Roots of the Liberty Tree


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Roots of the Liberty Tree

Native American influence on Colonial Symbolism and Rebellion

by Robert A. Geake

The story of the Liberty Tree is the story of a people’s search for a symbol and an icon of unity during a period of crisis, and the resulting ritual whose accumulated powers became a turning point in the propelling of events that led to the American Revolution.

As David Kertzer writes:

“The use of ritual forms for organizational purposes, to communicate common allegiances and common political antagonisms, was especially important in a polity divided into separate colonies, each directly overseen from Britain…In the years preceding revolution, Liberty trees provided the focus for acts of rebellion that spread anti-British sentiment and encouraged rebel solidarity.”[1]

In our generation, the story has shifted to focus on the incidents in Boston that presaged the naming of Liberty Trees around the colonies, and the subsequent actions associated with the Sons of Liberty in communities throughout the era of pre and post revolutionary conflict. Alfred F. Young, in his collection of essays “ Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution” acknowledges that

“the liberty tree was the principle symbol of popular opposition to British measures and at the same time the site of the efforts of the Sons of Liberty leaders to control popular resistance. During the war it became a major symbol of the Revolution, and it became a metaphor for later generations, especially African Americans, seeking to fulfill the unfilled promise of the revolution.”

Such is the legacy of the trees that shouldered the patriotism of the colonies in this monumental moment in history, but what of their origin?

Joel Barlow, compatriot of the gifted Thomas Paine, tied the mythic origins of the symbol to those phallic representations in the mythologies of Arabic, Persia, Phoenicia, ancient Egypt, and other places far flung from the American forests.

Paine himself, mused in verse within the Pennsylvania Gazette that the Goddess of Liberty herself had taken the tree “ from  “gardens above” and planted it to flourish “on this peaceful shore”

Paine’s poetics aside, the shift of memory in our generation has turned back to the events surrounding the “original” liberty tree, and those acts of rebellion that return us to the historical recollection of Boston as a “ mobbish” town.

Titles such as “ The Tree of Liberty: A Documentary History of Rebellion and Political Crime in America”, and Russell Bourne’s “Cradle of Violence”, as well as Professor Young’s pioneering efforts in looking at the Revolution “ from the ground up”,  provide  a long overdue justice in painting a more exact picture of the tension between classes at the time, and the efforts of the “common man” to finally turn the tide toward rebellion; but lose hold of the symbolism and the community that liberty trees inspired and supported throughout the conflict, as well as their significance to later generations.

In this paper, I want to examine the origins of the symbol and how the significance of the tree in pre-colonial America made it a natural selection for revolutionaries and accompanied a further imbedding of American ideals adapted from Native American examples.

Trees have held significance for man before the times of the Prose Edda, in whose creation story trees play an integral role; so also in the Algonquin creation story. Many historians have speculated that Edda stories over time became embedded in Algonquin mythology. Charles G. Leland, in his “Myths of the American Indian” seems convinced that the similarities are too many to dismiss. The creation story has several variations as translated by 18th century anthropologists.  Here is Leland’s version as transcribed from the oral history of an elder.

“First born were the Mikumwess, Oonabgemessuk, the small elves, little men, dwellers in rocks. And in this way he made man: He took his bow and arrows and shot at trees, the basket tree, and the ash. Then Indians came out of the bark of the ash trees…”

The stories, whether inspired or partly taken from the Edda stories, conjure indelibly an Algonquin association of trees with life and death, rituals and events. Their cultural expressions and the maintenance of their land profess to a sense of sacredness. Native American teachings often refer to trees as the “standing people” with each species offering their “gifts” to man.

Attributed to Bacqueville de Potherie (1723) Original from the John Carter Brown Library digital archive.

As the continent came to be explored, and the life of indigenous peoples revealed in illustrations for the European world, the image and symbolism of the tree was transformed into often-powerful images.

Eyewitness descriptions and illustrations published in Germany and France, in particular, portrayed realistic images of native life, with the tree often figuring in prominently within the composition.  The three volume America series published in Frankfurt in 1591, portrayed Native American life extensively.[2] Perhaps the most famous illustrator and publisher from this period came to be Theodor de Bry, a Belgian born engraver who settled in London in 1585, and after meeting the geographer Hakluyt, began collecting tales of European explorations and illustrations already published, most notably, those of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgyes. In Frankfurt on Main some years later, he published Les Grande Voyages, as well as the India Orientalis series.

Example of 17th century depiction of Native American activities. Original from the John Carter Brown library digital archives.

These were published originally in Latin, but also translated into German, English, and French and had wide distribution. His later edition of Harriot’s Brief and True Report of the new found Land of Virginia, featured de Bry’s illustrations based on the earlier watercolor paintings of John White.

This was often the case, with publishers using illustrations from a variety of sources to “flesh out” the accounts of the New World. The colored illustration above comes from an original of de Bry, in his Les Voyages Petit, but was reproduced a century later along with original illustrations in the Dutch publisher Van der Aa’s forty plus volume collection of European voyages and travels.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, who has written extensively during her career on early Native American and European encounters, describes how this thirst for knowledge about America and its native inhabitants drew many to the continent and continued to brew a heady fascination back home.

“ Not only did the English colonists make every effort to describe accurately the Indian culture they saw, but the number of books published and re-published in several editions testifies to the fact that the English public demanded information about those aspects of social organization among the natives of America.

Far from characterizing the Indians as sub-human brutes who lacked government, eyewitness writers did not have the least doubt that the Indians were organized in a civil society.”

Those early writers as noted in Kupperman’s “ Settling with the Indians”, chronicled daily life, and Indian technology, from the swift river running birch canoes, to the clearing of brush from land so that their forests were “park like”, to an open admiration for their crafts of weaving and pottery.  Much was also made of the simplicity of Indian life, and their generosity as an inherent part of their being.

As Kupperman writes,

“The most important characteristic of Indian life was its contentedness and freedom from envy. English writers thought this accounted for their long, and healthy lives…Indians are not covetous because they want only useful things and no more of those than are necessary to them. Not only are they content with little, but they also share all they have with their fellows.”

Attributed to Du Creux (1664) Original from the John Carter Brown Library digital archives.

In the words of William Wood, writing in 1634

“so much the more perspicuous is their love, in that they are willing to part with their mite in poverty, as treasure in plenty.”[3]

Some settlers even left the villages altogether to live among the Indians, especially when learning that French trappers and other Europeans had lived among them and come to know their ways for a long time.

Kupperman tells us that

“There were people in every colony for whom Indian life was enormously attractive. During the early period of colonization more Englishmen chose to live with Indians than natives adopted English civilization. As with some of the runaways from Jamestown, English people who were “delivered” from Indian captivity often chose to run away with the Indians again.”[4]

Historian Gary Nash also notes that “Over several centuries, probably three-quarters of all fur traders and trappers, whatever their origins in Europe, married Indian women…”[5]

This seemed a natural inclination for many traveling through Indian territories, some bearing dog-eared copies of Roger Williams A Key To the Language of America so that they might better communicate with natives they encountered. Taking an Indian wife was often borne not only from their attractiveness to many woodsmen, but also because of their knowledge of the surrounding territories, their skills at planting, cooking, and natural remedies for illness which made native women a welcome companion. Those who married Native Americans often blended in with the Native community as it ensured a stable and relatively peaceful existence in this foreign and deeply forested land.

As Colin Calloway writes in the introduction to The World Turned Upside Down,

“Indian protocol governed forest diplomacy and frontier trade…European colonists who entered Indian country to hunt, negotiate, or escape the confines of their own society adhered to the customs of the country if they hoped to be successful.”[6]

During these early periods of settlement within Native lands, European encounters were underscored by the desire to understand the link between natives and themselves. There existed a cautious respect and a rampant curiosity about the indigent peoples of America.

Roger Williams, who in the aforementioned A Key into The Language of America, published in 1643, introduced the Narragansett’s to readers in London and elsewhere, describes a peaceful, religious, and even learned population:

“By occasion of their frequent lying in the fields and woods, they much observe the Starrs, and their very children can give Names to many of them, and observe their Motions…”

and of “Keesaqunnamun, Another kind of solemne publike meeting, wherein they lie under the trees, in a kinde of Religious observation, and have a mixture of Devotions and sports…”[7]

The reader may compare this to the German writer’s description fifty odd years before.

The main threat to this idyll existence for the Narragansett’s were a distant tribe called the Mihtukmecha kick or “tree-eaters”, but also “men’ eaters”, for

“they set no corne, but live on the bark of Chesnut and walnut and other fine trees: they dry and eat this bark with the fat of beasts, and sometimes of men: these people are the terrour of the neghbor Natives; and yet these Rebells, the Sonne of God may in time subdue.” [8]

Many English writers and thinkers held the belief that these signs of intelligence and their mostly civil societies meant that Native Americans would swiftly embrace European culture and belief. When Indians resisted, it was the beginning of tensions that would turn opinion and lead to the efforts to displace native tribes and then, to war.

The imprint of this earlier, peaceful period of colonization cannot be forgotten

however, for the influence of Native Americans had been woven into the fabric of the Colonies before the conflicts began, and they remained when they came to an end. Indeed, colonists by the time of rebellion had long lived with Native Americans, many of whom, with the plague of diseases and the fog of war in the distant past, had assimilated themselves as best they could within colonial cities and towns. Native Americans also appeared frequently in the literature of British Americana. The historian Richard Simmons writes that:

“…encounters, friendly or otherwise, with Native Americans were… commonplace occurrences in such works. In John Dennis’ play published in 1704, Liberty Asserted, Indians occupied the stage for the first thirty two pages of dialogue, while many fictional or published individual accounts of America included pages of description of various Indian communities and the writer’s personal experience with native Americans.” This was also a prolific time of journal writing, and many observations and accounts of individual encounters, as well as the intermingling within communities with Native Americans would have been duly recorded and read perhaps by several generations within the journalists’ families.

It was not until the 1750s that a genre now known as “captivity narratives” that tales of Native American violence and “savage” behavior became standard fodder.  Simmons points out that the word simply does not exist in the index of European Americana, but the word and the idea of these long peaceful natives as “savages” came from the backlash of frustrated clergy and missionaries who were helpless to the stoic Indian resistance at adapting European faith.

Lately, the young historian Linford Fisher has begun to elaborate on this subject that earlier historians have merely touched upon. The adoption of those principles most closely related to their own faith, but rarely formally “converting”, left the legions of European and Canadian missionaries helpless. For the common man however, religious faith was a complex matter; the faith professed often interwoven with old home remedies and even adaptation of Indian beliefs. Fisher writes of the “open-endedness” of faith in the colonies:

“even the religious culture of the most biblically literate, pietistic of all the American colonies was infused with a surprising amount of so-called “popular religion” and unorthodox belief and practice…The Puritans, no less than the Indians, relied upon extra biblical explanations, home-cures, and rituals to make meaning in their universe.”[9]

He cites David Hall’s earlier discovery of the “magic” that circulated through the New England colonies:

“The magic of murder will out, prophetic dreams and visions, pins hammered into buildings, shape-shifting dogs and much more besides.”

Fisher points out that ultimately

‘Examples of second and third generation Christian Indians …confirm the degree to which Christianity “went Native” – how it was adapted and adopted by the Indians to the point that the rituals of the faith not only allowed them to deal with the present in a meaningful way, but also allowed them to preserve the future of their own traditions and community.”, and concludes that these “Christian” Indians, so touted by the zealous missionaries

“no matter how Christianized and Anglicized they became, rightfully still remained Indian, and the Christianity they fashioned contained as many traces of their indigenous culture as the Protestant version of Christianity did of the English culture brought to the New world by the Puritan missionaries.”[10]

In his essay “The Unyielding Indian”, Edmund Morgan assesses this as well, and muses upon what I hope to cultivate in this essay:

“Indian ways of life in North America …all produced men who attached the highest possible value to the Individual…and it may help us to understand not only why the Indian refused to join us but also why we have admired and hated him for his refusal. The Indian in his individualism displayed virtues to which Americans, and indeed, all Christians have traditionally paid homage.”[11]

In this same essay, Morgan points out that as late as 1765, the American militiaman Robert Rogers had written of his experience with the Indians that

”the great and fundamental principles of their policy are, that every man is naturally free and independent; that no one … on earth has any right to deprive him of his freedom and independency, and that nothing can be compensation for the loss of it.”

Is it small wonder then that the image of Native Americans would later be resurrected and used in a secular wave of rebellion?

But let us return to symbolism, rituals, and ceremony. Trees had long been a place of ceremony and polity when it came to interactions between early European visitors and the native peoples.

At the close of King Philips War, Governor Andros of New York planted an oak with great ceremony in 1676, calling it

“ A tree of peace…for the purpose of strengthening the friendship between the Hoosac and Mohawk Indians, and between the militia of Fort Albany, and the Indian river scouts; and in honor of the occasion, called a meeting of the conference known as the Wi-ten-a ge-mot, or assemblage of the wise…About one thousand warriors, representatives of the Iriquois, Hoosacs, Pequot’s, Narragansett’s, Penacook’s, Delaware’s, Mohawks, and other natives obeyed the summons to the conference…The ceremony and the compact of friendship, symbolized by the planting of the tiny oak were long and lovingly remembered by the Indian nations, and they held the tree of peace in deep regard”[12]

Popular 18th century print of the Penn Treaty Tree

On the banks of The Delaware River in 1683, William Penn and his delegation met with a council of Indians and signed the Treaty of Amity beneath a great elm that was from then on known as “ The Treaty Tree”.

When the first white settlers came into what is now Hartford, Connecticut they took note of a great oak growing near the trail. Their first contact with Native Americans told them of the significance of the tree. The Indians beseeched the settlers that whatever clearing of the forest took place, to leave the tree in place as

“It has been the guide of our ancestors for hundreds of years.”

The significance of the tree for meetings, the change of seasons, and planting time was firmly rooted in the local tribe’s traditions.

artist’s rendition of the “Charter Tree”

This particular tree would also play an historic role in the liberties secured by the state, when the Crown threatened to impose a new charter. The old charter disappeared from a nearby tavern where “negotiations” with the King’s representatives were taking place. Hid, in a crevice in the trunk of the ancient oak, the thief waited out until the representatives left the tavern in frustration, the old charter remained in place and the new destroyed in a joyful fire.

picture of a “trail tree” courtesy of LCDM

Early settlers, and certainly their children, would learn of the numerous Indian “trail trees” found in the woods along old trails. Trees that had been shaped by tying with sinew, or placing large boulders on the limbs of young saplings, in order to show the way in a place of uncertainty.

Despite this evidence and the longstanding veneration of trees by Native Americans, historians have had a difficult time in recognizing these influences. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger acknowledges the significance of these “outstanding historical incidents” centered around great trees, but speculates further that

“The old English practice of the Maypole-a sort of denuded tree-may also have had an influence on the colonies” [13]

Other historians have cited the religious association with trees that was also prevalent during his period. Certainly the “Tree of Life” resuscitated a long used Protestant symbol of Christianity, although this was also an Iroquois tradition

The iconic “family tree” was also introduced during the Colonial period within embroidery or drawings in journals of individual Americans.

John Nagerty’s “Tree of Life” Baltimore 1791

In an essay on the Liberty Tree, Alfred F. Young returns to the secular interpretation of the May pole as an influence, citing the uniqueness of Boston within the colonies of “appropriating English traditions and turning them upside down.,” as well as the likelihood of colonists drawing upon the Oak as a long standing symbol from their homeland.

More importantly to this work, Young debunks the earlier association with trees and historical events, citing his and others assertions that these legends did not appear until after the revolution, when the symbolic fervor of the liberty tree had the colonies in its hold. But to do so, and state so off-handedly that

“Although there were no special trees with political associations, trees in general were much veneered by the colonists”,

is to sweep aside the traditions of oral history that existed before these legends appeared in print and the importance such oral traditions held within Native American communities as well as those communities of early settlers before the Revolution.  M. Scott Momaday writes of this tradition most eloquently:

“Language was their element. Words, spoken words, were the manifestations of their deepest belief, of their deepest feelings, of their deepest life. When Europeans first came to America, having had writing for hundreds of years, and lately the printing press, they could not conceive of the spoken word as sacred, could not understand the American Indian’s profound belief in the efficacy of language.”

Written accounts of treaties throughout the Colonial period testify to the importance of oral history and the ceremony of recounting that history amid important agreements that would shape future history, with speeches and arguments before witnesses in council.  This tradition became a focal point for negotiations and was accepted, sometimes grudgingly, by Colonial Governors.

Henry De Puy’s A Bibliography of the English Colonial Treaties leads us to several examples. In a letter preparing his envoys for negotiations with the six nations, Robert Dinwiddle instructs the men to read his letter to the tribal representatives, but that “ as they are tedious in their councils they probably will require some time to answer it…”

And when they did answer, it was often with a frankness that came to typify an attitude of resistance to European ambitions. In fact, it was a defensive posture against continued encroachment, and increasing poverty. At the aforementioned council, the response was particularly pointed:

“We have had frequent promises from the Governor of South Carolina, to build us a fort, and it was stipulated at a treaty held…last summer, when we signed a release for our lands to the great King George; but we do not find, that the Governor has made the least preparations for performing this engagement. Wherefore, we are sorry to tell you, that we don’t much rely on him.”

The chief continues to complain about the lack of trade with Virginia, and that

“The trade we have with Carolina is not sufficient to supply us with necessaries, which you may judge from our nakedness”.

The Cherokee chief Ocanastosa complained to Indian superintendent John Stewart in 1767 that

“The lands we gave you will last long, but the clothe and other necessaries with which you supply us, soon wear out”.

Native Americans attached a singular importance to councils and meetings and the resulting treaties with the encroaching Europeans. Often, they preferred to meet in a natural setting, as with the early negotiations with the tribes of the six nations when the Governor of New York was asked to convene in “Mont Real”, or the council held at the fork of the Delaware River with the Minisink in 1758. When facing a grave situation however, the Indians often relented to meeting in the Town Halls or Meetinghouses.

In her volume of “American Historical Trees”, Katharine Stanley Nicholson identifies more than a dozen trees with native historical events tied to them before the Revolution. Surely these legends were not all created after the popularity of the Liberty Tree had taken hold in the American imagination?

Let me return again to the argument that trees as a symbol in American culture were a natural adaptation of veneration already in place, and that their adaptation was made unique to themselves and their efforts at commerce, industry, and ultimately, rebellion.

Perhaps the first sign of the “settlers” adaptation of the symbol of the tree came as early as 1650 with the minting of coins for the Colonies commercial trade.

Early Colonial coin.

The “Pine-Tree” shilling as it became known, bore a unique symbol of the colonies- an American pine, and by stamping its image on the coin celebrated the richness of New England forests and the men who made the masts and planks that became a major export as well as the homegrown industry of shipbuilding. The very symbol of the American pine was a mark of independence. English ships in need of repair during the distant struggles with Spain and France exceedingly prized the same tall timber favored by the Algonquin’s for their longhouses. This timber eventually was adapted into colonial architecture and became known as the “Summer tree”, a long beam that ran lengthwise of the structure.

Trees were depicted upon other colonial coins as well, almost all having some symbolic ties to the region or historical correlation.

Late Pine Tree shilling.

Some fourteen years after the appearance of these coins, flags also adapted the tree as symbolic icons of their sovereignty.

South Fort flag.

The significant symbolism of these flags attests to their ability to unify the colonies in a singular cause, while remaining both symbolically and figuratively, separate and independent.

All bear “the New England symbol for freedom” – the pine tree as it evolved in stature from the earlier coins and banners. The most famous of these (below), is the flag known as the ”Pine Tree Ensign” which was the flag of the Continental Navy, and flown on the masts of her contingent of ships since 1776, when first flown by Commander Ezak Hopkins’ of Rhode Island.

Replica of the fabled Pine Tree Flag flown by Hopkins

Trees also came to serve a manner of ceremony to colonial religious meetings. As early as 1750, the Quaker Fox was preaching to local Indians beneath a pair of great trees that remained standing long after his outdoor “meetings” and bore his name long after. Methodists also came to the woods and meadows to preach to the Native Americans.

Whitefield preaching an outdoor sermon in the Great Awakening.

More significantly, Americans fully adapted this ceremony beneath the trees in the wave of the first “awakening” of religious fervor in the 1740’s. Much has been written about this period of unloosening from the stiff collared Anglican restraints upon its parishioners. I also, have written about Jonathan Mayhew and the roving “black regiments” of ministers who traveled the Colonies to preach in meetinghouses and great outdoor meetings. Granted, not all evangelical meetings were held outdoors. Often the cause initially, was the overflow of people gathered from the church or meeting house. But as the meetings swept over New England, and in the subsequent tide of years became more popular, the necessity of outdoor gatherings brought many to these same historical sites beneath the trees.

As I mentioned, this marked a significant break from the hold of the church and its rules and restrictions, its rank of citizens, As Peter Charles Hoffer writes:

“The traditional site of preaching was the meetinghouse, now it was the fields. The scale of preaching had exploded, from the congregation to the crowd, sometimes numbering in the thousands. For the churched, it must have been an overwhelming experience. Rank dissolved, for there were no pews and hence, no seating privileges.  Family name and contributions meant little, as worshippers stood side by side…”[14]

Evangelists like the popular George Whitefield, Eleazor Wheelock, and Jonathan Edwards, as well as a host of other “vagrant, strolling preachers” hosted revival meetings in towns large and small. The great outdoor meetings became noted as well for the acceptance of women and slaves into their gatherings. Women were sometimes participants in leading services and often-vocal participants in gatherings of emotional fervor.

Slave owners noted too, that curiosity drew their slaves to these meetings, in order to witness what Mechal Sobel has noted was

“the first time slaves saw whites responding to a religious demand with the totality of their being, and participating in religious trances, shouts, mourning, and rebirth.”

Owners worried that the outbursts of Whitefield and other preachers who believed religion and civil rights to be branches of the same great tree, would encourage rebellion among the black population. While the awakening eventually quieted down, the impact of this great loosening had taken hold, and emboldened those among the lower classes, who never forgot the semblance of equality that those meetings had created. As Gary Nash succinctly explains:

“Such forays into political activism, first nurtured during the Great Awakening,

had a cumulative effect. A sense of their own power grew as their trust in those above them diminished and as their own experience expanded in making decisions,

exercising leadership roles, and refuting those who were supposed to be wiser because they were wealthier. Hence, factional politics intensified in the late colonial period, As never before, members of the lower ranks began to act for and of themselves…”[15]

As the impact of the French and Indian war was felt in New England, and the subsequent depression of the 1760’s was exacerbated by actions of the Crown, this population of laborers, shoemakers, and itinerant workers became an often violent and unruly force in the fight for liberty.

When Samuel Adams and his “loyal nine” chose the tree on which to post their proclamations against the King and hang their effigies, they doubtless chose the already ancient elm along a stretch of busy highway, as it was certain to be viewed by merchants and other travelers entering and leaving Boston. What these men, who later proclaimed themselves the “Sons of Liberty” could not have foreseen, was the power with which the symbolism took hold of the public imagination. As Young

notes in his essay,

“The actions around the tree in 1765-66 brought into play the social classes that contended with each other in the resistance to Britain in the decade that followed: the “better sort” (some 150 to 200 export-import merchants at the apex of Boston’s economy and society); the “middling” sort (master artisans, shopkeepers, and professionals); and the “lower sort” (artisans in the “inferior” trades, journeymen, apprentices, day laborers, seamen and sometimes Negroes).”[16]

Though the Merchants who made up the “Loyal Nine” made alliances and every effort to control “the rabble”, the effort was complicated by the diversity of groups involved. Leadership for acts of protest and mob affairs “flowed from different centers which had to be coordinated, but central control under a single person or group was unlikely.” This sometimes led to unsanctioned actions such as

the destructive mob that gathered outside the mansion of Thomas Hutchinson on August 26th of that feverish summer.

The mob, mostly the South Boston gang led by shoe cobbler Ebenezer Mackintosh, began their destructive route on King Street, breaking windows of houses and then proceeding to Hutchinson’s mansion, where they tore down the garden fence and managed to break in, searching the house for the Governor to demand his declaration against the Stamp Tax. Hutchinson had quite naturally fled the scene, and returned to find the house stripped of its fine wainscoting and wall hangings, and in his words, destroyed

‘ Manuscripts…I had been collecting for 30 years and a great number of public papers in my property”

The mob, unlike the “well dressed gentleman” who’d paraded weeks before in a mostly civil protest, was a mix of Mackintosh’s band, and the usual “rabble” gathered into the organized event: day laborers who’d joined the mob on their way home from work, free blacks and sometime slaves, and, as Peter Charles Hoffer has written,

“There must have been Algonquin’s among the mob that pulled down Hutchinson’s house.”

One inhabitant recalled later the hours of war whoops and Indian like cries that she endured before the mob invaded. This was, perhaps, the first instance of our adaptation of the Native American as a symbol of independence, resistance and protest.

In an effort to gain control of the escalating events, the Sons of Liberty held an official dedication of the Liberty Tree at the end of that summer on September 12th,

and thereafter the grounds were a gathering place for protest and oratory, a town

meeting for those excluded by lack of property from Boston’s civic code that prohibited the labor classes from attending government assemblies or voting.

Within the year, communities around Boston such as Braintree, Dedham,

and further away in Newport, Rhode Island and Charleton, New York, had designated ‘Liberty Trees” or poles, as was the “tree” in Dedham, and the pine mast erected in New York opposite the British barracks on the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Tax.  In the years that followed, more communities adapted this symbol either by designating already historical tees as meeting sites, or erecting “flagstaffs” in a central location. These trees became the focal point in communities for protest and other assemblies.

These included events organized by the local “chapters” of the Sons of Liberty, and those acts which historians have used to associate the trees with crime and bloodshed. The resultant tug of war continued through the decade leading to the famous “tea party”, and culminated in Samuel Adams and his follower’s adaptation of the Native American to carry out the deed of protest.

Young asserts in his essay that the disguises were “merely meant to frighten”. though the last real Indian conflict in New England was already a century past. The French and Indian war’s impact was not in the burning of houses or raids that terrified residents, rather it had been in the loss of men on what then seemed distant battlegrounds, and the loss of incomes at home. No one was fooled or frightened by the “Mohawks” or “Indians from Narragansett” as another eyewitness called them.

This was not only an adaptation of that symbol of Independence first raised by those early protestors, but, as Hoffer explains

“their costumes were not meant to hide, but to send a message…. a message of American liberty…for who were the paradigmatic symbols of liberty in the new world? British cartoonists had long depicted America as an Indian”[17]

and James Loewen who has criticized the absence of Native American influence in textbooks declares simply

“When colonists took action to oppose unjust authority, as in the Boston Tea Party…they chose to dress as American Indians, not to blame Indians for the demonstrations, but to appropriate a symbol identified with liberty.”[18]

This signifies that the “rabble” had won over those Sons of Liberty who had tried to contain them for so long. Samuel Adams’ grudging acceptance of those unruly patriots who had propagated “crimes” against tax collectors and loyalist merchants, was not without purpose, for who better to carry out an act of sabotage, and further deeds if needed? The adaptation of their symbol was not lost on him either, the days of dressing as civil gentleman and leading parades was long past.  The movement to advance liberty had to be united, above all else.

As events unfolded from rebellion into Revolution, the symbol of the Native American continued to play a role in the conflict. American cartoonists adapted the British “savage” and transformed the icon into a proud symbol standing tall against the Empire. Virginia militiamen adapted Indian dress in breeches and moccasins and the method of fighting that Native Americans had chosen long

before the Redcoats marched through the fields.

Some historians in the last thirty years have begun to explore the contribution

of Native Americans to what later became the United States of America. Most acknowledge the important agricultural, forestry, hunting, and fighting skills that enabled early colonists who learned from the Indians to survive. Others, like Gary Nash have explored the integration of white Europeans with Native Americans, and black slaves as well, and the resulting mélange of race that is the true American. Still others have gone further and stated that the Native American form of government was a direct influence upon the founders. Others speculate that early

writings of the councils and civil society Native Americans had established inspired philosophers like Rousseau and Montaigne, and that these writings impressed

those ideals upon Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams.

Native historian John Mohawk, perhaps one of the most proficient writers and editors on Native American history, states

“Those who deny that American Indian cultures influenced and even inspired

the colonist’s ideas about democracy and the way in which they structured their government are arguing that these developments were the product of independent invention. Independent invention is at least as difficult to prove as cultural diffusion, and is quite rare in human history.”

To those, like the victorious American generals who immediately attempted to link our new nation with the examples of Rome or Greek democracy, Mohawk simply writes: “it was not necessary to look abroad”.

This symbol of the Native American as fiercely independent, and thus, American, has remained and resurfaced even in modern times with the same resonance as it once held on that night in Boston’s Harbor.

Liberty Trees were to be remembered as well, though their impermanence was often a liability. Boston’s liberty tree was cut down when British troops occupied the city in 1775, but trees in outlying colonies had by then become iconic symbols of their own. Local Sons of Liberty chapters had become  “Committees of Safety” by this time, a sophisticated network of farmers, merchants, itinerant workers, seamen and others who formed local militia’s, spied on British movements, and passed communications frequently along the length of the colonies. Their most trusted horseman was Paul Revere of Boston, who had made five successful rides to New York and Pennsylvania before his legendary “midnight ride” to the neighboring town of Lexington.

The trees themselves remained revered meeting places long after the colonies had won the “liberty” they desired, and they remained an iconic political symbol after the war as well.  In 1798, during the height of the Sedition Act, a “ commoner and itinerant political agitator” named David Brown travelled throughout Massachusetts lecturing against the act, and the continuing struggle for farmers, merchants and laborers to have their voice heard in the fledgling democracy. In Dedham, Brown’s lectures incited the gathered citizens to raise a liberty pole in protest of “the sins and enormities of the Government”.  But less than two decades after the efforts of those original patriots, the elites had taken control once again, and were already raising the first curtain of myth draped upon the story of the Revolution. The local government responded by taking down the liberty pole, and admonishing the act as a “rallying point of insurrection and civil war”.

In time these Federalists would realize that there was little good to come of slander, cajoling, or attempt to tamp down the factions that continued to push America toward a more fair democracy. These descendants of the “rebels, ruffians, and Jack-Tar boys” in John Adams description had leveled the boundaries once drawn by class, and would not be subservient, or left without the liberties of freedom of speech and representation again.

