Bound by Chains of Iron, Chains of Paper: The Enslavement and Involuntary Servitude of Rhode Island’s Indigenous People by Robert A. Geake



The story of slavery in Rhode Island has the same roots as the story of slavery in every corner of the globe where the British Empire set out to occupy and settle plantations that would drain the resources as well as the indigenous population.

In each instance where the empire envisioned a plantation model, the methodology of establishing control was to first coerce the native population into use of land and labor, to confine those of said population who were troublesome or disputed the  legal rights that the occupying settlers claimed, and then to conquer the indigenous people when disputes grew into outright rebellion.

The Plantation model was well tested by the time of the colonization of New England, and those who had plantations already in the West Indies, looked eagerly to the settlement of New England, Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emmanuel Downing, had written in the aftermath of the Pequot war, that with another “just Warre”,

“the lord should deliver [the Indians] into our hands, wee might easily have men woemen and Children enough to exchange for Moores, which wilbe more gaynefull pilladge for us then wee conceive…”


But the British faced problems in New England that they had not faced in other parts of the world. For one, the indigenous tribes were not gathered at one location, but rather scattered over a wide range of territory, and their society held numerous tribes, though often aligned by family and political ties. For another, they were not easily coerced, as the militant Miles Standish discovered in Plymouth.

Those first explorers in New England made landfall only to raid stores of supplies and kidnap indigenous men and women to be brought back to Europe and displayed as though exotic animals. When the Pilgrims made their settlement, they were followed by speculators in a ship called the Fortunewhose disastrous efforts to hoodwink the Nemaschet people led to political tensions for the first time between the settlers and the remaining indigenous people.

It may be argued by military historians that Miles Standish’s mustering of men in Plymouth and their march against a small band of surviving Nemaschet people in August 1621 could be called the first action of any militia in the colonies.

But that band of ten men were wholly guided by Standish’s suspicions that the indigenous leader of this band, a man named by Edward Winslow as Corbitant, was in league with the Narragansett, of whom Sqaunto had spoken of as a dreaded adversary to both the Wampanoag and the English.

Standish and the men at Plymouth had been deceived, and the murder of a suspected informant at his hands was proof of the lack of discipline among the men, who, after disarming the indigenous men within the home of this man, allowed their leader to kill the informant to strike fear into the hearts of the others, especially the rogue leader who wanted no parley with Plymouth.

That kidnapping, murder, and deceit were the hallmarks of the introduction of European peoples to the indigenous tribes of New England, meant that those lofty goals intoned by John Winthrop, the Pilgrim fathers, and even Roger Williams in our own collective histories, were viewed with a skeptical, even scornful eye by tribal leaders.

The first opportunity for British North American colonies to profit from the traffic in indigenous slaves came in the aftermath of the Pequot War in 1645. Rhode Island was also complicit in the distribution of slaves with vessels from Newport transporting many of those captured to the West Indies. That same year participation in the African slave trade also began with ships from ports in southern New England.

Little is written in the early histories of these indigenous captives from New England, as Richard Ligon wrote in his colonial tract luring British traders to Barbados,

“As for Indians, we have but few, and those fetcht from other Countries; some from neighboring Islands, some from the Maine (South America) which we make slaves”.


The indigenous uprising in North America that came to be known as “King Philips War” would provide another opportunity for captives to be converted to cash or credit in Barbados and other islands. The opportunity came before the actual war had begun, when, as tensions rose Massachusetts authorities invited the women, children, and elderly of the regional tribes that could come under fire in the coming conflict to gather under their protection in Plymouth. Surprising numbers of trusting indigenous people arrived, who were then placed on ships and carted off to the West Indies.

Rhode Island’s Quaker government had ostensibly kept the colony neutral, but Governor William Coddington’s acceptance of Richard Smith Juniors’ request to assist troops in coming into Narragansett country nullified any prior efforts to keep the colony at peace. Massachusetts soldiers were especially brutal, raiding the fort of the elderly Queen at Stony Fort, as well as other sites nearby. As historian Douglas Leach would write

“Before long the army had a sizeable collection of enemy prisoners, who were subsequently sold to Captain Davenport and transported to Aquidneck Island for safekeeping.”

The brash Davenport, would be among the first to fall at the battle of the Great Swamp days later, the Captain in his new red “buff coat” an easy target for Narragansett marksmen.

The battle at Great Swamp, the Narragansett winter encampment, procured another 350 captives, three hundred of which were women and children[i].

In the aftermath of this devastating blow to the Narragansett people, deputy governor of Rhode Island John Easton, would record that the troops continued to hunt down the surviving indigenous people-many of them elderly men, along with women and children who had escaped the swamp battle, and

“killed and took prisoners-divers of them, as they were found straggling; and burnt great Numbers of their Wigwams (or Houses)…they solde those Indians they had taken…for slaves,…but one old man that was carried of(f) our Island upon his suns back. he was so decrepid Could not go and when the army tooke them upone his back Caried him to the garrison, sum would have had him devoured by doges but the tenderness of sum of them prevailed to Cut ofe his head…[ii]”

Throughout the war, individual commanders took captives and dealt in differing ways. Plymouth’s Benjamin Church is said to have offered captives the choice of joining his forces, and proving their loyalty by killing or bringing in other Indian prisoners; or face being sold out of the colony. While some took him up on the offer, he sent captives throughout the war for processing in Plymouth. In the fall of 1676, Church led a raid on Martha’s Vineyard to seek Wampanoag and Narragansett who had fled there.

The soldiers “tooke many captives and brought them to Plymouth”, but also took captives for themselves in lieu of payment from authorities, including Church’s gift of a nine year old boy to the Thatcher family of Hingham.

That same fall Massachusetts authorities interned many “Christian Indians” who had learned English and worshiped in Puritan fashion to internment camps on Deer Island in Boston Harbor, as well as to Long Island. While the official order stated the need to “protect” those indigenous people who had accepted Christianity, they marched them to the boats roped with yokes around their necks and hands-like slaves.

The eventual European victory would only prove to provide money to grow the commerce of the colonies even further, as thousands more captured indigenous people were sent to the West Indies as slaves for the sugar plantations.

In the aftermath of this forced exodus, Quaker Rhode Island forbid the slavery of the remaining Indian population in 1676, except in case of debt. More specifically “to pay their debts for their bringing up, or Custody they have received”, or “to performe Covenant, as if they had been Countreymen and not taken in warre”.

Countreymen, meaning those indigenous people who had agreed to serve in a household, or “who had broken their covenants of submission and subjected themselves to colonial authority via treaty or agreement could be sentenced to slavery[iii]”

Captives from the war, which included widows and orphans, were also legally declared servants and ordered to serve nine years time. The problem was, that town laws often superseded those of the Assembly, and those towns varied greatly in their dispensation of servitude. In fact, the average time of servitude in Rhode Island would come to slightly less than twenty-eight years[iv].

In Providence, those who already owned indigenous slaves were now required to obtain a certificate for their servant. Any indigenous person in town without a certificate would be sold into servitude.

As historian Mary Ellen Newell writes in her scholarly work “Brethren by Nature”,

“Of the more than two thousand Indians reduced to servitude and slavery as captives during the war, the colonists exported approximately one forth into the hungry maw of global markets throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean. ..The rest remained within New England households all over the region. New England was well on its way to being a “society with slaves”, to quote Ira Berlin, even before the region began importing Africans in large numbers[v]”

Between 1670 and 1700, as Newell points out, laws in the New England colonies, including Rhode island increased the damages colonists could claim against defendants, leading to what she rightly calls “Judicial Enslavement”, whereupon 75% of indigenous cases brought before the court on charges of debt, theft, or other minor crimes were sentenced to servitude. Between 1704 and 1730, 69% of cases involving Indians that were sent to the court resulted in sentences of servitude.

Narragansett mothers complained bitterly to schoolteacher Edward Deake about the “sinister” motives of Rhode Islanders who “oblige us to bind our children servants to the English creditors to keep out of prison”.

Probate and Court records from Newport show that in the years following the war, the enslavement of Indigenous people, especially women and children, had become well enmeshed in colonial Rhode Island.

Here are a few examples:

-The will of Giles Slocum dated December 5, 1713, bequeathed to his wife Mary

“All ye household goods she brought with her and my Indian girls Audrey and Sarah, her performing their covenant…”

-Samuel Holmes, a merchant of Newport sued William May, a pavier for payment due from “49 days work of the plaintiffs Indian man Cubit and goods sold and delivered from 19 October 1714 to 29 November 1715”

-Josiah Arnold of South Kingstown took Benedict Arnold of Jamestown to court in January 1725 for “retaining and keeping an Indian servant man known by the name of George” left to him by his Father’s will. According to Josiah, the terms of the will let him have “my Indian slave called George to serve until he attain the age of thirty-four years old- but the defendant refused to deliver him”.

-Abigail Townsend sued a former lodger in September 1727 for “16 weeks boarded at my house, and my Indian woman’s work for 2 days”.

-The will of Edward Smith in 1730 distributed his three black slaves among his sons, but left his wife “my Indian woman called Joan, and my two girls named Jenny and Dinah”.

-John Chapman, schoolmaster, took Job Lawton to court for “labor and services” due from Mr. Lawton’s late father George, by the plaintiff’s wife, as well as “service done by the plaintiff’s Indian girl, beginning in October 1726 and ending 28 May 1732”.

-The will of Daniel Coggeshall of North Kingstown, dated April 30, 1736, leaves to his daughter Anne Coggeshall  12 acres in Portsmouth, and “My Indian girl Phillis during the term of her natural life”.

-In June 1762, the will of Joseph Tillinghast leaves his wife “The sum of three  thousand pounds, and my Indian girl”.

As late as 1766, the probate inventory of Damaris Sheffield of Jamestown included “An old Indian woman named Phillis”.

Authorities also used the law to imprison or sentence to servitude those they suspected of being invalid, and thus a potential burden to the town.

In October 1687, the court records mention an indigenous woman named Mary, in the court’s description

“An Indian squaw having been previously committed to gaol upon suspicion of felony and not being brought to this session,” ordered her held in jail until the next court session.

In December, the court ordered that “the said squaw remayne in the custody of the sheriff…”

In January, “with noe person appearing against her” to support the original suspicions, she was finally released.

The Courts imposed servitude on indigenous people for a variety of reasons, debt  being the most common, but debt also occurred from a court imposed fine that the indigenous person had no means to pay.

In 1698, when an indigenous man named Nathaniell was indicted for wounding Gabriell Ginnings in an altercation, he was fined “10 Groats and Twenty pounds, six shillings” for the “breach of his majesties peace” and ordered to pay Ginnings for his “Doctor costs, Court costs, and to be a servant to ye said Gabriell Ginnings or his assignees till said sum aforesaid be payed and to remayne a prisoner till he hath given good security for the same, and pay prison fees”.

When accused of a violent crime, the Indigenous man was often sold, as in the case of one Peter, an Indian “Apprehended and committed to gaol for endeavoring to commit Rape”. The defendant pled “not guilty”, but the jury convicted him and he was sentenced by the Court to have “the letter R” branded on his right hand, and that “he be sold out of ye country at ye first opportunity”.

In the 1730’s the courts began to see cases filed by enslaved indigenous people against their longtime masters. The children and grandchildren of slaves forced into involuntary servitude sued for their freedom, on the grounds that their ancestors had been illegally enslaved. As New England warmed to the fervor that would become the great awakening, a sea change occurred within the colony, as more Rhode Islanders saw the moral wrong that occurred in enslaving the indigenous population.

As Mary Ellen Newell writes,

“these wrongful enslavement suits formed the beginning of an abolitionist movement in New England that had implications for enslaved persons of all races”.

The efforts of these involuntary servants notwithstanding, the enforced servitude of indigenous Rhode Islanders continued through the 18thand into the 19thcentury. Pages of the Providence Gazette and other colonial newspapers printed numerous advertisements for runaway servants of indigenous origin.

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, when both free and indentured Indians enlisted for the war and were placed within the 1stRhode Island regiment, known as the “Black Regiment”, lines of racial identity for indigenous men and women began to be blurred.

