An examination of the invasion of North America by Europeans during the first 150 years after Columbus invites certain generalizations about the motivations and actions of the Spanish and French when compared to the English. The Spanish searched for gold, and cared little for the natives they met and showed them no mercy. The French were more interested in trade, and by the Indians’ own accounts, were reasonably kind and tolerant. In a broad sense, during those early years, both the Spanish and the French came to the New World to find something of value to take home to the motherland. Not so, the English. They came to take the land.
Some three million North Americans claim an ancestor who was aboard the Mayflower when that ship’s first few explorers came ashore at Cape Cod in November 1620, hundreds of miles from their intended destination. Their first act in the new world was robbing Nauset Indian graves of the corn that had been set on them as offerings to the dead.
The stories of Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, and Squanto and how they helped the Pilgrims survive are familiar to virtually every schoolchild in America. How and why the Puritans killed Massasoit’s two sons and mounted the head of one on a pike in Plymouth, where it was displayed for over twenty-five years, is a story no schoolchild hears. On December 6, still searching for a safe harbor for the leaking Mayflower, the colonists “by chance espied two houses which had beene lately dwelt in, but the people were gone.” In the houses were pots, bowls, baskets and some foodstuffs. “Some of the best things we took away with us, and left their houses standing still as they were.” The following day, Indians attacked, and in a short skirmish, the Pilgrims wounded the Nauset warrior who appeared to be the leader of the group. The Indian warriors fled and so did the Pilgrims. The latter named the site “The First Encounter.”
Undaunted, the Pilgrims sailed across the bay. A few passengers and crew members explored on shore, then the ship was anchored, and 102 English men, women and children were disgorged into a deserted Indian village with cleared fields, a beautiful brook, a few dwellings and more graves to rob. The village was Patuxet, deserted because of a tragic epidemic resulting from earlier Indian contact with English fishermen along the coast. Of the 102 weary, starving passengers, only thirty-five were Puritans; the remaining sixty-seven felt that they had been hijacked because they had signed on to travel to established English settlements in Virginia, and they had not contemplated the hardships of a cold winter on the northern coast. Many did not weather those hardships that first year; half of the original settlers died of starvation and disease, ill prepared as they were for the rigors of pioneer life.
Today’s Americans find it difficult to accept that these early Pilgrims—icons of piety and strength—were less than perfect. An example of historical blindness occurred in 1970 when the Massachusetts Department of Commerce refused to allow an invited guest-speaker, Frank James, a Wampanoag Indian, to give the speech he prepared for the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing. James had planned to say:
Today is a time of celebrating for you . . . but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. . . . The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shore of Cape Cod four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat and beans . . . Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts; yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers . . . little knowing that . . . before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags . . . and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them.
The labors of Massasoit and other members of his tribe saved the Pilgrims, but the Wampanoags had an agenda of their own. Their ability to defend themselves had been diminished by an epidemic that killed nearly ninety percent of the tribe, and Massasoit feared the Narragansets who lived in Rhode Island, west of the bay that carries their name today. He saw the Pilgrims with their guns as possible future allies and as trading partners for the furs of the territory, as they proved to be. A formal treaty was made: the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims pledged to do nothing that would injure the other party, and to aid each other in the event of attacks from others. With a high sense of ceremony, the Pilgrims provided green carpets for the Wampanoags to sit on at the treaty signing, since they would not use chairs.
There was peace between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags throughout Massasoit’s lifetime, but peace did not prevail with the other tribes in the area. In 1623, just three years after the Pilgrims’ landing, Governor William Bradford heard a rumor that the Massachuset tribe was planning an attack on a small, rowdy, non-Puritan English community up the coast from Plymouth. The relatively new settlement, Wessagusett, had never had good relations with its Indian neighbors. The Indians claimed that the English stole their corn.
