US History
US History E-Text > New England Affairs > King Philip's War
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The relations of the colonists to the Indians were threefold: they traded with the Indians, they fought with them, and they preached the gospel to them. The early settlers carried on trade with the natives, because it was profitable, and because it was often necessary, in keeping the colonists from starvation. They sought from pure and honest motives to convert the red men to Christianity.

The people of Massachusetts were foremost in this laudable ambition. The Reverend John Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians, labored for many years to give them the gospel, and translated the Bible into their language.1 Eliot was assisted by many others, and many of the dusky inhabitants of the forest learned to bow down to the Christian's God.

Nevertheless, conflict between the white men and the Indians was at times inevitable. The Indian could not understand the perpetual obligations of a treaty, nor could he discriminate between the honest settler who sought only to do him good, and the conscienceless trader who defrauded him. Hence the two races were embroiled in wars from time to time, until the stronger race finally triumphed over the weaker, and took sole possession of the land. No other result, indeed, was possible. The two races were so unlike in their aspirations and their capacity for civilization that they could not dwell together, and barbarism fell before the onmarch of civilization.

Philip was the son of Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, who had made a treaty of friendship with the Pilgrims of Plymouth soon after their landing. This treaty had been faithfully kept for fifty years, but soon after the death of the aged chief, Philip and his tribe became estranged from the white settlers and began to prepare for war. No particular cause for the war that ensured is known. It was apparently a spontaneous outburst, rather than the result of a conspiracy of the Indians. It is supposed that the Indians, seeing the gradual encroachment of the white men upon the lands of their fathers, determined to drive the intruders from the country.

The war began with an Indian attack on the town of Swansea, in which several men, women, and children were killed. The cry of alarm instantly spread throughout the colonies and the effect was immediate. Three hours after the messenger had reached Boston a body of men was on the march from that city toward the Indian country. Other towns responded with equal vigor, and ere many days the New England forest range with the crack of the musket and the war whoop of the savage. Had the Indians met their civilized foe in open battle they would soon have been annihilated; but their method was to attack the lonely farmhouse, the unprotected settlement, or to creep by stealth at dead of night upon the sleeping hamlet and with fiendish yells to fall upon their victims with the tomahawk.

Philip was a bold and powerful leader. He succeeded in enlisting the aid of the Narragansetts; but many of the Indians, especially those converted by Eliot, assisted the colonies. In the summer of 1675 the towns of Brookfield, Deerfield, and Northfield were burned by the savages, and many of the inhabitants perished. A band of soldiers led by Captain Beers was ambushed near Deerfield and almost all were killed. The Indians then attacked Hadley, and while the villagers were fighting desperately it is said that an aged man with flowing white hair and beard appeared and took command of the battle, and the savages were soon driven off. Many thought him an angel sent from heaven for their deliverance. It proved to be Goffe, the regicide, who had long been hiding in the town.2

The following winter a thousand of the best men of New England marched against the savage foe; they surprised the Narragansett fort and put to death probably seven hundred people in a night. By the spring of 1676 the Indians were on the defensive. Philip became a fugitive and escaped his pursuers from place to place. At length he was overtaken in a swamp in Rhode Island by Captain Ben Church of Plymouth and was shot dead by one of his own race.

The war soon ended; the Indians had lost three thousand men, their power was utterly broken, and never again was there a war of the races in southern New England. But the cost to the colonies was terrible. Thirteen towns had been laid in ashes; the wilderness was marked on every side with desolate farms and ruined homes. A thousand of the brave young men had fallen, and there was scarcely a fireside that was not a place of mourning. The public debt had risen to an enormous figure, falling most heavily on Plymouth, in proportion to population. In this colony alone the debt reached was 15,000, more, it was said, than the entire property valuation of the colony -- but this debt was paid to the last shilling.


Footnotes

1This translation is now a great literary curiosity. No man can read it, the language having perished with the people that used it.[return]

2Goffe and his father-in-law, Whalley, had signed the death warrant of King Charles I, and after the Restoration they fled to America and lived in hiding till their death.[return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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