Both men and women of indigenous origin who intermarried with black servants or laborers began being listed as “negro” in census’, marriage licenses, and probate inventory’s. Early histories of the state also contributed to what I called in my early work on the Narragansett, “The Ghosting of A People”, by largely dismissing the remaining members of the tribe as descendants of the brave, but conquered Indians of their historical narrative.

Locals too, lost sight of who was indigenous or of African descent among the slaves, servants, and free laborers that populated early nineteenth century New England.

Farmer and shoemaker Daniel Stedman would record in his journal on April 23, 1827

“Died very suddenly, Pat Dimmis a colored person at the widow Sweet’s. Lay down in liquor and never awoke…”

Several days later, he would write in apparent surprise, “The Indians took up Pat Dimmis and carried her to Charlestown to bury…[vi]”

With this loss of political identity was also the story of those indigenous people who remained enslaved during the late colonial period. Their story has in the recent past been resurrected by the late tribal Medicine Woman and Ethno-historian Ella Sekatau with her collaborators, as well as in the important work of Joanne Pope Melish, and others, and most recently, by historians Mary Ellen Newell and Wendy Warren.

I commend the work of the Medallion Project, and their efforts to expand the project beyond the middle passage, and include the full story of slavery in Rhode Island.

[i]Margaret Ellen Newell, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery (Ithica, Cornell University Press 2015) 154

[ii]Nathaniel Saltonstall, The Present State of New Englandfrom Narratives of the Indian Wars 57

[iii]Mary Ellen Newell Brethren by Nature  p. 166

[iv]Ibid. p. 172

[v]Ibid. p. 159

[vi]Cherry Fletcher Bamberg, ed. Daniel Steadman’s Journal 1826-1859Rhode Island Genealogical Society 2003 pp. 24-25

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An Attleboro Mililtiaman in Warwick Neck. by Robert A. Geake

The past six months or so have largely been spent in transcribing the journals of Noah Robinson, a young man of Attleboro who initially listed in Capt. Caleb Richardson’s company of Keye’s Regiment, and would go on to serve in other companies in the Massachusetts militia for the next two years.

Many Rhode Islanders may not know that in crucial times of defense, Attleboro men, as well as others from Rehobeth and Taunton, were “sent on the alarm” into Rhode Island to “hold the line”, and defend the coast until reinforcements could be gathered.

In January 1776, the Rhode Island General Assembly had resolved that “a number of men, not exceeding fifty, be stationed at Warwick Neck, including the Artillery company in Warwick; the remainder to be minutemen”.

Such service could last from twenty, to a hundred and twenty days, and were initially manned by men from the Kentish Guards under Col. John Waterman, as well as men from the Pawtuxet Rangers. A large redoubt was constructed, as well as entrenchments on the northern side of the the coast road from Old Warwick to Apponaug. During the course of the war, the Neck and these entrenchments were manned by militiamen from Scituate, North Providence, and Massachuseets militia from Taunton, Rehobeth, and Attleborough.

After Noah Robinson returned from a tour of duty-stationed in Tiverton, he was then paid forty-seven dollars by one J. Damon, to serve in his place, and on the 9th of January 1778, set off to join Col. John Daggetts regiment from Attleboro.

Robinson, then eighteen, was a private, and well-educated, at least well-enough to be offered a job as a school teacher, and to serve as scribe, or secretary to the officers of his company. He quickly obtained the promise of the same job with Col. Daggett, and on the 13th, set off to follow the regiment to Warwick, where they were to serve three months. The scribe missed his regiment’s departure, and so kept company with Capt. Moses Willmarth, and the next morning marched to Pawtuxet where they drank cider, and then another four miles into Warwick where Robinson “unflung my pack and Dined”.

As a private, Robinson was required to serve guard duty, participate in musters and “parading for exercise,” all within the routine of a soldier’s life. But as a scribe, he also kept the company of the Officers, and often shared in the benefits they received, of a roof over one’s head, rather than a tent, sharing the wines and other liquor procured for them, as well as the visiting ladies that frequented the Officers quarters. The night after his arrival, the eighteen-year old Robinson would record

“Afternoon three younger ladys come to Col. Daggetts Quar(ters) and two there was before which made up a pretty handsome sett. Towards Night I went to Capt. Willmarth’s Company & drank cyder (Girls-2 more) Returned back and the Ladys drank coffee”.

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The Wickes-Gardiner House, photo courtesy of the Warwick Historical Society

The two great houses that stood at the entrance to Warwick Neck, the Wickes-Gardiner House, and the Lippit Homestead, were taken for use by the militia. The former initially housing Col. John Waterman and his officers, while the Lippit House was used by a host of successive officers from Scituate, Attleboro, and North Providence companies. As was common, family members remained in the Lippit household, and young Robinson writes often during his time there, of visiting Mrs Lippit and having tea with the ladies in the rooms that were reserved for them.

wn whs house lippitt-willard-po hse only

The Lippit Homestead, circa 1715, courtesy of the Warwick Historical Society


The Neck then was mostly farmland. Noah Robinson had encountered its fields and pastures when he first marched to the Neck in his first term of service, where his company crossed the Bay to Warren. He was assigned to stay with the baggage, and when the wind turned unfair on a second ferry, he spent the night in a hay-stack until he could cross in the morning.

I have conferred with Henry A.L. Brown and other Warwick historians, and all of us concur that the site of the ferry which crossed the troops was likely in the vicinity of where the great dock for Rocky Point was built. His destination was an area located north of Papasquash Point, in a location that is now part of Colt State Park.

In January of 1778, he was there for three months, and though he may have found the Officer’s quarters confining, he likely missed them after carpenters were called in to construct crude wooden shelters with plank beds for the soldiers.

Robinson soon settled in to the routine of writing, and often delivering orders, parading for exercise, and “making the Rounds”, of the guards along the Neck, usually in the company of Lt. Colonel Hathaway. At the close of those first weeks of in the dead of winter, Robinson would often close his journal entries of daily routine with the phrase “Nothing More Remarkable Happened”. In spite of private Robinson’s casual air, the threat of the British attacking Warwick or Providence remained very real to residents. Governor Nicholas Cooke would write to the President of Congress on January 6, 1778, “The harbour of Newport is filled with the enemy’s ships of war, frigates, transports, etc., to the amount of nearly two hundred sail, and we hear that a descent upon the main land is in contemplation by the enemy from Rhode Island”.

shipin NRdiary

Ship drawn within the pages of Robinson’s journals, courtesy of the Robinson Research Center, Rhode Island Historical Society


In fact it would be an eventful three months for the young soldier.

On January 20, 1778, Robinson first records a mention of a “Court Martial at Capt. Willmarth’s headquarters”. He later mentions two soldiers who were charged, one J. Eddy, and Bn. Bowers. The latter was Bemenuel Bowers, of Swansea and Rehobeth who had enlisted as gunner in Capt. Thomas Carlisle’s company of Col. Robert Elliot’s Rhode Island Regiment of Artillery.

I have not yet found the documents of this particular court martial to learn the specific charges against these men, but a possible clue may be gathered from a penciled statement written in the orderly book of Carlile’s regiment during that year, which reads as follows:

“In the whole history of war there is not a single instance of soldiers having taken(,) discharged or converted to their own use the ammunition or implements of war destined for his own defense against the enemy and which they dare (?) secure.

The Gen(eral) is sorry to say that the folly and infamy of such conduct was because for the soldiers of Glovers(?) Brigade who have not only in the most villanous manner stolen the ammunition in all the redoubts(,) the (powder?) of the cannon(.) the ladles & plungers & those implements which they ware set to guard but have made it their constant practice to steal as suffer other persons to steal everything that was put under their charge. Ever since they have been stationed here they have now brought…..”

February dawned bright and sunny, and in a rare morning entry, Robinson wrote:

“A very Pleasant morning this Sunday may it be a memorable Day to me & a prosperous Life led from it through or Lord & Savior &c”.

The day ended memorably, with a sing that included some of the younger ladies from town, but the next weeks would prove to be among the darkest of the young soldiers life.

On February 5th, he was given furlough and after buying a few trinkets in Providence, headed home to Attleborough. The next few days he “walked around the neighborhood” visiting relatives, friends, and acquaintances. On the following Sunday however, “

“It being very snowy walking I stayed at home & did not go to Meeting so I spent some time in reading the Bible”

The following day he turned out, and visited more relatives, spending the night at his Uncle J. Stanley’s. When he returned home on Tuesday morning, he found that his mother had suddenly taken ill, and rushed out to find a doctor. He first tried the home of Dr. Bezallel Mann, but the eminent physician was not there, He next tried the home of Dr. James Bliss with the same result. As a result, a doctor did not arrive in the household until evening, and after a fitful night, Deborah Stanley Robinson died around eleven the next morning.

A family friend was quickly dispatched to Warwick to give Noah’s brother Phillip the news. That night relatives came and sat with the body while Noah copied the verses from a hymn by Dr. Watts in his journal, the last of which could only have echoed his own thoughts about returning to war:

“Let heavenly love prepare my soul

and call her to the skies

Where years of long salvation call

and glory never dies”.

On Friday, Noah would record that

“A Day of Weeping is now at hand when the Neighbors & Friends are gathering together to bury the corpse of my poor Mother….”

Central Congregational Church

Congregational Church in North Attleboro where members of the Robinson family are buried in a small cemetery adjoining the grounds

The family mourning continued through the weekend, but by Monday morning, though once again snowy, Robinson records that he

‘…got Breakfast & packd up & then marched to Warwick to join my Regt. Saw nothing singular in my march however stopped at Pawtuxet and eat some victuals and drank some cyder”.

On his return he learned that the ship Warren had slipped away from Providence past the British blockade. Under command of Capt. John B. Hopkins, the frigate would make its way into southern waters and capture two prizes on their way to Bermuda.

Robinson resettled into the routine of camp life, though his job as a scribe did provide some diversions. On February 23rd, he records that

“Afternoon a flag of truce came up from ye enemy to Warwick Neck with a letter to Gov. Cook & left at night. I sett off (for) Providence and delivered the letter to ye Gov. about eight o’clock and heard him read ‘em and found them to be from the Comp. Genl. of the American prisoners concerning them & c”.

I have not found the specific letter Robinson mentions, but in Benjamin Cowell’s “spirit of ‘76”, we find the state’s response:

“In the spring of this year (1778), some attempts were made to ameliorate the condition of the prisoners on board the British prison ships in the harbor of Newport; great complaints had been made that the prisoners were not properly treated, that suitable provisions were not made for their accommodations, and moreover, they were half starved; this abuse called up the attention of the Council of war, who empowered Col. Barton ‘to proceed to Newport, with supplies and necessaries for the prisoners on board the ships, in the jail and hospital at Newport’, and that ‘he inform himself particularly, of their state, treatment, and wants, and procure and bring an exact list of them”.

That winter was a hard one for the militia, as a good number fell ill at one time or another, including Phillip Robinson, Noah’s brother, who served in Capt. Caleb Richardson’s company from Attleboro. After his bout with food poisoning, he and others in the companies stationed in Warwick contracted measles. Many of these men would not recover until the end of the month. Noah, despite his own bout with “a flux”, avoided the disease.


Surgeon Comfort Capron’s weekly list of the sick in Dagger’s regiment. Courtesy of the Robinson Research Library, Rhode Island Historical Society

Those healthy kept guard and paraded for exercise. They passed the evenings with a sing-a kind of sing-a-along around a campfire or indoors as weather dictated, or playing chess, or with visits from the ladies.


On March 1, 1778, a singular event would occur which Noah would record as “a memorable day” on which

“a black fellow came, and made his complaint of Corporal Coles’ striking him”.

Corporal Isaiah Cole was Corporal in Capt. Peleg Peck’s company of Col. John Daggett’s regiment. The Colonel’s initial response was to place the man in irons, however a number in the company protested and rescued him, which, Robinson records, “caused a fluster in the regiment”.

The protest and action taken by the men caused Lieutenant Timothy Merry, and a number of others to be confined. The black man who made the complaint was also made a prisoner once again.

