Violence, racial difference, and historical memory: European colonists and Indigenous peoples in the 17th century

Plan Author

  • Thomas Marshall, 2018

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Race in America
  • Course: Subculture and Society
  • Tutorial: Violent Encounters in US History
  • Tutorial: Collective Violence: Social Origins of Persecution in the US

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Jean Forward, University of Massachusetts Amherst


As a whole, this Plan uses King Philip’s War as the central case study for exploring issues of collective violence and historical memory. The first paper seeks to explain why, after decades of coexistence and sometimes even friendship between colonists and indigenous New Englanders, King Philip’s War erupted and what drove the kind of extreme violence that characterized it. This paper applies sociological theory relating to collective violence in an effort to answer this central question. The other major paper explores the historical memory of King Philip’s War. This essay represents an attempt to understand why such an important part of history could become almost invisible, even in places like my hometown that hosted pieces of it.


A greater sense of racial absolutism indicates a major change in colonial thinking underlying King Philip’s War. Whereas the stated purpose of Massachusetts Bay Colony had once been to save the souls of indigenous people, the colony all but resolved to rid itself of them during the war. Most surviving members of the tribes that had fought on Philip’s side were sold into slavery. Racial boundaries were being activated that would have a permanent, detrimental impact on colonial and ultimately post-colonial race relations.

Simply looking at King Philip’s War, one is likely to find much fault in traditional narratives of American history. Lacking in obvious examples of identifiable heroism and ending on such a disheartening note, it is no wonder King Philip’s War doesn’t fit comfortably into popular imagination. The battles weren’t fought on fields that can be easily depicted in glamorous portraits. Though the colonists didn’t realize, the lines between sides were very far from clear. Many of its horrors are difficult to glorify even through the medium of dark romanticism as others are.

Most individuals who experience war, whether they are soldiers or civilians, experience what are considered limited parts of wars. Thus, personal but not political stories can be very informative on a variety of subjects, but they don’t typically offer any means of understanding politicized events. Fiction can be used to more clearly insert politics into these kinds of stories, thereby reconnecting the link between the personal and the political.


My inspiration was that I grew up near important historical sites related to the history my Plan is concerned with. My area of focus underwent considerable change, but I was particularly interested in the complicated nature of cultural boundaries.

A memorial to the 1676 Turner’s Falls massacre.

A memorial bench for those interned on Deer Island during King Philip’s War.

A plaque on the memorial bench on Deer Island.