Dear God, My Ancestors Started a War!?

Sid casual sweater

Sid Burkey serves as elder for his local church, Bellwood Mennonite, in Milford, Nebraska, and as Assistant Moderator for Central Plains Mennonite Conference. He finds joy building hope and creating business solutions to poverty as part of the MEDA board (Mennonite Economic Development Associates). 

Tensions stretched the limits of restraint in early June, 1675, near Swansea, Massachusetts. The Wampanoag confederation, led by Chief Metacomet, (AKA “King Philip”) was uneasily co-existing with the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony. The English “settlers” were squeezing hard, having taken over the coveted villages actually cleared and settled by the Wampanoags. A dark storm brewed as the settlers encroached on more Wampanoag land, seizing fields. Earlier, their villages had been decimated with epidemics of hepatitis and smallpox that the colonists had spread.

By June 18 and 19th, the Wampanoag pushed back, symbolically setting Job Winslow’s house on fire, and looting barns, but not yet shedding English blood.  Then, on June 20th  and 23rd, Hugh Cole’s house south of Swansea and another home were looted and burned along the Kickemuit River—a strong statement that enough was enough.  “Hear us!  Let us live on our land in peace!”  The conflict exploded on June 23rd, when some accounts say a small band of Wampanoag torched another house, (others say looted) this time in Swansea. My 8th great-grandfather, pilgrim William Salisbury, commanded his 20-year- old son, John, (both soldiers in the local militia) to fire his musket at three fleeing Native Americans as they ran away, striking one in the back as he fled.  He died later that day.

A group of Wampanoag came to the Myles Garrison House and asked why the victim had been shot while fleeing, and John dismissively retorted, “It was of no matter”.  Although others in the garrison “tried to let the Indians know that they did not feel so callous about the death”, the Indians were incensed at the senseless shooting and retaliated the next day, ambushing and killing William, John and 5 others—cutting off their heads and displaying them on poles at a place called Keekkauit, near the present Massachusetts-Rhode Island border.

These ancestors from the warring side of my DNA have the sorry place in history as the men who started the King Philips War of 1675 and ‘76. This was the opening shot of the war that ignited a horrible series of escalating atrocities, wholesale slaughter on both sides of the conflict, including the sale of many of the children of the Wampanoag Confederation into slavery. This incident erupted into what some historians call the “region’s bloodiest conflict and the turning point in the contest for control of land throughout New England.”  The human and economic cost of the war was devastating to both sides, but the Wampanoag Native Americans never recovered.  Proportional to population, casualties in this war were “greater than in any other American war”. Only a remnant of about 5000 Wampanoag live today, mainly in Massachusetts—the legacy of William Salisbury, who told his son John to shoot a protestor in the back.  His young son Samuel, age 12 at the time, survived and raised a family–so here I am!

In his intriguing book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, historian James W. Loewen recalled the censored words of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag, who was not allowed to read his speech at the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims.  His honest lament was not heard after the Massachusetts Department of Commerce read the text of his talk. He had written:

“Today is a time of celebrating for you…but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People…The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat and beans… Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts; yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers…little knowing that…before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags…and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them…Although our way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of Massachusetts…What has happened can’t be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America, where people and nature once again are important.”

I wonder what can be learned from those painful experiences. What actions will we be remembered for?  When all is said and done, will it be the sweet fragrance of God’s grace and mercy, or the stench of self-centered greed? I take some solace knowing that on the Mennonite side of my family, my 6th Great-Grandfather, Jacob Hochstetler, reputedly told his sons not to fire as their home was being attacked, citing Jesus call to love. Yet, I am aware that my Pennsylvania Mennonite family also capitalized on the opportunity to “settle” Host Nation lands.  May God forgive us as we learn to live peaceably and honor the great People who lived freely in the centuries before our arrival.