The name of the black man who complained of Cole’s violent behavior was not recorded by Robinson. He is one of eight blacks who served in Peck’s company, most likely as “waiters” or servants to the officers. The black man may have been emboldened to make his complaint, as the General Assembly, less than a month before had issued an act offering any slave that was fit to serve the opportunity to enlist in the Continental Army and earn their freedom. This historic act would lead to the formation of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, a regiment comprised of companies of former slaves, indigenous men, and indentured servants of European origin.

The next morning, the prisoners were brought before General Ezekial Cornell, and Colonel John Daggett as well as another unnamed Colonel.

The end result was that “those that went to rescue the boy out were all confined & the two Corp(orals) put in irons. Those that pled ignorant in the affair were dismissed from under guard”.

The affair simmered for another day when accusations of scuttling supplies seem to have arisen between Col. Daggett and Captain Peck. That day orders also arrived from Brigadier General Joseph Spencer, an attorney from Connecticut who was serving under Sullivan as they planned the Rhode Island campaign.

Robinson and others visited the prisoners that snowy night, and the next morning the entire company paraded out for General Cornell’s inspection, and the orders were given that “the prisoners be discharged from further confinement & their handcuffs be taken off. This was accordingly performed”.

Spencer’s orders seem to have diffused the controversy. There is no record of what punishment was doled ot to Corporal Coles for his act, if any, nor what became of the black man who had the courage to step forward and defend himself against such behavior.

Captain Peck would be among others who in June 1778 would petition General Sullivan for a new set of officers.

The remainder of March passed with little activity beyond the daily routines of camp life. He and the other soldiers heard the grisly tale of the murder of Joshua Spooner, a prominent Brookfield farmer by his wife Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner, daughter of Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles of Worchester, Massachusetts.


In brief, the Spooners had been married for eleven years and had four children by the spring of 1777, when a sixteen year old soldier named Ezra Ross fell ill on his way home to Ipswich, and was invited into the spooner home, where Bathsheba nursed him back to health. The soldier visited the home several more times during furloughs from duty that year and befriended the husband, often accompanying him on business trips. But by December 1777, Ross and Bathsheba were in the throes of an affair, with Ross staying over the holiday into the New Year. By January 1778, Mrs. Spooner confronted her lover with the news that she was pregnant, and encouraged him in several methods of disposing of her husband. The next month, when Ross accompanied Spooner on another trip, he brought along a bottle of nitric acid, provided by Bathsheba, to poison her husband. In the end, Ross lacked the nerve to commit murder and returned home.

Bathsheba Ruggles must have suspected that her lover lacked the nerve, and while the men were away, encountered two British runaways-one Seargent James Buchanan, and Pvt. William Brooks, and invited them into her home; and the plot to kill her husband. The pair willingly obliged, and Brooks killed Mr. Spooner as he returned from a nearby tavern. Summoned by Bathsheba, Ezra Ross helped Buchanan to hide the body of Mr. Spooner in a well. Bathsheba paid the men with money from her husband’s lockbox, and gave them a horse to ride to Worcester. Brooks and Buchanan drank the night away in a tavern, where the paper money the men used to pay for drinks and the shiny shoe buckles on Brooks worn boots drew attention. Once word of the murder arrived from Brookfield, just fourteen miles away, the three men were quickly arrested and revealed the tale of Bathseba Spooner’s plots of homicide. The three men and Bathsheba Spooner, who had pled for leniency for her unborn child, were hung before a crowd of five-thousand spectators on July 2, 1778 in Worcester’s Washington Square.


“Stand Straight My Lad”, a cartoon depicting “parading for exercise from Robinson’s journal. Courtesy of the Robinson Research Library, Rhode Island Historical Society

Life resumed to normalcy in camp, and by the middle of March, it was warm enough that “ye Colonel, the staff officers and waiters went a clamming”, though Robinson stayed behind, nursing a bad cold. The remainder of the month passed as dully as the grey metal sky as the weather turned cold and “lousy”, though Robinson found diversions in visiting with “Mrs Lippit and the ladys”, as well as playing cards and checkers. He also attended “sings” and prayers and services performed by Rev. Thatcher, the Chaplin of Daggett’s regiment

Before the long winter was out, he would record the death of his uncle Thomas Daggett as well as one of their own regiment who would die from illness; the young David Barrows, whose body was carried back home by brothers and fellow militiamen Aaron and William Barrows.

On the 28th of February, a letter arrived from Providence requesting that the regiment “tarry fifteen days from the 1st of April”. The request was read at the morning muster and caused much dispute. As the men had not been paid. Col. Daggett ordered them to prepare to go home.

On the 1st of April, , Robinson would write

“This memorable day being come about we arose very early and packed up & got Breakfast… and about eight o’clock we left Old Warwick & ye kind inhabitants and marched for home…”

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signature of Noah Robinson

Noah Robinson’s journal of his days on Warwick Neck and other places of Rhode Island bear witness to the typical day-to-day life of a militiaman during wartime. While not facing the head to head battles that the Continental troops encountered, they were a vital backdrop of defense within those battles, and a constant presence of defense along the more than seventy miles of Rhode Island coastline.

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Upcoming Events: New Dates

Spring is finally here and I will be out and about for a few events and talks:

May 19 & 20th: I will be at the Nathanial Greene Homestead premiering my latest book: “Fired A Gun at the Rising of the Sun: The Diary of Noah Robinson of Attleborough in the Revolutionary War”  10:00 – 5:00 pm

May 23rd: I will be giving a Talk entitled “A Separate War of Independence: The Militia and Their Fight to Keep Their Freedom” at the North Stonington Public Library at 6:00 pm










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“From Slaves To Soldiers” coming November 11th

PrintMy new book “From Slaves to Soldiers will be published by Westholme Publishing on November 11, 2016 and will be available at fine bookstores around the country.

Upcoming events for the book include

November 11, 2016 1:00 pm: Book Launch at the Tomaquag Museum, 390 A Summit Rd.  Exeter, R.I.

November 17, 2016 6:00 pm: Talk at the Brown Bookstore, Thayer St. Providence, RI

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Natural Sites of Rhode Island’s Historical Memory

Natural Sites of Rhode Island’s Historical Memory by Robert A. Geake     Amid the still rugged landscape of Rhode Island and its surrounding New England states are many sites of historical memory. Some are linked to events dating back to the first indigenous-european encounters, other sites are places of ceremony whose history goes beyond time out of mind. All these places known as natural historic sites, were well known to the indigenous population long before we later generations of European settlers claimed the sites as our own. For instance, in Lincoln, Rhode Island, the ledges, natural rock formations, and small caves that form part of the natural landscape once known as Quinsnicket[i], were well known camping places for Nipmuck and Narragansett passing through the area. These sleeping places were likely less used by around 1700, when Eleazor Arnold kept a bed for Native Americans at his tavern on the Great Road nearby. This natural landscape was later expanded upon by Stephen Hopkins Smith, who owned the land on which he could cultivate gardens and transplant trees of all species. He did this as well on the grounds of his “Hearthside” manor across Great Road. He literally created much that would later become the state park known today as Lincoln Woods. One of the first natural sites that would become associated with the founding of the colony of Rhode Island, actually lies a bit above the border in Swansea. In a wooded area just north of the historic Chace Farm, lies a large rock formation, remnants of a large ledge that one can still follow a considerable distance to the northeast. At the end of this ledge lies a large, overhanging rock shelter named Margaret’s Rock, long associated with Roger Williams and his flight from Salem, Massachusetts in the winter of 1636. jkirkatmargaretsrock (Above) Joetta Kirk and Maggie, caretakers of Margaret’s Rock.                                    Photo by the author   This area was known as the “Sachem’s Knoll”, one of several in Southern New England, usually individualized by its proximity to a well known location-in this case, the Kickemuit River. William’s was ill as early as the summer of 1635, and still suffering the effects of this unknown ailment when he received notice that he was to be arrested at his home. He fled alone in January, informing the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit of his predicament. Tradition tells us that he was led to the rock, which forms a natural shelter from the rain and wind, and here nursed back to health by a Wampanoag medicine woman named Margaret. During this time while Williams felt he was at “… the mercy of an howling Wildernesse in Frost and Snow”, he received an unsympathetic letter from John Cotton in Boston. “I speake not these things (the God of truth is my witness) to adde affliction to your affliction, but (if it were the holy will of God) to move you to a more serious sight of your sin…it pleased him to stop your mouth by a suddaine disease, and to threaten to take your breath from you[ii]”. Cotton would receive no answer from Williams, but the banished minister recovered by spring, no doubt greatly helped by the Indian medicine woman’s treatment. Long known to locals familiar with Swansea lore, the first expansive article concerning the rock and its history was written by historian J. Earl Clauson for the Providence Journal in the 1940’s who identified the rock formation as “Roger Williams’ Cave”.     The natural formation had long been on the property of the historic Chace Farm, most recently with caretakers Robert Chace and Joetta Kirk maintaining the site for a handful of visitors each year. The Roger Williams Family Association was granted the request to place a stone plaque at the site, and makes a pilgrimage to the rock each spring. The property was recently sold, but the new owner has granted the Association the same privileges. On a recent visit, guided by Joetta Kirk, we skirted the woods and fields around the rock before heading back in the cold to wigwam hill, a low-lying windswept knoll with a view of a run of the Kickemuit River. Tradition holds that at the top of this puddingstone outcrop , Wampanoag Indians lit signal fires at times of gatherings along the river. This would also be the practice for gatherings at the Sachem’s Knoll nearby. Another landmark of the area is a lone pine that stands sentinel at the edge of the long drive to the farm. It is said to be several hundred years old. In North Kingston, the neck that the Narragansett Indians called Namcook, stretches out past the narrows at the end of Bissel Cove into Narragansett Bay. Today we know this peninsula as Rome Point. It is thought that this is the location where the “Sachem’s Deed” for Providence was handed to Roger Williams. The Narragansett summer encampment was nearby during this period, as was an area just north of the point known as Homogansett, a sacred site of council and tribal festivities.[iii] chafee02 Beach off Rome Point, Chafee Preserve. Photo by the author.   It was at Pettaquamscutt Rock in South Kingston, also “a noted Indian landmark”, where Roger Williams and William Coddington, obtained the deed to Aquidneck Island from Narragansett sachems. The great “round rock” has long been written of in local histories, and is featured prominently in the mural entitled “The Economic Activities of the Narragansett Planters”. Painted by Ernest Hamlin Baker for the Wakefield Post Office as part of WPA Project in 1939, the mural hung in the Post Office until 1999. It was re-installed, and may be seen at the Pettasquamscutt Historical society. The rock itself, is preserved in a small park in South Kingston where one may walk a hilly path where once part of Rhode Island was granted. Other natural rock formations would come to be associated with the conflict known as King Philip’s War. The “seat” of King Philip at Mount Hope in Bristol, Rhode Island is a natural outcrop in which lies a chair-like indentation. philip'sseat A highly romanticized view of the ledge where Philip’s Chair is located is portrayed in this 19th century print. It was within sight of this ledge that the Wampanoag sachem was killed, and ended the effort to route the settlers from southern New England. keepers 026 View of Mount Hope Bay       photo by the author.

