AS EARLY AS the fall of 1675, they had begun to sail from the coast of New England: the slave ships. It began in September when a Captain Sprague departed from Plymouth with 178 Indians. By July of 1676, Plymouth had formalized the process of removing potentially dangerous Native men and boys by determining that “no male captive above the age of fourteen years should reside in the colony.” That fall, the English were not sure what to do with Philip’s nine-yearold son. Some ministers argued that the Bible granted the magistrates the power to execute the boy; others insisted on a more moderate course. In the end, Philip’s son, like his mother before him, was shipped off as a slave.
It has been estimated that at least a thousand Indians were sold into slavery during King Philip’s War, with over half the slaves coming from Plymouth Colony alone. By the end of the war, Mount Hope, once the crowded Native heart of the colony, was virtually empty of inhabitants. Fifty-six years after the sailing of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims’ children had not only defeated the Pokanokets in a devastating war, they had taken conscious, methodical measures to purge the land of its people.
In the years before the war, Native Americans had constituted almost 30 percent of the population of New England. By 1680, they made up less than 15 percent. But if the English had succeeded in asserting their demographic dominance, the war was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory for the colonists. The crushing tax burden required to pay for the conflict stifled the region’s economy. When the Mount Hope Peninsula went up for sale in 1680, there were no Plymouth residents with the resources to purchase it, and the land went to a group of investors from Boston. Not for another hundred years would the average per-capita income in New England return to what it had been before King Philip’s War.
John Foster’s 1677 map of New England
The war that was to have removed forever the threat of Indian attack had achieved exactly the opposite of its original intention. By cutting such a wide and blood-soaked swath between themselves and the Indians, New Englanders had thrown the region out of balance. Without “friend Indians” to buffer them from their enemies, those living in the frontier were left open to attack. Over the course of the following century, New England was ravaged by a series of Indian wars. Unable to defend themselves, the colonies that had once operated as an autonomous enclave of Puritanism were forced to look to the British Crown for assistance. Within a decade of King Philip’s War, James II had appointed a royal governor to rule over New England, and in 1692 Plymouth became a part of Massachusetts. By doing their best to destroy the Native people who had welcomed and sustained their forefathers, New Englanders had destroyed their forefathers’ way of life.
The Pilgrims had come to America not to conquer a continent but to re-create their modest communities in Scrooby and in Leiden. When they arrived at Plymouth in December 1620 and found it emptied of people, it seemed as if God had given them exactly what they were looking for. But as they quickly discovered during that first terrifying fall and winter, New England was far from uninhabited. There were still plenty of Native people, and to ignore or anger them was to risk annihilation. The Pilgrims’ religious beliefs played a dominant role in the decades ahead, but it was their deepening relationship with the Indians that turned them into Americans.
By forcing the English to improvise, the Indians prevented Plymouth Colony from ossifying into a monolithic cult of religious extremism. For their part, the Indians were profoundly influenced by the English and quickly created a new and dynamic culture full of Native and Western influences. For a nation that has come to recognize that one of its greatest strengths is its diversity, the first fifty years of Plymouth Colony stand as a model of what America might have been from the very beginning.
By the midpoint of the seventeenth century, however, the attitudes of many of the Indians and English had begun to change. With only a fraction of their original homeland remaining, more and more young Pokanokets claimed it was time to rid themselves of the English. The Pilgrims’ children, on the other hand, coveted what territory the Pokanokets still possessed and were already anticipating the day when the Indians had, through the continued effects of disease and poverty, ceased to exist. Both sides had begun to envision a future that did not include the other.
For years Philip had used the promise of war as a way to appease his increasingly indignant warriors. Whenever pushed to an actual confrontation, however, he had always backed down, and it appears that as late as June 23, 1675, he held out hope that war might once again be averted. But instead of providing Philip with the support he so desperately needed to control his warriors, Governor Winslow only made matters worse. Indeed, it was his callous prosecution of Tobias and the others, for Sassamon’s murder, that triggered the outbreak of violence. By refusing to acknowledge that Philip’s troubles were also his troubles, Winslow was as responsible as anyone for King Philip’s War.
In the end, both sides wanted what the Pilgrims had been looking for in 1620: a place unfettered by obligations to others. But from the moment Massasoit decided to become the Pilgrims’ ally, New England belonged to no single group. For peace and for survival, others must be accommodated. The moment any of them gave up on the difficult work of living with their neighbors—and all of the compromise, frustration, and delay that inevitably entailed—they risked losing everything. It was a lesson that Bradford and Massasoit had learned over the course of more than three long decades. That it could be so quickly forgotten by their children remains a lesson for us today.
