...in 1675, Wampanoag warriors killed seven colonists in Swansea in retaliation for a series of injustices suffered at the hands of the English. This raid is generally considered the beginning of King Philip's War, a bloody conflict that would involve every New England colony and all the peoples of the Algonquian nation. Over the next year, members of the Abenaki, Narragansett, Nipmuc, and Wampanoag tribes attacked more than half of all the settlements in New England and reduced about a dozen towns in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies to ashes. By August of 1676, more than 600 settlers had died and 1,200 homes had been burned. An estimated 3,000 Native Americans died at the hands of the English.
In 1662 the governor of Plymouth Colony summoned Wamsutta, the young sachem, or chief, of the neighboring Wampanoag tribe, to meet with him. Distrustful of the Englishman's intentions, Wamsutta refused and was forcefully escorted to Plymouth by armed settlers. Days later, Wamsutta's men carried their leader home, dead. Inexplicably he had become ill shortly after his conference with colonial officials. Wamsutta's brother Metacom, called Philip by the English, succeeded him as sachem. Metacom firmly believed white settlers had poisoned Wamsutta; many Wampanoags agreed, further heightening tension.
By the 1670s there were more than 50,000 English colonists living in New England, and they were steadily encroaching on land held by native people. Decimated by diseases Europeans brought to America in the early 1600s, the Algonquian population had fallen to about 20,000. The settlers and Native Americans were no closer to understanding each other and their respective cultures than at the beginning of the century. The Reverend Increase Mather captured English sentiments toward Philip and the Indians when he described the Wampanoag leader as one of the "heathen people amongst whom we live, and whose Land the Lord God of our Fathers hath given to us for a rightful Possession."
In June 1675 simmering hostilities erupted into open warfare. Early in the month, following a highly questionable trial, Plymouth authorities hanged three Wampanoag men for the alleged murder of John Sassamon, a Native American who had been raised and educated among the Puritan elite. Metacom was enraged. On June 20th, Wampanoag warriors burned several farms in Swansea. Three days later, a Swansea man shot and mortally wounded a Wampanoag. The attack on the 24th was the native warriors' revenge. Terrified Swansea settlers abandoned their farms and took refuge in garrisons.
Plymouth Colony sought help from Massachusetts Bay Colony and together their militias tried to corner Philip. He eluded them and fled to his Nipmuc allies in central Massachusetts. In the month that followed, Wampanoags attacked Taunton and Old Rehoboth; they burned much of Middleboro and destroyed the village of Dartmouth.
Time and again, ill-trained and poorly-prepared colonists found themselves thwarted by native warriors who used guerilla-type tactics, were far more skillful marksmen, and could easily pick up and move their camps.
The Narragansett, feared and respected for the prowess of their warriors, had initially stayed out of the conflict, but in the late fall of 1675 rumors circulated among the English that the tribe was preparing for war. On December 19th the English staged a pre-emptive strike. A combined force of 1,000 men from Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut colonies attacked a fortified Narragansett village. (Rhode Island, under Roger Williams's leadership, declined to participate.)
In what became known as the Great Swamp Fight, Englishmen slaughtered approximately 600 Narragansett men, women, and children. The English declared it a huge victory a questionable conclusion since the Narragansett immediately joined the alliance of native warriors and subsequently killed scores of settlers and destroyed hundreds of homes.
By the spring of 1676, the English had abandoned Springfield, Deerfield, Northfield, Brookfield, Lancaster, Groton, Mendon, Wrentham, Swansea, Rehoboth, and Dartmouth. Algonquian warriors staged raids in Chelmsford, Andover, Haverhill, Woburn, and as close to Boston as Braintree.
While the native peoples' tactic of remaining constantly on the move prevented the English from counterattacking, it made it impossible for the Indians to grow and harvest food. Algonquian food supplies began to run low, a fact their enemies were quick to notice.
In May 1676 the Nipmuc established camps along the Connecticut River, about five miles north of Deerfield, to fish and plant crops. Flush with recent victories, they let down their guard. The English had good intelligence and, when word reached them, 150 men staged a dawn attack. They killed primarily women, children, and old people as they slept. The Nipmuc warriors regrouped, fought back and then pursued the English, killing 39 of them. Their natives' losses were estimated at 200.
The following month, the English staged an offensive and forced the Indians to abandon their newly planted fields. In July colonists resumed their pursuit of King Philip. They captured his wife and nine-year-old son and sold them into slavery. King Philip was betrayed by one of his own men, who shot and killed him on August 12, 1676. Englishmen decapitated and quartered his body. They placed his head on a stake and marched it through the streets of Plymouth, where it remained in public view for years.
Colonists systematically hunted down the other Indian leaders, killing some of them on sight and convincing others to surrender with promises of amnesty, then executing them. In September, Massachusetts Bay Colony declared that any native person responsible for English deaths would be killed and all remaining Indians sold into slavery. Most of the enslaved were shipped to the West Indies, an almost certain death sentence.
By late 1676, English settlers had effectively cleared southern New England of its native inhabitants. A small number of King Philip's people Metacom's Wampanoags managed to survive. They sustained their culture in Mashpee on Cape Cod and on Martha's Vineyard.
King Philip's War: The History and Legacy of America's Forgotten Conflict, by Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Tougias (The Countryman Press, 1999).
The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 1998).
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2006).