King Philip's War: conflict between Native Americans and English colonists in the New England region during 1675-1676.

A general distrust between the colonists and natives caused King Philip's War. The colonists were rapidly encroaching the Wampanoag and other Native’s lands. Governor William Bradford died in 1657 and Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag, died in 1660. The personal bonds, which had helped to create a working peace, were gone and tensions grew. The two cultures had vastly difference concepts of land use and different ways of life. The colonists’ livestock continually trampled the Native cornfields. Technically the colonists were legally responsible for this damage, although those laws were not really enforced, especially in remote rural areas like Rehoboth and Taunton. Competition for planting land and hunting and fishing areas also caused a conflict between the two groups. After the fur trade collapsed, many Natives supported themselves by selling their land. Plymouth wanted exclusive purchasing rights from the Wampanoag.

In 1662, the Wampanoag leader Wamsutta was summoned by the Plymouth Court. Major Josiah Winslow and a small force captured Wamsutta. Soon after questioning, Wamsutta became gravely ill and died. The Wampanoag were outraged at his death. Metacom (called Philip by the Colonists), Wamsutta’s brother, succeeded Wamsutta.

There was a skirmish at Swansea. War broke out between Natives and Colonists all the way from New Hampshire to Connecticut. Most Christian Natives remained neutral or sided with the English. The English, however, did not really trust these converted Natives and many of them were put into internment camps. Some Native communities on Cape Cod and the Islands did not participate in the war. Native soldiers fighting on the side of the Colonists eventually helped turn the tide of the war, which ended in 1676 when a Wampanoag fighting with Captain Benjamin Church killed Metacom.

Percentage wise, King Philip’s War was one of the most deadly wars ever fought in the history of America. Over 20% of each side’s forces were killed. It took many years for Plymouth and the other colonies to recover from the damage to property and the human losses. The war also devastated the Native population of New England. Hundreds of Natives who fought alongside Metacom were sold into slavery abroad. Many Native women and children were forced to become servants of the Colonists. Much of the culture of the Wampanoag and other local Natives was destroyed.


In the search for understanding identity during King Philip’s War, there are four identities relevant to the discussion: the identities of both parties before and after the war. Leading up to the first outbreaks of violence, both the identity of the Indians and the identity of the English were being called into question: according to Lepore, it was in fact the blending of the cultures (and the subsequent rebellion against integration) which caused the war. (Lepore 1998: 26) After the war, the victorious settlers’ identity, which had been called into question, was now solidified even more firmly before. In contrast, the Indians’ identity took its first step towards a long and dismal decline. The evolution of the warring parties’ identities provides much context into the creation of the “American” identity: the dogged absolutism and self-determinism of the settlers and their eventual victory created a blueprint for independence and dominance. King Philip’s War, therefore, is a perfect example of how the crystallization of identity can unify a society and clearly define its path for success. From the Algonquin perspective, it is also a perfect example of the effects of identity dilution on handling crises and surviving as a society.

The English Identity: If God Is With Us

The most prominent component of the English settlers’ identity was their religious ideology. It defined virtually all aspects of their society, from business to education to the home. This religiosity served as a double-edged sword during King Philip’s War. Many settlers believed God had abandoned them, cursing them for not converting the Indians. This forsakenness brought up many questions about their existing spirituality, and therefore their identity. However, the English also used their religion as rationale for the war; consequently, they viewed the “savages” hating them “without cause.” (114) This innate sense of moral superiority was expounded fervently by the church leaders of the settlements. Even more importantly, the settlers were learning that prayer and spirituality alone would not bring bread to the table. They had to work, and work hard, in order to survive. In many cases, they had to rely on the Indians’ knowledge of the land to prosper. This secularization of their society – cooperating with heathens and fending for themselves – caused many to question the benefits of such a life: were they abandoning God for the world? The war, in many minds, seemed to confirm this suspicion. The other major aspect of the English identity was property. Only recently had the laws and philosophies governing private property begun to become ingrained into the European way of life. Here the Indians preyed directly on this identity: while the English built forts and organized militias, the Indians attacked villages, killed livestock, and burned homes and churches. “[S]kulking violated every English code of conduct.” (Lepore 1998: 113) To combat this, the English used a strange rationale, abandoning the third component of their identity, namely, their civility and sophistication. They felt strongly that these heathens did not deserve the customary protections of fellow Christian opponents. In all of this, we see a great deal of bastardization of the founding ideals of the settlers’ identity: religion is used to justify injustice, property is becoming a major point of conflict with other societies, and civility is sacrificed for victory and dominance.

