How Both Sides Lost King Phillip’s War [1675 CE – 1676 CE]

Scholars agree that King Phillip’s War [1675 CE – 1676 CE] was bloody, hard fought, and a turning point in North American history, though there is less consensus regarding the specific nature and results of the conflict.  The general outcomes are clear enough however. The Indians of Southern New England were decimated by war, famine, and disease, several tribes effectively disappearing from history.  Some of the surviving Native Americans were sold as slaves, but Caribbean sugar growers found them too proud, bellicose, and independent to make good field hands, and the Barbary Coast slave buyers came to a similar conclusion a bit later. The English colonial enemies of the Indians won the final battles, but lost their own independence and freedom after the war.


King Phillip’s war [1675 CE – 1676 CE] pitted an Algonquian Indian confederacy against the English speaking colonists in New England.  King Phillip was the name English colonists gave to Metacomet, chief of the Wampanoags.  Metacomet was the second son of the sachem Massasoit, friend to the Pilgrims at Plymouth.  Metacomet became leader of his tribe when his older brother Wamsutta, known as Alexander to the English, died in 1662, shortly after being interrogated by the Plymouth Court.

Metacomet suspected his brother had been poisoned by the English.  Despite this, Metacomet tried to live in peace with the English, who kept expanding westward into tribal lands and forcing the Wampanoags to make ever more restrictive concessions.  By 1671 the Plymouth colony’s expansion and demands had gotten so extortionate that Phillip began to forge tribal alliances for war against the English.

Fighting broke out in June of 1675 with a series of raids on colonial farms and villages.  The Indians waged war in a loose alliance that later suffered from lack of coordination and common management, but their initial attacks were overwhelmingly successful.

The English colonists were disunited at the start of hostilities.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth, Rhode Island, and Connecticut directed local militias with little or no coordination at first.

The tide began to turn in favor of the English colonists the fall of 1675 with successful defensive campaigns in the Connecticut Valley and small scale offensive actions by English military commanders who had adopted Indian tactics for frontier warfare.  The Great Swamp Fight against the nominally neutral Narragansetts in December 1675 and Metacomet’s overwhelming defeat by the Mohawks in late February 1676 as he sought sanctuary in New York State mark the beginning of the end for the Indian forces in New England.  By the end of August of 1676 the last major rebellious Indian chief of Southern New England at liberty, Metacomet’s war leader Anawan, had been captured, effectively ending the war.  Marginally related conflicts with Canadians and French allied Indians in Northern New England continued for two years more.

King Phillip’s War is often cited as the bloodiest conflict in English speaking North American history in terms of the percentage of the population killed and wounded.  More than half of New England’s towns were attacked. Though the exact numbers are arguable, the English death rate per 100,000 inhabitants has been plausibly calculated to be 1,528 [total European population of New England being approximately 52,000 at the time]; the Native American deaths per 100,000 being estimated at 15,000.  Both figures easily surpass the American death rate per 100,000 of the American Revolution [180], Civil War [857], and World War II [206].  The death rate of King Phillip’s War for English colonists was nearly twice that of the Civil War and more than seven times the American death rate in World War II.

At the war’s end, the Algonquians of New England, who had constituted approximately 25% of the region’s population, were reduced to about 10%. Many of the Indians who survived the war, including some of those allied to the English, were dispossessed of their lands and sold as slaves in the Caribbean and North Africa in an attempt by the colonists to recoup some of their financial losses. In both places the Indians soon earned a reputation of being difficult to hold in bondage, being proud, stubborn and violent.

The victory of the colonial English was a near run thing.  Metacomet’s warriors and allies levelled many colonial towns: Mendon, Brookfield, Lancaster, Deerfield, Northfield, Wrentham, Worcester, Groton, Rehoboth, Middleboro, Dartmouth, and Simsbury Connecticut were abandoned, as well as all English settlements in Maine except Kittery, York, and Wells.   Providence Rhode Island lost 72 houses; Wickford and Pawtuxet were razed to the ground; one stone house was all that survived of Warwick.  A Crown survey after the war reported 1,200 English homes had been burned.

Roughly 1/3rd of New England’s towns were abandoned by the English.  Housing and livestock losses were estimated at £150,000. The cost of waging the war was calculated to be about £100,000. The expense per household would be approximately £21, which was more than the annual salary of the treasurer or deputy governor of Connecticut in 1676.

In order to make the scale of destruction readily comprehensible to friends familiar with modern Massachusetts, I sometimes offer a simplified mapping: by 1675 the Massachusetts Bay Colony had expanded settlements to an arc approximated by Route 495; by early 1676 King Phillip and his allies had pushed the English back within Route 95 [128].  In some areas the English had been pushed back to within a couple of miles of the Atlantic.

The English eventually gave as good as they got.  Their torture of Indians who had flintlock gunsmithing skills were fully as inventive and barbarous as anything the Indians inflicted on their captives.  The English colonists excelled in genocidal campaigns that wiped out sizable numbers of women and children.

