Dividing Lines: King Philip’s War

Essay by Ann Daly, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Brown University

Although tensions between the English colonists and neighboring Native American tribes had been building for a while, King Philip’s War is said to have begun when three Wampanoag men who were loyal to the Wampanoag Sachem Metacomet, also known as King Philip, were convicted for murdering John Sassamon. Sassamon was a Wampanoag man who was accused of warning English colonists in Plymouth that King Philip was planning to attack their settlement. A few days later, Philip attacked Swansea, in present day Massachusetts. The next day, English colonists from Boston and Plymouth retaliated by destroying a large Wampanoag town at Mount Hope, now in Bristol, Rhode Island. Indigenous people who had been friendly towards the English now rose up and joined Philip’s campaign against English aggressions.

Over the next year, the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and other tribes within the New England Colonies fought with English soldiers in towns from Maine to Rhode Island. By the end of the fighting, twenty-five English towns, over half of all English settlements in New England, were destroyed and English colonists were reliant on England for supplies and support. However, Native American losses were even heavier. English soldiers, along with Pequot and Mohegan allies, killed thousands of people from the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and other Native groups, including both warriors and women and children, severely decimating the population. Those that survived were rounded up by the English and sold down to the Caribbean as well as within Rhode Island and Providence Plantations as slaves. Even Indigenous people loyal to the English felt the full force of the war: they were removed from mainland settlements and imprisoned on coastal islands, where many died from hunger and disease during the long and cold winter of 1675.

The war ended in 1675 with the death of Metacomet. Benjamin Church, a Rhode Islander who led a band of fighters that included English men and a small number of Native American scouts, chased Metacomet and his soldiers across New England. Although English colonists had more people and access to more guns like the one in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s collection, strength and weapons were not the only deciding factors in their victory. Along with the great losses of life due to war, European diseases such as smallpox, also reduced the Indigenous populations in the area. In addition, Church was the first English soldier to have English and Native men fight alongside each other using traditional Native military tactics. Native Americans who fought the English had difficulty overcoming internal conflicts as the war dragged on, and became increasingly willing to join with the English in hopes of bettering their chance of survival. By mixing English and Indigenous fighters, Church’s group helped win the war. John Alderman, a Wampanoag Christian convert, known as a “Praying Indian,” shot Metacomet at his headquarters near Mount Hope in what is now Bristol, Rhode Island. Metacomet’s wife and children were sold into slavery into Bermuda, as were many Indigenous people who had joined the war along with women, children, elders, and non-combatant men.

After the war, the English drew stark lines between English and Native identities. Some colonists explained the brutality of the war as a test from God. They claimed that God sent the Native Americans to prove English loyalty, and that God led his people to victory over people they viewed as barbaric. Other English colonists claimed that God sent the war as a punishment. English Quakers, who were members of a small Christian sect that has been banned in Massachusetts, believed that the war was retribution for the execution of Quakers. Both of these explanations relied on drawing a sharp line between English and Native people. While before the war, many English people believed that the Indigenous peoples could be converted to Christianity and taught English ways. After the war, the English believed that Native people were fundamentally different than them. This belief led to continual enslavement and laws and policies that were meant to strip Indigenous peoples of their rights. Narragansett, Wampanoag, and other Native Americans in New England suffered abuse, loss of their homelands, and separation from their families.


Sachem: Leader

Retribution: punishment inflicted due to vengeance for a wrong or criminal act


What caused King Philip’s War?

What happened to Narrangansett, Wampanoag, and other Native Americans after the war?

What justifications for the war did the English use?