The Algonquin Identity: Questions of Faith

The Algonquin people’s identity was also being called into conflict. The sheer technological and cultural gaps between the natives and the settlers forced adaptation of the Indian way of life. Whereas the Indians were content to remain isolated and independent of their new neighbors, the English forced themselves on the Algonquin. Although their missionary attempts failed in the long run, they brought about many changes in the native culture. First, they brought literacy and, as Lepore puts it, “historical awareness” to the Indians. (Lepore 1998: 47) This well-defined boundary of civilization was viewed by many as a desire to abandon the Indian culture of oral storytelling and the timelessness of existence. It also implicitly suggested a cozy relationship with the English, who were not to be trusted. Secondly, the English values and beliefs on property and privatization were in stark contrast to the Indians’ communal and open coexistence with the land. The Indians simply never thought to “claim” the land as their own. Eventually the settlers’ claims expanded beyond friendly borders, destroying Indian crops and settlements in the process. To embrace this system was to abandon their freedom. Finally, the mass attempts at conversion brought the Indians’ own spirituality into question. Had they been going about the world all wrong for all times?

The Clash of Civilizations

Lepore magnificently portrays the conflict of identities in terms of the outright rejection of the opposing cultural influences during the war. The Indians directly mocked the English’s religion and piety, scattering torn Bibles, taunting them about “sending them to heaven” or their newly-burnt churches, and stripping their corpses. (Lepore 1998: 104-5) The English overcompensated for their religion, turning a war about land and equality into a holy war, where God would allow them to prevail over these barbarous infidels impervious to reason and sensibility. Both sides also weeded out their own members who appeared to sympathize with the enemy, based on accusations both founded and unfounded. Both John Sassamon and Joshua Tift were killed for their “treasonous” actions, most of which consisted solely of living within the enemies’ domain for a period of time. (Lepore 1998: 21, 134) These black-and-white distinctions brought the conflict into even more abstract terms: the war simply would not end until one side was thoroughly beaten down and defeated.

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

As the old saying goes, “The history books are written by the winners.” The American identity saw its first major step toward fruition with the English victory in King Philip’s War. They saw themselves first as victorious through God; the war served as a major point of self-righteousness for years to come. The war also gave settlers the opportunity to unify as neighbors and as a society with common goals. Eventually, this tight-knit, close quarters self-determinism came to a head during the American Revolution. This identity also gave the English settlements closure on future integration attempts. There would be no common ground; only assimilation into their culture would be tolerated. Those who rebelled against the foundations of the new identity, cast in community, religion, and hard work, would be thrown out or subjected to extreme prejudice and ridicule.

The Indians, on the other hand, were forced to readjust their identity. This was certainly not the last war with the colonists. Still, their identity had been swept out from beneath them. Certainly their lack of literacy and the ability to record their feelings led to a sense that had in fact had no cause at all for their wanton violence and destruction. Eventually, the facts became so distorted that the native icon itself was romanticized as the “noble savage” of Metamora and Cooper’s Leatherstocking. (Lepore 1998: 193) The Indians simply did not have the straightforward resolve as to their goals: their identity betrayed them as peaceful, isolated, and communal people. Despite their best efforts to disrupt and infringe upon the English way of life, they offered little in the way of aggressive strategy to counter the settler’s expansion, and they too often were influenced to hold back and hope for the best. The conflict had only served to heighten these facets, which proved to be major shortcomings against the English. Left to the confines of history, the Indians were victims of further injustices, many times with the same justification as those used in King Philip’s War.


King Philip’s War heightened the influences of the important aspects in both the English and the Indians’ identities. Its obvious aftermath was that the English had won a convoluted divine right to expand further and to rule over the natives, and the Indians were forced into an uneasy coexistence with these invaders they could not trust, but who had added important stipulations to the natives’ survival. Before the war, the identities of both groups had become muddled; it was the war’s place to purge each identity of the conflicting values, leaving only the barest and most absolute identity available, in order to maximize and rectify the major differences between the two warring parties. So, too, was the American identity initiated by King Philip’s War – an identity defined by self-determinism, power, stoicism, and forthrightness. Lepore’s book captures the questioning moments of both sides wonderfully, and the rather telling epilogue serves as a strong advocate for the creation of a powerful and resilient identity.

Source: Jill Lepore. The Name of War. New York: Knopf. 1998.

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