Recent Blog Posts
Object of the Month #13: Allegiance to Memory

Object of the Month #13
Allegiance to Memory
Possible Fragment of King Philip’s Tree (2013.01.247)
January 2016

Have you heard of King Philip? How about the war that bears his name? Did you know that Northfield was abandoned because of this war? There is a strong chance that this month’s object has no real connection to King Philip, and yet it still reminds us of our region’s history. Not too bad for a piece of a tree.

The object itself is a small cross-section of a tree branch, 13 cm in diameter (a bit over 5”), now in five pieces. It may have been varnished at some point. Growth rings are visible in the section. And that’s really it.

Of course, that’s not really everything. There is one more detail that turns the whole thing into an extended philosophical discussion about collecting and the meaning of objects. A paper tag tied to the tree segment reads, “This is a part of the / Lowest Branch on / King Philips [sic] Tree / and on which he / stood while directing / the Battle / H.A. Pickering ‘96”.

Taking the tag at face value (more on that later), we suddenly have much more information. As I am always pleased to see, we have the name of a donor, although in this case it isn’t very illuminating. “H.A. Pickering” was Howard A. Pickering of Troy, New York, and a student at Mount Hermon in the late 19th century. Despite the optimistic “’96” after his name, he never graduated.[1]

We know much more about King Philip and the battle mentioned on the tag, however. King Philip was the chief, or sachem, of the Wampanoag tribe in the late 17th century. At that time Wampanoag territory roughly corresponded to modern day Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. Born as Metacom, Philip became sachem in 1662 after the deaths of his father, Massasoit, and his brother, Wamsutta.

This was a particularly turbulent time for Native American and colonist relations. The New England tribes, including the Wampanoag, were becoming increasingly concerned by the incursion of colonists into their territories. Philip viewed the circumstances of Wamsutta’s death with some suspicion, and relations deteriorated further.[2] The breaking point came when the government in Plymouth, Massachusetts executed three Wampanoag men for killing an informant.[3] By the summer of 1675 the Wampanoag and other tribes were at war with the colonists. Known as King Philip’s War, battles ranged from Plymouth to the New England frontier, and the town of Northfield played a role.

At that time Northfield was a garrisoned town.[4] Philip and his soldiers attacked Northfield in the late summer of 1675, and then ambushed a relief force sent from Hadley.[5] In the aftermath the colonists abandoned Northfield, and it would not be resettled for another seven years.[6] Despite successes like this, Philip and his army were defeated less than a year later. Ambushed at his base in Rhode Island, King Philip was killed in 1676, effectively ending the war.[7]

In Northfield, Philip and his soldiers camped on what is now known as King Philip’s Hill. On this hill was a tree, now known as King Philip’s Tree, where the branch fragment in the archives supposedly originated. What was so special about this tree that people collected pieces of it? This turned out not to have a simple answer. It has been variously described as Philip’s council seat, a lookout point, and a hiding place.[8]

Take a good look at that last footnote. The dates of the source material describing King Philip’s Tree cluster around the turn of the 20th century, well over two hundred years after the war. This is probably no coincidence. In 1829 a play called Metamora; or, the Last of the Wampanoags debuted. A romanticized retelling of the story of King Philip’s War, the play was a great success and widely performed for almost another six decades.[9] With this new popularity came an interest in relics relating to Philip’s life. A piece of wood from King Philip’s Tree would have been right at home with other popular King Philip relics of the time including: his pipe, his belt, his war club, and his bowl.[10]

