King Philip's War

For anyone wanting to dampen the mood at their Thanksgiving dinner, you can always interrupt the discussion of tryptophan to tell the story of what happened after the friendly feast between Massasoit and the Puritans. You can tell the story of the later Thanksgiving - the one with the severed head: 

The war that no one ever talks about.

In the 1620s, the English settlers in New England were desperate. They just kept dying. They had no idea how to build warm houses, or how to farm in the local climate. The Wampanoag, whose numbers were also dwindling from disease, saw this as an opportunity to form an alliance. In their weakened state, the Wampanoag were threatened by the Narraganset to the south.

Though the English were terrible farmers and builders in the New World, they had wonderful weapons. On top of that, the fact that they'd brought women and children to the New World suggesting that they were peaceful.

Massasoit Ousamequin was the King of the Wampanoag. He's often known as "Massasoit," though that's actually his title (meaning something akin to Great Leader or King). 

Under Massasoit Ousamequin's leadership, the Wampanoag taught the English farming techniques (and thus Thanksgiving was born). In the early days, the English viewed the Natives with a certain amount of respect: they were tall, healthy, and good at growing food.

Massasoit Ousamequin formed a close friendship with the English colony's leader, Edward Winslow. Once the English colonists grew stronger, the alliance would protect Wampanoag lands from Narraganset encroachment.

But over time, the alliance became increasingly fraught, in part due to cultural differences. When the English sold land, it was thought to be a permanent sale. But the Wampanoag expected that it would still be accessable for hunting. Further threatening the Wampanoag's hunting ability were the English farm animals that disrupted habitats, scaring away game.

Over time, the melding of cultures actually further complicated matters instead of building bridges. When the English picked up Native customs, it made the Puritans uncomfortable. The Natives were heathens - possibly even devils. Meanwhile, the Natives became increasingly wary of English tactical maneuvers that involved massacring women and children.

As the English grew in strength throughout the 1600s, they displaced the Wampanogs and other Natives from their coastal land.

Meanwhile, the Natives continued to suffer horrible smallpox casualties, (and if you want to be a real Thanksgiving buzzkill, you can explain how smallpox makes a person's skin turn black and slough off in sheets). Entire settlements were ravaged by the disease; some estimates put the smallpox death rate at 95%.

Some Natives, in their desperation, turned to Christianity and became "Praying Indians," hoping that the settler's God would spare them. The English convinced the Praying Indians that their families and loved ones died horrible deaths because they were sinful.

In 1660, Massasoit Ousamequin died, and along with him went any kind of secure alliance. His son Massasoit Metacomet inherited the leadership and became known by the English as "King Philip." He assimilated, learning English and strutting around Boston in fashionable English clothes.

But by the 1670s, the English had become increasingly skittish about contact with the Natives. New laws prohibited contact between the cultures. Praying towns of Christian Indians continued to expand rapidly, but non-Christian Indians were prohibited from going near them.

Metacomet had intended to keep the alliance with the English, but he grew distrustful after his brother died immediately following a meeting with the English. Additionally, the disappearance of Wamponoag's lands reached a crisis point.

Now strengthened, the English had no further use of the alliance. They demanded that the Wampanoag cede all their weapons and obey English laws.

In one instance of the infringment on Native sovereignty, a young man named Nehemiah was allegedly framed for a murder. Nehemiah was executed in Boston Common, even though his father was a powerful Nipmuc leader. The Puritans stuck his head on a pike as a further terror tactic; both the English and Natives believed that a person's spirit couldn't rest if their head remained unburied.

Finally, after years of tension, the war broke out after one of the Praying Indians - a Harvard graduate - told the English that Metacomet was planning an attack. The Praying Indian was then assassinated by the Wampanoag. The English responded by capturing three high ranking Pokanoket Wampanoag and sentencing them to death. This judgement was viewed as another infringement on Native sovereignty, resuliting in raids by Wampanoag Pokanoket in Swansea (near Plymouth). 

As the conflict intensified, the English stopped trusting the Praying Indians and moved many of them to a Boston Harbor island in the dead of winter. With no food or shelter, they froze and starved to death. In 1675, the English officially declared war.

The war quickly spread as new alliances were formed. Nehemiah's vengeful father, Matoonas, enlisted the Nipmuc in the fight.

Historically enemies of the Wampanoag, the Narraganset were initially uninvolved until the English attacked a Narraganset town, slaughtering 300 civilians. After this Great Swamp Massacre, the Narraganset joined the Wampanoag.

By the end of 1675, things were looking up for the Wampanoag. They'd attacked a number of Puritan strongholds, including Plymouth. The English, however, began to fortify their towns, and those from smaller settlements sought refuge in the larger towns. They were able to build their arsenal by purchasing weapons from European ships, while the Natives were unable to refortify supplies due to hostile Mohawks messing everything up.

In 1676, the Narraganset leader, Canonchet, was captured and sentenced to death. He responded to his sentence by saying, "I like it well. I shall die before my heart is soft, and before I have spoken a word unworthy of myself."

Starving, the Natives began to lose battle after battle. By August of 1676, Metacomet's allies had deserted him. A Nipmuc Sachem named Sagamore John captured Matoonas (Nehemiah's father) and another of Matoonas' sons, dragging the pair to Boston in exchange for protection. Matoonas and his son were executed and beheaded, their heads jammed onto pikes in the Common. The Puritans arranged the poles so father and son would be forced to stare into each others' rotting heads in the after life. Nice.

Hundreds of starving Natives had surrendered to the English by 1676, and Metacomet's family had been captured and sold into slavery in Bermuda. Alone and despairing, Metacomet wandered back to his ancestral lands, where he was murdered by a Praying Indian. His limbs were severed, and his head was stuck on a pike. Another Thanksgiving feast celebrated his demise. His severed head rotted for 25 years in Plymouth, where his father is honored with a statue.

Remaining members of the Wampanoag were captured and either sold into slavery or executed in Boston, and Massasoit Metacomet was the last King to ever hold that title. 

And that's how Plymouth went from sharing cornbread to severing heads.