Would You Pay To See King Philip’s Hand In A Jar?

This is a bizarre question to ask, isn’t it?

One cannot say that fault solely belongs to the Native Indians for the King Philip’s War. The conflict was a collision of cultures. The two sides didn’t understand one another. In many ways, happened then, students of history have seen before, have seen repeated, is seeing occur in the present, and will no doubt witness in the future.

There were examples of racism, slavery, hunger for land and natural resources, rejection of another people’s culture, and religious intolerance.

Phillip, also known as Metacom by his native Native Indian name, tried to keep the peace. Multitudes of settlers were coming to the New World. This new generation also broke the Pilgrim’s promise not to convert any Indians to the Christian faith. His people were rapidly running out of land on which to live, food, and resources from which to survive, and their very way of life was in danger.

The English had the firm conviction that they had the divine right to develop the land of the New World. They felt, as it is written in the Bible, that this new world was to the promised to them as the land of Israel was promised to the Israelites by God. It did not matter that it was preoccupied with other people. These humans were uncivilized. They were “Godless savages”. Even if an effort were to be made to Christianize them, they would always be a “lesser race” made to be subjected to the English Crown. And as colonies of the Crown, that subjugation should be extended to them.

This subjugation would include the observance of English Law and puritan societal norms. The colonies were aggressively pursuing expansion for new settlements. Some of this expansion was illegal and obtained by deception. When the Natives tried to seek satisfaction and protection legally, the courts tended to side unfairly with the English parties due to the way the documentation was written. If it was written down, it was legal. English settlers allowed their animals to wander onto Native lands and graze, often destroying their crops. They would then erect fences and walls at the new imagined boundaries, thus extending their territory. They would find some other Native to sign a new deed. Since the average Native did not have an understanding of the concept of land ownership, land speculation was rampant. If a sachem was in debt or punished, thus needing to meet some condition, if terms could not be met, and would be forfeited. Philip and other leaders who wished to maintain the peace had no choice but to accept. This extortion and other perceived crimes against their sovereignty led to the eventual breakdown of the friendship with the English established by his father, Massasoit. He felt that it meant the survival of his people if even if it meant that he needed to ally himself with traditional tribal enemies.

In the first year of the war, Philip and his allies terrorized the colonies and enjoyed great success. They knew the land. They sweep into the farms and settlements like a wind of fire and death, and then they would blend into the trees where the English militia could not follow on their horses. Philip was brilliant with tactics that he and other leaders that led the English into many ambushes. Fearful of not knowing when an attack may come, settlers abandoned their homes within twenty miles of Boston and Plymouth. Even large settlements such as Providence, Rhode Island, and Springfield were not immune to attack. twelve communities would be destroyed or severely damaged.

Even today, the conflict is still considered to be the bloodiest and most costly conflict per conflict in North American History. At the time of King Philip’s War, the population of New England had around 65,000 settlers. During the conflict, the English suffered approximately 1.5% of its population. The Native tribes were significantly more affected as the tide of war turned against them, forcing them to abandon their villages, go on the run and eventually become hunted like animals. Hundreds of them would be executed or sold as slavery, and then shipped to English molasses plantations in Barbados.

Events would occur which would forever change the course of history.

The mohawks attacked Philip and killed a significant number of his warriors, which changed Philip’s plans for driving the English out of their lands. Philip retreated to the ancient stronghold on Mount Wachusett in Central Massachusetts. Philip had to be more selective with his targets. Food and ammunition were running out. Winter was setting in. Philip also had to concern himself with the women and children that had sought refuge with him. This, added with English hostages, slowed him down.

Another factor that worked against Philip was that the English changed their tactics. With the help of Indian allies, they learned Indian tactics and how to move and track in the woods. Philip was dogged by these “Ranger” militia.

In the summer of 1676, Philip continued his guerilla attacks, inflicted additional damage, but his forces were dwindling. Boston had offered amnesty to all natives who turned themselves in, and that only the leaders would receive punishment. Many left, knowing that defeat was inevitable. For the rest, they would fight for their sachem to the bitter end. Philip knew that it was time for him to make his escape from Wachusett and return to his home in the swamps surrounding the area of what is now Tiverton, Rhode Island.

Benjamin Church and his rangers, accompanied by thirty friendly Wampanoag Indians. One of these Indians was John Alderman, or “Antoquan”. He was a lesser-sachem and had once been close to Philip. But he changed sides when his brother was killed by Philip during a disagreement. So, he had a grudge. He offered his services to track Philip down.

On August 12, 1676, Philip, after having spent several days running, he had to rest for the night. Alderman found Benjamin Church and told him that Philip was south of Mount Hope, in the middle of a swamp. Church had to act before Philip moved deeper into the swamp, where it would be difficult to follow.

Leaving the horses behind, Church decided to not follow the trails but to travel the waterways and by foot. As Alderman guided them to Philip’s camp, the sun had already set. They spent most of the night in canoes, creeping into the area. At the approach of midnight, they found Philip’s camp. Philip and his followers were asleep from exhaustion.

