“In the year 1675, Philip, sachem of the Wampanoags, then residing at Mount Hope, in the present town of Bristol, in Rhode Island, began the most destructive war ever waged by the Indians upon the infant colonies.”
–Thrilling Incidents in American History, J.W. Barber, 1860.
My jaw’s on Cotton Mather’s table,
Skull and brain all gone.
Yet this bone shall speak of tragedy
Though Mather’s not at home,
None to hear but a harmless sparrow
Perched on the sill between a narrow dry room
And a world abounding in green life:
O hear my skull’s rage
O hear the horrid history,
Sons of my murderers,
Dry men in the deadly towns!
My father lived in the loveliest land,
The country of the bay and forest
Rich in fish and deer and songbirds.
Our old men sang proud histories,
Our kings were wise and fearless,
Our girls were merry-matchless,
Our young men gallant, reckless
In the kingdom of corn and maples,
Whales in the bay, bears after berries on woods’ edges:
A kingdom complete, at peace with all its spirits.
I was a boy who knew he’d be a king.
At seventeen I walked north to the mountains
And climbed past hawks to ledges at the high point of our world.
I lay all night on the granite, entranced by the cold white moon,
The silver perfect Mother,
Twin of the tranquil sea:
But sudden came a flight of birds across the moon,
Of cloud-high flyers fleeing north.
I knew that this meant peril for my people.
And now came many white men from the sea
Moving into the east land of our cousins dead of plague,
And now more floods of white men to the west and to the north
Till we lay ringed with dangerous towns
And the braves who stood against them
Fell to slaughter, like the Pequods,
The land fast losing its own people
While the soil stayed soaked with the blood
Of our dead boys.
I came to kingship in a hopeless kingdom.
My people asked me, shall we go
And seek a new land near our cousins
At the cold lakes of the north?
Or shall we stay and seek humble peace
While these axe-men fell our forests
And foreboding fills our dreams–
Or shall we fight, and throw the white men in the sea
And burn their intricate houses, break their careful fences
Until the land gets right again,
Ours again, purified and free?
Philip, the colonists called me
For they saw that I should lead my land
Like some old famous king of white men;
But my name is Metacomet
And I swore to the soul of Massasoit my father
That I should rival his wisdom with my cunning,
His kindness with my vengeance,
His bravery with my own bravery and daring
Until the clapboard houses burned
And the town men all sank bloodless in the sea.
Listen, sparrow, to this jaw, this bone:
There is no truth in Boston,
Only preachers full of fever like this Mather.
There is no truth for red men.
To us the English offered drink or death or exile.
My son was sold to slavery in Jamaica,
My wife then died a beggar on the edge of a bitter town.
They would not even give her back my body.
My throne was a great rock by our village.
I sat comfortable in its curved place
And the strength of granite came to me
And the souls of my fathers said to me
Make war, kill these colonies of toadstools;
Mow down the murderers of our people.
I fell on them with tomahawks and guns
Crushing their fat yellow heads,
Snapping their necks like a wolf who’s got a grouse,
A wolf who knows no master in his forest,
My brother, keen Ontoquas.
We failed, and fell.
Yet I live ever on this Bay
And in the calm of valleys, in the clover meadows,
In bees and lynx and falcons.
I am the freedom of the Maker
The constancy of the granite mountains
The first green shoot in spring
The wild loon calling on the lake
In long lament.
Peter Bridges received degrees from Dartmouth College and Columbia University, served as an Army private in Europe, and then spent three decades as a career Foreign Service officer on four continents, ending as the American ambassador to Somalia. His memoir of Somalia and his biographies of two once-famous Americans, John Moncure Daniel and Donn Piatt, were published by Kent State University Press. In 2013 he self-published a volume of a hundred Sonnets from the Elk Mountains. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in American Diplomacy, Eclectica, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mountain Gazette, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. “Mount Hope” is an account of what most American historians have called ”King Philip’s War,” as might have been told by Metacomet, whose jawbone did in fact land on the table of Cotton Mather the Puritan.