What began as an effort to contextualise the life of my ancestor George Parker (1612-1656), who emigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, has consumed me for weeks as I continued reading the History of Plymouth Plantation 1606-1646 (WilliamBradford, governor of the colony 1626-1656; William T. Davis, ed, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908, openlibrary.com). Although the initial foothold on the North American continent ended in disaster (Jamestown, 1608), Bradford’s Plymouth Colony has come to be regarded as the seminal event in American history because the principles of democratic government were enshrined by these colonists before they disembarked from the Mayflower in 1620. Other ships followed the Mayflower, bringing thousands more colonists interested less in religious freedom and good governance than in making money. They did so at the expense of the native American population, a fact that (at least for my generation of Americans) was glossed over with sentimentalised accounts of pioneer heroism against Indian savagery. In reality, the 1620 colonisation was the start of an insidious pattern: the invasion of Indian land, followed by a period of trade and friendly exchange, until the Indians came to realise that they were being swindled, objected, and found themselves in a position of having to accept the invaders or fight to preserve their remaining tribal lands – but they were outnumbered by an enemy possessed of superior weapons and technology. Facing either extermination of acculturation, one of them – Metacom aka King Philip – chose to fight rather than lose his country.
In 1675-76, Metacom led the final effort of the North American Indian tribes to expel the English invaders. It was known as King Philip’s War, aka Metacom’s Rebellion. It lasted 14 months and destroyed 12 frontier settlements from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. In August 1676, Metacom was captured and beheaded. The colonists regarded their victory as a sign that God favoured their colonial endeavours. The surviving Indians faced cultural disruption and further expropriation of their lands.
Metacom was a sachem (chieftain) of a federation of Indian tribes that included the Wampanoags, Nipmucks, Pokunokets, Narragansetts and Mohegans. A child when Plymouth Colony was established, Metacom was called ‘King Philip’ by the English in acknowledgement of his revered place in the tribe as the son of the Wampanoag chieftain, Massasoit. Massasoit offered assistance to Bradford’s colonists during that first bitter New England winter of 1620, teaching them where and how to plant and harvest corn, guiding them to plentiful hunting and fishing grounds. Thanks in part to the help of the Indians, the colonists survived and, over the next 55 years, as colonial settlement spread into Indian territory, the invaders prospered while the native American population steadily declined. Indians became increasingly dependent on English food and weapons traded for ever-diminishing tribal lands. Tension mounted. Metacom, proud and determined not to give another inch, declared that he would no longer submit to English sovereignty over the Indian nation. An Indian hunter killed cattle owned by a colonist in what is now Bristol, Rhode Island (livestock trampling Indian corn had for years been a source of friction between colonials and natives); the farmer retaliated by killing an Indian. King Philip’s War had begun.
Other tribes joined Metacom’s rebellion. The native uprising that ensued threatened to wipe the New England Colonies off the map. Towns from Rhode Island to Massachusetts were attacked and burned by Indian warriors. By December 1675, the desperate colonists launched a pre-emptive strike against the neutral Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island. One thousand soldiers from the Massachusetts, Plymouth, Rhode Island and Connecticut colonies marched into Narragansett territory and mounted an attack that became known as the Great Swamp Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 500 Narragansett women and children sheltering in a winter camp. The Narragansetts abandoned their neutral stance and joined with Philip in raiding and burning towns and taking prisoners for ransom. With only a few warriors left, Philip made hit-and-run attacks on isolated farms but the Indian alliance, facing superior numbers of well-armed militia, collapsed. Philip was captured and beheaded. His death effectively ended native American resistance in New England. Some of his supporters escaped to Canada; those who surrendered were shipped off to the West Indies as slaves and the few who survived either fled to Canada, or died of disease or starvation… all of it a far cry from the glorioius saga of taming the wilderness that been taught in school.
My ancestor George Parker left Massachusetts for Rhode Island in 1636. Although I cannot prove it yet (notwithstanding the Millenium files and other questionable online ‘sources’) I believe that one of George’s descendants may have fought in King Philip’s War. I have yet to find a death record for George’s son John Parker born 1854. John would have been about 22 and presumably in Rhode Island when the war broke out; his father acquired substantial land holdings in Rhode Island and New Jersey, which raises the uncomfortable question of whether George was in any way involved in acquiring tribal lands to the detriment of native Americans. I wasn’t prepared for this discovery and it brings with it feelings of guilt and shame, even though what happened 450 years ago is beyond my ability to change.
Genealogy can lead to some confronting discoveries.
Genealogy can lead to some confronting discoveries.