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The Bloodiest War

The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity

by Jill Lepore
Knopf, 337 pp., $30.00

One of the most important consequences of the upheaval in the writing of American history that has taken place over the past generation has been the new attention paid to the Indians. A century ago historians of early America scarcely acknowledged their existence. In the opening paragraphs of his essay in the first issue of the American Historical Review in 1895 Frederick Jackson Turner set forth his entire frontier thesis for understanding the origins of the United States, and the Indians had no place in it. For Turner, the New World that the Europeans came to in the seventeenth century was “virgin soil,” an “unexploited wilderness” out of which American distinctiveness was born. Indeed, wrote Turner, it was “the fact of unoccupied territory in America that sets the evolution of American and European institutions in contrast.”1

No historian of early America would write that way anymore. Through the efforts of a squadron of scholars, the Indians have now made their presence felt in early America. During the past several decades works dealing with the native peoples of North America in the colonial period have multiplied dramatically. Since the 1960s the William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in the field of early American history, has increased its publication of articles on Indians five-fold. Some of the best historians in the United States have been turning to the indigenous peoples as a subject of research, and books on Indians in early America have begun winning prestigious prizes.

Some of this recent interest in the native peoples of America has grown out of the natural tendencies of young scholars in the historical profession to look for new and fresh topics for research. Others, like Daniel Richter, see in the history of the Indians an excellent means of challenging “people to stand outside their comfortable… assumptions and to learn unpleasant lessons from their study of the past.” A historian of this sort sees himself or herself as “a critic of culture” whose principal task is “to illuminate conditions of the present by casting a harsh light on previous experience,” something not all that hard to do in the case of the Indians.2

But perhaps most important in explaining this new interest in the Indians of early America have been the changing perspectives that many recent historians have brought to bear on America’s colonial past. Early American historians today are not as interested in explaining the origins of America’s peculiar national character as they used to be. Many of them have lost confidence in the traditional belief that the United States has a collective identity with common origins and have begun to look at early American history from vantage points beyond the nation, seeing in America’s colonial past something other than the beginnings of the United States. Louis Hartz a generation ago saw what such a changed perspective might mean for Americans’ conception of the Indian. The neglect of the Indian, he wrote, derived solely from the “interior perspectives” of historians like Frederick Jackson Turner. Since it was the fate of America as a nation “to destroy and exclude the Indian, life inside it has had a dwindling contact with him. How could he then be perceived? How could he be appreciated as a problem comparable to the rise of the ‘common man’ or the emergence of the trusts?” But of course, said Hartz, once American historians get outside the narrow confines of the nation, “the very fact that the Indian was thus eliminated…becomes a matter of very great importance.”3

Most historians today deny that “the Indian” was ever in fact eliminated, but all would agree that the Indian’s story has not been as well integrated into American history as it might have been. Until recently the Indians—when written about at all—have been treated as a side issue in frontier history or given only walk-on roles in the larger drama of American history. Rarely have they been seen as central participants in American history, even when, as in the seventeenth century, they dominated much of the landscape. Although some Indian scholars, like Calvin Martin, doubt that Western-style historical methods can ever accurately convey the Indians’ past, many other Indian historians, like James Merrell, believe that a blending of ethnology and history can do the job. For the writing of Indian history, says Merrell, historians need only “borrow freely from other disciplines and examine all sorts of evidence to give voice to the historically silent.”4 But not just to the historically silent. It turns out that the voices of the historically loquacious, like the Puritans of early New England, can benefit as well from freewheeling, multidisciplinary scholarship. Jill Lepore’s fascinating book on King Philip’s War is a product of just such imaginative, wide-ranging scholarship.

Although King Philip’s War is the most bloody and destructive war in the history of all the American people, it began simply enough. In late January 1675, John Sassamon, a Christian Indian who had recently warned the colonists in New England of a possible Indian uprising, died in mysterious circumstances. Three Wampanoags close to Philip, the Wampanoag ruler, were tried for the murder of Sassamon and found guilty, and in June 1675 they were executed by Plymouth Colony. The executions touched off Indian attacks on English settlements that quickly escalated into a ferocious conflict that spread throughout large parts of southern New England. By the time Philip was shot fourteen months later, in August 1676, thousands of people had been killed, both English and natives.

Indeed, the war inflicted greater casualties in proportion to population than any other war in American history. By August 1676 twenty-five English towns, more than half of all the English communities in New England, had been destroyed, and the line of English settlement had been pushed back almost to the coast. A half-century of English efforts to colonize New England was nearly wiped out. The Indian losses were even greater. Not only were thousands killed by war, starvation, or disease, but thousands more were sold to the West Indies as slaves. Even Christian Indians who had been loyal to the English were not spared. Most were removed from their “praying towns” and imprisoned on barren islands, where many died of cold and hunger. King Philip’s War, concludes Lepore, “proved to be not only the most fatal war in all of American history but also one of the most merciless.”