The Pilgrims’ military leader was Miles Standish. Today he is best known as the timid, frustrated suitor in Longfellow’s poem, “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” He should also be remembered as the first Pilgrim to cut off an Indian head. Bradford sent Standish to meet with the Massachusets. With the pretense of setting up a meeting with the Indian leader Witawamet, Standish lured the Indians out of the woods into a clearing. Then, without provocation, and with no evidence of wrongdoing—acting only because of rumor the governor had heard—the English opened fire and killed all of the Indians except Witawamet’s eighteen-year-old brother, whom they hanged. Standish then ordered that Witawamet’s head be cut off. The severed head was taken to Plymouth, where Standish had it mounted on an outside wall as a gruesome warning to all Indians who might be considering attacks against the Pilgrims.
Seven years later, in 1630, the English Puritans, encouraged by the success of Plymouth, began to settle Massachusetts in earnest. In just five years—by 1635—the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony had eight thousand residents while Plymouth Town struggled with no more than six hundred. Plymouth Colony, however, had grown to around five thousand in an area that includes most of what is now southeastern Massachusetts. This huge influx of settlers created ever more problems for the disease-decimated tribes of the northeastern shores, especially the Pequots. Settlers migrated to Pequot territory in the lower Connecticut River valley. Aware that they were intruding on tribal land, they built a small fort which they named Saybrook.
All contacts by the Pequots with the white colonists seemed to turn sour. A chief of the Pequots had been kidnaped by Europeans and offered for ransom to the tribe. When the ransom was paid, the Indians, expecting a joyous reunion with a beloved leader, found the chief’s dead body instead. The Pequots planned a devastating reprisal, but unfortunately, they could not distinguish one European from another. There remains some question as to whether the kidnappers were English or Dutch, but whoever they were, the Pequots took their revenge on an English ship at the mouth of the Connecticut River. All on board were massacred. The English denied responsibility for the death of the kidnapped chief, and after negotiations, a fragile treaty was agreed to between the parties, with the Pequots paying a heavy indemnity and agreeing to punish the warriors who attacked the ship.
When a trader was murdered just off Block Island in Narraganset territory, this tribe pleaded innocent. The English attacked anyway, killing every male on Block Island, and even slaughtering the dogs. But for some unknown reason, the Puritans included the Pequots in their plans for retaliation. They sent a force to the mouth of the Thames River to pillage and burn Pequot villages. The war had begun.
John Robinson was a spiritual leader of the Puritans who had remained in Holland (where the Puritans had sojourned before the voyage of the Mayflower), but he was in regular communication with the Plymouth settlement. When he became aware of the conflicts with the Indians, he wrote to the Pilgrim leaders and warned them that “where blood is once begun to be shed, it is seldom staunched for a long time after.” Robinson was right.
In April 1637, two hundred Pequot warriors struck back, and killed nine settlers near Weathersfield, including a woman and her child. They paddled their canoes down the river past the Saybrook fort, waving the clothing of their victims so the Puritans, watching from the bank, would know the fate planned for them by the Pequot.
Enraged by the murder of the settlers, ninety Puritan colonists under Captain John Mason—accompanied by sixty Mohegan allies and their chief, Uncas—headed toward Saybrook for revenge. When the Mohegans came upon a small party of Pequots, they broke off from the English force and attacked. They returned to Captain Mason with four Pequot heads and one captive, and chided the English for not being more aggressive.
Not accepting the taunt, the Puritans tied one leg of the captive Indian to a tree, and a loose rope to the other leg. A group of English grabbed the free rope and ripped the man into two pieces. A charitable captain ended the torture with a shot to the head of the mutilated victim.
Less than a month later, on May 25, Mason, with English reinforcements and six hundred Narraganset and Niantic warriors, attacked the Pequot fort on the Mystic River and set it afire. Inside were eighty dwellings that housed over eight hundred Indians. As the terrified Indians fled the flames, they were cut down with swords and muskets and scalped.
The hundreds of women and children who stayed inside, rather than risk the ferocity of the English and their Indian allies, burned to death. Not one Pequot escaped.
