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R.I. path said to follow rise and fall of King Philip

A stone marker in the woods of Bristol, R.I., informed visitors of the site of King Philip's death. To this day, historians struggle with how to describe King Philip's War. A stone marker in the woods of Bristol, R.I., informed visitors of the site of King Philip's death. To this day, historians struggle with how to describe King Philip's War. (Stew Milne/associated press)

BRISTOL, R.I. -- No sign marks the white quartz cliff where King Philip once reigned, and only a small inscribed boulder points out where he was said to have been shot, beheaded , and quartered.

Perhaps that's just as well. To this day, historians struggle with how to describe King Philip's War, one of the country's deadliest conflicts, a war that more than three centuries ago nearly drove out New England's colonists and decimated its native tribes.

History buffs still trek to the cliffs at Mount Hope to see where Philip is believed to have held court and also view the former swamp where he died, sites that modern-day Wampanoag Indians consider hallowed ground.

"We feel very strongly about that site," said Edith Andrews, a member of the Wampanoag tribe who began organizing annual ceremonies on Mount Hope almost 30 years ago. "It brings back the fact our ancestors stuck together, remained strong."

Philip, also called Metacom, was leader of the Wampanoag tribe, and he was given the title "King" by white colonists.

The war named for him pitted Native American tribes allied with Philip against colonial authorities throughout New England from 1675 to 1676. It claimed about 3,800 lives.

Two important sites in Philip's life and death are on the grounds of Brown University's Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and can be visited in an afternoon.

A path from the museum leads to King Philip's seat, a striking white rock outcropping on the rise of Mount Hope. While there's no marker to indicate the spot's significance, the curious will know it by a swirl of rock at the cliff's base that vaguely resembles an oversized seat, a reference that appears in documents from the mid-1800s.

Colonial documents describe Mount Hope as Philip's base, although that term probably referred to a much larger area of land.

Kevin Smith, an archaeologist and the museum's chief curator, said there is evidence that Wampanoags have lived in the area for centuries.

Test pits dug in the 1950s along Mount Hope's shoreline revealed shells and pottery likely dating from prehistoric times, Smith said. Flakes of quartz found along the Haffenreffer property suggest the cliff has been quarried for hundreds of years.

Besides being an unusual landmark, the area around King Philip's seat offers commanding views of Mount Hope and Narragansett Bays, both strategic waterways.

"Maybe it was a ritually important place, a place where people gathered," Smith said. "It would have been a potent background for any activities of a politically powerful and ritually powerful person."

Philip was living around Bristol or Warren when Wampanoag warriors attacked nearby Swansea on June 24, 1675. Before long, fighting spread across New England.

The violence capped years of land disputes between the Wampanoags, who ranged from Rhode Island to Cape Cod, and colonial authorities in Boston and Plymouth.

If the cliff represents King Philip's rise, then an inscribed stone a short drive away on the Haffenreffer property marks his fall Aug. 12, 1676.

During the progress of the war, whole towns were burned and abandoned, including Worcester, Mendon, and Deerfield . Entire tribes were massacred, or lost their land and autonomy.

The war was so violent that some historians believe it threatened the survival of the American colonies.

After fleeing Mount Hope earlier in the war, Philip returned in the summer of 1676, a period when Indian leaders across southeastern Massachusetts were assassinated, Smith said. Colonial militias, sometimes assisted by Indian allies, were hunting Philip. His wife and son had been sold into slavery.

It is not clear what Philip planned to do during his return.

"You get this sense in later writings of a re imagining of him as somehow depressed, unwilling to go on, just simply going home to be killed," Smith said. "And it doesn't fit with anything else you read about him."

Captain Benjamin Church of Little Compton found Philip near Mount Hope -- not far from King Philip's seat -- with the help of a defector angry that Philip had killed his brother.

Church's force set an ambush at the "Miery Swamp," which he described as being at the foot of Mount Hope.

During the assault, Philip ran toward a colonial soldier and a Native American named Alderman, who shot Philip dead.

According to an account Church dictated to his son years later, the Wampanoag leader landed face down in the swamp.

"Captain Church then said, 'That forasmuch as [Philip] caused many an Englishman's body to be unburied, and to rot above ground, that none one of his bones should be buried,' " according to the account.

Beheaded with a sword and quartered with a hatchet, Philip's skull rested for years on a pole in Plymouth . Church gave Philip's scarred hand to Alderman so he could show it for money.

A marker placed at the site by the Rhode Island Historical Society in 1877 says it pinpoints the exact place where Philip died, although Smith said he is suspicious of any claim that specific.

But the marker is close enough for Andrews, who equated her journeys there around the anniversary of Philip's death to visiting a military cemetery on Memorial Day.

"He was fighting for his county," she said. "Our country, because of the invasion of all the newcomers."

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