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

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Rubertone, Patricia “ Grave Understakings “

“ Memorializing the Narragansett” 2008

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“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

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

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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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Keepers of the Bay: The Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island


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Keepers of the Bay

The Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island Part I

By Robert A. Geake

Narragansett oral history tells us that the aboriginal people of Rhode Island have existed in the sachem Canonicus’ words, since “time out of mind”.  Anthropological evidence shows that as far back as 30,000 years ago, the tribe lived among the forests and shoreline of Southern New England, subsisting on hunting, gardening, and gathering from the abundant resources available in their homeland.

At the period of their greatest authority, the Narragansett had a domain that extended throughout most of what is now Rhode Island from Westerly in the southwest to about Pawtucket and the Blackstone River valley in the northeast and also included Block Island offshore and Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay.[1]

Narragansett sachems ruled extensive territory by their authority beyond traditional homelands, holding considerable influence over the Nipmuck, Pokanoket, Eastern Niantic, and other remaining tribes of the area. At the peak of this authority, their population was reputed to be as much as 35,000-40,000.

In communities throughout Southern New England, these Native Americans grew predominately corn, beans, and squash while also hunting deer, beaver, fowl, and sea-birds, as well as fishing, and harvesting clams and oysters from the Bay. Early tools were made from shells and soapstone that was quarried from stone outcrops within their lands including sites identified in Oaklawn, and Neutaconcanut Hill. The Narragansett became wealthy from their production of “Wampompeage” or Wampum as the Europeans called it- a currency made from the pearl colored interior of whelk shells, with a token of lesser value made from quahog shells that was used by tribes along the eastern seaboard. Narragansett manufacturing of the currency was so precise, that European efforts to produce counterfeit currency was a dismal failure.

The origins of the Narragansett people have been debated for at least a three centuries, however Simmons relates the earliest known reference from oral history to a “great sachem” named Tashtasick. It was the eldest grandson of this sachem, known as Canonicus, who would befriend Roger Williams during the period in which the tribe is most recorded.

Narragansett’s called the first Europeans they encountered “Chauquaquock” or “knife-men”, and  recognized the advantages of trading for the forged iron axes, knives, and hoes that these visitors brought to their shores. Despite the initial eagerness to deal with the newcomers, there is no doubt that the English who were to eventually colonize the Narragansett country interrupted a successful way of life that had formed over many generations.

The first European record of the tribe came from the visit of Giovanni Da Verazzano who spent fifteen days with the Narragansett during his journey up the Atlantic seaboard in 1524. His letter to Francis I contains an early description of Narragansett Bay:

“ The coast of this land runs from west to east. The harbor mouth faces south, and is half a league wide; from its entrance it extends for XII leagues in a northeasterly direction, and then widens out to form a large bay of about XX leagues in circumference. In this bay there are five small islands, very fertile and beautiful, full of tall spreading trees…Then, going southward to the entrance of the harbor, there are very pleasant hills on either side, with many streams of clear water flowing from the high land into the sea”.

The Narragansett welcomed the visitors, as was their custom, boarding their ships bearing gifts and leading them back to their homes for feasting and entertainment. Tribal history records that the explorer was greeted by Tashtasick, and by Canonicus, who was then a young man[2]. Verrazano described the tribe as “the most beautiful and have the most civil customs that we have found on this voyage.” He was much taken by their appearance, describing the men as “ taller than we are; they are a bronze color, some tending more towards whiteness, others to a tawny color. The face is clear-cut, the hair is long and black, and they take great pains to decorate it; the eyes are black and alert, and their manner is sweet and gentle.”

He was also much taken by the appearance and manners of the women, writing that

“Their women are just as shapely and beautiful; very gracious, of attractive manner and pleasant appearance…they go nude except for a stag skin embroidered like the men’s, and some wear rich lynx skins on their arms; their bare heads are decorated with various ornaments made of braids of their own hair which hang down over their breasts on either side.”

While writing of their generosity and hospitality, he did note however, that they held extreme caution in regard to their “womenfolk”. Verazzano recorded

“ They are very careful with them, for when they come aboard and stay a long time, they make the women wait in the boats; and however many entreaties we made or offers of gifts, we could not persuade them to let the women come on board ship.”

It is perhaps telling in this fact that the Narragansett so carefully guarded their women, that Verazzano was not the first European encountered, nor the first to admire Native women, and that earlier encounters with trappers and traders from France, England, and Canada, as well as Dutch fishermen, may have resulted in interracial relations, normally frowned upon by Native Americans at this time[3] as they saw their bloodline as something which should be pure and protected. Nonetheless, the prospect of trade and commerce enjoined the Narragansett, like other tribes surrounding them, to continue to welcome Europeans and the goods brought with them.

Beginning around 1548 however, little more than thirty years after Verazzano’s visit, a series of devastating illnesses took what is estimated by the tribe’s preservation officer to be eighty percent of the population of the Narragansett at that time. Roger Williams wrote to John Winthrop in June of 1638 in the aftermath of an earthquake that the Narragansett believed a series of these tremors that occurred in New England was a forewarning of plagues to come:

“The younger Natives are ignorant of the like: but the Elder informe me that this is the 5t(h) within these 4 score yeare in the land: the first about 3 score  and 10 yeare since: the Second some 3 score 4 yeare since(;) the third some 54 yeare since(;) the 4th some 46 since(;) and they always observed either Plague or Pox or some Epidemicall disease followed: 3(,) 4 or 5 yeare after the Earthquake (or Naunamemoauke, as they speak)”.

As tribes along the East Coast of America suffered these afflictions, the white visitors took full advantage of the devastation.

In 1614, Dutch explorer Adrian Block skirted past the Island that now bears his name to locate the Nahicans, as he called the Narragansett on the west side of the Bay. There he met with the Sachems Mascus and Canonicus to establish trade.

By the early 17th century, The Narragansett still remained somewhat isolated from European settlement. Canonicus’ famous “gift” of arrows in a snakeskin to the Pilgrims at Plymouth signaled an early resistance to any White intentions of settling on Narragansett lands. This proved to be of considerable fortune further epidemics of smallpox swept through New England beginning in 1629. By 1634, Narragansett people had lost up to 700 of this generation of the tribe, but this was a small loss compared to the desolation wreaked by the outbreak on neighboring tribes in New England.[4]

At the time of Roger Williams fabled landing on their shores, they were as familiar with White visitors as Williams was with the native language. The circumstances of his stepping ashore from the wide cove at the eastern edge of what would become the settlement of Providence, precluded an unprecedented period of political turmoil for the Narragansett. In time, it would little matter that Williams proved to be a friend and defendant of their rights. Their acceptance of the white visitors exiled from Massachusetts was the beginning of an encroachment that would bring the tribe to the edge of extinction.

Williams had entered the wilderness of New England as a trader and a missionary, learning the language of the Algonquian tongue by listening and taking meticulous notes.

In time, Williams came to a singular understanding of the Narragansett exceeding any previous Jesuit, or Puritan oriented minister, or perhaps, any White visitor to the tribe. It was his view as a separatist and his long growing idea of “liberty of conscience” which allowed him to glimpse the nobility of Narragansett life, and to portray that life with an undiminished admiration for its virtues.

Much has been written and mythologized concerning Williams’ banishment and his arrival on the shores of Rhode Island. This mythology comes partly from William’s own writings, which were published years after the events. Having been sentenced to banishment on October 19th, of 1634, he almost immediately fell ill and after recovering; delayed his exile until January of 1635, when he received word from Governor Winthrop that a group of magistrates were en route to arrest him and expedite his return to England. According to William’s own account, Winthrop advised him explicitly to “ go into the fertile, comely, and as yet unsettled Narragansett country”. Williams description of his flight as “Exposed to the mercy of an howling wilderness in frost and snow… sorely lost for…fourteen weeks, in a bitter winter season, not knowing what bed or bread did meane” is somewhat misleading.

