Native American Executions on Boston Common
In 1676, white Bostonians executed more than 50 Native Americans for their participation in the conflict known as King Philip’s War. These hangings and shootings took place at the open area in the heart of the town, now known as the Boston Common, at or near the large oak commonly used for public executions. The executions were retribution for a two-year conflict between followers of Wampanoag sachem King Philip, also known as Metacom, and colonists in New England and their Native American allies. The executions were the culmination of one of the most brutal conflicts in the history of the American colonies and the subsequent United States.
Tensions between colonists and Wampanoags had mounted in the early 1670s, as Indians became frustrated with colonists’ attempts to convert tribal members to Christianity. Native Americans also objected to colonists’ interference with Native agricultural practices and outright seizure of land Native Americans considered theirs. These tensions erupted into violence when white colonists accused Wampanoags of murdering John Sassamon, a praying Indian, the colonists’ term for Indians who converted to Christianity. Colonists’ subsequent retribution for this murder is generally acknowledged as the start of the War.
Beginning in June 1675, Narragansetts, Pocumtucks, Nipmucs, and Wampanoags fought the English, Pequots, Mohegans, and other native tribes. Conflict was close, cruel, and bloody. The war began to subside in August 1676, when King Philip was shot dead by in Bristol, Rhode Island by an Indian allied with the British. After his death, white colonists mutilated his body, distributing and publicly displaying its parts in gruesome celebration. Philip’s head was displayed on a tall pole in the town of Plymouth for decades after his death in an effort to intimidate other Indians, and to warn them of what might happen to those who resisted colonists. Isolated skirmishes continued after Philip’s death. Dozens of Philip’s allies were subsequently executed on Boston Common.
Those executed in 1676 included Matoonas, a sachem of the Nipmuc people who played a decisive role in King Philip’s War. Though a Christian convert, Matoonas turned against the English colonists after his son was beheaded in 1671 on questionable charges. Matoonas was tied to a tree, shot and beheaded. Colonists placed his head on a pike, just as they had done with his executed son’s head five years earlier. At least fifty other native people were shot or hanged on the Common that year. Some were praying Indians, including Old Jethro, whose son handed him to the English, and Captain Tom, a captive of Philip’s troops. Though Captain Tom’s execution was appealed on the grounds that he was not an aggressor in the war, he was executed nonetheless.
Many of those executed had been promised clemency by the English. After surrendering in Rhode Island in 1676, Potuck, a Narragansett sachem, had been promised safe passage by the English colonists. Instead, he was brought to Boston Common and shot. Indian John Monoco and two Nipmuc sachems, Muttawmp and Sagamore Sam, were also assured pardons, transported to Boston, then executed without trial. Those not executed were sold into slavery in the Caribbean.
White colonists carried out these public executions as retribution, as well as a warning to Indians interfering with what colonists believed was their God-given destiny to take Indian land and convert Indian souls. These executions served as one of the opening salvos in a centuries-long violent assault on Indians by white colonists and, later on, Americans.
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