Wednesday, October 12, 2011

King Philip's War - Part One

   If one could take an aerial view of Southern New England in 1675, he would see an almost unbroken expanse of forest  and wilderness; but here and there the wilderness was broken by a few acres of cleared land and a small cluster of houses - a village amidst the forest. But many forests were set besides extensive open areas that, in places like Boston, might be entirely absent of trees, desperately needed for building and firewood. The diversity of the land was remarkable, ranging from open oak woodlands, to wet lowlands, to bogs of densely matted moss, swamps, and to the sandy soil of the coast which featured oyster beds a mile in length and clam banks so dense that a person traversing them was showered with spouting water.
   New England was a land of isolated villages and occasional towns interconnected by a network of woodland paths which served as virtually the only means of access to most of the inland settlements. But New England was also a highway engineer's dream with a network of trails knitting together Indian villages with local connectors and long-distance routes. These trails, developed over centuries, followed the most efficient paths over hills and mountains, and, with river fords, constituted a means of rapid transit that was almost modern. Some of the important trails had been so heavily pounded by moccasined feet that they ran two feet below the surface of the surrounding forest.
Indian trails and Villages of southern New England

   Today tourists crowd the Mohawk Trail in Western Massachusetts reveling in the vibrant fall foliage. But the Mohawk Trail got its name and bloody reputation from the seventeenth century when the much feared Mohawks, allied to New York's Iroquois Nation, came charging down over the Berkshires into the Algonquian villages of the Connecticut River Valley. Their depredations were so severe that, by the time the Europeans discovered the valley, the valley was very thinly populated.
   Tensions between the Natives and New Englanders had been building for years. Previously we talked of the transformation of the Algonquian way of life because of the fur trade and its use of wampum. Two other factors, besides the inevitable clash of two different cultures, led to the outbreak of war - a baby boom among New Englanders requiring an expansion in settlements and the inexhaustible desire of the English mentality for more and more land. The colonist would use any means - legal or illegal - to obtain title to land and it was important that a "title", however meaningless that concept was to the Algonquian,  be obtained. If all else failed, the English would get a sachem to sell the land to him, even though the sachem had no right to sell the land and was illiterate in English.
King Philip's Mark
   When Massasoit, who had befriended the newly arrived settlers and helped them avoid starvation, died in 1661, he was succeeded as sachem* of the Pokanoket by his son Wamsutta. Wamsutta faced a different world than his father. The English had grown in power and stature and the relationship between them and the Pokanoket had grown more complex. The Algonquian often changed his name as he entered a different phase of his life and so, shortly after becoming sachem, Wamsutta asked the authorities in Plymouth to give him and and his younger brother, Metacom,  English names, probably to help them move more freely between English and Wampanoag society. Soon after, Wamsutta became Alexander and Metacom became Philip (curious choices).
   Alexander proved to be more independent than his father and was ordered to respond when the Plymouth authorities heard rumors that he was discussing war plans with the Narragansett, an adjoining tribe and long time foe of the Pakanoket. Alexander refused and was soon taken into custody by the Governor's son to force the issue. Sometime shortly thereafter, Alexander became ill and died. The Pokanoket, including Philip, believed he was poisoned. His death is one of the great mysteries of colonial history. A plausible thesis is that Alexander had developed appendicitis and was killed when a well meaning English physician administered a "working physic."
   Alexander was laid to rest in July, 1662, and his younger brother Philip, perhaps 24 years old, became sachem. With his father's memory still in his mind, watching the erosion of Wampanoag land to a new, aggressive generation of English settlers, believing that his brother had been murdered by the Plymouth authorities, concerned about a strained relationship with his Narragansett neighbors, Philip took over leadership of the Pokonoket.
   Five years later in 1667, Philip was in the center of a war scare in which he was accused of cooperating with the Dutch and French to launch an attack on English settlers. Philip manged to avert a crisis but was not as successful in 1671 when Philip reluctantly agreed to meet representatives of Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony to answer charges that the Wampanoag and Narragansett were readying to wage war. Philip was forced, at this meeting, to sign the Taunton Agreement in which he confessed to planning an attack against English settlements and agreed to give up seventy weapons brought to the meeting, with the surrender of his remaining weapons to follow. Most historians today believe that Philip was only agreeing to these terms because of overwhelming pressure.

The English who came to this country were but an handful of people, forlorn, poor and distressed. My father was then sachem, he relieved their distresses in the most kind and hospitable manner. He gave them land to plant and build upon...they flourished and increased. By various means they got possession of a great part of his territory. But he still remained their friend till he died. My elder brother became sachem...He was seized and confined and thereby thrown into illness and died. Soon after I became sachem they disarmed all my people...their land was taken. But a small part of the dominion of my ancestors remains. I am determined not to live until I have no country.
      To be continued

* A sachem is a chief, most often hereditary, of an Algonquian Indian tribe. The English, with their experience of European monarchy, when first in contact with the Algonquian, misunderstood the nature of the duties of a sachem and, influenced by their hereditary nature, translated the word "sachem" as "king." Although sachems had authority within the tribes, that authority was often dependent on the abilities and stature of the person who held that position. A sachem's authority was further limited by the fact that their power was entirely secular whereas the religious authority lay with the "powwow." A "powwow" is a shaman, literally one who derives his power from his visions (dreams.) By virtue of their control over spirits, the powwows advised the shamans. Normally, the hereditary role of the sachem and the inspired role of the powwow were not combined in one individual. The few persons who combined both were seen as extremely powerful.

N.B. Now that we have set the background for King Philip's War, future posts will focus exclusively on the role played in it by Benjamin Church. The war, while not long in duration, ranged all over New England. We will concentrate on the war in southeastern New England.

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