From Henry Martyn Dexter’s early meticulous research, we know that he entered exile not alone, but with four companions, two of the men being one John Smythe, a miller from Dorchester, and William Harris, who would write his own pamphlets on religion once in the safe haven of “New Providence”. Moreover, as Williams lay recovering from illness with the certainty of exile looming, “some of his friends went to the place appointed by himself before hand, to make provision of housing, and other necessaries for him against his coming”[5] these reportedly included at least three more men and eight women who were undoubtedly dispatched to the land that Williams had purchased years before from Osumaquin, to begin a new colony.

According to Dexter, Williams “ most likely… went as quickly as he could to Sowams (Warren, RI) the home of his friend Massasoit (Ousamaquin)”[6]

We know, as mentioned before, that Williams was already acquainted with the neighboring Wampanoag’s, Niantic’s, and other smaller tribes, and that while in Plymouth he had written a “treatise” which caused some consternation among officials, namely Plymouth’s Governor Bradford who was already wary of the ministers’ “ strang opinions”. The “ treatise” was brought to the attention of the authorities and in December of 1633, a meeting was held to pass judgment on the document. The panel included Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop whose journal recorded that

wherin, among other things, he disputed their right to the lands they possessed here, and concluded that, claiming by the King’s Grant, they could have no title, nor otherwise, except they compounded with the Natives”.

More to the panel’s displeasure however, than this signature claim of Native American rights, were the slanders against the English King Charles II. Unfortunately for historians, any copies of the “treatise” printed have disappeared.

By the autumn of 1636, Williams and a handful of his followers had spent nearly a year in exile, enduring “the miserie of a winter’s banishment among the barbarians”, those tribes that lived outside the shaky boundary of European control. Williams and his followers walked southeast from Salem, camping out in the smoky longhouses, accepting Indian hospitality, until they reached the bank of the Seekonk River where the crude housing constructed was surely little better than the native houses they’d shared.

Here, Williams found himself, and the others in a precarious position between those who had banished him and those on whom he depended for survival.[7]

Informed some weeks later that this land also, was within the Massachusetts Bay Colony domain, Williams was directed down river to the Eastern Shore where a curious group of natives gathered to greet the long dugout canoe.

It was, he wrote years later, “a shaggy world of primeval forests, red men, and freedom”.

Once led into what would become Providence Plantations, Williams and his group flourished in remarkable time, with a trading post in Cocumscussoc near Wickford, and a community in Providence at the meeting of the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers that brought trade with natives from Seekonk, Rehoboth. and beyond.Williams became friends with Canonicus, the sachem who’d been among those who greeted him ashore, as well as his nephew Miantonomo, another leader whose later stance against European encroachment would leave a legacy as a precursor of the Wampanoag Philip; {Metacom) in Native resistance.

Seven years after stepping ashore onto Narragansett lands, Williams was en route to England to obtain the charter for the lands he’d acquired with others from the Narragansett. He took the weeks of ocean voyage to compose a remarkable book on the language and culture he’d shared in the past seven years. Ostensibly, a guide for missionaries

to spread civility and Christianity; for one candle will light ten thousand”, his pamphlet entitled A Key into the Language of America was unique in it’s compilation of the Algonquian language, far exceeding any contribution before, and notable as well for Williams’ “briefe Observations of the Customs, Manners and Worships Etc. of the aforesaid Natives, in Peace and Warre, in Life and Death.”

Less than a decade after his “banishment among the barbarians”, Williams would write of the natives

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

In his inimitable style, Williams scoffed at those Europeans who thought the natives uncivilized

“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….

There are no beggars amongst them, no fatherless children unprovided for…their affections, especially to their children are very strong.”

This sociableness extended to an equal contribution to the subsistence of the tribe as a whole:

“When a field is to be broken up, they have a very loving sociable speedy way to dispatch it: All the neighbors men and Women forty, fifty, a hundred &c, joyne and come in to help freely.

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.”

Williams found an intelligent and curious people who had grasped a clear understanding of what many Europeans saw as a vast and frightening wilderness.

“It is a mercy” Williams wrote, ”that for a hire a man shall never want guides who will carry provisions, and such as hire them over Rivers and Brookes, and find out often times hunting-houses, or other lodgings at night.”

By his account, the native’s knowledge went far beyond a familiarity with the forest.

“By occasion of their frequent lying in the fields and Woods, they much observe the Starres, and their very children can give Names to many of them, and observe their Motion…”[8]

Roger Williams was most moved by their generosity, and described numerous examples of these throughout A Key. Most telling were his accounts of their compassion,

It is a strange truth,” he wrote, “that a man shall generally finde more free entertainment and refreshing amongst these Barbarians, then amongst thousands that call themselves Christians”

In the lines of a cryptic poem, Williams also recalls his months in exile:

In wildernesse, in great distress, These Ravens have fed me.”

There is also the description of a yearly ceremony of plenty, which is likely similar to what the Pilgrims experienced with their Wampanoag neighbors.

”their chiefest Idoll of all for sport and game, is (if their land be at peace) toward Harvest when they  set up a long house called Qunnekamuck…sometimes an hundred, sometimes two hundred foot long upon a plaine…where many thousands, men and women meet, where he that goes in danceth in the sight of all the rest; and is prepared with money, coats, small breeches, knifes, or what he is able to reach to, and gives these things away to the poore…”

By virtue of his own honest and fair dealings, Williams gained the trust of the Narragansett. Though there soon arose misgivings and distrust of other settlers who’d wandered into the domain of Providence Plantations.

While Williams, and John Smythe, Samuel Gorton, and others benefited from the ability to negotiate for purchases of land and leases of other lands, the arrival of this first European settlement in Narragansett country also presaged the coming conflagration into which they would be drawn; the first European waged war on American soil.

Tensions between the Narragansett, Wampanoag, Pequot and smaller tribes with the Colonists had increased during the 1630’s and 40’s with misunderstandings over treaties, a heightened competition fueled by the English and Dutch over trade, and the continuing influx of European hunters which threatened the Native economies, swelled in a slow rising tide that sometimes spilled into desperation and acts of violence.

The murders of a Pequot sachem and the trader Captain Stone on the Connecticut River in 1634 raised the alarm in Boston who sent a report the crime to his home colony of Virginia[9]. There seems to have been little response from the colony, but the following year, a party of Pequots arrived in Boston, agreeing to hand over Stone’s killers and pay a substantial sum of wampum and fur in damages.  The historian James Truslow Adams indicates that there were some tensions between the Pequot nation and the Narragansett at this time, as well as troubles with the Dutch to the west of their lands, and so the Pequot’s had incentive for maintaining good relations with the English Colonists.

Two years later, tensions surfaced again with the news of the infamous murder of John Oldham on Block Island. The Narragansett were implicated in the murder and the kidnapping of two boys in Oldham’s boat. Despite Canonicus vehemently protesting their innocence, and the sachem Miantonomo securing the children’s release, in August of 1636, the Massachusetts Authorities sent a militia to the Island, where, failing to procure a confession from the natives, burned their wigwams, staved their canoes, killed their dogs, and destroyed the corn they had gathered for winter storage.

