willing to desert [Philip] and let him sink,” the court decided to continue its official backing of Philip and return the confiscated weapons. This did not prevent the magistrates from charging the sachem £40 to help defray the cost of Winslow’s fact-gathering mission.
Reputed to be Ninigret II, son of the Niantic sachem who sided with the English during King Philip’s War
More than matching Philip’s growing need for money was the English need for land. “[M]any in our colony are in want of land…,” the record reads; “all such lands as the Indians can well spare shall be purchased.” In 1667 Thomas Willett, who was completing his last year as mayor of Manhattan, was given permission to purchase additional lands in the neighborhood of his longtime home in Wannamoisett and create the township of Swansea contiguous with the Pokanoket lands at Mount Hope.
Philip had begun with the best of intentions, but by the end of the 1660s he was on his way to a prodigious sell-off of Native land, aided and abetted by his brother’s former friend Thomas Willett. From 1650 to 1659, there had been a total of fourteen Indian deeds registered in Plymouth court; between 1665 and 1675, there would be seventy-six deeds.
Governor Prence and Major Winslow prided themselves on the strategy they had developed to deal with the Indians in the colony. With the help of Willett, the governor served as Philip’s primary contact, while Winslow devoted most of his energies to cultivating a relationship with the sachem of the Massachusetts to the north. It was a division of alliances that the two officials modeled on how Governor Bradford and Captain Standish had handled Squanto and Hobbamock in 1622. But as William Hubbard observed, while Bradford and Standish’s strategy appears to have worked reasonably well, Prence and Winslow’s approach proved far less effective when Prence died in 1673 and Winslow became governor. With Prence gone, Philip was now forced to deal with the one official he detested above all others. Not only was Winslow linked to his brother’s death, he had proven himself to be one of Plymouth’s most aggressive and unethical purchasers of Indian real estate.
In 1671, Winslow sued William, the son of Philip’s sister Amie, for the money he owed on a horse. Without any means to pay, William took out a mortgage on a parcel of his own land in Nemasket. It was not long before Winslow had used the mortgage to acquire an even larger tract of William’s land. The dubious practice of mortgaging property to pay off debt, which one historian has called “tantamount to confiscating land,” was not legal in Plymouth, and so Winslow revised the law. By the time he became governor in 1673, Winslow had come to embody Plymouth’s policy of increasingly arrogant opportunism toward the colony’s Native Americans.
It may have been true that from a strictly legal standpoint there was nothing wrong with how Winslow and the other Plymouth officials acquired large amounts of Pokanoket land. And yet, from a practical and moral standpoint, the process removed the Indians from their territory as effectively—and as cheaply—as driving them off at gunpoint. Philip had to do something to stanch the long series of reversals that had come to typify his tenure as leader.
In the beginning, when the English had been, according to Philip, “as a little child” and his father had been “a great man,” Massasoit had offered the Pilgrims his protection. Now that the roles were reversed, it was time, Philip insisted, that the English “do…as [the Pokanokets] did when they were too strong for the English.” Instead of pressing every advantage until they had completely overwhelmed the Indians, Plymouth officials should honor their colony’s obligation to the Pokanokets and allow them to exist as an autonomous people.
But as was becoming increasingly apparent, the children of the Pilgrims had very short memories. Now that their daily lives no longer involved an arduous and terrifying struggle for survival, they had begun to take the Indians for granted. In what is the great and terrible irony of the coming conflict—King Philip’s War—by choosing to pursue economic prosperity at the expense of the Indians, the English put at risk everything their mothers and fathers had striven so heroically to create. By pushing the Pokanokets until they had no choice but to push back, the colonists were unintentionally preparing the way for a return to the old, horrifying days of death and despair.
In March of 1671, Hugh Cole of Swansea reported that Indians from all over the region were flocking to Mount Hope. At one point, Philip led a group of sixty armed warriors on a march up the peninsula to the edge of the English settlement. Josiah Winslow reported the rumor that in addition to winning the support of the Narragansetts, Philip had hatched a plot to abduct the Plymouth governor and (as the sachem had done with John Gibbs on Nantucket) use him to secure a large ransom. Though not a shot had yet been fired, many in Plymouth believed that after years of rumors, war had finally come to the colony.