After the carnage, Captain John Underhill claimed that God had helped the Puritans. “We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings,” he wrote. Word of the slaughter quickly reached other Pequots in nearby villages, and they fled the muskets of the Puritans. To the colonists’ credit, when they came upon the fleeing Indians, they let the elderly and the women and children go unharmed, but sixty warriors who ran to a swamp were less fortunate. The Puritans had loaded ten to twelve balls in each musket and fired point-blank at the ill-fated warriors huddled together in the water. They were torn apart by the barrage.
This total, unrelenting kind of warfare by the English was new to the Indians.
During intertribal wars, total annihilation was never the objective. In their new fear, and out of eagerness to placate the English, neighboring tribes began cutting off the heads of those few Pequots they happened upon and sending them to the English leaders. Eventually, the Mohawks delivered the head of Sassacus, chief of the Pequots, who had come to the Mohawks requesting a place to hide.
The Pequots were a tribe no more.
The few who survived sought alliances with the English and fought alongside the English in later conflicts. Throughout this war, the Wampanoags remained loyal to the Pilgrims, and for the next twenty-four years, there was relative peace between the Indians and the Puritans.
When Massasoit died in 1661 at the age of eighty-one, change was in the air.
The next stage is well described by historian Douglas Edward Leach:
. . . with more experience of the white men and their ways, and particularly as the Indians came to have dealings with the Europeans in trade and settlement of land, the early sense of awe gave way to resignation, and often resentment. Resentment, in turn, easily developed into hatred. When the Indians became aware of the true consequences of the European intrusion, their natural inclination was to employ whatever forms of resistance seemed feasible at the time.
At Massasoit’s death, his eldest son, Wamsutta, became the grand sachem of all the Wampanoags, inheriting his father’s title and responsibilities.
The colonists neither liked nor trusted Wamsutta, nor his younger brother Metacomet. Returning from a meeting with the white authorities shortly after becoming chief, Wamsutta became seriously ill and died. Metacomet became chief of the Wampanoags and was ready to employ whatever forms of resistance were available, but none seemed feasible.
Metacomet—known as Philip or King Philip to the English settlers—was only twenty-four when he assumed the hereditary title, yet even at that early age, he was feared by the growing population of New England. He believed that the Puritans were responsible for his brother’s death, and with some justification—historians have discovered a “poison” item in the budget records of the day. If the English were responsible in this case, it would not have been the first time they used poison to kill Indians. In 1623, at a treaty negotiation in Virginia, a chief and over two hundred Indians had been fatally poisoned while drinking a toast of friendship.
Metacomet was bitter and enraged over the humiliations suffered by the Wampanoags. By the time he became chief of his people, the situation he faced was no longer Puritans in Indian territory, but Indians in Puritan territory.
Crimes of Indian against Indian were no longer judged by the tribe, but by the magistrates and councils of the colonists, by whose regulations the Indians were prohibited from work on the Sabbath and subject to the death penalty for blasphemy and interracial marriage, as were the settlers themselves.
For thirteen years, Metacomet seethed and schemed, always hopeful and ceaselessly seeking allies in neighboring tribes to join the Wampanoags in a force large enough to push the colonists back into the sea.
He was never able to do it, but war began nevertheless, and in an unplanned and unexpected way.
An aide to Metacomet, John Sassamon, was raised by whites and even attended Harvard for a time before returning to his people. His English was perfect and he knew the colonists’ way of thinking. The chief was surprised when Sassamon suddenly returned to the white community, and equally surprised when he learned that his former friend had told the English that Metacomet was preparing for war.
Sassamon had been a spy.
Indians wandering through the countryside in January 1675 discovered his body beneath the ice in Assowampset Pond. They buried the body and went about their business, but when the colonists heard of the incident, they exhumed the body and declared that John Sassamon had been murdered. Three of Metacomet’s closest friends and advisors were charged with the crime and sentenced to death. The three advisors were killed, two by hanging and the third by gunshot. This was the spark that lit the flame that history would record as “King Philip’s War.” The young warriors were ready, but the chief knew that without the support of all of the Wampanoag—the Sakonnets, Pocassets, and Nipmuc—and even the Narragansets, traditional enemies of the Wampanoag, the war could never be won.