August- October 2009


[1] Kertzer, David “ Rituals of Revolution” pp162

[2] A rough translation of the Old German text below the illustration and provided by Dennis Landry of the JCB reads: They exercise their young men with running and give them a certain bauble, which is secured by the one who can run the longest. They are also well trained in shooting with a bow, Thereafter they play with a ball in the following way: in a broad field, a tree is set up 8 or 9 cubits high; on it is placed a four sided object woven from rushes. The one who hits it with balls receives a special reward. Beyond that they have much enjoyment with hunting and fishing.

[4] Kupperman, Karen Ordahl “ Settling with the Indians” pp 156

[5] Nash, Gary “Forbidden Love: The Secret History of Mixed-Race America” pp27

[6] Calloway, Colin G. “ The World Turned Upside Down” pp 10

[7] Williams, Roger “a Key into the Language of America” Applewood edition pp180

[8] Ibid pp13 Of Eating and Feasting

[9] Fisher, Linford D. “Native Americans, Conversion, and Christian Practice in Colonial New England 1640-1730

[10] Ibid pp124

[11] Morgan, Edmund “The Unyielding Indian” from “American Heroes” pp52-53

[12] Nicholson, Katharine Stanley “ American Historical Trees” 1922

[13] Schlesinger, Arthur M. “ The Liberty Tree: A Genealogy” The New England Quarterly, Dec 1952

[14] Hoffer, Peter Charles “Sensory worlds in Early America” pp177

[15] Nash, Gary “Red, White, and Black” pp 269

[16] Young, Alfred F. “The Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution” pp 331

[17] Hoffer, Charles Peter “ The Revolution of the Senses: Sensory Worlds in Early America” pp 233

[18] Loewen, James “ Lies My Teacher told Me” pp 111

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Plain Speaking:Native American Articulation on European Encroachment and its Consequences.


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Plain Speaking: Native American Articulation on European Encroachment and Its Consequences.

by Robert A. Geake

oft have I heard these Indians say These English will deliver us Of all that’s ours, our lands and lives In the end, they’ll bereave us.

Roger Williams

Native Americans from the time of Columbus’ errant landing have been recorded as having made their European visitors welcome, treating them with respect as they also expected to be treated, having a long history as a people in their native land. Accounts of early European encounters reflect this respect, as do many narratives, travel journals, and diaries of the pre-colonial period; representing also, the tremendous curiosity that Europeans had for the indigenous tribes of the new world.

This curiosity became more apparent with the publication of treaties with the English colonists. The words of Native American speakers were duly recorded, and while sometimes abbreviated or transmuted in translation, sometimes suspect to having been “improved” upon a printer’s tray; the overall narrative left by those Native Americans is one of concern for the land and for their people.

From the beginnings of European encroachment in North America, native peoples voiced their concern publicly and privately in council with sachems within the over forty tribes that covered the Eastern forests alone. As early as 1642, a Narragansett Sachem, and benefactor of Roger Williams named Miantonomo, told a gathering where a treaty with the Colony of Massachusetts was being debated :

“(O)ur (F)athers had plenty of deer and skins, our plains were full of deer, as also our woods, and of turkies, and our coves full of fish and fowle. But these English have gotten our land, they with scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved.”

Roger Williams may have been thinking of his friend with the words he wrote that prefaced this essay. But Miantonomo was not alone in voicing his fear for the future of his people. What has come to light in researching this essay is not that the Sachem’s words were so prophetic, but that they were repeated again and again through subsequent councils and treaty ceremonies for the next two hundred and fifty years. Perhaps equally prophetic, is the fact that Miantonomo’s words went unheeded, though he’d paddled the treacherous waters of Long Island Sound to give the Montauks his advice. Furthermore, he was betrayed by some of those who’d attended the council.

Upon hearing of his capture during the Narragansett and Mohegan War two years later, the Puritan authorities instructed the Mohegans to rid them of troublesome Sachem. The Massachusetts Bay Colony obtained the treaty they wanted, as well as a sizeable portion of land that further drove natives from their homes. Miantonomo’s tribe, would send an Act of Submission to the English King Charles I, seeking protection from the New Englander’s who coveted their land. Some of his people would join the Wamapanoag grandson of the sachem who first befriended Roger Williams, known as King Philip, who  would  become the image of early Native resistance.

With the early European interest in Native societies, the narratives of these ceremonies, dry as they sometimes could be, became a kind of literature unto itself, chiefly because it gave the reading public in the Colonies and Great Britain, as well as France, Germany, and Spain, a glimpse into the true Native society through the words of Native speakers.

These treaties and narratives were among the most widely read literature of the Colonial period in both Britain and America. This led in effect, to the tragic symmetry of Native Americans losing their populations and their homeland, even as English born men ignorant of their plight fostered a growing admiration for the Indians simplified lifestyle, their civic equality and reverence for ceremony; as well as their boldness of argument, and eloquence of speech.

As Henry De Puy writes in the introduction to his A Bibliography of Native American Treaties with the English Colonies:

“ while some “reporters” were not “consciously intent” upon representing the Indian view, others, buoyed by the enlightenment and the openness these “new” societies offered, found “evidence of language as politically, as philosophically effective as any of those in Europe.”

De Puy’s exhaustive and invaluable bibliography shows the first surviving printed treaty to be from 1677. In a synopsis of each treaty, a growing awareness is reflected from the pages, an imbedding of Native culture into at these “ceremonies” with Europeans in which so much was at stake.

In the synopsis of the first treaty of Albany in 1690. De Puy notes:

“The object of the council seems to have been the offering of condolences for the massacre at Schenectady and to advise what measures might be taken.”

This ceremony, known as the “consolation of the dead” was considered essential to Native Americans before they would sit in any council. As Pham writes, “For them, it was unthinkable to sit down in council and begin talking while the “bloodstains” still lingered on the clothes of the negotiators.”[1]

This became one solemn ceremony that had its place in all subsequent treaty ceremonies, which later recorded the proceedings that followed “after the usual condolences.” The native practice of relating an oral history of earlier European encounters and agreements became common as well. The Indians were, in one reporter’s notes, “fond of memory”, and so the treaties are a kind of anthology of native voices; replete with an eloquence often voiced in desperation, a boldness of statement at the continuing encroachment upon native land and the bothersome affairs in which Europeans sought to involve the Indians.

The famous Pell Treaty

One of the first publisher’s of Indian treaties in America was Samuel Green of Boston who published the Propositions Made by the Sachems of the three Maquas Castles, to the Mayor, Alderman, and Community of the City of Albany in 1689. The interpreters for Mayor Pieter Schuyler and the “ten more gentlemen” are listed as Arnout and Hille, This edition was sold in the London Coffee House of Benjamin Harris. and within this treaty, we find recorded, one of the first recorded instances of misgivings that Native Americans might have concerning the issue of encroachment between two opposing European empires:

“ We were engaged in a Bloody war with the French, about three years ago, and were encouraged to Proceed, and no sooner were we well Entred, and got several Prisoners, but a Cessation came and Corlaer hindred us to proceed, and Demanded the Prisoners from us; we were Obedient and did deliver them, and laid down the Hatchet, which if we might have gone forward, then the French would not have been in that Capacity to do so much mischief as they do; But now we must dye; Such obstructions will Ruine us ;if we might have had our wills, we would have prevented their Planting, Sowing, and Reaping, and brought them low and mean; Nevertheless let us be steadfast and not take such measures again, let us go on briskly with the war…”[2]

A New York publisher named William Bradford, brought out editions of the subsequent Albany Treaties in 1694, 1696, and with the Propositions Made by the Five Nations of Indians in 1698, records again the voice of dissent to the encroaching European conflicts. The Indians present complained of attacks from the French and their Indian allies even after peace had been declared. The high prices of goods are rendering them poor, and most notably, the representatives took the opportunity to correct the Governor on past treaties and promises left unfulfilled.

A treaty printed the following year by the Greens of Boston gives witness to the contempt some government officials had for this ceremony, with the result being that the “Sachems and chief men of the eastern Indians leaving the conference” in a hasty, abrupt manner without taking leave, and left behind them their English colours.” Subsequent treaties published by Andrew Bradford in Philadelphia in 1721 and 1722, and the publication by Benjamin Eliot of Boston of the Conference with the Eastern Indians held in Falmouth in 1726, along with the later publication by the Greens of the Conference with Eastern Indians…in Casco Bay highlight the disparity between the ways that Colonial governments regarded the Indians, displaying a reverence and respect for the confederacy of the Six Nations, while further demoralizing the Eastern tribes who had long been decimated by disease and poverty. As de Puy writes in his summary of the 1732 conference:

“ One cannot read this treaty and not be struck with the differences between the methods used with Eastern Indians and the method followed by New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia with the Six Nations and kindred tribes. all these latter conferences were marked by great dignity and the following of set forms. No speech ever went unanswered and it was seldom answered the same day but only after taking time for deliberation. At Falmouth, Governor Belcher replied to the Indian speeches at once and pressed the Indians for immediate answers. They told him they did things only after deliberating among themselves, but it made no difference to the Governor, nor did he mark his answers with presents as the Indians did.”[3]

The young Franklin at his press. Courtesy sfi.edu

Benjamin Franklin was rather a latecomer to the printing of treaties, with his press bringing out the “Treaty of Friendship” in 1736, and advertising the publication in the Pennsylvania Gazette. A second treaty published in Pennsylvania by Franklin was later printed in London with an introduction to Indian History by Dr. John Fothergill.

It is Franklin’s treaties that have been quoted from most often by those scholars seeking to address Indian articulation, and with good reason. Franklin’s treaties were authenticated by the Native American speeches  translated by Conrad Weiser, considered the foremost white expert on Indian Languages of his time. He and Franklin often attended the ceremonies and worked together on the presentation of the folio editions that Franklin’s press brought out. Franklin would print out 13 treaties in folio form between 1736 and 1760, These were sold to a high end market of customers through booksellers after editions had been distributed to government officials. Cheaply printed editions sold well in coffee houses and book stalls both in America and Great Britain.

Franklin’s publication of the Albany Treaty in 1746 was translated into German by Christopher Saur, and by 1755, Gentleman’s Magazine had published Indian speeches from the Conference in Albany for it’s readers, the editor stating that

“ not only the sense of the Indians…but some strains of native eloquence, which might have done honor to Tully and Demosthenes.”

In his noteworthy introduction The Indian Treaties Published by Benjamin Franklin, reprinted by the Pennsylvania Historic society in 1938,

Charles Van Doren pointedly states that the treaties were printed to be as Government documents, but that dismisses Franklin’s shrewd assessment of an interest in the Native population of America, and his own growing awareness of the value of learning from native communities.

Franklin’s treaties made a celebrity of sorts of the sachem Canassatego. During a treaty ceremony held in 1742, he was a sent as the representative of the Six Nations, and while acknowledging the “league of friendship” which brought them together, this did not prevent him from speaking plainly before the white commissioners:

Representation of the meeting with Six Nations at the Ceremonial fire.

“We know our lands are now become more valuable; the white people think we do not know their value, but we are sensible that the land is everlasting, and the few goods we receive for it are soon worn out and gone….besides, we are not well used with respect to the Lands still unsold by us. Your people daily settle on these lands, and spoil our Hunting. We must insist on your removing them.”

In the Lancaster Treaty of 1744, Canassatego was again in the forefront of the Native speakers, reminding them of their place in these ceremonies:

Artist John Kahionhes Fadden’s interpretation of the Iriquois Chief addressing the Colonial leaders in Lancaster, PA.

“…we must tell you that long before One Hundred Years our ancestors came out of this very Ground, and their Children have remained here ever since. You came out of the Ground in a country that lies beyond the Seas, there you may have a just claim, but here you must allow us to be your elder Brethren and the Lands to belong to us long before you knew any thing of them.”


He extolled the whites to form a coalition much like the Five Nations had done:

“Our wise Forefathers established Unity and Amiy between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations.

We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore, whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.”

Despite the Pennsylvania Governor’s short sighted, but polite dismissal of the speech, Canassatego’s words reverberated with readers throughout the colonies and presaged our own bonding before the Revolution.

For the remainder of the eighteenth century, Canassatego was perhaps the most publicized Native American, with numerous descriptions and even a fictional account of his travels and accomplishments printed some years after his death in 1750. As Bruce E. Johansen notes in his essay on the sachem’s popular speech in Lancaster: “Carried by Benjamin Franklin’s fecund pen, Canassatego’s admonition of colonial union echoed throughout the colonies for most of the eighteenth century. Commissioners of the rebelling colonies cited Canassatego’s advice regarding colonial union from Franklin’s treaty account more than thirty years later as they sought alliance with the Iriquois against the English on the eve of the Revolutionary war.”[4]

Overshadowed by this legendary sachem’s words however, were the words of lesser voices who echoed the earlier misgivings and warnings from sachems like Miantonomo.

In response to the Governor of Virginia’s scurrilous claim of land promised in earlier correspondence, the sachem Tachanoontia replied tersely

“we have the right of Conquest, a Right too dearly purchased, and which cost us too much Blood, to give up without any Reason at all, as you say we have done at Albany…”

the sachem challenged the Governor

“ if you would let us see the Letter, and inform us who was the Interpreter, and whose names are put to that Letter…” and urges that

“ this Matter can easily be cleared up, we are anxious it should be done; for we are positive no such thing was ever mentioned to us at Onadage, nor any where else.”

Tachanootia was obliged to bring up another longstanding dispute, explaining to the Governor that affairs had become so urgent that

we cannot avoid complaining” , though he was hopeful that matters would be settled and justice prevail in the future. This dispute was one of boundaries, and again a continued encroachment upon Native land. The sachem explained:

“ After we left Albany, we brought our Road a great deal more to the west , that we might comply with your proposal; but, tho it was of your own making, your People never observed it, but came and lived on our side of the hill, which we don’t blame you, as you live at a great Distance, near the Seas, and cannot be thought to know what your People do in the Back-parts.”

The sachem acknowledged that this encroachment had caused some natives to harm the settler’s cattle, and that after a complaint was issued to the Governor,

“we, at his Request, altered the Road again, and brought it to the Foot of the Great Mountain, where it now is; and it is impossible for us to remove it any further to the West, those parts of the country being absolutely impassable by either Man or Beast. We had not been long in Use of this new Road before your People came, like Flocks of Birds, and sat down on both sides of it…”[5]

Another attendee of that summers conference was more blunt in telling the Governor that the Atlantic Ocean was God’s proof that the English belonged on the other side:

“The World at the first was made on the other Side of the Great Water different from what it is on this Side, as may be known by the different Colours of our Skin, and of our Flesh, and that which you call Justice may not be so amongst us….”

He also questioned the integrity of the English who sought yet another treaty:

“You know very well when the white people first came here they were poor, but now they have got our Lands, and are by them become rich and we are now poor; what little we have had for the land goes soon away, but the Land lasts forever.”[6]

By the time of the Seven Years War, tribes were often divided from each other and also from within, as the testimony of the “principle warrior” speaking at a hastily called meeting, hints at the growing generational divide within the Six Nations:

“When the Indians received the first message from the English, they thought the English and the French would fight with one another at Sea, and not suffer war to be made upon the Land.”

When the British told Nations that the French were attacking neighboring Indian Colonies and urged them to “ take up the hatchet” against the invaders, the speaker reminds those assembled that not everyone took the bait.

“The Old Men at Onondago…refused to do this, and would ahere to the Neutrality; and on declaring this, the English sent other Messengers again and again… at last, the young Indians, the Warriors, and Captains, consulted together, and resolved to take up the English hatchet against the will of their Old People, and to lay their Old People aside, as of no use but in time of peace.”

Resigned to this, the “Warrior” had called the meeting to ask that the Indians “be furnished with better weapons, such as will knock the French down”.[7]

In October of 1753, Franklin began his distinguished career as a diplomat by attending a treaty council at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At this treaty with the Iroquois and Ohio Indians (the Twigtees, Delawares, Shawnees, and Wyandots), Franklin absorbed the rich imagery and ideas of the Six Nations at close range[8]

No doubt as Franklin listened, he would recognize a familiar litany from the galleys he’d read through the years. This time however, he would hear the words in person.

Your people not only trade with us in our towns, but disperse themselves over a large and wide extended country, in which reside many nations…

The Governor of Virginia desires leave to build a strong house in Ohio, which came to the Ears of the Governor of Canada; and we suppose this caused him to invade our Country. We do not know his intent, because he speaks with two tongues…We desire that Pennsylvania and Virginia would at present forbear settling on our Lands, over the Allegheny Hills. we advise you rather to call your people back, on this side of the hills, lest damage should be done, and you think ill of us.”[9]

Franklin also heard of the toll that was being taken on the longstanding native economy.

“You have more traders than are necessary, and they spread themselves over our wide country…”

and that

“The English goods are sold at too dear a rate for us…” as well as one of the earliest articulations about the growing problem of alcoholism:

“Your traders now bring scarce any thing but rum and flour. The Rum ruins us…We never understood the trade was to be for whiskey and flour. We desire that it be forbidden, and none sold in Indian Country.”

that the traveling salesmen brought to the tribes:

“These wicked whiskey sellers, when they have once got the Indians in Liquor, make them sell their very clothes from their backs-in short, if this practice is continued, we must be inevitably ruined”

It was interesting to note in researching this essay, that within the preface to his important book Alcohol and Native Americans, Peter Mancall states that

the Indian population probably did not absorb enough alcohol to develop the

illnesses associated with alcoholism. Yet fifty years after Scarrooyady’s complaint, we find the words of the resistance leader Little Turtle, a sachem of the Miami tribe who for a time had led a formidable alliance which led to a costly battle for union troops.

In 1804 he had left the battles behind, and had seen his native lands ceded by the defeated remnants of his coalition. He addressed the problem of alcoholism before legislators in Ohio and Kentucky, urging them to pass laws restricting the trade of whiskey that had become so prevalent in Indian lands. He told the legislators that the whiskey traders had

“stripped the poor Indian of skins, guns, blankets, everything-while his squaw and the children dependent on him lay starving and shivering in the wigwam.”

According to Bruce E. Johansen, the states did nothing to stop the flow of whiskey into Indian territory, and that often, the liquor was “adulterated with other substances from chili powder to arsenic.”[10]

It may have been that Franklin, while working on his efforts of colonization and the framing of the Albany Plan, had felt that the legacy of principles and self-government might be all the Indians might leave for future generations. Like many idealistic founders, Franklin and others viewed the Native problem with more affection than their neighbors, who viewed the “Savages” as a remnant of a people left behind the march of progress into modern times.

To admire, and to a point romanticize the idealized lifestyle that the Native American once lived as did Franklin, Jefferson, and other founders, was also to soften the death knell for tribes that continued to suffer under government policies that bent toward favor of those expansionist interests.

When those speculators sought more land, they would often find “treaty Indians” to parley with, Native Americans who impoverished, or induced by alcohol, freely “sold” their lands without the consent of tribal leaders or their neighboring Indians.

As these interests effectively “boxed” in the Native Americans or pushed along their removal, voices of dissent grew shriller, and at times led to violence within the disputed territories.

In the Summer of 1756, during a gathering in Easton, Connecticut, it is Scarrooyady who addresses this growing concern:

Harken to what I am going to say: I desire, in the most solemn manner, that what I now relate is the truth. Abundance of Confusion, Ddisorder, and Distraction has arisen among the Indians, from people taking upon them to be Kings and Persons of Authority. In every tribe of Indians, there have been such pretenders, who have held treaties, sometimes publick, and sometimes in the bushes; sometimes what these people did came to be known, but frequently it remained in darkness…this bred, among the Indians great heart-burnings and quarrels, and I can asure you, that the present clouds do, in a great measure, owe their rise to this wild and irregular way of doing business.”

In a conference again in Easton, in November of that year, the speaker representing the Six Nations is Teedyuscung of the Delawares, who endeavored to” tell the Truth from the Bottom of my Heart”, and reminds Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor William Denny, that “ The times are not now as they were in the Days of our Grandfathers; then it was Peace, but now War and Distress… The King of England, and of France , have settled, or wrought this Land, so as to coop us up, as if in a Pen. Our foolish and ignorant young Men, when they saw the Proceeding of this Enemy, and the Things that were told them, believed them, and were persuaded by this false- hearted King, to strike our Brethren the English…but this is not the principal Cause; some Things that have passed in former Times, both in this and other Governments, were not well pleasing to the Indians; indeed they thought them wrong…”

When asked by the Governor to be more specific and to “speak his Mind freely and without any reserve”, the King can barely restrain his annoyance.

“ Brother, you have not so much Knowledge of Things, done in this Country, as others who have lived longer in it, being, but lately, come among us-I have not far to go for an Instance: This very Ground, that is under me (striking it with his Foot) was my Land and Inheritance, and is taken from me, by Fraud;….When I have sold Lands fairly, I look upon them to be really sold- a Bargain is a Bargain—Though I have sometimes had nothing for the Lands I have sold, but broken Pipes, or such Trifles…Yet, I think, I should not be ill used on this Account, by those very People, who have had such an advantage in their Purchases, nor be called a Fool for it. Indians are not such fools, as to bear this in their Minds…Now, although you have purchased our Lands from our forefathers on so reasonable Terms, yet, now at length, you will not allow us to cut a little Wood to make a fire, nay, hinder us from Hunting, the only Means left us of getting our Livelihood”

Unswayed by this argument, the Governor asks Teedyuscung what he meant by “Fraud”, and the Delaware replied:

“ When one Man had, formerly, Liberty to purchase Lands, and he took the deed from the Indians for it, and then dies; after his Death, the Children forge a Seed, like the true One, with the same Indian Names to it, and thereby, take Lands from the Indians, which they never sold-this is Fraud.”

The Sachem also referred to Lands sold fraudulently by Europeans to other Europeans in the territories, a further cause of strife outside the Native communities.

Several days later, after conferring with the lawyers in his company, Denny returned to the council with his answer, acknowledging Teedyuscungs words that

“ I have come lately among you;” but continuing: the Grievances you mention are of old Date. If former Indian Kings have, as you say, sometimes sold more Land, than they had a right to sell, in so doing they injured us, and we, as well as you, have Cause to complain of them- but sometimes, though they sold no more that their own, they sold it fairly, and it was honestly paid for, by the English; yet when the Indian Children grow up, they may forget that their Fathers sold the Lands, and divided the Goods; and some evil Spirit, or bad Man, that loves to make Mischief, may tell them,

the Land is still yours; your Fathers never sold it; the Writings are false. Moreover, many people, both English and Indians, concerned in the former Purchase of Lands, are now dead; and as you do not understand Writings and Records, it may be hard for me to satisfy you, of the Truth…”

Such a condescending response was not tempered by the Lieutenant Governor declaring that “you shall have immediate Satisfaction, whether it be justly due to you or not”, that “satisfaction” being more in the way of “trifles”, which in this case consisted of pieces of cloth, ribbon, fish hooks, kettles, shirts, hats, and a handful of coats as well as 100 pounds of gunpowder and 200 pounds of lead shot.

As events drew the Europeans into their respective Revolutions, native resistance grew as well. Some tribes chose sides while others remained neutral and were further ostracized by speculators still greedy for Land, displaced by the war, or voluntarily abandoned the lands of their ancestors and merged with friendly tribes living within the fringe of those territories.

Native resistance drew forth some strong leaders who left a further legacy in later narratives within treaties or eyewitness accounts. These included Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket as he came to be known for the British redcoat he was prone to wear on ceremonial occasions.

His oratory was known for its bluntness and sharpness of tongue. At a meeting arranged by the victorious Americans at Fort Niagara after the war, when presented an American flag by Captain James Bruff, the Seneca chief responded in their meeting two days later:

Brother, you have presented us a flag of your nation and hope that the American stars may enlighten the 6 Nations and their western brethren. We accept the flag but must remark that our chiefs have never been much enlightened by them, except when you have burnt our towns where they have been flying….”

It is also within this speech that Sagoyewatha uttered his famous assessment of these new Americans:

“You are a cunning people without sincerity  and not to be trusted…”

The Shawnee Native Tecumsah was another resistance leader who sought to ally the Indians against the continued encroachment that surged with the burgeoning of the new nation’s economy and growth at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In a rallying cry to an assembled gathering of Shawnees, Delawares, Ottawas, Ojibwas, Kickapoos, and Wyandots in 1805, Tecumsah asks

the gathering:

“ Where today are the Pequots? where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun…”[11]

October-November 2009

Bibliography:

Calloway, Colin G.: The World Turned Upside Down Bedford Books 1994

Du Puy, Henry: A Bibliography of Native American Treaties with the English Colonies New York Historical Society 1922

Franklin, Benjamin: Indian Treaties printed by Ben Franklin Pennsylvania Historic soc. 1938 Intro. by Carl Van Doren

Johansen, Bruce E.: The Native Peoples of North America

Mann, Barbara Alice: Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands Greenwood Press 2001


[1] Pham “English Colonial Treaties With American Indians”

[2] Propositions Made by The Sachems…pp 3-4

[3] De Puy p14

[4] Johansen, Bruce E. “By Your Observing the Methods Our Wise Forefathers Have Taken” from Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands edited by Barbara Alice Mann.

[5] Franklin, Treaties…pp 56-57

[6] Ibid pp 63-64

[7] Treaties…pp108

[8] Johansen, Bruce E. “By your Observing…” p 94

[9] Franklin’s “Treaties With The Indians” pp 101

[10] Johansen, Bruce E. “The Native Peoples of North America”

[11] Johansen, Bruce E. “The Native Peoples of North America”

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Roger Williams and the Narragansett. (from “Triumph and Tragedy in the Name of Liberty”)


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A little more than a century before Rousseau contemplated man in his true state of nature, Roger Williams, a minister who had arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 and after tumultuous stints at preaching in Plymouth and Salem, was banished for inciting views contrary to the church of England.

Among these ideas so offensive to John Winthrop’s court were the first expressions of the argument concerning a separation of church and state and a consequential tolerance of all beliefs.

Williams fled three days before an armed guard arrived to arrest him, leaving Salem and making his way to present day East Providence where he was given a tract of land beside a spring and close by a river.

He was not there long however, when word came from Plymouth’s Governor John Endicott that he was encamped within the Colony’s boundary and must move on again. With the guidance of a Wampanoag, he headed downriver in a canoe and landed in a large cove on the east side of what he came to name Providence.

A small group of Narragansett greeted him when Williams stepped ashore and guided him to a well known path that led along the base of a forested hill where he again set up camp near another freshwater spring that ran into a salt marsh and a cove beyond, just west of the site.[1]

Lest the reader be mislead by the apparent spontaneous generosity of the natives, Williams had befriended these Indians and others long before his expulsion. He earned his living from trade and was alert for ways of expansion. His writing of  “A Key to the Language of North America” was the first extensive guide to the vocabulary of the Algonquin language, or at least the derivative which was spoken by the local Narragansett tribe.

Williams wrote “A Key” during a voyage for London in 1643 where he sought a charter for the colony he’d settled seven years before.

The book impressed the crown and the public. It was printed in London and became a valuable companion for fur trappers who made the perilous but often profitable voyage across the Atlantic.

Pelts of all kinds from North America were a popular luxury in Britain, and hundreds of impoverished would be trappers entered the ranks of those already teeming through the forests of New England. Even later travelers like William Brooks Cabot found “A Key” to be a useful guide to conversing with the few remaining Native Americans he encountered. Williams had stated his intent of the “Key” being of use by missionaries in a nobler pursuit; namely

“ to spread civility and Christianity; for one candle will light ten thousand.”

The uniqueness of Williams’ “Key” was the “ observations” he interspersed throughout the vocabulary, and the portrait of kindness and generosity that Williams gave of what most Europeans still regarded as “savages”.

To his credit, he scoffed at that antiquated notion and wrote

“ I could never discerne that excess of scandalous sins amongst them , which Europe aboundeth with.”

he described their society as a model of co-existence.

“ With friendly joining they breake up their fields, build their Forts, hunt the Woods, stop and kill fish in the Rivers, it being true with them as in all the World in the Affaires of Earth or Heaven…”

These observations penned by Williams contain considerable warmth toward his neighbors, but they came from a man who had a zeal for religious freedom and believed that

“ Nature knows no difference between European and Americans in blood, birth, bodies,&c. God having of one blood made all mankind, Acts 17…”

and scolded his English brethren:

Boast not proud English, of thy birth & blood,

Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good.

Of one blood God made Him, and Thee & All,

As wise, as faire, as strong, as personall.”

Williams forged a number of personal friendships during the seven years he shared their territory before penning “A Key”,  and during that long journey, writing the manuscript by lantern in a pitching sea, he reflected that

“ I have acknowledged amongst them an heart of sensible kindnesses, and have reaped kindness against from many, seven yeares after, when my selfe had forgotten…”

and duly reported that amongst their society,

“ The sociablenesse of the nature of man appears in the wildest of them, who love societie, Families, cohabitation, and consociation of houses and townes together.”

Williams also wrote of their regard for one another.

“ There are no beggars amongst them, no fatherless children unprovided for….their affections, especially to their children, are very strong; so that I have known a Father, take so grievously the loss of his childe, that he hath cut and stobd himselfe with griefe and rage.”

“ A Key to the Language of America” is clearly a pivotal document in providing a true understanding of Native Americans for European readers. The book offers a vivid and compelling window into the life and society that existed outside the confines of the British and French settlements. Most importantly, it gave readers a true and accurate picture of Native life, a life that was very close to what Rousseau imagined before the origins of inequality.

Williams also wrote a tract while in London that was published there as well, entitled “The Bloody Tenant of Persecution” which was in response to the writings of John Cotton. The tract showed Williams to be a thinker far beyond his mission of religious tolerance. As Martha Nussbaum points out,

“ Williams’ experience of finding integrity, dignity and goodness outside the parameters of orthodoxy surely shaped his evolving views of conscience.” [2]

The principles expressed in “ The Bloody Tenant” would be a precursor of John Locke’s work some forty years later.

Williams was an important figure whose legacy is his promotion of “liberty of conscience” in the Colonies. From the moment he founded Providence Plantations under the democratic charter granted him, liberty of conscience was secured. The settlements that had been founded by other puritan dissidents such as Anne Hutchinson, as well as Baptists and Quakers and Jews were united in one government but the majority could make policy “only in civil things”.  And the citizens proved to be as progressive minded as their leader, being the first colony in North America to make slavery illegal in 1652. At least for a time.

In the coming years, Williams continued to preach and write about his ideals, and when time came to renegotiate the charter, his persistence paid off with a willing Charles II, and the result was an astounding document for the times. It gave the colony of Rhode Island unparalleled liberties, setting it apart from the rest of the Colonies and instilling for the first time what would become its continuing legacy of Independence.

“ Noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or call in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of sayd colonye; but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all tyme’s hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoye his and theire owne judgements and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of lande hereafter mentioned; they behaving themselves peaceablie  and quietlie, and not using this libertie to lycentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civill injurye or outward disturbance of others; any lawe, statute, or clause, therin contained,or to be contained,usage or custome of this realme, to the contrary hereof, in any wise, notwithstanding.”

As Nussbaum notes

“ The final provision of this clause is very interesting: the charter guarantees liberty of religious belief and practice even when a law or custom forbids it. In other words, if law says that you have to swear an oath before God to hold public office, this law is nullifie by the charter. Moreover, it appears that the charter nullifies the applicability of laws to individuals when such laws threaten their religious liberty. If a law says that people have to testify on Saturday, and your religion forbids this, then that law is non-applicable  in your case. In other words, it would appear that Williams has forged the concept of accommodation, which soon became widely accepted in the colonies.”[3]


[1] This described Indian path is now South Main Street which runs along the base of College Hill in Providence.

[2] Nussbaum, Martha C. “ Liberty  Of Conscience”  Basic Books 2008

[3] Ibid pp50

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Anthony Benezet and Moses Brown: A Legacy and a Lost Correspondence


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Anthony Benezet and Moses Brown

A Legacy and a Lost Correspondence

A talk by Robert A. Geake to the John Carter Brown Library Fellows Luncheon April 2009

One evening last October, I attended the opening of a new exhibit prepared by Dennis Landis for the John Carter Brown Library entitled “ Islamic Encounters”. Among the rare maps, travel diaries, and letters displayed in the Macmillan Reading room I found a tract by Anthony Benezet entitled

“A Short Account of that part of Africa inhabited by the Negroes, with respect to the Manner by which the Slave Trade is carried on, in order to shew the inequity of that trade”.

This was of interest to me because Benezet’s name had only recently resurfaced after many years. I had learned of his early reforms in education, and that he had taught the children of slaves in part to show their equal capabilities, and that he had founded the first black college in Pennsylvania. At the time of this exhibit, this was the extent of my knowledge of Anthony Benezet. That same evening, I was to meet an independent scholar who engaged me in an enthusiastic conversation about the Quakers and their efforts for fundamental freedoms.

All of this was of interest to me because I had only recently begun to write what I hoped would be in part, a portrait of courageous individuals who forwarded the ideals of liberty and freedom that we are fortunate to live under today.

I began to read more about Benezet and other Quakers who in effect had broken from the long held position of the Friends. This position of the Quakers had been taken from founder George Fox’s decree to Quaker masters that they

“ cause their overseers to deal mildly and gently with their negroes, and not use cruelty toward them, as the manner of some hath been and is, and that after certain years of servitude they should set them free”.

The break with this passive stance was sometimes a dramatic one, as when a radical Quaker by the name of Benjamin Lay, frustrated by the bureaucracy of petitions and letters, published a tract entitled All Slave-Keepers: Apostates and took to the road, traveling through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, breaking the silence in Friends Meeting Houses, even kidnapping children at one point so that members “ felt the pain of the Africans”. After this and even more dramatic episodes, Lay was publicly disowned in 1738 at the Yearly Friends meeting in Philadelphia.

It was not until the 1750’s that Quakers began to uniformly take an activist stance against slavery. A clerk and tailor from New Jersey named John Woolman became an activist after sojourns into the southern colonies where his aversion to slavery was bolstered by seeing first hand the “ vices and corruptions” the trade brought into the territories. Woolman traveled to Pennsylvania and met with Anthony Benezet, where the two collaborated on a critique of slavery, which they hoped would appeal to a broader audience.

Thus, Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes was published at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and distributed to every Meeting house in the colonies and England as well. This tract is widely credited with the official denunciation of the slave trade issued by Friends in London and then Philadelphia later that year, the Friends in Philadelphia taking it a step further and proposing that Friends who currently own slaves, set them free. They Philadelphia Friends also issued edicts against members who bought or sold

slaves from holding church positions, and deputized John Woolman and four other members to visit slave owners and persuade them to acts of manumission.

This he did for five years, traveling to Newport RI in 1760, surrounded by the hogsheads of rum and the human trafficking to rail against the trade and petition the state Assembly. Touring New England and speaking with communities of slave holding families, trekking the marshes and tidal flats of Maryland and Delaware to visit with slave owners in those coastal communities. Eventually he began to see his efforts reach fruition as a wave of acts of manumission spread through the Quaker communities in the late 1760’s.

By the 1770’s Quakers were taking a more pronounced stance in the communities where they lived and began to directly address the legal and economic implications of slavery. William Dillwyn of New Jersey, a Quaker also influenced by the writings of Benezet, produced a pamphlet entitled “Brief Considerations on Slavery, and the Expediency of its Abolition. With some hints on the means whereby it may be Gradually Effected. Recommended to the serious attention of all and especially those entrusted with the Powers of Legislation.”[1]

In his tract Dillwyn pointedly states

” The object therefore, which I now take the liberty of recommending to their attention, has an indisputable claim to it; not only in it’s importance relating to the community, but from a consideration which must give it great additional weight with every generous mind – the incapacity of those on whose behalf it is solicited, to plead their own case.”

But the trade still flourished in Philadelphia and other port cities, especially in New England.

Domestic slavery was a longstanding tradition in the old cities of the colonies, and populations of domestic slaves in cities such as Newport and Providence, Boston and Philadelphia, as well as New York City would continue to grow through the years leading up to the revolutionary war. The grip of this type of slavery, a benign slavery in the minds of many who compared the lives of their slaves to plantations in the Southern colonies, was to outlast almost every other effort to banish slavery altogether.

Certainly this was noticed by Thomas Paine, another Quaker who was literally carried ashore upon arrival in Philadelphia in 1774. Fortunately for Mr. Paine, he had in his possession a stash of letters from his old mentor Ben Franklin, and this certainly secured him a bed during his six weeks of recovery, and his eventual introduction to Philadelphian Society.

Once on his feet, Paine was a frequent visitor to meetings of the Philosophical Society and a frequent listener to the debates that fomented with the brew at the London Coffee House near the boarding house where he roomed. He met Robert Aitken, the publisher of a local paper and was soon writing for, and then editing the Pennsylvania Magazine; and finding not undeservingly that his articles and the magazine itself were beginning to grow in popularity.

When it came to writing about slavery, there is no doubt that Paine did pen some of the most eloquent arguments against the practice, appealing to the nobility of spirit in a people who spoke so openly of liberty.

“ Our traders in men (an unnatural commodity) must know the wickedness of that slave-trade, if they attend to reasoning, or the dictates of their own hearts…”

Reading these words, I was immediately taken with the question of whether Paine had sought the guidance of the elder Anthony Benezet ?  Had they corresponded perhaps, or engaged in conversation?

But in reading a recent biography of Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson, a book that has no mention of Benezet, I found the following lines:

“ African Slavery in America” was so vigorous, intemperate, and influential that five weeks after it’s publication, on April 14,1775, Philadelphians formed the Pennsylvania Society for the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first abolitionist organization in the Western Hemisphere.”

Reading these lines, in the midst of this engaging biography, an innocent student of history might easily assume that Thomas Paine was single handedly responsible for the turning of Philadelphian Society to these first steps toward abolition. What of the work of Woolman and Benezet and others ?  We find in reading Gary Nash’s “ Forging Freedom” that in fact this society was at it’s beginning “ simply a small group of men, mostly Quaker artisans and smaller retailers, who had imbibed the humanitarian message, of Woolman, Benezet and others…”2

Did secular Philadelphia Society like other northern cities consider the tracts and practices of the Quakers as a little “ kooky”, and did it take a more secular vehicle such as a widely subscribed magazine to sway those bastions of a long held tradition?

In  “Death or Liberty”, Douglas R. Egerton’s portrait of African Americans during this period, he writes

“ Benezet went further than most Quakers with his sharply worded denunciations of slaveholding patriots who demanded their own freedom from Britain while denying the fundamental “rights of man” to their black domestics.”

and then we read

“ Benezet was in frequent contact with Dr. Benjamin Rush and pamphleteer Thomas Paine….” Pp 98-99

Benezet was to have influence on another less prominent person who would ultimately in his biographers words “ become the conscience of New England on the issue of slavery.”

Moses Brown was a latecomer to the Quaker faith and indeed to the abolitionist cause.

Nonetheless, as New England was still within the firm grip of the practice of domestic slavery, Moses Brown became an important activist in loosening this hold and the eventual banishment of slavery in his home state of Rhode Island. Brown had read Benezets’ pamphlets, and in response to one on temperance, cut the rations of rum he’d long allotted to his slaves working on his estate overlooking the Seekonk River.

There has long been speculation as to why Brown turned from his prominent family’s long tradition of Baptist faith to Quaker ideals and a stance against slavery. His most thorough biographer Mack Thompson acknowledges that Benezet

‘ had a significant influence on Moses’ religious and humanitarian thinking…”

and suggests that this so called sea change had it’s origins much earlier

“ the sense of guilt he felt as a result of his participation in the slave trade, particularly the voyage of the Sally in 1765-66 was deeply imbedded in his memory.”

Indeed, Brown was to later in life send a letter to John and Joseph Nightingale, brothers whose merchant business had set about to rig a slaver; that he wrote

“ with a view to discourage your pursuing the voyage…that you may avoid the unpleasant reflections that I have had…I should have been preserved from an Evil, which has given me the most uneasiness, and has left the greatest impression and stain upon my own mind of any, if not all my other conduct in life…”

He cautioned the brothers seeking a profit that

“  The evils of the slave trade have been gradually more and more openly for some years, and that trade is now generally acknowledged to be unwarrantable under any just principle…”

And then there was the loss of his wife Anna, whose influence was certainly greater than early biographers might have mentioned. Anna Brown began attending Quaker services with her sister Mary and began to bring along Sarah, the wife of her brother-in law John, to gatherings at a meetinghouse in Providence rather late in her young life.

As Anna became ill and then bedridden for months, Moses also began attending the meetings of Friends and at times held meetings in his home, or attended with others to Anna at her bedside. Certainly the presence of his sister in law Mary was a comfort at home, even as he tried to continue with his duties to both civic affairs and his brother’s businesses.

We know also at this time that the long standing traditions of the local Baptist church were changing as well. The arrival of James Manning to a small church in Warren and then a larger parish in Providence introduced a more formal service, the singing of hymns, and tithing of the congregation. Perhaps Moses simply began to feel more comfortable in the silence and reflection of the Friends meetinghouse.

But whatever the case, with the loss of Anna, Moses Brown plunged into a dark world of despair and self- reflection. He took long horse rides away from Providence, and secluded himself from old friends, beginning a “ slow and torturous” religious journey.

As Mack Thompson writes:

“ Anna’s illness and death produced in him a desire to make a complete break with the past, to carry out a total revolution in his life…earlier he had attributed business misfortunes, illnesses, and death to a “luke-warm” religious attitude…Moses became convinced that his capacity to do good had been severely limited by his political, business and social commitments. He interpreted the death of his wife as a divine injunction to free himself from these commitments; his withdrawal from public affairs and his acceptance of Quakerism were attempts to comply with that injunction.”

There is no doubt that Brown sought the counsel of Benezet and other activist friends whom he would always address as “Dear Friend” or  “Affectionate Friend” in the letters that survive. Some of these letters are archived within the vast collection of Brown family letters in the RI Historical Society’s Library, but among the few to Benezet, there is one nearly indecipherable letter with the mention of slavery, and two other letters that seek advice on education as Moses Brown sought to form a Friends school here in Providence. A pair of letters concerning slavery that were penned by Benezet to Moses Brown remain archived in a special collection at the library of Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

In one of these letters dated from December 28, 1773, Benezet mentions the “recent violence” in Boston, referring to the now famous “Tea Party” and his concern that Friends “will be careful not to join with, or strengthen in word or heart anything of that nature, our blessed Savior enjoins his disciples not to resist evil, but to overcome evil by good”

In this same letter, perhaps in a reflective mood at the years end, he rejoices in recent gains with legislators to consider emancipation, writing to Brown:

“ It’s amazing how this important consideration has of late years prevailed even in places where in my youth it would scarse bear to be named…which envinces the truth of that assertion that we need never be discouraged in the prosecution of any good work…Trust in the Lord saith the prophet, and it will come to pass…”[2]

In the second letter, dated in May of the following year, he writes a long response to Brown in which there is a reference to a tract that Brown himself wrote, though today, we can find no evidence that this tract was actually printed or published. It is interesting to note Benezet’s dialogue with Brown concerning the matter, for it quite clearly forsees the the dilemma and the difficulties with which freed slaves would find themselves. Benezet writes to his friend:

“ Your tract concerning slavery is very just, and tis’ a matter which I have often thought of even before I became acquainted with the truth, your arguments are forcible against purchasing slaves or being any way concerned in that trade, but how is a man to act who comes to them by inheritance? If a man should attempt to free a large number of slaves the legislature (unless restrained by the Almighty) would certainly interpose to hinder him; but if it were otherwise, how are the poor creatures to subsist, and how are they to maintain themselves? “[3]

As for the remainder of letters from Benezet, the documentation of his long life of efforts to extend rights and freedom to both slaves and native Americans, is lost but for a small and scattered collection. Robert Vaux, the author of the first biography of Benezet lamented that scarcely thirty two years after his subject’s death, most of the correspondence with reformers and religious thinkers, rulers, revolutionaries and influential individuals throughout Europe and America seemed to have vanished.

And so as to the lost correspondence between Moses Brown and Anthony Benezet we may garner only a glimpse of what that correspondence might have been, based on letters that do survive among other letters they wrote to like-minded individuals who worked for reforms.

The influence of Benezet on Moses Brown is most clearly seen in the activism and the prolific writing that Brown pursued after his conversion, joining in the exchange with enthusiasm, and often thinking beyond the obvious moral need for an end to slavery, to matters of practicality and civic mindedness.

He wrote to Samuel Hopkins, a minister in Newport and one of the more prominent leaders of the anti slavery movement in the state, to essentially float the idea of offering an endowment for prizes in essays on the slave trade at prominent Universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Brown was sure that because of slave traders being present on the board of RI College, his proposal would be rejected here in Providence. He also wrote several times of the effort to turn slave traders to other forms of earning a living, be it manufacturing or some other honest trade. He writes to his friend Jebediah Morse in 1791

“ …If there was more publick spirit or spirit of enterprise in the money men of Newport and especially the Guinea traders who (are) disgracefully on the Beaten Track of that in Human Traffick, and instead of it turned (their flock ?) to the docks or other manufacturing, their poor would be employ’d and the profits to the merchants be more (sure), Honorable, and Lasting… “

At home in Providence, Moses Brown persistently pushed through petitions and submitted bills to keep the debate about slavery alive in the State Assembly, succeeding with the passage of a series of bills that would lead to emancipation in the state. A bill passed in 1774 took the first step by banning the further importation of slaves from Africa, then in May of 1778, Rhode Island joined other colonies in passing a bill at General Washington’s behest, granting blacks freedom if they enlisted and served with a local battalion and then a manumission bill in 1784 that was a first step toward gradual emancipation, but still the lesser of two issues in the bill, as the Assembly voted down a ban on the selling or trade in local slaves.

It was three years later, with the Assembly meeting in Newport, that Brown and the Quaker contingent of supporters he had bound together were rewarded with the passage of a bill that for the first time made trading in slavery unlawful.

Brown also helped to found the Providence Abolition Society which pressed several successful court cases against slaves traders in the state, including famously, his own brother John Brown for ignoring, or blatantly violating the act of the Assembly. Yet even as these religious and secular efforts to end slavery began to see fruition, as Douglas Egerton writes:

“ Within the span of just over two decades, reform-minded white politicians succeeded in setting unfree labor on the road to extinction in every state north of New Jersey. But far fewer whites advocated political rights or full citizenship for former slaves. Having freed young black men and women, elite reformers typically believed their task to be done… Even many reformers who supported black demands for liberty wanted little to do with African Americans after these initial goals were achieved…The hope that African Americans would somehow vanish along with slavery was a constant refrain.”[4]

The coming years were difficult for those who advocated for black rights and black citizenship. In the coming decades, a sea change came over the burgeoning but strained collective nation. National politics swayed from Federalists loyal to the founders promise, to a Congress housed with populists and Democrats, and the same became true of the State and local assembly’s and councils which governed them.

As Gordon Wood has explained, when free blacks were given the right to vote in Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, and other northern states, they voted the Federalist’ ticket. And when the political tide turned to the Democrats just a decade after the black vote was given, legislators began the process of eliminating that vote.

Newspapers like the Providence Gazette seemed to endorse confrontation at times, and railed against the dereliction of the neighborhoods and the vice that had invaded the city. Papers elsewhere, especially New York were soapboxes for populist politicians, printing article after article claiming the inferiority of free blacks in labor, sensationalizing the occasional outbursts of slave violence down South, and reporting the public health justifications for segregating blacks from white school children in public schools.

Broadsides and racist pamphlets also attained a popularity, and spread a malignant and deformed picture of blacks as a people. As Joanne Pope Melish notes

“A crucial step in effecting the removal of people of color from New England was the imaginative construction of a crude set of caricatures that could capture the public imagination as representing the “true” nature of free blacks…this “imaginary negroe” was popularized in a genre of humorous and ( often savagely) satiric anecdotes, cartoons, and broadsides which began to appear…as gradual emancipation unfolded.”[5]

The abolitionists did not die. In this political climate, they just seemed to fade from view. The local organizations, which had promoted the cause of freedom for blacks became targeted by the popular broadsides and papers, they became fragmented or disbanded altogether. National organizations had been formed, but they concentrated on the antebellum South.

A new society calling itself the American Colonization Society formed in 1816 and eventually began pushing for the exportation of slaves to a settlement located somewhere on the “ dark continent”.This idea gained in popularity in the Northern states as tensions and economic strains continued.

Few noticed in those years that that blacks themselves had begun to come from the schools and the pulpits and work diligently for the freedom of those enslaved.

Despite the fact that African Americans were counted as 7.2 percent of the Rhode Island census by 1830, the right to vote had been rescinded in 1822, and the state’s first attempt to regulate schools in 1828 pointedly segregated blacks from white students.

White ministers throughout New England, from pulpits and churches where great sermons on liberty had once echoed now preached disparagingly of blacks and the menace they presented to society. In Joanne Pope Melish’s book “Disowning Slavery”, we read that at a church gathering in New Haven in 1825, minister Leonard Bacon sermonizes that Africans

“ combine all that is degrading in human imbecility, and all that is horrible in human depravity, unrefined by civilization and unrestrained by the influence of Christian truth…”

Another sermon from this period given by Professor John Hough to an audience in Montpelier in 1826 declares that

“The state of the free colored population of the United States is one of extreme and remideless degradation, of gross irreligion, of revolting profligacy, and, of course, deplorable wretchedness. Who can doubt the blacks among us are peculiarly addicted to habits of low vice and shameless profligacy?”

Violence escalated in Northern Urban areas. Joanne Pope Melish reports in her book “Disowning Slavery” that “there were dozens, possibly close to a hundred, violent incidents involving free people of color in New England between 1820 and 1840.”

Among these were mobs that broke up anti-slavery rallies and conventions. On one occasion the abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison was literally dragged through the streets of Boston. It was a time when few had the courage to stand for the Abolitionist cause against what seemed a rising tide of racism.

In Providence, Rhode Island one evening in 1835, the newly formed Providence Anti-Slavery Society was about to conduct a meeting in the First Baptist Church when a mob ascended the hill from Market Square and bulled their way into the gathering. They were there to heckle and silence the unpopular British abolitionist George Thompson, the Society’s invited speaker.

Also in attendance that evening was ninety three year old Moses Brown. His family had played a large role in building the colonial church where they were all assembled, and as the disruption grew and threatened to disband the planned meeting, the frail and elderly,but still vigorous Brown ascended the cast iron circular stairway tothe pulpit to stand beside Thompson and stare the disrupters downuntil the protesters had either left, or stayed to listen.

Bibliography of books discussed in this article to be found at the John Carter Brown Library:

A Short Account of that part of Africa inhabited by the Negroes…Anthony Benezet

Brief considerations on slavery and the expedience of its abolition… William Dillwyn

Moses Brown Reluctant Reformer Mack Thompson

Other Books:

“ Death or Liberty”… Douglas R. Egerton

“ Disowning Slavery” …Joanne Pope Melish

“ Sons of Providence”…Charles Rappleye

“ The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative”

Picture Credits

Portrait of Moses Brown Courtesy of the Brown Archives

Portrait of Anthony Benezet courtesy of the Pennsylvania Historical Society

letter of MB from the collection of the RI Historical Library

Photo of Seekonk River circa 1833 courtesy of the Providence Journal Archives


[1] Such was Benezet’s influence, that this and other writings of Dillwyn are often mistaken for those of Benezet. The copy in the JCB which I used has “ by Anthony Benezet “penciled on the flyleaf. When I inquired, the JCB librarian referred me to a reference on Quaker publications where it was indeed attributed to Dillwyn.

[2] Haverford Collection 852. reprinted in it’s entirety in “To Be Silent Would Be Criminal” by Irv A. Bredlinger 2007

[3] ibid

[4] Egerton, Douglas . “ Death or Liberty” pp 121

[5] Melish, Joanne Pope “ Disowning Slavery” pp

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Keepers of the Bay Part III: The Return of Sovereignty


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Part III: The Return of Sovereignty

As the nineteenth century unfolded across the country with unprecedented changes in industry, transportation, and population growth, even the smallest of states in the Republic were affected in new and profound ways and all the people therein. For the Narragansett, it proved to be a century of continual change, as long-time natives gave up their land and joined other groups, moved on from what had been years of desperation and hopelessness. By 1842, the farmer who owned the land on which lay Miantonomo’s grave had never seen an Indian come near, and so, dismantled the cairn and used the stones lain for centuries by Narragansett hands to build the foundation for a new barn. When the State detribalized the Narragansett in 1883, those people who remained were described as little more than a remnant of what “ had once been a proud tribe”.

The minds of New Englanders had long been captured by Indian Narratives of adventure or captivity, accounts of encounters and lives shared with Native Americans, as well as the treaties printed by Ben Franklin in America. The young nation’s emerging literature had also played an inestimable role in what framed the picture Americans had of local Indians.

One such mind was that of Henry David Thoreau, who late in his young life met Martha Simon, “ the only pure-blooded Indian left about New Bedford”, believed by locals to be a Narragansett. Thoreau sought out and found the elderly woman  “alone on the narrowest point of the Neck”[1] and wrote somewhat disappointedly:

“To judge from her physiognomy, she might have been King Philip’s own daughter. Yet she could not speak a word of Indian, and knew nothing of her race. She said she had lived with the whites, gone out to service for them when she was seven years old.”[2]

Courtesy of the Millicent Library

From early in his adult life, Thoreau had kept a series of notebooks filled with quotes, odd facts, historical references, and personal experiences with Native Americans. He intended to one day collect enough material for a definitive work. As Robert F. Sayre points out in his book Thoreau and the Indians, followers of the naturalist and transcendentalist essayist believe he would have penned a “ book about Indians free of prejudice, rhetoric, and melodrama, depending instead upon poetry, or the exact imitation of real life in the right images.”[3]

Such an achievement would have been a long struggle for Thoreau, “…for he certainly began his literary vocation and his early pursuit of Indian relics and lore under the spell of Savagism.”[4] Martha Simons was also portrayed by the young Albeirt Beirstadt in 1857 after his return from painting lessons in Europe. Beirstadt subtitled the portrait “The Last of The Narragansett”. While the legend of her ancestry was later questioned, the portrait of this woman is also a portrait of a people, and her story was the life that many Narragansett and  members of other remaining tribes were living at this time.

Natural scientists like Thoreau, and historians writing from the Anglo-American tradition, were veiled in their view by the earlier histories in how they saw the native population. Even as an American generation that was for the first time breaking from European influence, these historians and wanderers, and experimentalists like Thoreau, leading the followers of natural science onto the path of anthropology, still saw the remaining members of the Indians they observed and interviewed as the fragmented remnants of the people of their inquiry.

In fact, it could be argued, that as Europeans had viewed Native Americans with irreverence from the moment they stepped upon the shore, this thread of prejudice had woven it’s way so strongly into the “american” fabric, that it’s hold would not be broken for many generations.

Early irreverence from European visitors came in the pillaging of villages abandoned for the season and the robbing of provisions stored but soon they would discover more interesting bounty. The disturbance of Indian graves by English settlers began within two weeks of the Pilgrims stepping ashore in 1620. A party of armed men, sent inland, walked six miles or so and found an Indian burial ground, where they dug up “various pretty and sundry items”.

An attempted robbing of a Narragansett grave had occurred as early as 1653 when a Dutch trader and his crew were caught in the act of desecrating the tomb of the sister of the Sachem Pessacus. The robbers reputedly fled empty-handed to Warwick with a band of angry Indians on their trail[5]

As chronicled by Howard M. Chapin, there were numerous occurrences of accidental discoveries as well, such as the unearthing of an Indian grave along the banks of the Sakonnet River in Tiverton in 1834, and the excavation in 1835-1836 of numerous artifacts by the workers constructing the railroad between Westerly and Providence. Workers constructing another Railroad bridge unearthed an Indian cemetery just west of the city in 1848. Artifacts collected from these sites were given to local historical groups, and to the Rhode Island Historical Society.

These accidental discoveries were of keen interest to the amateur historians and academics alike. Collecting skulls and artifacts had become increasingly popular as a “hobby of gentlemen”[6], especially to those interested in the theories of cranial capacity as a determining factor of intelligent race. Local “gentlemen” and their societies were no exception, and perhaps these accidental discoveries fueled the passions of more than one individual to commit the desecration of Narragansett graves.

In 1859, workers, led by Dr. Usher Parsons, excavated two graves long suspected to be the sachem Ninigret and his daughter in the ancient “Royal” Burial Ground. Parsons described the site at the present time as

“a swell of land covered by a dense forest. Through the center of this, and running from East to West is a strip of ground ten feet wide, and raised two or three feet above the adjoining land and supported on each side by a stone wall…the only lettered gravestone is to the east end.”[7]

The workers unearthed a body interred in two halves of a hollowed log-as though to imitate an English coffin. Parsons later wrote of the female remains they’d found:

“Her dress and ornaments denoted that this was a female of exalted rank, and she was buried in the west end of the Sachem’s cemetery, where internments first commenced”.

The body was

“enshrouded with a silk robe, and on its head a cap or bonnet of green silk. Extending from the top of the head, was a chain like a watchguard, down to the sole of the foot…Surrounding the waist was a belt made of wampumpeag, and covered with silver brooches, as ornaments. Around the neck was a necklace, and at the waist were silver sleeve buttons. They also found two Dutch coins, one of silver, dated 1650, and a copper farthing.”

The supposed grave of the Sachem Ninigret, who had died twenty years after his daughter, was disappointingly devoid of any ornaments, only a

“skull and other bones that present exactly the appearance we might expect to see in the skeleton of Ninigret.”

Parsons was a distinguished surgeon and wrote many medical texts including one on sea-sickness and its remedies for the U.S. Navy. He was also, as were many men of wealth and standing, an amateur historian. Among his histories was a review of the Battle of Lake Erie, in which he attended to the wounded as a young surgeon. Parson’s also held a fascination with the Narragansett and published “Indian Names of Places in Rhode Island”.

In his role as historian he had joined and enlisted the support of the Rhode Island Historical Society, which sanctioned the exhumations. Parsons reported his findings in talks at both the Rhode Island Historical Society on October 7, 1862, and the New York Historical Society the following year, exhibiting the artifacts, including the skull and femur of Ninigret to his audiences.

As reported by the Providence Journal, Dr Parsons told his audience that two years before, “with a view of ascertaining the posture of the buried remains, Mssrs Joshua P. Carrd, Asa Noyrs, Samuel Nocake, Charles Cross, Christopher Card, George E. Mattison, George F. Babcock, and Oliver Fiske, lately opened one of the graves in the Sachem’s cemetery in Charleston, R.I.”

The Journal recounted the dramatic efforts of the men when after digging four feet, they

“came to three very large flat stones, weighing perhaps a ton each. Raising them out of the way, they continued digging four feet deeper, including the thickness of the stones. They then struck a large iron pot filled with smaller pots, kettles, and skillets. They found also a large brass kettle, filled with porringers and other kitchen ware and bottles. “

It was beneath these items that the great, hollowed out log, chained and padlocked, and containing the body of the princess was found.

Due to the location of the bodies, and also to the Dutch coinage found with the body, Parsons concluded that the graves held the remains of a young daughter of Ninigret and the sachem himself. Another local historian, Sidney S. Rider, disputed Parsons conclusion, declaring that the grave he had unearthed belonged to Weunquesh, elder sister of Ninigret II.

Howard M. Chapin took this theory further with his argument that the method of burial would surely not have been used in 1660, but by 1686 or 1690 when the Squaw Sachem died, an adaptation of an “English burial” would have been more likely.

According to Chapin, after these artifacts were displayed in the RI Historical Society, “the relics from the Sachem’s grave” had been dispersed. At the time of his article in 1927, Chapin wrote that “The skull of the princess, the spoons, some pewter porringers, a piece of iron chain, some beads , and one of the so-called brooches” remained at the RI Historical Society. The Peabody Museum at Harvard accrued some of the artifacts, and others, went to at least one private collector.

Parsons was not the only person at Brown with anthropological yearnings. In 1917, an essay in the Brunonian, bemoaned the fact that “ we only have one skull and the bone of a femur” to claim any collection of natural history.

In papers published in American Anthropologist in 1912 and 1923, Harris Hawthorne Wilder mentioned a “small square cabinet of glass and rosewood, containing a female skull, with the mandible missing” in Brown University’s Arnold Hall. The author refers to an earlier account that the skull came to the University by way of Dr. Parson’s son, and had been displayed since that time.

H.H. Wilder was an Anthropologist teaching at Smith College, when he first encountered the skull. Today he is considered the “Father’ of forensic medicine for his work in facial reconstruction.

Dr. Wilder’s paper in 1912, The Physiognomy of the Indians of Southern New England, published in the American Anthropologist, describes the skull as “having real historical value, being that of the daughterof the Niantic chieftain Ninigret”, and thanks Dr Albert Mead, the “present director of the museum there” for entrusting the skull.

