The Causes and Effects of King Philip’s War (1675-1676)

The following documents deal with the causes and effects of King Philip’s War, as white colonists in Massachusetts dubbed the conflict (it is also known as Metacom’s War or Metacomet’s War). This war is often considered the bloodiest war in early America for it’s high body counts relative to population size and the way it devastated both Indian and English settlements. The war was fought between New England settlers (primarily in the Massachusetts Bay Colony) and their long time allies, the Wampanoag Indians. The documents here demonstrate the growing tensions that led to war as well as the fallout for the Wampanoag and other Indians in New England after white colonists in Massachusetts triumphed in this mutually devastating conflict.

The “big picture” focus is Indians/white relations in 17th century Massachusetts. The documents reveal the clash of cultures, conflicting interests, and racial prejudices that led to war and shaped postwar life in the colony. They show different visions for and understandings of the “rules” in colonial Massachusetts and the power imbalance that allowed white colonists to impose their particular vision, especially after the war.

In assessing the causes of King Philip’s War, consider that the war shattered an alliance that had lasted over 50 years, dating to the arrival of English settlers who would found a colony that took its name from the Massachusetts Indians. When English colonists first arrived in 1620, they struggled to survive, with many Pilgrims starving to death. The Wampanoag sachem (leading chief) Massasoit saved the Pilgrim settlements with gifts of food, largely because he viewed the English as a potential ally to help the Wampanoag defend themselves against their traditional Indian enemies. Together white New Englanders and the Wampanoag defeated regional powers like the Pequot Indians, leading the Wampanoag to become the dominant Native peoples in New England. Over time, however, the relationship became increasingly strained, especially after Massaoit’s death. Leadership quickly passed to Metacomet, who was known to the English by the name Philip. Deteriorating relations on a variety of fronts strained the relationship during the 1660s and 70s. Increased tensions in 1675 led to back and forth raids and skirmishes, which escalated until the two sides were at war. The Wampanoag recruited several other Indian peoples, including many Narragansett Indians, while white New Englanders were allied with tribes they had previously conquered, like the Pequot and Mohegans.

These documents help explain why tensions rose high enough that the Wampanoag and white colonists broke their alliance and decided to settle their differences through war.

These documents also demonstrate the war’s effects in skewing postwar power in favor of white colonists, who after this bloody conflict displayed even less tolerance of the Wampanoag–and all New England Indians. After victory in the war, white colonists built a postwar order based on fear and hatred of Indians, whether those Indians had been enemies or allies. Although white colonial leaders usually managed to restrain colonists calling for an Indian genocide, the new postwar order put severe restrictions on life for Indians in New England. The documents below give a sense of both the depth of white fears and the lengths white colonists were willing to go to solve what they saw as an Indian problem.

Assignment: Use the documents below to develop a short essay that explains the main causes and effects of King Philip’s War in terms of the relationship between white colonists and their Indian neighbors.

Thinking Like an Historian Tip: It’s important to be especially careful using non-Indian primary sources to try to understand Indian perspectives. Readers have to be especially attentive to the biases that the source might have and how those biases might shape their interpretation and presentation of events. Since Indian peoples from this era left so few written sources of their own, historians typically have to try to recover their perspectives by using sources written by elite white men. This creates countless interpretive problems regarding the accuracy of those writings and the biases and blind spots that distort the interpretations they present. Historians try to compensate for these issues by contextualizing the documents as much as possible (figuring out who wrote them? what do we know about the author? why did they write? who was their intended audience?). They also “read against the grain,” or to see if we can deduce Indian perspectives from what those white voices are (and are not) saying and how they are saying it for clues to Indian perspectives. As you read the following documents, consider how the biases of the author shaped their assessment of the causes and effects of King Philip’s War. I have added some biographical and contextual background in the introduction to each document to help you deduce what the author’s bias might be and to aid in your own interpretation.



D1: Wampanoag Grievances against the Colonists of New England expressed before the outbreak of King Philip’s War, 1675-1676 (Excerpts)

This document (hyperlink below) is the 1675 report of the deputy governor of the Rhode Island colony, John Easton, outlining the Indian grievances that led to war. In this case we are trying to understand the Wampanoag grievances based on a report written by an elite white man who was a leading representative of the government at war with those same Indians. Easton probably isn’t the worst white source to rely on based on a few things we know about him. First, he was a Quaker and Quakers had far more favorable views of Indians than did the Purtian leadership in the Massachusetts Bay Colony which tended to view Indians as test or punishment from God for their sins (as you will discover in the Increase Mather document below). The fact that Easton lived in Rhode Island is another important clue in guessing at his viewpoint. Rhode Island was founded by a group of Puritan dissenters from Massachusetts Bay who were kicked out of the colony because they accepted a wider range of beliefs that Massachusetts Puritans considered to be beyond the pale, including a belief that Indians had souls and were just as capable of salvation as white people and that Indian land rights should be respected. Rhode Island’s colonial leaders also tried to take a neutral stance at the start of the war and negotiate a peaceful settlement between the Wampanoag and Massachusetts Bay Colony. That effort failed and eventually Rhode Island was drawn into the conflict, going to war against their own former allies, the Narragansett Indians. Pointing out these facts lets us concluded that, although Easton undoubtedly maintained serious prejudices based on his culture, race, gender, and class perspectives, there are good reasons to believe that he was probably is a more reliable source of Indian views and the causes of the war than someone like Increase Mather, who viewed the Indians with considerably greater prejudice and hostility even before the war broke out.

