New England and ‘the swarming of the English’

Although half of the Mayflower passengers were members of a distinct Puritan sect, the ‘Separatists’ (also sometimes referred to as ‘Brownists’), the new region of English settlement in which they established their colony drew more mainstream Puritans and non-Puritan English settlers. One thousand colonists arrived in 1630 and a further 10,000 in the 1630s. By 1643 there were 20,000 settlers with an ever increasing need for land.16 The establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 under Governor John Winthrop, with a charter obtained from King Charles I, can be seen as part of a wider British imperialist expansion into North America.

The rapid increase in the number of settlements resulted in unequal alliances between the different Puritan colonies, leading to the creation of the short-lived political entity known as the United Colonies of New England (UCNE 1643-84). The territory, influence, power and wealth of each colony changed over time. These shifts involved encroachment on neighbouring Indigenous Nations’ land, and manipulation under colonial law of Native American ownership and rights to use their previously occupied territories. These early territorial manoeuvrings included the relationship between New Plymouth and the local Wampanoag Sachem, Massassoit, who had saved the Mayflower colonists in their first year of settlement. Though the relationship is often portrayed as between friends rather than a client one, New Plymouth colonists sought to control Massassoit’s land holdings and sales.17

The Pequot War

One result for the New Plymouth Colony settlers ‘alliance’ with Massassoit was the neutrality of the Wampanoag in the Pequot War 1636/8. In May, 1637, John Mason was sent by the Connecticut Colony against the Pequot people.

“In a little more than One Hour, Five or Six Hundred Barbarians were dismissed from a world that was Burdened with them; not more than Seven or Eight persons escaping….”.

The Pequots were defeated and hundreds of prisoners of war were sold into slavery to the West Indies. The Puritans saw the fate of the Pequots as an “act of God.” Major Mason boasted that

“thus the Lord was pleased to smite our enemies in the hinder parts and to give us their land afor and inheritance”.18

But some New England colonists were reluctant to retain Pequots as slaves in the region in which they had lived and rebelled, and so preferred to exchange some of them for enslaved Africans from the Caribbean.


Another of the leaders on the English side in the Pequot war, Captain John Underhill, was hired by the neighbouring Dutch Colonists in the early 1640s. His task was to undertake massacres against the Lunape Nations on Long Island, similar to those he had been part of in New England.19 The Pequot massacres of 1637 had reverberated throughout the region and gave notice of future wars of annihilation to any Indigenous Nation contemplating resistance. For example, preparations for war in the early 1640s against the Narragansetts were made by New England colonial armies, including one led by the Mayflower passengers’ military advisor, Myles Standish. Coming in the wake of the massacres of the Pequot, the mobilizations proved sufficient to drive the Narragansetts to temporarily accept tributary status.20 This forced acquiescence for the Narragansetts, Wampanoag and other Southern New England nations was punctuated with challenges to colonist authority by different nations in 1653, 1660, and 1671. These confrontations resulted in further encroachments on ‘Indian’ lands and the imposition of fines and disarmaments by the colonists.21

‘King Philip’s War’

Finally, in 1675, against a background of inter-colony manoeuvring over land acquisition and enslavement of local Indigenous people (Newell, 2015), the actions of the New Plymouth Colony became the catalyst for ‘King Philip’s War’.22 Hostilities had come to a head when three Wampanoags were hanged in Plymouth in 1675 for the murder of an Indian convert to Christianity, a so-called ‘praying Indian’, who was considered by his compatriots to be an informer and a collaborator. The Wampanoag were led by Massassoit’s surviving son, Metacomet (known to the Europeans as ‘King Philip’), in an alliance that included the Narragansetts, Nipmucks, Pocumtucks and other neighbouring Nations. Although the alliance gained some victories at first, the colonists recovered their military supremacy. This war officially ended in August 1676, shortly after Metacomet was captured and beheaded. The Puritans interpreted their victories as a sign of God’s favour, but the Native-Americans who remained faced disease, cultural devastation, and the expropriation of their lands.23

However, “No peace treaty was signed after August 12, and in many ways the fighting simply became less intense, less organised, and … more distant from the area the war started in. Some scholars have argued that King Philip’s War never ended because, in a figurative sense, it was the archetype of all Indian wars to follow”.24

By 1694, the New England authorities were offering a bounty for killing ‘Hostile Indians’, requiring their scalps as evidence.25


Those who surrendered in August 1676 were, like those in 1637, transported as slaves to the West Indies.

“…the sd heathen Malefactors men, women, and Children have been Sentenced & condemned to perpetuall Servitude and… Seventy of the sdMalefactors are transported in ths Ship – Sea-fflower”.26

Military experience

Some of the colonists such as John Smith in Virginia, Myles Standish the Mayflower military advisor, John Mason of Connecticut and John Underhill in Massachusetts, had experience of the European wars of religion.27 Consequently, settlers in the Americas in the late 16th and early 17th centuries were familiar with warfare that involved ‘extravagant’ violence against non-combatant populations as well as ‘normal’ fighting with other soldiers. The first English and Scots-Irish settler colonists in the Americas in the 17th century were also aware of the brutal tactics used in the settler colonization of Munster and Ulster. Moreover, the fraudulent administrative practices of land acquisition and distribution used in Ireland were well known to the senior figures who planned the Virginia colony, as several were also involved in the Plantation of Ulster. The wars against the local Indigenous Nations in North America in the 17th Century, like later similar conflicts, were complex. The wars involved competing colonist groups, who manoeuvred to exercise influence and control over different Indigenous Nations and consequently created and exacerbated existing local grievances over land grabbing and enslavement.

Settlers in the two North American English colonial centres of Virginia and New England both engaged in massacres and wars with Indigenous Nations in the regions they sought to colonise. These early wars and attacks over the course of the 17th century established patterns of warfare that were emulated and developed by settlers over the next two hundred years of colonial incursion in new North American regions. The tactics used required the use of irregular forces, variously described as militias, rangers, wilderness fighters, etc., as well as regular troops. They also required making war on non-combatants both through direct assault and indirect attacks destroying or hampering supplies of food, burning crops and slaughtering or driving off livestock, sometimes known as ‘feedfights’. The Tidewater raids (1644-46) in the Virginia region is an early example of colonist irregulars targeting food production and supplies as the means of driving out local Indigenous people. Attacks on food production and the deployment of irregulars in direct attack on non-combatants were also the military strategies used by the settler colonists in the Pequot War of 1636/8 and King Phillip’s (Metacomet) War 1675/6. The defeat of Metacomet’s forces didn’t so much end the New England wars between colonists and the Indigenous population as mark a new phase in the Swarming of the English.


16 Calder, Angus,1998, Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empire from the Fifteenth Century to the 1780s, London: Pimlico, p.124

17  Jennings, 1976, The Invasion of America, pp.270 & 288/9

18  Thomas, Puritans, Indians, and the Concept of Race, p.12-15, although Young, Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, written in 1841, does tell the same story from Standish’s perspective


20  Grenier, John, 2008, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier 1607-1814, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.29.

21  Newell, 2015, Brethren by Nature, p. 137

22  ibid. p. 134

23  Foner and Garraty. The Reader’s Companion to American History

24 Lepore, Jill,1999, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American identity, New York: Vintage Books

25  Thomas, Puritans, Indians, and the Concept of Race, p.21.

26  Slave certificate 12th September 1676 in Lepore,1999, The Name of War, p.163.

27  Grenier, 2008, The First Way of War, p.21.

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