John Endicott next led his militia to the Pequot harbor on the Connecticut River where they killed two natives and then made their way to the village and demanded payment, along with hostages, and the names of Oldham’s killers. When the Pequot failed to meet his demands, their villages too were razed and their stores destroyed. This escapade of destruction by Endicott was borne of the Massachusetts authorities suddenly embarking upon “ a course of blundering stupidity and criminal folly”.[10]

In this first “military action” embarked upon by the Massachusetts Bay Authority, they sent an inexperienced leader and a hundred volunteers from villages around Boston who had little compunction to display any civility or “rules” of war as they might apply to a European conflict. For the natives, it was a harbinger of things to come.

In the aftermath of this incident, the Pequot’s immediately made peace with the Narragansett and urged a unified war against the English. Facing the prospect of so disastrous a conflict, the Massachusetts authorities reached out to Roger Williams who set out

“all alone in a poore canow, and… cut through a stormie wind with great seas, every minute in hazard of life, to the sachem’s house.”

Williams stayed for three days, finding that a delegation from the Pequot had already arrived. He was not intimidated however, and stayed on, despite “ the smelle of English blood on their hands”, and on the basis of his arguments and his friendship with Canonicus and Miantonomo, won the confidence of the Narragansett sachems and bade them ally with the English. In the fall of 1636, an embassy of Narragansett led by Miantonomo signed a treaty with the English that included a bond against the Pequot.

Most early historians have termed the beginning of conflict as “inevitable” given the rising tensions and hostilities between native communities and the colonists. More recently, Patricia Rubertone in her volume “Grave Undertakings” muses whether Canonicus and Miantonomo might have missed an opportunity to change history. Though by this time, there were troubles also with neighboring tribes, and the “inevitable” changes that come with one culture interacting with another were already making themselves known.

Canonicus at the time of the Pequot War was an elderly sachem. An English party accompanying Williams to the Sachem’s house during the Oldham incident found the Narragansett leader reclined on his bed, yet fully “alert and sharp of minde” in his questioning the English of their version of events. This very incident may have been an indication of his weakening control, as some accounts indicated that the murder had been sanctioned by lesser “rogue” sachems of the tribe. Certainly he was aware of the mounting political divisions within the Narragansett, and likely saw an alliance with the English as a way to stave off catastrophe.

In the months after Endicott’s raids, towns in both Massachusetts and Connecticut lived in dread of Indian retaliation. Three men were killed in Saybrook. Another murder occurred on Six-Mile Island when an unfortunate trader came across a roving band of Pequot’s, and then nine men were killed in a raid on Wethersfield, with two young girls taken captive.

On May 1, 1637, the Connecticut General Court declared war on the Pequot nation.

In the early hours of May 26th, a ninety man militia led by the experienced Captain John Mason and John Underhill, bolstered by a handful of Mohegan’s, set out for Narragansett Bay. Mason then took reinforcements of several hundred Narragansett who led the militia on a day long march “until an hour after dark”, where they camped close by to the “Misstick fort”. Accounts differ as to the extent of Narragansett involvement in the battle. Adams says that the English set out

“ About one o’clock…. but were deserted by all the Indians, Narragansett’s and Mohegan’s alike, before reaching the fort. “

Other historians intimate that the tribe stood far back from the English who had surrounded the wigwams, and stared in horror at the ensuing carnage. By all accounts, once the firing began, and Mason, fearing a costly battle, set fire to the wigwams; and the English merely had to shoot any Native who attempted to escape the flames.

Drawing of the Pequot fort and the surrounding Colonial and Native American militias. Connecticut Historical Society.

In his Memoir, the Captain claims that 600 or 700 were “ burned alive” and as testament we have Underhill’s grisly recording of

“cries of the poor savages whilst they did roast alive”.

He also records that while the Natives admired the English style of fighting, “…they cried “mach it mach it, – that is ‘it is naught, it is naught because it is too furious and slays too many men.”

The Narragansett were displeased with Mason’s tactics. They had, in conference before joining the alliance, understood that women and children would be not be harmed in any conflict.[11] Mason’s surprise attack left the entire community vulnerable, and succeeded in striking a fierce blow to the Pequot nation. Sassacus, the tribe’s sachem, had been in a neighboring community at the time of the attack on Misstick. He quickly gathered seventy warriors and fled into Mohawk territory.

In swampland just east of the border with Dutch colonies, a band of nearly three hundred Pequot made a last stand. Under fire for more than two hours, nearly two hundred women, children, and old men surrendered, leaving the remaining eighty plus warriors to fight to the death.

For their alliance with the English, the Narragansett had been promised rights to Pequot hunting grounds, and a share of the wampum and prisoners of war who were gradually sent out among the conquerors as slaves. Despite these promises, the Narragansett found the English delaying payments and any other good to be made upon their promise. Accusations of the Narragansett letting Pequot prisoners escape, and the unfulfilled English guarantees were sent back and forth to negotiating parties for over a year.

As Patricia Rubertone points out:

“For the Narragansett and other Native groups, the massacre at Mystic exposed the English as untrustworthy and ruthless, and only heightened any resentment they harbored against them.”[12]

In September, Miantonomo suffered further indignity when he was induced to sign a treaty with the Mohegan’s and English in which he gave up all rights to hunting on former Pequot lands, and agreed to pay an annual tribute for the handful of Pequot slaves they acquired.

In the aftermath of the Pequot War, the Narragansett saw the Massachusetts Authorities become ever more embroiled in Native affairs. The acquisition of land that once belonged to the Pequot, stirred renewed interest in the Narragansett territory. As some Native sachems sold ever more land, and others became wary of the colonists demand for land and resources, tensions naturally escalated. As historian Douglas Leach has written

“ During these years, friction of various sorts between English and Indians was almost constant, a not surprising fact in view of the close proximity, and the divergent interest of the two peoples. On both sides there were cases of trespass, assault, theft, even murder, all of which served as a continual irritant. The Indians moreover, felt a gnawing concern over the mounting indications that their own culture and way of life were being slowly but surely undermined by the white man.”[13]

None felt this as much as the Narragansett. The English had deferred on agreements and placed new regulations upon them. To the west of their lands, the Mohegan’s, whose territory lay to the north and east of Lyme, Connecticut, had signed treaties with the Dutch. The Wampanoag’s, who still owned much of Massachusetts had also signed their “league of peace” with the English, though relations proved to be strained, and ever uneasy over the years. This was also an uneasy time among the neighboring tribes.                 Miantonomo had, himself, brought divisions within the Narragansett by his friendship with Samuel Gorton, an Englishman of consummate independence, and constant thorn in the side of the Massachusetts Authority. Miantonomo had sanctioned the sale of land to Gorton along the Pawtuxet River, and was taken to court by Ponham of Warwick Cove and Soconoco of Pawtuxet, two of his own lesser sachems; who questioned his authority to sell the property. Gorton was arrested soon after with nine of his followers, and tensions were exacerbated by an escalating feud between Miantonomo and Uncas, sachem of the Mohegan.[14]

From a report written by the Massachusetts Bay Authority Governor John Winthrop, we read that in 1643, the English learned from many “ strong and concurrent Indian testimonies” that Miantonomo was “traveling through all the plantations of the neighboring Indians, and by promises & gifts, labouring to make himself their universall Sagamore or Governor, persuading & engaging them, at once to cut off the whole body of the English in these parts.”[15]

Summoned to Hartford and confronted with these accusations, Miantonomo reportedly “ threatened to cut off any Indian’s head that should lay such a charge upon him to his face.”