Wilder wished to apply the current European methods for reconstructing faces upon skulls. As he writes:

Wilder’s reconstruction of “Ninigret’s daughter”

”Interested now for several years in these European attempts at reconstructing faces upon skulls, I determined to apply the methods to the skulls of New England Indians, in a region the extermination of this race has been so complete that no living representatives are now left except two or three small communities where intermarriage with other races, especially negroes has been long continued (e.g., Gay Head Mass; Charlestown R.I.)”[8]

In the summer of 1912, Wilder and his wife Inez Whipple Wilder, a fellow anthropologist, obtained permission from the town of Charlestown and the owner of the property on which the ancient “Royal” Burying Ground rests, to excavate ten graves. The Wilders claimed to have found two graves already emptied including one whose tombstone Parsons had referred to sixty years before :

“Here lieth  ye Body of George ye son of Charles Ninigret, King of ye Natives and his wife Hanna.”

The footstone indicated the grave was that of an infant, dying less than a year old in December of 1732.

The Wilders exhumed eight Narragansett bodies and brought the remains back to Smith College where they were displayed in the Anthropological and Zoological Museum at Burton Hall.[9]

In his 1923 article entitled Notes on the Indians of Southeastern New England, Wilder’s reconstructed  Narragansett “princess” was featured along with a newly constructed bust created by Miss Eunice E. Chase. In recounting the background of the skull’s discovery, Wilder repeats Parson’s story as written in his 1863 article, in an almost folksy manner:

“In Charlestown in 1859 a discussion arose one day among a group of young men, two or three of them being of Niantic-Narragansett blood, about the method of burying their dead formerly practiced among the local aborigines…Not coming to a satisfactory conclusion with the data at hand, some one proposed that they repair to the old Indian burial ground a mile away, and dig up a body as a test case…”

This supports Wilder’s earlier account in 1912, that

“her body was exhumed in 1859, apparently out of curiosity, but by good fortune came into the possession of Dr. Usher Parsons of Providence”.

Concerning the other artifacts found within the grave, Wilder writes: “Many of these seem to have been distributed among the diggers as individual memento’s of the occasion; other things are reported to have been sent to the collections at Brown University… What the condition of this skull was, when presented exhibited by Dr. Usher Parsons, whether it had lost its jaw, whether any of the other bones had been preserved, and what happened to the silk green dress, the remains of the moccasins, and the silver chain, are questions that are now unanswerable”

There are several difficulties that present themselves with this account, and I endeavor to discuss them in an effort to both clear up the misunderstandings that were apparent, as well as offer an insight into the grievous mishandling of these remains and artifacts.

First, the condition of the “Princess’ skull” was duly noted by Parsons in his article “Indian Relics” published in the Historical Register of February 1863:

“the skull…was in a fine state of preservation. The sockets of the teeth were symmetrical and perfect, indicating a fine set of teeth, and the form of the head was well proportioned. The hair was neatly dressed and abundant.”

This would seem to reference a different skull than the one in Arnold Hall, a difficulty that Wilder referred to in his paper, where

“the hair when exhumed was in great quantity…now only a few course patches remain of light brown…”

and Parsons makes no further reference or offers any description of the skull he extracted with difficulty from the second grave.

The reference to a skull at Brown University’s Arnold Hall indicates that this artifact, presumably under the care of Parson and later his son, was given to the University sometime after Usher Parson’s death in 1868. A question still lingers however, in my mind as to the true identity of this skull. With sixty years past, would the mishandling of the skull, other bones and artifacts result in the condition of Wilder’s “princess” ?

It is unlikely that those citizens, including those of “Niantic-Narragansett” blood, would offer relics to Brown or any other Institution, being robbers employed more likely by private collectors, or by dint of curiosity and perhaps in hope of privately selling someartifacts. It may be that the current owner of the property gave the men permission to excavate the long burial mound. [10]

William F. Tucker, in his A Historical Sketch of Charlestown places Parsons on the scene, not just once, but that he opened “quite a number of graves” in his subsequent visits to add to his collection. Wilder also alludes to subsequent visits by Parsons as well in his paper.

Members of the Narragansett filed charges against Parson’s and the others, but the State Supreme Court exonerated the accused and their case was never heard.

American Anthropology Jan. 1923

Records from the Rhode Island Historical Society show that Brown University donated the skull and the sculpture, now catalogued as that of Weunquesh on March 24th , 1925.[11] There is no further reference found to what happened to the skull of Ninigret, assuming that was the identity of the second skull unearthed by Parsons. According to librarians and scholars at Brown recently interviewed, the skull and other artifacts likely became part of the Jenks Museum at Brown.

Jenks Taxidermy class of 1875 on the steps of the Museum. Note the two gentlemen holding skulls on the extreme left and right of the photo. (courtesy of Brown University Archives)

This was Brown’s first Museum of Natural History, painstakingly collected and catalogued largely at its curator, John Whipple Potter Jenks, expense. An eccentric naturalist and expert taxidermist, Jenks began his collection in 1871, hoping to model his museum on the successful Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, founded by Louis Aggassiz in 1859.

Unfortunately, funding was problematic over the years, and despite Jenks repeated efforts to secure funds from the University and outside donors, it never attained the standing of Harvard’s museum.

Despite these setbacks, the collection that Jenks came to assemble proved to be of popular interest. In 1893, the Providence Journal noted that “In the absence of a city museum of Natural History, the Brown University Museum has attracted a great deal of attention during the last few years and has been visited by scientists in search of knowledge and the general curiosity seeker…”

Alumni also offered generous donations acquired in world travels, and it must be assumed that the collection came to the attention of Dr. Charles Parsons, and the skull in his care was duly donated. In 1891, Jenks divided the large collection he had amassed into two collections, one which remained as the Jenks Museum of Zoology, and the other which became the Museum of Anthropology.

Courtesy: Brown University Archives

Jenks died on September 24, 1894, literally on the steps of his museum, and on his passing, the collection began a long and strange journey. The collection was administered for a short time after the professor’s death by his assistant Herman Carey Bumpus. On his leaving the University in 1900, the collection was without an overseer. A fire in Rhode Island Hall in 1906 destroyed a part of the collection as well as Jenks’ records.

Wilder’s mention of Mead as the curator, a Professor of biology at the time, seems to indicate that the care of the collection was tenuous at best. In 1915, the Biology Department  moved out of Rhode Island Hall and the greater part of the collection was placed in storage at various locations- Van Winkle Hall, Robinson Hall, and Arnold Laboratory were some of the buildings used to house the boxed up artifacts. Only the birds and other animals that Jenks so meticulously preserved, remained in Arnold Hall, with the skull in the rosewood and glass display.

Lacking space, and apparent interest in a Natural History Museum, Brown began to disperse the collection as early as 1915, giving a number of objects to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, and by 1931, had also donated artifacts to the Roger Williams Park Museum of Natural History. In 1954, an effort was made to donate the part of the collection stored in Van Winkle Hall to the Park Museum, and after some negotiating, the director Mirabelle Cormack arrived at the school with an assistant to collect the items:

“We lugged those heathen idols, etc. home. They were covered with the dirt of ages. We cleaned them up, cared for them, and have them on display, all integrated with our own specimens, and filling in many spaces where we had little or nothing.”

The remainder of the collection was stored in Van Winkle Hall and offered up to any interested institutions. In an infamous tale perpetuated by J. Walter Wilson and the Encyclopedia Brunonia, no institutions wanted the objects, and Wilson, knowing that Brown “owned a dump on the banks of the Seekonk River”, deemed this a “suitable storage place” and “dumped 92 truckloads” beside the river. This proved however, to be only part of the collection, and in 1962, the Anthropologist Dwight Heath and his wife recovered boxes stored in the attic of Van Winkle Hall just hours before it’s demolition, packing up their car and driving the objects to the Haffenrefer Museum in Bristol.[12]

Parson’s desecration of Narragansett graves, and then Wilder’s mass exhumation and removal of “Royals” from the ancient Burying Ground were acts these men “justified” on behalf of science.  But this idea was really a continuing thread of the earlier narrative that led historians, and then anthropologists to see the Narragansett only as a people of the past.

In so observing a people in the shadow of elders that have long been portrayed as the heroic, if not tragic Native Americans of pure blood, a certain disdain for the remaining lineage of these heroes inks out upon the page.

Parsons wrote that after King Philips War, the remaining Narragansett “remained in a deteriorate, and declining state, addicted to vice and intemperance”, but saw hope among the Christian Indians he met that the Narragansett had become “ within a few years past…a moral, religious and industrious people, and are enjoying the privileges of education.”

In Wilder’s papers, this sometimes rises more blatantly to the surface. In summing up the historical record of the people of the Princess which gained him such reputation, the Anthropologist writes:

“Thus the descendants of the Niantic sachems, together with those of less royal blood, and blended with a Negro strain, have now disbanded tribal relations and are lost in the general current of “Americans”…In and about Charlestown we see them everywhere, serving mainly as farmers and farm helpers, while the more enterprising find their way into Providence, and serve as chauffeurs, hotel porters, and care-takers”[13]

During this period, in a continuation of placing a physical stamp on this public imagining, Societies of influence engaged in the construction of monuments “celebrating the Narragansett past”, while their descendants struggled to maintain their culture in the society they’d been forced to join after detribalization.

The aforementioned Thomas Bicknell played his role among the influential of Providence with his Indian Council of New England. The Rhode Island Historical Society, and local organizations as well; created a plethora of monuments, and as Patricia Rubertone describes, “memory making places” which were dedicated at locations throughout the State between 1883 and 1928.

The movement began with the dedication of Fort Ninigret in Charlestown, the preservation of their early encampment a centerpiece of the Narragansett council’s agreement to dissolve tribal status and become State citizens.

On August 30, 1883, a handful of Narragansett joined nearly one hundred people including Rhode Island’s Governor, the Mayor of Charlestown, the Town Council, and other state and local dignitaries. In the crowd also, were historians, and members from the Rhode Island and various other historic societies, as well as reporters and photographers on the grounds of their old fort[14].

It was now enclosed with a decorative wrought iron fence, and at its center rested a massive boulder on which words proclaimed the Narragansett and Niantic tribes as “ The Unwavering Friends and Allies of our Fathers.”

Old Postcard of Monument Rock, Charlestown, R.I.

Among the handful of Narragansett who attended the ceremony was Joshua Noka who had spoken so forcefully in the hearings against detribalization. When he addressed the gathering, after the host of white speakers, a chorus, the recitation of a grandiose poem, he did not  offer words of reconciliation, but rather “spoke of the scorn and the impatience of some of the tribes white neighbors, who had lobbied for detribalization.” [15]

Noka saw a troubled future, a turbulent time in the wake of the tribe’s loss, and he wanted to reaffirm the existence of his people before these white visitors who had flooded to this funereal ceremony.

“ We have the same blood running through our veins that we had before we sold our land.” he told the gathering.

No one else among the delegation of Narragansett spoke, but sat  silently throughout the proceedings.

Less than two weeks later, in an even more extravagant ceremony, the Rhode Island Historical Society dedicated a “ rude, rough, and rugged” boulder as a memorial to the Sachem Canonicus in the city’s newly renovated North Burial Ground, the park like environs around the monument offering great appeal for those seeking a final destination.

On the large boulder was carved the Sachems name in English, as well as a primitive bow and arrow in imitation of the signature Canonicus had used in his deed with Roger Williams and other early Rhode Island settlers.  This was the second monument erected to a Narragansett Sachem. After the large cairn to Miantonomo was dismantled, the town erected a granite tombstone in its place in 1841.

In Providence, in September of 1883, among the nearly 1,000 people at the occasion, was Moses Prophet, a Narragansett who had been chosen to unveil the monument even though the State had determined that he had no claim as a tribal member.[16] The only other Narragansett present amid the throng was a little girl named Annie Thomas who presented a bouquet to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the ceremony.

In 1906 the Societies of Colonial Wars in Rhode Island and Massachusetts erected the massive, rough- hewn granite column on the site of the “Great Swamp Fight” It is today, as it was then, a place of utter isolation. In a somber ceremony befitting its location, with a steady rain falling “as if the clouds shed tears over the memory of the bloody scene recalled by the memorial about to be unveiled”.[17]

Frederick Rowland Hazard, representing the five Rowland heirs on whose land the monument stood, presented the deed of land to Wilfred H. Munro of the Rhode Island Historic Society, in the “Indiancustom” of passing the title by deed, turf and twig.

Courtesy of Colonial Society of RI

Munro’s speech in response was “necessarily short because of the heavily falling rain, and immediately the veil was torn away by three of the Indians present.” Chaplain William M. Bodge ascended the mound before the monument and dedicated

”this rugged granite shaft, frost-riven from the native hills, untouched by the tool of man as a fitting emblem “ of the “rugged and unadorned” settlers who had fought in King Philips War, but also to the “brave Sachem of the Narragansetts, who here fought valiantly for his rights, his people and their homes.”  Bodge acknowledged the threeIndians present as descendants of “the noble but now almost vanished Narragansett tribe”, and offered a prayer of peace.

The Hazards present and others performed the ceremony of “beating out the bounds… “ and “Thus ended the exercises in the Direful Swamp.”[18]

In his oration that afternoon at the Memorial Hall in Peacedale, Rowland Hazard spoke of the Narragansett as “confessedly the most powerful and richest, as well as the bravest and most capable, of all the New England tribes.”   Hazard repeated the oft quoted refrain that the Narragansett had been” a true friend” to the English and regretted that

“The leaders of our Colonial forces yielded to the bitter feeling of the baser sort among their followers and friends, and set forward to dealing a crushing blow to the Narragansett…”[19]

The list of contributors to the Great Swamp Fight Monument reveal that all were given in memory of the Colonial soldiers who died in the battle. Only two were from Rhode Island, and once the ceremony was over and a generation gone, the monument became merely a solitary blight on the landscape.

This did not stop those who wished to deed and entrust such commemorative places on the urban cityscape, or in historical locations in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Historical Society, in one edition of January 1921, reports from the Committee that over 40 plaques had been installed around the state in the past years.

Thomas Bicknell especially, was devoted to monuments and commemorations of the past. He wrote in his text “American Education” that

“ patriotic exercises, hero days, memorial pageants, monuments- all testify to the intensity of the group instinct. The pupil needs also to learn humility, sacrifice, cooperativeness. It is less important for him to insist’ on his rights’ than it is to stress his duties and privileges.”

Bicknell first erected a monument in his home-town of Barrington in recognition of the town’s negro slaves and servants “valuable domestic and patriotic services before and during the Revolutionary War.”  An impressive boulder of white quartz, bordered at each corner by  black columns “emblematic of the interdependent relations of the white andblack races”, the monument was dedicated in 1903,

“In memory of Negro servants and their descendants who faithfully served Barrington’s families.”

In 1907, he lobbied local civic leaders and the Historical Society for a plaque commemorating the fight led by Capt. John Pierce against the Wampanoag encamped nearby in the Swamplands above the Blackstone River. The plaque was duly dedicated in the heart of urban Central Falls where it lay mostly unnoticed by the poor, mill-working folk that the educator hoped to illuminate through these physical reminders or markers of history.

Bicknell was also instrumental in aligning Wilfred Munro of the Rhode Island Historical society of erecting a slate tablet at the site of Queen Ponham’s fort in 1927, and a decade later, the RIHS cemented a long-standing cairn and erected a plaque at the site a short distance beyond the Blackstone, where the nine men captured by the Wampanoag were executed and left for the Colonial soldiers to find.

Photo by author

Other monuments and memorials became s fixture on the New England landscape. In Westerly, the long admired sculpture of Canochet still resides by the harbor, along with newer tributes to the Narragansett along South County’s shoreline.

It may be noted that despite these ceremonies and designations of historical areas, these were, with the exception of Fort Ninigret, and with some evidence, the Cumberland site, merely sites of white historical interest, and were not adopted as Narragansett places of memory

Gradually, and with more abundance as the twentieth century developed long undisturbed lands, these sites have been uncovered. The oldest of these have long been a source of debate among historians and Indian elders and other interested parties. One Narragansett historian wrote in the 1930’s of her grandmother telling her of “old Indian graves tucked away off on the hillsides”[20] that could only be reached on foot in the dense forests.

The discoveries of stone cairns, long described by elders and some historians as sites of Indian burial or sacredness, have come to be refuted by other historians, and more recently in court by lawyers representing land developers. Some historians have speculated that the cairns like those discovered in Smithfield, and long protected in Coventry, Rhode Island, are simply the result of a farmer’s toil, to rid the soil of rock, though in the standard form of English style husbandry, which these settlers would have practiced, some frugal use of the stone would have been found; for a stable, a well, any number of necessities on a New England farm.

                                          Old Cairn in Parker Woodland. Photo by author.

Archeologist Frederick Meli told the Providence Journal that the site in North Smithfield “was in use by Native Americans and it contained these mounds. Whether they’re burial or ceremonial, I think they go back at least a couple of thousands of years.”

The site is actually near the scene of a deadly battle in which the Narragansett, having been pursued from the Queen’s Fort, made a stand at the swampland where on July 2, 1676

“The English calvarymen, assisted by their Indian allies. fell upon the Narragansetts, and killed all the warriors who were defending the swamp. The victors rushed into the swamp, killing and capturing the rest.”[21]

Narragansett Preservation officer John Brown, acknowledged the history of the site on Nipsachuk Hill.  Narragansett had gathered there for sunrise ceremonies and other ceremonies into the 1960’s or 1970’s , when conflicts  with property owners halted the meetings.

“We would meet there and discuss that it was a meeting place of our ancestors, and that we come at this time to give acknowledgement of those people that have passed.”

In 2008, the tribe fought a land developer determined to build a 122-lot subdivision on the property, and with the assistance of the town, filed suit to have the site declared an historic burial ground. In 2009, the National Park Service granted an award to the Rhode Island Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission and the Narragansett tribe to

“examine documentary records and archaeological collections, collect tribal and Yankee oral histories and use military terrain analysis to identify likely places where..the battles took place.”

Two stone cairns from Rhode Island locations of Native American  memory places

In numerous locations throughout New England and beyond, evidence of Native sacred places lie, literally at our feet. In woodlands still incredibly, largely undisturbed, are cairns, rock piles, and the playful adaptation of stone to turtles, hares, and other creatures. We find them inland along the lengths of a swampland, which seems to have been more a gathering, a ceremonial place. In a hillock above a field stands an impressive boulder, within sight of a walking path. There is no path tread through the woods to this place. It seems unnoticed. A glance around finds other stones planted in a specific design before the larger stone. About ninety yards away, in a direct line from the center of the stone I find an old mound. I cannot comprehend the meaning of the place, but I recognize it at once as having some meaning, as a place of ceremony or simply perhaps a landmark to indicate place or direction.

Photo by author

At the lands edge also, are remnants of their past. Runic like messages carved upon rock, only visible at low tide, other rocks along rivers and shores, sketched with petroglyphs, an unknown script, and faded from time’s glare.

Perhaps the most complete and authenticated record of these rocks was compiled by Edmund B. Delabarre, a local historian on Indian sites who published his searches in articles titled “The Inscribed Rocks of Narragansett Bay” in the Rhode Island Historical Society Journal during the 1920’s.

Delabarre’s map of sites on Narragansett Bay. Courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Delabarre tracked down legends and earlier written accounts. Ezra Stiles had been a early recorder of these “written rocks”, often drawing a facsimile of the figures and markings in the journal he kept of his travels Earlier local historians had also mentioned rocks at various locations, often musing toward a Nordic visitation as an explanation for the markings. He located and reported on the present condition of these rocks in his articles, relating, for instance, that the characters on the Mount Hope rock, long yearned by historians to be a Nordic inscription, were in fact identified to be Cherokee, and likely written by one Thomas C. Broaner, a “mixed blood Indian married into a Massasoit clan and an admirer of King Philip”.

DellaBarre’s drawing of pictographs on “Mark Rock” RIHS

The crude, but fanciful Indian figure thumbing his nose at a set of distinctly different figures on Mark Rock off Conimicut are said to be Miantonomo’s last word to the white settlers to whom he’d sold the surrounding land.

Other rocks were more mysterious, but Dellabarre catalogued what he found to be authentic sites in Warwick, Tiverton and Warren as well as other areas and reported that what was long believed to be a documented site in Portsmouth was now lost. The inscribed rocks had been taken from the beach by the town at the turn of the century and used in building a new dam.

In some cases, the rocks held petroglyphs and inscriptions from several generations.Time and the elements have mostly erased the markings on what sites remain today. Mark Rock was reportedly completely covered by the 1938 hurricane, and has only recently been partly exposed. Some are on private land, others accessible only by kayak or canoe, as they were when inscribed.

These places in particular, speak to me of a resilience, which is in character with the people from which many of these sites are associated. For while these native places were being discovered and written about, the Narragansett were re-establishing themselves as a people in the wake of the State’s detribalization and monument making.

Ironically, it was one organization of Bicknell’s founding that became a central activist network for the Narragansett. By the 1920’s, there were individual tribal members researching Narragansett history and customs.

Bicknell’s own enthusiasm for Roger Williams writings, led to his and the Council’s efforts to use William’s A Key, as an educational tool to relearn Narragansett language and traditions.[22]

In 1925, the Indian Council of New England joined the National Algonquian Indian Council, thereby strengthening their numbers. This organization, along with the American Indian Federation actively promoted lectures by Native Americans on Indian culture, and staged massive pow-wows, encouraging local tribes to research their own traditions and adapt tribal dress[23] for these public events.

For many tribes in the Northeast, little of their culture remained for them to draw upon, and the popularization of pan-Indian expression, of adapting western style native dress and dance, along with rhetorical speech and “Indian” names became prevalent. But as Ann McMulen has noted,

“Pan-Indianism allowed native people to be recognized but simultaneously createda generic Indian culture that masked local specifics.”[24]

Though the Narragansett were less inclined to adapt pan-Indian dress and rhetoric for their events, they participated in public powwows as an opportunity for exposure and also as an act of solidarity with other participating tribes. Indeed, there were many Native American tribes enduring similar struggles with State and Federal authorities. Large gatherings in select locations elicited great interest among tourists and local historical societies during this time.

For the Narragansett, this was a period of re-gathering, during which the tribe saw the return of some tribal members from Brothertown, Wisconsin, whose relations had removed with others from New York generations before.

The Narragansett Church and adjoining property became a focal point for Narragansett resurgence. Tribal meetings were held in the church, and the August gatherings were held in a large field nearby. These events continued the traditions of oral storytelling, individual dances, and competitive games.

The Narragansett adapted some western style dress in public powwows that showed an influence from the Brothertown Narragansett who had attended western-style gatherings in Wisconsin.

Individuals from Eastern tribes also began to adopt the Western tradition of public gatherings to celebrate their heritage, and even lectures given to the public on Native history and way of life.

Princess Redwing as depicted in a Charlestown postcard from the 1930’s

One such person was Princess Red Wing. Born Martha Congdon, a Wampanoag, she became well educated, married into the tribe and began researching the history of her new relatives, the Narragansett, and their legal battles with the state. In adopting the name of Princess Red Wing, she was following a trend among modernized Indians to adapt names and rhetoric, especially at public powwows that were familiar to white listeners. She became an outspoken and familiar figure throughout the State and Nation, spending much of her adult life as a teacher to both dignitaries and school children; explaining that like the blackbird, she was

“to  fling her mission far with grace, for ears that harken for the uplift of my race.”

In 1934, she and other members of the tribe began the publication Narragansett Dawn in an effort to keep communication open between members of the tribe in Charlestown and those scattered about the country, but also to highlight the history of her people by publishing stories and contributions from Narragansett writers, a sometimes uneasy transition from the tradition of oral histories.

Princess Red Wing was also active with the Indian Council in assuring a Narragansett presence in the Rhode Island Tertecery Celebrations of 1936, and the dedication of the Roger Williams memorial. In a lavish ceremony, a contingent of Narragansett walked with the Assembly and assorted dignitaries in solemn procession to the memorial, though their presence was cropped from the Providence Journal photo published in the paper the next day.

Rev. Harold Mars, who could trace the family lineage from his Father White Buffalo, a preacher of some renown among Christian Indians, as well as to the family of James,  brother of Samuel Niles, the founder of the Narragansett Indian Church. Rev. Mars earned five dollars a day during the 1940’s, preaching to congregations in Providence, Peace Dale, and Wakefield. He later moved his family to Rochester, New York where he led another congregation for over a decade. During those years, his family always returned for the August powwow, and Rev. Mars would preach in the Indian Church on Sunday.[25]

His son Roland, would carry on the calling into the turn of the century, preaching to a smaller congregation as many younger Narragansett turned away from the religion that “came over on a ship” and returned to their ancestral beliefs.

A Native Rhode Islander who came into national prominence during these years was Ellison Myers “Tarzan” Brown, a feted long distance runner who competed in every Boston Marathon between 1934 and 1946. He won twice in 1936 and 1939, and was also a participant on the American team in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. As sports historian Tom Derderian wrote in his book about Brown

“ The economy in these depression times provided little for most Americans and nothing for Indians…Brown…saw running as his only way out of poverty.”[26]

A publicity photo of “Tarzan” Brown

The efforts of the Narragansett and other tribes to educate the public about Indian culture and obtain political support for reform in Indian Management were interrupted by the advent of the Second World War. By this time, those Narragansett who had remained in Brothertown found themselves in an impoverished community with no Federal or state support to sustain them. Many moved away to where defense plants were operating, including Rhode Island where Charlestown utilized Indian workers to assist Naval Contractors in building the cluster of fortifications that pointed anti-aircraft and anti- submarine guns toward the bay.

Some Narragansett enlisted, and became part of the 25, 000 Native Americans who served in the armed forces during the war, though even their enlistment, at the start of the conflict, was cause for debate. There were those in Congress, when passing the Selective Service act who advocated for segregation, that Black and all-Indian units be established, but the Roosevelt administration ignored that debate and Native American who enlisted served in integrated units throughout the war.[27] It has only been recently that the Native American contribution to the war has materialized, in the stories of the Cherokee Code-Talkers and individual acts of bravery and heroism. Among those Native American veterans is John A. Hopkins Sr., who enlisted in Charlestown, but found his name absent from the five- foot marker commemorating those who served that was erected by town officials after the war. It took Charleston forty- six years to correct the error, and by that time, an embittered Hopkins had long left town.

The years after the war settled in slowly as Narragansetts returned to their former lives in Charlestown as farmers or farmhands, carpenters, stone artisans, and road workers. It was a time of integration rather than individualism, and a relatively peaceful time as remembered by Ellen Brown.

Artisans like Russell Spears continued traditions of Narragansett craft. A Narragansett born in Providence, Spears found himself working in Kenyon Dye Mills as a young man, but was restless to be working with his hands outdoors. He left the Mill and went to work with Uncles and other relatives who were Masons, and learned the craft that tradition says had begun with Stone-wall John. Spears built stone walls, patios and fireplaces, and worked on buildings in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Cape Cod for nearly seventy years, teaching his sons to shape and carve rock. Spears work became distinctively his own, renowned for its craftsmanship, and unique in individual touches, a an etching, or portrait within the stonework. His legacy was recorded in the documentary film “Stories in Stone” in 2008.

It was also during this time after the Second World War that Congress passed P.L. 280, an act

“empowering any state by an act of its own legislature to take over civil and criminal jurisdiction on Indian reservations, without consent of the tribes.”[28]

Individual states made efforts to take tribal lands and strip tribal authority as Rhode Island had done long before, in exchange for citizenship. But as Narragansett and other tribes had found, the long harbored prejudice and distrust made it a citizenship with limited rights. It was not until 1953 that Native Americans in Maine, not under Federal jurisdiction, were given the right to vote.

That same year, a Joint Congressional Resolution for the federal termination of Indian lands was heard with the aim “to end their status as wards of the United States, and to grant them all the rights and prerogatives pertaining to citizenship.” Despite their hopes for a quick solution to the remaining “Indian problem”, repatriation of lands would take more than 30 years to complete, with hundreds of cases heard around the country.

By the nineteen sixties the prevailing winds had changed and Native American affairs began to be seriously viewed by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The Federal government passed the Repatriation Acts, allowing tribes to petition state and federal museums for remains and artifacts. Indian affairs began to get more press in the growing medium of television, and protests by Native Americans became National and local news.

“The Narragansett kept living and acting as they’d always done.” says preservation officer John Brown, “The times changed, and suddenly people were interested in the Narragansett again.”

There is no doubt however, that Native Americans became empowered by these changes and more visible and vocal in local and national protests. Members of the Narragansett were involved with the National Day of Mourning, begun in 1970 by the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), which has continued in various form of protest- some confrontational, such as the celebrated “burying” of Plymouth Rock by Native Americans, and the alleged police force which was used to break up the demonstration in 1997, in which twenty five people were arrested and numerous others were pepper sprayed in a show of force whose origin seems to have been the Wampanoag’s lack of a permit, despite the tradition having been held for the last twenty eight years.[29] Most protests on the National Day of Mourning have been solemn occasions from the gathering of Wampanoag and representatives from other tribes on Coles Hill, across from the harbor in the shadow of the bronze statue of Massasoit.

In January of 1975, the Narragansett filed suit against the private owners of former tribal lands in Charlestown, to gain possession of some 3,200 acres that the Narragansett cited as aboriginal territory. The land had been confiscated and sold by the state of Rhode Island just seven years after stripping the remaining Narragansett of their tribal status.

Ninety-two years later, a repopulated and rejuvenated tribe based their suit on the supposition that the state had taken the land illegally, and in selling the land had broken a Federal law enacted in 1790.

For three years the state and the Narragansett prepared their cases, arguments and evidence from both sides of the issue are held in the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Among the documents in the Edwards and Angel Legal Files and the Paul Campbell Research notes for the law firm of Tillinghast, Collins and Graham, are the documents that indicate what would have been a long, and protracted battle.

The Narragansett prepared to exhibit as evidence, the numerous deeds that had been drawn up with both the state and private parties from 1709 on into the nineteenth century, as well as the petitions the tribe had sent to the State, regarding the sale of their lands. There are minutes from tribal meetings dating back to 1850, personal correspondence, and the Report of Commission on the affairs of the Narragansett Indians made to the General Assembly of January 1881 which includes a list of the 324 individuals accepted as tribal members. The basis of their claim rested on the argument that the States’ sale of their aboriginal lands had been without Federal consent, which violated the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790, which states:

“No purchase, grant, lease, or other conveyance of lands, or of any title or claim thereto, from any Indian nation or tribe of Indians, shall be of any validity in law or equity, unless the same be made by treaty or convention entered into pursuant to the Constitution.”[30]

The state by contrast, seemed prepared to argue an echo of the nineteenth century view of the tribe, relying upon old histories and documents supporting the original design of detribalizing the Narragansett and integrating them as citizens of the State. In papers published by two of the legal counsel for the State ex Facto, we see largely, a resurgence of old arguments and explanations that indicate the State’s preparedness to defend legislature from a century before, despite the tribe being federally recognized.