Six months later, on June 20, angry, rampaging warriors shot up the colonists’ cattle in the town of Swansea, and harassed the villagers to a point where they fled to the garrison house. A young colonist shot at one of the Indians and wounded him, spilling the first blood of the new war.
Warriors soon swarmed around the town, hiding behind buildings and trees, waiting for the settlers to show themselves. By June 23, they had killed nine colonists and mortally wounded two others. The war was on in earnest, and Metacomet now had no choice but to fight.
When a hastily raised colonial militia rushed towards Metacomet’s village, Mount Hope, near present Bristol, Rhode Island, they came upon eight poles with the mounted heads and hands of eight colonists. Metacomet had fled, and his village was deserted.
Recounting a battle with the Indians in September 1675, a writer of the time proved that the Puritan colonists were not to be outdone by heathen Indians:
Some Part of our Forces afterwards set on about Five hundred Indians, not far from Pocasset, pursuing them into a large Swamp, not far from thence; how many they killed not known. . . But in this Fight were killed King Philip’s brother, his Privy Councellor . . . and one of his chief Captains; the Heads of which three were afterwards brought to Boston.
With the outbreak of war, the Wampanoag began to attract allies. Other tribes like the Nipmucs grabbed at the opportunity to salve old wounds with the bitterest style of revenge. The Nipmucs burned the town of Brookfield, putting fire to every building except the garrison house, which would not catch fire from flaming arrows, or from an attempt to ignite assorted debris piled against the logs. When a wagon loaded with burning hay was pushed to the garrison house wall, rain put out the fire. Eighty village inhabitants had sought refuge in the building, and all but two survived. One was killed in the gunfire, and the other was captured. The Nipmucs cut off the captive’s head, which then was “kicked about like a football until the Indians tired of this sport and stuck it on a pole in front of the unfortunate man’s own house.”
The inhumane acts committed by both sides in this war equal the most heinous crimes of history. The hate was uncontrollable. The Indians sought revenge and a return to their way of life before colonization, and the New Englanders felt they had God on their side. The renowned Puritan preacher and scholar Cotton Mather asserted that “. . . the Evident Hand of Heaven appearing on the Side of a people whose Hope and Help was alone in the Almighty Lord of Hosts, Extinguished whole Nations of Savages.”
To the Puritans, every occurrence was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
In every way this was a war of annihilation, and there were no prisoner-of-war camps. More often than not, “captured” meant “killed” by either side and age or sex was of no consequence. Still, some Indian prisoners taken by the Puritans had a cash value and they were shipped to Bermuda, the West Indies, and even to Spain as slaves. When there was a special tax assessed to arm the militia, one merchant observed that the colonists would get their money back from the value of the lands they could confiscate as they killed the chiefs. Near the end, Metacomet’s own wife and son were sold as slaves.
The literature of the day—histories, sermons and civil tracts—overflows with stories of the murders of Indian and English children as mothers watched helplessly. For their part, the Indians did not kill all of their captives; some were kept as slaves and ransomed back to the English. Others were tortured. A letter written in 1676 describes the Indians’ practice of tying captured English militiamen to stakes and building fires under them. As the fires burned, the torturers cut gashes in the victims and put hot coals in their wounds. The torture continued until the unfortunate soldier died.
At the beginning, The Narragansets did not enter the war on the side of their old enemies. They had a long history of profitable trade with the colonists, so they held back, content to watch developments for a while. Governor John Winthrop sent a delegation to the tribe and obtained the services of a hundred warriors, who went to Connecticut with the promise of rewards for heads and scalps. “For every Indians Head-Skin . . . they should have a coat and for every one they bring alive two Coats; for King Philips Head, Twenty Coats, and if taken alive, Forty Coats.”
The Indians returned in about two weeks with eighteen heads.