In 1897 George Sheldon, the president of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, spoke about King Philip’s War, and the tree even got a mention. You can almost hear the exasperation in his voice when you read:
I would like, on this occasion, to say something to the younger part of this audience about the traditions concerning “Philip's Hill.” I have recently talked with a young man who had as a relic a splinter which he took from the stump of “King Philip's Tree;” another person has shown me a piece of bark taken from the trunk. The story they tell is that this tree, an ancient pine, was hollow, and afforded a secure hiding place for Philip when hard pressed by his enemies. These collectors, I suppose, never thought to consider this proposition: If a pine tree was old and decayed enough to form a hollow so large that it could hide a man two hundred and twenty-five years ago, what chance is there that the whole tree and its stump and roots should not have turned to dust and ashes a hundred years ago?[11]
Despite Sheldon’s tirade, a few weeks ago I hiked King Philip’s Hill to see if there could possibly be anything left of the tree.[12] The tree got a mention on the trail marker, although the fact that it had been erected in 1930 wasn’t a good sign. A photo of a disintegrating stump, taken in 1896, didn’t leave much hope either. It can be of no surprise that nothing is left of King Philip’s Tree, if such a tree ever really existed.

This was disappointing, but not unexpected. It was of some consolation that, from an anthropological perspective, our tree fragment has next to no value. It might be possible to date the tree and identify its type. An expert in woodworking tools might even be able to tell us about the saw that was used to slice it, although that seems like a bit of a stretch. However, I can’t think of an avenue of exploration by which this tree can tell us anything at all about King Philip himself.

This is all a very long way of calling this object a relic. As described by a Smithsonian curator, relics are objects that, “may celebrate an experience, an achievement, or nothing of any obvious significance, for their only allegiance is to memory.”[14] Relic collecting has a long, long history. Even the ancient Romans collected kitsch from their trips to famous tourist attractions of the time.[15]

Our relic is “real” in the sense that it is from an real tree, but it is extremely unlikely that it could be from the tree that King Philip sat on, watched from, or hid in.[16] Our man Pickering, from New York, didn’t even come to Mount Hermon until 1891. How could he have had access to a branch from a tree that was almost certainly no more than a stump when he was born?

But if King Philip’s Tree isn’t real, why should we keep it? The tree fragment speaks to the role of King Philip in both history and popular imagination. It says that over two centuries after King Philip’s War people still remembered it. It speaks to origin myths of the Pioneer Valley. It reminds us that King Philip’s War happened here. And it tells us that people with only temporary connections to a geographic area, like Pickering (like you), can still become connected to that place.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Thanks to Peter Weis for help finding Pickering.

[2] Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission. (1990). Historic and Architectural Resources of Bristol, Rhode Island. Providence, R.I.: Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, p. 6.

[3] Siry, S. E. (2000). King Philip's War, 1675-1676: Interpretive Essay. In J. E. Findling & F. W. Thackeray (Eds.), Events That Changed America Through the Seventeenth Century, Greenwood, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, p. 130.

[4] Ferré, M. B., Ross, S. P., & Stoia, J. M. (2014). Northfield. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, pp. 12-13.

[5] Philbrick, N. (2006). Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, p. 295.

[6] Fitt, A. P. (1910). All About Northfield: A Brief History and Guide. Northfield, Massachusetts: Northfield Press, pp. 32-33, 35.

[7] Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission. Historic and Architectural Resources, p. 6.

[8] Northfield Prepares for Conference Season, (1911, May 21), The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p. 8. Whalen, E. I., & Schweitzer, C. M., (1897), Historic Northfield, Northfield Echoes, IV(1), p. 7. Pocoumtuck Valley Memorial Association, (1901), History and Proceedings of the Pocumtuc Valley Memorial Association 1890-1898 (Vol. III), Deerfield, Mass., U.S.A.: Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, p. 444.

[9] Lepore, J. (1998). The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Vintage Books, p. 191.

[10] Ibid., p. 194.

[11] Pocoumtuck Valley Memorial Association. History and Proceedings, pp. 444-445.

[12] King Philip’s Hill is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and there is a short, marked trail through the area.

[13] Fitt, All About Northfield, p. 34.

[14] Bird, W. L., Jr. (2013). Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p. 9.

[15] Perrottet, T. (2003). Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. New York: Random House, p. 83.

[16] If you’re curious about other objects in the NMH Archives with authenticity issues see Object of the Month #11.