The English surrounded the camp. Church instructed his men to crawl on their hands and knees to avoid detection as they got into position. He positioned his force behind trees and rocks in a small circle around the camp as Philip slept on the ground. He also placed a second surrounding circle and further positions of men further out to catch any fleeing natives that would make any attempt to flee.

At first light, the sound of muskets and smoke and shot filled the camp as the English sprang their trap. The scene was utter chaos as the English rushed into the camp. The fight had become a desperate struggle of hand to hand combat. Indians that escaped the initial charge were captured or picked off by the second ring of Church’s men.

Philip sought for an opening for escape. Before he could flee he stood face to face with Ben Church, musket pistol drawn. Church ordered Philip to surrender. For a moment the two men stared at each other. Church cocked his pistol, Philip still refusing to surrender.

Benjamin Church was a conflicted man. He was a dedicated soldier to the English cause, but he was also a firm believer that there could be peaceful existence between the English and the Indians. In fact, he had built his home in Rhode Island nearby to native settlements and had befriended several of them. He disagreed with policies and treatment they forced the natives to endure. At the start of the war, Church was an advocate of the use “friendly Indians” as scouts intermingled with English forces, but because of racist views his superiors refused to allow the use of “savages”.

This was a defining moment for both men. This was Philip’s chance to end the conflict. He had fought to protect his people and their way of life.

Philip once stated, “I am determined not to live until I have no country.”

The die had been cast. Church pulled the trigger, but the powder to his pistol had become damp and it misfired.

A shot then rang out. Philip was struck in the heart by two bullets. It is said that he stood for a moment in shock before he slumped and fell dead in the swamp’s muck. Lowering his weapon, John Alderman stepped out from behind a nearby tree, satisfied that his double-packed shot avenged his brother’s death.

The battle having been won, the remaining followers either lay dead with their leader or surrendered.

Church ordered that Philip’s body be quartered and hung on trees as punishment for all the English victims that he left in his wake.

“Forasmuch as he has caused many an Englishman’s body to lie unburied and rot above the ground, not one of his bones shall be buried.”

Church gave Philip’s head and one of his hands to Alderman as a reward for being the man who killed the mastermind of the war. Alderman sold the head to Plymouth for 30 shillings, and they stuck the head on long stake atop the fort on Burial Hill for twenty years.

Alderman preserved the hand in a jar of rum and made a living after the war for many years by showing the hand as an oddity for a few pieces of silver.

So, what is the big deal about the hand? Anybody could stick a hand in a jar and claim that it was Philip’s hand. However, Philip had a unique hand scarred from a pistol that had misfired and exploded in his hand. This was a known fact amongst the settlers of New England. In comparison, this would be like someone selling personal items of Tom Brady on eBay today. Despite the fear and carnage that Philip left behind, he was a celebrity.

Three hundred forty-four years later, if this jar had found itself in a museum, people would still pay to view it. Or worse, years ago it may have ended up in a side show. The sad thing is that there are many, many fakes out there. But for the legitimate items we lose the history behind them. We lose the items in obscurity. But we still have an oblivious curiosity about an object if it seems different, or if we know that it was owned by a famous person. And the bizarre thing is, we will reach into our pockets and pay to see them.

The dollars get your foot in the door. I ask that you be open to the experience. I know that for some going to a museum is like being dragged into a dentist’s office. Read the cards and displays near the objects that describe the objects or give you some background history. You may gain more interest once we place things in a historical context.

Who knows? You may even want to find out what ever happened to the other hand. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Would You Pay To See King Philip’s Hand In A Jar?

  1. Can an ancient stronghold on Mount Wachusett in Central Massachusetts exist for a European during the time of the colonisation of North America? Wouldn’t it be a relatively new stronghold at the time, even if it’d been abandoned?

    I don’t think I’d pay to see just one hand in a jar, but if it was a full collection of anatomy parts in jars, then take my money


    1. It wasn’t a strong hold in the European sense of the word. I actually live nearby. Mount Wachusett is not a big mountain like in New Hampshire or Vermont, but it is large enough to ski. https://www.wachusett.com/The-Mountain/About-Wachusett/Trail-Map.aspx

      Having hiked Wachusett myself many times, the trails feel more like a very steep and rocky hill in which in spots you have to grab on to young trees to pull yourself up. One can only imagine what English captives, like Mary Rowlandson went through after having endured miles of trekking through deep wooded trails, rivers, and swamps.

      The stronghold itself comprised a series of skirmishers monitoring the approaches and the camp itself consisted of the party’s wigwams. The party considered warriors, women and children. There may have been some defenses made from the surrounding forest, but it would be nothing permanent. The nature of Philip/Metacom’s war against the English was that he was always on the move and could attack and easily blend into the forest.

      The term “stronghold” was given by the English. This location was a meeting place where many parties could gather from their campaigns and receive instructions from Philip. Only toward the end of the war were the English able to follow and track the natives. The English stuck to the roads and trails on horseback, or marched in lines. The natives were able to seemingly appear from no where from their flanks, often decimating their numbers and disappear where the English could follow.


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