Eventually the Narragansets did change sides and fought the English. The Wampanoag, Sakonnet, Narraganset, Pocasset, Nipmuc, Niantic, Mohegan and Pequot were all Algonquians, more or less consanguineous, and spoke the same language. Tribal leadership in Algonquian tribes was hereditary, and consequently, there could be male or female chiefs, just as there were European kings or queens. Among the Wampanoags, there were numerous women known as “squaw sachems,” who effectively were female chiefs. The stories of two squaw sachems who led their people in the fight against the colonists during the war, Awashonks of the Sakonnets, and Weetamoo of the Pocassets, encapsulate the tragedies of the era. Awashonks was a cousin of Metacomet, and Weetamoo was his sister-in-law, the widow of his lamented brother.
Before the fighting began, back in the days when Metacomet urged tribal leaders to join him in driving the English into the sea, peace-minded, matronly Awashonks was reluctant to bring her people into the conflict, confiding at one point to a white friend, Benjamin Church, as to what was happening. Later, however, when all the tribes massed for the major offensive against the English, Awashonks and her Sakonnets, and Weetamoo and the Pocassets were alongside Metacomet. Targets were assigned, and the Nipmucs and the Narragansets set out on separate missions while the Wampanoags, Sakonnets, and Pocassets joined forces to launch the main attack.
Fifty-two settlements were attacked and twelve were totally destroyed. Even sacred Plymouth was not spared; sixteen houses were burned to the ground. Those settlers who were not massacred fled to Boston and the larger towns. Absolute panic spread throughout the Massachusetts Colony. Had the Indians persisted with the same vigor they displayed in February and March 1676, they might have been the victors, at least temporarily. But they could not, for a number of reasons, sustain their war campaign.
Planting time was at hand, and most of the Indian combatants had already used up their food reserves. Because of the war, they could not go back to their homelands—that was much too dangerous—so they began to wander in search of new fields, new places to take their families for hunting, fishing, and farming.
One writer of the day claimed that the Indians were killing their own children.
. . . they commonly kill theyr Chilldren, partly for crying whereby ye English are dereceted to them, & partly for want of food for them, allsoe they giue [give] a reward to a cruell woman among them to kill theyr Chilldren, She killd in one day an hundered children.
The English colonists found and destroyed the Indians’ storehouses and crops while the Indians died of disease and starvation. As more and more Indians left the attacking forces, the pressure lessened on the settlers. Other tribes allied with the colonists were integrated into new and bigger militia forces. With the aid of these friendly Indians, the colonists were better able to track and engage their enemies, which dampened the enthusiasm that had been fueled by earlier successes.
The beginning of the end came when Canonchet, a chief of the Narragansets, was captured and executed.
A Pequot was allowed to shoot him, and as the colonists watched, his corpse was quartered and burned by exultant representatives of the Mohegans, Niantics, and the Pequots who had accompanied the Connecticut patrol. In a final gesture, the whites themselves sent Canonchet’s head to the Connecticut authorities at Hartford.
Receipt for the head was acknowledged by the Connecticut Council on April 8, 1676.
The squaw sachem Weetamoo, a queen in her own right, and her Pocassets fought alongside Metacomet from the first day of the war. After the Narragansets joined the conflict, she became one of the three wives of Quinnapin, one of the Narraganset sachems. During this period a captive by the name of Mary Rowlandson, wife of the minister of the Puritan Church in Lancaster, served as a maid to the Quinnapin household and frequently found herself in the service of Weetamoo, whom she disliked. Mary Rowlandson was eventually ransomed and wrote a short account of her experiences as a captive, providing a rare characterization of Weetamoo:
A severe and proud Dame she was, bestowing every day in dressing her self neat as much time as any of the Gentry of the land: powdering her hair, and painting her face, going with Neck-laces, with Jewels in her ears, and Bracelets upon her hands: When she had dressed her self, her work was to make Girdles of Wampom and Beads . . .
The squaw sachem, Awashonks of the Sakonnets, who came reluctantly into the war, was one of the earliest to surrender. Her old friend Benjamin Church persuaded her to give herself up in July 1676, and she and most of her warriors changed sides.