It’s unclear what triggered Philip to begin preparing for war. The Puritan historian William Hubbard claimed he took up arms “pretend ing some petite injuries done him in planting land.” Whatever the specific cause, it was a momentous decision for a leader who had, prior to this, consistently backed away from the threat of any genuine conflict.
The “Seat of Philip” at the eastern shore of Mount Hope
Some New Englanders dared to suggest that the Indians were not entirely to blame for the threatened insurrection and that Plymouth was guilty of treating the Pokanokets in an unnecessarily high-handed manner. In an attempt to prove otherwise, Plymouth magistrates invited a delegation from Massachusetts to attend a meeting with Philip at the town of Taunton on April 10, 1671.
Philip and a large group of warriors—all of them armed and with their faces painted—cautiously approached the Taunton town green, where an equally sizable number of Plymouth militiamen, bristling with muskets and swords, marched back and forth. Fearful that he was leading his men into a trap, Philip insisted that they be given several English hostages before he ventured into town. Tensions were so high that many of the colony’s soldiers shouted out that it was time for them to attack. Only at the angry insistence of Massachusetts-Bay officials were the Plymouth men made to stand down. Finally, after the exchange of several more messages, Philip and his warriors agreed to meet inside the Taunton meetinghouse—the Indians on one side of the aisle, the colonists on the other.
It was a scene that said much about the current state of Plymouth Colony. Forty-four years before, the Dutchman Isaack de Rasiere had described how the Pilgrims assembled in their fort for worship, each man with his gun. Now the children of the Pilgrims had gathered with the Pokanokets in a proper meetinghouse, not to worship but to settle their growing differences—the English on one side of the aisle in their woolen clothes and leather shoes, the Indians on the other with their faces painted and their bodies greased, and all of them, Puritans and Pokanokets alike, with muskets in their hands.
It did not go well for Philip. Once again, the Plymouth magistrates bullied him into submission, insisting that he sign a document in which he acknowledged the “naughtiness of my heart.” He also agreed to surrender all his warriors’ weapons to the English. According to William Hubbard, one of Philip’s own men was so ashamed by the outcome that he flung down his musket, accused his sachem of being “a white-livered cur,” and vowed that “he would never [follow Philip] again or fight under him.” The son of a Nipmuck sachem left Taunton in such a rage that he was moved to kill an Englishman on his way back to his home in central Massachusetts. He was eventually tried and hanged on Boston Common, where his severed head was placed upon the gallows, only to be joined by the skull of his father five years later.
In the months that followed, the colony required that the Indians from Cape Cod to Nemasket sign documents reaffirming their loyalty to Plymouth. The magistrates also insisted that Philip and his warriors turn over all their remaining weapons. When Philip balked, it seemed once again as if war might be imminent. Fearful that Plymouth was about to drive the Pokanokets and, with them, all of New England into war, the missionary John Eliot suggested that Philip come to Boston to speak directly with Massachusetts-Bay officials.
Philip appears to have been thankful for the missionary’s intervention. However, Eliot made the mistake of suggesting that his two Indian envoys bring John Sassamon, who was now living in Nemasket, to their meeting with Philip. The sight of his former interpreter appears to have ignited a fresh outburst of anguished rage in the already beleaguered sachem. In early September, when a messenger from Plymouth arrived at Mount Hope, he found “Philip and most of his chief men much in drink.” Philip angrily knocked the messenger’s hat off his head and “exclaimed much against Sassamon.” According to Philip, the hated Praying Indian had told Plymouth officials that the Pokanokets had been secretly meeting with some Narragansett sachems.
Eventually Philip did as Eliot suggested and went to Boston. As the missionary had said might happen, the sachem received a much more sympathetic hearing than he had ever been given in Plymouth. Philip agreed to meet with Plymouth officials on September 24, 1671, as long as a delegation from Massachusetts was also in attendance.