In the Great Swamp Fight of December 19, 1675, a force of over 1,500 colonial militia with approximately 150 Pequot and Mohegan allies acting as scouts and guides attacked a Narraganset fort in what is now South Kingston, Rhode Island. The Narragansets were neutral in King Phillip’s War, but they had sheltered a number of Metacomet’s warriors.  Furthermore, like the Pequots in 1637, the Narragansets had the misfortune to be living on geography coveted by the English.   The colonials killed 97 warriors and up to 1,000 women and children. The Narragansets never fully recovered.

For nearly 200 years the story of the war and the existential threat it posed to the English colonists of New England was a topic of public interest, popularized by histories, memoirs of participants, civic commemorations, and highly successful dramas. In the 20th Century King Phillip’s War largely dropped from the public’s consciousness, though historians continued to investigate the conflict.

The war left many legacies to the culture and practices of English speaking North America.

In terms of military practice, it demonstrated that the matchlock gun was obsolete, and that flintlock firearms needed to become standard weapons for the colonial soldiers.  The Indian manner of war, based on stealth and forest skills, could only be successfully opposed with similar tactics.  Benjamin Church promoted such techniques that he learned from Indian allies. His success in the field proved his contention that these tactics could be the key to victory in wilderness fighting long before Metacomet was shot and killed on August 12th of 1676 by an Indian fighting alongside a group of English soldiers led by Church.  This Indian, known as Alderman, is reported to have betrayed Metacomet’s place of hiding to the English because Metacomet executed Alderman’s brother for suggesting peace with the English.

Church was posthumously recognized as the first colonial ranger.  Captain Samuel Moseley contributed at least as much to the English victory as Church did, but Church’s self-aggrandizing history of the war ensured his version of events would be widely accepted.

Disunity among the Indian tribes was as fundamental to English victory in King Phillip’s War as it would be in the suppression of many later rebellions and desperate defensive campaigns of native peoples. Rival tribes and disaffected individuals were happy to provide guides to the English and instruction in the methods of frontier warfare.  The most critical battle of the war pitted Metacomet and a group of his warriors against the Mohawks of eastern New York State, ancient enemies of the Southern New England Algonquians.

Metacomet, in dire need of a place of refuge, had fled in late 1675 to New York to escape the increasingly effective attacks of the New England colonials.  He and his men were guests of the Mahicans, an Algonquian tribe.  Metacomet camped near the Hoosic River, north of Albany.  He was looking for rest, firearms, and men. Edmund Andros, Governor of New York, received a report that 2,100 warriors had agreed to join Metacomet’s forces.  Andros encouraged the Mohawks to attack Metacomet and his allies while they still could with good prospects for success.

In late February the Mohawks attacked in a place in New York called Schaghticoke, killing about 460 of the roughly 500 men Metacomet had with him. Without reinforcements or resupply of powder and shot, Metacomet returned to New England a fleeing, hunted, and peripheral figure in the war he had started.

Perhaps the worst legacy of all was the way King Phillip’s war became a template for English colonies and the United States in their relationship with aboriginal people who blocked or threatened to delay colonial expansion. Massacre, genocide, and removal of native frontier peoples repeat through the history of North American expansion with a fearsome and dreary regularity.

The predictable reluctance the Colonial elites to provide the land grants promised to veterans of the conflict was highly effective in Massachusetts, where it appears no veteran actually received title to land during his lifetime. In Connecticut it took only 22 years for the first parcels of land for veterans to be granted and assigned.

In the postwar period, the greatest danger to the English colonists came from English politics rather than the remnants of Metacom’s alliances, though revenge killings by warriors continued until at least 1689, when Major Richard Waldron was tortured to death for his activities during the war.  Far more dangerous to the Colonial elites were the reactions to King Phillip’s War in London.  The war was followed closely in England.  The colonial leaders were criticized for stealing Indian land, bungling the defense of the colonies, and refusing aid from the mother country for fear of losing their independence.

This fear was well grounded.  The agent of the English Crown sent to New England to investigate the war reported that the colonial governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony openly flouted English law, and  that the colonial militias were poorly trained and weak. Resentment by the other English colonies of the overweening Massachusetts Bay Colony was presented in England as a desire for the Crown to appoint a Governor General for New England.  Though it took a while for the gears of Empire to mesh, in October of 1684 England’s High Court of Chancery abrogated the Charter of Massachusetts and that for the Confederation of New England.  The Dominion of New England was created with Edmund Andros as Governor.

Over the next 5 years Andros and the New Englanders quarreled over land grants, taxation, and the limits of town meetings.  With England’s Glorious Revolution on 1688, Andros lost his position, but the new Massachusetts charter of 1692 confirmed that New England governors were to be appointed in England, and the voting franchise was defined on the basis of property ownership rather than church membership. For the colonial settlers of New England, it would take more than a century to regain the freedom and independence they had enjoyed before King Phillip’s War.


Further Reading:

  • Douglas Edward Leach provides a clear narrative of King Phillip’s War in Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip’s War,
  • King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict by Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Touglas is three books in one: a narrative summary of the war combined with a guide to historical sites and a generous sampling of key sources written by those who experienced the conflict first hand.
  • Jill Lepore’s The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity includes a perspicacious analysis of the language of war.
  • Patrick Malone’s The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians describes frontier warfare and how the English colonials learned to fight like Indians.