However, Miantonomo had journeyed through the waters of Long Island Sound in the fall of 1642 to delay, if not avert the Montauks from signing yet another treaty. He asked them as brethren to join with the Narragansett and others in stemming the encroaching English tide:

(O) ur (F) athers had plenty of deer and skins, our plains were full of deer, as also our woods, 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”[16]

Having seen the brutal force with which the English could expel the Native Americans, Miantonomo pled that they do what was necessary to free their people from the same fate:

for wee are all the Sachems from East to west, both Mouquakues and Mowhauks Joyning with us, and we are all resolved to fall upon them all, at one apoynted day.”[17]

From Winthrop’s report, in the spring of 1643, a Pequot Indian, purportedly aiming to take the life of Uncas, fled to the Narragansett and boasted that he had killed the sachem. When the Narragansett learned that Uncas was still alive, the Pequot confessed that Uncas had “cut through his owne arm with a flint, and hired him to say he had shot and killed him”.

Miantonomo was summoned to Boston, bringing the Pequot with him. The English desired to send the Native back to Uncas, but Miantonomo “earnestly desired he might not be taken out of his hands, promising that he would send him safe to Uncas to be examined & punished.”

Instead, within a day or two, Miantonomo had “stopped the Pequot’s mouth by cutting off his head” and “told the Governor in discontent, that he would come no more to Boston.”

Following this incident, several more attempts were made on Uncas’ life by “poysen and by sorcery”.

Upon his return, Miantonomo learned of a skirmish between his subordinate Sequassen and Uncas, and complained to the Connecticut authorities whose response was that “The English had no hand in it,”  His missive to Governor Winthrop met with similar reserve.

Gathering a band of warriors, Miantonomo marched on Uncas near the outskirts of what is now Norwich. In a long related legend, Uncas offered to settle the dispute between themselves, but Miantonomo refused to surrender his warriors desire to fight, and in the ensuing battle, Uncas overtook the Narragansett and captured Miantonomo, reportedly encumbered in his flight by a heavy coat of mail, given to him by William Gorton.

Uncas now took the opportunity to strengthen his alliance with the English. Knowing their official neutrality in the affair, he presented Miantonomo to the Massachusetts Authorities, who, after a trial in which the Narragansett sachem willingly placed himself into English custody, and their court; the judges released him to Uncas, instructing him that he should be taken “Into the next part of his own government, and there put him to death, provided that some discreet and faithful person of the English accompany them and see the execution, for our more full satisfaction.”[18]

The Massachusetts Bay Authority sent a handful of men as “protection” for Uncas from Narragansett retaliation, and sent him marching. The Mohegan’s led Miantonomo to a clearing just into the border of their lands when they executed the Narragansett sachem.

Reportedly, it was Uncas’ own brother who slay Miantonomo with a hatchet blow to the skull.

The slaying of Miantonomo. From Cassel’s “History of the United States”.

The Narragansett were shocked by Miantonomo’s death, and naturally outraged by the manner in which the English had sided with Uncas, a sachem whose “ nature was selfish, jealous, tyrannical;” and whose ambition was “ grasping and unrelieved by any single trait of magnanimity.”

Uncas’ alliance with the English might be understood on a political level by the tribe, but the Massachusetts’s Authority’s support of Uncas, could only be to further the interests of gaining more of the Narragansett’s now coveted land.

The threat of war now loomed large between the Mohegan and the Narragansett. The Narragansett sachems refused to comply with a summons from Massachusetts, distrusting the English promise of safe passage.[19] But in an effort perhaps, to allay further interference in the affair, Cananicos and Pessacus delivered a letter to the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Authority promising compliance with their rules, if they treated them with an equal respect as their former enemies. The tribe requested a “constable” be sent to live among them “so that if any small thing of difference should fall betwixt us, only the sending of a messenger , may bring it right again.”[20] The English delayed responding through the summer and finally sent a delegation to the tribe in September of 1644 to

“ truly heare their grievances”

The Narragansett told the Massachusetts delegation that they had “ payed a ransom of wampum and such parcels of other goods to a great value “ to spare the sachem’s life. They failed to prove to the satisfaction of the delegation that any ransom had been accepted by the Mohegan. They came only to an agreement that

“Hostility should cease until planting time”. [21]

By February however, the Narragansett had sent messengers to Boston to forward their demand for 160 fathoms of wampum, or another meeting within six weeks, or war would begin. The colonists accused the Narragansett of invading Uncas’ land, unsetting Hartford and New Haven once again. These colonies in turn had asked Massachusetts for assistance in their defense.

Soon after, the Mohegan captain who had taken Miantonomo prisoner was “dangerously and treacherously wounded in the night as he slept in his wigwam; and other hostile acts on both parts attempted.”[22]

When the Massachusetts Authorities again attempted to mediate, the Narragansett refused to parley. A second attempt resulted with a meeting in the presence of Pessacus, the brother of Miantonomo who had assumed his duties as sachem. It was a hostile affair.

According to Winthrop:

“They were resolved to have no peace without Uncas’ head, it matters not who began the warre, they were resolved to continue it; the English should withdraw their garrison from Uncas, or they would take it as a breach of former covenants, & would procur as many Mohauks as the English should affront them with; that they would lay the English cattle o heaps as high as their houses: that no English man shoud step out of doors to pisse, but he should be killed.”[23]

The English had underestimated the depth of the Narragansett’s anger. Returning from England too late to save his friend, Roger William’s wrote to John Winthrop that

“ there is a spirit of desperation fallen upon them.”

Williams pleaded with the Massachusetts Authority for leniency toward the Narragansett, but he also wrote resignedly to the Governor that the tribe was

“  resolved to revenge the death of their prince…or to perish with him”[24]

That spring Pessacus led a large army of warriors into Mohegan country. The Narragansett drove the Mohegan west until they retreated to their fortification at Shantok above the Thames River. The fort proved too formidable for a pitched battle, and the Narragansett encamped nearby and lay siege. Uncas however, was able to get word to the English at Saybrook, and while not sending troops, the Connecticut authorities did send supplies to the fort from the river. When the Narragansett discovered the provisions being taken in by English troops; they became discouraged, and eventually returned home. [25]

On the advice of his father’s friend, Samuel Gorton, who had been permitted after a year in exile, to return with his followers to the Bay, the Narragansett petitioned Charles I with An Act of Submission,  “freely, voluntarily, and most humbly…submit, subject, and give over ourselves, peoples, lands, rights, inheritances and possessions upon condition of His Majesties royal protection.”

When an English delegation visited the Narragansett again, they were supported by an array of troops and presented with a treaty that made them culpable for the actions taken against the Mohegan with a payment of two thousand fathom of wampum to the English, The Narragansett were to renounce any claim to the former Pequot lands as well as pay a yearly tribute for the remaining Pequot within the tribe.

Overwhelmed by the display of force, and embittered by their recent failure to oust their enemy, and retreat from Uncas lands; the Narragansett signed the English treaty.

It was an act, which Pessacus would say later “ hath bene the constant grief of my spririt”.

Indeed, in the years that followed, his authority would diminish in favor of Ninigret, a Sachem who embarked the Narragansett on a path of passive resistance, as year after year, they refused to pay the tribute, and year after year, troops were sent to collect it.

Portrait of Ninigret in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

Ninigret was also a vocal spokesman for the tribe in the way that Miantonomo had been. Through years of summons he steadfastly remained resistance to English rules of conduct. Besides his delay of payments, he refused to recognize the Bay authority, as a subject of King Charles. When answering the charge of plotting with the Dutch against the English in 1653, Ninigret refused to lower the loaded musket in his hands, a reminder of the mistrust the Narragansett held for the English a decade after the death of Miantonomo. Forced to relinquish the tribe’s Pequot prisoners for non-payment in 1654, Ninigret relented, but refused to end the skirmishes he’d begun with Long Island Mohawks, after they had killed a Narragansett sachem:

“such a prince and two such captives loss theire lives and theire blood not to be revenged to this he must acte in a right way”. [26]

This stance of active resistance however, began to pay a price within the tribe. Some sachems initially refused to contribute any payments toward the English, leaving Ninigret and Pessacus in the position of forcing tribute from their unwilling subjects.[27]

He also borrowed heavily to make payments when demanded by force, and in this way the English led Atherton Company, began collecting what had been Narragansett land for centuries.