His allies steadily deserted Metacomet. Some Nipmuc, for instance, migrated to New York, where they were granted sanctuary. Other Indians, sensing defeat, wandered as far west as present-day Indiana and Illinois, and some even joined with LaSalle during his Mississippi River exploration, but only after they had determined that he was not English.
Benjamin Church’s “Rangers” chased Weetamoo and her warriors. The Pocassets fought the Rangers near Taunton, and Weetamoo, attempting to escape, shed her clothing and tried to swim the Taunton River. She drowned. When her body was found floating nude in the river, it was retrieved and beheaded.
Her head was sent to Taunton, where it remained on display for years.
Metacomet went into hiding near his ancestral home at Mount Hope, resigned to defeat. He was surrounded on August 12 and shot by an Indian, John Alderman, then beheaded and quartered.
His hands were given to Alderman as a reward for shooting him; his head was mounted on a pole and displayed in Plymouth for twenty-five years. It is said that Alderman showed the famous hands to anyone who would buy him a drink at his favorite tavern. He kept them in a jar, floating in some murky preservative.
Despite the Indians’ reverses and the loss of Metacomet, “King Philip’s War” continued sporadically for two more years. When viewed from the perspective of the percentage of the population killed on both sides, it was one of the deadliest wars in American history. Over six hundred colonists died. By 1680, the Indian population of the area had decreased by more than ten thousand due to emigration, disease and war, and there were only four hundred Wampanoags left at war’s end.
Commenting on the relationships between the Puritans and the Indians, historians Alan and Mary Simpson remind us that
. . . we must not forget the self-righteousness of the Puritan, which was nursed on a doctrine of predestination and on a study of the Old Testament . . . sufficiently goaded, the clergy could discover a duty to exterminate the ungodly heathens if they interfered with the enjoyment of the Promised Land by God’s Chosen People.
The embarrassing facts about the Pilgrim colony and the conduct of the Puritans are disillusioning to generations of Americans taught to believe that the humanitarian principles of these settlers formed the very foundations of freedom and justice upon which the United States was built. The Puritans came to the New World for religious freedom, yet they offered none. To settle in the lands of the Plymouth Colony, one had to appear before the magistrates and prove conformity to the teachings of the Puritans. In the territory of the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the years 1648 to 1692, twenty-five “witches” were condemned to death: twenty-two were hanged, one was “pressed to death,” and two died in dungeons while awaiting trial.
The pious Puritans, who are credited with launching the great American social and political experiment, beheaded the corpses of seven Indian leaders and publicly displayed at least one head, Metacomet’s, for a quarter of a century.
The gory score of severed heads for public display: Boston, three heads; Plymouth, two heads; Hartford and Taunton, one each.
Over 150 years after Metacomet’s beheading, one of the most popular dramatic productions in the eastern United States was Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags. In 1829, even as the U.S. Army shot Indians in the plains, the southwest and the west, eastern audiences relished the melodramatic heroism of Metacomet, called Metamora in the play, wherein Metamora’s son is killed, and the chief kills his wife to prevent her enslavement by the Pilgrims. Before the final curtain, the Indian hero (played by Edwin Forrest, an immensely popular stage star of the day) proclaims:
My curses on you, white men! May the Great Spirit curse you when he speaks in his war voice from the clouds! Murderers! The last of the Wampanoags’ curse be on you! May your graves and the graves of your children be in the path the red man shall trace! And may the wolf and panther howl o’er your fleshless bones, fit banquet for the destroyers! Spirits of the grave, I come! But the curse of Metamora stays with the white man! I die! My wife! My queen! My Nahmeokee!
The curtain fell slowly. The audience—as one body—stood and cheered.
From “Cannibalism, Headhunting and Human Sacrifice in North America” with permission of Alan C Hood & Co.
- Cannibalism, Headhunting and Human Sacrifice in North America
- Alan C Hood & Co, 272 pp.