Review: Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity

Sunday, December 20, 1998 - 12:00pm

This review was published in the Chicago Tribune Book Review on December 20, 1998.

"Our Indian Wars are not over yet." — Cotton Mather, 1692

Several times every day, a fast ferry plows the waters between New London, Conn., and the eastern tip of Long Island's North Fork. One might expect that these ferries would be filled with day-trippers escaping the gritty old mill towns of southern New England for eastern Long Island's pristine beaches and scenic wineries. But no; the boats are nearly empty on the south-bound trip. All the pilgrims are headed north, to one of two booming tribal casinos in the Connecticut hills: Foxwoods, run by the Mashantucket Pequots, and Mohegan Sun, on tribal lands held by the Mohegan nation.

This particular turn of history's wheel will surprise those who assume New England's native peoples were obliterated in the first decades of European colonization. To understand the survival and revival of these two tribes, it helps to know that, during New England's most bitter Indian conflict, King Philip's War (1675-76), the Pequots and Mohegans fought alongside the British colonists against Wampanoags, Nipmucks, Narragansetts, and other northeastern Algonquian tribes led by the Wampanoag sachem, Philip (originally, Metacom). King Philip's War was one of the bloodiest ever fought on American soil, producing more casualties, as a percent of total population, than any war in our history. In little more than a year, Indian attacks laid waste to twenty-five English towns, more than half of all the colonists' settlements, pushing the New England frontier back to the Atlantic coast. In pursuit, colonial armies with their Indian allies killed thousands of enemy Indians, decimated their villages leaving many to starve or die of disease, and shipped hundreds of survivors into slavery in the West Indies. As Jill Lepore demonstrates in her fascinating and suggestive study, The Name of War, King Philip's War was a defining experience for both British colonists and Native American peoples in New England and would become a template for the centuries-long contest between Europeans and Indians over control of the continent and the evolving nature of American identity.

Lepore, an assistant professor of history at Boston University, tells a complex and layered story--a history of the conflict itself but, more centrally, a reading of the many accounts King Philip's War produced: "This is a study of war, and of how people write about it. Writing about war can be almost as difficult as waging it and, often enough, is essential to winning it." What interests Lepore here are twice-told tales: narratives in which the battles for territory, sovereignty, and cultural domination are fought, again and again, with words. The Name of War is, in part, a compelling account of some of the events of the war itself--or at least of what we think happened, based on written accounts produced by colonial authors for consumption by readers in old and New England. It is also a provocative meditation on the words of war and their effects on authority and memory. Indeed, Lepore draws her title from the semantic battle waged in the 1670s about what to call the ongoing bloodletting. War, to William Hubbard, minister of Ipswich, Mass., and one of the conflict's first chroniclers, involved "Acts of Hostility or valiant Achievements," while these "Massacres, barbarous inhumane Outrages . . . no more deserve the Name of a War than the Report of them the Title of an History".

In telling her version of this story, Lepore constantly reminds the reader about the nature of storytelling itself, and about the partial and partisan nature of memory and history. She is remarkably adept at keeping these layers discrete and writes theoretically informed cultural history with unusual grace and wit.

Her approach does raise interpretive dilemmas, however, by focusing less on what we know than how (we think) we know it. Recounting a conflict in which almost every piece of documentary evidence presents the British version of the war and its meanings--from a conflict in which literacy itself signified Englishness--Lepore seeks to reconstruct what the Indians might have thought from the tantalizing fragments of information contemporary chroniclers and modern historians and anthropologists have gathered. She ponders the immediate causes of these hostilities: the apparent murder of John Sassamon, a Christian Indian minister who had warned Plymouth's governor of rumors of war among Philip's Wampanoags; the Plymouth Court's prosecution of three Wampanoags for Sassamon's murder (two were executed, a third survived a botched hanging); and Philip's ensuing attacks on English towns. She questions the Puritan colonists' expressed bewilderment about the Indians' motives--their tendency to understand disaster as divinely ordained punishment for their own transgressions: "If the English had examined the Algonquian actions not as signs from God but as signs from Indians, they might have seen a great deal about Algonquian motives." She wonders why the English persisted in seeing themselves as victims of Indian aggression, though, as she describes, Philip's Wampanoags and their Nipmuck and Narragansett allies plainly initiated this offensive: "Much as most colonists denied it, Algonquian attacks and Algonquian tortures were not random or arbitrary. On the contrary, they were deliberate and deeply symbolic." She makes much of the ritual significance for native peoples of certain acts of warfare--capture, torture and maiming the dead--while the same acts, when committed by the English, seem simply capricious and cruel.

