HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Settler Colonialism

This week's big question

Why did a major war break out between settlers and Indigenous peoples of colonial New England?

Video introduction

NOTE: In an earlier version of the course, students read Daniel Mandell's interpretation of King Philip's War in a book subtitled Colonial Expansion, Native Resistance, and the End of Indian Sovereignty (2010). Since making this video a few years ago, we have updated the lesson by replacing Mandell's interpretation with a newer one by Lisa Brooks. With the exception of this change, all parts of the video introduction still apply.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

King Phillip's war was one of the worst wars in American history, with heavy losses on both sides. Its particular story is important. But it also helps us to think about the general issue of on-going relations between the Indigenous peoples of America and the increasingly large number of Europeans who were settling in, and thus occupying, what had been Indigenous lands.
Here are some particular issues and questions that help you break down the big question into smaller parts:


In 1675 a major war broke out in southern New England between English colonists in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and two Indigenous nations, the Wampanoag and Narragansett. King Philip’s War, named for a leader of the Wampanoag people, was the biggest war in colonial history. At a time when the population of the entire region was around 80,000 people almost 9,000 died, two thirds of them Indigenous. This was a period of transition in the North American colonies. Virginia and Massachusetts, in particular, had grown significantly in the past 60 years but were not yet the mature colonies that would rebel one hundred years later; the Wampanoag had lost their dominant place in the region, but were not yet a politically or militarily marginalized people. The colonies were experiencing powerful internal tensions and external pressures. Internally, growth had brought about wealth and expansion. That same growth was adding pressure to surrounding indigenous peoples, many of whom determined to push back more forcefully. The result was one of the bloodiest wars ever fought.
Not all of New England’s Indigenous peoples rebelled. Many had converted to Christianity and a few of these “praying Indians” joined the attack (although in several instances that distinction was lost on colonial militias who often killed “Indians” on sight); others had long-standing poor relations with the Wampanoag and saw no reason to change that relationship. Indeed, in the later stages of the war, many Indigenous men fought with the colonists. Though the war was undoubtedly a war between colonisers and colonised, the lines were often blurred.

The causes of King Philip's war continue to be debated. Early accounts portrayed the war as civilised Christians in a struggle against primitive pagans. Though sometimes showing some sympathy for the Wampanoag, the main thrust of the story usually portrayed the settlers as defending themselves from hostile "warlike" peoples. Most of the story, too, centres on the Wampanoag leader Metacom (KIng Philip), typically portraying him as having turned his back on the peaceful relationship his father had struck with the settlers, and thus having betrayed an informal treaty. Others focus on the murder of Sassamon, a Wampanoag man who had converted to Christianity, and thus portraying the story as a savage response to Christianity overtaking their culture. More recent studies have offered a more contextual explanation focusing less on the immediate events that resulted in the outbreak of war and more on the longer-term deterioration of relations. The New Englanders, their populations expanding through high birth-rates and continued immigration, had pushed much more deeply and aggressively into Indigenous territory. 

What marks almost all these accounts, whether sympathetic to the settler or Indigenous perspectives, is that they assume Metacom was the leader of the Wampanoag, and it was his leadership defining the war. That he played a major part, no one disputes. But one recent book by historian Lisa Brooks has uncovered new research that casts wholly new light not only on another leader, but also on a leader who was female. Weetamoo was Metacom's aunt, but more importantly she was a respected leader among a broad group of kin-related Wampanoag peoples. Brooks's examination is grounded in rigorously detailed archival research, and urges us not only to reexamine our assumptions of settlers versus Indigenous cultures, but also to question our assumptions about leadership when the documents so often focus on men. As we've seen in a number of cases already, it's very difficult to see the history of preliterate peoples. Brooks offers us a first glimpse of what it might mean to more effectively assume an Indigenous perspective on settler-colonial stories - a perspective where settler assumptions might actually block us from seeing what really happened. 

Most of King Philip’s War was fought within 50 miles of Boston, but it also spilled over onto northern and western frontiers. This brought in other Indigenous peoples, most of whom were allied with the French in Canada and Acadia. New France has a smaller population than the British colonies, but dominated trade (and therefore military alliances) with many Indigenous peoples in what is now the US Northeast and mid-west (Maine, Vermont, western New York, Michigan, and Ohio). Though not direct players in the early phases of King Philip’s War, the field of battle moved into northern New England in 1677 and 1678, and it began to draw in French allies such as the Abenaki and Mi’kmaq (in what is today Nova Scotia and northern New England). The result was a decades-long frontier battle between French and English colonists and Iroquoian and Algonquian nations. Those continued tension - often small-scale wars - was very much part of the build up to the Seven Years War.

