Competition among the ‘war writers’

"Mike's Booknotes" looks at the literary aftermath of "King Philip's War."

In the winter of 1675, John Sassamon hiked over a dozen miles through the snow in order to reach Plymouth, the main Puritan settlement of New England. Sassamon was a member of the Wampanoag Indian tribe, and he had stumbled upon a horrible secret. The leader of the Wampanoag people, Metacomet, was planning to eradicate the Puritan settlers at Plymouth.

Metacomet — whom the New England settlers called King Philip — had just inherited his position after his father, Massasoit, passed away. Although Massasoit had saved the lives of the first settlers off of the Mayflower, he ended up surrendering most the Wampanoag’s land to them.

His son intended to get it all back.

John Sassamon faced two obstacles that fateful day: the first was the settlers at Plymouth didn’t believe him — they were wary and distrustful of Native Americans. The second obstacle was Metacomet himself. He had somehow learned of Sassamon’s betrayal, and had him killed when he returned.

Learning of Sassamon’s murder, the New Englanders rounded up three of Metacomet’s closest councillors, and hung them in retaliation. In response, the Wampanoag launched a series of raids on smaller villages, before Metacomet ordered a full scale attack.

What would become known as “King Philip’s War” lasted 14 months, destroying much of New England and its male population. Largely forgotten today, King Philip’s War remains the bloodiest and most horrific war ever to take place in America; eclipsing both the American Revolution and the Civil War.

In the middle of this war, the Puritan settlers did what they did best: they wrote about it. And wrote about it.  By the war’s end, dozens of publications appeared, most going through numerous printings. Some were written anonymously; some were written by committees. None were written from the Wampanoag point of view.

One of the first persons to write a book about the war was Increase Mather — a Puritan minister and one of the more prominent citizens of New England.  Yet while he was writing his book, Nathaniel Saltonstall’s “Present State of New-England with Respect to the Indian War” appeared. This was followed by Edward Warton’s “New England’s Present Sufferings,” and then by Peter Folger’s “A Looking Glasse for the Times.” By the time his “A Brief History of the War with the Indians in New-England” appeared, more than a dozen books describing the war were already in print.

While these books incensed him to no end, he was more than pleased to have beaten William Hubbard to publication. Hubbard was a Puritan minister and Mather’s main rival for the spiritual leadership of New England. Mather was obsessed with discrediting his competition. Beating him to publication was a major coup.

A short lived one. That winter a London bookseller had returned all of Mather’s books to him; they weren’t selling. Hubbard had created so much buzz about his forthcoming book, no one in Europe wanted to read anything else; even though it had yet to be published. Mather was horrified. He quickly wrote two more books after Hubbard’s did appear. “A Relation of the Troubles” and “An Historical Discourse” both appeared in 1678. With three books to Hubbard’s one, Mather felt assured he would be the most popular author of the war.

All this became moot though, five years after the war’s end (Philip was shot and killed in 1676 by a fellow Wampanoag). “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God” was published in 1682, and it was drastically unlike all books previously published. It was written by a woman.  Mary Rowlandson, the wife of yet another Puritan minister, had been taken captive by the Wampanoag during the war. “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God,” was the account of her captivity, and was so popular it had to be reprinted four times in less than a year. Both Europeans and New Englanders couldn’t get enough of it, and it became America’s first bestseller.

One can almost hear Increase Mather’s screams.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library