King Philip's War - Underlying issues
Posted August 9th, 2012 at 02:15 PM by Baltis
Tags king philip's war
Underlying the events leading up to King Philip's War
I've been reading and discussing King Philip's war recently. In particular I reviewed Edward Leach's Flintlock and Tomahawk in great detail. In addition to that book, Eric Schultz and Michael Tougias also deserve much credit for their work, King Philip's War, The History and Legacy of America's Forgotten Conflict. Instead of trying to footnote these blog entries, please simply understand that I did almost no independent research. Some of the thoughts and analysis come from me but the basic information comes from those authors. There are no footnotes simply to avoid repeating the term, ibid.
In the early 17th century, the culture of the Narragansett and Wampanoag is described as quite modern for the time. Both tribes were very savvy in trading with the Europeans and had been so since before the original Pilgrim settlement. The Narragansett flourished in the beaver trade. Even as beaver became scarce in their own country, the tribe became middlemen for the interior. The Wampanoag had their own specialty. Because of their location on Narragansett Bay, they specialized in making Wampum from the plentiful oyster and other shells along their shoreline. Both tribes (and to a lesser extent, the other Algonquian tribes) understood European ways from very early on.
Because of their extensive trading, European goods had already become a way of life to the Indians of New England. They enjoyed all sorts of weapons, cookware, clothing, buttons, knives, and of course, alcohol. They were accustomed to paying for such luxuries with pelts using wampum as currency. In particular, the Indians were actually better armed than the colonists. They tended to have Flintlocks while many of the colonists still used the slower less accurate Matchlocks. Since Indians hunted they valued skill with weapons and practiced often. Better shots than most of the colonists, they also kept up better with improvements to the firearms of the day.
Unfortunately for the Wampanoag, a change in fashion occurred in Europe around the mid 1600s. Demand for beaver pelts fell dramatically and valuations for both pelts and wampum declined at a rapid rate. Paying for their European goods became increasingly difficult.
About the same time as the wampum devaluation, English population began to really take off. First generation Americans were coming of age while news of success in the colony was bringing more and more immigrants from England. The colonists needed more land than they previously used. Before the 1650s, the colonists needed a few relatively small tracts of land that were easily purchased from the Indians. Because an epidemic of some sort decimated the Algonquian population a few years prior to the first Pilgrim landing in 1620, estimates place the entire native population of New England at less than 25,000 people. This meant plenty of land available for the first few groups from England. Unfortunately, the Europeans kept on coming and their first generation came of age in the 1650s. The new colonists quickly surpassed the Indian population pushing them into a minority.
Europeans and Indians had a different view of the land but they were both aware of the other's perspective. The Europeans came from a crowded continent where almost all farmable acres were already owned and operated. The Fee Tail way of determining heirship guaranteed the eldest son would take over family farms leaving the younger sons to look elsewhere. Some farmers skirted the issue by making gifts during their lives to the younger children, but this only made things worse as the farms got smaller with each generation. The solution for the Puritans turned out to be immigrating to New England and starting their own colony. Certainly they were leaving England in search of a place where Puritanism would dominate but, in many ways, the Puritan choice of New England was actually a reaction to crowded conditions on the continent. On the other hand, the Indians came from a very different point of view. They always had adequate land for their needs and tended to live in communities (villages) that farmed the land and used the fishing stocks as a shared commodity. Because their dwellings were so simple, the Algonquians frequently moved from place to place with the seasons. They had been selling parcels of land to the English since the Pilgrims first arrived and had a good feeling for the idea the land was never coming back. Nothing about those land sales was temporary.
Obviously there was a surplus of land in New England. The various tribes began to sell off pieces of their territory to individual buyers. This helped them pay their trade debts now that beaver pelts and wampum were on the decline. Unfortunately, fraud in the form of bad surveys and drunk sellers who failed to read documents started to show up in the English dealings with Indians. This went on for a while but, by the time the 1660 statutes got written, the commissioners had already put their foot down. No more deals could be made with Indians without approval of the colony government. This didn't stop folk from still trying.
One land deal in particular that involved a large number of prominent individuals was the Atherton land deal. Atherton had been a hero of the Pequot War and, along with several others, had a company that purchased most of the Narragansett property in Rhode Island and Connecticut under suspicious circumstances. Because they did not want government scrutiny, the deals were structured as gifts from the Narragansett. The ruse did not work as the United Commissioners found against the Atherton Company in 1665. This event caused a great deal of ill will between some leading colonists and the Narragansett. The group included John Winthrop, Josiah Winslow, and Edward Hutchinson as well as Humphrey Atherton.