The rock outcropping is located in a wooded area that was once part of the Haffenreffer   estate. The brewer, who lived in the colonial manor on the estate, was an avid collector of Native American artifacts. His collection and property, would eventually become known as the Haffenrefer Museum of Brown University, which was deeded the property by the family foundation in 1955. Today, the paths leading away from the house take one through the woods below the ledge and to a small beach at the edge of Mount Hope Bay. Philip’s second-in-command was situated at another natural rock formation in the area of Rehoboth, Massachusetts. “Anawan’s Rock” is still preserved today, with a path leading into the woods and the fort-like outcrop that juts out of the small hill above the Squanakonk swamp that surrounds the site. The path to the hilltop is narrow, and it’s easy to brush against the rock as you walk. At the time of Church’s arrival, he saw that the elder sachem and his company had “formed his camp or kenneling place by falling a tree under the site of the great cliffs of rocks and setting a row of birch bushes up against it; where he himself, his son, and some of his chiefs had taken up their lodgings…[iv]” Soldier’s trailblazing a path, or climbing the face of the rocks would have been easy targets from above, but Anawan’s capture was practically bloodless, even anticlimactic, as Church surrounded the sachem and his handful of men as they sat in preparation for supper, which he and his men subsequently shared with the elderly sachem, then slept with a pile of guns nearby in case he should attempt to escape. Another rock associated with the Native Americans and Captain Church became known as “treaty rock” in Little Compton. Church was looking to broker peace with the Squaw Sachem Awashonks, of the Sakonnets in June of 1676 , and a meeting was arranged at “a rock at the lower end of Captain Richmond’s farm, which was a very noted place”. treatyrock Picture of Treaty Rock taken from Diary of King Philip’s War 1675-1676 by Col. Benjamin Church, Simpson & Simpson 1975

Here, the greeting was more dramatic, when the armed Sakonett warriors who accompanied Awashonks, surrounded Church in a threatening manner. Calm was restored, though not until a chosen bodyguard tasted the rum that Church had offered, to be sure it was not poisoned. The Captain eventually persuaded the Squaw sachem that it was better to align her people with the English than to risk their fate to Philip and his struggling campaign. “Treaty Rock” rests on the old farm still owned by the Richmond family, which was re-named in tribute for the historic meeting on the site. Since 2007, the Little Compton Agricultural Trust, has partnered with the Nature Conservancy, and the Rhode Island Lands Preservation Commission, to protect 115 acres of the 120 acre farm; designating 95 acres to remain as Treaty Rock Farm, working farm, with 20 acres being designated for a maritime shrub land habitat preservation project. While these sights have been preserved for future generations of Rhode Islanders, other places of historical memory have been abandoned, or threatened by development. Such is the case with the site known as the “Queen’s Fort” in Exeter, Rhode Island. The first specific description of the “fort” as a historical site was printed in Elisha Potter’s Early History of Narragansett: “ Queen’s Fort, near the line between North Kingstown and Exeter; it is on the summit of a high hill completely covered with rocks, and the Fort appears to have been surrounded with a strong stone wall; there is a hollow in the rock which has been always known as the Queen’s bedroom, and a large room, the entrance of which is nearly concealed, which is supposed by tradition to have been a hiding place for the Indians, and in which arrow heads and other things have been found.[v]” Intense interest always surrounded the site, and the Rhode Island Historical Society Bulletin featured several articles and photographs of the site during the 1920’s. The site was donated to the historical society in 1931 by Marsden Perry, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Today, the site is unmarked, and the small parking area that once existed is blocked off by a row of boulders. The fort that rests atop the hill takes much study to resemble the maps and photographs taken from those earlier articles, as the site has undergone its most extensive transformation in the last one hundred years. Before donated, the land on which the rocky balustrades rested was farmland for an extensive period. The new growth timber that grew, and then replenished itself over the next few generations cover much of what might be found. On the hillside, the rock walls that were once built along the sides of the natural rock beds have been disturbed, and while the “impressive spiral enclosure” as Howard Chapin termed it, at the top of the hill, still remains, stones from this also, have been taken for firepits, and litter in the form of beer cans and plastic bags are to be found throughout the site. Louise Duckworth, a longtime docent at nearby Smith’s Castle, remembers visiting the site as a young girl, and finding the “Queen’s chamber” once, in her wanderings. But she never found it a second time. On the blogsite, a contributor recalls an elderly man telling him that he too had known the queen’s bedroom and that he could stand within it’s cave-like opening.

Looking today, the “cave” has been largely filled in, and the other areas of the site noted in Chapin’s article are more difficult to find. In Warwick, the site of Ponham’s fort, just off Warwick Neck facing Apponaug Cove, has become overgrown to the extent that it is unrecognizable. Now in private hands, the brass plaque that was affixed to a cement block by the Warwick Historical Society to replace an earlier plaque, has been removed by the owners for fear of vandalism. The fort was once the stronghold of the Shawomet Sachem Ponham during his struggles with the colonists that were part of the prelude to King Philip’s War. He was among the first to advocate for Philip and his mission of expelling the Europeans from New England. A band of his warriors ambushed Massachusetts troops returning from the Great Swamp Fight.

Ponham was involved in several of the attacks during the war, and was captured in July 1676, with fifty of his warriors and put to death on July 25, 1676 by a party of Dedham and Medfield people. Historian J.W. Barber believed that Ponham, above the other sachems aligned with Philip, had the “energy and talent to have united the scattered tribe and infused into them his own spirit and courage[vi]”.

Also in Warwick, the ledge known as “Mark Rock”, lying just south of the entrance to Occupawtuxet Cove, and an original boundary marker of the purchase of lands by Surgeon John Greene from the sachem Miantonomo, has long been a site of interest to Anthropologists and Historians for the petroglyphs found carved on the rock. When the land on which the great ledge lay was passed into the hands of the Cole Family, it became part of historic Cole Farm. Locals had long known of the rock, and by the early 19th century, “members of the Greene, Low, Lockwood, and Waterman families were routinely carving names, dates, and emblematic designs such as anchors, eagles, and flags upon the surface of the “Mark Rock” ledge”[vii].

HALBatMarkRock Warwick historian Henry A.L. Brown explores the remaining ledge of Mark Rock. Photo by the author   In 1835, the secretary of the Rhode Island Historical Society caught wind of the inscribed rock on Narragansett Bay. Webb and artist William Bartlett were among those convinced that the boats of Norse wayfarers had entered the bay, leaving their markings on rocks as they paused, as far inland as the Taunton River and Dighton Rock.

They visited Occupawtuxet Cove on July 31st, and “after much fruitless search, we succeeded in finding the spot spoken of…it was probably once a place of resort for fishing or for clambakes, and the visitors were in the practice of cutting their names on the rocks; there was one date as early as 1762…”[viii] In their cursory examination and casual dismissal of the site, they pair missed entirely the 17th century petroglyphs that were later discovered by Edmund Delabarre. The Brown professor of Psychology had learned of the rock’s existence from Howard Chapin, who had learned of its location “only after much difficulty, many futile enquiries, and long delay”.

Over several years of visits to Mark Rock”, Delabarre discovered twelve sections of the ledge that contained what he determined to be petroglyphs left by 17th century Native Americans[ix]. While gentlemen anthropologists in the field were skeptical, Delabarre’s conclusions were confirmed by Anthropologists later in the century. The hurricanes of 1938 and 1954, did much to alter the Rhode Island coastline, and the same was true at Occupawtuxet Cove. The long used “Greene’s Island” just off the coast was reduced greatly in size, and the beaches around the cove were ploughed back and filled with sand and debris. Much of what had been visible on Mark Rock was buried, and in the subsequent years, much around it has been developed. markrock03                 Section of Mark Rock, including masonic symbol                             Photo by the author. Other rocks and natural outcrops have been associated with lore and legends of differing locations in Rhode Island, from “Indian Rock” on Narragansett’s shore, to “Purgatory Chasm” in Middletown, and “Devil’s Foot Rock” in Kingstown. devil's foot ledge The ledge known as “Devil’s Foot Rock” Photo by the author

A granite ledge divided by the Railroad in the 1940’s with the spur rail built to Quonset, it lies bordered on another side by the blacktop of Route 1. The ledge that contains “Devil’s Foot Rock” was once noted as a gathering place of the Narragansett, with it’s seat like boulder known as the Sachem’s Chair beneath the shade of a great pine, the ledge was included in a parcel of land sold as early as 1671, and served as a boundary of the lands of Fone’s Purchase.

The legend associated with the rock, that of the devil, in the form of a puritan minister snatching an Indian woman from the rock, and leaving two footprints on the ledge, one of a human footprint, and another that was cloven. The site was among those most important to Thomas Bicknell, in his efforts to memorialize the Narragansett Tribe, even as they still lived and struggled economically on and around their reservation in Charlestown. Bicknell was certain that this site was the seat of Canonicus, the great Narragansett sachem, and even placed a crude monument there in the 1920’s with which tourists could pose, as they paused in their search for the devil’s footprint. The area was donated to the Rhode Island Historical Society in 1939, and is still maintained today, albeit quietly, by the state today. Vandalism is, of course, the primary concern, so there are no signs off Route 1 for visitors, just a graveled parking lot, and a small path to the ledge beyond a copse of trees.

The village of Black Rock in Coventry was named for the large, dark rock that was said to be a place of Native American marriage ceremonies[x]. The village was not founded in 1814 when William Greene sold the parcel to the Black Rock Cotton Manufacturing Company, and held 40 people by the time that the mill was established. Years before, when the area was inhabited by the Native Americans, the site did in fact, have its true origin as a ceremonial site, with at least one coronation also held there. The areas within Kent County were as well known to the Narragansett as the encampments along South County’s shore. Mishnock, the swampy environs of the pond we know today, was the place of refuge for the survivors of the Great Swamp Fight.

Chiponaug, was a large encampment located at “a separated place” among the woodlands and marshes of Warwick, Rhode Island. Throughout the state are sites that echo the place names given by the indigenous peoples. In adapting these sites into the early narratives of American history, writers often romanticized these places of tragedy, honor, and ceremony. For the Narragansett, and other tribes, it is perhaps not a bad turn of events that sites like Queen’s Fort and Ponham’s encampment be allowed to return to their natural state, and some relief that other sites have faded from historical memory. For those like myself, who have always felt a keen, unspoken connection with the landscape of New England, we find these places as the indigenous peoples did, with a sense of awe, and respect for the power that laid out the landscape before us. No matter the legends that have been printed on paper, or the markers we have left at sites to commemorate an historic meeting,  or some victory or defeat in war; the landscape draws us back again to contemplate it’s unwritten history, because we believe that it will endure, long after any mark of our footprint upon its surface.

[i] Literally “Large Stone House” in the Algonquian language. See Geake, “Historic Rhode Island Farms” p. 127 [ii] Lafatasie, ed. “The Correspondence of Roger Williams” Vol. 1, p. 34 [iii] See Cranston, G.T. “The History of Rome Point since the mid-1600s” The North Kingston Independent July 17, 2014 [iv] Mather, Increase “History of King Philip’s War” p. 180 For a more detailed examination of the events of Anawan’s capture and the site, see Schultz & Tougias “King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict”. [v] Potter, Elisha Reynolds “Early History of Narragansett” Providence, R.I., Marshall, Brown & Co. 1835 See also “Rock Piles: A Visit to Queen’s Fort in Exeter, R.I.” [vi] Pierece, Ebenezer Weaver “Indian History, Biography, and Genealogy Pertaining to the Good Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag Tribe, and his Descendents…” p. 186 [vii] See Devine, Charles M. “An Historical Sketch of “Mark Rock” on Narragansett Bay, R.I. “ (1981) Warwick Historical Society, Henry A. L. Brown papers. p. 87-88 [viii] Ibid p. 89 [ix] Delabarre shared his findings with several articles in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Bulletin with his articles on “The Inscribed Rocks of Narragansett Bay”. See Geake, “Keepers of the Bay”, for a more detailed overview of his work during this period. [x] Boisvert, Andrew “The Coventry Patch” Additional information has been shared through oral history from Nancy Brown-Garcia, Narragansett.

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The Persistence of Ninigret: An Icon, An Enigma, and an Unfulfilled Legacy by Robert A. Geake

Several years ago, during the celebration of Providence’s 375th year, the tercentenary celebration, Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum sponsored lectures that included a talk by Paul Robinson and Doug Harris on the federally sanctioned investigation of the lands at Nipsachuk, the site of two battles during King Philip’s War, and long thought to contain a Narragansett burial ground.

An exhibition was also collected and placed on display from the Museum’s considerable collection of artifacts and named “Customes Manners & Worships. Rhode Island Begins.”. Included in the montage of pictures used in the design of the poster is an iconic image familiar to many Rhode Islanders, for the original painting hangs in the American wing of the RISD Museum.

This portrait, long thought to be the image of The Niantic/Narragansett sachem Ninigret, has, despite academic reanalysis and Anthropological studies, remained “Ninigret” in the public’s eye; and is perhaps the most recent example of “traditional history” resisting historical truth in the public imagination.

