Early Colonial Indian Wars

 On 6 March 2022, I published an article entitled “King Philip’s War 1675-1678,” which was an early bloody and destructive Indian war in New England. Conflict between early settlers and Indigenous Indian tribes was inevitable. The settler’s numbers always increased, and they pushed the  Indians west. 

I did some further research after the King Philip’s War article and found it was the first in a series of five Indian wars between 1675 and 1763. During that time most Indian leaders realized that the settlers would eventually overwhelm them, so many allied their tribes with warring European powers to earn a better deal. These alliances did not get them a better deal. The alliances cost the lives of many warriors and they were still pushed out of their land. 

To put the above into perspective, I am posting a slightly modified version of “King Philip’s War.” During the next four months I will publish articles on King William’s War-1688-1689, Queen Anne’s War 1702-1713, King George’s War 1744-1748 and culminating in the bloodiest of all, The French and Indian War 1754-1763. 

These five wars decimated or annihilated many Indian tribes, but many European soldiers and settlers also died. Unfortunately, the wars were also precursors to the many Indian wars the United States would experience until the late nineteenth century.  


King Philip’s War

The 1675-1676 King Philip’s War was a conflict between the New England Colonies and the Wampanoag Indian tribe. Also known as Metacom’s War or the First Indian War, it was the single greatest disaster of 17th century New England. In proportion to population, it was the deadliest war in American history. The war was brutal and bloody. It resulted in the virtual elimination of several Indian tribes and the total destruction of many colonial settlements. It was the last major effort by the Indian tribes to drive the colonists out of New England. The war officially ended with the Treaty of Casco Bay in April 1678. 

Artist Depiction of King Philip-King Philip's War
Artist Depiction of King Philip

This war is named for Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief who adopted the name Philip because of the friendly relations between his father and the Pilgrims. When the Pilgrims settled Plymouth Colony in 1620, they tried to maintain good relations with the native population. The Wampanoag was the first tribe to contact the settlers and they were able to build exceptionally good relations with them. They peacefully traded and exchanged information and gifts.  

Relations began to be strained as a flood of new people began to settle in New England. Unlike the Pilgrims and Puritans who were escaping religious persecution, the new settlers were mostly motivated by profit, which is a not terrible thing, but resulted in a push into Indian lands. The colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut were founded and as the population rose the Indians could see that they were rapidly losing ground. Also, the critical communication between the early religious settlers and the Indians was being diluted by the greater number of settlers. The Indians were a proud people and greatly resented the intrusions.  They were beginning to realize that resistance was their only option. 

Another factor leading up to war was that King Philip became chief when his older brother, Alexander died. Alexander had been arrested by the English on suspicion that he was planning a war against the colonists. Alexander pledged his loyalty and was released but he had contracted an illness while in Plymouth and died on the way home. Many Wampanoag believed he had been poisoned by the colonists. 

After Philip became chief in 1671, the colonists believed he was planning to avenge Alexander’s death. There was no evidence to support this belief and shows that the colonists were becoming paranoid about Indian intentions. Colonists summoned Philip to Taunton, Massachusetts where they demanded he sign a treaty that required his tribe to surrender their arms. Philip signed. 

A series of incidents in January 1675 set loose the dogs of war. John Sassamon, a Christian Indian told Plymouth’s governor, Josiah Winslow, that King Philip was planning attacks against the colony. Winslow was slow to react, and on 29 January Sassamon was found dead. An Indian informant claimed he witnessed three Wampanoags murder him. The colonists arrested the three and tried and executed them on 8 June. War began soon afterward. 

King Philip led a confederation of his tribe and several other tribes including the Nipmucks, Narragansetts and Pocumtucks. The Mohawks and Mohegans allied with the colonists. The colonists were a New England Confederation of the Massachusetts Colony, New Haven Colony, Plymouth Colony and Connecticut Colony. 

Artist Depiction of Indian Attack-King Philip's War
Artist Depiction of Indian Attack-

Hostilities began on 20 June 1675 when a band of Pokanoket warriors attacked homesteads in the Plymouth Colony settlement of Swansea. They laid siege to the town and destroyed it five days later killing several people. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay sent a punitive force that destroyed the Wampanoag town of Mount Hope. Skirmishes and small raids continued through June. 

