King Philip, or Metacomet (1638-1676) was chieftain of the Wampanoag tribe from 1662 to 1676. His most important contribution as chieftain was as instigator of King Philip's War, the last major war in New England between the new settlers and the native Americans.
Relations between the Wampanoag and the English settlers were already fairly strained. Though at first the Pilgrims caused concern amongst the tribe, the Wampanoag and other tribes soon learned that the Pilgrims were fair traders and hard workers, and the two groups learn to coexist through trading and farming. This relationship actually seemed fairly one-sided in favor of the tribes: in exchange for basic farming tips and use of the land (of which there was plenty), the tribe received iron ware, animal traps, and most importantly, firearms. However, by 1630 the mass emigration to the new colonies was proving to be a major hazard - the Pilgrims had been pleasant and mild-mannered; the new Puritans showed nothing but contempt for the "savages."
The death of the Wampanoag leader Massasoit, who had signed many treaties with the English, led to a major advantage on the side of the English. His son Wamsutta (called Alexander by the English) went to visit the English at Duxbury, but while there he succumbed to a fever. Many of the Native Americans suspected he had been poisoned. His death brought his brother Philip to power as Grand Sachem.
Philip was no fool. He knew that the expansion would continue and would eventually lead to the extinction of the Wampanoag. He tried in vain to organize the other tribes against the settlers, but many of these other tribes were already firmly in league with the English, and they revealed the plans to the leaders of the colonies, straining relations even further. In 1671, the English brought Philip to court, where they accused him of plotting against them. He was ordered to (and agreed to) give up his firearms. To show his good faith, he even gave up the firearms that his escorts to the trial held. Yet when he returned to his tribe, he refused to give up any more of his guns. The tribe needed them to survive, and he did not know that was part of the arrangement. Whether it was miscommunication or willful disobedience on Philip's part, it once again convinced the settlers Philip was not a man to be trusted.
Later that same year, Philip entered into an agreement with Plymouth Colony. The agreement stated that the Wampanoag people were subject to the royal government and its laws. It appeared that Philip was laying down and giving up the Wampanoag's autonomy. The settlers would soon find out how wrong this assumption was.
On January 14, 1675, the body of John Sassamon was found in the woods near King Philip's land, stabbed to death. Sassamon was a Christian Indian who had formerly served under King Philip. His ability to speak English gave him great weight with the Wampanoag as a negotiator. However, a few days before his murder, he had warned Plymouth about a great tribulation: Philip, the Nipmuc, and the Narragansett tribes were going to start a major uprising in the fall. Three Wamapanoag were tried and hung for the crime on "eyewitness testimony" - testimony from a man owed money by one of the defendants. Today, many historians conjecture that Sassamon was murdered by unscrupulous Englishmen who sought to rid the countryside of the Wampanoag once and for all.
News reached King Philip that the English were planning to arrest him. The Wampanoag were incensed: they could not attack in the fall if they were all dead by summer. Philip met at Mount Hope with the Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, Pennacook, and Abenaki tribes. They all agreed to fight, thought there was hesitance about the many lives that would be lost. Eventually they agreed that war was inevitable.
In the town of Swansea on a bright June Sunday morning, peace died a very violent death at the hands of Wampanoag. Eight settlers were killed, retaliation for a tribe member's death at the hands of a Swansea settler.
King Philip's War had begun.
The Indians had a major advantage in fighting King Philip's War in that they had fought using guerilla warfare for years against each other. The old-fashioned volley-and-reload techniques of the British military proved no match for the quiet and efficient killings of the Wampanoag. Such strategic miscalculations were paid for with men's lives. King Philip brought 1,000 warriors under his command. It was a daunting number, and he intended to use it.
On July 5, two weeks into the war, English forces surrounded King Philip's war council at Mount Hope, but the King and his warriors escaped and began moving on the warpath through central Massachusetts. More battles between English militia and the Indians were fought, with the English suffering heavy casualties as they were ambushed and their cities ransacked. King Philip and his warriors showed a mighty resolve. Even through the bitter winter of 1676, the Indians continued to strike down, killing settlers and troops alike. Scalpings were frequent, and as an added touch of bitterness, the Wampanoag would tear out pages of the King James Bible, scattering them around the dead, reveling in their contempt for the preachings of the settlers who had mistreated them.
Fighting continued back and forth, with both sides suffering heavy losses. Soon, Philip received bad news on another front: the Mohawk tribe had declared war on the Wampanoag - not because of their attack on the settlers, but for the ancillary reason that the Mohawk, upon defeating Philip, would become the strongest tribe in America. Philip also found that as his troops kept moving, they could not find food. The Nipmuc and Pocumtuc were the first tribes to abandon him: they claimed that "speedy victory" would never come against the seemingly endless stream of English volunteers fighting against them.
In April of 1676, a major blow was struck against King Philip's army. One Captain William Turner learned of a Wampanoag camp on the Connecticut River. Besides being a major source of food (fish), the camp also served as a major forge for the native American gunsmiths to make bullets and repair guns. Two weeks later, Turner attacked and took the tribe completely by surprise. Hundreds were killed, and more importantly, their equipment and stored food was destroyed. Although Turner was killed during the battle, a major victory for the colonists had virtually ensured the demise of King Philip and his army.
By now, a huge reward had been placed on King Philip's head. War-grizzled veterans and "irregular forces" of Rangers and Christian Indians began to hunt for him. On August 1, his camp was attacked and, although he escaped, his wife and child were taken prisoner (and later sold into slavery in the West Indies). Ten days later, a Wampanoag informant appeared in a Ranger camp and informed on Philip's position. The next day, the Rangers ambushed the camp. A leader of the forces, Benjamin Church, tells the tale:
They were soon in the swamp, and Philip the foremost, who starting at the first gun, threw his petunk and powerhorn over his head, catched up his gun, and ran as fast as he could scamper, without any more clothes then his small breeches and stockings; and ran directly on two of Captain Church’s ambush. They let him come within shot, and the Englishman’s gun missing fire, he bid the Indian fire away, and he did so to (the) purpose; sent one musket bullet through his heart, and another not above two inches from it. He fell upon his face in the mud and water, with his gun under him.
After his death, Philip's body suffered a gruesome fate. He was quartered, each piece being hung from a different tree. He was also beheaded, and his head was taken Plymouth where it was mounted on a stake until 1702. The Indian who killed Philip, Alderman, was given the dead man's hand, which he showed to curiosity seekers for a small fee.
Within a year, the tribes had been thoroughly routed, and a surrendering pact was signed, giving up autonomy in the New England and forcing the native Americans further out west. More than 10000 people were killed in King Philip's War, but that number was only the beginning of the long and violent road towards manifest destiny and the conflict between the New World and native America.