Benjamin Church’s extraordinary history of King Philip’s War, in the desirable 2nd edition with two engraved portraits by Revere, including the important engraving of Metacomet.
King Philip’s War erupted in June 1675, after years of deteriorating relations between the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies and the Wampanoag tribes around Narragansett Bay. Fighting began at the instigation of Metacomet—“King Philip”—the son of Plymouth ally Massasoit, whose seat lay at Mount Hope at the head of Narragansett Bay. Metacomet mobilized neighboring tribes in a series of attacks on English villages and more isolated garrisons in the region. Other tribes were drawn into the conflict, at times against their will, and devastating raids, ambushes and pitched battles occurred as far afield as the Connecticut River Valley and the Maine coast.
Defeat for the Metacomet and his allies was probably inevitable, as they lacked the population, economic infrastructure, political organization and military tactics necessary to permanently roll back settlement, much less annihilate the English population. The war was disastrous for all involved, however: It is estimated that by the close of major hostilities battle losses, death from privation, and forced and voluntary exile had reduced the pre-war Native American population of 20,000 by more than half. For its part the Plymouth Colony had lost perhaps eight percent of its adult males (compared to four-to-five percent of American adult males killed during the Civil War), dozens of settlements had been devastated, the frontier was rolled back by miles, and it was a century before average per-capita income returned to pre-war levels. (Philbrick, pp. 346-7)
Benjamin Church and his Entertaining History
The Entertaining History was first published in 1716 from notes edited by Church’s son Thomas, and it established Benjamin as the most interesting personality to emerge from the war. Church, who had settled with his family in what is now Little Compton, Rhode Island, had a distinctly American sensibility: impatient of authority, tactically innovative, almost unbelievably brave, and uncharacteristically sensitive to and respectful of Indian culture and skills. He was a key player in many of the war’s major events, including the “Great Swamp Fight” where much of the Narragansett tribe was annihilated in December 1675. In the Spring of 1676 he convinced the Plymouth authorities to grant him an independent command combining colonial and native American forces. He drew some of the Wampanoags—in particular the Sakonnets of southeast Rhode Island—away from Philip and engaged them on the colonial side. His small, highly mobile force ultimately captured hundreds of Native Americans–many of whom were sold into slavery–and was directly responsible for the killing of Philip at Mount Hope in August 1676.
The years following King Philip’s War were marked by almost continuous high-and low-intensity conflict, in which Church played a distinguished role. In fact only the first 88 pages of the Entertaining History are dedicated to the war: The remaining half describes Church’s activities in five expeditions to Maine—the last in retribution for the 1704 massacre at Deerfield—as well as yet another expedition directed against the French at Port Royal, Nova Scotia. The work concludes with a brief biography and a heroic ode dedicated to Church, both added for this second edition.
Nathaniel Philbrick whose Mayflower relies heavily on the Entertaining History, memorializes Church as follows:
“What makes Church unique is that he was one of the first New Englanders to embrace the wilderness his forefathers had shunned. When war erupted… he was the right man in the right place to become a truly archetypal American.
“… he forged an identity that was part Pilgrim, part mariner, part Indian, and altogether his own…. That Church according to Church is too brave, too cunning, and too good to be true is beside the point. America was destined to become a nation of self-fashioned and self-promoting men. Church personifies what would become a recurrent American type: the indignant critic of authority who, despite his best intentions, finds himself dragged into moral compromise, violence and tragedy.” (pp. 357-8)
The Revere engravings
This second edition of the Entertaining History is illustrated by two Paul Revere engravings. Facing the title is a portrait of Church, which was long ago shown to be copied from a portrait of English poet Charles Churchill published in 1768 in an English magazine, with the addition of a powder horn to give Church a more warrior-like appearance.
Of far greater interest is the full-length portrait of “Philip. King of Mount Hope” facing page 88. It depicts Metacomet dressed in his full “royal” regalia, with a grouping of native warriors to his right, warriors visible stalking through distant trees, and Mount Hope in the far background. Though the portrait is dismissed by some writers as fictitious and occasionally criticized for its cartoonish quality, to this writer’s knowledge it is the only 18th-century image of Metacomet. Like it or not, Revere’s portrait of Metacom has achieved iconic status, been reproduced in seemingly every book and article on the war, and is our preeminent image of the man.
Further, a 1959 pamphlet by Bradford Swan demonstrated that it is closely based on John Simon’s mezzotint renderings of John Verelst’s paintings of two of the “Four Indian Kings” who visited London in 1710. Revere combined elements of both portraits but added elements based directly on Church’s text; in particular Metacomet’s regalia—wampum belts, two powder horns, and the star descending from the belt around his neck—is consistent with the account of his possessions given by Church on page 84.
In all, a fantastic read, essential for understanding the events of King Phillip’s War, further enlivened by an important Revere portrait of Metacomet.
Rarity and references
Though well represented in American institutions, the Entertaining History is rare in trade. RareBookHub lists but a single copy, offered by Goodspeed’s in 1955. Early American History Auctions sold a copy in comparable condition for $12,000 in 2015, and I sold another in 2011.
Evans, American Imprints, #12352. Sabin, #12997. Streeter, #C-405 (“b”). For the engravings, see Brigham, Paul Revere’s Engravings, pp. 99-101; Lauren Hewes and Nan Wolverton, eds., Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere, pp. 58-59; and Stauffer, American Engravers, #2671.
Text leaves and plates gently washed, with lingering toning, scattered foxing and occasional mends. Plate of Philip with mended tear at lower left. Ownership inscription on title, a few ink scribbles on endpapers. Boards somewhat stained and rubbed.