A majority of the Nipmuck abandoned the tribe in 1667 to place themselves under English protection by agreeing to retire to what become known as a  “praying village”, under the leadership of missionary John Eliot. The Narragansett attempted to bring them back under their authority through a legal complaint, but once again the English ruled against the tribe. There were periodic episodes of vandalism to white settlers houses and barns near Narragansett land, and the occasional individual Indian acts of violence against White settlers. In 1669, one witness recorded a particularly hostile meeting with a Connecticut delegation sent to issue Ninegret an ultimatum:

“ I… saw Ninicraft’s men, almost one hundred of them, have clubs in their hands, and the Inglish men layed their hands upon their swords Ready to draw” [28]

After this confrontation, an uneasy lull existed throughout New England, but a sea change was coming. The older generation of sachems who had brokered peace with the English were slowly fading. Canonicus was elderly and mostly ineffectual in tempering the bloodlust of his young warriors under the aging Ninigret and Pessacus. Massasoit of the Wampanoags had died peacefully in 1662, but his sons, anointed with the English names of Alexander (Wamsutta) and Philip, (Metacom) were of a different mind. While Wamsutta professed to retain the policies of his Father, rumors began to reach Boston that he was resisting the Christianization of natives within his territory, and that he also sought a new alliance with the Narragansett,

Summoned to appear before the general Court in Plymouth, Wamsutta declined to attend, and this resulted in an armed force led by Majors William Bradford and Josiah Winslow, riding out toward Bridgewater and confronting the sachem at his hunting lodge on the shore of Monponsit Pond. Some accounts have Wamsutta led back by force to Plymouth at gunpoint[29] but in a letter from John Cotton to Increase Mather, the account by Bradford indicates that Wamsutta returned with he men of his own volition.

Having settled his affairs, Wamsutta was en route to Wampanoag lands when he caught a fever while lodging at the home of Winslow in Marshfield. He requested to be returned home at once but died before reaching his lodge. His death naturally raised suspicion among the already mistrustful Wampanoag, who became convinced that the English had poisoned their leader.

It was against this dramatic backdrop that Metacom assumed the position of sachem from his brother. Almost immediately summoned to Plymouth, he renewed the league of friendship, with the Wampanoag to be treated as English subjects in return for Metacom’s promise not to alienate his lands without consent of the Court. Within five years, he was summoned again on charges of disloyalty, more specifically, dealing with the French and Dutch; always suspect in plots against the English colonies.

Metacom replied that this must be some scheme of Ninigret. His story that the purchase of muskets and powder were for the defense of his people against a plot by the Narragansett fell upon suspicious ears, as the tribes were long known to be on friendly terms.

Both sachems were then summoned to a hearing with a pair of commissioners at Rehoboth, where Ninigret recounted his claim that Metacom was dealing with Dutch authorities. The Wampanoag were forced to surrender their arms for a brief time while the accusations were investigated, and none being found, the Court returned  the weapons gathered with the stipulation that he pay for the expedition that had been sent to escort him to Plymouth.

Metacom was again summoned to in 1671 and after some delay, met with the Plymouth authorities in the Taunton church on April 12th amid an air of tension and mistrust:

“ …both parties were armed: the Indians with their faces and bodies painted in the savage manner, with their long bows and quivers of arrows at their backs, and here and there a gun in the hands of those best skilled in the use of them; the English in the Cromwellian habit, slouched hats with broad brims, bandoliers, cuirasses, long swords and unwieldy guns.”

The authorities questioned Philip once again about his rumored cache of weaponry and designs against the English. Metacom repeated his claim that his preparations were in defense of threats from the Narragansett. After a long hearing, the authorities succeeded in obtaining a slight “confession” from Metacom in answer to the accusations that the Wampanoag had hidden “enemies” amidst the tribe, that they had been late in payments of tribute, and late in previous orders to relinquish weapons to authorities”. The sachem relented to a new plan of disarmament, agreeing to turn in weapons at appointed places over several months.

The weapons failed to materialize however, by September only seventy had been handed in and the sachem was summoned again, under threat of force, to appear on September 13th. Metacom traveled to Boston and appealed to the Massachusetts Bay Authority. While denying his appeal to be treated as a subject of the colony, Massachusetts did propose that the dispute be referred to commissioners from Connecticut as well as Massachusetts, and levied this criticism toward the government in Plymouth:

“We do not understand how far he hath subjected himself to you, but the treatment you have given him and proceedings toward him do not render him such a subject as that if there be not a present answering to summons there should presently be a proceeding to hostilities: and the sword once drawn and dipped in blood may make him as independent upon you as you are upon him” [30]

Despite this missive, the Wampanoag were induced to sign another treaty on September 29th, agreeing to pay another tribute in value of 100 pound, to sell lands only with consent, and to refrain from engaging in war with any Indians, and confer with authorities at Plymouth should any differences arise.

Following this last agreement, an uneasy peace existed between neighboring tribes in New England and the colonists. But if this were seen as an indication of Metacom’s meekness and submission to English rule, those who were lulled into such suspicions were sorely mistaken. As Adams writes:

“That he nursed his revenge, and carried on negotiations with other tribes for a simultaneous rising against the whites over a considerable territory, would seem to be well established.”[31]

Metacom no doubt had designs on recovering land for his people and throwing off the yoke of the English colonies, and that “at the time he was engaged in preparing for a general rising… had the sympathy of some of the other New England tribes.”[32]

The murder of the Christian Indian John Sassamon[33] has long been seen as the event which propelled the Wampanoag into conflict, but as Adams discerns,

“Once started, the example of a native rising would prove contagious; and there is little evidence to prove that the widespread movements along the seaboard were connected by threads that centered in the hut of the Wampanoag.”

There is no written record of the messages ”sent far and wide along the trails of New England,” no written accounts of the “parleys…held at council fires all over the lands of the Algonquians”[34]

The arrest of three Wampanoag of the murder, their subsequent trial and hanging, was in any Native American eyes, a sight that might occur before any of their people, a further vindication of earlier mistrust of the United Colonies. The three unfortunate Wampanoag’s were hanged on the 8th of June, convicted by the testimony of a “friendly” Indian named Pawtukson, who claimed to have witnessed the murder from a ridge overlooking the frozen pond.

The evidence at the crime was slight, and the testimony of Pawtuckson questionable, given the testimony of the accused that the same witness had ”gambled away his coat and, on it’s being returned and payment demanded,…had, in order to escape the debt accused them of the murder…”

But to the English at this juncture, it was as though it were Metacom himself on trial. For the weeks of the trial, settlers had lived in fear of reprisals, and there were reports of houses broken into, cattle slaughtered, and barns set ablaze from throughout the region.

On that June day two Wampanoag were quickly hung, but the third, having fallen without being strangled on the gallows was reprieved long enough to obtain a confession and then shot. Authorities may have been satisfied that justice had prevailed, but to the common New Englander, the whole affair had exposed them to a wave of terror and anticipation of Native atrocities.

