On this date in 1676, the assassination of Metacom — known to New England colonists as King Philip — brought some measure of finality to a war that had been, at least as a practical matter, over for several months. As Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy, Metacom had organized a fearsome series of assaults against the English frontier beginning in the summer of 1675. Motivated by the completely sensible wish to drive the nettlesome European settlers into the sea, Metacom was also eager to reshape the balance of Indian power in the region and reverse a half-century of economic and political decline. Originally allied with the Plymouth colony, the sixty or so groups that comprised the confederacy had endured the gradual erosion of territory and cultural autonomy; as the Massachusetts colony evolved, its Puritan leaders pressed farther into Wampanoag land. The beneficiaries of this expansion included the Mohegan — a traditional rival — and the Iroquois confederacy, which menaced the Wampanoag from the west.

During the early 1670s, Metacom quietly recruited allies among the Narragansett, Nipmuck, and Pocumtuck among other tribes, urging them to retake their lands before it was too late. The plot nearly succeeded, as the Wampanoag and their allies came closer than any American Indian group ever would to eliminating the English from their midst. From July 1675 through March 1676, the Wampanoag and their allies pulverized the western towns and farming villages of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. More than half of the 90 English settlements were destroyed; Providence, abandoned by its terrified denizens, was reduced to ash. Avenging themselves against their historic English allies, the Wampanoag struck Plymouth in March 1676, A colonial counter-offensive — including a massacre at Great Swamp in Rhode Island — disrupted the Indian campaign, while assistance from the Pequot, Mohegan, and Mohawk deprived the Wampanoag of access to supplies and food. This proved to be one of several decisive factors in the eventual English victory. By late spring and summer of 1676, the Wampanoag were effectively defeated. On August 12, Metacom himself was shot to death at Mt. Hope, Rhode Island. His body was dismembered and his head donated as a trophy to the town of Plymouth, were it was hoisted on a pike and displayed to the public for two decades. The fate of the Wampanoag was extraordinary — survivors scattered throughout the region, while captives were executed or sold off to Enlgish sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Metacom’s War was renowned for its almost unfathomable brutality. Hundreds of colonists and an even greater number of Indians — combatants and civilians alike — were tortured, mutilated and killed in the most extravagant ways. Even more than a struggle over land and power, it became for the English a race war, a campaign of elimination that carried God’s blessing. Upon hearing news of the Great Swamp massacre, where more than 600 Indians perished, Cotton Mather rejoiced at the “barbeque” and thanked the Lord for unburdening the world of so many devils. English soldiers later recounted their delight at discovering packs of famished stragglers, whose torture and execution they luxuriously described in private letters and public accounts. As the conflict progressed, the interior “Praying Towns” — consisting of Christianized (and segregated) Indians who adopted the language and culture of their colonial mentors — were evacuated and relocated to the coast. For generations to come, New Englanders assigned blame for the war to the schemes of a ”fifth column” of treasonous, Christian Indians. The war reinforced English racial ideology, which insisted that savages could never be successfully absorbed, no matter how earnest the effort.

The war also generated a renewable sense of English preference in the eyes of God. Unable to conceive of themselves as real-world aggressors, the settlers of New England convinced themselves that the Indian war was an affliction sent by God to chasten them for their spiritual errors — their high self-regard, their attachment to worldly possessions, their abandonment of righteous living. A gesture of paternal tough love, the war was seen as having rejuvenated English identity; it was not, in other words, taken as a geopolitical lesson on the consequences of empire. This interpretation of the conflict was articulated most famously by a minister’s wife named Mary Rowlandson, who was forced to join the “murderous wretches” and “merciless heathens” after her village of Lancaster was sacked in February 1676. As Rowlandson explained it in her famous captivity narrative, which has been in near-constant republication since the war’s end:

It is good for me that I have been afflicted. The Lord hath showed me the vanity of these outward things; that they are the Vanities of vanities, and vexation of spirit. That they are but a shadow a blast a bubble and things of no continuance If trouble from smaller matter begin to arise in me, I have something at hand to check myself with, and say, Why am I troubled? It was but the other day, that if I had had the world, I would have given it for my freedom, or to have been a servant to a Christian. I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles and to be quieted under them, as Moses said, Exod. xiv. 13. Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.