The relatively few English incursions into New England during the first two decades of the 17th century more often than not involved “belligerent sassafras diggers and fur traders,… kidnappers,…and slavers.”1 It is therefore no surprise that when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, the local tribes at first kept their distance. However, in the spring of 1621, a Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, approached the wretched little group of colonists and offered assistance, chiefly by teaching them how to plant corn.2 Massasoit’s people, as well as several other tribes, had been decimated by an epidemic brought by earlier European explorers, while the rival Narragansetts and Micmacs had survived relatively unscathed.3 Massasoit apparently viewed the Pilgrims as possible allies against his much more numerous enemies.4 The alliance was apparently mutually beneficial, because for more than a decade there was relative peace between the Plymouth colonists and the Amerindians.
That same decade witnessed the beginning of the “Great Migration,” as thousands of English religious dissidents poured into the Massachusetts Bay area. Tensions understandably began to mount between the competing colonies, and between colonists and Amerindians. The spark was struck in 1636 when an English trader (Steele refers to him as a “pirate”5) was killed by Indians. Though it was not entirely clear who actually committed the murder, blame quickly fell upon the Pequots, and a punitive expedition was launched. The Massachusetts Bay militia sacked Amerindian villages on Block Island and then returned to the mainland to attack Pequots near Fort Saybrook, Connecticut. Colonists there unsuccessfully tried to dissuade the expedition from conducting such a campaign in their neighborhood, since they were concerned that it would only serve to precipitate a general war. Undeterred, the militia attacked several villages and returned to Boston. True to Fort Saybrook’s fears, the Pequot retaliated. The ensuing violence saw colonial militias allied with Narragansetts, Mohegans, and Niantics pursue and effectively destroy the Pequot Nation.6
The colonies subsequently enjoyed several decades of relative peace with the Amerindians, for several reasons. First, the English Civil War halted the “Great Migration,” as Puritans either remained in or returned to England to fight. Though the population in the colonies continued to rise, it did so at a slower rate and only because of births in New England. Demand for land, and consequent pressure on native peoples, therefore declined, and relations between colonists and Amerindians stabilized. The second reason for peace was the diplomatic success of the United Colonies of New England in curbing individual colonial ambitions. Finally, shifts in production and trade patterns throughout New England required greater English-Amerindian cooperation and helped ensure peace.7
Peace did not last, however, and increasing pressure on the Amerindians from a growing English population, coupled with the colonists’ tendency to antagonize needlessly their neighbors, once again increased tensions. Massasoit had died under suspicious circumstances (either poisoned by the English or from a European disease), and his son Metacom had succeeded him as chief of the Wampanoags. Metacom, having witnessed and endured mounting injustices at the hands of the English, began secretly to forge an alliance of tribes and prepare for war. His alliance had not fully taken shape when war began in 1675, after John Sassamon, Metacom’s secretary and an English spy, was murdered. Three Wampanoags were convicted and hanged for the crime, and Wampanoags began spontaneously rising up in retribution. Metacom met with significant success early in his campaign, and Nipmucs, Narragansetts, and several other tribes joined the fight. Even united, however, the Amerindians were no match for the colonists both in terms of manpower and firepower. Furthermore, several tribes, including Mohegans and Pequots, did not join in the native uprising and instead fought for the English.8
1. Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 83.
2. Ibid., 87.
3. Ibid., 84.
4. Ibid., 87.
5. Ibid., 91.
6. Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 3rd ed. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009), 124-5.
7. Steele, Warpaths, 96-97.
8. Ibid., 99; Waldman, Atlas, 126.