King Philip’s War officially ended with the sachem’s death in 1676, but for Benjamin Church the fighting had just begun. Between 1689 and 1704, Church led five different “eastern expeditions” against the French and Indians in Maine. Joining him on these forays into the wilderness were many of the Sakonnets who had fought at his side against Philip, as well as Church’s literal child of war, Constant, who served as one of his captains. By the outbreak of Queen Anne’s War in 1702, Church had grown so fat that he required the help of two assistants as he waddled over the forest trails he had once bounded across as a young man.
In 1716, with the help of his son Thomas, he published Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War. By that time Mary Rowlandson’s book about her Indian captivity had gone through multiple editions. But another book, William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, still remained in manuscript. After being consulted by a variety of historians working on books about New England, including King Philip’s War chroniclers Increase Mather and William Hubbard, the calfskin-bound manuscript was lent by Bradford’s grandson Samuel to the Reverend Thomas Prince, who in 1728 placed it in his library in the steeple of the Old South Church in Boston. There it was to remain for the next four decades.
The Native peoples of southern New England left no known contemporary narrative of what happened to them after the arrival of the Mayflower. But that does not mean that no Indian accounts exist. Instead of the written word, the Native Americans relied on oral traditions, and almost as soon as the English came to America they began recording the Indians’ stories and legends.
The Indians on Cape Cod and the islands, who came to be known as the Wampanoags, told the legend of Maushop, a mythical giant who had many of the characteristics of a Native leader. In the beginning Maushop was a generous friend to his people, but as the years passed, he underwent a troubling change. He began to extort unreasonable amounts of tribute and created discord where he had once helped make peace. He also began to quarrel with his own family. “He would beat his old woman for nothing,” one version of the legend claimed, “and his children for a great deal less.”
One day, while his five children were playing on the beach near their home on Aquinnah, on the west end of Martha’s Vineyard, Maushop drew his huge toe across the sand. Seawater rushed toward his four sons and one daughter, and as the ocean rose around them, the boys lifted up their sister in a desperate attempt to save her. Just as they were about to drown, Maushop turned them into killer whales and commanded his sons to look after their sister.
Maushop’s wife was disconsolate, and her incessant weeping so angered the giant that he picked her up and threw her all the way to the rocky shore of Sakonnet, where she lived out the rest of her life begging for help from those who passed by in their canoes. Eventually she changed into a stone, and when the English arrived, they broke off her head and arms. By that time, Maushop had disappeared, “nobody knew whither.” His wife, on the other hand, remains in Sakonnet to this day—a disfigured rock at the edge of the sea.
By the time this legend was first recorded in the eighteenth century, the Indians of Cape Cod and the islands had been reduced to several hundred people, most of them living on reservations in the towns of Mashpee on the Cape and in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard. Despite Benjamin Church’s efforts to provide for them, the Sakonnets had dwindled from an estimated four hundred in 1700 to just six men and nineteen women by 1774.
In the years ahead, the legend of Maushop, like the legend of the Pilgrim Fathers, would soften into a benign and upbeat version of what had originally been a far more disturbing story. The early versions of the legend, recorded between 1792 and 1829, reflect the anger, fear, dislocation, and loss the Indians of the region felt in the wake of a war that had forced them to fight against their own people.
In the nineteenth century, the Indians of southern New England preferred to remember King Philip’s War as a strictly Indian-versus-English conflict. But for those who actually experienced the war or knew those who had, it was not a question of us against them; it was more like being part of a family that had been destroyed by the frightening, inexplicable actions of a once trusted and beloved father.
In 1741, the ninety-five-year-old Thomas Faunce asked to be carried in a litter to the Plymouth waterfront. Faunce had heard that a pier was about to be built over an undistinguished rock at the tide line near Town Brook. With tears in his eyes, Faunce proclaimed that he had been told by his father, who had arrived in Plymouth in 1623, that the boulder was where the Pilgrims had first landed. Thus was born the legend of Plymouth Rock.
In 1769, a group of Plymouth residents formed the Old Colony Club and designated December 22 as Forefathers’ Day in celebration of the landing of the Pilgrims on the Rock. Their first meeting was held at Thomas Southworth Howland’s tavern on Cole’s Hill, but as political differences came to the fore in the years prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, the club’s membership, most of whom were Loyalists, decided to disband. It was left to the opposing faction, the Sons of Liberty, to seize upon, literally it turned out, Plymouth Rock.
