On this day in 1676, warriors from the Nashaway tribe, part of the Wampanoag Nation, sacked Lancaster, Massachusetts, killing the town’s adult males and taking captive its women and children. Mary Rowlandson was among those captured, and she chronicled her ordeal in The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, a narrative extraordinary for its author’s unshakable faith and profound hatred of Indians.
The attack was part of Metcom’s War — named for the Wampanoag sachem also known as King Philip — among the bloodiest conflicts, proportionaly speaking, in American history. The war started in the summer of 1675, after Massachusetts authorities hanged three Wampanoag Indians. The three men had allegedly murdered a collaborator and informant, a convert to Chritianity, who had passed information from within the Wampanoag Nation to colonial officials. Following the hanging, a group of Pokanoket warriors destroyed the settlement of Swansea. Colonists retaliated. The violence then spun out of control, lasting two more years.
As late as the spring of 1676, it seemed that Metacom’s warriors would drive the British colonists from New England. Throughout the month of March, the Wampanoag and their allies stayed on the offensive, attacking Plimoth Plantation, wiping out a force of Massachusetts soldiers, and burning Providence, after Rhode Island’s colonists fell back to Newport. Eventually, though, the tribes ran low on food and weapons. The colonists regrouped, resupplied, and finally won the war. Approximately 650 colonists and 3,000 Indians had died during the fighting. And in the wake of the conflict, hundreds of Metacom’s people and allies were either executed or sold into slavery in Bermuda. Colonists forced others onto reservations.
Elements of Metacom’s War echo throughout the so-called Indian wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: settlers’ land hunger, coupled with cultural prejudices, fueled by incompatable resource regimes and antithetical conceptions of property rights, sparked violence, until, eventually, Euro-Americans wiped indigenous people from the map or, if not that, forced them onto reservations. If historians aren’t careful, this oft-repeated narrative begins to carry a whiff of inevitability. Perhaps not quite Manifest Destiny, but a teleology forced upon us by hindsight and the familiary of the story. Metacom’s War, though, remains instructive. Because not only could it have ended differently, but it nearly did.