King Philip's War

Till the Cows Come Home: A Look Into New England Colonialism and King Philip’s War

In terms of the proportion of the population killed, King Philip’s War was the deadliest conflict ever fought on American soil. The main actors were a Native American confederacy led by the Wampanoag and their leader Metacomet, known the to English as King Philip, and several New England colonies, including the Plymouth Bay and Massachusetts Bay colonies.1 Like all historical events of immense significance, it had myriad causes. But today, I’d like to focus on just one: livestock.

Metacomet or King Philip
A not so flattering portrait of Metacomet, a.k.a. King Philip, from 1772.

A son of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader that brokered a peace with the Plymouth Colony and ‘attended’ the first Thanksgiving, Metacomet did not move easily to war. Taking over as the leader of the Wampanoag in 1662 following the death of his brother, Metacomet proved able to stave off armed conflict until 1675. According to John Easton, a Rhode Island attorney general who met with Metacomet right around the outbreak of the war, the Wampanoag leader complained that “for forty Yeares Time, Reports and jealosys of War had bin very frequent, that we did not think that now a War was breaking forth; but about a Week before it did, we had Cause to think it would.”2

Long before Metacomet became the leader of his people, relations between the New England colonies and the Native Nations of the northeast had been tense. When the English began their efforts at colonizing the New England coast, they largely moved into abandoned Native American towns depopulated by disease, meaning “no line of demarcation separated English from Indian habitation.”3 And, as you’d expect, colonists don’t always make the best neighbors. As English farming methods depended upon the use of beasts of burden and husbandry, they brought cattle, pigs, and other animals across the Atlantic with them. This proved problematic, as the settlers would simply let their livestock “loose to forage in the woods” and “animals wandered away from English towns in Indian cornfields, ate their fill, and moved on.”4

This pattern was repeated, ad nauseum. And as the English population grew, so too did the number of cattle and pigs wandering into Native villages, eating their crops and unearthing their stores of food kept underground.5 The devastation to Native crops and food stores proved so terrible that, in his discussion with Easton, Metacomet raged against how “the English Catell and Horses still increased” and his people, even “when they removed 30 Miles from where English had any thing to do,… could not keep their Corn from being spoiled.” Logically enough, Metacomet reasoned that when the English purchased land from his people, that “they would have kept their Catell upon their owne Land.”6 But, to the English mind, the lack of fences in any Native American village denoted a lack of land ownership, and so their cattle and swine could roam where they pleased.

Native Americans in a colonial court
A (slightly racist) depiction of Native Americans in a colonial court.

Throughout Metacomet’s life, the Wampanoag and the neighboring Native Nations had actually attempted to meet the English on their own battleground: a European-style court of law. Over the course of the next two centuries, Native Nations across the Americas proved adept at using Euro-American court proceedings to try and halt the progression of white settlers and their societies into Native lands. And here, in the lands that surrounded the small coastal settlements of Rhode Island, Boston, and Plymouth, we see one of the earlier examples of this 200-year drama play out. And, surprisingly, despite taking English colonists to task in an English court, with other English settlers trying and adjudicating their cases, all the while relying on translators to communicate (who often proved pretty so-so), there are several examples of Native men who had success in this system.7 But, while the colonial governments occasionally handed down favorable sentences for Native claimants, they left it to the local towns to handle the meting out of justice; which, sadly, often meant the pro-Native rulings of the courts came to nothing. These sham trials proved so pervasive amongst the Native Nations of the northeast that Metacomet told Easton “that all English agreed against them, and so by Arbitration they had had much Rong; many Miles square of Land so taken from them, for English would have English Arbitrators.”8

The English colonists thus left the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and others little choice but to shoot the offending animals before they destroyed their crops and food stores. While accidental killings of English livestock had always occurred, as the colonists allowed their cattle and pigs to roam through hunting grounds, such cases only multiplied as English colonists moved closer and closer, ever encroaching upon Native lands.9 Always on the lookout for ways to ‘lawfully’ dispossess the Native Nations of their lands, English colonists moved to take advantage of the situation. In 1685, seven years after the end of King Philip’s War, Edward Randolph wrote of Metacomet, or ‘the Sachim Philip,’ that he “possessed of a tract of land called Mount Hope, a very fertile, pleasant and rich soyle, some English had a mind to dispossesse him thereof, who never wanting one pretence or other to attain their end, complained of injuries done by Philip and his Indians to their stock and cattle, whereupon Philip was often summoned before the magistrate, sometimes imprisoned, and never release but upon parting with a considerable part of his land.”10

Though Randolph uses the word ‘imprisoned,’ such verbiage implies a certain legality about the proceedings, where, in fact, non-existed. Metacomet was the head of a sovereign people, who appeared before English magistrates out of his own desire to peacefully settle the growing tension between his people and the English colonists. So, his ‘imprisonment’ truly amounted to little more than kidnapping; holding Metacomet until he agreed to pay his own ransom.

Now, with the English making steady incursions upon their land, their cows and swine running rampant through hunting grounds and fields of crops, and all diplomatic means of settling the dispute coming to naught, Metacomet and his allies were left with no other option than war. And thus King Philip’s War began.    

Sources on King Philip’s War

  2. John Easton, “Metacomet Relates Indian Complaints About the English Settlers, 1675,”
  3. Virginia DeJohn Anderson, “King Philip’s Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Oct. 1994), 607.
  4. Anderson, “King Philip’s Herds”, 607.
  5. Anderson, “King Philip’s Herds”, 607-608.
  6. John Easton, “Metacomet Relates Indian Complaints About the English Settlers, 1675,”
  7. Anderson, “King Philip’s Herds”, 611.
  8. John Easton, “Metacomet Relates Indian Complaints About the English Settlers, 1675,”
  9. Anderson, “King Philip’s Herds”, 620.
  10. “Edward Randolph’s Description of King Philip’s War (1685)”

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