One early historian attempted to capture the temper of the times:

”Men saw portents that foreboded evil days. Comets in the form of blazing arrows shot athwart the skies, and the northern lights took on strange and awful shapes. Many heard the thunder of hoofs of invisible horsemen, and bullets fired from no earthly weapons whistled through the air”[35]

Just three days after the hanging, Lt. John Brown of Swansea reported to the Massachusetts authority that witnesses had seen Wampanoag women ferried across the Bay to seek protection among the Narragansett. This would seem to indicate an agreement between Metacom and Pessacus, amidst some pre-war planning on their part. Even more alarming, were the rumors he’d heard of warriors journeying from Pocasset, Cowesit, and Narragansett communities to join Metacom’s forces. In addition, the main route between Swansea and Taunton, a main avenue of escape for besieged residents, was already being closely watched by the Wampanoag.

Massachusetts Authorities immediately sent messages to Metacom and Weetamoo, the squaw sachem of the Pocasset, but the advent of war seemed to be a far- gone conclusion.

This was confirmed in mid-June when Benjamin Church of Little Compton attended a dance with his neighboring Sakonnet, hoping to persuade them against Metacom’s designs. While there, the husband of Weetamoo, Peter Nunnuit, informed him that Metacom was determined to wage war, and that neighboring Indians were indeed swarming the Wampanoag encampment to join the fight. Church hurried to Boston and arrived on the morning of the 16th, to give Governor Winslow the dire news.

Within a few days the violence had erupted, first with a band of warriors marauding settlements on the neck of land adjacent to the peninsula on which their encampment lay.

Finding the farms on the neck already abandoned by frightened residents, they looted and plundered the houses, setting fire to two dwellings, while what residents remained fled toward town to sound the alarm.

Through the months that followed the initial conflagration in Swansea, the Narragansett maintained political neutrality in the war. In that same month of June, a delegation had summarily been dispatched to meet with the Narragansett sachems, consisting of Captain Edward Hutchinson, Seth Perry, and William Powers. These three were first sent to Providence to enlist the services of Roger Williams, the old peacekeeper, to persuade the Narragansett from supporting Metacom.

Williams tried to arrange a meeting at Smith’s Trading post in Wickford, but the sachems would not meet at the house[36], and made the delegation travel some fifteen miles  on the old Pequot trail to Great Pond[37] where they sat down to parley.

In attendance, were Ninigret and his nephew Canonchet, as well as Pessacus, and the “old queen” Quaiapen, widow of Mriksah, the eldest son of the late Canonicus.

The Narragansett were informed by the English delegation that Massachusetts was determined to put down the rebellion, even if it took thousands of troops to do so. It would be foolhardy for the tribe to become involved in the conflict.

Ninigret appeared to appease the English with his support, taking much the same line as he had done earlier when informing on Metacom’s activities. Pessacus however, while professing that his heart sorrowed, could not promise that he was able to control the younger warriors, or persuade lesser sachems to withhold support for Metacom. While pledging to remain neutral in the dispute between Plymouth and the Wampanoag, a mistrustful Williams’ wrote to John Winthrop that he feared the Narragansett had spoken “words of falsehood and treachery”. This seems to indicate a change in Williams’ relations with the Narragansett.

While in past years, even in the wake of Miantonomo’s attempted uprising, Williams’ had asked for leniency toward the tribe from the Authorities, he was now writing of their supposed treachery. Perhaps having lost Miantonomo, and the elderly Masssasoit had taken the two most influential allies from him, and the English. Throughout Williams long career as a minister, pamphleteer, Governor, and statesman, he had “frequently acted as a translator and mediator in negotiations with Colonial Authorities and also furnished the latter with intelligence on Native affairs by serving as the eyes and ears of Narragansett Bay.”[38] While the elders of the Narragansett clan still held Williams in respect, there had been signs for some time that he was losing his influence with them, especially after the Pequot War and Miantonomo’s death. Less than a year after the meeting at Great Pond, with the war fully engaged, Williams, while fleeing Providence, would cross a band of Narragansett warriors about to descend on the settlement, and when asked why they waged war, one John Wall-Maker (known as Stonewall John)  told him:

You have driven us out of our own countrie amd then persued us to our great miserie, and your own, and we are forced to live upon you.”

In that summer of 1675, those who had kept the peace within Rhode Island, were dwindling down to a precious few. Ninigret was an elderly sachem by the time of the war, and Pessacus, though he did not know it, would not live another two years, being killed by the Mohawks beyond the Piscataqua River the winter of 1677.  Williams himself was still a vigorous old man, but he must have seen that the younger generation of Narragansett were caught up in Metacom’s brazenness, and the bleakness of a future without freedom sent many a young warrior with dreams of glory, if not death, on the battlefield.

It is difficult to know how many Narragansett left their peaceful encampment for Metacom’s battle, but it is known that Pesssacus, Ponham, and Canconchet harbored many refuges during the months of war. Ninigret seemed to tow the English line, though he certainly knew what Pessacus was doing behind the English’s back, and only infrequently turned in warriors the Narragansett had captured as their treaty attested.

There were outward signs that tensions were escalating as well. In late June, a group of Narragansett suddenly encamped near Warwick, causing alarm. Williams was again enlisted, and in early July, set out with Captain Hutchinson, and Captain John Mosley, accompanied by “rangers” into Narragansett country to meet with the sachems.

It was at first, a fruitless mission. They found the Narragansett compound abandoned, with crops still growing in the fields. Though message after message was sent along the trails, the delegation could not find a party to meet with them.  Williams wrote that he feared things would soon come to “blows and bloodshed”.

When a sachem of authority, could not be found, the Massachusetts agents; joined by those from Connecticut, negotiated a treaty with a few unimportant individuals who were forced to obligate the tribe to join the English in making aggressive war on Philip (Metacom).[39]

Other sources from Ellis and Morris, to Howard Chapin and Douglas Leach have all related the same description of “unimportant individuals” though none seem certain of who they might be. Chapin points out that these individuals were induced to sign “as attorneys” for Canonicus, Ninigret, Canonchet, Ponham, and Quaiapen, although these Indians had no such power of attorney.[40]

It was clear that the Narragansett had no intention of any agreement with the English. Their mistrust of Uncas was clearly aligned with his dealings with the English, and was a bone of contention always in negotiations. As late as the meeting at Great Pond, punishment for the sachem’s role in the death of Miantonomo was a topic raised by the Narragansett.

By October, the Massachusetts authority had summoned Canonchet to Boston and induced him to agree to the terms of the treaty signed by his “attorneys” in July. Two weeks later, Plymouth declared war on the Narragansett on the basis of the tribe “relieving and securing Wampanoag women and children and wounded men” and failing to deliver them as promised, A decree by the United Colonies was quickly raised with the cheerful proclamation that if those who signed up “played the man”, and drove the Narragansett from their country, then the army should receive allotments of land with their pay.

The Narragansett had indeed been “relieving and securing” the refugees of the war since it’s beginning. And while Ninigret brought unwanted stragglers to the English, the sachems in South County were preparing a refuge for the hundreds of Wampanoag’s that had sought asylum. The refuge was a fort built “on an island of 4-5 acres in the middle of a large swamp.”[41]

Despite winter coming on, the fort had yet to be completed, and so was only partially protected by “ pallisadoes stuck upright in a hedge of about a rod in thickness”. Two fallen trees formed natural bridges which were the only entrances and the principal one was guarded by a block house. Inside the fort the stores, harvest, and accumulated wealth had been brought [42]

On December 14th, Plymouth forces led by Governor Winslow attacked the village of the Squaw sachem Matantuk in the area of Wickford, routing the villagers and burning over 150 wigwams. The English killed seven and took nine captives. They marched on to “other sundry skirmishes” before approaching the Great Swamp. While encamped at Smith’s landing, the contingent that now included a newly arrived company led by Major William Bradford and Captain Gorham, learned that the Narragansett had taken revenge on the evening of the 15th, at the large stone house of Jirah Bull, which sat in the clearing atop Tower Hill. The English had chosen the house as the rendezvous point with the Connecticut troops, and the Narragansett, noticing the flickering of fires, set on the house swiftly, killing fifteen, and leaving two wounded to tell the tale to the English before setting the great house ablaze.

