The events that directly led to the outbreak of the war began in January of 1675, when the Reverend John Sassamon was mysteriously killed after confiding in Plymouth Governor Josiah Winslow about plans that King Philip was plotting war on the colonies.[1]  As a minister who was also an English-raised Indian orphan, Sassamon was a cultural middleman with unclear alliances.  His apparent betrayal of Philip and subsequent mysterious death led many colonists to believe that the Wampanoag leader was behind the killing.  In June, three of Philip’s advisors were tried, convicted, and executed for the murder.  Many in Plymouth suspected that Metacom was behind the killing, but only one Wampanoag testified as a witness for the prosecution.[2]  The first battle of the war occurred at Swansea on June 23, during a confrontation between Wampanoag warriors and colonists.  The different accounts of this episode do not completely agree with each other; some claim that the Indians attacked first, while others maintain that in fact the colonists took the first shots. 

  Although the immediate cause of the war is relatively easy to understand, the underlying issues also contributed to the situation that resulted in the outbreak of fighting in 1675.  Since the death of his father, Metacom, like his brother before him, had been selling off their land in response to pressure from the English colonists.  The settlers later claimed that the sales were all legal, but there remains much doubt that the negotiations were carried out by equal partners.[3]  By the 1670s, there was not much land left, and the Pokanoket people under Metacom’s leadership were left with Mount Hope as their last remaining tract of land. 

As explained by Virginia Anderson, the effects of animal husbandry on the Wampanoag people also contributed to the initiation of hostilities in 1675.  Before contact, native peoples living along the east coast had no experience with large domesticated animals such as cows, pigs, sheep, or horses, all of which arrived with English settlers.  Their introduction onto the landscape of coastal New England had an immediate negative impact on the agricultural practices of the Wampanoag and other native peoples in the region.[4]  When the new animals began to graze onto native fields, where they “ate their fill, and moved on,” the Indians “were unprepared for the onslaught.”[5]  The Wampanoags were forced to build fences around their fields for the first time, but even that could not protect their crops for long.  English appetite for land increased along with sales, but native resentment was building as well.  Land loss was one major cause of the war, but underlying it was the fundamental conflict of two cultures: one which did not practice animal husbandry, and one which did.  The animals which the English brought with them had a huge impact on the lives of every tribe in New England.  When war broke out, it was as much about trespassing livestock as it was about Philip’s efforts to maintain “the integrity of the shrinking tracts of Wampanoag land.”[6]

After the Swansea incident, members of both the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies amassed a large force to find King Philip at his village in Mount Hope, now located within Bristol, Rhode Island.  They arrived on June 30, 1675, only to find that Philip and his men had crossed Mount Hope Bay to safety.[7]  Through the end of 1675 and into the winter of 1676, Philip and his allies gained victories throughout Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. Fighting against the militias of the Plymouth, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts Bay colonies, they pushed the colonists back to their oldest settlements and regained some of the lands that had traditionally been theirs.  The conflict also spread north into New Hampshire and Maine, and west into the interior of Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Philip himself came to central Massachusetts after his escape from Mount Hope, drawing the Nipmuc tribe into the war.  The Abenaki people of Maine faced increased aggression from the English after the outbreak of war in the south, resulting in the outbreak of violence which would outlast the original conflict.[8]

[1] Russell Bourne, The Red King's Rebellion, 105.

[2] Leach, Flintlock and Tomahawk; New England in King Philip's War, 32-33.

[3] Russell Bourne, The Red King's Rebellion, 89-90.

[4] Virginia DeJohn Anderson, “King Philip's Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England,” The William and Mary Quarterly 51, no. 4, 3 (October 1994): 602.

[5] Ibid., 607.

[6] Ibid., 621.

[7] Schultz and Tougias, 43.

[8] Ibid., 46-8.