In “Scattered to the Winds of Heaven-Narragansett Indians 1676-1880” the two legal scholars attempt a reconciliation of the traditional white history of the tribe, and the “red man’s myth” as written by Fred Brown in a 1935 edition of “Narragansett Dawn”  and summarized as follows:

“The red man’s myth claims that Narragansett warriors and the largest part of the Indian population were away from the fort.[31] Thus the Narragansetts…eventually became the dominant people comprising the Indian community in Charlestown, Rhode Island. This community then carried on traditions and customs of the Narragansetts, and although many Indians were later forced to intermarry with black slaves, and although whites forced Indians to partially assimilate into white society, the traditions of the Narragansett tribe persisted and remained virtually intact throughout the following three hundred years of history.”[32]

While this version of Narragansett history remains close to the oral history given today by the tribe, the scholars set out to debunk the “myth” through the use of those same arguments that led to detribalization.

First, the authors claim irrefutably that the “aboriginal oasis”, situated in Charlestown and Westerly, “were the lands of Ninigret, sachem of the Niantics…perhaps the largest remaining indigenous group of Indians left in southern New England”; and further state, that “By the end of the seventeenth century the surviving Indian population in what was then called Narragansett country was an aggregate of peoples.” Such statements would appear to refute any Narragansett claim to the lands in question.

The subject of integration is also raised again, with the authors contention that as early as 1790, when “ political factionalism had virtually stagnated the Indians attempt to govern themselves”, and the first efforts at control were taken by the State;

“Narragansetts …had already undergone numerous cultural and societal changes…Indians in Rhode Island were beginning to work their way into the white marketplace…more and more Indians were following trades and livelihoods not traditionally Indian. “

However, the trades of stonemasonry, carpentry, and farm labor, mentioned by the authors were part of the Narragansett “traditions” for at least a century before the time the scholars claim, and certainly when Narragansett were forced to work as indentured servants, or those who chose that role in exchange for pay. It was not necessarily integration by choice. Nonetheless,

“Such changes, coupled with rampant internal factionalism, led the assembly to believe that Narragansetts were on their way toward entering the mainstream of white society.”[33]

This coupling of the political view of the tribe’s internal affairs and the State’s “civic sense” of what is “best” for the Narragansett have always and continue to be interwoven into the fabric of relations with the tribe, and thus, the posturing and policy disputes that have dominated in recent years.

In 1978, mostly at the behest of the town of Charlestown, the state of Rhode Island and the town of Charlestown reached a Joint Memorandum of Understanding (JMOU) with the Narragansett, granting 1800 acres of land, taken evenly from private parties and state lands, along with a lump sum payment based upon the present fair Market value of other lands.In return, the Narragansett tribe relinquished any legal claim to the 3,200 acres of aboriginal lands, and agreed that

“the settlement lands shall be subject to the civil and criminal laws and jurisdiction of the State of Rhode Island” .

This clause would resurface time and again in the years that followed in confrontations, legal and otherwise with the State.

Narragansett management of these lands has met with many challenges and involved numerous lawsuits against the state and federal governments as well as suits against individual towns in relation to construction projects as well as private developers and building companies within, and outside the Narragansett community.

Perhaps the most contentious dispute in recent years has been that of the Narragansett efforts to bring tribal gaming to the community. In 1988, the federal government had passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act “to provide a balance between the tribe’s interest in autonomy and the states interest in protecting their citizens from the organized criminal activity that is commonly associated with the gaming industry. Furthermore, Indian gaming was viewed as a means of promoting the twin goals of strong tribal government and tribal economic self-sufficiency.”[34]

IGRA separated Indian gaming into three separate classes that ranged from “social games solely for prizes” or “traditional forms of Indian gaming” such as those that occurred at yearly gatherings or pow-wows, to “games of chance “ such as bingo or card games, and third class “high stakes”, or casino gambling that would only be permitted on tribal lands that are “(1)…located within a state that permits gambling for any purpose by any person or organization; (2) the tribe adopts a gaming ordinance that has been approved by the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission; and (3) the activities are conducted in conformity with a tribal-state compact,”[35]

The pursuit of Indian Gaming rights for the Narragansett initially divided the tribe. Details of a lawsuit filed early on reveal a struggle between elders of the tribe who opposed gambling as a means to a tribal economy, and a younger faction who saw Gaming as an opportunity for growth to other, independent tribal businesses.

The suit developed out of a 1985 agreement between the Narragansett Tribal Council and a Texas partnership called RIBO, which would lend the tribe the funds needed to purchase two parcels of land and erect a high-stakes bingo hall.

As representatives from the Texas partner met only with the tribal council, members of the tribe opposed to gaming on Indian land, rose in protest and used the issue to promote a slate of anti-gaming candidates for upcoming tribal elections. When those candidates won election, and the results were approved by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the new Tribal Council filed suit to void the agreement. Former members of the Tribal Council countersued, but their motion to intervene was denied in the U.S. Court of Appeals.[36]

Despite these early disputes and reservations on Indian Gaming by tribal members, the issues were effectively resolved within the tribe in a relatively short time, and the Narragansett have shown a united front in their efforts to gain gaming rights.

In July of 1992, the Narragansett served the Governor of Rhode Island with a letter requesting the state to enter into negotiations with the tribe for a compact that would allow the tribe to operate “high stakes” gambling on their lands. The State responded by filing suit in the United states District Court, contending that the provisions of IGRA did not apply to the settlement lands and that the Narragansett lands, under the previous 1978 agreement, were “subject to the criminal, civil, and civil regulatory laws of Rhode Island and the town of Charlestown.”[37]

The suit centered upon a 31acre site that the Narragansett had purchased for housing and economic development. When hardship caused planned projects to remain unfinished, the tribe appealed to the Department of the Interior to take the land into Indian Trust, and thus this parcel, would be subject to Federal and tribal rather than state law. In 1993, the district court ruled against the State, and the following year, in the U.S. Court of Appeals, the State lost again.

After the court’s ruling, then Governor Bruce Sundlan signed an agreement with the tribe to negotiate for casino rights. But as this was signed during his last months in office, the next Governor, Lincoln Almond, quickly filed suit to terminate the agreement. The Court agreed, citing that under the RI Constitution, the Governor held no power to “enter into any compact establishing a lottery operation or gaming facility in the state. That power was specifically vested in the General Assembly.”[38] An important Federal case just weeks later, proved to be another setback, when the Supreme Court reached a decision based upon their interpretation of limits on the Federal government enforcing the Indian Gaming Rights Act which had allowed tribes to sue States in order to compel them to negotiate in “good faith” for gaming rights. The tribe amended plans for a Class II Bingo Hall that fell within the guidelines of IGRA, and submitted a gaming management contract to the Indian Gaming Commission.

Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation, led by Senator John Chafee remained adamantly opposed to any Indian Gaming facility in the State, and set out to amend the 1978 settlement with the tribe, declaring that the Narragansett relinquished any rights granted by future Federal legislation, and that

“ For purposes of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act settlement lands shall not be treated as Indian lands.”[39]

The Amendment made Indian Gaming in the State possible only through inclusion of a referendum on the state ballot, and voter approval.

Senator John McCain, then Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, stated his disapproval of any attempt to amend the State’s original Agreement, and suggested that a hearing be held for the proposed amendment. But no hearing was held, and the “Chafee Amendment” as it came to be known, was attached by the seasoned Senator to a critical appropriations bill and passed with little individual attention.[40]

In the proceeding years, two term Governor Almond set in motion the State’s reliance on revenues from existing venues, which lately have come to prove costly with the legislative end of dog racing and falling revenue from slot machines. In the meantime, the Mashuntucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes successfully opened resort casinos in neighboring Connecticut and the Wampanoag began the long effort to establish a casino in Massachusetts.

Providence Journal photo.

Under the leadership of Matthew Thomas, a newly elected sachem who had diligently studied the gaming laws and prepared for the rough and tumble politics of Rhode Island, the tribe sought to  build a casino in West Greenwich. Though they managed to get a referendum on the ballot, the Indian casino was rejected by voters.

In 1997 the Narragansett filed suit against the National Indian Gaming Commission in order to compel the Commission to review its proposal, which it had denied review, citing the Chafee Amendment. The suit challenged that the Amendment was a violation of Equal Protection, ie: that the tribe was “singled out” from other tribes by the amendment preventing them from gaming rights. The suit was rejected in the Washington, D.C. district Court.

The struggle for gaming rights continued with the Narragansett partnering with long time business partner Capital Gaming International. The plan called for a Casino in West Warwick, and Sachem Thomas presented a public unveiling of the proposal in early 1999. At the time, the tribe’s proposal was well received, and Thomas told newspaper reporters that “it was so refreshing to have a productive, open dialogue with the people of this community.” [41]

The optimism was not to last. Capital Gaming soon began failing, and a further cloud came over the proposal when the tribe spent some months looking for other investors. When the Narragansett partnered with Boyd Gaming of Las Vegas, and proposed an even more lavish venue, voters became nervous. In the end Legislators killed the bill that would have placed the casino on the November 2000 ballot.

Two years later, Thomas and the Narragansett tried once again to get the Casino question on the ballot. Legislators opted this time to place the bill aside and create a Gaming Study Commission to report on “the desirability of further gaming” in the State.

In 2003 the State’s Lottery Commission approved an increase of nearly two thousand slot machines at the Lincoln and Newport gambling venues, which contributed to Rhode Island’s coffers.

By 2004, the Narragansett had partnered with Harrahs, the nations third largest casino operator and proposed a resort style casino in West Warwick. Thomas and representatives from Harrahs met with senators at the statehouse and outlined the proposal which they estimated would generate 114 million dollars for the state in it’s first year and offer 20 million annually for the tribe. The proposal called for the Narragansett to buy the Casino from Harrahs after twenty years of operation. It was by far the most ambitious, and well underwritten proposal the tribe could have offered.

But once again, opposition to an Indian gaming casino rose in Rhode Island. A “Save Our State” coalition was formed which included the State’s Council of Churches, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the State Tourism Board, and others. The coalition was fueled by financing from the owners of Lincoln Park and Newport Grand casinos, which paid for a barrage of television commercials evoking the dark side of gambling, and questioning whether Rhode Islanders were prepared for the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue the State would lose from the draw a Narragansett casino would create.

The referendum was defeated in 2006. Since that time the owners have renovated the Lincoln venue, now called “Twin Rivers” with restaurants and an entertainment center that were part of the Narragansett proposal which the Lincoln owners warned would take away revenue from Providence landmark theaters and restaurants.

In the courts, it could be said that the efforts to build a tribe run casino came full circle, and culminated in 2009 with the United States Supreme Court finding in favor of the state of Rhode Island in Carcieri v, Salazar, over that thirty one acre parcel of land that began the battle. In the State’s appeal of the U.S. District Court’s opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that tribes who achieved Federal recognition after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 by which lands could be placed in trust, were not subject to those privileges which the Act instated; opening the door to a wave of lawsuits from the 300 tribes who found themselves in similar straights as the Narragansett.

Chief Sachem Thomas vowed to fight the court’s decision.

“ Apparently, the illegal actions of the state weren’t of consideration to the Supreme Court” he told a Journal reporter. “How are you ignoring something that’s been here for hundreds of years?…That to me which is history can’t be ignored.”[42]

For the twenty four years the Narragansett pursued gaming rights, very little came of the struggle, but for legal fees and the wealth of information and cases for students and scholars to place into some perspective.

As of this writing, the Narragansett had appealed to the state’s U.S. Senators after the Committee on Indian Affairs approved legislation that would effectively overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling. The Rhode Island delegation of Senators Reed and Whitehouse have been reluctant to throw their support, even with Thomas’ reassurance that the site would once again be used for elderly housing.

Other efforts to gain the tribe some economic independence met with mixed results. Eleanor and Ferris Dove, created the Dovecrest Restaurant and Trading Post which was highly successful and eventually world renowned. Their efforts to offer Narragansett culture and cuisine to the wider world resulted in the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum, and the Nuweetooun School, which brings the story of “the state’s original inhabitants “ to hundreds of children across the State each year. The Museum’s exhibits and Ceremonies attract visitors from around the globe. The annual powwows presented with other Indian tribes in friendly competition, also draw crowds of people interested in learning of local Native American culture.

A proposal to create an “Indian Village” on the model of Plimoth Plantation met resistance from town officials and the idea was eventually abandoned. Another project to grow and distribute “beefalo” met with similar resistance from neighbors and the town.

Chief Sachem Thomas met with Governor Carcieri several times, the most notable in June of 2003, when he toured the reservation “to get a sense of the economic stress” the Narragansett were facing.[43] Despite the Governor’s apparent interest, there was little further communication until July, when the tribe opened a smoke shop out of a long trailer parked off main route 102 on tribal land.

Carcieri was out of state the weekend the shop opened but spoke with Thomas by phone, insisting that the tribe must collect state taxes from any business on their land.

Thomas reputedly offered to close the shop if the Governor dropped his opposition to casino gambling, though that is highly speculative. What the sachem did promise, was to take the issue to court, but before any motion could be filed, the State sent in 30 troopers to raid the smoke shop on Monday afternoon in an ugly melee that was broadcast throughout the state and nationwide.

Providence Journal photo.

Eight tribal members were arrested, including Sachem Thomas, who had been pushed to the ground and handcuffed during the skirmish. That evening after spending some hours in the Hope Barracks, Thomas compared the treatment of the Narragansett to that of blacks in the South during the civil rights error, and complained again that the State refused to recognize the Federal status of the tribe.

“The State made a huge mistake today, and that will be proven” he told tribal members.

In the weeks that followed, the footage of the raid drew the ire of civil groups as well as other Native American tribes. The NAACP gave Thomas its highest honor some months later for “fighting for his people”. Nearly four years after the raid, those arrested were found guilty of misdemeanor charges, however Thomas and co-defendant Hiawatha Brown were convicted of simple assault.

Oversight of Narragansett lands is presently in the hands of tribal preservation officer John Brown, who must assess the impact of local projects and confirm new finds at development sites as Narragansett property-engaging the complex and sacred process by which tribal remains are removed before developers can return. This role in the tribe has often placed him in a contentious position with local developers and utility engineers, as well as anthropologists and historians.

Providence Journal photo.

Anthropologists involved with a long running dispute over artifacts found at Burr Hill in Warren Rhode Island, contend that Brown has an inflated sense of the Narragansett with respect to neighboring tribes. But in conversation, Brown alludes to the centuries that Narragansett were a thriving people within a vast territory. He has been praised by the state’s archeologist Paul Robinson for his efforts in educating State officials about historic sites. “I think he’s taught us that sometimes we walk a fine line between preservation and excavation, and sometimes it’s better to wait and preserve than to excavate” he told the Providence Journal.[44]

In October 2009, Brown received the Frederick C. Williamson Leadership Award from the state’s Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission. The executive director Edward Sanderson, acknowledged that he and Brown do not always see eye to eye, “we look at some issues from different perspectives” he told the Providence Journal, but also praised Brown for his role in preserving the traditions and the cultural values of the Narragansett, and his careful consultation with Lloyd Wilcox, the tribal medicine man and other elders of the tribe. In presenting the award to Brown, Sanderson told those assembled that

“At a time when Native Americans were routinely left out of historic preservation, John made sure that a Narragansett voice was heard.”

Another Narragansett voice that has resonated over the years has been that of Ella Sekatau, the tribe’s ethnohistorian. In her role, Sekatau has collaborated through oral history with scholars and historians who have published numerous books and papers on aspects of Narragansett life. In this way, Sekatau has ensured that a more accurate history is read by professors and students, and discussed in classrooms across the nation.

On college campuses, interest in Native American studies is flourishing, including Rhode Island, where developments would indicate that there is still much to be studied about the our indigenous people.

Because the Narragansett occupied and traveled in such a vast area of land, evidence of their encampments as well as burial sites continue to be found in the state.

Perhaps the largest, and still, most significant of these sites would be the settlement discovered just east of Point Judith Pond, a location eyed by developers for a 79 unit housing complex. Workers from Rhode Island College were directed to make the obligatory cursory examination for artifacts in the fall of 1986, and found evidence immediately that over the years was revealed to be a 25 acre settlement that included the remains of Narragansett dwellings and circular storage pits for corn and other staples.

The discovery of this site was in fact, one of the most extensive ancient seaside settlements found on the eastern coast of North America. Another had been excavated in Virginia some years earlier, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Though privately owned, the area is protected under Virginia and Federal statutes.

In Rhode Island however, a long and protracted legal battle between the state and developers has taken place. The State Historic Preservation Commission, with the Narragansett looking over their shoulder, contends the significance of the site as “ …a site of great importance that would be studied by several generations of scholars.”[45]

Initially, the project was stalled by state demands that the developers had to meet in searching for artifacts before proceeding. These searches led to more discoveries, including an Indian Burial Ground. Excavations in 2006, paid for by developers who had returned to the site to lay a road, unearthed evidence of 22 dwellings. These findings, led the Historic Preservation Commission to request that the permit issued to developers in 1992 be withdrawn. Developers responded by filing suit, asking the courts to end the State’s interference, and asking for “substantial damages” for the long delay.

While the Narragansett did not take an active role in these proceedings, the tribe naturally supported the state’s efforts to preserve the land. Preservation Officer Brown told the Journal.

“The protection of the property is for everybody…we sympathize with the plight of the owners, but you can’t trade history for a house or three houses…it would be like someone going in and building on the Arlington National Cemetery”.[46]

Another notable site is Greene Farm, a small compound of houses and outbuildings overlooking Occupatuxet cove, whose property dates from Miantonomo’s sale of the land. Owned by the Brown family for several generations, it is now the site of an ongoing Archeology dig sponsored by the University which bears the family name.

Henry A.L. Brown, a descendant of John Brown Francis, who presently resides on the compound, told me of an almost endless unearthing of artifacts by he and his brother as boys on the property. A local historian, who has written of the early days of surrounding Warwick, and also of Block Island, Brown is currently writing a history of Green Spring Farm, where the boy’s Father often took them for long walks on the property, pointing out Mark Rock, which lies on the shoreline of the cove, and explained the various legends surrounding the property.  As eager adventurers, they filled boxes with pieces of pottery, stone tools, and other artifacts and stored the boxes in an old elegant carriage that once belonged to John Nicolas Brown, which was then stored in an old shed on the property. One day they found their Father had donated the carriage to the Rhode Island Historical Society and they confessed to what they had done.  They all packed into the station wagon for the drive to Providence, but to no avail; the artifacts were gone.

At the time of this writing, the archeological dig had been ongoing since 2004, and six years later, so many artifacts had been found, that the summer was to be spent cleaning and cataloging what lay spread out on makeshift tables in a large barn.

Some sites have been found quite recently and often in unexpected places, as when Narragansett remains were found in the cellar of a colonial era home in Warwick. As recently as 2009 in Warren, where such long excavations had already taken place, yet another area of Burr’s Hill yielded fresh artifacts.  No doubt more relics of Narragansett life and culture will be unearthed in the years to come, further evidence that this proud people were once and will always be keepers of the Bay.

October 2009 – October 2010

Copyright 2010 by Robert A. Geake

BOX 1878 Brown University

Providence, RI 02912

e-mail: Robert_Geake@brown.edu

Bibliography:

Adams, James Truslow “The Founding of New England” Little,Brown, Boston 1923

Axtell, James “The Invasion within” Oxford University Press 1985

Bailyn, Bernard “The Peopling of British North America”

Berger, Jana M. “Narragansett Tribal Gaming and the Indian Giver” Gaming Law Review Vol. 3 No. 1 1999

Brookes, “The Collected Writings of Samsom Occom, Mohegan”

Brown, William J. “The Life of William J. Brown of Providence, Rhode Island”

Burton, William James “Hellish Fiends and Brutish Men” dissertation from Kent State University doctorate program in Philosophy 1976

Callendar, John “An Historical Discourse of the Civil and Religious Affaires of the Colony of Rhode Island”

Calloway, Colin G. “Algonkians in the American Revolution”

Chapin, Howard “ Sachems of the Narragansett” RIHS 1938

“A Documentary History of Rhode Island” RIHS 1939

“Indian Graves” RIHS Jan. 1927

“Queen’s Fort” RIHS Collections October 1931

Conforti, Joseph A. “Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America”

DeForest, John S. “History of the Indians in Connecticut” Hartford, 1851

Dellabarre, Edmund M. “The Inscribed Rocks of Narragansett Bay” RIHS  Collections

Dennis, Henry C. ed. “The American Indian 1492-1976”

Dennison, Frederic “Westerly and its Witnesses” 1878

Derdarian, Tom “The Boston Marathon”

Drake, Samuel G. “Old Indian Chronicle” Boston, 1867

Ellis, George W. and Morris, John E. “King Philip’s War” Grafton, Press 1906

Fitts, Robert K. “Inventing New England’s Slave Paradise”

Gookin, Daniel “Historical Collections of the Indians of New England” 1792

Guilliford, Andrew “Bones of Contention: The Repatriation of Native American Human mains” The American Historian 1996

Herndon, Ruth Wallace and Sekatau, Ella Wilcox “The Right to a Name: The Narragansett People in the Revolutionary Era”

Hohman, Elmo Paul “The American Whaleman”

Johnson, Annie “The Forgotten Collection: Brown’s Jenks Museum of Natural History” 2007

Johnson, Richard R. “The Search For A Usable Indian: An Aspect of the Defense of Colonial New England” The Journal of American History Vol 64 No. 3

Leach, Douglas Edward  “Flintlock and Tomahawk” Macmillan 1958

Mandell, David R. “Tribe, Race, History”

McMullen,         “Soapbox Discourse: Tribal Historiography, Indian-White Relations, and southeastern New England powwows”

Miller, William Davis “The Narragansett Planters” American Antiquities Association 1934

Nichols, Roger L  “American Indians in U.S. History”

Parsons, Usher MD. “Indian Relics” Historical Register February 1863

Providence Journal, Numerous articles as cited in notes

Rubertone, Patricia “ Grave Understakings “

“ Memorializing the Narragansett” 2008

Sayre, Robert F. “Thoreau and the American Indians”

Simmons, William “The Narragansett” NG 1978

“Old Light on Separate Ways: The Diary of Joseph Fish”

“Red Yankees: Narragansett Conversion in the Great Awakening”         American Ethnologist Vol 10 N0. 2 May 1983

Sweet, John Wood “Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race In the American North 1730-1830 John Hopkins 2003

Thoreau, Henry David “The Journals of… 1837-1861”

Tucker, William F. “A Historical Sketch of Charlestown”

Updike, Wilkins “The History of the Episcopal Church in Rhode Island”

Verrazanno, Giovanni “Voyages” edition from NTHS 1938 JCB Col.

Wilder, Harris Hawthorn “Notes on the Indians of Southeastern New England” American Anthropologist September 1923

Williams, Roger “A Key to the Language of America” Chapin, ed RIHS 1936

JCB Coll.


[1] “Squaw Betty’s Neck” as Thoureau reports, later called “Betty’s Neck”.

[2] Thoreau, Henry David,  June 26, 1856  “he Journal 1837-1861” p. 389

[3] Sayre, Robert F. Thoreau and the American Indians p. 18 in reference to…

[4] Ibid p.18

[5] Chapin,Howard “Indian Graves” RIHS Jan. 1927

[6] Guilliford, Andrew “Bones of Contention:The Repatriation of Native American Human Remains”The Public Historian 1996

[7] Parsons, Indian Relics published in the Historical Register February 1863

[8] Wilder, H.H. Indians of Southern New England

[9] These, like other Narragansett remains continued to travel. In 1966 Smith College gave the University of Massachusetts the remains, and by 2004, under the Federal Repatriation Act, the University was seeking claimants to the remains. The remains were finally returned to the tribe in 2005.

[10] The property had been sold by Thomas Ninigret. The sale prompted Samuel Niles and his followers to petition the state to prevent the Sachem from selling any more land.

[11] This may have been Chapin’s doing as he was the librarian of the RIHS. It is likely that the board was persuaded by his long-standing argument as to the identity of the remains.

[12] For these most recent updates on this sordid tale, I am grateful to Prof. Steve Lubar for providing Annie Johnson’s paper “The Forgotten Collection: Brown’s Jenks Museum of Natural History (2007)

[13] Wilder, H.H.  Notes on The Indians of Southern New England American Anthropologist Sept. 1923 p. 210

[14] Long thought to be of Dutch origin, and to some speculation, English, these claims of a European fortress are refuted by Leichester Bradner in the RIHS Collections (Jan. 1921) who ventured that the fort was an historic Narragansett encampment, fortified with ammunitions from the longstanding Dutch trade with the Narragansett. Excavations in the 1970’s unearthed two cannon of European origin, thus setting off the debate once again.

[15] Rubertone, Patricia Memorializing the Narragansett 2008

[16] Rubertone, Patricia Memorializing the Narragansett

[17] The Great Swamp Fight Monument

[18] Ibid p. 7

[19] Ibid p. 30

[20] Princess Red Wing in the “Narragansett Dawn”

[21] Chapin, Howard M. “Queens Fort” RIHS Collections, October 1931

[22] Howard M. Chapin’s popular edition of A Key to the Language of America was printed in 1936, but parts were quoted liberally in Bicknell’s History and by Sidney S. Rider, another local historian and champion of A Key as a valuable resource on the Narragansett.

[23] McMullen, “What’s Wrong with This Picture”1994

[24] McMullen, “Soapbox Discourse: Tribal Historiography, Indian-White Relations, and southeastern New England Powows. p. 57

[25] Providence Journal August 4, 2004 “One nation, two world, Part 4: Preacher carries on “the call” handed down through generations. by Paul Davis

[26] Derderian, Tom “The Boston Marathon”

[27] Nichols, Roger L. “American Indians in U.S. History”

[28] Dennis, Henry C. Ed. “The American Indian 1492-1976” p.59

[29] The town of Plymouth reached an agreement with the Wampanoag the following year to waive the need for a permit as long as the tribe gave the town advance notice of a protest or gathering.

[30] 25 U.S.C. S177 (1994)

[31] Reference to the fort at Great Swamp which white histories have portrayed as the turning point of King Philips War and the near extermination of the Narragansett People.

[32] Rhode Island History Vol. 38 1978, pp 68

[33] Rhode Island History Vol 38. pp 75

[34] 25 U.S.C. 2701 as referred to in Berger, Jana M. “Narragansett Tribal Gaming and the Indian Giver” in Gaming Law Review Vol. 3 No.1 1999

[35] ibid

[36] Narragansett Indian Tribe v, Ribo Inc. G. Wilcox E. Decided Feb. 14, 1989

[37] ibid

[38] Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island v, State of Rhode Island 667 A2nd280 (1995)

[39] 25 USC 1708(b)

[40] Berger, J.M.(L) “Narragansett Tribal Gaming and the Indian Giver” Gaming Law Review Vol.3 No.1 (1999)

[41] Providence Journal Aug, 1, 2004 “A Modern Chief” by Paul Davis

[42] Providence Journal, February 26, 2009 “Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas says tribes will fight court ruling” by Katie Mulvaney.

[43] Providence Journal 8/1/2004

[44] Providence Journal Dec. 6, 2009 “ Persistence, Perspective earn Brown award” by Liz Abbott

[45] statement made by Edward F. Sanderson, executive director of RIHPC to the Providence Journal in their article 10/18/2009

[46] Prov. Journal 10/18/2009

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A Toll, A Tavern, and A Farm.


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A Toll, A Tavern, and A Farm: A History of Pidge Avenue

By Robert A. Geake

“ Old Pidge House” (undated) courtesy of the Providence Public Lib.

History in our time has a way of fading quickly, or shifting to some preferred memory of a time and place. Real people and places, events fade from view. Resources to find them again are fragmented to what can be found in libraries, personal collections, and on-line.

This humble history, written by a resident of Pidge Avenue for more than twenty years, is an attempt to bring those fragments of the street, the farm, the tavern, and the toll gate which has it’s own long history, into one narrative and hopefully achieve a sense of how the street and community changed over the course of the years examined here.

The first evidence of commerce in the neighborhood was the toll, which had long, lay at the crossroads to main routes to and from Connecticut and Boston. The earliest known building associated with the toll was the Tavern and lodging house built by one Stephen Jackson in 1641 according to evidence of a date and signature drawn in the drying mortar on the “ scuttle”[1] of the old stone chimney built along the western side of the house.

A mortgage found in the attic of the old house dated in 1644, mentions the farm for the first time, naming the boundary as the Old Post Road from Providence to Boston, now Pawtucket Avenue. The house, and presumably the farm, changed hands to one John Morey, and then Philip Esten. The Tavern during these early years of its existence was reputably known as The Ox Tavern.

An addition to the house, basically doubling the structure in size was built in 1761 along with a massive brick chimney in its center.This coincides with the long association of the house with the Sayles family, beginning with Silvanius Sayles who continued to operate the house as a tavern and lodging house. The house was then passed to his son Jeremiah, and by that time, the house had became well known as the “Sayles Tavern”.

During the Revolutionary War, the tavern was to play it’s own role, and earn it’s own place in local history. Situated at the crossroads of the Old Boston Post road, and the Old Smithfield road, a common route to Connecticut and New York, one can easily imagine the variety of company, and conversation that took place in the Tavern during those years.

In early April of 1776, word suddenly came that, because of events in New York and New Jersey, it was desired that General Washington head for Providence, from where he would sail for Newport, and a meeting with General William Shirley.

Excitement must have grown as the General’s journey from Boston took him through Dedham, Wrentham, and Attleboro, before reaching Pawtucket. On Friday, April fifth, a great crowd of dignitaries, soldiers, and common citizens assembled around and inside the Sayles Tavern, with great excitement, awaiting Washington’s arrival. For many, it would have been their first and perhaps only glimpse of the man they hoped would lead the Colonies to victory. As historian John Williams Haley has written,

“ The colorful assemblage that patiently anticipated the approach of Washington on that pleasant spring day included the local company of cadets under the command of Colonel Nightingale, and the company of light infantry under the command of Colonel Mathewson, both units being in their dress uniforms.