Link to Excerpted Document:

Note: This source is an excerpted and heavily edited version of the original. The edits were made for clarity. Whenever possible I try to include lightly edited sources, with a few parenthetical changes bracketed off when the source uses an antiquated word or phrase or a misspelling will create confusion for readers. This document presented special problems because Easton’s writing contained so much antiquated language and creative spelling that it would make reading the actual version overly challenging for an introductory history course. After trying to create my own lightly edited version, I decided to go with this heavily edited translation from the National Humanities Center collection of primary sources called “American Beginnings” because it is a much less troublesome read while still preserving the meaning of this important document. If you want to see a very lightly edited version of the original, click this link to the full Google Book of John Easton, Narrative of the Causes Which Led to King Philip’s Indian War of 1675 and 1676 (Albany, 1858):

D2: Increase Mather, A Brief History of the War with the Indians in New-England, 1676 (Excerpts)

Readers probably need to take even more care in trying to understand the perspective of Indians (as well as white colonists) from this account King Philip’s war from Increase Mather, an important Puritan minister and political leader in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. That’s because of who Increase Mather was and his underlying purpose in writing the book. Although Mather frames his book as an “impartial” account of the war, it is more accurately read as a defense of white colonists in the conflict. More importantly, Mather wrote this book to serve as a Christian parable to admonish “sinful” Puritans to return to the “righteous” path. Increase Mather was a devout Puritan Minister who wrote many books, most of which carried this same message: God was testing and punishing Puritans for their sinful behavior but that God would not abandon them if they repented and reformed. Mather would go on to become president of Harvard College and write many other books, including one warning of the dangers of witchcraft, which helped fuel the Salem Witch Trials (in which his son, Cotton Mather, served as a judge). Be sure to consider how Mather’s religious perspective (along with his other biases) shaped his understanding and presentation of the war’s causes.

Link to Excerpted Document:

Link to Complete Original Version (This is NOT REQUIRED. I am simply including the link in the event you want to see the full version from which the excerpted document was taken):

D3: An English Colonial Administrator Reports the Causes and Results of King Philip’s War, 1676

Bias is also important to consider when interpreting this report that an English Colonial Administrator named Edward Randolph submitted when he returned to London after a tour of American colonies on government business. The English Lords of Trade sent Randolph to Massachusetts in March 1676 to settle a property dispute over lands in what is today Maine and New Hampshire and to investigate complaints about American colonists violating English trade laws, which he confirmed were rampant. His observations on King Philip’s War were part of a larger report detailing those violations and its tone suggests that Randolph’s impressions were shaped in part by his testy experiences with white colonists over their many violations of English trade laws. As you read his report, consider how his negative experiences trying to uphold English law in Massachusetts may have colored his interpretation of the war’s causes.

Link to Excerpted Document:
An English Colonial Administrator Reports the Causes and Results of King Philip’s War (1676)

D4: The Vengeful Women of Marblehead, Massachusetts

This is a court deposition taken of a man who both victim and witness to a series of violent encounters between Indians and white colonists a year after King Philip’s War ended. Not all Indians in the region submitted when the main bodies of Wampanoag and Narragansett surrendered. Nor had the thirst for vengeance be satisfied among white colonists.

Link to Excerpted Document:
The Vengeful Women of Marblehead, Massachusetts:

D5: A Massachusetts Minister Calls for Stricter Indian Policy After King Philip’s War

This letter by Puritan minister Edmund Brown was one of many calls from white colonists in Massachusetts for the colonial government to enact stricter laws against Indians in the years after King Philip’s war. Prior to the war, Brown had been an advocate of peaceful coexistence between Indians and white colonists. After the war, he joined the large chorus of white voices calling for the colonial government to get-tough against their Indian neighbors. The arguments for stricter control and the policies suggested by Brown were typical of the kinds of things that white colonists called for and that governments in New England enacted at war’s end, most of those governments enacting increasingly stringent restrictions when the white public considered the initial ones to be too lenient.

Link to Excerpted Document:
A Massachusetts Minister Calls for Stricter Indian Policy After King Philip’s War