The painting itself is striking, a vibrancy of color and detail are presented to the viewer. The subject as a young man stares confidently into the distance, his lean, tanned body mostly naked, but for a red loincloth and his adornments, the symbols of status that would be worn by a sachem- the wampum headdress, made from the shells found on New England’s shores, the necklace with it’s oval metal plate at the throat and beadwork, with smaller ovals trailing down the chest. He wears knee high moccasins, and viewing them, we are drawn to the tattoo like marking of a large bird on the upper thigh.[i] A deerskin is draped over the subject’s right shoulder and arm, and he clutches what appears to be a club in one hand, with his other on his left hip, close to what resembles a metal-handled knife in his loincloth.

According to tradition, the portrait was commissioned by Connecticut Governor John Winthrop Jr., as a sign of gratitude for the sachem having saved his life. In the account passed down by the Winthrop family, the painting was created in Boston in 1647. In the editions of Winthrop’s History of New England (1825) and the Journals edited by James Savage, the date of the portrait is placed as August 3, 1647. This was also the date quoted by Elisha Potter in his Historic Narragansett. The painting is mentioned again in Samuel Gardner Drake’s The History and Antiquities of Boston (1856 along with an engraving made from the portrait. It appears again, most prominently as the front piece for Frederick Denison’s Westerly and its Witnesses (1888). Both engravings differ from the portrait in background, and the sachem’s ornamentation.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has, within their collection, a copy of the portrait by the well known Salem artist Charles Osgood (1809-1890), created during the same period in which he painted the elderly Thomas Lindall Winthrop’s portrait for the Society. Osgood’s copy bears some slight differences from the original. His subject wears a mantle of green wool over his shoulder.

In the original painting, as mentioned the mantle is of deerskin, and thus, brown. It was not until 1925 when a copy of the original portrait was published in the Rhode Island Historical Society Magazine. The small article that accompanies the portrait, recounts the legend of its origin, and records that the portrait had been handed down in the New York branch of the family and was now owned by Mrs. Robert Winthrop. In conclusion, the author writes: “It would be interesting to know to whom to ascribe the painting of this very early American portrait.”[ii] Ninigret Portrait of an early native American in the RISD American Wing, originally identified as Ninigret, donated by the Winthrop family in 1948.

The painting was eventually donated by the Winthrop family to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in 1948. Since then, the portrait has hung in the American Wing of the museum, identified first as “Ninigret, Chief of the Niantic Indians”, and then in the 1970’s, re-identified as the Sachem’s son, Ninigret II, a theory that has since been disproved. The identity of the artist has been narrowed to a few individuals, but remains in debate even today.

At a symposium conducted in Providence in 2003 entitled ”Between Art and Artifact: Approaches to Visual Representations in Historical Archeology”, Ann Woolsey of RISD, and Patricia Rubertone of Brown University, presented a paper on the NInigret portrait, which revealed the conclusions of art historians, and scientific studies to narrow the date and subject of the painting. Comparisons with other early American paintings according to Woolsey, “show that the artist drew from the same English portrait sources for his pose…But the painter’s talent for three dimensional definition far surpasses the abilities of his contemporaries”.[1]

Furthermore, the landscaped background on the canvas behind the subject, defied the style of these early portraits. Woolsey tells us that “…not until the arrival of John Smilbert in 1729…do such accomplished landscapes appear in the background of Colonial portraits”.[2]  The museum also engaged the services of Sandra Webber of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center with help in analyzing the canvas, frame, and pigments of the painting. Her findings, as relayed in Woolsey’s portion of the paper determined that while the physical evidence gave credence to the belief that the portrait is the earliest of a Native American of New England, the traditional date given to its composition is called into question:

“The hand woven canvas, its strange dimensions that do not conform with later standard portrait sizes, the retention of the original tacking edges, and the cracking patterns on the paint surface all support the conclusion that the painting was created around 1700, possibly earlier, but no later than 1750”.[iii]

The scientific findings then, belied the traditional story of the portrait, as the first Ninigret had died in 1678, and his son Ninigret II in 1723. In fact, the Brown paper concluded that the painting was not even that of a native leader; yet the image had been used time and again in scholarly journals, identified as Ninigret,  and as we’ve seen, the iconic image continues to be used today; with widely-varied attributes and speculation as to who the painting portrays.

Wickimedia Commons offers students a digital file and identifies the painting as “the only truly reliable picture of a Southern New England Indian of the era”, . The artist is listed as unknown, but dates the portrait at 1681.

In his dissertation “Lasting Marks: The Legacy of Robin Cassacinamon and The Survival of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation” (2011), Shawn G. Weimann affirms the date of the painting, and also repeats speculation that   “…in recent years it has been suggested that the portrait of the late seventeenth-century sachem, formerly thought to be Ninigret II, may in fact depict Robin Cassacinamon…The portrait is from the late seventeenth-century (circa 1681)”

Cassacinamon, a survivor of the Pequot War, was in the years following the conflict, a translator, assistant, messenger, and often a guest in the home of John Winthrop Jr. during the same period that the portrait was said to be painted.

In spite of all this, David Silverman and Julie Fisher, authors of a recently published biography of the sachem, point out that the traditional story has a certain credence, in that not only was Ninigret in Boston at the time first claimed as the painting’s origin, but also that the description of a sachem by Roger Williams, especially his mention of wampum, manufactured by the Narragansett, and that “…princes make rich caps and aprons” of the beads, fits the subject’s adornment.

In addition, the other objects of “indigenous manufacture” also place the subject in the correct time period. The historians write that the portrait gives the viewer “…an example of Indians in the process of adopting colonial textiles, and tools to make their own material and artistic lives more vibrant. The Indian in this portrait is not colonized, subjugated, converted or conquered. He draws on colonialism as it suits him. That description is quite fitting of Ninigret[iv]”.

As much an enigma as the painting, is the man himself. A nephew of Canonicus, and cousin to Miantonomo, his given name was Janemo, as Roger Williams’ first mention of him confirms, when he wrote of “these nayantuqut (Niantic) men” to John Winthrop in July of 1637: “Yesterday by our neighbor Throckmorton[v] I wrote concerning these nyantuqut men your pinnace tuke (took). This bearer Janemo, (one of the chiefe Sachims of that place and chiefe souldier) came last night with neere ascore of his men to enquire about them”. Williams’ told Winthrop that the sachem was “a notable instrument amongst them”. He may only have met the young sachem, but Janemo’s reputation had clearly preceded him.

While his older brother held power as a Niantic sachem, Janemo had to earn his prestige, and that had come with his war prowess during the Pequot campaign. When Janemo “visited” Williams on his diplomatic mission, it was only six weeks after the Pequot defeat at Mistic, and mere days before Sassacus would be captured and the war ended.

He proffered haughtiness toward the English in the aftermath of the war, and protected the surviving Pequots that had not been sold into slavery. It was not until after the death of Miantinomo that he came into his own, changing his name, an event that occurred when a native American of stature experienced a powerful vision, or when an indigenous leader faced a great challenge or undertaking. Ninigret soon began building alliances by both marriages and payments of wampum that would increase his influence among the Narragansett and neighboring tribes.

His authority would increase further with his successful raids against Long Island Indians as well as his negotiating skills in wining the release of hostages from the United Colonies in 1647. From this time on, Pessacus and Mixano, the rightful heirs and sachems of the tribe, would often defer to Ninigret with regard to affairs with the English. In 1657 he renewed the Narragansett war against Uncas, joining the Pocumtucks and Podunks in fighting the Mohegans in retribution for raids on Podunk villages near Wethersfield.

Though there were reports of the killing of Mohegans throughout the Connecticut River Valley, the main target of the Narragansett was John Brewster’s trading post, which had long provided Uncas with “…guns, powder, and shot”[vi]. While Ninigret was engaged in war, Pessacus and other Narragansett sachems were selling land wholesale in Narragansett Country. Fisher and Silverman argue that while some lands may have been obtained fraudulently, the majority were legitamate sales, made by the sachems to both finance the war against Uncas, and to pay wampum to neighboring tribes and ensure good relations. Ninigret also renewed his raids against the Mauntauks, taking hostages, and as late as 1660, beheading nine Long Island Indians at Smith’s Castle; an event witnessed, and likely staged for the son in-law and family of John Winthrop Jr. who had stopped at Cocumscussoc[vii].

During that decade, the sachem and his tributaries were challenged by the onset of Philip, and his push for other Southern New England tribes to join the Wampanoag in a unified front against European encroachment and influence. Ninigret joined other sachems in a series of meetings in early 1669, including Pequot sachem Robin Cassacinamon and the aging Mohegan leader Uncas, and by July, was preparing for “a great dance” in Westerly, that would include his former adversaries on Long Island, as well as the Pequots.

Only the participants know what was discussed during these meetings, but they did not bring about the alliance that the Wampanoag were hoping to achieve. As conflicts with Philip developed and escalated into war, Ninigret professed fealty to the English, and likely persuaded Pessacus to do the same, with the bloody tribute of Pokanoket heads left for the colonists at Smith’s Castle.

As the war heightened, and Massachusetts and Connecticut authorities continued to harass Narragansett leaders for a treaty of loyalty, including the kidnapping of three tribal men to force the deal; the Niantic sachem’s influence waned as young Narragansett sachems like Canonchet, a “hopeful spark” for the tribe, according to Roger Williams, and Pessacus, who adopted the sachem Canonicus’ name, now prepared for war, even as they continued to negotiate with colonial authorities. A “treaty” to turn over any Wampanoag warriors who fled to Narragansett Country was agreed upon, but bickering soon ensued, and it became apparent that the Narragansett would not hand over those demanded by colonial authorities.

By December of 1675, Massachusetts and Connecticut forces had entered Rhode Island and were indiscriminately killing and capturing any Narragansett they encountered. When an encampment near Wickford was attacked, and an estimated sixty Narragansett were captured and sent to Aquidneck Island to be sold into slavery, the tribe retaliated with an attack on the Jireh Bull house, and this precipitated the colonial attack and massacre that occurred at the Great Swamp.

Ninigret’s biographers write that “It must have taken every bit of influence Ninigret could muster to keep his men from rushing to defend the Narragansett at the Great Swamp”. The Niantic sachem was noticeably absent, though some testimony, including that of Joshua Teft after his capture, contended that “many of Ninicrofts men (fought) in the fort”. Once the battle was over, Ninigret and his people entered the destroyed encampment and buried the slain English and fallen Narragansett. “It is uncertain whether this gesture earned Ninigret some forgiveness from the surviving Narragansetts for abandoning them in their time ofneed, or whether it just came as cold comfort[viii]”.

If this act of contrition in giving those slain Narragansett a proper burial moved any of the remaining tribe, the allowal of Ninigret to let twenty of his men take up arms and participate in the defeat and death of Canonchet the following spring, caused many to see him only as a traitor to their people.

Most historians have placed Ningret’s policy and actions as borne from a sense of futility in fighting the colonists, and an effort to preserve the small band of Niantics under his protection. Perhaps, as Glen Lafantasie has suggested, the sachem still had designs on acquiring a larger domain for his descendants by appeasing the English, who he was certain would win the war.

In his notes to the correspondence of Roger Williams, the historian writes that “Ninigret pursued a diplomatic policy …that displays a keen understanding of the political realities in Southern New England[ix]

Throughout his career Ninigret sought to establish himself as a great sachem, a leader equal to the legacies of Canonicus and Miantonomo; but it was not to be. As much as his biographers try to portray the sachem in a heroic light, the legacy of Ningret today is still much in dispute among the very people whose approval he sought.

Much of this has to do with the colonial authorities recognizing the line of his descendents as leaders of the remaining Narragansett, who through several generations placed the tribe in an ever more precarious position by selling parcels of land to accommodate a lifestyle that emulated English royalty. Documentation from this period, penned by travelers passing through Narragansett country provide a glimpse into these years of the tribe’s declining fortunes.

Riding along the Post Road from Connecticut into Rhode Island in 1744, Dr. Alexander Hamilton recorded that “Upon the road here stands a house belonging to an Indian King named George[x], commonly called King George’s house, or palace. He possesses twenty or thirty 1000 acres of very fine levell land round this house, upon which he has many tenants and has, of his own, a good stock of horses and other cattle. This King lives after the English mode. His subjects have lost their own government policy and laws and are servants or vassals to the English here. His queen goes in a high modish dress in her silks, hoops, stays, and dresses like an English woman. He educates his children to the belles letters and is himself a very complaisant mannerly man. we pay’d him a visit, and he treated us with a glass of good wine[xi]”.