On 2 August, Nipmucks ambushed a colonial military unit before attacking Brookfield, Massachusetts and laying siege to the survivors of the ambush. The Indians were driven away two days later by colonial reinforcements. Seven colonists were killed near Lancaster, Massachusetts on 22 August and on 25 August, a three-hour battle near Hatfield, Massachusetts resulted in the deaths of 40 Indians and several soldiers. 

Artist Depiction of Pending Ambush -King Philip's War
Artist Depiction of Pending Ambush

On 1 September, Wampanoag and Nipmuck warriors raided Deerfield, Massachusetts and the next day attacked Northfield, Massachusetts. A relief force commanded by Captain Richard Beers was dispatched to Northfield, but they were ambushed on 4 September losing about 21 killed including Captain Beers. On 18 September Captain Thomas Lathrop was leading 80 men to Deerfield and was ambushed near Northampton. Lathrop and at least 60 of his men were killed. 

In October, a Massachusetts Bay militia unit was ambushed by Nipmucks at Bloody Brook with unknown casualties. The next Indian target was Springfield, Massachusetts, the largest settlement on the Connecticut River. The Indians burned most of the town causing settlers to take shelter. Reinforcing militia managed to drive off the Indians.  

In December, Plymouth Colony governor Winslow led a force of about 1,000 militia and Indian allies against the Narragansett who were wintering at a fort in a frozen swamp. Known as the Great Swamp Fight, Winslow’s force killed about 600 Indians, burned their fort, and destroyed most of their winter stores. 

King Philip established winter quarters with about 500 warriors in New York. The Mohawks launched a surprise attack against Philip in February 1676 and killed more than 70 Wampanoag. Philip withdrew his crippled force to New England. The Mohawks pursued Philip and attacked Algonquian settlements along the way.  

On 10 February 1676, about 400 Nipmucks attacked Lancaster, Massachusetts killing more than 30 colonists. Twenty-four colonists were taken prisoner, including the minister’s wife and child. Four days later, King Philip and his remaining warriors attacked Northampton, Massachusetts. They killed a few colonists and burned many homes. 

On 21 February, about 300 Nipmucks infiltrated Medfield, Massachusetts during the night and fired on the inhabitants as they emerged in the morning. They burned between 40 and 50 homes. On 25 February, the town of Weymouth, Massachusetts was attacked and partially burned. 

March of 1676 was a highly active month for the Indians. On 12 March, warriors attacked William Clark’s garrison at Eel River near Plymouth killing eleven. The Indians also captured the garrison’s provisions, guns, and ammunition, and burned the garrison. The next day, Nipmucks attacked Groton, Massachusetts killing one and burning 65 homes. Refugees leaving the town were ambushed and two more were killed. 

On 17 March, Warwick, Rhode Island was destroyed, and on 26 March Longmeadow and Marlborough, Massachusetts were attacked. Nipmucks attacked  colonial forces near Sudbury, Massachusetts on 27 March. The next day Indians attacked Rehoboth, Massachusetts (now named Seekonk). They burned 40 homes and 30 barns and killed one resident. On 29 March Providence, Rhode Island was attacked, and all 30 homes of the town were burned. No colonials were killed. 

The Indian tribes had been on the offense for nearly a year, and it had begun to take a toll on them. They were unable to hunt or raise crops and some were starving. They were also running out of shot and gunpowder. Many began to doubt they could defeat the colonists and were deserting and surrendering. 

The colonists had access to supplies from other colonies and England, which gave them a significant tactical advantage over the Indians, particularly in the case of a long war. 

In April, Canonchet, the chief of the Narragansett Tribe was captured by Captain Dennison’s company. The colonists handed Canonchet over to his Mohegan enemies who brutally executed him. He was shot, beheaded, and quartered. His head was presented to the Hartford Council as a token of loyalty. 

About 500 Algonquins attacked Sudbury on 21 April and a force of 60 colonial soldiers pursued them when they withdrew. However, the soldiers were trapped when the Indians set fire to the grass and 30 were killed. 

Artist Depiction-Assault on the Narragansett Fort-King Philips War
Artist Depiction-Assault on the Narragansett Fort

Captain William Turner with 150 soldiers attacked an Indian camp at Turner’s Falls in the Battle of Great Falls on 18-19 May. They killed about 200 Indians with a loss of 38 killed. On 20 May, Indians attacked Scituate, Massachusetts. In retaliation for the Battle of Great Falls, Indians attacked Hatfield, Massachusetts on 30 May and killed seven colonists. 

