On a frigid January morning in 1675, a forty-something, Christianized, Native American from the Massachuset tribe walked fifteen miles across snow-laden trails to Plymouth and into history. Born Wassaumon but now called John Sassamon, he had been one of the first tribal men to attend Harvard under its outreach to Native Americans in 1653 (he did not stay enrolled long, for unclear reasons). He had since been actively involved in church affairs, helping to propograte the gospel to his peers and working on translations for various Christian tracts (and perhaps a Bible) with the printer and missionary John Eliot.
Sassamon had settled in the "praying Indian" town of Namasket (today on US 44 halfway between Providence, RI, and Plymouth, MA). But his loyalties had been shifting of late. Yes, he had been helping out as a minister--or something of a small-scale sachem--in Namasket but he had also taken up with the powerful Wampanoag sachem Metacom (or Metacomet). Sassamon was now his linguistic interpreter in all colonial affairs. The colonists had little truck with complicated Indian names. They called the powerful sachem "King Philip."
Despite the colonialists' misunderstandings of Indian political structures, Metacom was not a king. Instead, he fronted and counseled a vast and at times unwieldy collection of tribes that included Sassamon's Massachuset group as well as Nipmunks, Narragansetts, and over a dozen other tribal and familial alignments, all connected to less powerful sachems. (In political terms, such a decentralized confederation run by a powerful leader with little bureaucratic control is an amphictyony, like the judges in the Biblical book of Judges). While relations between the colonists and these groups had been fairly good in recent years, tempers were rising and patience was fraying, mostly because of "praying Indian" settlements like Namasket, bought on the cheap and turned back to Christianized Native Americans who various sachem felt did not have the gravitas, lineage, or maturity to lead settled towns. These sachem also were concerned about "new" Indians like Sassamon who were neither fish nor fowl, neither in one camp or the other. They were also troubled by rising literacy rates among the Christianized Indians. They theorized (correctly) that with reading came less political control. And Sassamon himself was very literate.
Now, he was on his way to see Josiah Winslow, then governor of Plymouth. He carried news. Big news. In his role as an interpreter, he had heard that Metacom was trying to gin up support among all the sachem to stage a new war against the colonists.
Why Sassamon did this is a matter of some conjecture. Was he seeking protection? He did tell Winslow he thought his life was in danger. Did he expect money? Later Puritan historians would argue so (probably to absolve their own group from what followed). Did he hope for advancement in the Puritan world? No idea.
What we know is this: Winslow dismissed him out of hand. He wrote in his diary that he sent Sassamon back home, ignoring the warning, "because it had an Indian original, and one can hardly believe them [even] when they speak the truth."
A week later, Sassamon disappeared. About two weeks later, his bloated body was found under the ice at Assawompset Pond, just south of Namasket. It looked like a drowning. Everyone took it for such--until a "witness" stepped forward who claimed to have heard a story from a man who claimed to have seen Sassamon killed. Sure enough, on closer inspection his neck was broken and there were bruises on his torso. Maybe it was just supposed to look like a drowning. Maybe it was supposed to look like a warning. But to whom? To other Christianized Indians? To the colonists? To other Massachuset leaders who occasionally opposed Metacom?
In any event, Winslow was suddenly quite interested in Sassamon's news. Metacom was suspected. He voluntarily put in an appearance before the Plymouth dignitaries to explain himself. It didn't go well. He walked out and the colonists believed he was indeed preparing for war--although they couldn't prove it.
But they could investigate a murder. They convened a trial on March 1 and rounded up three of Metacom's chief counselors. There was that "witness." They had even found the man who had originated the story. And there was a mound of forensic evidence. Finally, a jury of twelve Englishmen and six "of the most indifferentest, gravest, and sage Indians" found the three guilty. They were sentenced to death and executed on June 8, 1675. Three days later, Wampanoags began gathering for war. They attacked Swansea, MA, southest of Providence, on June 24th.
So began King Philip's War--or as it is now often called, "Metacom's War." Over the next thirteen months, the colonists and Native Americans engaged in a particularly vicious conflict. Both sides burned people alive in their settlements; both sides exacted high casualties on civilian targets. Barbarities escalated: heads on pikes, burned bodies at road crossings, starved infant corpses nailed to gates. No one remained innocent. Northampton, Massachusetts, was burned. Simsbury, Connecticut, was burned. Dartmouth, New Hampshire, was almost destroyed. Springfield, Massachusetts, was fully destroyed, not a building left standing.
Almost one year to the day when Metacom had appeared before the Plymouth leaders, Nipmunks attacked Lancaster in the Massachusetts Colony. Mary Rowlandson was captured and led away from home into "the vast, howling wilderness"--out to the Connecticut River near current Northfield, Massachusetts, and then up the river into southwestern New Hampshire.
Based on demographics, Metacom's War was the most fatal war in American history. Eight percent of the colonists lost their lives. (By contrast, 2.3 percent of U. S. citizens lost their lives in the Civil War.) Indian losses mounted far higher: about seventy percent of all tribal people in southern New England were killed, starved to death, or transported to the Caribbean as slaves.
And yet this last image is the only contemporary one from the war that survives, from John Seller's "Mapp of New England" in 1675. Do you see them? They're at the middle in the top. A few tiny Puritans are firing on some Native Americans below a mountain ridge. It's almost genteel, a set piece, a small marker for a conflict that set in motion the development of the American psyche.