Metacomet, an obituary

July 21, 2018 — (This one is hard for me to write; I have been avoiding it for a while. Please bear with me. Reading historical research can be a real kick in the gut when the names of my ancestors are part of the history, it has taken me a while to get my bearings on this one.)

Born in 1638, he was the son of Massasoit who was sachem (or “chief”) to the Wampanoag people in Massachusetts. Massasoit was initially helpful and friendly to my ancestors when they arrived and struggled to survive. Metacomet’s older brother, Wamsutta (the English called him King Alexander) inherited the title of sachem when their father died in 1661. Wamsutta died shortly thereafter, and then Metacomet became the sachem of his people. The English called him King Philip. As such, he considered himself the equal to the English King, Charles II.

During his time as sachem, Metacomet was allied with Weetamoo, who was sachem to the Pocasset and his sister-in-law (widow of Wamsutta). While inheriting complicated relations with the English colonists — it wasn’t all bad for the Wampanoag, the trade of beaver skins, the apparent cooperation on where the English could establish their colonies, etc, carried some benefits — Metacomet became convinced that his brother, Wamsutta, was deliberately poisoned by Governor Winslow, who is described by Philbrick as “one of Plymouth’s most aggressive and unethical purchasers of Indian real estate,” (p. 214, in his book, Mayflower, published in 2006). The belief that Winslow poisoned Wamsutta then chilled their relations.

Metacomet attempted to build an alliance of other tribes to combat the expanding encroachment of the English colonists on their land. Since the trade with the English included tools and weapons, the sachem was looking to expand their purchase of guns from the English. The English were happy to engage in the trade so long as it was profitable to them, the English passed a law in 1674 to repeal a ban the sale of weapons to the native tribes (see Philbrick’s book, Mayflower).

Without going into the entire history of King Philip’s War in this post (it’s very long and complicated), I will end this obituary with what Philbrick wrote about Metcomet’s death:

“ [Metacomet] was dressed only in his small breeches and stockings. They [Caleb Cook and Pocasset Alderman who sided with the English] waited until he came within range, [] Cook pulled the trigger of his musket, but the weapon refused to fire” (p. 336). Alderman shot next and landed the fatal shot. Captain Benjamin Church was leading their expedition and then ordered Metacomet’s remains to be drawn and quartered. According to my family genealogy of allied families, Metacomet’s severed head was “deposited in the cellar” of the Leonard family home. Later, his severed head was displayed on a spike in Plymouth colony. Metacomet’s wife and nine year old son were captured and shipped to the Caribbean to be enslaved, along with thousands of other native people.

I am not trying to romanticize Metacomet; he had the normal strengths and flaws of any person — he was devoted to his people and sacrificed his life for their protection. He was also brutal in warfare to his adversaries and was, apparently, ineffectual at building the alliance he thought would aid their mutual protection. He lived in difficult times and faced adversaries whose need/greed for land and profit resulted in the destruction of his people.

According to Philbrick, “it has been estimated that at least a thousand Indians were sold into slavery during King Philip’s War, with over half the slaves coming from Plymouth Colony alone. By the end of the war, Mount Hope, once the crowded Native heart of the colony, was virtually empty of inhabitants. … the Pilgrim’s children … had taken conscious, methodical measures to purge the land of its people” (p. 345).

My ancestors who fought in King Philip’s War include:

Caleb Cook, b. 1651, d. 1721

Joseph Benson, b. 1640, d. 1706

Gershon Dodson, b. 1653, d. March 26, 1676 (during one of the battles of the war)

Samuel Edson, b. 1645, d. 1717

Zachariah Gurney, b. 1660, d. 1732

John Holbrook, b. 1622, d. 1699

Increase Niles, b. 1646, d. 1693

And the Leonard home where Metacomet’s severed head was “deposited in the cellar” was in Taunton, MA. (a reliable source claims that the Leonard’s were “friendly” to Metacomet and “after many generations” returned the remains to Metacomet’s descendants).

Philbrick, Nathaniel. 2006. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York, NY: Penguin.

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