. The assembled army waited for yet another force to arrive from Connecticut. Three days later, the combined forces joined at Pettaquamscutt that night in the snow, in sight of the grimly black ruins of the garrison.[43] The night brought new snowfall and kept the men awake. “ We lay, one thousand, in the open field that long night.”[44]Early the next morning, the armies regrouped and began the march toward the Great Swamp.

Accounts of this terrible battle amidst the ice and snow, frozen brush, and fallen trees, are all from the pens, typewriters, and computers of white historians, and while all contain the rudimentary facts, and fictions, the sequence of events and loss of life; these fall short, as they only can in summarizing a day of horror, death and atrocity into a few paragraphs of prose.[45]

I have returned, in my reading to eyewitness accounts, not those necessarily written years after events, but in letters and reports written in the days and weeks that followed.

These to my eyes, still bear the vibrancy of the words written on the page, still recall the smell of gunpowder and smoke, the cries of the wounded, and the blood on the snow of the frozen swampland.

Joseph Dudley, an army chaplain wrote that

“ a tedious march in the snow, without intermission, brought us about two o’clock in the afternoon to the entrance of the swamp, by the help of Indian Peter, who dealt faithfully with us; our men, with great courage entered the swamp about twenty rods; within the cedar swamp we found some hundreds of wigwams, forted in with a breastwork and flankered, and many small blockhouses up and down, round about…”

Another eyewitness recounted how

“our whole army…went out to seek the enemy, whom we found (there then happening a great fall of snow) securing themselves in a dismal swamp, so hard of access that there was but one way for entrance.”

Dudley again, relates how the Narragansett

“ … entertained us with a fierce fight, and many thousand shot, for about an hour, when our men valiantly scaled the fort, beat them thence, and from the blockhouses. In which action we lost Capt. Johnson, Capt. Danforth, and Capt Gardiner, and their lieutenants disabled. Capt. Marshall also slain; Capt. Seely, Capt. Mason, disabled, and many other officers, insomuch that, by a fresh assault and recruit powder from their store, the Indians fell on again, recarried, and beat us out of, the fort…”

Benjamin Church wrote later that

“the wigwams were musket proof, being all lined with baskets and tubs of grain and other provisions…”

After about three hours of intense fighting, Dudley again, recounts in his letter that

“…by the great resolution of the General and Major, we reinforced, and very hardly entered the fort again, and fired the wigwams, with many living and dead persons in them, great piles of meat and heaps of corn, the ground not permitting burial of their store, were consumed; the number of their dead, we generally suppose the enemy lost at least two hundred men…”

The men left the fort to find “a broad and bloody track where the enemy had fled with their wounded men”

The English were also reeling from the fight. The chaplain writes that

“After our wounds were dressed, we drew up for a march, not able to abide the field in the storm. And weary…with our dead and wounded, only the General, Ministers, and some other persons of the guard, going to head a small swamp, lost our way, and returned again to the evening quarters, a wonder we were not prey to them…”

Captain Oliver, in his report some days later confirms that

“One signal mercy that night, not to be forgotten, viz. That when we drew off, with so many dead and wounded, they did not persue us, which the young men would have done, but the sachems would not consent; they had but ten pounds of powder let…”

Oliver reported that in the days following the battle

“We have killed now and then 1 since, and burnt 200 wigwams more; we killed 9 last Tuesday…”

After the battle, Canonchet reputedly fled the Great Swamp to Misnock swamp in present day Coventry, and then into Metacom’s territory. A series of peace talks through December and early into 1676, faltered and by March, the Narragansett were fully involved in the war. Some historians have Canonchet leading a force through the Connecticut Valley in March of 1676, attributing raids at Lancaster, Medfield, and Groton, as well as the burning of the abandoned Simsbury to Narragansett, or combined forces. Tribal history, however, places Canonchet at the heart of a battle that has left its own legacy upon Rhode Island lore.

On March 25th, Captain Michael Pierce and a company of Plymouth volunteers skirmished with a small band of Narragansett, having marched the Old Seacunck Road to Rehoboth (then part of East Providence) where they were joined by other men and continued to Pawtucket Falls.

The Falls had been a traditional fishing ground for centuries, providing alewives, shad, and salmon for generations of Narragansett. Reports of a “large gathering” were relayed by witnesses who were likely viewing a yearly ritual of spring fishing for the tribe. Pierce and his men encountered the group north of the Falls, and while a light skirmish broke out, the Narragansett soon fled, and Pierce marched his men back without loss to the garrison in Old Rehoboth.

Recent historians have speculated that this skirmish may in fact have been devised by the Narragansett to either assess the strength of Pierce’s unit, or to lure them into an ambush. In any case, Pierce set out again the following day and marched along the Seekonk River, likely passing the old settlement of Roger Williams as they headed north towards Pawtucket. Local lore has it that Pierce’s men were watched by the Narragansett from Dexter Ridge, and quickly made their way forward through the “obscure woody place” to a fjord at the Blackstone River. Here, Pierce and his men spotted several Narragansett who appeared to be fleeing the advancing force. Following them into the woods, Pierce and his volunteers suddenly found themselves surrounded by “about 500 Indians, who, in very good order, furiously attacked them.”  He managed to cross to the western side of the Blackstone and engage the Narragansett in a fierce battle, but within a short time, was met with a reinforcement of “about 400 Indians” which his volunteers kept at bay for a little more than two hours, forming a ring and fighting the natives back to back until “55 of his English and 10 of their Indian friends were slain upon the place.”

By all accounts, this battle took place in the “north Woods” of Providence, now Central Falls. Those who escaped this battle were to meet a grisly end. Making their way into an area known as Camp Swamp, local legend has the nine making a brave stand before a large rock where they perished. More recent historians have conjectured that the nine were captured and marched to their place of execution, where their scalped and broken bodies were found several weeks later. The place where they were found has been known since that day as “Nine Men’s Misery” and a plaque affixed to a fourteen foot stone monument in Cumberland by the RI Historical Society in 1928, affixed the name to the site.

On March 26th, Canonchet led his warriors to a site above the Great Cove overlooking Providence. It was here, reportedly, that Roger Williams came to meet them, hoping to defer an attack on his settlement, and here that the words of Stonewall John fell upon his aging ears, and he knew that Providence was lost.

On
arch 30th the Narragansett destroyed thirty houses, including Williams own on Towne Street, and plundered also, the house serving as a town hall, and the early records of the settlement thrown into the Mill pond. Only two of the city’s houses were spared including the Roger Mowry House, an early Inn and important meetinghouse that was to survive another 200 years before it was destroyed by fire.

If Canonchet felt any redemption at the destruction of English property, it was to be short-lived. On April 3rd, an expedition of “some forty-seven soldiers” led by Captain James Denison of Connecticut, captured a squaw near Pawtucket, who informed them that the sachem’s camp was nearby. Pressing onward through the woods, the party soon spied two Sentries, who quickly fled, and then came upon a small group of Natives who fled in all directions. Among them was Canonchet, who having thrown a blanket over him to disguise a silver trimmed coat that would have immediately identified him, threw these off and ran to the Blackstone River. Slipping in the water, and rendering his gun useless, the Sachem was forced to surrender.

