Town Historian Richard DeSorgher addressed a packed house Feb. 3 as he explained the causes and events of the deadliest war in New England and Medfield history.
The core issues were land disputes resulting in loss of native lands due to what the natives saw as the colonists’ land theft, the population explosion among European settlers resulting in loss of native lands – and, of course, politics, especially between the native tribes.
In December 1620, 102 pilgrims from Plymouth, England, landed on Cape Cod. Early on they formed an alliance with Ousamequin, sachem of the Wompanoag confederacy, which had been depleted by smallpox and needed help against their Narragansett rival.
Ousamequin, who had the title Massasoit, meaning Great Sachem, was aided by Squanto, who was kidnapped earlier by the English and enslaved and brought to Spain. He later made his way to England and then back to Plymouth, where he was the only remaining member of his tribe.
Massasoit formed close personal and political ties with Myles Standish, William Bradford, Edward Winslow, and other colonial leaders. (Winslow earned Massasoit’s eternal gratitude in 1623 when he nursed the gravely ill sachem back to health.) This alliance was critical to the survival of the English in the early days, and it lasted until Massasoit died about 1661.
After Massasoit’s death, the alliance began to fray. Massasoit’s sons, Wamsutta and Metacomet, asked the court in Plymouth for English names and thus became known as Alexander and Philip. Alexander was summoned to appear before the leaders at Plymouth, and after staying in Plymouth Governor Winslow’s house, he became deathly ill and died. Philip then became the Wampanoag sachem. He believed his brother had been poisoned by those at Plymouth. (Philip is the only man to have two Medfield streets named after him.)
The English population of 102 in 1620 grew in 50 years to around 40,000 in New England, thanks to the high birth rate and the Great Migration of immigrants from England of the 1630s. Meanwhile, the native population dwindled to a roughly estimated 20,000, due in significant part to diseases brought by Europeans.
The English brought not only their religion but also English common law, administered by the colonists’ courts. English common law of course included the concept of land ownership and owners’ rights. This was utterly alien to the natives, who had always come and gone and hunted wherever they pleased – and who did not take kindly to having courts fine or otherwise punish them and take their land for trespassing on areas they had always used. The land issue intensified as the English population exploded, forcing natives to lose more and more of their lands, pushing them further and further west.
Things came to a boil in King Philip’s War of 1675-76. Natives saw no recourse to save their homeland but to attack and set fire to scores of towns across New England.
Medfield, attacked February 21, 1676, was one of those towns. Thirty-two houses were burned, as well as some other buildings – about half the structures in town. Thirteen Medfield residents (out of the town’s total population somewhere around 300) were killed in the attack. Also killed were two soldiers from Cambridge, a soldier from Boston, and a man from Sherborn.
There are no reliable estimates of native casualties. Tilden simply wrote, “The historians of the period tell us that the Indians lost some of their warriors in the attack.”
On a per capita basis, this was the deadliest war ever in Medfield and New England history.
The war was fought strictly between the colonists and the natives, with no outside help from England. Some historians see King Philip’s War as the beginning of a distinct American identity. Look what happened a century later!
Further information on King Philip’s War can be found in many sources, including Tilden’s History of Medfield, available as a book at the Medfield Historical Society or online. Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower gives a fascinating account of the period between 1620 and the war.