Dangerous Memories. Indigenous Resistance

Plymouth, 1676

Metacom’s War


In the public square stands a tall pole. On top is impaled the head of the hellhound, fiend, tawney serpent and dog, who dared to resist becoming a colonized and culturally submissive person.  He dared to drive his forces to within twenty miles of Boston in order to stop the religious and political imperialism of the Puritans.  Metacom, chief of the Wampanoag, has mobilized the largest native confederation to resist the onslaught of the whites.  His wife and son are now slaves in the West Indies. His head will stay on public display for twenty-five years.

His words will last much longer.

One hundred sixty years later, William Apes will repeat them at the Odeon in Boston.

Brothers—You see this vast country before us, which the Great Spirit gave to our fathers and us; you see the buffalo and the deer that now are our support. Brothers, you see these little ones, our wives and children, who are looking to us for food and raiment; and you now see the foe before you, that they have grown insolent and bold; that all our ancient customs are disregarded; the treaties made by our fathers and us are broken, and all of us insulted; our council fires disregarded, and all the ancients customs of our fathers; our brothers murdered before our eyes, and their spirits cry to us for revenge. Brothers, these people from the unknown world will cut down our groves, spoil our hunting and planting grounds, and drive us and our children from the graves of our fathers, and our council fires, and enslave our women and children.

This would not be the last time a native from this land the Europeans called America would speak words such as these.


Chronicles of American Indian Protest, 8-11



Massachusetts Bay Colony

All the factors that produced conflicts in Jamestown were present in Massachusetts, with the addition of religion. The Puritans believed they were sent to this “hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men” on a God-directed mission to establish a “city on a hill.”  This new society would “shine like a beacon” back to England as an example of how pious people should live.

According to historian Gary Nash, the indigenous population became two obstacles to the Puritans. First, they controlled the land that the English wanted. Second, as “savages” they threatened the psychological identity of the Puritans. If they could not control this land and the inhabitants as they thought God had directed them to do, then they would incur God’s wrath for their failure.

They did not try to “convert the “heathen” to Christianity, as the thousands of Catholic missionaries did in the Spanish-dominated parts of the Americas. Rather the Puritans tried to bring the indigenous under civil authority, subjecting them to a white code of behavior.  As in the rest of the Americas, here too the indigenous were weakened by Europeans” diseases.  But some of the tribes refused to be weakened culturally and politically. Such a tribe was the Pequot.

The Pequot lived in the fertile Connecticut River valley, land that the Puritans wanted. On the pretext of the killing of two English sea captains, one of whom the Puritans themselves hated, they made a punitive expedition into Pequot territory.  The Puritans demanded the murderers and payment in wampum. For good measure they took Pequot children as hostages. The Pequot tried to placate the English, but when that didn’t work they resisted. The war was even matched until the Puritans massacred a Pequot village. In 1638, the Pequot nation was considered dissolved.  For the Puritans, steeped in a theology that good people receive their rewards on earth, their military victory over the Pequot proved their righteousness.

For the Narraganset, allying with the colonists did not help their survival. When the Puritans wanted Narraganset land, they allied with the Mohegan to have a Narraganset chief killed.

Two years later the Massachusetts Bay Colony helped organize the New England Confederation and mobilized for war against the Narraganset. Rather than fight, the tribe submitted to a treaty that cost them large tracts of land.

Neither friend nor foe of the colonists would survive. What could not be pillaged by war was taken by law. The Puritans passed laws that called for the death penalty for “blasphemy,” that is, not accepting the Puritan religion. Colonial courts tried, sentenced, and imprisoned indigenous who”trespassed” on lands that the Puritans claimed.

The Wampanoag who once lived on all the land from Naraganset Bay to Cape Cod by 1675 had a few “tongues of land.” Metacom, their chief (the English called him King Philip), rallied twenty thousand indigenous from various tribes to rise up in rebellion.

At the time, however, there were fifty thousands colonists. After initial victories, the sheer numbers of white people proved too powerful.


See Gary Nash, Red, White, and Black, 116-121