Lepore’s book is not a conventional narrative history of the war.5 To be sure, it contains a four-page chronology of the war and here and there dwells on particular incidents during it. But the book neither tells the story of the war nor tries to analyze systematically its causes and consequences. Instead, Lepore, who is assistant professor of history at Boston University, has written a meditation on the war, a series of reflections and speculations on what the war meant not only for the English and the Indians of the seventeenth century but also for their heirs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If there can be such a thing as postmodern history, perhaps this book can be best understood as an example of it. In the new postmodern world historians do not recount events and tell stories. Instead, they muse and ponder over the stories and accounts of events that others have told, or, as in the case of the Indians, have not told. In Lepore’s history the writing about the war became as important as the waging of it. As she says, “War is a contest of words as much as it is a contest of wounds.”

In this sort of postmodern history, culture becomes everything and political, social, and economic forces do not count for much. Lepore never really explains why the Indians rose up in rebellion when they did. She tells us nothing about the development of the Puritans’ economy in the several decades of settlement preceding the war and never mentions the extent to which the English were exploiting Indian labor, in many cases bonded Indian labor. Nor does she emphasize the fact that this was not a war of whites against Indians but one in which whites and their Indian allies fought Indians; indeed, on a per capita basis more Indian than Puritan soldiers fought to put down Philip’s rebellion.

Instead of composing a traditional historical account of the war, Lepore reflects on the ways people wrote about it. Hers is a history sparing of events but rich in imagination, in moral ruminations about the meaning and justice of war, and in literary and cultural theory. Indeed, rarely has a work of history stressed the dependence of reality on texts as much as this one. Lepore is less interested in happenings than in their symbolic meaning. Metaphors and images overwhelm simple statements of fact, and nothing is as it may seem on the surface. Because Lepore believes that King Philip’s War was very much about language and suggests many sorts of allegories, in some sense, she says, it has never ended. “In other times, in other places, its painful wounds would be reopened, its vicious words spoken again.”

Lepore spends a half-dozen pages in the preface explaining why she calls the conflict “King Philip’s War.” This is no easy matter, since that title is, as scholars say these days, much “contested.” Some think it should be called a “Puritan Conquest.” Others want to call it “Metacom’s Rebellion,” which more accurately refers to Philip by his Algonquian name and properly celebrates Indian resistance. Besides, Philip was not a king but a sachem. “War” is the most disputed of the terms. Even some of the Eng-lish colonists, as the Puritan historian William Hubbard declared in 1677, thought that the “Massacres” and “barbarous inhumane Outrages” of the conflict were too base and ignoble to deserve “the Name of a War.” As a recognition of “the importance of language” in understanding war, Lepore has used Hubbard’s phrase as a title for her “own set of words about war.”

Lepore divides her book into four parts—“Language,” “War,” “Bondage,” and “Memory”—which define her themes of analysis and meditation.

Part One examines why so many colonists wrote so much about King Philip’s War while New England’s Algonquians wrote so little…. Part Two traces how boundaries were drawn during King Philip’s War, both on the physical landscape and on the landscapes of the human body, and how the war’s cruelties were explained and justified by both sides, especially in religious terms. Part Three contrasts New Englanders’ differing experiences of bondage during the war: captivity, confinement, slavery. Last, Part Four analyzes how subsequent generations of Americans have remembered King Philip’s War, most notably through Metamora; or, the Last of the Wampanoags, a wildly popular play that was performed in theaters across America in the 1830s and 1840s.

Lepore begins her book with the Reverend William Hubbard’s graphic account of a captured Narragansett Indian being tortured by some Mohegan Indians, who were allies of the English in the war. As Englishmen watched, the Mohegans formed a great circle around the Narragansett and then slowly cut off each of his fingers and toes, forcing him all the while to sing and dance, and then they broke his legs, before finally knocking out his brains. Lepore devotes much space to this gruesome scene, analyzing its implications. She correctly points out that the English prided themselves on their gentleness in contrast to the cruel Spanish and that some of them worried constantly about degenerating into savagery. Nevertheless, without any evidence from Hubbard’s account—indeed, Hubbard specifically says that the English were “not delighted in blood”—Lepore somehow convinces herself that the English spectators found the suffering of the tortured Indian “sublimely satisfying.”

  1. 1

    Frederick Jackson Turner, “Western State-Making in the Revolutionary Era,” American Historical Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (October 1895), pp. 70-72.

  2. 2

    Daniel Richter, “Whose Indian History?” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. 50, No. 2 (April 1993), p. 388.

  3. 3

    Louis Hartz, The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia (Harcourt, Brace, 1964), p. 94.

  4. 4

    James H. Merrell, “Some Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. 46, No. 1 (January 1989), p. 114.

  5. 5

    The best traditional history of the war is forty years old: Douglas Edward Leach, Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip’s War (Macmillan, 1958).

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