The story of King Philip’s War really begins with the arrival of the pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620.  Philip’s father, Massasoit, was the first tribal leader to meet the English colonists.  Already chief when the pilgrims arrived, he tried to maintain peace and his peoples’ way of life as the European presence increased.  He was also the signatory on the first treaty between the English and Native Americans.  This document, described by Milton Travers in The Wampanoag Indian Federation, is not very specific about details of the agreement, but includes a promise from Massasoit that his people would not harm the English, one that he kept until his death in 1661.[1]  It is discussed in more detail in Mourt’s Relation, an account of the early settlement of New England first published in 1622.  According to the author[2], after a feast shared by both native and colonist, “they treated of Peace.”[3]  Later, when the colonists sent another party to negotiate with Massasoit, he assured them that “he would gladly continue that Peace and Friendship which was between him & us: and for his men they should no more pester us as they had done.”[4]  Clearly, the loyalty of Massasoit was respected and valued by the English, as evidenced by the lack of tension and relative peace that existed in the newfound colonies until his death in 1661.

In another gesture of friendship, upon assuming the leadership role held by his father, Wamsutta saw to it that he and Metacom received English names, Alexander and Philip respectively.[5]  While taking a new name was a common practice for Wampanoag people when they moved into a new phase of their lives, this was still a practice that “forced the natives to compromise their personal identity for the convenience and ideology of the white invaders.”[6]  The specific names Philip and Alexander may have been references to the ancient Macedonian leaders of the same names.[7]  Despite this show of good faith towards the new generation of Wampanoag leaders, the English were wary of Massasoit’s two sons, and did not place the same faith in them as they had to their first friend among native leaders. 

Massasoit’s death of natural causes in 1661 was followed the next year by the death of Alexander.  He was captured by an English party led by Josiah Winslow and taken in for questioning by Plymouth colonial authorities.   On his way home to Mount Hope, he took ill and died.  The Pokanoket, Philip’s people who lived at Mount Hope, believed that he had been poisoned because of his dealings with the new colony of Rhode Island.[8]  After these two losses, Philip assumed leadership of the tribe, which increasingly struggled to maintain its autonomy while its relationships with the colonies around it deteriorated.  His doubts about the sincerity of the English leaders’ promises increased after the deaths of his father and brother, and his thoughts and plans turned to war.  In 1667, Philip was involved in a war scare that resulted in his appearance in court.  A settlement was reached, however, and war was avoided.[9]  Disaster was again averted in 1671, when the English were informed that Philip’s men were seen at Mount Hope preparing weapons for war.  Philip was summoned to Taunton, Massachusetts, where another settlement was proposed.  Known as the Taunton Agreement, this one was much less favorable to the Pokanoket leader, however, and resulted in Philip forcibly surrendering his arms as a show of good faith to the English.  Peace was preserved, but the anger of Philip and his people towards the colonists continued to grow.  Also, many Indians refused to disarm, further adding to the tense atmosphere by disobeying the authority of both Metacom and the English.[10]

[1] Milton A. Travers.  The Wampanoag Indian Federation of the Algonquin Nation, 66.

[2] The author of the Relation is disputed, but it is generally accepted that the original publisher was named George Morton, and that he did not write the tract.  See Hugh M Ayer, “Review: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth: Mourt's Relation by Dwight B. Heath,” Ethnohistory 10, no. 4 (Autumn 1963): 400.

[3] Henry Martyn Dexter, ed., Mourt's Relation or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth (Boston: J.K. Wiggin, 1865), 93.

[4] Ibid., 124.

[5] Schultz and Tougias, 22.

[6] James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 168.

[7] Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, 1st ed (New York: Knopf, 1998), xvi.

[8] Ibid., 23. 

[9] Douglas Edward Leach, Flintlock and Tomahawk; New England in King Philip's War (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 22.

[10] Ibid., 27.