Though Lepore acknowledges the risk that such historical reconstruction poses--that is, the powerful temptation to romanticize the vanquished--she reads these events and narratives, as anyone writing now must, with full knowledge of how this story will end. In retrospect, it is nearly irresistible to see King Philip's War as a struggle in which Indian victims rose up in futile rebellion against triumphal English conquerors who only understood the language of blood. But for all our modern sympathy for the Indians' plight, seeing the British victory as inevitable blunts the uncertainty and terror on both sides during this brutal conflict. In 1675, no one knew who would "[escape] to tell the news" and the difference between words and wounds was all too evident. Reading backwards, however, what were once anxious dispatches from the front have become sentimental legends of the fall.

In a fascinating coda to her main narrative, Lepore describes the origins of the American romance with the vanishing "noble savage" during the centuries after King Philip's War, a romance that flourished even as the conquest of the continent and warfare with native peoples continued. The astonishing popularity of captivity narratives--first and most famously, Mary Rowlandson's The Soveraignty & Goodness of God(1682)--may be the earliest indication we have of this peculiar marriage of nostalgia and contempt. The English captives told cautionary tales of their own desolation and deliverance from their Indian captors. But the throngs of readers who made these narratives our earliest best sellers discovered sensational accounts of survival, enlightenment, and redemption in the American wilderness, the Indians' domain. By the 1830s and 40s, Lepore persuasively shows, American audiences would cheer famed actor Edwin Forrest's performance as a heroically dying King Philip in the long-running hit play, Metamora; or, the Last of the Wampanoags(1829). At the same moment, most Americans would endorse President Andrew Jackson's ordered removal of all remaining Indians to lands west of the Mississippi. What can account for white Americans' ability to sustain two such contradictory views? And what does this contradiction tell us about that elusive character, American identity?

To answer these questions, Lepore invokes Crevecoeur's famous query in 1782, as the thirteen Colonies won their independence from Britain: "What then is the American, this new man?" If seventeenth Century Puritan New Englanders had equated the Indians with savagery and degeneration, eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans could imagine "distinguishing themselves from Europeans and European culture, and particularly from all that was English, . . . becom[ing] American by becoming Indian." In Lepore's account, by the mid-19th Century, the Indians became a symbol not just for that which was uniquely American, but also for that which was uniquely natural, virile, masculine.

As Lepore understands, this absorption of the noble Indian into the rhetoric of American identity depended on the disappearance of actual Indians from the local landscape. New Englanders were especially wont to mourn the Indians' passing while accepting its tragic inevitability. By the mid-nineteenth Century, they too knew how this story would turn out. In one sense, these heirs to the Puritan combatants of King Philip's War had "escaped to tell the news," and tell it in a way that made their victory seem providential.

In another sense, however, asThe Name of War demonstrates, we still struggle to escape the web of words in which the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and Nipmucks live on as shadowy figures, metaphors infused with hopes and fears that have less to do with them than with us. As the tourists line up to buy "personal wampum cards" to play the slots at Foxwoods--some twenty miles down the coast from Mt. Hope, where Philip was shot beheaded and quartered in 1676--perhaps Cotton Mather was right: our Indian wars are not over yet.