Chief Sachem Metacomet

Inducted: 1997
Born: 1639
Died: 1676

Metacomet, or Metacom (ca. 1638-1676), chief sachem of the Wampanoag Indian confederation from 1662 until 1676, ruled over a shrinking Native American empire on what is now Rhode Island’s East Bay and southeastern Massachusetts. His English name and title, King Philip, were allegedly derived from Philip of Macedonia–a prophetic anointment before his involvement in the war that would bear his name.

His father was Massasoit (d. 1661), who befriended both the Pilgrims and Roger Williams. The initial friendship between the English and native peoples soured after a long series of controversial land sales, lawsuits, religious conversions, and double-dealings. Metacomet’s elder brother Wamsutta (also called Alexander) died in 1662 under questionable circumstances soon after being taken forcibly to Plymouth and held for sedition. Philip suspected foul play.

Upon assuming leadership of the Wampanoags, Metacomet made a number of significant concessions to Plymouth Colony (though he angered Plymouth officials by giving preference to Rhode Island settlers over those of Plymouth in the sale of Wampanoag land). By the mid-1670s, when this humiliating policy of appeasement became intolerable, Metacomet urged other tribes to join a coalition for what he believed would be an inevitable conflict. “Brothers,” he allegedly pleaded to his fellow natives, “these people from the unknown world will cut down our groves, spoil our hunting and planting grounds, and drive us and our children from the graves of our father.”

A few small but violent episodes between the two sides detonated King Philip’s War in June 1675. This confrontation cost the lives of more than six hundred colonists and several thousand Indians. In view of the region’s population in the 1670s, the war was the most devastating conflict for loss of lives and property in American history. Philip failed to unite all the local tribes, for many natives remained neutral or sided with the English, and once the uprising spread beyond the bounds of Plymouth Colony, other Indian sachems played leadership roles in their respective areas. During late 1675 and early 1676, the initial Indian offensive was successful. Still, by late spring 1676, however, the tide of battle turned dramatically with the English and their many Indian allies gaining control.

On August 12, 1676, the forces of Captain Benjamin Church ambushed Metacomet at his seat of power on Mount Hope in Bristol. Alderman, a “praying” Pocasset Indian, actually killed the great sachem as he attempted to escape. Colonial soldiers decapitated and quartered Metacomet’s body and displayed the dead leader’s head on a pole in Plymouth for many years as a deterrent to other rebels. Alderman was given Philip’s severed hand as a reward.

Many of Philip’s followers were either executed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. His wife and eight-year-old son suffered the latter fate when both were shipped to Bermuda in bondage. Today, Metacomet is deservingly honored as a native patriot who tried– in the manner of Pontiac, Tecumseh, Black Hawk, and Geronimo– to preserve his own civilization and his tribe’s autonomy in the face of overwhelming odds and the relentless greed and land hunger of America’s white settlers.

Chief Sachem Metacomet was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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