The endless cycle of attack and counterattack is evident in some of our French readings this week. French colonization strategies were quite different than the English. Where the English brought in many settlers to “plant” colonies in the New World, the French strategy was based on trade much more than settlement. Thus, while the English strategy invariably put pressure on Indigenous communities, this was much less so the case with the French.  One major result of these different strategies was that by the late 1600s the English greatly outnumbered the French. Nevertheless, both groups pushed against the frontier, and both were compelled to negotiate, or resist, the complex politics of Indigenous peoples in the interior. The general result was one of tension between the colonies of the two major European powers and among and between their Indigenous allies in America.  While our readings focus on only one region in the late 17th century, those differences and their resulting conflicts, nevertheless, mirror much of the larger story of North American colonization. The defeat of the Wampanoag and their allies would come at a high cost for New England, both in terms of lives lost and the impact on their society and politics. It improved the colonists' security, establishing a base for the colonies' expansion through the 18th century (which we will examine in the next term). It would also, however, bring them into greater conflict with most northern and western Indigenous peoples such as the Abenaki and Mi'kmaq, and eventually with the Iroquois (Haudensaunee) - the dominant Indigenous nation of central North America. In northern New England, the Wabanaki Confederacy - an alliance of Mi'kmaq, Abenaki, Penobscot, and Maliseet peoples, with occasional French support - fought four wars with the Anglo-American settlers of what is now northern Maine and the southern Maritime provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Over the next seventy years a series of smaller wars would be fought along the northern and western frontiers of New England. Of course, the Indigenous peoples of these regions didn't see this territory as English, but as their own. Further to the north, in the French colonies of Canada and Acadia, French colonial forces allied with these Indigenous peoples both for trading purposes and to weaken English efforts to push further inland. These protracted conflicts would culminate in an even larger war, the Seven Years War (1756-83), which would fundamentally reshape colonial and Indigenous North America.

In the historical memory of New England, the war shaped how generations of settlers would understand "the savages" who surrounded them. If some would convert to Christianity and show signs of accommodating to the colonists' ways, others seemed all the more intent to resist and the drive the invaders back into the sea upon which they arrived.  There were several Anglo-Indigenous wars in the 17th and 18th centuries, though none were bigger, and none loomed larger in subsequent generations for what it taught them about Indigenous peoples. In the colonists' histories, Indigenous people were savages that needed to be contained, or crushed. Few stories caught this spirit more powerfully than the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson. Her story, published as a book shortly after the war and republished several times since, illustrated exactly what New England settlers thought about their Indian foes, and about themselves. The Indigenous captors were cruel and primitive; they ate barbarous foods; they engaged in horrendous practices. Mary Rowlandson, on the other hand, was a model of Christian womanhood: an innocent who lost her husband and child in an attack, suffering at the hands of cruel Indians, but kept strong by her Christian faith and noble demeanour. The story, as we'll see, also shows indications of Indigenous kindness, and New England barbarism, but the main elements of the story highlight a just fight against a cruel opponent. The narrative never considers the plight of the Wampanoag, that their people were dying of Europeans diseases, that their land was being taken away, and that New England officials continued to push back after every concession.  For generations afterward, this message for the colonists remained powerful, a clear story of the justice of their actions.

We can see it very differently today, but we should also strive to understand that worldview - to understand what allowed people to believe so firmly in the correctness of their ways. But the war surely does contain in miniature a view of the larger state of settler-Indigenous stories. Not all were so violent, not all so clearly captured the naked ambition of New England colonization, not all were so powerfully and effectively narrated. But no story illuminates more effectively the broader pattern of warfare in securing European holds on the so-called New World.


This week you will practice analyzing the causes of a major set of conflicts. The details will matter here, but the general objective of thinking about causes and consequences in research applies to almost every historical question. Spend a few minutes reading about the general principles of thinking about this aspect of historical thinking by clicking here. The linked page from The Historical Thinking Project is not long, but it is helpful.

Secondary sources

Lisa Brooks, "A New History of King Philip's War", episode 191 of Ben Franklin's World podcast. (2018).

King Philip's War, Wikipedia.

You may wish to peruse Lisa Brooks's book, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip's War (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018).

Primary sources

Read at least three or four of these primary documents. Note the final text is from French territory in what is now northern New England, but it offers a reminder that the war didn't simply end in 1678 and that in many ways it continued further north. 

Pay attention to when each document was written! They can all tell us things about how to understand King Philip's War, but from different contexts. 

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