A decade later, Rev. Jacob Bailey wrote from Hill’s Tavern in Charlestown where the proprietor’s son told him of the natives nearby numbered “…five or six hundred, and that their king was a young man about eighteen years of age, at school in Newport[xii]”. The next morning, Bailey and his companions set out once again: “…After we had rode about a mile and a half, we passed by the Narragansett king’s house, which stands in the midst of a spacious plain. It is a building two stories high, with two or three rooms on a floor, but of late it is miserably fallen to ruin. We had a sight of two of the king’s sisters, who came to the door as we rode by.We continued our progress through the Narragansett country, till we came to the borders of Westerly[xiii]”.

What these journal entries show is that the Ninigret’s who fashioned themselves as kings were never seen as royalty by the English that surrounded them, or by those traveling through Narragansett country, rather they were seen as mere subjects of curiosity.


[i]The various copies and fabrications of this image that have appeared all bear slightly different adornment. As shown in “Westerly and it’s Witnesses”, the subject bears a tattoo that is recognizable to Rhode Islanders as the mark of Canonicus, like that on the deed drawn for Roger Williams, the state’s founder. Ninigret was a nephew of Canonicus, but his mark was that of a war club, so the artist’s choice in the actual painting of a thunderbird, signifies an appreciation of Algonquian symbols, the thunderbird being a god of the afterlife. [ii]RIHS July 1925 [iii] Rubertone/Woolsey “The Portrait of a Native Leader: New Readings of Artistic Conventions and Material Traditions” 2003, p. 6 [iv] Fisher, Julie A. and Silverman, David J. Ninigret, Sachem of the Niantics and Narragansetts: Diplomacy, War, and the Balance of Power in Seventeenth-Century New England and Indian Country p. XIII [v] John Throckmorton, who by 1637 was already transporting goods and swine (as well as messages) up to Boston from Providence and back on his sloop. [vi] Fisher, J. & Silverman, D. Ninigret…p. 84 [vii] Ibid, p. 93 [viii] Ibid, p. 128 [ix] See “The Correspondence of Roger Williams” Lafantasie, ed. p. 716, n. 19 [x] Hamilton had visited “KIng George” Ninigret (died 1746) [xi] Bridenbaugh, ed. “Gentlemen’s Progress: The Itinerarium of DR. Alexander Hamilton 1744” p. 98 [xii] Thomas Ninigret, later called “King Tom” (1739-1769) [xiii] Bartlett, William S. ed. “The Frontier Missionary: A Memoir of the Life of Rev. Jacob Bailey, A.M.” p. 21

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The Narragansett at Cocumscussoc.

The Narragansett at Cocumscussoc

by Robert A. Geake


On the shore of a small cove, just north of Wickford, Rhode Island, rests Smith’s Castle, the great house that sits on the site of the first trading post on Narragansett Bay. The current house was built by Richard Smith Jr. in 1678, after the previous trading post was burned to the ground by the Narragansett in 1676.

Nearly forty years earlier, the Narragansett had granted land for the trading post at Coscumcussoc to Roger Williams, and then Jacob Wilcox. The builder of the present house, Richard Smith Jr. would claim that his father had been the first to trade with the Narragansett a few miles north of their summer encampment, but Smith was in fact a citizen of Taunton during the time when Roger Williams began writing letters from Cocumcussoc[i].

Williams had long established relations with the Narragansett in friendship and trade, and his famous quote that the lands of the colony were purchased “with love” was illustrated in his telling story of the wariness with which the Narragansett viewed English encroachment: Williams would write of the sachem Canonicus that

“he was not I say to be stirred with money to sell his Lands to let in foreigners. Tis true he recd presents and gratuities many of me, but it was not Thousand not Ten Thousands of money could have bought of him an English Entrance into the Bay”

Richard Smith would eventually become partners with Wilcox and then buy out his interest in the trade. According to the extensive research conducted by Howard M. Chapin, “It seems probable that the Williams trading house and the Smith tradinghouse were on adjoining tracts of land northeast of Cocumcussoc Brook and northeast of Wickford Harbor[ii]”.

Roger Williams would sell his house and land to Richard Smith in 1651, before his planned departure to England. Moreover, Chapin believed that Smith had good reason aside from the adjoining tracts of land to makethe purchase:

“the known facts…point to the probability that Williams had the better house in 1651 for he had resided in it from 1645, while during these six years from 1645-1651 Smith had been a resident at New Amsterdam and some time at Portsmouth and had apparently only used his trading house or shack for the occasional short visits, which his trading with the Indians made necessary[iii]”.

During this period of white settlement and trade, the Narragansett were undergoing a change in leadership. The outspoken Miantonomo had been captured and killed with Connecticut’s approval in 1643 and the great sachem Canonicus had died just four years later.

“…more than 30,000 gathered about Wickford and the contiguous country…after the decease of the old Sachem Canonicus[iv]” Hubbard would write.

His son Mixanno,would assume the role of dual Sachem with his cousin Pessacus, and the tribe enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity. On his death in 1658, Mixanno’s son’s assumed leadership roles, but his widow Quaiapen, also gathered some followers around her, and established a village nearby the trading post. This became known as the “Queen’s Fort”, and as Quaiapen outlived her husband and three children, she became known as the “Old Queen” of the Narragansett.

During those early years of trade at Cocumscussoc, Williams’ would write of the Narragansett that

“Amongst themselves they trade theire Corne, Skins, Coates, Venison, Fish & c. and sometimes come ten or twenty in a company to trade amongst the English[v]”.

William Wood, in his “New England’s Prospect” described the tribe as among the more industrious native Americans he had encountered:

“They employed most of their time in catching of beavers, otters, and musquashes (muskrat) which they traded for English commodities”.

According to Wood, what the Narragansett did not trade for themselves, was sold

“for a double profit” to “more remote indians who are ignorant at what cheape rates they obtaine them[vi]”.

Despite the immediate profit from hunting for the Dutch and English trade, Williams would note that there were some Narragansett who maintained traditional crafts:

“They have some who follow onely making of bowes, some arrowes, some dishes, and (the women make all of their earthen vessels) …most on the sea-side make money, and store up shells in summer against winter whereof to make money[vii]

Indeed, the Narragansett for a time were the “mint-masters “ of the eastern north Atlantic coast, supplying wampum for trade with Dutch and English traders who took the currency with them at great advantage; for the value increased the further one traveled from the Narragansett country. The Dutch convinced the Indians on Long Island Sound to attempt to duplicate the wampum, but another European traveler John Josseylyn, would pen the prejudicial sentiments of the time that the Narragansett manufactured their wampum “out of certain shells so cunning thatneither Jew nor Devil can counterfeit them[viii]”.

By the end of the 17th century however, the money was being counterfeited at a rate that caused the value to drop dramatically, even while continuing to play an important role in the fur trade.

Douglas Leach would write that just a decade or so into the new century, “the manufacture of wampum for the fur trade had become a specialized business practiced by certain recognized craftsmen in the colonial towns, especially Albany, where busy-fingered Dutchman drilled the beads with a well-tempered needle dipt in wax and tarrow[ix]

The loss of their status as mint-makers as well as the drop in demand for furs, when the market became glutted in the 1650’s, threatened Narragansett trading at Cocumscussoc. They could no longer afford to buy the English goods they had become accustomed to finding at Smith’s Castle, but were trading more with the Dutch on their Island in Narragansett Bay.

Roger Williams complained as early as 1656 that “the Indians have been filled with artillery and ammunition from the Dutch…and from the English by stealth”.

Among those English accused of selling ammunition to the Narragansett was Richard Smith Jr. who protested his innocence in a letter to Governor John Winthrop of Connecticut:

“I am informed att second hand …that it was reported at Hartford that I had sowld the Indgens a barall of powdere. It was a great untrueth, for I deneyed all Indians selling them aney att all, anf the more for that I sawe them greedy for it, & that long before the ware begune with Philip[x]

While these economic and political changes brought an end to large scale trading with the Native Americans who visited Cocumscussoc, the trading post continued to be a place of meeting, negotiation, and protest during and after King Philip’s War.

As tensions with Philip had increased, Governor William Coddington sent deputy governor John Easton, with John Borden and two magistrates to meet with the Sachem at Tripp’s Ferry, in June of 1675. The four men and an unarmed Philip “sate very friendly together” as Easton attempted to resolve disagreements and

“endeavor that they might not reseve (receive) or do rong”.

The Wampanoag insisted that they had done no wrong, but that “the English ronged them”. Easton proposed that Governor Edward Andros of New York and “an Indian King” of Philip’s choosing arbitrate the dispute between the Wampanoag and Plymouth authorities. The sachem seemed agreeable, but Easton and the rest of the Rhode Island’s government had little leverage beyond their own boundaries to persuade others to convene such a meeting.

By July, several attacks on settlements within Massachusetts had already occurred, and Easton recorded that Massachusetts authorities had confronted the Narragansett concerning their loyalty “the English army with out our Consent or informing us came into our Colony, broft the naroganset indians to artickels of agreement to them Philip being flead about a 150 indians Came into a Plymoth garrison voluntarily”.

Easton alludes to the “treaty” that Massachusetts forced several “obscure and unimportant” Narragansett to sign “as attorneys” for Canonicus, Canonchet, and Quaiapen. They included the Warwick sachem Ponham, and Ninigret as well in the agreement. Waite Winthrop and a Connecticut force had already marched into the Niantic sachem’s territory and demanded neutrality in the war against Philip, taking three hostages, including Moosup, a son of Miantonomo.

After the attack on Dartmouth, Massachusetts convinced many native Americans to surrender themselves for protection to white authorities. Despite not having anything to do with the ongoing attacks, as many as 160 native Americans from Southern New England voluntarily surrendered. They were gathered at Plymouth and summarily sold as slaves, “all…(but about six of them) to be Caried out of the Cuntry[xi]”.

Within a few months, all attempts at negotiation had fallen away, and the Quaker government’s efforts to keep the colony out of the conflict were gone as well. To complicate matters, Weetamoe, the widow of Alexander, Philips brother had fled tothe Narragansett after a battle with the English at Nipsachuk, in North Smithfield, with “att lest 100 men women and children” according to Richard Smith, and wrote to John Winthrop Jr. on the Narragansett’s bequest, that “She is kind to Sucquach & he deseyers all favor for her that can be…[xii]

Boston authorities bristled at what they perceived as a breach of promise. John Easton wrote that

“one part of the narogansets agreement to bostun was to kill or deliver as mani as they Could pf philips peopell, therefore bostun men demanded the fore said queen and others that thay had so reserved for which the indians…made mani excuses as that the queen was none of them and some others wear (were) but (sojourners)with philip…”

At the same time, the Narragansett had dropped by Smith’s Castle with “seven heads of the enemy” in a grim display of fealty to the English. Smith would write to Winthrop in September that “I beleve yt Conanicos of him selve & sume others inclynes to pease rather than warr, butt have many unruly men which cares not what becom(e)s of them[xiii]”. In a postscript of the same letter, he reminded the United Colonies that “The Narragansett sachems deseyers theyer hostages may returen, they having they say approved themselves loyall by bringing in of heads”.

In early October, Canonchet met with Massachusetts authorities, accompanied by Richard Smith Jr. and Cornman, one of Ninigret’s elder statesmen. The treaty presented to the unknown Narragansett was presented again and agreed upon. The sachem returned on October 18th, whereby authorities demanded that the Narragansett turn over all enemies to Boston within ten days.[xiv] On the very eve of that deadline, Richard Smith Jr. was reporting to Connecticut’s governor that

”The inhabitanc here are many goone and most removing for feare of dainger. The report common amongst indyans and Einglish is att present of an armey coming up. I request your favor to give me timly notis if aney expadicion be hitherward;otherways ouer li(v)es are in the hands of ouer Enemyes & surprised before we are aware; it I am confident those att present deseyers not a ware …”

Come November, the authorities in Massachusetts were “resolved to reduce thenarogansets to Conbformity, not to be troubled with them ani more and desired some help of botes and otherwise…”

Easton would write that

“…our governor sent them word we wear satisfied naragansets wear treacherous, and had ayded Philop, and as we had assisted to relive ther army before so we should be redy to assist them still”.