But by the time Philip appeared in Plymouth, the officials from Massachusetts had changed their position. Plymouth was right, and the Pokanokets were wrong. The treaty he was subsequently forced to sign amounted to a total and mortifying capitulation. He must turn over all his weapons, and he must pay a fine of £100. Even worse, he was now a subject of Plymouth and must pay the colony an annual tribute of five wolves’ heads. Plymouth had given Philip no options: if he was to survive as sachem of the Pokanokets, he must now go to war.
Philip was disarmed but hardly defeated. He immediately began to make plans for obtaining more muskets—but to pay for the new weapons, he was going to need money—and lots of it.
In August of 1672, Philip took out a mortgage on some land along the Taunton River to pay off a debt of £83; soon after, he sold a four-mile-square piece of land in the same vicinity for £143 (approximately $32,000 today)—the largest price ever paid for a piece of Indian real estate in Plymouth. Of interest are the Indians whom Philip chose to sign this particular deed, two of whom, Annawon and Nimrod, were his principal “captains” or warriors. Philip, it appears, had launched into a calculated strategy of selling land for weapons. That he was about to sell almost every parcel of land he owned was, in the end, irrelevant, since it was all to fund a war to win those lands back. By 1673, with the sale of a neck of land to the west of Mount Hope, Philip had succeeded in selling every scrap of land surrounding his territory.
Playing into Philip’s stratagem was English greed. Rather than wonder how he and his people could possibly survive once they’d been confined to a reservation at Mount Hope, or speculate where all this money was going, the English went ahead and bought more land—even agreeing to pay for the rights to fish in the waters surrounding Mount Hope when it meant that the Pokanokets might no longer be able to feed themselves.
The Pokanokets represented just 5 percent of the total Indian population of New England. If Philip was to have any hope of surviving a conflict, he must convince a significant number of the other tribes to join him. He knew he could probably count on the Pocassets and the Nemaskets, which were both led by his near relations, but it was questionable whether the Indians on Cape Cod and the islands would follow him into war. The Indians in this region had looked increasingly to Christianity—a trend that had only accelerated since Philip’s voyage to Nantucket in 1665. Closer to home, the Massachusetts, who were so cozy with Winslow, would never join him. Uncas and the Mohegans, along with the remnants of the Pequots, also had strong ties to the English. The Nipmucks, on the other hand, were the Pokanokets’ ancient and trustworthy friends, a relationship strengthened by Massasoit’s final years with the Quabaugs.
There were two important unknowns. To the south of Pocasset, on a rolling plain that swept down to the sea at a rocky point, were the Sakonnets led by the female sachem Awashonks. The Sakonnets’ loyalties were difficult to determine. Even more inscrutable were the Narragansetts, the Pokanokets’ traditional foes. Significant inroads had been made in establishing a common ground between the two tribes, but the Narragansetts were too large and diverse to speak with a single voice. Their young warriors were anxious to enlist, but the tribe’s older, more cautious sachems were reluctant to go to war. If subsequent English claims are to be believed, a tentative agreement was reached between the two tribes that come the spring of 1676, the fighting would begin.
In cobbling together a pan-Indian force to oppose the English, Philip was attempting to accomplish what not even the great Narragansett sachem Miantonomi had been able to pull off in the 1640s. And while Miantonomi had been known for his bravery in battle, Philip had no such reputation. But if he lacked his predecessor’s physical courage, Philip appears to have had a different sort of charisma. His mounting desperation combined with a healthy dose of righteous indignation made him a lightning rod for Indians across the region, all of whom had experienced some version of the Pokanokets’ plight. If they did not band together now and stand up to the English, the opportunity might never come again.
For their part, the English remained confident that Philip had committed himself to peace. Instead of being concerned by the Pokanokets’ growing desire for guns and ammunition, they saw it as a financial opportunity. Incredibly, in the fall of 1674, Plymouth magistrates voted to annul a law prohibiting the sale of powder and shot to the Indians.