Colonel Hitchkock’s and Colonel Little’s regiments under the command of brigadier general Nathanial Greene were also ordered to march out and join the parade of honor.”[2]

After a brief ceremony of welcome, there is speculation that a butternut tree was planted in honor of his arrival by the son of Jeremiah Sayles at this time[3], a procession was organized and set out from the tavern, with a number of citizens caught up in the excitement following the parade on horseback into Providence and the home of Stephen Hopkins.

The young Marquis de Lafayette resided at the tavern for several weeks in 1780. Having impressed Washington at Trenton, and then played a minor, and disappointing role in the Battle of RI, Lafayette had undertaken the task of obtaining French support, and eventually was promised 6,000 troops under the command of one General Jean Baptist de Vimeur, compte de  Rochambeau . Lafayette had disclosed the plan to Washington and had returned to Rhode Island to rendezvous with Rochambeau.

Troops arrived slowly, a first regiment arriving in Providence and marching to an encampment among the fields of Dexter Farm. Rochambeau remained in Newport, awaiting more troops, and was eventually blockaded after their arrival by the British and prevented from sailing to Providence.

Lafayette and the General exchanged intense and impatient letters during this time. With the brigade encamped a quarter mile up the road, Lafayette wrote from the Tavern

“ If you knew how strongly England and the Tories endeavor to persuade the Americans that France only wishes to kindle, without extinguishing the flame…I will confide to you that thus placed in a foreign country, my self-love is wounded by seeing the French blockaded in Rhode Island, and the pain I feel induces me to wish the operations to commence.”[4]

Rochambeau’s response was brusque. He had no desire to leave Newport to what he was sure would be a swift re-capture of the city, and the humiliation of the French brigade he would be indebted to leave behind. Washington was also reluctant to enact Lafayette’s plan of action. In his letters, Rochambeau often deferred the Marquis’ ambitious plans to insist that he wait for word from Washington. The missives between the young, American appointed commander and the elder French General grew nearly as heated as the sweltering summer that passed that year. At one point Lafayette wrote in exasperating terms to the General

“ it is pointless to detail these plans minutely, and since you approve of assistance of this kind, I shall tell you frankly that we are wasting precious time and that military preparations should have begun already…”

Eventually the exchanges cooled with Rochambeau giving affectionate and Fatherly advice to the 21-year-old Commander, urging him to retain “ a coolness of judgment in the council room’, as Lafayette set out for his long-awaited meeting with Washington.

He would later fight with distinction and earn his reputation in the South before rendezvousing with Washington and Rochambeau outside of Yorktown.

Those at Sayles Tavern would send off Rochambeau and his men to that great battle in June of 1781, a French soldier writing at the time remembered the women pressing food into their hands as they passed, and they marveled at the plentiful goods, having spent a year or more in the poorly fed camps.

It must have been a lively scene, the diary and drawings of Jean Batiste Antoine de Verger give us a whimsical portrait of the diversity of the soldiers and costumes that made up the French brigades. In many cases, our own American troops were very similar in appearance as local regiments fashioned their own uniforms for war.

courtesy of he Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

Rochambeau returned to greet another contingent of French troops in 1782, arriving in Providence around noon on November 10th, and marching two brigades up the Old Boston Post Road and encamping in a wooded area opposite the Old Dexter House. When the owner objected to the General’s plan to deforest thearea and build a barracks, the troops marched north again until reaching the old camp grounds used by the French under Lafayette.

Rochambeau stayed in Providence, but the officers of the French fussilers repaired to the Tavern, leaving a record of having paid the owner Jeremiah Sayles the sum of forty three dollars and 34p for

“ 4 cords of wood at 2 dollars per cord, fences destroyed, &c.”[5]

Lafayette visited Sayles Tavern again during his extended tour of the nation, arriving on August 23rd, 1824, by carriage from Plainfield, Connecticut and being met at the tavern by

“ a great military and civic procession. The ovation extended him was fully equal to that of Washington…and was participated in by the veterans of the Revolution, and by their children and grandchildren.” [6]

It was on this occasion, that Abigail Pidge, having given birth just days before to a yet unnamed infant, was inspired and asked the aging General for his blessing to name her son for their distinguished visitor. Thus Lafayette Pidge entered the ledgers of town records and though from humble beginnings ( he records himself as “ toll-keeper” under the occupation required for his marriage certificate ) he, like his Father found himself fortunate[7], for he was to raise seven children on the farm.

The coming years continued to bring visitors to the Tavern. For many years it was “ a regular stopping place for the New York to Boston stages, and…reputed to be the oldest house in Rhode Island.”[8]

The toll house that had stood at the crossroads was long associated with the tavern, in some records a toll-house is referred to adjoining the property of the tavern, in other, later records it is recorded on maps as “Williams Toll “ and sits directly at the crossroads.

The “Turnpike” was commissioned for improvements by acommittee formed in 1807, and an Act of the Town Assembly onJuly 6th of the following year, addresses reparations for “ the damages done to individuals thro’ whose land the same should pass”. This included the promise to Jeremiah Sayles, that “ the Corporation by agreement, are to erect as good a fence on the east side of said turnpike as now stands on the west side, to remove the buildings off the road & leave the old fence at said Sayles disposal.”[9]

A resident recalled that in 1824, the toll keeper’s name was one George Williams. She also recalled that at that time, and long after,the Old Post Road was among “ the most beautiful in the state”, with great trees on either side that stretched branches overhead in a long, leafy canopy. Another resident named Georgianna Austin, recalled helping her Father, John Utton at the toll around 1856 when she was eight years old:

“ I used to pick up the nickels tossed out by impatient drivers as they passed.”

She also reminisced about  “ romping around Pidge Farm.”

Gas lamps were introduced to the area in 1848, and the city gave permission for eight lanterns to be installed along the road. By 1853, the old Toll House was in disrepair, and funds were provided by the City Council to build a new house and tollgate just opposite the present entrance to Pidge Ave.

Traffic continued to grow on the old routes. Stagecoaches were replaced by the horse drawn Omnibus, an early, and often colorful predecessor of the horse drawn trolley, as they were often no more than refitted coaches painted with flags and banners in patriotic fashion.

The first organized trolley service in the state traveled the Central Falls to Pawtucket to Providence line along the route past the tavern in 1864. By this time, the tavern had passed to a son in law of the Sayles family, Ira Pidge; and became known as the “ Pidge Tavern” and later as the “ Olde Pidge House”.

The “Pidge Farm” of Pawtucket is listed among the National Archive of stops on the famous Underground Railroad as were several other houses nearby, including the Buffam Chase house in Central Falls. It seems that Pidge Farm was a minor stop on the route, but in an interview in 1934, Samuel Swan Pidge recalls that as a boy, he knew that his Father and Grandfather Ira helped hide “ the dusky fugitives in the Pidge House stables”, just up the “ lane”  from the Tavern. Runaway slaves would be directed to the tavern  by sympathizers, and often Pidge felt, by many of the police whose duty it would have been to arrest the slaves.

The elder Pidge recalled in particular, “ two big men fugitives and one woman who were hidden in the barn at different times” and that  “ Their Southern accent was too much for me, I could hardly understand a word they spoke.”

In Samuel Pidge’s account, slaves would generally arrive at dusk and be hidden in the stable among the cattle. Meals would be brought up from the Tavern, though it is not unlikely that meals were also given fugitives in the large kitchen of the Tavern behind the main room. Runaways usually stayed for one full day before heading out again at dusk. While some later local historians have downplayed the elder Pidge’s account, the interview, published both in the Pawtucket Times  and Providence Journal in 1934 is a long and vivid account of the times.

In addition, one of the last residents of the old house, Charles Clegg, recalled exploring hidden passageways and discovering false walls within the structure.

With the passage of time, the old Tavern’s reputation grew and as the 19th century closed, the “ Old Pidge House was featured inseveral books and articles as well as  lectures about New England and Colonial times.

One such lecture , entitled “ Old Taverns of Providence” appeared in the Narragansett Historical register in 1886. The Hon. Elisha Dyer tells of visiting the old Dexter house, the site of another early tavern, and assuming the place to be the oldest he had visited until informed by “ Mr Benjamin Burns…. a most worthy person, ….that the old “Pidge Tavern” now standing very near where the old “ Toll-House” was, and the present horse car barn is, was older.”

Visiting the house, he met James S. Pidge, the son of Ira Pidge, and the present owner who recounted the history of Lafayette’s visits to the house and let him into the attic to examine the dates on the chimney and old deeds he had stored away to verify the age of the structure.

Stepping into the main chamber he describes

“ The quaint old “ bar” is as it was, and the wooden bolt which fastened the front door still hangs on its nail for nightly use. “

He reports that:

“Lafayette’s room is the same as when he was it’s occupant, and very few changes in the general appearance and arrangement of the house have ever been made, so far as can be ascertained.”

Somewhat overwhelmed by his find, Dyer waxes poetic about the old house:

“ Here stands  { July 11, 1883, ) the oldest tavern of memory, rich in its time honored memories and associations, as yet unscathed or weakened by the severest blasts of a northern winter as well as by the withering rays of a more than tropical sun. …Long may it stand as one of the very few links connecting the past and present, that remain to us.”

Would that it were so. The old house was to remain for another seventy years, appearing again in an early guide to the State with another description of the interior:

“ The building contains many Colonial relics, a large beam runs lengthwise through the house, a fixture of colonial construction known as “the summer tree” In the corner of the old common room or bar room is a closet used for serving ales and liquors. It has a half-door, a narrow serving shelf, and a broader shelf within. In the latter is a slot through which coins were dropped supposedly into a half bushel basket. Behind the bar room is the kitchen with a well preserved old oven. The house also contains some of the furniture of it’s halcyon days.”

The guide also mentions an old well outside and

“ a large, flat boulder used by Lafayette as a mounting block.”[10]

The Tavern was also featured in the White Pine Monograph Series of Old Houses. The photograph in Volume 5 of the series, published in 1928 portraying Old Colonial Houses of Providence, shows Pidge House likely little changed from Elisha Dyer’s visit forty-five years before.

The subsequent years were not so kind to the old tavern. A map from 1870 shows the first building to appear on the farm above the tavern, and this is presumably the first “ farm-house” built separate from the Tavern that we know, and stands directly across what is now Williams Street. This would be the plot registered to Sarah Pidge in 1877 among the Register of Deeds in North Providence.

By this period, the old bustling activity on the road based on commerce, would have largely disappeared with the advent of the Providence-Worchester Railroad. The old Williams Toll was closed in 1869 and the turnpike declared a “ free-way” to much celebration. which included a circus, and a twenty five gun salute from the local Tower Light Brigade.[11

Passengers passing by the Tavern would have largely been those on the horse drawn trolleys, with the large horse barn nearby for switching the poor beasts used on the “ animal railroad” which at it’s height, traveled the old route every fifteen minutes between Pawtucket and Providence.

What is remarkable about this period is how encapsulated Pidge House, the farm, and its environs remained. The farm property extended all the way back to what is now Chace Avenue, which held a pair of houses about a third the way up from North Main, and another building, perhaps a barn, up-road from there.

A long-time resident remembered that even at this late in the century, what we now know as Pidge Avenue was an often “ muddy lane” down which cattle was driven to the old turnpike. He also recalled an orchard of Apple and Cherry trees which grew in the triangular area between Pidge and the lane later named Williams Street.

But all was to change in very little time. By 1880, a large horse stable for the rail cars had been built where the orchard had grown and the increasing traffic on the road perpetrated a period of rapid growth in the neighborhood. The city of North Providence built a school on the plot adjacent to Swan Street, and by 1881, when Pawtucket incorporated the area, their map of the “ Pidge Farm Plats” shows the old farm had largely been parceled out. Some lots and presumably the houses thereon remained in the family. There is a long line of descendents living on what became Pidge Avenue.

On the site of the first house above the tavern, or136 Pidge Avenue, the family line runs from James and Sarah in the 1870’s right through to Mrs Nellie Miller Collins who died in the home in 1939, and Mrs Joseph Williams who occupied the house in the 1950’s.

Samuels S. Pidge, of the aforementioned interview on the Underground Railroad, died at his home on 144 Pidge Avenue, just a few months before his cousin Nellie.

The Old Pidge House also remained in the family it appears until after James S. Pidge’s death. It was sold to a Mr. Ballou ofProvidence in 1901 who in turn sold it to the railroad company just five tears later, when it was feared it would be razed as the railroad was again, widening the turnpike to accommodate the growing traffic.

Efforts by the local Cerce Social Franco-American, recognizing the importance of the old house to French-American history, were made to persuade the city of Pawtucket to purchase the house.

Eventually, the house fell into disrepair. Photographs of this period show a house that seems abandoned, or nearly so, but the great house’s final  years were to have one last transformation.

For many years the Old Pidge House and farm seemed to defy the effects of time. They remained even as automobiles, Texaco stations, and massive buildings of factories and warehouses took the place of the leaf canopied lane.

In 1922, the Old Pidge House was bought by Granville S. Standish, a direct descendent of the founder of Plymouth, Ma. After years of neglect, his efforts to restore the historic house were duly reported by the Providence Journal:

“Reconstruction work on the Old Pidge House, one of Pawtucket’s oldest and most treasured historical landmarks,…is rapidly nearing completion…The house, a two-story wooden structure, was fast falling into decay until the work of reclaiming it was started. The dwelling, in it’s dilapidated condition, was the source of continual criticism by members of various organizations in Pawtucket.”[12]

The article then mentions that by October of that year

“ A squad of men, under the direction of the present owners, set out to repair the building. Broken window frames were replaced. The roof, which had been minus many of its shingles has been recovered. The four walls, which evidenced the ravages of time, have been strengthened. The exterior has been lathed with newstripe.”[13]

In addition, the large brick chimney, which reputedly was connected to fireplaces throughout the house, had also been repaired.

In 1924, the house was featured in the published collection of George D. Laswell’s “ Corners And Characters of Rhode Island”, a regular feature in the Providence  Journal. The accompanying text to the sketch of the Old Tavern notes that

“The property was recently acquired by Granville S. Standish of Providence who is refitting the interior in as near it’s original condition as possible. He hopes, with the assistance of the Rhode Island Historical Society, to preserve it as a historical shrine, opento the public.”

Pictures at this time show a beautifully restored historic house. For some reason, the hoped for “museum” never came to fruition. The Standish-Barnes Company commissioned artist Lyman Slocum to draw a sketch of the historic house in 1932, and this was later used in promotional materials and reprinted on calendars.

The efforts of Standish and others including Philip D. Greer, listed the house in 1940  with the Historic American Buildings Survey, and also achieved status for the property with the placement of a small plaque designating the house as an historic landmark on the Old Post Road, which was placed on a pole at the edge of the property facing North Main Street.

A Plaque on the house’s west end gave the Tavern’s date as “ circa 1700 “.

Standish owned the house with his business partners until his death on October 23, 1953. His son and heir died less than a month later. With the passing of these men, passed also the legacy of the Old Pidge House. Within a few month’s, the remaining partners at Standish-Barnes had erected two large billboards in front of the tavern and begun dismantling the historic structure. An article from the Providence Journal on March 28, 1954 chronicles the sad demise of the once revered house:

“Behind the billboards, the stout frame structure is falling in ruins. The carved doorway has been removed, and the vast central chimney, which provided a fireplace for every room, has largely disappeared.”

Reputably, parts of the interior were also removed and reinstalled in the Standish-Barnes offices. One of the house’s last inhabitants, Charles Clegg, is reported to have said that his Uncle, who assumed the place in the firm that Standish had held, tore the old tavern down for his business interests, and that the loss of the house was “a damned shame”.

He recalled that his fascination with the trolleys and the “horse barn“  just across from the old house formed his lifelong interest in trains and led to his distinguished career with the Virginia Railroad, and his impressive collection of railroad memorabilia which was donated to the University of California after Clegg’s death in 2002.

All who could shed some light on the tavern’s final days are now gone, yet any explanations would not diminish the great loss that the community and the State suffered when they allowed “ the oldest home in Rhode Island” to be destroyed.

Fifty-five years later, little remains to remind us of what had been here for so long as a tangible part of history. The historic Chase house still stands beyond the old borders of the farm. The Old Dexter House on North Main Street is now the home of the Providence Preservation Society, a monument commemorating the encampment of Rochambeau’s troops rests on the corner of Brewster  and Summit Ave.,

and lying directly on the Providence boundary, but just opposite the entrance to Hillside Avenue is an old granite marker on which is chiseled 2 MI, and beneath O.H. It is a stone that passengers on horseback, in carriages and trolleys and finally automobiles have seen to mark the 2 miles to the Providence stop on the old highway.


Notes:

[1] The scuttle is the inside of the chimney where added mortar and materials are added to protect the roof, accessed by the attic of the house. There is mention of the tavern being a “ stone-ender” in it’s earliest days. This chimney would have been removed for the central one built in 1761.

[2] This account of Washington’s visit is from Mr Haley’s pamphlet “ Washington’s Second Visit to Rhode Island in the Old Stone Bank series, copyright 1939

[3] This speculation being mine as there is mention in 1883 of “ a great butternut tree, estimated at 104 or so years old”, so large in circumference that it took three men to encircle the trunk.

[4] Written from camp August 18,1780

[5] record of expenses Rochambeau submitted to the Continental Congress

[6] Field, Edward “ State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century” 1902

[7] Ira Pidge had in fact been “evicted” from Providence as a young man and found his way to the tavern, where he found employment and his future wife in Jeremiah Sayles daughter.

[8] Editor’s notes to online version of the Old Stone Bank series.

[9] Early Records of the Town of Providence Vol. XVIII

[10] “ A Guide to the Smallest State 1902

[11] Grieve’s “ History of Pawtucket”

[12] The Providence Journal December 31, 1922

[13] Ibid

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Keepers of the Bay Part II: The Ghosting of a People


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Part II: The Ghosting of A People

After this defeat, the Rhode Island Indians had no independent life. They seemed to have lost the fine characteristics which had endeared them to Roger Williams and become treacherous, thriftless, and low. After a number of years when they had suffered from poverty and disease, the remaining Indians deeded their lands to the Colony and asked to be taken care of. They were given a reservation in the South County and lived quietly there, making their own laws and living their own lives. But their strength had gone and they passed away, until now it would be impossible for us to find anywhere in the state a full blooded Indian of the Narragansett tribe.[1]

Alice Collins Gleeson- Colonial Rhode Island 1926

By the beginning of the 18th century, the Narragansett, along with other indigenous tribes, had endured a century of assault upon their populations, their lands, and their culture. European settlements in the region had brought an incredible influx of settlers,traders, trappers, fishermen, pirates, and opportunists of all kinds to New England shores with the result that disease, conflicts, poverty and war, had all disrupted in little more than a hundred years, what had been unchanged for so long.The Narragansett were spared the large losses that other tribes endured from the most recent plagues of smallpox and other diseases, though in their travels through Wampanoag lands, they must have witnessed the “sad spectacle” in those wasted villages where

“skulls and bones were found in many places, still lying above ground, where their houses had been…”[2]

While many early settlements had been established in abandoned coastal Native communities, as the European population grew, the surrounding areas were quickly deforested, not only to clear needed land, but even more so to obtain building materials,wood for fences, and firewood for the hearth. The need for this resource consumed acres of New England forest, and the fields of stumps, the piles of charcoal fires amidst the devastation must have sorely impacted the Native sensibility to the woodlands.

The Narragansett had their own tradition of clearing land for the growing of crops,especially corn, but also pole beans and squashes. They were well established as the greatest agricultural nation of the tribes on the Eastern Seaboard. The sight of wasted land and smoky cairns of charcoal must have filled them with dread. By 1640, the Narragansett were subjected to a treaty which forbade they “kindle or cause to be kindled any fiers upon or Lands”  under English jurisdiction, upon punishment “tried by our law”.[3]

Among the other propositions within said treaty, were agreements that “no Indian shall take any Cannew from the English neyther from their Boatside or shoreside & the like not to be done to them”, and that “upon their trading and bargaining having agreed they shall not revoke the sd bargaine or take their goods away by force, & that they shall not be Ideling about nor resort to or howses, but for trade message or in their Jour-neys.”[4]

The Colony made it law in 1641, and levied a steep fine upon any citizens selling a firearm to the neighboring Indians:

“It is ordered that if any Person or persons shall, sell, give deliver, or in any ways convey, any Powlder, shott, Gunn, Pistoll, sword, or any other Engine of warr, to the Indians that are or may prove offensive to this State or to any member thereof, …shall forfet the sum of 40s & for the second offense offending in the same kind shall forfeit 5li half to our Sovr Lord the King & half to him that will sue for it…”[5]

Rhode Island records show a few early examples of the Colony’s enforcement of the law. During the Quarterly session of the Aquidneck Court on December 3, 1643, we find the case of one Wm Richardson, who upon his “Inditmt of selling a peec to the Indian was injoined to bring in againe the sd peec by the last day of June ensuing.”[6]

In another case held in October of 1646, the Court sued one Ralph Earle “for forty shillings upo the breach of the Law in furnishing an Indian with a Gun he being convicted by wm Balsto & others…The Court orders the peece that is in Mr. Easton’s hands wch was taken from the Indian provd to belong to Thos Layton and to be dd to the Recod who is to keep itt til the 40s be pd…”[7]

These legal salvoes from the English began a scant five years after Roger Williams had stepped ashore seeking exile within the Narragansett lands.

In response to this abrasive authority, Native sachems, though unfamiliar with English perceptions of boundaries, tried to stem the encroachment by selling tracts of land, and often retiring their tribe as far as they could from these “English borders”.

Trappers and fishermen, naturally, threatened the Native’s own needs and economies, as well as bringing a cultural change within tribal communities.Early on, individuals acquired consent to fish, hunt and trap on Native lands. Their extended stays in Native communities introduced American Indians to new technology, better tools, and other implements, but also brought the ravages of unknown diseases, and the first interracial relations, as trappers took Native wives, or integrated themselves within one tribe or another.

Traders that came and went brought the baubles and beads, the trinkets that Elderly Leaders soon grew to disdain. They also brought alcohol, introducing another form of devastation to Native communities.  Growth accelerated as white populations continued to grow and settlers expanded across the region. Between 1660 and 1710, over two hundred new townships were established in New England.[8]

With existence tied to their environment (unlike the European manner of changing the environment to suit their existence), the Narragansett and other tribes were pushed into a situation of desperation. Few historians have examined the consequences of these assaults, beyond their contribution to the Native American-European conflicts of the 17thcentury.

But these assaults also resulted in a cooperation and a kind of federacy among former enemies as their world closed in around them. As we have seen, European settlements were often suspicious of Native activities, and often ignorant of true relations within tribes. Native leaders sometimes used this to their advantage in their dealings with the English, the Dutch, and the French.

There is evidence that during the prelude to King Philip’s War, movements along the Eastern seaboard of native warriors suggest that many tribes, perhaps recalling the late Miantonomo’s urging, were in some form of preparation for a major uprising. As it happened, a few Colonists, including Governor Winthrop in Connecticut and Roger Williams of Rhode Island, prevented a complete alliance among the Algonquin tribes; the Narragansett among them, and the Wampanoag who went to war against the Massachusetts Bay Authority.

This likely saved the colonies for the English, but the resulting months of skirmishes and desperate battles, the outright razing of villages on both sides extended from as far as York, NY, to Newport and Providence, Springfield, and Deerfield, Massachusetts; most certainly involved Nipmuck, Narragansett, Abenakis and Tarratines,  as well as Wampanoag warriors.

Following the war, what Natives escaped capture or death assimilated into other tribes, the remaining Narragansett with the Niantic under Ninigret’s rule, whose people adopted the nobler name for themselves. As such, the Colonies recognized Ninigret as the Sachem, and then his daughter Weunquesh upon the elder’s passing.

The brief summary of Narragansett history posted as the prelude to this chapter, is typical of the view that 19th and even 20th century scholars have taken, but for a few who have broken the ground for this modern era of reevaluation. The devastating effects of King Philip’s war became the final chapter in many a narrative concerning the Narragansett. As late as 1975, a young scholar’s dissertation upon the period published in the prestigious New England Quarterly, included the hasty assessment that after the war,

“only a degenerate remnant attempted to preserve a traditional life under the sachem of the Niantic tribe…”[9]

Such a statement does not do justice to the efforts of the Squaw Sachem to gather her scattered people. The Narragansett had under agreement allowed the Niantics to take shelter in the “rough and swampy country between Westerly and Kingston.” and it was  here that Weunquesh established an integrated colony. She was also a shrewd negotiator, and not having satisfaction with the Rhode island court in 1689, petitioned the Narragansett Commissioners of the King to see her claims justified.

On her death, and in a lavish ceremony that was to be a prelude of his lifestyle, Ninagret II assumed the role of Sachem.

To be sure, Ninigret II inherited a depopulated and devastated people. The smoky camp of wigwams that the missionary Mayhew encountered were but a fragment of the free Narragansett. Others had left to live among other tribes who held relations, or lived in piecemeal camps along the sandy boarders of Narragansett that were unwanted, or as yet unnoticed by the colonists. The era of the lone “wandering Indian” was to begin in the aftermath of the conflict, and the resulting skirmishes and alcohol related incidents led authorities to pressure Indians throughout the region to gather their remaining people onto reservations: tracts of land the colonists would grudgingly give that held a handful of sacred places, a burial ground or place of worship.

Such was the pressure placed upon the sachem , that in 1709,  he and his council willingly agreed to give Providence Plantations all remaining Narragansett land in exchange for such a reservation in Charlestown which included the area where the tribes had lived since the gathering with the Niantic.

In the years that followed, settlers and land speculators continued to persuade individual Narragansett to sell parcels, or continued the tradition of employing debt as a means of obtaining land. Narragansett leaders petitioned the state for assistance in 1713, and by 1717, the colony of Providence Plantations had placed Narragansett lands in“trust”. Such was the infighting among the tribe over lands that were sold to accommodate the sachem’s lifestyle.

Ninigret II was an unpredictable Sachem, and a violent man. He had first married a Pequot squaw with whom he had two children who died very young. He married a second squaw, named “Mary” the daughter of the “black sachem” Wamsitta, who bore him a son who also died in childhood.  A third marriage occurred with a Mohegan squaw, and then a fourth to another Pequot squaw named Pashkhanas.  By this time, Ninigret II had become so degenerate  that one night  after a “Royal Party” of drinking liquor, the sachem woke and slashed his wife’s cheek with a knife in a fit of misguided jealousy. He did however,  father two sons with Pashkhanas named George and Charles who lived into adulthood; the later of whom was elected Sachem after his Father’s death about 1722.

In his early history of New England, Joseph A. Conforti points out that Ninigret II’s long history of selling native lands, his arrogance and sense of entitlement as Sachem had wreaked a new kind of havoc on

“ the stability of a tribe that still numbered well over a thousand members. The Ninigret family, the “King-Sachems” of the Narragansett, gained legal control over thousands of acres of tribal land. They used it not on behalf of fellow reservation Natives, but to finance a lavish Anglicized way of life that emulated the colonial gentry and aspired to European royalty.”[10]

Court records throughout the first half of 18th century Providence Plantations portray the ongoing generational conflict among the “royals” for control of the rapidly diminishing Native lands, as well as disputes as to the title of Sachem among the children and grandchildren of Ninigret II. By mid-century, nearly all the land given as a reservation was gone. Under sanction of the Colony in 1746, more land was sold to pay off the family’s mounting debt. These disputes, more than any other factor, painted a negative portrait of the tribe among colonial leaders, and were to be used to diminish the once proud history of the Narragansett and set in motion the dismantling of remaining tribal lands and authority in the next century.

Let us step back for a moment however, to examine the social upheaval that began after the colonial victory in King Philip’s War. As mentioned previously, a large number of Narragansett were captured and shipped as slaves to the West Indies. This had been the intent of at least a few prominent colonists as demonstrated by the letter of Emanuel Downing  to John Winthrop in 1645:

“If upon a just warre (with the Narragansetts) the Lord should deliver them into our hands, wee might easily have men and women and children enough to exchange for Moores, which will be more gaynefull pilladge for us than we conceive.”

It was partly for this reason that colonists believed that, should Natives remain as slaves near their former lands, another uprising might easily occur.[11]

Because of this concern, a significant number of Narragansett were sent to Block Island where the town council could oversee their regulation. The Colony sold the remaining Indians into slavery, scattering the captives to remote rural farms or selling them to individuals outside Providence Plantations. The price for each individual varied, but averaged at around 33 shillings in silver,[12] though records indicate payment was also accepted in “fatte sheep” and “bushells of Indian corn”.

One such Narragansett first listed as Tobee in a certificate of Colonel Johnson’s hand, was obtained in 1676, lived under the same roof as the slave trader as his servant, and after twelve years was given his freedom. He later purchased a tract of land from the Naugatuck as Toby Johnson, and obtained the deed as a free Indian in 1713. When he died in 1734, he deeded his land to the three sons of his beloved Colonel, and another white man.

The strain of forced integration continued to take its toll. Itinerant American Indians had long wandered through the region, taking odd jobs, sometimes working for a stretch of time  before moving on. Those who settled mostly came into debt, as did other free blacks and poor white settlers, and the Colony sanctioned slavery or servitude through court punishment of a term of years, based upon crimes perpetrated, or the amount of debt that was owed.

In 1675 the Assembly of Providence Plantations declared that

“Noe Indian in this Colony be a slave, but only to pay their debts or for their bringing up, or custody they have received or to peforme covenant as if they had their countrymennot in warr.”[13]

Among the Narragansett who resisted capture and enslavement in the Indies, there were few who did not fall under the reasons the Colony deemed appropriate for enslavement. From the time of the enactment of this law, records in South Kingston contain no references to Indians whatever beyond those listed as a “servant” or “indentured servants”. [14]

Boston papers from the period occasionally mentioned a “runaway slave” from Block Island, but also from other communities within Providence Plantations. Slaves were indeed  distributed within communities on the mainland. While Indian slaves, like black slaves were often given their master’s names and “Christianized” in this fashion, notices from The Providence Gazette throughout the 18th century identified runaways by their origin as well as remarkable features an characteristics. Thus we find in a notice from Mary Greene of Warwick for

“an Indian Man, named Buck, 23 years of age…has a Scar  just above his Forehead, and another on one of his Feet, two of his upper Teeth are out, has a Roman Nose, and wears long black Hair; he plays tolerably on the violin.”[15]

These and other records exist of slaves serving for periods of time in Providence and Warwick, and most notably in South Kingston, where a census in 1730, showed the community to hold 223 Narragansett slaves. A generation later, there were still 193 Narragansett slaves listed in town registers.[16]

Baker mural “Narragansett Planters” originally commissioned by the U.S. Post Office for the Kingston, R.I. branch.