On 12 June, Indians attacked Hadley, Massachusetts but were repulsed  by a unit of Connecticut soldiers. During the battle, a band of Mohawks raided the attacker’s camp and killed Wampanoag and Narragansett women and children. 

The colonists were feeling the effects of constant war and on 19 June, Massachusetts issued a declaration of amnesty for any Indians who would surrender. 

In July, Philip and his Wampanoag warriors returned to the Pocasset region where the war had begun. Despite the efforts of colonial soldiers, the indians were able to evade them by hiding in the woods and swamps. 

 On 1 July, Major Talcott’s Connecticut Allied Force attacked the Narragansetts at Nipsachuck, Rhode Island killing 171 Indians. Two days later, a massacre of Indians took place near Warwick, Rhode Island. Eighty Narragansett warriors surrendered and were slaughtered by Major Talcott’s troops. 

Indians attacked Taunton on 15 July but were repulsed. That same day, the Ninigrit and Niantic tribes formally signed a peace treaty with Massachusetts Bay. 

Captain Benjamin Church’s unit was searching the Plymouth area to find Philip. They found his camp near Bridgewater and attacked it on 20 July. Philip escaped but his wife and son were captured and sold into slavery in the West Indies. 

On 25 July, the Narragansett were defeated near Dedham, Massachusetts. On the same day, about 180 Nipmucks surrendered in Boston, Massachusetts. 

By late summer of 1676, the fighting was slowly ending, but King Philip was still at large, and the war would never completely end until he was killed or captured. In August, an Indian deserter informed Captain Church that Philip was in an old Wampanoag village called Montaup near Mount Hope. Church led a company of troops to Montaup and found Philip and his small band of warriors. The spot later became known as King Philip’s Seat. 

Artist Depiction of King Philip's Head on Pike-King Philip's War
Artist Depiction of King Philip’s Head on Pike

Philip attempted to flee during the fighting but an Indian named John Alderman serving in Church’s company saw Philip, fired, and killed him. Alderman beheaded Philip and sold his head to Plymouth authorities for 30 shillings, which was the going rate for Indian heads during the war. 

Philip’s head was placed on a stake in the village where it remained for 25 years. One of his hands was sent to Boston for display and the four quarters of his body were placed in trees where they hung until they rotted away. 

The war did not end with the death of Philip and fighting spread to the north of New England. Random raids and skirmishes continued until the treaty was signed at Casco Bay in April 1678. Scattered warfare continued in northern New England, mostly because of the interference of the French. This was not corrected until the French and Indian War in 1754-1763 pushed the French out of the area. 

King Philip’s War was bloody, brutal, and destructive. Its effect on both sides was disastrous. More than 600 colonists had been killed, about 1,200 homes had been burned, and about 12 of 90 settlements were destroyed. The New England economy was essentially destroyed by nearly halting all trade including the fur trade, killing 8,000 head of cattle, and causing a decline in the fishing industry. The cost of the war was about 80,000 pounds which led to high taxes. All these factors virtually halted English expansion in New England for nearly 50 years. 

The effect on the Indian tribes was far worse. Their total population of about 20,000 in southern New England at the start of hostilities was drastically reduced. Their minimum losses were about 2,000 killed, about 3,000 died of sickness and starvation, about 1,000 were captured and sold into slavery, and about 2,000 fled west to join the Iroquois and north to join the Abenaki. Many of the smaller tribes no longer existed as organized communities. 

Despite the disastrous effects of the war, it was a turning point in the area. The colonists had eliminated their opposition and gained complete control of Southern New England. This allowed unopposed settlement, which contributed to the eventual economic recovery and expansion. 

The colonists successful defense of the area with their own resources caught the attention of the British government which had dismissed the American colonies as just poor outposts. This new interest resulted in more exploitation of American resources and a restructuring of the charters of the colonies       

Unfortunately, bloody conflicts between Indians and settlers would be repeated many times during the next 200 plus years. Since the dawn of time when a group begins to migrate for any reason into an area already occupied it ends up in war. If you study European history, you find an unrelenting movement west usually resulting in war and the near extinction of one side or the other. Most people move because of persecution or the inability of local agriculture to support them. Such reasons are legitimate, but resistance by those who already occupy an area is also legitimate. It is the dilemma of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object and it rarely happens peacefully. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.