Then, in January of 1675, John Sassamon paid a visit to Josiah Winslow.
In 1675, Sassamon was approaching sixty years of age. Abhorred by Philip as conniving and dishonest, he was nonetheless the son-in-law of Philip’s sister Amie. In fact, he lived on land given him by Amie’s husband, Tuspaquin, known as the Black Sachem of Nemasket. Despite his intimate connection to Native royalty, Sassamon was working once again for the missionary John Eliot and was minister to a group of Praying Indians in Nemasket.
There is no way of knowing how long John Sassamon had known about Philip’s plans for war. There is also no way of knowing how long he wrestled with what he should do with that information. But in mid-January of 1675, he informed Josiah Winslow that Philip was on the verge of war. This was not what the governor of Plymouth wanted to hear. Even when Sassamon warned that his life would be in danger if anyone learned that he had spoken with the governor, Winslow’s reaction was to dismiss the claim as yet another Indian overstatement—even if the Indian had attended his alma mater, Harvard College.
At forty-three, Winslow was no longer the brazen young man who had shoved a pistol in Alexander’s chest. His health had become a concern (he may have been stricken by tuberculosis), and the prospect of a major Indian war was simply not part of the future he had envisioned for Plymouth.
Sassamon’s state of mind after his meeting with the governor can only be imagined. What we do know is that not long afterward, his dead body was discovered beneath the ice of Assawompsett Pond in modern Lakeville. Left lying on the ice were his hat, his musket, and a brace of ducks. It certainly appeared as if Sassamon had accidentally fallen through the ice and drowned. But when the Indian who found the body pulled it from the pond, no water issued from the mouth—an indication that Sassamon had been dead before he went through the ice. The body was also bruised and swollen around the neck and head. When word of Sassamon’s death reached Careswell, the governor of Plymouth finally began to believe that the Pokanokets might be up to something.
An investigation was launched, and in March Philip voluntarily appeared in court to answer any questions the officials might have. Strenuously denying his involvement in Sassamon’s death, the sachem insisted that this was an internal Indian matter and not the purview of the Plymouth government. The court, however, continued its investigation and soon found an Indian who claimed to have witnessed the murder. Conveniently hidden on a hill overlooking the pond, he had seen three Indians—Tobias, one of Philip’s senior counselors; Tobias’s son; and one other—seize Sassamon and violently twist his neck before shoving his lifeless body beneath the ice. On the strength of this testimony, a trial date was set for June 1.
As the date of the trial approached, Philip’s brother-in-law, the Black Sachem of Nemasket, posted a £100 bond, secured with real estate, as bail for Tobias. This enabled Tobias to speak with Philip, who was justifiably concerned that he would be the next one on trial. To no one’s surprise, Philip chose not to attend the hearing. Instead, he remained at Mount Hope, where he surrounded himself with warriors and marched menacingly to within sight of the Swansea border. Reports began to filter in to Plymouth that large numbers of “strange Indians” were making their way to the Pokanoket homeland.
The last thing Philip wanted was to go to war before all was ready. They did not have enough muskets, bullets, and especially gunpowder. But events were quickly acquiring a momentum that was beyond any single person’s control. If the English insisted on putting Tobias and the others on trial, he might have no choice.
A panel of eight judges, headed by Winslow, presided over the trial. There were twelve English jurors assisted by six Praying Indians. Winslow later claimed they were the “most indifferentest, gravest, and sage Indians,” but this did little to alter Philip’s belief that the verdict had already been determined.
According to English law in the seventeenth century, two witnesses were required to convict someone of murder. But the English had only a single witness, and as came out in the trial, he had had prior dealings with one of the accused. Before supposedly witnessing the murder, he had been forced to give up his coat to Tobias to pay off a gambling debt. Even though there was only one witness, and a dubious witness at that, all eighteen members of the jury found Tobias and his accomplices guilty. It was a shocking miscarriage of justice. But what began as an affront to legal process quickly degenerated into an unconscionable display of cruelty.