Amidst the rolling hills of Narragansett Country were long established farms and estates of families who became known as the Narragansett Planters. The estates planted tobacco and hemp in their early years,  in their effort to  cultivate a finer, more elite crop than the smaller farms which grew the bulk of produce for the Newport and Providence markets.By this period however, The Planters had come to find the breeding and trading of the “Narragansett Pacer”[17] a lucrative endeavor.

A sleek horse, the Pacer was adept in the New England landscape, and a valuable steed for a messenger or swift traveler. Paul Revere and George Washington were later said to favor the breed. Washington owned two Pacers on his Virginia estate, one so spirited that it became known as the only horse who had ever thrown the equestrian General.

The Pacer became even more valuable during the fever of horse racing that broke out over Britain as well as Rhode Island; the only Colony whose strict adherence to separation of church and state allowed such “frivolous sport” to flourish.

The estates of the Planters employed free Indians for labor as well as the indentured blacks and native Narragansett.

The Hazard, Robinson, and Stanton families were reputed at one time to have owned many slaves. More recent historians have placed the number at about forty each family, but a memoir of  P. Hazard recalls his grandfather “relieved” to pare the household servants down to  seventy. There were also productive dairy farms neighboring these estates, and these farms sometimes rivaled the estates in the breeding of the famed Rhode Island dairy cow, valued in other colonies and often exported to the West Indies. These dairy farms and cattle breeders  “employed” both Black and Indian servants, as well as smaller farms that grew produce for market in Newport.

There were also individual owners of Narragansett slaves.  The will of one Benjamin Barton of Warwick in 1720 lists an Indian boy named “Daniell” along with the boy’s Mother among his valued belongings. In1738, George Hazard registered ”one mustee and two Indian indentured servants.” Likewise, Jeremiah Wilson’s registry of 1749, lists a “Mustee servant named Jacob”.

The term “mustee” was one used to represent the offspring of Black and American Indian partners who shared the experience of slavery and had intermarried for some time. By the time of these registrars, several generations of children of black and Indian parents had been born. Slave owners referred to mixed blacks as mullato or as a native slave from a foreign country: identifying a missing “spanish indian”, or by way of definition, a“clear indian”.

Mustee appears as well in the notices from the Providence Gazette from 1762 on and is a forerunner of the government’s press, and general public reducing the identity of the Narragansett and other tribes during the next century.

These “mustee” generations of the Narragansett often grew up in slavery. If they were not born in a master’s house and added to the property, they were dropped on the doorsteps of estates or farmhouses and even meetinghouses by free Narragansett women  who were often impoverished and sometimes shamed by their relatives for their inter-racial union. Perhaps the most poignant telling of the desperation of the people during this period is the infanticide that occurred at what came to be known as Crying Rocks.

Writing in 1761, Rev. Ezra Stiles, who was then pastor of the 2nd Congregational Church, in Newport, wrote of Narragansett women taking to the woods to give birth to “illegitimate” children  near the site “where they killed so many infants, & their bones lay about so thick, that they go by the name of the Bastard Rocks”

Narragansett oral tradition recounts the practice of infanticide, but in the context of a newborn with a crippling disability, or an infant who was sickly, without hope of survival. The Rev. Harold Mars acknowledged in an interview two hundred some years after Stiles account, that “when a child was born deformed or crippled in any manner, it was the plan and practice of the Indian people, with proper ceremony, to put that child to death because obviously the child would be handicapped…and this thing having gone on for many years, why there was a build up of little skeletons.” [18]

At the same time, prominent medicine woman Ella Wilcox Sekatu acknowledged the prejudice that some Narragansett had for children of mixed blood, considering them “imperfect”, and contributing to  the “loss of Indianness”  in the eyes of the Colonists, and even of other tribes, for such prejudice among American Indians of the region was not uncommon.

The Narragansett were familiar with black races as early as the 17th century, for Roger Williams writes that their language described “a coale blacke man” as Suckautacone.

This word, according to Williams, was used to describe an African, but we have no wayof knowing whether the same word applied to other dark skinned people, and if the encounters were with slaves or mariners. Early in the 18th century, interracial unions occurred with little notice, Indian tradition had long allowed visitors to marry into tribes if the newcomer agreed to contribute to the welfare of the people and abide by the peoples’ customs. By mid –Eighteenth century however, many Native women married or absconded with free blacks who worked in the maritime trades, or on the estates in Newport, or other neighboring farms.

Perhaps most telling, are documents that show the state of the tribe during this time.When the Rev. Joseph Fish arrived in Charlestown in 1765, he met with a faction of the tribe to provide religious instruction and to build a school. In December of that year he was given a “list of the Family’s Belonging there unto and number of children Thats fit for Instruction.” Among those listed within this faction of seventy four Christian Indians, were twenty two widows.[19]

A Narragansett perspective is given in the account of William J. Brown, the indentured son of such a marriage, and the grandson of a Narragansett woman who

“purchased her husband from the white people in order to change her mode of living.”

He writes that

“The Indian women observing the colored men working for their wives, and living after the manner of white people in comfortable homes, felt anxious to change their position in life; not being able to carry out their designs in any other way, resorted to making purchases. . .The treatment that Indian women received from the husbands they had purchased was so satisfactory that others were encouraged to follow their example, notwithstanding every effort was made to prevent such union.” [20]

These events presented a perceived threat to the Narragansett and other tribes, and a backlash came in a wave of racially related violence among Indian men within the affected tribes of New England.  The schoolmaster James Deake wrote to his supervisor in December of 1765 that the Narragansett tribal council had voted to disown “a considerable Number of mixtures as mulatoes and mustees” in addition to “Sundry families of Indians which properly belongs to other tribes.”[21]

It appears that this prejudice was not extended to Europeans who had long inter-married or fathered children of Indian women. Gary Nash, among others, writes of the long-standing practice of traders and trappers, even European settlers inter-marrying and taking Indian wives along with them for the practical skills they offered as well as companionship in an unfamiliar landscape.

There were also the many instances over generations, of settlers being drawn in by the freedom that the remaining Indians offered, intermingling with the tribes and sleeping with their women, though the Colonial authorities certainly looked upon such affairs with distaste.

As early as 1640, William Coddington of Rhode Island wrote to John Winthrop to warn him of

“a lude felowe, one Theo. Saverye, whom I heare is now in durance with yow,…Lately I wos informed that at a place called Puncataset, upon the mayne land, wher he kept the last summer,& wos much frequent in following, &c. he hath a child by an Indean womon, which is a boy, & not black-haired lick the Indean children, but yellow haired as the English, & the womon being laitley delivered, doth say English man got it, & some of them name him, & when he ranne away from us, he would at Titecute lyne with Knowe Gods mother, which doth speake of it in detestation, & that those that professe them selves to be Christian should be more barbarous & wyld than Indeans.”[22]

While Plymouth Colony persecuted Natives for infanticide in a ‘proportionately greater number than white women”, such was not the case in Rhode Island, although there is a case on record from a deposition for the court given by an elderly Narragansett woman named in court papers as “Indian Hannah” in 1729 against a squaw named Sarah Pharoah, testifying that the young Sarah came to her

“ and told her yt She was not Well, and was Much out of Order and Desired… (that Hannah) Get Some Roots” for her to take. The elderly woman testified that “ She thought she was with Child, and if So the Taking of Roots would kill…the Child, and She (Sarah) must be hanged for it.’[23]

Little is known about “Indian Hannah” but that she had once been “one of the old women who procured abortions”[24] among the Narragansett. Given the Christian name by which she was sworn in the deposition, and her newly formed belief that such practice constituted a criminal act, we can assume that she had come under the influence of religous teachings and was likely among those “praying Indians” who had converted with the first wave of English missionaries into Rhode Island.

Perhaps as Patricia Rubertone has suggested, by the period that Ezra Stiles was  writing his grisly account of infanticide, Narragansett women faced “allowing a baby who carried the stigma of mixed blood to grow up in a world where its life would be defined by worthlessness and degeneracy in the eyes of European Americans… Or permitting such a child to become the possible object of mounting frustration and uncontrolled rage among close relatives and members of their natal communities”[25]

Between 1750 and 1800, towns within the colony officially “indentured” ninety-eight Narragansett children, one as young as twenty one months old, another boy named John of “4 years 4 months & 6 days old”.

As Ruth Wallis Henderson and Ella Wilcox Sekatu write in their study of this era,

“This was a common practice in eighteenth-century New England; town “fathers” acting in the stead of natural parents, placed poor and/or orphaned children of all races in more prosperous households under contracts that obligated the children to live with and work for their masters until adulthood.”[26]

Whatever caused some Narragansett women to consider this “necessary evil”, it was apparently during this period of integration and shared slavery that the traditional practice was adapted to include unwanted children of mixed race.

This natural integration of Blacks and Indians, and the tragic consequences are the story that has only been touched upon in the written histories, and perhaps among the oral histories of the tribe as well.

Of those Narragansett who served time as slaves, we know that they were valued less than the black slaves on the planters estate, and there is little evidence that they were given any task above that of an unskilled laborer. This meant that Narragansett slaves were suppressed in ways beyond the black slaves on these estates. To fully understand what this meant in the day to day living of the Indian slaves, we must examine a little of the shared life they inhabited.

As slaves on the planter’s estate, they would have been segregated from the master’s family during meals, eating with black slaves in the kitchen, while the family ate in the parlor. The food sent back for slaves to eat in the kitchen was often little more than the leftover’s from the family table. As slaves drew rank according to responsibilities, the Narragansett, confined to the basest of all jobs would certainly have endured a tradition of ridicule and poverty.

Some historians have ventured that slaves, like those in New England who often slept in the large farmhouses and outbuildings, enjoyed a familial closeness with their masters, and often this argument has used the aforementioned example of Toby and the Colonel to showhow this easily occurred. More recently, Robert K. Fitts makes the point that rather than fostering closer relations, such arrangements restricted the ability of northern slaves to keep alive their traditional culture and beliefs. Fitts writes that

“ during daylight slaves were supervised as they worked-yet southern slaves, living in quarters, had the nighttime to talk freely amongst themselves, By living within the main house- this was difficult for most Narragansett slaves…to practice traditions and exchange information to help them resist their master’s domination.” [27]

While the Narragansett slaves toiled as farm laborers, shoveling the stalls, driving the cattle to pasture, or cleaning the main house, black slaves were given all manner of skilled jobs to perform. They shrewdly used this time to reconnect with relations or visit other slaves they were acquainted with in Wickford or Newport, or at neighboring estates in Narragansett when they were sent to deliver messages, produce, or livestock.

Other slaves professed to “retreating to the woods to pray” and certainly Narragansett slaves would have taken any opportunity to keep alive sacred rituals and practices. It is known that as early as 1726, and well into the latter part of the 19th century, Narragansett slaves gathered “once a year in June…on Rose Hill in Potters woods to hold a fair”[28] The traditional pow-wow held in August also continued to be attended by Narragansett slaves, if they were not prohibited by their masters.

The Planters tried various means over the years to maintain a rigid control over every aspect of their slaves lives: enjoining the Colony to pass laws such as that of 1704, which imposed a nine o’clock evening curfew on “any Negroes or Indians, Freemen or Slaves” and the act in 1708 which aimed to “suppress any person from entertaining of negroes or Indian servants that are not their own, in their houses or unlawfully letting them have strong drink”. Masters segregated slaves in church by forcing them to sit separately from other worshippers and in death also, by burying them in scarcely marked graves beyond the formal boundaries of the family plot.

Despite these efforts, Narragansett and other slaves found ways to circumvent the authority of their masters. The Narragansett were in effect, always a gamble to the Planters and other masters throughout the colony. There was always the risk of flight, and the slave quickly hiding himself within the reservation, or with those Narragansett who continued the long tradition of traveling for extended visits with relatives, or making pilgrimage to a sacred sites.[29]

As the generations of Narragansett slaves merged in the registers of Planters with black slaves, planters no longer cared to make the distinction, the identity of a people began to be erased from the records of the colony. By the time of the Rhode Island’s adoption of gradual Emancipation in 1784, and the ban on trading of slaves within the State three years later, most of the Estates and farms in Narragansett county already employed a number of former slaves and servants, some of whom chose to remain living on the properties.

Employment of Narragansett Indians by individuals and even towns within the Colony had it’s own long tradition. As early as 1639, a handful of Narragansett were enlisted, by Thomas Hazard, Nicholas Easton, and William Brenton to help clear land on the newly acquired Island of “Aquedneck”.  According to several accounts, the white settlers, having cleared trees, found their work hampered by the “impenetrable low brush”. of the swamplands. A group of Narragansett were hired for the sum of “five fathom of wampum peage and a coat, “ the Indians soon after fired the swamp and…. it was in time cleared and filled in with gravel and sand, and thus, after much labor, made sufficiently firm for building lots.” [30]

Communities also hired Narragansett laborers, as did the town of Warwick in the spring of 1653, paying a group of Narragansett 12 pounds and 10 shillings for building stone fences[31], a novel necessity once the woodland resources were expended. The aforementioned John Wall – Maker, whose Narragansett name was Nawhaum, was better known as Stone-Wall John by the English.

Stone-Wall John was considered to be a pioneer of this trade, for his skills were well known throughout the colony. Roger Williams knew him from his early days as a servant to Richard Smith, and described him as “ …an ingenius fellow and peasable.” Stone-Wall John was thought to have helped design Queen Anne’s fort in Wickford as well as the stone balustrades that kept the English at bay for some hours during the Great Swamp fight. He was also a blacksmith, “the only man amongst them that fitted their Guns and Arrowheads”[32],  fleeing from the burning encampment at the Great Swamp with his tools.

Early settlers of Rhode Island hired Narragansett men on a regular basis before the outbreak of that conflict for seasonal work on farms, as well as short term construction labor, and this tradition re-established itself after the war was over. Despite one writer’s assessment early in the 18th century that the Narragansett were “scattered about where the English will employ them”, [33] free Indians survived with skill and cunning as laborers; allowing them, even with what most considered a marginal existence, to keep the lifestyle of their people and a certain independence and freedom that those who had chosen or fallen into indentured servitude could not have enjoyed.

By the close of the 18th century, another testament, written by Daniel Gookin, a missionary  who despite having failed to convert the Indians to Christianity, shows an undeniable admiration; for these “active, laborious, and ingenious people; which is demonstrated in their labors they do for the English of whom more are employed, especially in making stone fences.”[34]

Some Narragansett men found “employment” by acting as guides or even mercenaries for the English in their military skirmishes against other Native American or European enemies. Unaccustomed to the “skulking way of war” practiced by the Narragansett and other tribes, European military leaders nonetheless noticed the intrinsic value it had in the wilderness as opposed to the open fields and hillsides of European battles. A Swiss officer in the British forces summed up the difficulties  of European soldiers in the unfamiliar terrain:

“I cannot think it Advisable to employ regulars in the Woods against Savages, as they cannot procure any Intelligence, and are open to Continual Surprises, nor can they Pursue at any distance their Enemy when they have Routed them, and should they have the Misfortune to be Defeated the whole would be destroyed if above one day’s March from a Fort.”[35]

Indians were “far more capable than the English “, as well as “very terrifying to the enemy” and served as the “indispensable eyes of the colonial forces”.[36] Narragansett men joined military excursions for a number of reasons. Most often was the simple need for an income in the newly European dominated colony. Others became Christians,  and joined to further assimilate themselves into the white man’s world. This transformation occurred within a generation or two, with the resulting irony that in 1709, Benjamin Church, the now elderly Plymouth commander who had fought the Narragansett at the Great Swamp, was in Newport, enlisting a force of 200 Indians “ skilled in handling the whaleboats” which he planned in using for a second attack on Port Royal.[37]

Church later successfully lobbied for the Indians who had served under him to receive a tract of land in Tiverton.

In August of 1757, when after the French attacked Fort William Henry in New York, the colony of Rhode Island issued “ An ACT for raising One Sixth Part of the Militia in this Colony, to proceed immediately to Albany, to join the Forces which have marched to oppose the French near Lake George.

Among those listed on the muster roll to be marched out of the County of Newport

was one “ Josiah…an Indian”[38] the distinction of race being unusual, it is likely it was listed as the man identified himself without a Christian surname.

With the onset of conflicts with Great Britain and the “Gaspee” burning, communities throughout Rhode Island mustered Militias into service and included Narragansett Indians among the rolls. Narragansett oral history tells us that when war was imminent with the English, word was sent out among the tribes and places where the people had gone and  many were “called back” to enlist  in these militias.

The historian Colin G. Calloway makes the compelling argument, that as well as the economic reasons for enlisting, the

“New England Algonkians, already surrounded, if not submerged, in Anglo-American society may in some cases have seen in the revolution an opportunity to demonstrate their right to equality…When war broke out, most had little desire to go to war against their American neighbors, and many chose to support them against redcoats who often resorted to tactics of coercian to enlist Indian support.””[39] Later generations spoke proudly of their ancestor’s involvement in the war, and their own perseverance on the land.

“My Grandfather in his time stood second in the council for years and years. He was a member, went to the Revolutionary war, and came back and lived and died at home“

Narragansett Joshua Nokes proudly told the Committee that would eventually strip the tribe of their sovereignty.

The Revolutionary War took a heavy toll on those tribes that participated in both the English and Continental Army. As Calloway has noted, “ The war sapped the remaining strength of the Connecticut tribes and the Narragansetts…”  People returned to ravaged reservations, where among survivors, “idleness and intemperance increased”. Villages were suddenly populated with widows and orphans without any means of support but that which  their impoverished neighbors could offer.

As with slaves and  “praying Indians”, the Christianized names used on the muster rolls often disguise the individual’s heritage, and it is difficult to come to an exact number or percentage of Narragansett who enlisted in the War. Most telling, are the desertion notices, which, as with runaway slaves, mention origin and characteristics. And while the numbers of Narragansett deserters were far fewer than the Irish, Scottish, and English indentured servants, or the black slaves who had enlisted for freedom and a paycheck; they identify what we must assume would be a low percentile of those who volunteered. In fact of the 38 “slaves” listed in the Narragansett Historical Register as enlisted in the Continental Army, only 20 year old William Greene shows in the desertion notices, leaving the regiment of Capt. John Dexter’s company of the 9th Battalion in the early spring of 1777. He, like hundreds of others had deserted after the dismal winter with barely the clothes on their backs, and then like many of his compatriots, re-enlisted the following year. Of the Narragansett listed, we find the following:

On July 5, 1777 the Providence Gazette included in it’s desertion notices, one

“Benjamin Wicket, an Indian, 26 years of age, about 5 feet 10 inches high, long black hair, cut square off at the earlocks…”

and in March of 1778,

“ Deserted from my company, in Col. Crary’s regiment, about the middle of February last, James Allen, a likely, well-set Indian fellow, 22 years of age. 5 feet 5 inches high; he belongs to East Greenwich.”

These notices often listed the deserter’s “home of origin, or where they enlisted; implying in legalese  that if the “renegade” returned, the town would be responsible for his detainment. Often these notices were quite detailed, as seen in that which appeared of deserters from Col. Grreene’s regiment on May 19, 1781:

“…James Booney, an Indian (inlisted for South Kingston) born in Westerly, 30 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches high, and is a cooper by trade.”

Such a wealth of information often left the Narragansett and other natives little choice but to vanish into the wilderness or take to the sea, a possibility further noted by the authorities. These notices often ended with a stern, but hardly enforceable warning:

“All masters of vessels are forbid carrying off said deserter, at their peril.”

Some Narragansett men inherently chose a life in maritime service by joining the fishing boats out of New England ports, but more often opting to sign on whaling vessels for “long lays”-journeys that could easily last for  three to five years out of ports as far north as Provincetown and Nantucket, but also from New Bedford and “ a number of outposts on Narragansett Bay”[40].  Most recently, a researcher from the Mystic Maritime Museum has speculated that Narragansett whalers may more likely have signed onto vessels in New London.

The occupation of whaling, as difficult and arduous as it was, apparently came naturally to many Narragansett. As Elmo Paul Hohman points out in his definitive The American Whaleman,

, “For an undetermined length of time before the white man came, the Indian tribes living along the southern coast of New England had pursued the whale in canoes from the shore.”[41]

According to the historian, these events of early whaling in Narragansett Bay were somewhat of a rarity, but apparently occurred often enough that Indians developed the courage and skills necessary for the occupation and “when the whaling knowledge and dexterity of the Indians were combined with the heavier boats and implements of the colonists, the percentage of captures rose materially.”[42]

Courtesy Providence Public Library Special Collections

As with the slaves and soldiers, many a mariner’s name was a Christian surname, given, or adopted in order to better assimilate into the burgeoning population and become one of many “Freebornes” and “Smiths”, “Tuckers” and “Woods” looking for work in the Southern New England ports.  Whalers also became active in the Revolutionary war. In 1775, John Paul Jones, the newly named commander of the sloop Providence, met among his crew “ a full-blooded Narragansett from Martha’s Vineyard- a whaleman by trade” and some have speculated the model for Melville’s “Moby Dick” was none other than a Narragansett whaler named Queequegunent, killed by the British during the war.

It was not unusual in this period, for the wives of the whale men to be an indentured domestics in one of the Newport or Narragansett estates, while they waited for their husbands to return. Newport employed the largest number of Narragansett females as domestic servants with Charlestown and South Kingstown following close behind. The largest population of free Narragansett women, according to the 1774 census were the estimated 252 living on the reservation in Charlestown. But there were also Narragansett women, and presumably wives scattered throughout the colony, from Tiverton and Little Compton, to Providence, and Barrington and Bristol. Oral history of the tribe speaks to the fact that Narragansett women lived more often among colonial people, moving “more easily between the two worlds”.[43] Despite this, these free women of the Narragansett often faced economic uncertainty, and the brunt of a colonial authorities who remained largely ignorant of Narragansett tradition.

While the months that a whaler or mariners voyage took him from his wife were a perfectly aligned occurrence to the Narragansett, the colonial authorities viewed such absences as abandonment. In the latter half of the 18th century, local authorities spent an increasing amount of time and legal paper dealing with “transient “residents. If these individuals became in need of assistance, local authorities issued “warn-out” orders, essentially a removal notice for the resident to return to their “hometown” where they would be entitled to town relief. As a recent study of the period pointed out, “women were the targets of most of the warn out orders issued to native people.”[44]

For the wives of mariners and whalers, this meant an adult life of uprooting and re-settling from town to town. For the elderly, it was worse.

The councilmen of Jamestown decreed that Mary Pisquish, being “lame and incapable of supporting herself” be moved to Warwick. Officials there sent her back. She was “transported several times between the homes of the overseers in the towns”[45] until the case was settled. Other elderly native women were “transported” to their hometowns, which often were not the towns of their own family but that of their husband or a place of earlier servitude.

It was around this time that the dichotomy of the tribe changed as well. When the last of the Ninigret men, corpulent “King Tom” married “a mulatto woman” named Moll Drummer, he was heavily in debt and drink. The two children his wife bore, like those of his great grandfather, died before him, though he was only to live eight years after his union.

Many of the remaining leaders of the tribe signed a petition to abolish the title of Sachem at this time, [46] but were persuaded by the remaining members of the Ninigret family to elect Thomas Ninigret’s sister Esther as Squaw Sachem.

Our first glimpse of her in the state record is upon her petition in 1770 to sell more land in order to settle the late Thomas’ debts. Her petition was granted. Three years later the committee of white men who had long overseen tribal affairs agreed to sell the remaining lands but for “the point of “Fort neck” which was by this time the remaining legal access the Narragansett had to the bay.

With the advent of Esther, the spendthrift days of the Ninigret men, the aspiration to “royalty” had finally ended. When she petitioned the court, she did so with her husband Thomas beside her, playing the role she must play for the Governor Lord Huffington, but “Queen Esther” had managed tribal affairs with the committee for some time before Thomas’ death, and hoped that her actions in strengthening the tribal council to deal with authorities would benefit the tribe in the future and ensure democracy.

After seventy some years of an enforced monarchy, borne of envy for the wealth of European nations and the stature of “royalty”, the Narragansett were to be a nation of council once again.

But it was also a tribe fractured by the changes of those years outside the reservation, including the ongoing influence of European culture, and Christianity. The excesses of Ninigret II had for some time divided the tribe. With the advent of missionaries and meetings of the Great Awakening, some Narragansett turned away from the sachem and his own adaptation of Anglicanism to the faith offered them by Jesuit and  Protestant missionaries,  and then the “new lights” of the Great Awakening.

As it was with European traders, contact with missionaries and believers came early to the Narragansett. Roger Williams briefly wrote of the Native beliefs in his A Key ToThe Language of America, whose first paragraph on the topic begins with a tribute:

“ He that questions whether God made the World, the Indians will teach him. I must acknowledge I have received in my converse with them many Confirmations of those two great points, Heb II 6. viz

  1. That God is.
  2. That he is a rewarder of all them that diligently seek him.

They will generally confesse that God made all: but then in speciall, although they deny not that English-mans God made English Men, and the heavens and earth there! yet their Gods made them and the Heaven and Earth where they dwell”[47]

Williams recalled that in one conversation

“…when I had discoursed about many points of God , of the creation, of the soule, of the danger of it, and the saving of it, he assented, but when I spake of the rising againe of his body, he cryed out, I shall never believe this..[48]

In fact, despite visits from Massachusetts missionaries like Mayhew, William Simmons, and others in the first decades of the eighteenth century, Narragansett’s clung to their own beliefs and resisted outside influences on their faith. Many found the various English faiths practiced in New England to be confusing, and the white man’s faith or lack of a consistent belief to be a sign of their own spiritual discord.

For many Indians in Rhode Island, the first real exposure to Christianity came with the appointment of Rev. James MacSparren to St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Narragansett, around 1720. The minister actively sought converts among the population of black and Indian slaves who attended his congregation, baptizing 14 Narragansett of full or mixed blood and marrying one couple in the 37 years of his ministry.[49]

The Sachem Charles Ninigret petitioned King George for an Episcopal church to be built on tribal land, though the small wooden church built there, known as the Church of England in Charlestown never attracted the same number of Indians as MacSparren’s congregation.

The first man of the cloth to achieve a major conversion among the Narragansett on the reservation was the Rev. Joseph Park, a Harvard educated minister, and one of others sent out on an “errand in the wilderness” to convert natives to Christianity.

Park arrived in 1733, and though preaching and notably presiding over sachem Charles Ninigret’s funeral two years later, he found the Narragansett resistant to his efforts. With the first wave of the Great Awakening however, and the evident equality among those who attended outdoor meetings, interest was stirred among the native communities and Park found himself integrated into a new formed community of “new lights”  where neighboring preachers traveled to nearby communities during the winter of 1741-1742 in what must have seemed a continuous flurry of meetings with “Ministers and Exhorters” preaching “ among the English and Indians.”

By the spring, Park had many new converts and the congregation determined to form a church, and this was accomplished by August of 1742 with Park ordained by a handful of the “new light” ministers in attendance. Initially, Park’s congregation was mostly English, but a shift seems to have occurred during a visit from a party of Indian converts from Stonington[50].

On February 6th, Park preached a sermon to the assembled Indians and found

“The Glory of the LORD was manifested more and more. The Enlightened among them had a great Sense of spiritual and eternal Things: A SPIRIT of Prayer and Supplication was poured out among them; and a SPIRIT of Conviction upon the Enemies of God.

I attempted to preach from 2 Cor. 6. 2. but was unable to continue my Discourse by Reason of the Outcry”[51]

After this meeting, Indian attendance increased until by February of 1744, the church membership consisted of 106 members with 64 being baptized Indians, and at least 2 members of the congregation were black. Park wrote enthusiastically of the Indian converts, that “there is among them a Change for good respecting the outward as well as the inward Man. They grow more decent and cleanly in their outward Dress, provide better for their Households, and get clearer of Debt.”[52]

According to Park’s account, the conversion and new “lifestyle” also stirred an interest in education among the tribal women, especially in teaching their children to read. Park writes that

“All that we have been able yet to do, is employ an Indian Woman to keep School in a Wigwam. “

The peace between the newly Christianized Narragansett and the English congregants was not to last. An English faction under the leadership of Elder Stephen Babcock separated from the church, and soon after, the Narragansett, when a remaining English member chastised Narragansett Samuel Niles for “exhorting in the congregation”[53]

Such was Niles influence among the Narragansett that one hundred left with him to a form a new church on the reservation.

Little is known about Samuel Niles, the Narragansett. Early historians often confused him with the more famous preacher, born on Block Island, Harvard educated, and also a minister to the Indian community in Braintree. Samuel Niles the Narragansett, was to achieve somewhat less status among the remnant of puritan raised preachers, but he was to have a significant influence over those Narragansett who followed the Christian faith.

According to one account, Niles ministry began as a young man, in his role as a pow-wow, or spiritual leader. He was close to the Sachem’s family and married Charles Ninigret to “Betty”, the daughter of Tobias Cohes, a union that was not sanctioned by the tribe.  Niles was given a tract of land by the old Queen Toccommah on which he built a small, English style house for his family, and turned his farm into a model of English husbandry.[54]

When the New Light movement swept through New England, Niles was converted and joined Park’s church in 1742.  By the time of their departure from Park’s church, Samuel Niles and his followers were true separatists from the constraints of the Anglican Church. In 1750.  Nile’s congregation constructed a wooden meeting house on the place where the granite Narragansett church now stands.

Rev. Joseph Fish wrote promisingly to his friend Dr. Sewel in the fall of 1765, that the Narragansett

“…seem tender and Very Susceptible of Impressions, from Truths, peculiarly interesting. And, must confess, by the Small experience I had of their Temper, They appeared to be of a More teachable Disposition, than I expected…”

In this correspondence, he writes of their spiritual leader:

“This Niles, (Who I have known Some Years) is a Sober Religious Man of Good Sense and great Fluency of Speech: and know not but a very honest Man. Has a good deal of the scriptures by heart, and professes a Regard for the Bible. But his unhappiness is this, He cannot read a Word, and So is wholly dependent Upon the (too seldom) reading of others: Which exposes him (doubtless) to a great deal of inaccuracy in using Texts of Scripture, if not to gross Mistakes in the Application of them. And as hereby, (I conclude,) very Much upon the Spirit to teach him Doctrine and Conduct…”[55]

In spite of his having visited the Narragansett and knowing Niles “ for some years”, the Rev. Fish apparently was naïve to believe he could establish himself as a “teacher” among the tribe. The church of Samuel Niles was an anomaly to Fish and other rigid overseers of the Narragansett Church. The English defectors from Park’s congregation at first blended in with Niles followers. Their leader Deacon Babcock, assumed the role of overseer, but would not participate in Nile’s convocation as minister. The account left by Ezra Stiles, purportedly from Niles himself, show the extent to which the Narragansett Christians separated themselves from the English.

