On this date in 1675, Puritan colonists’ hanging of three Wampanoag Indians helped trigger a brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, King Philip’s War.
The condemned men’s victim, Wassausmon — known by his Christian, Anglicized name of John Sassamon — was a converted Massachuseuk, briefly a Harvard attendee (1653)*, and eventually a translator for several tribes when dealing with the early settlers. Sassamon fought on the colonists’ side during the Pequot War, which has graced these pages before, and was generally seen as very sympathetic to the colonial cause, at one point becoming a schoolmaster at the inception of the towns of Natick and Ponkapoag.
After his work as a translator, Sassamon returned to the Puritan fold to become a minister in the Plymouth Colony.
Because of his high position in both the white and native worlds, though, he drew some resentment from both sides. It was Sassamon’s sense of loyalty to both sides of the growing tension between the natives and colonists that led to his demise.
King Philip (natively known as Metacomet) became head (Sachem) of the Wampanoag Confederacy in 1662 after his brother’s death.
Though initially trade-friendly with the burgeoning colonies to the north and east, the Wampanoag were also feeling the squeeze from the Iroqouis Confederation gaining power to the west. In 1671, the colonies presented the Wampanoag with an ultimatum: give up their arms and submit to English law, or be forced out.
The colonists had tried this tactic before with the Pequot (hence the Pequot War), Narragansett, and other native tribes with great success. As expected, Philip blinked, and the English moved in.
But the Sachem was predictably unhappy with the relationship. Three years later, he had assembled a band of warriors and was ready to, er, renegotiate.
Sassamon got wind of Philip’s planned attack on Plymouth Colony and warned its governor Josiah Winslow. Two months later, Sassamon was fished out from under the ice of Assawompset Pond.
With one witness claiming that a trio of King Philip’s men had knocked off the translator and dumped the corpse, the Puritans became convinced that Philip was already getting involved in their affairs.
In June 1675, four months after Sassamon’s body was found, a mixed jury of Indians and colonists convicted three Pokanoket Indians of murdering Sassamon, and on June 8, they were hanged.**
The executions helped bring tensions to the breaking point, and Philip decided it was his time.
On June 18, he launched an attack on homesteads in Swansea, and the war was on. The colonists struck back, laying siege to Mount Hope with the thought of gutting the insurgency by capturing its leader. That move failed, and King Philip escaped to recruit more tribes to his cause. Eventually, the forces included five major native tribes fighting colonists and two other major tribes.
Things got ugly fast: the conflict would become one of North America’s bloodiest colonial wars, and touch everyone who lived in the region. In September, the New England Confederation officially declared war on the Native Americans of the area.
After suffering months of casualties, the colonists finally gained a foothold in the conflict in December. By spring, King Philip’s War was in full swing, with atrocities happening on both sides. But the native forces were being worn down, and the colonists began clawing back. Despite rampant destruction of towns across the colonies (including complete abandonment of a dozen or more), the colonists had fortresses to retreat to and boats to resupply them; the natives needed to trade with the colonists to get their arms. The situation was unsustainable, and when Canadian supply lines fell through, King Philip’s adventure was over.
Persistent enemies of many of the raiding tribes, the Plymouth-allied Mohegans took the offensive and broke up Philip’s warrior bands, scattering them across the Northeast. By the following summer, the Narragansett were defeated and dispersed, and the colonists were granting amnesty to natives who surrendered and could document non-participation. (Others were not so lucky.) In July, King Philip himself was isolated and on the run, taking refuge in Mount Hope. It was there that John Alderman, a Native American, shot him on August 12, 1676.
Philip’s body was mutilated: he was quartered and beheaded, and his head was displayed in Plymouth Colony Fort for years to come.
* Harvard, founded in 1636, started its “Indian Harvard” in 1655 which saw a total of five students: Caleb Cheeshahteamuck (Aquinnah Wampanoag) took a degree in 1665 and died of tuberculosis a year later; classmate Joel Iacoombs (Aquinnah Wampanoag) disappeared in a shipwreck off Nantucket before walking; John Wampus (Aquinnah Wampanoag) bailed after a year and went to sea; and Benjamin Larnell and an otherwise unnamed “Eleazer” caught smallpox and died the year they enrolled.
** One account reports that only two of the Indians died on the first drop; the third was spared by his rope breaking, and after confessing the guilt of all three, he was re-executed.