The mirror of history
Last updated 11/15/2022 at Noon
Rampant development and land-use conflicts. Pandemic illness. Economic instability and anxiety. Gun control.
We could be talking about issues affecting Oregonians in 2022 — or we could be talking about issues affecting Puritan colonists and the Wampanoag Confederacy in 1675 New England. One of the things that makes the study of history so compelling is the way the same kinds of trials and tribulations resonate across centuries. An old saying, usually attributed to Mark Twain, asserts that “history never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”
I’ve been immersed in the rhyme and meter of history as I explore what came to be known as King Philip’s War. The fighting that broke out between the Wampanoag and their allies, and the settlers of New England — after 50 years of peaceful if sometimes contentious coexistence — remains to this day the most devastating conflict per capita ever experienced by Americans.
It’s fitting to look at it now, as Thanksgiving approaches, because the conflict grew out of a relationship established in 1621 in the First Thanksgiving, a cornerstone of the American creation myth. The legend of the First Thanksgiving — which has a solid foundation in fact — has the Pilgrims who survived a first year of colonization marred by disease and hunger celebrating the bounty of the land in harmony with helpful natives. It’s true that the Wampanoag under their great sachem Massasoit gave the Pilgrims direct aid, and taught them how to raise and gather food in the alien New England climate — and saved their lives.
In turn, the Puritan settlers formed an alliance with these native people who had, in recent years, been devastated by pandemic disease that may have killed as much as 90 percent of their population. The alliance with the English provided the Wampanoag security — and firearms — to protect themselves from aggressive neighbors like the Narragansett, who had not suffered the same level of devastation from disease.
For 50 years, good relations held up, but by the beginning of the 1670s, the alliance and partnership was unraveling.
While the Wampanoag remained reduced and vulnerable to illness, the New England settlements grew exponentially as the population — bolstered by families having an average of eight children — exploded.
Land-use conflicts between neighbors of different cultures became more and more frequent, as settlers’ livestock decimated native fields.
The Wampanoag had been key middle men in the fur trade that developed almost immediately after the Pilgrims arrived — but the fur trade was on the decline locally as beaver populations were trapped out.
The Wampanoag had become enmeshed in a new trading economy — and their sources of income were drying up.
So they were forced to sell land.
The settlers no longer needed the Wampanoag, and so they no longer treated them as sovereign partners, but as a people who must be made subservient. Tensions mounted. Settlers came to fear that the Wampanoag’s dissatisfaction could turn dangerous. So they tried to disarm them. Massasoit’s son, now sachem, named Metacom and called by the English King Philip, resisted.
In June 1675, tensions erupted into open warfare. In the early months of the war, Metacom and his allies devastated the English settlements, burning towns and farmsteads, ambushing militia units, and killing hundreds of settlers, often in terrible and terrifying ways. The tide turned when the English were able to mobilize other Indians against Metacom’s movement, and the Wampanoag were hunted down and virtually destroyed as a sovereign people. Thousands died and countless others were sold into slavery.
It was as cruel and brutal an episode as can be found in American history.
What came to be called King Philip’s War is worth remembering for its own sake, especially as we mark Native American History Month. But it is even more powerful to reflect on the way that we are buffeted by ill winds of bad fortune, subject to the tensions and conflicts inherent when people of different values inhabit the same space, at risk of provocation when we feel our security, identity, and way of life are threatened.
The mirror of history is imperfect, but when we hold it up and look closely, we can see ourselves.