“But as none of even the Separate Elders would ordain him; the Church chose and appointed three Brethren Indians to ordain him. They began Exercise in the meetinghouse about noon and held it till near sunset. The 3 Brethren laid their Hands on Samuel Niles, and one of them viz Wm. ‘Choise or Cohoize or OcHoyze prayed over him and gave him the charge of the Flock: during which such a Spirit was outpoured and fell upon them (as he expresses it) that many others of the Congregation prayed aloud and lifted their hearts with prayers and Tears to God. This continued for a long Time above half an hour or nearer an hour:-the white people present taking this for Confusion were disgusted and went away.”

Fish began his work with he tribe in earnest around 1765, appointing a schoolmaster named Edward Deake who kept the Reverend appraised of things between visits. In December of that year he writes to Fish enthusiastically

“The tribe is of the opinion twill answer to Build the School House But 40 feet in Length and 16 feet of Bredth, one Storey with a Strait Roof, and the Chimney in the middle with two Smokes etc.”

Deake had been instructing the Narragansett children who attended his school since June, and a week after the decision to build a school house, he writes

“I would Inform your honour, that our School Dayly Increases: I have Had already Fifty three children under my Instruction, and Expect many more. What Gives me the greatest Incouragements is that I find them, in general, Ingenious to learn.”

In a postscript he adds “”I Should Be much obliged to you if you would Help me tp Some Cash-my Second Quarter will Be out the first of January.”

He’d apparently been teaching without pay for six months.

Despite the best laid plans, by June Deake was writing to the minister that

“Soon after your last visit, the Carpenter called upon the Indians for his Wages…The poor Indians being unable to Answer his Demand for want of money, the Carpenter was Obliged to Labor else where.” [56]

The young schoolmaster urged the minister to write and secure money for the materials and so the Carpenter to be paid. Eventually work was restored, but even by October work had just begun on the chimney, and the building, much to Fisk’s annoyance – who’d been touting the school in “fund-raising” letters, was still uncompleted by early December.

A tone of frustration, misunderstanding, and often ignorance of Narragansett traditions permeate the correspondence and diary of the Reverend Joseph Fish. He complained during visits, of the drinking that went on within sight of “the Lecture”,   that the Narragansett mistrusted him because he was paid a salary to “bring” the gospel as a “gift’, Samuel Niles himself, Fish reports,

“came out fully and plainly Against them. Said these learned Ministers Are Thieves, Robbers, Pirates etc. They Steal the word…It was full bitter against them”.

Rev. Fish wrote most disdainfully, of the persistent Indian belief that

“they are also taught by the Spirit, immediately from Heaven; so have teachings above the Bible.”

On May 22nd 1771, the Minister wrote in his diary:

“It looks as if my Service among These Indians draws nigh to an end. They are all about their own business, or taking their own Ways-Some at Labour, and others at their Diversions.”[57]

By mid-August Fish writes bitterly

“…Much discouraged about this Indian Mission, at Seeing the Indians So generally despise their privileges-Set no Store at All by the blessed institution, of a preached Gospel…They had rather follow That ignorant, proud, conceited, Obstinate Teacher, poor Sam Niles, than Attend regular preaching of Sound Gospel Doctrine. Rather follow, Some of their work, others their pleasures, Idleness, Drunkenness, or any Way of Serving the Devil and their Lusts, than to Spend An hour or Two in hearing the precious Truths of the Gospel.”[58]

I’ve included nearly the whole of Fish’s diatribe because it illustrates several points among the failings of his own and others ministry to the Narragansett and other tribes.

It is plain among the correspondence and diaries that Fish remains perpetually confused about Indian customs- their belief in the Spirit’s guidance, their long excursions from home to sacred sites, their absence during hunting and planting seasons.

Joseph Fish, like other ordained, wandering Ministers seeking a mission among the natives, never educated themselves in the customs and beliefs of the Indians, and scarcely acknowledged the abject poverty in which they lived, or recognized that it came from their dependence upon white communities.

Those “at their labors” were there out of economic necessity, those at “their diversions” had often worked all week on a neighboring farm, or labored on a series of menial tasks in the neighboring community for the lowest of wages. Those ravaged by alcoholism were among the many Indians ignored by charity and frowned upon by the clergy who turned their black cloaks to the cause and those who  profited from such misery.

Like many evangelical Ministers of his generation, Joseph Fish expected the Narragansett to adapt their way of living to the tenets of the church, once they discovered the Truths of the Gospel. While Rev. Parks had succeeded with some Indian conversions by allowing Narragansett worshipers to slowly adapt the Gospel into their storehouse of other truths that the Spirit gave them, Joseph Fish lived mostly at a distance; relying upon Schoolmaster Deake and others to keep him appraised of the Mission. His diary of visits records his mounting belief that his Mission has been betrayed by the very people it was meant to serve. But his own, continued ignorance of the ways of the Narragansett can be seen in one diary passage from May of 1772, a full seven years after the school had opened.

Fish writes

“Preachd to 13 Indians and a number of White people from Jno. 14.6…Had a measure of Freedom, was enabled to Open the Subject with Some Clearness; and would hope the poor Indians learnd Something. But alas! I know not What method to take, nor Argument or Motive to Use, to engage them to Attend the Lecture or regard the School.”[59]

Later that same day, Fish went in search of his Indian “deacon” John Shattucks,  and found him “Busy at planting, but had no thought of the Lecture. Pretended he had forgot all about it.”

The school itself was sporadically attended as the years passed, though Schoolmaster Deake was to stay fourteen years, and through letters provides some clear idea of the time. Deakes letters and Fish’s Diary portray a native community divided by land claims, the struggle that Niles and others waged to unseat the Sachem, and the continued poverty that pervaded Narragansett lives.

Fish sometimes wrote bitterly about the  Indians “Ignorance and blindness as to the Advantages of the School and Gospel Ministry”, and the Parents who “Will not get wood for the school, … their naked or ragged children cannot sit in the cold.” But the only “charity” Fish provided was through the Indian Commissioners and consisted mostly of the distribution of blankets to “the most needy persons Among them…”, and at least on one occasion, while he ”exhorted and Sirrd them up to Send their Children to School”,  the promise of “one or two pair shoes.”

Rev. Joseph Fish attempted to minister to the Narragansett for ten years, leaving by December of 1774, another biter entry in his diary:

“Preached at Mr Deake’s to 3 Indians, on 1 Peter 2.2…Discoursed with Some what of Freedom, and, hope, not entirely without Sensibility. But the Indians remain Indisposed to hear Me. A Publick Training, This day at Mr. Champlains Tavern, Suppose, hindered Some few from attending the Lecture…Wrote a letter to Sam Niles to let him know I had frequently heard of his Charging the Indians not to come and hear Me preach: Which, if true, I had a right to know what it was for, and twas his duty as a Christian to come and Tell me…”[60]

William S. Simmons writes most effectively that in establishing their own church, and resisting white overseers,

“they strengthened the boundary that separated them from other poor and common people….their new faith appealed to and gave an organizational focus for those most actively involved in challenging the abuses of tribal and colonial authority…Finally, in Separate belief and ritual they found a vehicle for preserving some deeper aspects of their traditional culture.”

Samuel Niles ministered to the Narragansett followers long after Fish had departed. He continued to fight the Sachem’s indiscriminate sale of lands to Narragansett planters, petitioning the state in August of 1779, asking that the council, with the addition of “two substantial honest white People” be allowed to review and approve any sales or lease of lands.. This petition did not pass, but led the way for later legislation in 1782 that createda board, as Niles and the Council recommended. This struggle would continue to dominate the Narragansett political landscape. Niles proved to be the People’s most ardent advocate, as the conflict did not end until the state intervened six years later and gave the council sole authority in approval of any further sales.

It was to be his last battle. In June of 1785, the Mohegan preacher Samsom Occom, already on familiar terms with Nile’s brother James, visited “Charles Town” and recorded in his journal on June 19th:

“went in the morning to see old Samuel Niles, and found him very low, and I believe he never will get up again…went back to James, (Niles) and then to the meeting house, and was a number of people, but not large, they had but a Short Notice of my coming and I preached from Romans 4…in the afternoon went to see Sam Niles and I preached from Daniel 5:25…”[61]

In many ways the life of Samuel Niles is emblematic of the conflicts within many of the Narragansett during this time. He initially embraced the “improvements” that the English brought in housing and husbandry. Niles never learned to read or write, but he sent his son Samuel Jr. along with nephew James Jr to  learn under the supervision of Eleazer Wheelock at Moore’s Indian Charity School in Connecticut, along with other sons of prominent Christian Narragansett. The “guardians” of the young sachem “King Tom” sent him to receive his education in England.[62]

But at some point, Niles began to negate the value of English style education for the Narragansett. Those entries of Fish’s diary wherin Niles argues against the relevance of a school in Charlestown had to have come from some personal experience or disappointment.  Joseph Fish found Niles nephew James “a sensible man…far from being of Sam’s spirit or way of conduct…”

Some have suggested that Samuel Niles lost faith in the English system during his long battles with the State over the sachem’s authority to sell Narragansett lands. Others seem to suggest that Niles had a bad taste in his mouth over much of his lifetime for the lack of acceptance he found from educated and ordained clergy beyond the reservation as a Christian leader, a true minister to his people.

Spiritually, it might be said that Niles shepherd’ the Narragansett to integrate the best truths of Christianity into their own beliefs and their own congregation. It proved to be a strong congregation, as shown years later, when another Minister sought the Church’s acceptance. The Rev. Curtis Coe, an elderly Congregationalist, attended a Narragansett service and recorded in his journal:

“…A Mulatto who is a professed preacher made a prayer. Others, also, spoke after him, some the same & others appeared to me different words. They then sung a hymn, commonly used, when they meet, from the penitential cries. “My soul doth magnify the Lord etc. etc. .. After which, both men & women told their feelings…Exhortations were also given to one another…Again they sing the same hymn, as last before, took hold of one another’s hands & reeled back & forward, in their devotion.”[63]

When Coe stood to plead his case for preaching to the congregation, he was astonished that everyone present (including the women) had the right to stand and express their opinion, an opinion which was as contrary as “their tumultuous, noisy meetings & what we call regular, decent worship…”. The assembled congregation “…wanted to hear no preacher that was paid-That my preaching prevented their speaking when they felt the spirit…That their mode was for all to speak…”[64]

The Narragansett had held their congregation together on their own terms, and while this was never accepted by the Society for Propagating the Gospel, local Ministers came to accept the method of Separatism the Narragansett practiced. In the midst of Samuel Nile’s ministry, Ezra Stiles wrote a grudging acceptance in his journal:

”It seems extraordinary that such an one should be a Pastor. He is however acquainted with the Doctrines of the Gospel, and an earnest zealous Man, and perhaps does more good to the Indians than any White Man could do…”[65]

Like the wars before, the American Revolutionary war brought a disruption and loss to  the Narragansett that were to have a profound impact on the tribe. The Squaw Sachem Esther died during the war, and the upstart son George, keen on joining the American forces, was felled by a tree before even that dream was realized. That tragedy was echoed throughout the tribe as the death or disappearance of so many young men left many widows and unsupported elderly among the population.

Facing little more than the bleak prospect of further poverty on their own rapidly diminishing lands, manyNarragansett chose to leave Charlestown and other Rhode Island communities.

In 1775, a significant number of Narragansett Christians had joined displace peoples from  other Algonquin tribes and moved to what would become the community of Brothertown. As the reputation of that community grew, other Narragansett would follow.

John Niles, brother of Samuel, had served on the tribal council for some years and married a wife named Jerusha, who bore him three children. One named John, who was attending Ebenezer Wheelock’s Christian school, left to join the Second Connecticut Regiment at age 17, and a Rhode Island regiment a year later in 1781.[66] Yet, by 1796, the family had removed to Brothertown,  receiving two lots on which to begin their new life.

In 1799, John Hammer, a “prisoner for Debt which arose from his purchasing a horse which he lost by “Death”, petitioned the Smithfield Friends Meeting to help him and a number of other Narragansett remove to Oneida, New York. The Meeting approved the gift of over two hundred dollars to pay of the Narragansett debts, and assist with their move.[67]

This slow exodus was to last for several generations as we find in an article from the Providence Journal of August 14, 1843, which records a meeting held in the church amidst the large annual August  gathering, and attended by Commissioner Potter as

“the General Assembly had been informed that a number of the tribe wished to have liberty to sell their lands and emigrate…their land here was poor and exhausted; the land at Green Bay, where their brethren were, was of the most exuberant fertility.”

Deacon Sekatur, the successor of Samuel Niles as the Church’s leader was among the few who spoke out against the ongoing exodus. The Deacon told the Narragansett who were intent upon leaving that “if they were only industrious and temperate, they could get along here as well as the whites.”

But by the time of the Deacon’s plea, a serious migration had already occurred. In January of 1833, a report by the Commissioner to the State Assembly provided a list of one hundred and ninety nine Narragansett residing in Charlestown and fifty or more names of the people “ who were supposedly absent”. This of course, was not the whole of the tribe, there were simply fewer families in Charlestown to speak of other relatives in other places.

A later report, issued in 1839 described the Assembly’s growing viewpoint of the remaining Narragansett.

“The state of morals among the Indians has, for many years, been very low, and it has had a debasing effect upon many of the white people near them.  The people of their neighborhood will, undoubtably, rejoice to have them better educated, and their morals, if possible improved, as the only way of correcting the evils they must otherwise suffer from, in consequence of their presence.”

This growing disenchantment with the plight of Native Americans was fed by the popularity of the scientific and academic studies of race purporting the superiority of the Caucasian race, and the consequential dwindling of other races in the white man’s shadow. In Europe and America, these ideas stirred tensions between Americans of European descent and Black Americans as well as Native Americans, and proceeded a swell of violence against the later immigrant tides.

The idea of racial superiority had fomented for decades by the mid-nineteenth century. In America, this ideal was presented in patriotic form, within the first histories written as the Republic gained firm footing, so to speak, in the world. States began to publish their own local histories as well as the communities within. Many of these histories were written by prominent and wealthy citizens of diverse backgrounds, but almost all consumed with the Anglo-Saxon heroes of the Revolution, and the “progress” that came at their descendants hand.

Samuel Greene Arnold’s “History of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” (1853) takes a dim view of the remaining Narragansett, promoting their decline by citing  “an inevitable law controlling the occupancy of the earth” and mistakes Samuel Niles for the famous minister  from Braintree,[68] who had visited Park’s congregation.

Wilkin Updike’s “History of the Episcopal Church in RI (1907)” corrects Arnold on this matter, but holds an equally disparaging view of the people and their identity:

“It was a well known custom for Indians and Negroes to assume the name of white people of prominence, who had been their patrons or masters, a class to which this Indian preacher Niles, doubtless belongs.”[69]

William F. Tucker’s  “An Historical sketch of Charlestown” deemed the true Narragansett long deceased. The remnants of the tribe were of Niantic blood, and shared not a drop of the blood that once coursed through the great sachems of the past.

Frederic Denison’s “Westerly and it’s Witnesses (1878) compiles a chronology of Indian names and places, a reference of tools and implements used, as well as a reference guide to tribal customs and a vocabulary, before commenting on the present state of the Narragansett:

“A subtle decay seems to be in the Indian nature, and it is only too evident that the remnant of the hordes of the forest must soon follow their Fathers to the land of forgetfulness”[70]

William Cullen Bryant and Sidney Howard Gay’s A Popular History of the United States (1879) included an “ engraving made from ambrotype of “Esther Kenyon, The last of the Royal Narragansetts”.

Among the local historians, there was none who took a more romanticized view of a heroic, deceased nation of Indians than Thomas W. Bicknell.

Elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly while a senior at Brown, Bicknell would become Commissioner of Public Schools, where he helped to re-establish what is now Rhode Island College. He also established a Board of Education and opened 50 new schools during his tenure. He supported the election of the first all-female school board in Tiverton, and promoted the desegregation of public schools.

In photographs we s a man tall in stature among his contemporaries, a look of clear determination on a face framed by a distinguished white beard above the starched shirt and black tie. Bicknell’s ego was equal to his stature in the community. As president of the New England Publishing Company, he produced a massive five-volume “History of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”. Deciding that he desired a town to be named after him, he posited a proposal of his 1000 volume library to any town in Utah, willing to adopt the name of Bicknell.[71]

He was the founder of the National society of the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, proudly proclaiming his old Nordic stock in his “History and Genealogy of the Bicknell Family”. Relishing his self–appointed role as state historian, Bicknell began to engineer and foster the dedication of “monuments” to the Narragansett tribe. He published  “A Statement of the Case of the Narragansett Indian Tribe” and founded the New England Indian Council, sharing the title of “Head Pale-Faced Sachem” with another council member. While the Council was open to native and non-native members, the first few pamphlets published of the meetings reveal that only white men held the leading roles, with titles such as “Keeper of Wigwams” and lodge –like lexicons of the white man’s Society’s.

Bicknell’s voluminous “History” published in 1920, borrows much from previous historians, but held it’s own share of notable passages. One is perhaps the most egregious whitewashing of northern slavery every penned:

“The Narragansett county was the slave paradise of the Northern colonies…Every farm had it’s quota, and the family life of the slaves was recognized and protected. Labor indoors and out was not excessive, the relation of master to slave was kind and humane, and punishments for offenses were usually mild and corrective. The social and convivial life of the masters, mistresses and young people was communicated to the servant class and the natural happy-go-easy spirit of the slaves was made more joyous by the examples of their surperiors.”

In his treatment of the Narragansett, he writes poetically of Canonchet and the heroic Miantonomo, and provides a standard, romanticized version of the Great Swamp fight, citing less casualties than earlier accounts. He then writes poignantly of their demise after King Philip’s War, continuing the drumbeat of the earlier historians.

Bicknell ignores the later existence of the Narragansett when he confuses Samuel Niles, the later Narragansett with that of Niles the minister, of whom he writes a brief biography, which concludes:

“ In his later years, Rev. Mr. Niles returned to Rhode Island and became a pastor of a church in Charlestown, composed chiefly of Indians of the Niantic Tribe.”

Bicknell’s enthusiasm with erecting monuments to Narragansett lore perpetuatedthe proclamation of the tribe’s “death” on paper into the physical world. Through his “Council” and by persuading communities and the state to erect these “tombstones”, the public perception naturally grew that the Narragansett were a people of the past.

In the midst of the maelstrom of popular histories, and a populist political climate, the Rhode Island State Assembly held meetings in 1879 and again in 1880, and 1881 to effectively dismantle the Narragansett tribe of it’s title and property. Citing several of the afore-mentioned “histories” the Committee met to  “Inquire into the Justice, Expediency, and Practicabillity of abolishing the tribal relations of the Narragansett Indians, of Conferring the rights of citizenship upon the members thereof…”

The Committee held three public hearings, beginning with one at the meetinghouse in Charlestown on July 30, 1879 where the committee traveled to respond to an appeal by the Council for the Assembly to investigate complaints about continued white encroachment. Instead, the two members present before the tribe informed them that it might be in their best interests to disban and become citizens.

The first response wasfrom Gideon Ammons, the head of the tribal council, who re-iterated why he had asked them to come, and remarked:

“Now as it appears the State wants to dispose of our public lands, we don’t wish to stop the wheels of any business. We will sell them the land for just what it is worth. We don’t expect to sell it as we used it- a great tract for a little rum. We would rather have a few greenbacks than the firewater.”

He submitted to the committee a sworn “deed” from Ninigret , outlying the boundaries of the original reservation. and told the members:

“the state has accused us of making an enormous expense for them, and  here is this tract of land. The railroad passes across it. They have built upon it and don’t call our property anything, but the three hundred dollars that is given to the tribe is enormous expense. Well now then, before I become a citizen I want what belongs to me. What belongs to me is mine. Congress is the third party to settle it therefore I don’t wish to be a citizen until this thing is settled up”[72]

Joshua Noka, another tribal council member, asked the representatives:

“Why should the Narragansett tribe be willing, just for the sake of being a citizen, to throw away the rights and privileges that they now have ?…Now, if we were citizens somebody would compel us to fence our lands. We can’t fence them to save our lives; and if we can’t fence our lands, suddenly the right must be forfeited. And now we are not obliged to fence the land that we hold.”

Council member Daniel Sekater, descendant of the Deacon who had overseen the Narragansett church after Samuel Niles, spoke bluntly, and addressed the prejudice that had led to the Assembly’s proposal.

“I can’t see for my life wherein we shall be benefited any more than we are at the present time by coming out as citizens…some argue that they ought to come out as citizens because they are mixed up with others…But other classes are mixed up with other nations as well. There is hardly one who can say I am a clear-blooded Yankee.”[73]

In subsequent meetings in August and October, the Committee heard similar protestations and testimony from a proud people attesting to their long family history in the tribe and the state. They also heard testimony from Charles Cross, the town clerk of Charlestown and other white administrators including Indian Commissioner Cornell, who while admitting that he was not “very acquainted with the land up there” nonetheless felt it for the betterment of the tribe if they abolished the Indian school and the tribe’s children be sent to the town schools, remarking “I would send my boy to school where they went just as soon as anywhere.”

Many of the tribe were also in favor of abandoning an “Indian” school, and sending their children to white schools. Many wanted more of an assimilation into white society, especially jobs. The testimony of one Indian laborer, clearly annoyed one member of the Committee who insisted that the skilled and educated Indians he had witnessed elsewhere, and the “negroes in the senate” should be what the Narragansett wanted their people to become.

The laborer responded “that may be, but in Rhode Island there is no such thing.”

As far as citizenship, he told the Committee,

“To be a citizen I think wouldn’t be any use to me. I shouldn’t be permitted, or any of my sons to be a juryman. Might do, as some one said a little while ago to dig out a cesspool or some other job.”

By the third meeting on October 31st 1879, the Tribal Council seemed impelled to sell the land the State coveted in exchange for retaining their sovereignty. Mr. Ammons told the Committee that he estimated the Narragansett land holdings to be “in the neighborhood of 14 or 15 hundred acres, all told”

The Committee scoffed at the estimated value the tribe had determined for their lands, and their claim as overseers of ponds within their lands. The Committee asked Ammons:

“Suppose the state should say to the tribe ‘We will remove the guardianship over you,take your lands and do what we like with them, and hereafter they shall be subject to taxation the same as other lands in the State, and you shall be subject to the same rights and privileges, and under the same law that any other citizen takes.’ Would that be satisfactory to you?”

Ammons response was brusque:

“If they removed the guardianship we would stand the same as any other white man.”

Joshua Noka told the Committee in regard to the tribe’s claims of land value, that

“ If it is worth something to the State it is worth something to us, and I say it ought to be paid for. If the land is so situated that it can be improved and made more valuable, then if we sell it, we ought to have some of the valuation”

Another tribe member, Mr. Thomas told the Committee respectfully that

“I have thought this thing over for myself, and I look at it this way- That the State has nothing to do with disposing of our property at all. We will admit that we are under guardianship and protection from the State of Rhode Island, but I don’t think the guardian has any right to sell our land and make us expense.  If the state sees fit to raise the guardianship, then we stand as we were before. I don’t think it would be any new thing for them to do it, and then what belongs to me, I have a right to ask for. I don’t want the State…to sell this property and disenfranchise me from the property that belongs to me, and that I inherited. Give me my right.”[74]

Following the public hearings, the Committee met with tribal leaders behind closed doors, eventually reaching an agreement for the sale of the lands, but for 2 acres that included the land upon which the Narragansett Church stood. On the basis of the Committee’s Report, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to abolish the tribal status of the Narragansett. They estimated that only 922 acres of the over 1500 claimed belonged to the tribe, and determined that the assets from the sale of those lands would go to individuals who could claim tribal ancestry, but only after the State undertook a long and tedious process to determine tribal genealogy, contesting the testimony of dozens of tribal members who had come long distances to speak in the public hearings, and whose families had long taken part in the August gatherings and voting for the tribal councils.

With this Act, and the subsequent division of their lands, the “ghosting” of the Narragansett was complete, at least in the minds of those State politicians and Charlestown officials who had long wanted to make the tribe accept ordinary citizenship.

For others, like Thomas Bicknell, Frederic Dennison and others, the Act gave license to continue the promotion of public monuments, and to begin the evacuation of gravesites, a further “ghosting” in removing artifacts from graves, and placing them on public display.

Despite these degrading acts, whether based on true archeology, or more often, undertaken by eager, amateur historians, the people of the Narragansett were to prove resilient, and to reclaim their sovereignty, though it was to take nearly a hundred years to wrest it back from the State.


Notes to Part II:

[1] A typical summary of Narragansett life in the aftermath of the war and into the 19th century historian viewpoint.

[2] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation p 78

[3] Chapin. ”Documentary History of RI” pp 101-102

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid p. 124

[6] printed in Chapin’s The Documentary History of Rhode Island p. 149

[7] Ibid p. 158

[8] Bailyn, Bernard The Peopling of British North America

[9] Sainsbury, John A. Indian Labor in Early Rhode Island

[10] Conforti, Joseph A. “Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America” p. 151

[11] This was a lesson apparently learned from Connecticut’s distribution of Native slaves after the Pequot War.

[12] Sainsbury, John Indian Labor in Early Rhode Island New England QuarterlyVol 48. No. 3 p 383

[13] RI Col. Rec., Vol II p. 535 Miller, in his The Narragansett Planters notes that the earlier law of 1652 prohibiting the holding of negroes or Indians as slaves for longer than ten years, would seem to have become a dead letter.

[14] Miller, William Davis “The Narragansett Planters” American Antiquarian Society 1934

p. 21

[15] Providence Gazette Nov. 6, 1773

[16] Channing, “The Narragansett Planters” JHU Studies IV

[17] A description included in the footnotes of Davis’ The Narragansett Planters bears reprinting here: They have handsome foreheads, the head clean, the neck long, the arms and legs thin and taper…They are very spirited and carry both head and tail high.-quoted from Phillips- the American edition of the Edinburg Encyclopedia Vol. 1 p 336

[18] Quoted in Retelling Narragansett Lives Chapter 7 of Grave Undertakings p 141

[19] Simmons & Simmons ed. Fish, Joseph The Narragansett Diary of…pp 21-22

[20] Brown, William J. The Life of…of Providence R.I. P. 4

[21] Letter of James Deake to Rev. Joseph Fish quoted in “Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England 1780-1880” by Daniel R. Mandell p. 54

[22] Documentary History of RI pp. 170-171

[23] Deposition of Indian Hannah March 3, 1729 for the RI Supreme Court.

[24] Stiles comment from Indian accounts given to him.

[25] Grave Undertakings p. 142

[26] Herndon, Ruth Wallace and Sekatau, Ella Wilcox The Right To A Name: The Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era. p.440

[27]Fitts, Robert K. Inventing New England’s Slave Paradise: Master/Slave Relations in the 18th century.

[28] Ibid

[29] the site of Miantonomo’s burial was one such site, visited regularly on the anniversary by hundreds of Narragansett who would drop a stone on a cairn that was finally dismantled by the town in 1886 and replaced with a cement monument.

[30] Account written by Elizabeth Brenton in the Newport Mercury of August 13, 1853 from family records.

[31] Chapin, Howard M. ed. The Early Records of the Town of Warwick pp 80-81

[32] Drake, Samuel G. Old Indian Chronicles p. 300

[33] Callendar, John An Historical Discourse of the Civil and Religious Affaires of the Colony of Rhode Island

[34] Gookin, Daniel Historical Collections of the Indians of New England 1792

[35] letter of Henry Bouquet to Gen. Jeffrey Amherst, July 26, 1763

[36] Johnson, Richard R. The Search for a Usable Indian: An Aspect of the Defense of      Colonial New England The Journal of American History Vol. 64 No. 3 p 640

[37] Johnson, Richard R. The Search for a Useable Indian…p. 629

[38] A Muster Roll of Newport County Troops sent Toward Albany in 1757 published by the Council of the Society of Colonial Wars  Publication  no.46 1961

[39] Calloway, Colin G. Algonkians in the American Revolution p. 59

[40] Hohman, The American Whaleman

[41] Ibid p. 23

[42] Ibid p. 24

[43] Herndon, Ruth Wallis and Sekatau, Ellen Wilcox The Right to a Name p.440

[44] Ibid. p 442

[45] Ibid. p 442

[46] petition was signed on December 18, 1769

[47] Williams, Roger AKLA p. 123

[48] Ibid p. 56

[49] Simmons, William S. “Red Yankees: Narragansett Conversion in the Great Awakening”

American Ethnologist Vol. 10 no. 2 May 1983

[50] Many Indians had converted in Stonington the year before after Rev. James Davenport’s powerful meetings in 1741.

[51] cited in Simmons Red Yankees…

[52] Ibid p. 262

[53] Cited in Simmons Red Yankee… AE p. 262

[54] Sweet, William Wood “Bodies Politic”

[55] Simmons & Simmons “Old Light on Separate Ways” pp. 4-5

[56] Simmons and Simmons Old Light on Separate Ways

[57] Ibid p. 57

[58] Ibid p. 80

[59] Ibid p. 89

[60] Simmons and Simmons Old Light…p. 110

[61] Brookes “The Collected Writings of Samsom Occom, Mohegan” p. 294

[62] Chapin, Howard “Sachems of the Narragansett” p. 101

[63] from Coe’s Journal, reprinted in David R. Mandell’s Tribe, Race, History p. 85

[64] Ibid p. 86

[65] Simmons and Simmons Old Light on Separate Ways p. 10

[66] Samsun Occum and the Christian Indians of New England p. 353

[67] FN 55 from Herndon, Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials p. 459

[68] I am referring of course to Samuel Niles (16 – 1769) who did indeed visit the Narragansett church but was a guest, as was the Narragansett custom, and never an official “minister” to the congregation.

[69] Updike, Wilkins “The History of the Episcopal Church in RI” Vol. 1 p. 338

[70] Denison, Frederic “westerly and its Witnesses” 1878 p.

[71] Two towns actually bid for the books. After considerable negotiation, the town of Thurber changed its name to Bicknell, while the town of Grayson changed its name to Blanding, the maiden name of Bicknell’s wife. The towns each received 500 books.

[72] Report of the Committee of the Narragansett Indians 1880

[73] Report of the Committee on Narragansett Indians

[74] Report from the Committee on Narragansett Indians p. 89

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