[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
February 11 - 18, 2000

[Tales From Tritown]

Space invaders

A new book explains King Philip's War

by Sally Cragin

Snow-covered trees, white-blanked hills, the winter landscape in New England is often peaceful and serene. But more than 320 years ago, our predecessors spent a year and a half quaking in their boots and cowering behind barricades, not knowing if their lives were in danger. More than a half-century after the Mayflower Compact, settlers had spread throughout the colony, living alongside the native Narragansett, Wampanoag, and other tribes. "In the 1660s and '70s you have towns being incorporated. In Swansea, the land bumps up against King Philip's homeland. It was as far as the Colonials could push," explains Eric B. Schultz who, with Michael J. Tougias, has written the superb and gripping King Philip's War -- The History and Legacy of America's Forgotten Conflict (Countryman Press, distributed by W.W. Norton).

One issue that Schultz was extremely mindful of was the lack of contemporary history from the Indian point of view, yet his book presents a balanced account of both sides, without demonizing either. In part, this may be because he spent nearly a decade filling plastic tubs with his research and with written material without setting a deadline (he has a real day-job, as the chairman of a software company). Meanwhile, Tougias, a fellow KP devotee published a novel inspired by the war, Until I Have No Country. Schultz wrote him and brought his tubs to their first meeting. "While I was writing I wished I could find one in-depth book about it. And when I got a look at what he had done, I said, `That's it, that's what I wished I had when I did the novel,' " recalls Tougias.

The authors assert that the battles and skirmishes, massacres, and routs that took place in 1675-1676 constituted the first war in North America, one that changed how nascent Americans viewed themselves, the landscape, and their predecessors. The war lasted only a year and a half, but the legacy was devastating to both sides, though few geographic traces remain. Schultz spent several years researching and writing the account, which took him all over southern New England in search of markers and monuments. He also relied on town historians. "I started to build a collection of these sites," he says. "I discovered how much history was passed down from one or two people in town."

The circumstances leading up to the war are various -- a half-century after Plymouth, the colony's population was increasing through migration and birth rates, and more land for farming was needed. The natives accommodated the settlers as best they could, and some tribes, like the Narragansetts, gave up traditional crafts and occupations to deal in beaver pelts, which they'd buy from inland tribes after the coastal species diminished. But in the mid '60s, a change in fashion overseas caused the beaver trade to go bust. Other pressure came from Puritan clergy who wanted natives to convert to Christianity, and a subset population, called "praying Indians," emerged in various tribes. Yet the turning point, if there was one, came after a sensational murder and subsequent trial of an Indian who was also a Harvard man, John Sassamon.

Sassamon was a counselor to King Philip and his brother, Alexander, but was released, "possibly out of distrust for his ties with the English or over a disputed land transaction in which Sassamon had tried to dupe the sachem." He went home to Assawompsett (Lakeville, Massachusetts) and before long was found dead under the ice. Months later, three Wampanoag were accused; the trial featured Indians as well as whites on the jury ("nobody today is quite sure as to how the deliberations worked"). There were supernatural elements -- the body was rumored to bleed when Tobias, one of the accused and a counselor of King Philip, approached. There were suspect confessions, and then executions. "To Philip and his people, as well as many of the English, the trial was a flagrant miscarriage of justice and further proof that maintaining an amicable, respectful relationship between the natives and the English was impossible," writes Schultz. And so the war began.

King Philip's War is exceptionally well-organized, with a cogent history of New England at the time the hostilities began and with chapters devoted to each battle location. There are sections dividing the conflict by region, with precise locations included. Antique and contemporary maps show the tribes by region and by battles. "The fun thing about the book is that people get this history, but then can go out and explore these places. That's what I hear time and time again," says co-author Tougias, who annotated the final chapters, which include eyewitness accounts. We hear from Benjamin Church, who played a crucial role in several famous battles, and who was friendly with natives before hostilities; Thomas Wheeler, who was ambushed with his troops; and Mary Rowlandson, kidnapped from a massacre at the Lancaster garrison and famously redeemed in Princeton many weeks after a harrowing journey with her captors.

One of the most important events came in December 1676: the Great Swamp Fight, in which some six hundred Narragansett died. Contemporary historians "declared it a great victory; in retrospect, however, it brought the still-powerful Narragansett into the war, and so incapacitated the colonial army that it was incapable of continuing the winter campaign." And, of course, the defeat for the tribes meant retaliation. The Narragansett destroyed buildings and killed farm animals in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island (now Warwick and Cranston), but a more dire (from the colonial point of view) result was "a native alliance built around the military strength of the Narragansett."

Until Philip's death in August 1676, the war was everywhere and nowhere in particular, and though both sides made tactical errors, the natives had definite advantages. "Around the time of the Great Swamp Fight, Philip walks to Albany, New York, and back to recruit Mohicans," says Tougias. "It's amazing what they did." The complexity of the war, which ranged over many regions and involved many tribes, including relatives of Philip, wouldn't surprise a historian of, say, the war in Vietnam. Ultimately, the natives were outnumbered and out-supplied, if not outmaneuvered by the colonials. And late-summer 1676, Philip was betrayed by a Wampanoag turncoat, who told Church the location of the King's encampment.

Philip was killed, and his head stuck on a pike "near one of the thoroughfares in Plymouth," says Schultz. "A generation of colonial children walked by that skull, which gives you an idea of the impact it had. I think memories of this war lasted for a long time." And a century later, when the colonials needed to fight off the British, they used the same guerrilla tactics successfully used by the tribes, like hiding behind rocks and using the terrain to their advantage.

Schultz is aware his 20th-century perspective is certainly different from many contemporary chroniclers. "If you step back one step, you have appreciation for America, because there are very few places in the world where the vanquished have a voice," he explains.

Michael Tougias has a slide-show and lecture about King Philip's War and can be reached at Box 72, Norfolk 02056.

Sally Cragin can be reached at The Tales From Tritown archive

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