It was a pure matter of survival for the Pilgrims to make peace with Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag, in the spring of 1621, as half of their company had died during the first winter. It was only with the natives’ generous assistance that the colonists somehow made it through the next few years, which made it possible for many thousan…ds more colonists to eventually emigrate from England in the 1630’s.
The Native Americans were willing to accommodate the settlers at first because smallpox was taking its toll on their own numbers. Wassaumon was one young Massachuset who lost his family during the epidemic of 1633. Fortunately a Pilgrim family took the boy in as a servant, baptized him “John Sassamon” and he learned to speak English.
By 1637, the settlers were starting to move west into central Massachusetts and the Connecticut River valley. Disease had wiped out the native tribes so the Pequot were also moving into the area. The colonists, with the help of John Sassamon as an interpreter, joined forces with the Wampanoag and drove the rival Pequot out. By 1651, the colonists were getting the upper hand – some natives converted to Christianity, and took up farming and settled in “Praying Towns” such as Natick and Ponkapoag. John Sassamon taught English and Christianity to these converts and also furthered his own studies at Harvard College.
After returning to Natick, Sassamon began to serve as translator and secretary to Massasoit’s son, Metacomet. In 1660 Metacomet requested that the court at Plymouth give him, like Wassaumon, an English name. The court agreed and Metacomet was named Philip – King Philip.
John Sassamon still had a foot in two worlds, but his worlds were rapidly pulling apart. In December 1674, he warned Josiah Winslow, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, that King Philip was planning an attack on Plymouth. Shortly after John Sassamon went missing – two months later his body was discovered under the ice in Assawompset Pond.
The colonists were furious and looked for fast justice. They quickly tried and hung three Pokanoket men for John Sassamon’s murder. Then all hell broke loose.
Scalping was the weapon of choice for the natives. Plymouth, Deerfield, Swansea, Brookfield, Northfield, Turners Falls, Lancaster all came under vicious attack. The colonists were forced to evacuate the Connecticut Valley and retreat to the coast.
In the winter of 1675-1676, one thousand men marched against the Indians, massacring seven hundred in one night. The Indians were on the defensive and Philip became a fugitive. He was finally overtaken in the Misery Swamp in Rhode Island and on August 12, 1676 he was shot dead by John Alderman, a “Praying Indian”.
The war was over, but one third of the towns in New England lay in ashes, farms were abandoned and the fields lay fallow. Five thousand of the seventy thousand people in New England were dead.
King Philip’s body was quartered and hung on trees. Alderman sold his severed head to the Plymouth Colony authorities for 30 shillings. The head was placed on a stake atop the fort on Burial Hill in Plymouth, where it remained for the next 20 years. Alderman received Philip’s cut-off hand, which he pickled and would display to the curious for a modest fee.
The colonists rounded up the surviving natives. They loaded several ships, including “The Seaflower” with hundreds of native men, women and children (including Philip’s wife and nine-year-old son) who were guilty of “many notorious and execrable murders, killings, and outrages.”
The “heathen malefactors” would be sold into slavery in the West Indies, but the market for murderous aborigines in Barbados and Jamaica was poor. One American slave ship was forced to venture all the way to Africa before he finally disposed of his cargo.