The Commissioners of the United Colonies began planning for the invasion of Narragansett country. From the west, Connecticutt troops would march from New London along the Pequot trail to Wickford, and Richard Smith’s trading post, which was chosen as the base for the combined operation. Troops from Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts gathered in Taunton, then Rehoboth, and gathered for departure from Dedham on December 8th. General Josiah Winslow commanded the combined forces of Plymouth and Massachusetts with subordinate officers including Winslow’s special aide Benjamin Church, Major William Bradford, Captain Thomas Prentice, and Captain John Gorham.

Major Treat of Connecticut was chosen as second in command of operations, andhis forces included Major Samuel Appleton, Captains Samuel Moseley, James Oliver, Isaac Johnson, Nathaniel Davenport, and Joseph Gardiner[xv].

Each company contained about seventy-seven men, while a contingent of Calvary, commanded by Prentice, stood at about seventy-five troopers. In all, the United Colonies would send nearly a thousand men to subdue the Narragansett.

While Prentice and his calvary marched out as an advance force, several vessels met the troops in Rehoboth, including a ship commandeered by Richard Smith Jr., who boarded Benjamin Church and Moseley with his entire company for the brief journey to Cocumscussoc. Smith would not be the only Rhode Islander assisting the United Colonies as we shall see, but in fact member of his own family, nephews Richard, Daniel, and James enlisted in the forces sent into Rhode Island.

Thus, the once neutral Colony allowed the gathering of Connecticut and Plymouth troops at Smith’s Castle, the trading post where the native Americans had exchanged goods and wampum for nearly forty years.

Winslow and the remainder of the troops were ferried across the Seekonk River by a makeshift pontoon built of canoes and planks. They marched to Providence, picking up thirty volunteers, and then set out along the Pequot path and continued south to Pawtuxet where they found quarters, and remained for several days. On December 12th, Winslow’s camp intercepted a message bound for Boston, confirming to the commissioners that troops from Connecticut were advancing toWickford.

Believing the Shawomet sachem Ponham to be nearby, the army set out in search of his encampment, said to be on the upper Pawtuxet River, that evening. By daylight however, it was clear that the search was fruitless, and fears about the sachem joining the Narragansett pushed them on to Smith’s Castle where they were reunited with the troops already established there. As Douglas Leach would write in Flintlock and Tomahawk,

“The next few days were spent in vigorous scouting activity in the vicinity of Wickford. Before long the army had a sizeable collection of enemy prisoners, who were subsequently sold to Captain Davenport and transported to Aquidneck Island for safekeeping”.

On Saturday afternoon, Prentice and his scouts discovered stores of grain, and in collecting these supplies “accidentally espied an Indian alone”. He was quickly captured and brought to General Winslow at the garrison. This native American, who was dubbed “Peter” by the English, has most often been portrayed in the popular narratives as a traitor to his people[xvi], but in the letters of Nathaniel Saltonstall, we find that “upon his refusal to answer those Questions demanded, was ordered to be Hanged forthwith; Whereupon the Indian to save his life, told them where the whole Body of Indians were together…[xvii]

This was welcome news to Winslow, but he was still awaiting word that the Connecticut troops had arrived. In the meantime, he took a smaller force with him and raided a nearby village, as well the Queen’s Fort nearby the garrison. They took few prisoners, the camp being largely abandoned, but inflicted some casualties and burned a large number of wigwams[xviii].

On the 15th, the garrison received an emissary from the Narragansett named Stone-wall John. This well known Narragansett was known to Roger Williams as “an ingenious fellow and peasable[xix]” and known further for being a blacksmith, and handy with the repair of firearms and the making of arrowheads.

Stone-Wall John was there to negotiate peace, but his haughty manner with the whites infuriated Winslow, and he sent him back with the message that the Narragansett needed to send their Sachems if they wanted to talk.

Most historians believe that Stone-wall John’s visit was to assess the English capabilities, and as the Connecticut troops had not arrived, he may likely have believed them to be less than the thousand who would march to the Great Swamp.

As if in answer to the remonstrance of the English Commander, warriors who had accompanied Stone-Wall John to the outskirts of Smith’s Castle, raided a house nearby where two English soldiers had sheltered. Another skirmish killed three other English soldiers.

Likely that night, the Narragansett raided the Jireh Bull house and garrison some nine miles south of Smith’s Castle. Bull and his family had long evacuated the house, but it was inhabited by several Quakers who had chosen to stay, the house being a familiar gathering place, and used as a Meeting House for the nearby Friends.

Quaker and civic leader Thomas R. Hazard would record that the neighbors living in the immediate vicinity of the Narragansett encampment, had “kept faith and lived…in peace and harmony up to the very night of the battle[xx]”.

His descendent, author and poet Caroline Hazard would write in “The Narragansett Friends Meeting in the XVIII Century”, that the house where the Narragansett Meeting had been established in 1672 had “a tragic fate, where “many of its inmates, including women and children were killed”.

The property of Jireh Bull included a stone garrison, and was to be the rendevouz point for the troops to plan a combined march on the Narragansett. Knowing this, it is all the more puzzling as to why civilians were there at all. Nonetheless, “A body of the enemy did treacherously get into the house of Jereh Bull (where there was agarrison ) and slew about fourteen persons”.

William Hubbard would write that the attack had killed “Ten Englishmen and five women and children, but two escaping inall”, and added that “A want of Watchfulness was probably the Cause of this sad Butchery. The House was of Stone, and might easily have been defended; but the People probably thought the Presence of the Army warranted Security[xxi]

The mystery of those killed in the attack remains to this day. Cotton Mather had lamented when he wrote his “History of the Indian Warrs in New England”, that he had “sought in vain for the names of the slain”. It is likely that those Friends who perished in the attack believed their previous overtures to the Wampanoag would provide protection when the war erupted on Narragansett Bay.

Instead, as research by Colin Porter has shown, the claims of John Easton that the Narragansett responded to the attacks upon their people by colonial forces coming into Rhode Island were given credibility in at least two instances.

In April 1676, a messenger from the Sachem Wamosit told Connecticut officials that they had participated in the attack in retribution for the

“capture and execution of sixty Narragansetts prior to the raid[xxii].”

Furthermore, in testimony given at Newport in August 1676, a Narragansett man named Quanaehewacout stated that “he was informed that all the Sachims was at the takeing and burning of Ireh Bull’s garrison[xxiii]”.

If true, the attack on the Jireh Bull house would seem to have been an outright declaration of war. The Narragansett clearly believed that Rhode Island had authorized the troops to find them, and were thus, likely targeting those aligned with the seat of the colony’s government.

Word of the attack came to Winslow on the 16th, with the return of Prentice and his Calvary, who had been sent to Pettaquamscutt in hopes of finding Treat, and the Connecticut troops. The news scuttled the plan for a rendevouz, but by days end, a messenger had arrived with word that the forces had arrived on the grim site of the burned garrison, and awaited them there. With Treat, and five regiments of soldiers, were an estimated 150 Mohegan and Pequot warriors under the sachem Oneco, ready to assist the English in battle against their old adversaries.

Winslow readied the troops at Smith’s Castle, and leaving about seventy men behind to guard the garrison, set out for Pettaquamscutt on the 18th. The combined forces encamped that night in a pack of freshly fallen snow and awoke the next morning with stiffened limbs to renew the march. Led by Peter, the United Colonies forces trudged through deep snow all morning and into the afternoon. As Douglas Leach depicted the scene in Flintlock and Tomahawk,

     “Every weary mile took them farther from civilization and nearer to danger. Their route lay over Tower Hill and across the Chippuxet River, probably somewhere between Larkin Pond and Thirty Acre Pond. Beyond Chipuxett lay miles of woodland and swamp virtually unknown to white men…[xxiv]

At the edge of the swampland a small skirmish ensued, the attackers quickly vanishing deep into the Great Swamp. The march again resumed until the troops noticed a few acres of upland ahead with the outline of a large fortified village constructed on this island in the midst of the swamp. The walls were erected from “tall stakes set upright in the ground, and around its perimeter was piled a thick mass of tree limbs and brush several yards thick”. Small blockhouses, purportedly designed by Stone-Wall John[xxv], were set around various points of the enclosed encampment.

Mosley’s regiment in the vanguard were the first to enter the camp, scrambling over a fallen tree that shielded the only entrance to the fort, while gunfire rained down on them from the blockhouses. Chaplain Joseph Dudley would write that 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, 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 outof the fort”.


Davenport, who had ambitiously purchased the captive native Americans for slaves just days before, was among the first to fall. Saltonstall in his “Present State of New England” wrote that “Before our men came up to take Possession of the Fort, the Indians had shot three Bullets through Capt. Davenport, whereupon he bled extremely, and immediately called for his Lieutenant, Mr. Edward Ting , and committed the Charge of the Company to him… “ Salstonstall speculated that the Narragansett may have believed Davenport “was the General, because he had a very good Buff Suit on at that Time”, and so targeted him among the first soldiers to be fired upon.

Dudley would record that

“…by the great resolution of the General and Major[xxvi], 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.”

In the narratives that followed the battle, estimates of the loss to the Narragansett would vary widely, but the most telling, as to how deeply the loss affected the tribe may be seen in the testimony of Potock, once a chief counselor to the Old Queen, who in August of 1676 faced a firing squad on Boston Common. When prodded to “speak the truth, and say how many Indians were killed at the fort fight last winter”, he told authorities

“…that the English did that day kill seven hundred fighting men…and that as to old men, women, and children they had lost, no body could tell how many…[xxvii]

In the aftermath of the battle, as dusk fell, the English dressed their wounded and regrouped for the return to Smith’s Castle, leaving stores of food behind, as well as their dead with the slain Narragansett, and the wigwams still burning. According to one account, the troops

“marched above three miles by the light of the fires[xxviii]”.

About twenty of the wounded men, the most severely carried on horseback, died before reaching Smith’s Castle. The main body of troops had arrived around 2:00 a.m., with the General, chaplain, and about forty men having been separated during the march, staggering into Cocumscussoc about seven that morning.

General Winslow gave the order that

“the Wounded and Sick should first of all be cared for, which was done accordingly; and that they might have better Accomodation in the House, the General himself lay in a Barn belonging to the said House”.

Later that day, the English troops buried thirty-four of their dead on the grounds of the garrison. In the coming days more wounded would succumb to their injuries, and by month’s end the total of dead would be near seventy. Most of the seriously wounded were sent to Newport after surgeons had done all they could in the Castle.

Those left behind would face days and nights of cold and hunger waiting for supplies to reach them once the frozen waters of the cove had thawed. Commissioners petitioned Connecticut authorities to send supplies since their ports were still open, but were left waiting well into January for a response. While they waited, the troops would plunder Richard Smith’s property of all its resources.

Smith would later petition the United Colonies for compensation of the cost of

“entertaining the many companies of soldiers…1st Major Savage and companies, with about 6 hundred, and Connecticut forces with him under command of Capt.Winthrop, they had horse shoes and nails to value 3lb, 12sh, besides their entertainment for 8 or 10 days, never pd. one farthing. After which, the entertainment of the whole army, myself and six of my servants being one service, one of which was slain at the swamp fight, had no allowance for our service. Also 26 head of cattle killed and eaten by the soldiers, with 100 goats at least, and at least 30 fat hogs; all the copper, brass, and wooden vessels for the army used and spoiled, stole and lost…great part of my post and rail fences being fetched and burnt for the soldiers, my oxen and cart and utensils being all lost, after the garrison went away; and lastly my housing burnt, being of great value…”

Salstonstall would write of the Narragansett’s fate in the weeks after the fight:

“As for the Indians that survived the Battell, they forsook their New-built Fort, and that Swamp where the fight hapned, and posted themselves in a Swamp twenty miles distant from thence; The Weather being extreme cold, and the Snow so deep, that we would not for some Time march in Pursuit of them; yet still kept Scouts abroad daily to observe their Motions, and there-by hindered them from coming to the Sea-side; killed and took Prisoners divers of them, as they were found straggling; and burnt great Numbers of their Wigwams (or Houses)…[xxix]

There has long been mention of atrocities committed against the Narragansett and Wampanoag prisoners at Smith’s Castle by the English officers. Few are verifiable, though there are some we may take as accurate accounts of events, and others that come from reputable second-hand sources.