Despite Faunce’s tearful testimony, a solid-fill pier had been built over the Rock. A small portion of the boulder, however, still poked above the sandy surface of the wharf, and on Forefathers’ Day in 1774 Colonel Theophilus Cotton arrived with the manpower and equipment required to extract the Rock, like a bad tooth, from the pier. But as Cotton and the Sons of Liberty attempted to load the Rock onto an awaiting wagon, disaster struck. The Rock broke in half—a metaphor, some sages insisted, for the looming split between the American colonies and Britain. Cotton and his men left the bottom, and presumably Loyalist, half of the Rock in the ground, and lugged the other piece to the town square, where they deposited it beside a newly raised liberty pole.
An 1853 daguerreotype of Hedge’s Wharf in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where a group of citizens stand behind the exposed portion of Plymouth Rock
The Pilgrims were once again relevant, but so were Benjamin Church and Mary Rowlandson. Updated editions of their books appeared as their struggle against the Indians came to represent the colonists’ fight for independence. As it turned out, Church’s grandson, also named Benjamin Church, was found guilty of secretly abetting the British during the siege of Boston. The region’s Native Americans, on the other hand, proved more loyal to the cause of American liberty and freedom. An Indian from Rhode Island named Simeon Simon, who was reported to be a direct descendant of Massasoit, fought beside George Washington for all eight years of the Revolution.
In the early days of the war, the Old South Church in Boston was taken over by the British military. After the British evacuation of 1776, several volumes in Prince’s church-tower library, including Bradford’s manuscript, were discovered missing and assumed lost. But this did nothing to slow the rise of the myth of the Pilgrim Fathers. In 1802, John Quincy Adams, who had been educated in the Dutch city of Leiden while his father served as an ambassador to Holland, gave an address at the annual Forefathers’ Day celebration in Plymouth. Instead of the Rock, the intellectual Adams was more interested in the Pilgrims’ contribution to American government. In his remarks, he looked to the Mayflower Compact as the document that foreshadowed the flowering of American democracy. “This is perhaps the only instance in human history,” Adams intoned, “of that positive, original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government. Here was a unanimous and personal assent by all the individuals of the community, to the association by which they became a nation.”
Eighteen years later, Daniel Webster was the keynote speaker at a bicentennial celebration of the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World. Webster’s speech, in which he looked to Plymouth Rock as a symbol of the imperishable ideals upon which the new nation had been founded, was widely reprinted and helped give the Pilgrims truly national recognition. In 1834, the piece of the Rock at the town square, which had been significantly reduced in size over the years by hammer-wielding souvenir hunters, was moved to the front of the newly built Pilgrim Hall, a Greek Revival structure that has been called America’s first public museum. Once again, disaster struck. After being loaded onto a cart, the Rock was passing by the town’s courthouse, when a linchpin jiggled free and the Rock fell to the ground and broke in two. With the help of some cement, the Rock was put back together and mounted in front of Pilgrim Hall.
The proud descendants of the Pilgrims were not the only Americans struggling to create a new and seamless version of a fractured past. The Native inhabitants of southern New England, such as the Mashpee Wampanoags on Cape Cod and the Pequots in Connecticut, had become infused with a renewed sense of identity and purpose. In 1833, the Pequot Methodist minister William Apess traveled to Cape Cod and helped spark a protest against the taking of Indian land by local white inhabitants that became known as the Mashpee Revolt. In 1836, Apess delivered a lecture in Boston titled “Eulogy on King Philip,” in which he claimed King Philip’s War was “as glorious as the American Revolution.” Even though both the Pequots and the Mashpees had fought on the side of the English in the conflict, Apess chose to remember differently and portrayed Philip as the leader of a pan-Indian struggle for freedom.
Apess’s remarks reflected a nationwide reassessment of King Philip’s War. In 1814 Washington Irving had published “Philip of Pokanoket,” an essay that probably influenced Apess’s sanctification of the Indian leader. In 1829 a play titled Metamora (a variant of Metacom, one of Philip’s many Native names) premiered in New York City starring America’s foremost actor, Edwin Forrest. Metamora was everything the real Philip had struggled to be—forceful, noble, and brave—and the play remained popular for decades. America had come full circle. Instead of a perfidious enemy, Philip and the Pokanokets were patriots whose war against the Puritans prefigured the American Revolution.
