In August 1676, a Wampanoag sachem named Metacom, son of Massasoit – King Philip to the English colonists – was hunted down and killed in the swamplands of coastal Rhode Island. To the English colonists, King Philip had become a dangerous threat, not only because of his considerable talent in conducting asymmetrical warfare, but also for his diplomatic skills. If Philip succeeded in uniting a critical mass of tribes against them, the fragile colonies might well be erased from the map.
Cornered by a combined force of English soldiers and Sakonnet/Pokasset Indians under the experienced command of Captain Benjamin Church, Metacom was shot through the heart by a Pocasset known by the English name Alderman. Metacom’s wife and son were subsequently sold into slavery in Bermuda.
Towards the end of his masterful narrative Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick reconstructs the scene immediately following the death of the great sachem:
So what happened to the head?
Cotton Mather is rumored to have taken the lower jaw from the bleached skull; the fate of this bone is not known, though it likely remains unburied if not undigested.
A small stone marker commemorates the death of Metacom in the Miery Swamp near Mount Hope, though the site is difficult to access and the stone hard to locate. Similarly, the rock formation known as the Seat of Metacom has been obscured by years of neglect. The site is now owned by Brown University, whose curriculum once included a highly regarded (though much lampooned) semiotics program.
Kenneth Foote’s remarkable study of America’s landscapes of violence identifies four distinct dispositions towards such sites: sanctification, designation, rectification and obliteration. The landscape of Metacomet slowly but surely recedes into the fourth mode.
The signifier Metacom/Metacomet, detached from actual lived history as embedded in specific landscapes, survives through other semiotic systems, such as roadways, condominiums and golf courses. There is a small rock island in the Connecticut River called “King Philip’s Nose” as well as various recreational hiking trails named after the vanquished sachem. We once asked a hiker on one such trail if he knew the meaning of “Metocomet”; he told us with great conviction that it had “something to do with geology.”
Close by Mount Hope, within easy walking distance from Metacom’s Seat, we find the former residence and gardens built during a previous Gilded Age by coal magnate Augustus Van Wickle and his wife Bessie, who was a keen arborist. In 1901, Mr. Van Wickle donated ornamental gates to the semiotic configuration of his alma mater, Brown University; in 1906, he was killed while shooting skeet with his brother-in-law. The death was ruled an accident.
The Van Wickle estate is well signed; according to the leaflet provided for self-guided tours, thousands are inspired each year by the legacy of the Van Wickles.