Denison marched the captured Canonchet to Stonington where he was reputedly offered his life in exchange for an end to hostilities. He deferred, preferring death with the comment that “ he liked it well, that he should dye before his Heart was soft, or had spoken anything unworthy of himself”. The man who was to be called “the last great sachem of the Narragansett” was executed and his head sent to Hartford as tribute.

It was aid that the death of Canonchet had a debilitating psychological effect on Metacom and his followers. They were pursued until the fateful day of August 12th when the Wampanoag leader met his own end at the hands of an Indian named Alderman, a “disenchanted Pocasset”, who fired on Metacom after an English soldier’s musket ball had narrowly missed the sachem.

Following the end of the war, Ninigret was recognized as the Chief Sachem of the Narragansett, and he signed another treaty with the victorious English even as his own people drifted seemingly aimlessly through destroyed woodlands, fearful of reprisals from settlers and English militia determined to eradicate the Indians from their newly claimed territories.

Many remaining warriors were killed, and hundreds of captured women and children were sent as slaves to the West Indies from Plymouth. Some historians estimate that by the time of a new treaty signed in 1682, and the assimilation of the remaining Narragansett into the Eastern Niantic, the population of the tribe hovered only at about 500. These settled into an area near Charlestown. After the death of Ninigret in 1679, the role of sachem was appointed to his eldest daughter Weunquesh,and upon her passing in 1686, her half brother Ninigret II, acquired the role of leadership.

In the years that followed, the tribe would continue to struggle for existence. The Colonial government and encroaching settlers would continue to take parcels and attempt to eradicate the memory of those sacred places through the use of farming, and grazing, and building  White communities on what once had been Narragansett land.

In October of 1713, the young missionary Experience Mayhew traveled into Connecticut to meet with Mohegan’s on their reservation. Finding that the Indians had “so universally gone out hunting”, that his planned meeting could not occur, Mayhew left a letter in lieu of a sermon, and sidestepped into Rhode Island to search for any remnants of the once famed Narragansett tribe.

The now elderly Ninigret II denied him the privelage of speaking to his people, and through a pair of interpreters, told him that those natives now imbedded with the English as either servants or slaves no longer listened to him, and would listen to a missionary even less. If the English religion was so good, he asked Mayhew, why didn’t the black robed ministers like himself “make the English good in the first place, for he said many of them were still bad.”

Not wishing long to “play the martyr”, Mayhew spurred his horse and headed back into the woods , keeping close to the Pequot guides he’d hired, lest an ambush be planned after this decidedly unfriendly encounter. The young missionary no doubt sought nothing more urgently, than the comfort of the small Cape Ann community of “Praying Indians” he’d left behind; so far removed from the smoky campgrounds, the common wigwams, and the insolence that remained in these “stubborn descendants” of Miantonomo.


Notes to Part I:

[1] Simmons, William S. ‘The Narragansett”

[2] It is extraordinary that Canonicus lived to meet both Verrazano and Williams. He would have been well over a hundred when he met the latter. Preservation Officer John Brown tells me it is still not uncommon today for Narragansett to live over a century. Indeed, Samuel Drake, in his Indians of North America, recounts meeting a Narragansett medicine man near “Little Falls” in Pawtucket, who was reputed to be “two hundred years old”.

[3] For an excellent telling of the breakdown of this long tradition, see Gary Nash’s “Forbidden Love”

[4] Rubertone, Paula “Grave Undertakings”

[5] Cotton, John “Letters Examined”

[6] In late 2009 while preparing for construction along Water Street, the remains of another Narragansett graveyard were found in Warren. The site is adjacent to Burr’s Hill, long rumored to be the burial place of Ousamaquin. In Warwick also, in the Lakeville neighborhood, the skeletal remains of a Narragansett were found in the dirt cellar of a home built in the late 1800’s.

[7] Rubertone,Patricia “Grave Undertakings” p 80

[8] Williams, Roger “A Key…” p 80

[9] Ellis and Morris relate the episode more fully, with their version that Stone and others, kidnapped two natives, bound them and forced them to guide his craft up the river. Other natives, having witnessed the kidnapping, followed the craft and waited until night to kill Stone and his comrades and rescue the victims.

Ellis and Morris “King Philip’s War” pp 25

[10] Adams, John Truslow “ The Founding of New England” Little Brown 1921 p

[11] Rubertone, Patricia “ Grave Undertakings” p 76

[12] ibid pp77-78

[13] Leach Douglas “Flintlock and Tomahawk” pp14

[14] Uncas was born a Pequot but in adulthood rebelled against Sassacus, the tribes sachem, and was banished. He took a gathering of other discontented Pequot’s and called them by the tribe’s ancient name of Mohegan’s. (Ellis & Morris:“King Philip’s War)

[15] Winthrop, John “Declaration of Former Passages and Proceedings Betwixt the English and The Narragansett, with Their Confederates” Boston 1645. JCB

[16] Gardiner, Lion from “Leift Lion Gardiner His Relation of the Pequot Wares,” found in “Appendix to the History of the Wars of New England with the Eastern Indians, ed by Samuel Penhallow. William Dodge, Cincinnati, 1859

[17] ibid

[18] Winthrop,

[19] Burton, William John “ Hellish Fiends and Brutish Men” pp 236

[20] Letter to General Court, May 25th 1644.

[21] Winthrop, John “ Declaration of Former Passages…”

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Winthrop, John Sr. Journal 2:156; Roger Williams to John Winthrop June 25, 1645 Williams Letters 145

[25] DeForrest’s “History of the Indian Wars” is the only source I’ve found for this engagement, referenced in Burton’s dissertation.

[26] Willard, Samuel “Acts of the Commissioners” 10:146-148

[27] Burton, William John “Hellish Fiends and Brutal Men pp 241 referencing a letter from Roger Williams to John Winthrop Jr. Oct. 24th 1649

[28] Letter of Robin Casasynomon to John Winthrop Jr. May 5, 1669

[29] Hubbard “History of the Indian Wars”

[30] Hutchinson, Vol. I notes from page 281

[31] Adams, John Truslow “The Founding of New England” pp 348

[32] Ibid pp 349

[33] Sassomon was found beneath the ice of Assawompsett Pond on Jan. 29th 1675 when a group of Indians passing the pond noticed his hat and gun resting on the ice on the surface. As Sassamon had reported that Metacom was organizing an uprising to authorities only days before, suspicion immediately fell upon the Wampanoag.

[34] Leach, Douglas E. “Flintlock and Tomahawk” pp28

[35] Mather “Briefe History of New England” pp 52

[36] The sachems may, in fact, not have trusted Smith, apparently with good reason. Just a few month’s later, he would house a militia on their way to the Great Swamp.

[37] now commonly known as Worden’s Pond, just beyond the Great Swamp territory.

[38] Rubertone, Patricia “Grave Undertakings” pp 91

[39] Adams, J.T. “The Founding of New England” pp 353

[40] Chapin, Howard “Sachems of the Narragansett” RI Historical Society 1938

[41] Mason “Briefe History…”

[42] Hyde, Gerald. Remarks written for the occasion of the dedication of the stone memorial installed in 1938

[43] Leach, Douglas “Flintlock and Tomahawk” pp128

[44] Letter of Captain Oliver

[45] I would recommend to the reader, however, the particularly poignant telling by Leach in “Flintlock and Tomahawk” as well as Philbrick’s modern retelling in “The Mayflower”.

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