In 1855, a Bostonian browsing in an antique-book store in London’s Cornhill found an obscure ecclesiastical history that quoted a passage from a manuscript that appeared to be Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. It was soon established that Bradford’s book had somehow made its way to the bishop of London’s library in Fulham Palace. No one claimed to know how it had gotten there, but it was not long before a complete transcript of the manuscript was published in 1856. For a country beset by the challenges of western expansion and the approaching storm of the Civil War, the publication was, in the words of Samuel Eliot Morison, “a literary sensation.”
Two years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published the bestselling poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” a florid account of how Priscilla Mullins asked John Alden to speak for himself when Alden attempted to deliver a marriage proposal from his friend Miles Standish. Loosely based on Alden family tradition, Longfellow’s poem was extraordinarily popular, selling a reported ten thousand copies in London in a single day. Inevitably, the Pilgrims came to be known not as they had truly been but as those of the Victorian-era wished them to have been. With the outbreak of the Civil War a few years later, the public need for a restorative myth of national origins became even more ardent, and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln established the holiday of Thanksgiving—a cathartic celebration of nationhood that would have baffled and probably appalled the godly Pilgrims.
Just prior to the Civil War, the Pilgrim Society, the organization that had built Pilgrim Hall, purchased the wharf containing the other half of Plymouth Rock. The society determined to enshrine this portion of the boulder in an appropriate edifice. But to have two Plymouth Rocks was an obvious absurdity, so in 1880, the broken half in front of Pilgrim Hall was transported down to the waterfront and after a more than century-long hiatus was reunited with the portion beside the sea.
But still, Bradford’s great book remained in the library of an English bishop. Finally, in 1896, George Frisbie Hoar, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, decided it was time to repatriate this famous document. Hoar was a descendant of John Hoar of Concord, the man who had brought back Mary Rowlandson from captivity, and it was only appropriate that he be the one who returned Bradford’s book from its exile in England. Hoar voyaged to London and began the process that finally brought the manuscript home to New England in 1897.
In 1891, the body of Miles Standish was exhumed by a group that included the Duxbury Episcopal minister, a medical doctor, and several Standish descendants. It was perhaps appropriate that the man who had overseen the pilfering of Native graves during the winter of 1620 was subjected to a similar indignity 271 years later. His skull and bones were carefully measured, and the doctor claimed that “the bones indicated a man of tremendous physique and strength.” The skull was surprisingly large and “of a peculiar formation,” and the minister tactfully pointed out that several of the Standish descendants standing beside the grave that day had similarly shaped heads. There was only one tooth left in Standish’s lower jaw, and what hair remained on the skull was reddish brown and mixed with gray. But what surprised all of them was the length of the skeleton—five feet seven inches, an average height for a man in the seventeenth century. Had Standish been taller than was previously thought?
Not so, insisted the doctor, who described how “when a human body disintegrates in the grave, the bones fall apart and are crushed apart by the decayed coffin lid and the crushing earth, so that the skeleton in the grave is generally longer than the living man would be.” Like all the Pilgrims, Standish was taller in death than he had ever been in life.
With the Civil War a memory and the Indian wars of the Wild West drawing to a close, U.S. citizens at the turn of the century could look with romantic nostalgia toward America’s Native population. Instead of the Rock and the compact, Thanksgiving and its reassuring image of Indian-English cooperation became the predominant myth of the Pilgrims. Despite strong regional interest in King Philip’s War throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the conflict attracted little attention beyond New England. In the American popular imagination, the nation’s history began with the Pilgrims and then leapfrogged more than 150 years to Lexington and Concord and the Revolution.
Out of the tumult of the 1960s a new sense of Native identity emerged that challenged the nation’s veneration of Thanksgiving. In 1970, Native activists declared Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning, and Plymouth was selected as the natural place for it to be observed. In recent decades, Native New Englanders—once regarded as a “vanished people”—have undergone a resurgence. Many of the tribes that participated in King Philip’s War have been granted federal recognition, with the Pequots and Mohegans making the most highly visible comebacks thanks to extraordinarily profitable gambling casinos.
The Pilgrims’ descendants have proven to be, if nothing else, fruitful. In 2002 it was estimated that there were approximately 35 million descendants of the Mayflower passengers in the United States, which represents roughly 10 percent of the total U.S. population.