Most of the land deals in New England had been straightforward and honest even though some authors (Schultz and Tougias) seem to place more emphasis on the instances of fraud. In addition to the Atherton case, there are a few other known instances of fraud on both sides. At least one instance of Indians refusing to leave land after having sold it and a few others of fraud by colonists. That being said, the Puritans took pride in their belief that all land deals were honest. Josiah Winslow said in 1676, "I think I can clearly say, that before these present troubles broke out, the English did not possess one foot of land in this colony but what was fairly obtained by honest purchase of the Indian proprietor."
Winslow's statement feels only partially true. Just after the Pequot war official policy on land became one of usage. If land was not being used, it belonged to the colony and was available for sale or settling for newcomers or incorporating new communities. If the Indians were living on land, cultivating it, or actively harvesting natural resources from it, the land was theirs and could not be taken without a bona fide sale approved by the governor. However, particularly because of the population decline in the early 17th century, large areas of land were not being used and therefore available for settlement. It took a couple of decades but eventually the tribes began to feel the pinch.
Beginning with Dartmouth, Kittery, and York in 1652, the Massachusetts Bay Colony started a pattern of new settlements that spread further and further inland. Northampton incorporated in 1656 followed by Marlboro in 1660, then Hadley, Westfield, Simsbury, Brookfield and then Framingham just before the war broke out in 1675. Settlements weren't limited to only those places with sufficient population for incorporation. Small communities of six or seven families sprang up in western Massachusetts at Groton, Lancaster, Mendon, Wrentham and Brookfield. These new settlements encroached into territory previously claimed only by the tribes. Primarily affected by the new growth were the Nipmuc and Wampanoag Indians. In the years immediately prior to the war, the Plymouth Colony settled Swansea directly outside of King Philip's peninsula and between two Wampanoag groups.
Indian culture suffered from other encroachments as well. Puritan ministers began trying to spread their religion to the Indian community from early on in the colony. It wasn't long before Indians started converting in fairly significant numbers. As they adopted the Puritan faith Indians could obtain equal rights to the English colonists. This equality extended itself to the granting of land and formation of communities as well as providing substantial motivation to convert. As groups of Indians came to Puritanism the colony would grant them rights to incorporate towns. Prior to King Philip's War at least twelve (12) Christian Indian towns existed. All tribes could become Christian but the two closest to the English and therefore most subject to conversion were the Nipmuc and Wampanoag.
Some historians emphasize the disappearance of Indian Lands when discussing the causes of King Philip's War. The idea being that Indians felt their traditional hunting grounds shrinking and needed to keep plenty of space between their villages and the English settlements. I didn't come away from this review thinking the land issue was number one. The Algonquian tribes were very small and, even after Philip became leader following his brother's death, the Wampanoag continued to voluntarily sell land parcels. I think I tend to the same with regard to the Narragansett. The culture clash was probably of deeper concern than the loss of land in the interior. The Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes enjoyed protection for their traditional properties along the coast in Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts. Puritan law also protected any areas they cultivated or fished. Since these Indians already had a long history of living from trade and farming, the English incursion into lands not used by them just doesn't look like that much of a factor. On the other hand, the Nipmuc situation is not so clear. They lived primarily between Eastern Massachusetts (Boston and the coast) and Western Massachusetts (Upper Connecticut River Valley). Many of the new settlements lay right in the middle of Nipmuc Country between their villages. Losing their traditional lands may have been closer associated with losing their culture.
On the other hand, the conversion of Indians to Puritanism and watching them join the English colonies must have been very disturbing to Philip and the other Sachems. Losing the Indians to Puritanism was equal to losing them as citizens of the tribe. Among the primary motivations for becoming a Christian Indian was to move into the colony and enjoy the land grants, liberties and legal protections of the Colony. The inverse being to move away from the tribe and no longer feel bound to tribal law or following the Sachems. The clash wasn't so much religion as it was governmental. Becoming a Christian Indian was like giving up one's citizenship and joining a new nation. The old nation tends to regard the act dimly. Anyway, time to move this blog out of the confines of home and subject it to whatever level of scrutiny awaits. I always like to imagine the many hordes of eager history fans just waiting to soak up the latest wild and inspired ideas to pour forth from my head to my computer. And then reality steps up in the form of a counter. Oh well, even if only counted in tens or ones, . . . . .
Next blog entry - Players of King Philip's War
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