The Contradictions Behind America’s Oldest July Fourth Celebration

From the July 5, 2022 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, by Ben Railton Bristol is intertwined with the even more foundational American history of violence through its role in the brutal late 17th century conflict between the English and the Wampanoag known as King Philip’s War. Long before English settlers arrived in the region, it was a particularly sacred homeland for the Pokanoket Tribe: named by the Pokanoket as Montaup (Mount Hope in English), these thousands of acres on the shores of Narragansett Bay were the social and spiritual heart of the area known as Sowams. Pokanoket chief Massasoit was the leader who greeted the Mayflower arrivals in 1620 and signed an important peace treaty with them the following year, and his son Metacomet (King Philip) would make Mount Hope his social and military base of operations, featuring the rocky ledge known as “King Philip’s Chair.”

King Philip’s War was caused by numerous historical and cultural factors, and over nearly 14 devastating months its battles and other prominent events would span much of New England. But at its heart, the war represented a desperate attempt by Metacomet and the Pokanoket to respond to the increasing English incursions onto their tribal and sacred lands like Mount Hope. In the early days of Plymouth Plantation its Governor William Bradford learned that the Pokanoket land “had the richest soil, and much open ground fit for English grain,” and for the next half-century English settlers from Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay colony in Boston, and elsewhere would gradually take more and more of that land in fraught “sales” that too often seemed to reflect swindling of natives. By the time Metacomet became the tribal chief in 1666, virtually all of the land surrounding Mount Hope Neck was English property.

Both King Philip’s War and Metacomet’s life would end in Bristol, not far from his Chair. On August 12, 1876, Metacomet and a band of warriors were ambushed at Mount Hope, and he was murdered by English soldier Caleb Cook and Pocasset warrior John Alderman, a Native American working with the English. The English would then brutally mutilate Metacomet’s corpse: quartering his body, mounting his skull on a pole near Plymouth Plantation, and sending his lower jaw bone to Boston for public viewing. The site of Metacomet’s murder is preserved deep in the Bristol woods near Mount Hope Farm, as is the ledge that served as his Chair, both significant historical landmarks that are far too easily overlooked, both part of lands that the Pokanoket continue to claim sacred stewardship over here in the 21st century.