Today Plymouth is a mixture of the sacred and the kitsch, a place of period houses and tourist traps, where the Mayflower II sits quietly beside the ornate granite edifice that now encloses the mangled remains of Plymouth Rock. A few miles from downtown Plymouth on the north bank of the Eel River is Plimoth Plantation, a re-creation of the Pilgrim settlement as it looked in 1627, the last year the original settlers all lived within the confines of the palisade wall. The design and construction of the buildings have been painstakingly researched; the interpreters have been immersed in the language and customs of early seventeenth-century England, as well as everything that is known about the historical characters they are depicting. After the honky-tonk tackiness of the Plymouth waterfront, Plimoth Plantation is a wonderfully satisfying and self-contained evocation of a distant time.
Outside the palisade wall is the re-creation of a small Native settlement known as the Wampanoag Homesite. The interpreters make no attempt to pretend they are anything but people living in the here and now of twenty-first-century America. But even here, beyond the gates of 1627, ghosts from the past intrude.
Archaeological research has revealed that Clark’s garrison, where Benjamin Church almost lost his wife and son, was situated on the grounds of Plimoth Plantation between the Wampanoag Homesite and the re-created Pilgrim settlement. On Sunday, March 12, 1676, the building was the scene of a brutal massacre that claimed the lives of eleven Plymouth residents, most of them women and children. In retaliation, Plymouth authorities executed four Indians accused of participating in the attack. Today the site is a parking lot, with no historic marker.
But no matter how desperately our nation’s mythologizers might wish it had never happened, King Philip’s War will not go away. The fourteen bloody months between June 1675 and August 1676 had a vast, disturbing impact on the development of New England and, with it, all of America.
It is easy to mock past attempts to venerate and sanctify the Pilgrims, especially given what their sons and grandsons did to the Native Americans. And yet we must look with something more than cynicism at a people who maintained more than half a century of peace with their Native neighbors. The great mystery of this story is how America emerged from the terrible darkness of King Philip’s War to become the United States. A possible answer resides in the character of the man who has been called America’s first Indian fighter, Benjamin Church.
In the years after King Philip’s War, as the country came to be defined by its relentless push west, a new American type came into being: the frontiersman. As a roughneck intermediary between civilization and savagery, the frontiersman had a natural distrust of authority and relied on his own instincts, bravery, and skill to survive. What makes Church unique is that he was one of the first New Englanders to embrace the wilderness his forefathers had shunned. When war erupted in June 1675, he was the right man in the right place to become a truly archetypal American.
Out of the annealing flame of one of the most horrendous wars ever fought in North America, he forged an identity that was part Pilgrim, part mariner, part Indian, and altogether his own. That so many characters from American history and literature resemble him—from Daniel Boone to Davy Crockett to Natty Bumppo to Rambo—does nothing to diminish the stunning originality of the persona he creates in Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War. That Church according to Church is too brave, too cunning, and too good to be true is beside the point. America was destined to become a nation of self-fashioned and self-promoting men. What makes his story so special, I believe, is that he shows us how the nightmare of wilderness warfare might one day give rise to a society that promises liberty and justice for all.
There are two possible responses to a world suddenly gripped by terror and contention. There is the Moseley way: get mad and get even. But as the course of King Philip’s War proved, unbridled arrogance and fear only feed the flames of violence. Then there is the Church way. Instead of loathing the enemy, try to learn as much as possible from him; instead of killing him, try to bring him around to your way of thinking. First and foremost, treat him like a human being. For Church, success in war was about coercion rather than slaughter, and in this he anticipated the welcoming, transformative beast that eventually became—once the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were in place—the United States.
Church concludes his account of the war with a vignette. In January 1677, the Plymouth magistrates asked him to lead a few minor mop-up operations. Over the course of the winter he succeeded in capturing several additional Indians. One of the captives was an old man to whom Church took an immediate liking, and he asked the Indian his name.
“Conscience,” the old man replied.
“Conscience,” Church repeated with a smile; “then the war is over, for that was what they were searching for, it being much wanting.”
Church was supposed to deliver the old man to Plymouth, where he would undoubtedly have been shipped off as a slave to the West Indies. Instead, Church asked him where he wanted to live out the rest of his life. The Indian told him the name of an Englishman in Swansea he had known before the war. Church made some inquiries, and soon Conscience had a new home.
It was a small victory to be sure, but in the winter of 1677 it was the best that Benjamin Church could do.