The executions were scheduled for June 8. Plymouth minister John Cotton, who had spent several years preaching to the Indians on Martha’s Vineyard, took the opportunity to deliver a sermon to the Indians gathered to witness the hangings. As the condemned were brought to the gallows, all three Indians continued to maintain their innocence. Tobias was hanged first, followed by his friend. But when it came time to execute Tobias’s son, the rope broke. Whether this was by accident or by design, it had what the English considered to be the desired effect. As the young Indian struggled to his feet, with the still-twitching bodies of his father and family friend suspended in the air above him, he was presented with the chance to save his life. So he changed his story, claiming that the other two had indeed killed Sassamon while he looked on helplessly. With the boy’s confession, the authorities now had the number of witnesses the law required.
Traditionally, a condemned man was granted a reprieve after a failed execution. But a month later, with war raging across the colony, Tobias’s son was taken from his cell and shot to death with a musket.
By the time Philip received word of the executions, Mount Hope stood at the vortex of a gathering storm of rage and indignation. The trial had been a travesty of justice—and an insulting challenge to the authority of the Pokanoket leader. Now, it seemed, was the time for Philip to take the opportunity given him by the English and lead his people triumphantly into battle.
His warriors were surely for it. Young, with little to lose and everything to gain, the fighting men of the Pokanokets now had the chance to win back what their fathers and grandfathers had so shortsightedly given away. It was a year ahead of Philip’s original schedule, but the timing was, for the most part, fortuitous. The trees and underbrush were thick with new leaves, providing the cover the warriors needed when attacking the English. The swamps, which the Indians traditionally used as sanctuaries in times of war, were still mucky with spring rain and were impenetrable to the English soldiers. If they waited until midsummer, when the mire of the swamps started to congeal, it would be too late. They might not have the stores of gunpowder they had hoped to have amassed in a year’s time, nor have the firm commitments they had planned to get from the other tribes, but there was nothing they could do about that now. They must strike soon and furiously. Philip, however, had never been one to rush into anything. Since his foray out to Nantucket a decade before, he had developed a talent for inviting conflict, then finding creative, if often humiliating, ways to avoid the final, potentially catastrophic confrontation. But by June 1675, his own warriors were about to call his bluff and demand that they go to war.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Governor Winslow remained hopeful that the present troubles would blow over. Except for writing a single letter to Philip in the weeks after the trial for Sassamon’s murder, he failed to take an active role in thwarting a possible outbreak of violence. By the end of the month, both Winslow and Philip had become victims of their own rhetoric and posturing. Paralyzed by worry and wishful thinking, they were powerless to restrain what years of reckless greed, arrogance, opportunism, and ineptitude had unleashed among the young warriors of the Pokanokets.
Puritan historians later insisted that Philip maliciously pushed his people into the conflict. The English residents of Swansea told a different story. According to an account recorded in the early part of the following century, Philip and his counselors “were utterly averse to the war” in June 1675. Swansea resident Hugh Cole later told how Philip sent him word that “he could not control his young warriors” and that Cole must abandon his home and seek refuge on Aquidneck Island. Another tradition claimed that when Philip first heard that one of his warriors had killed an Englishman, he “wept at the news.”
He had reason to weep. Even with recent recruits from neighboring tribes, his fighting force amounted to no more than a few hundred poorly equipped warriors. Even worse, they were situated on a peninsula. If they were unable to fight their way north into the underbelly of Plymouth Colony, their only means of escape from Mount Hope was by water.
The English had vulnerabilities of their own. Unlike the Indians, who traveled across the countryside on a seasonal basis, the English lived in houses that were fixed permanently to the ground. As a consequence, all their possessions—including clothing, furniture, food, and livestock—were there for the taking. As they were about to discover, an Indian war was the worst fate imaginable for the English of Plymouth Colony.
Philip had been forced to prepare for war out of political necessity. After the disastrous summer of 1671, his survival as sachem had depended on it. But Armageddon had always been in the distant future. Thanks to the murder trial of Tobias and the others, Armageddon had arrived.