John Easton would record a pair of these episodes in his A Relacion of the Indian Warre, writing early in his essay, that

“it is true the indians genaraly ar very barbarus peopell but in this war I have not herd of ther tormenting ani but that the English army Cote (caught) an old Indian and tormented him. He was well knone to have bine a long time a veri decreped and harmless Indian of the queens[xxx]”.

Easton would mention as did other historians that “they solde those Indians they had taken…for slaves”, the deputy governor wrote, “but one old man that was carried of our Iesland upon his suns back. he was so decrepid Could not go and when the army tooke them upone his back Caried him to the garrison, sum would have had him devoured by doges but the tendernes of sum of them prevailed to Cut ofe his head…”

Thomas R. Hazard in his memoir Recollections of Olden Times, repeats a story that Daniel E. Updike related of the day after the Great Swamp when the officers from the Connecticut regiments encamped at Smith’s Castle

“…took a fine-looking young Indian warrior, whom they had captured after the battle, into the orchard, and, out of ‘pure cussedness’ and for sport, placed his head on a tree stump and chopped it off with a wood axe[xxxi]”.

Daniel Berkely Updike in his biography of the Smith’s at Cocumscussoc, passes along the traditional story

“that an Indian having been caught as a spy by the English at Cocumscussuc was drawn and quartered near the house and his head cut off and the soldier’s played at bowls with it. The legend is given in a slightly different form by the late Rev. Daniel Goodwin who told me that the story goes that the Indian was impaled by the English something in the manner of crucifixion[xxxii]”.

This particular story sounds remarkably like the fate of the unfortunate Joshua Tefft. The young man’s family had settled in Pettaquamscutt, and established a farm there. Father and son had a falling out at some point, possibly due to rumors of his marriage to a half Wampanoag woman. When his Father died in 1674, Tefft was left with but a shilling, while his brother-in-law inherited the house and farm[xxxiii].

The English had noticed Tefft among the Narragansett at the Great Swamp Fight, and viewed him singularly as a renegade, also suspected of his marriage to a Wampanoag woman, and believed him to be serving as an advisor in the war. When he was captured with a band of Indians outside of Providence on January 14th, and was questioned in town by Captain Arthur Fenner and Roger Williams, who recorded Tefft’s testimony, and relayed it with his thoughts to Governor John

The young man told Fenner that he had been with the Narragansett less than a month, and was only with them “under duress”. According to his testimony, he toldthe men that a band of Narragansett led by Nananawtenu, more popularly known as Canonchet. The Indians killed five cattle before him and “told him he must die”.


“begd for his Life, and promised he would be servant to the Sachim while he lived. He Saith the Sachim then Caried him along with him having given him his Life as a Slave…”

He admitted being at the Fort, where his master was wounded, and having fled with him and others, “ passed through a plaine and rested by the side of a Spruce Swampe”. Tefft claimed that he stayed with the Sachim who lay wounded for nine days before he died, and that he himself “had no Arms at all”.

Tefft gave Williams and Fenner a great many details about the Great Swamp Fight, some certainly questionable. The young man claimed, for instance that the Mohegan and Narragansett had parleyed “… in the beginning of the Fight so that they promised to shoote high wch they did and kild not one Nahigonsick (Narragansett) man except angst their Wills”.

He told Williams that the Narragansett were about ten miles ” northwest of Mr Smith’s”, and that Ponham had as suspected, joined them from Cowesett, but contributed little powder to their already diminished stores. Tefft claimed that Philip had assured them powder from the French once New England money he had sent reached its destination.

He also claimed that the Narragansett were divided, with the young Sachem Nananawtenu (Canonchet) offering to go again to Smith’s Castle alone and negotiate peace, while Canonicus concurred, saying “tis a folly for me to fight any longer” He reported however, that their

“Chief Captaine…would not yield to the English as long as an Indian would stand with him. He Said he had fought with English and French and Dutch and Mowhauks and feared none of them, and said that if they yielded to the English they should be dead Men or slaves and so worck for the English. He saith that this Quaquackis bears chiefe sway and is a middling thick Set man of very stout fierce Countenance[xxxiv]”.

In fact, the Narragansett had been negotiating for peace in the aftermath of the battle for some weeks. Just four days after the Great Swamp Fight, envoys had been sent to Smith’s Castle, negotiating for two days before talks were broken off by Massachusetts authorities, convinced the parley was simply a ploy to give those surviving Narragansett time to flee further from the troops.

On January 7 another party of Indians arrived to negotiate with Winslow, spent the night, and returned to the Narragansett encampment the next day. When Pessacus sent a messenger on the12th to ask for a one –day delay in signing the treaty, The General ended all negotiations. A winter thaw had arrived, and he was impatient to pursue the enemy.

While Joshua Tefft’s story of being forcibly brought to the Great Swamp may be true, authorities saw him only as a renegade, “a sad wretch who never heard a sermon but once these past fourteen years”. He was taken from Providence and brought to Wickford on January 16, 1676. Two days later, after a brief military trial, he was hung, drawn, and quartered[xxxv].

More recently, Carl Woodward in his book concerning Smith’s Castle, “Plantation in Yankee Land” writes of a few “gruesome tales” which he admits are largely unverifiable, that concern the hanging of “a great sachem” from a hook above the fireplace, and the story of a “drunken colonial officer who boastfully drew his sword and turning on an Indian servant, sliced off his head which rolled into the corner of the dining room”[xxxvi].

New England historian Edward Lodi has repeated these tales, and others in his book “Ghosts from King Philip’s War”. In my extensive research, I have yet to find the origin of these legends. The “hanging” of a great Sachem seems likely to have been concocted with the later Smith’s Castle as modified by Daniel Updike, and its seven foot hearth in mind[xxxvii], and the loss of any “great sachem” in such a manner would likely have been documented in one of the many histories written about the war.

The beheading of an Indian servant in the house also seems suspect, given Richard’s Smith Junior’s meticulous accounting of his losses during the colonial troops encampment on his property. Was this an Indian then who belonged to Davenport ? though evidence shows, as we have seen, that reportedly all but one elderly man, was sent to Aquidneck”. For that matter we know nothing about the fate of the Indians on the Island after the Officer’s death. In all probability, they were again, sold into slavery.

What’s more, in the aftermath of the Swamp fight, the Connecticut soldiers stayed, according to Smith’s own account, but eight or ten days, with only two officers left to be in charge of the troops that remainedin Wickford.

Such legends often remain with a site so long as they are repeated, and the same is true of those at Smith’s Castle. You may find a pair of versions of these stories online, along with other tales of ghosts that presumably haunt the Castle. Woodward wrote that with “such horror and bloodshed on it’s threshold”, the house was doomed to be haunted.

By contrast with these tales of Native American ghosts, the only spirit noted within the oral history of the Narragansett at Smith’s Castle, is that of a colonial soldier, as told by the late tribal medicine woman, and ethno-historian Ella Sekatau

on her visit to the stone marker at Cocumscussoc:

“When I visited that place I had the vision of the face of an old man with white hair and a beard looking frightenening and staring at me with ice in his hair[xxxviii]

Whatever the truth about said atrocities, in the aftermath of Tefft’s execution, the Rhode Island General Assembly let it become known to the United Colonies that

“…the Council had become uncomfortable with the irregular punishment of the Indians and others by various Commissioned Officers…”

A later story included in the history of Cocumscussoc and its inhabitants by Daniel Berkely Updike, is the family account of Abigail Updike fending off what seems to have been a protest by a band of Narragansett people. Authorities had taken the sachems in for questioning as Indian uprisings in the north, more commonly known as King Williams War, had escalated by 1692 when Lodowick and Abigail Updike inherited the Castle.

The native Americans appeared one day in a threatening manner. In Updike’s prose:

“The whites had taken the Indian chiefs away with them to the north and their followers threatened the women who were left behind at Smith’s Castle. Mrs Updike addressed the savages and told them that all were in a like plight-their chiefs and hers-and that the danger and distress of whites and Indians was the same[xxxix]”.

Her words apparently pacified the Indians on that occasion but on another, she fired upon a hostile band through “loopholes in the solid shutters…until they were repulsed[xl]”.

It is certainly plausible that followers of the Ninigret family may have harassed the Castle’s inhabitants during these years in a form of protest for these and other events. Their lands were located off Post Road, but more likely, native Americans still plied the cove, and landed at that place as their ancestors had generations ago.

We know that Abigail was, at times doctor of sorts to her family, as well as the slaves the family owned, and some native Americans nearby. She “died at a great age” according to Updike, who mentions an antique mortar, pestle, and weights said to be used in her practice of early medicine[xli].

By 1700, the remaining Narragansett in South County were removed to a reservation in Charlestown, Rhode Island. The small parcel given to the tribe contained the Christianized “Indian Church” and burial ground, as well as the land that contained the Royal Burial Ground, and the sites of Crying Rock, and Coronation Rock. The lands of the Ninigret family had dwindled, and they took to living in an English style house.

There were no fences on the reservation, and the people would have kept the ritual of traveling to sites of memory alive then, just as it is today. No doubt, many Narragansett have visited Cocumscussoc, and tread on the grounds as their ancestors did long ago. They may have stories in their oral history that we have not heard before, or that we have forgotten.

Nearly forty years of co-existence and trading must have yielded a trove of irreplaceable stories, shared, daily experiences between English and Narragansett peoples which were never written on paper, but were likely spoken of for generations among Narragansett families, both native and new to the Bay.



[i] Narragansett Historical Register Vol. II pp. 28-29

[ii] Chapin, Howard “The Trading Post of Roger Williams” pp. 13-14

[iii] Ibid. p.14

[iv] See Rider, Sydney S. “The Lands of Rhode Island: As They Were Known to Caunonicus and Miantunnomu…” p. 130

[v] Williams, Roger “A Key Into the Language of America” from Complete Writings, Vol. 1 p. 179

[vi] Wood, William “New England’s Prospect…” Pt. 2 Chapter 3

[vii] Williams, “A Key…” p.

[viii] Josseylyn, John “Two Voyages to New England” p.142

[ix] Leach, Douglas “The Northern Colonial Frontier” pp 155-156

[x] Letter from Richard Smith Jr. to John Winthrop Jr. September 12, 1675

[xi] Easton, John “Relacion of the Indyan Warre” (1675) from Narratives of the Indian Wars p. 14

[xii] Letter from Richard Smith Jr. to John Winthrop Jr. August 5, 1675. Smith’s reference to Saquonch is likely a misspelling of Saccohan, the son of Miantonomo. Weetamoe would later marry Quanopen.

[xiii] Letter from Richard Smith Jr. to John Winthrop Jr. September 3, 1675. The Conanicos that Smith refers to was Pessecus, who adapted the name in his role as sachem.

[xiv] Lafantasie, ed. “The Correspondence of Roger Williams” Vol. 2 p. 707

[xv] Leach, Douglas “Flintlock and Tomahawk” p. 124

[xvi] This may well be construed as to the fact that a decade later, Peter Freeman, as he was now named, collected a reward promised for his service, and the Massachusetts General Court ordered that his daughter be found and freed from slavery. (Mass. Colonial Records Vol. V. p .477)

[xvii] Drake, Samuel G. “Old Indian Chronicles” p. 180

[xviii] Leach, Douglas “Flintlock and Tomahawk” p. 126

[xix] See Geake, Robert A. “A History of the Narragansett Tribe: Keepers of the Bay” p. 69

[xx] Hazard, Thomas R. “Recollection of Olden Times” p. 44

[xxi] Hubbard, William “The History of the Indian Wars in New England” Drake, ed. p. 142 n. 224

[xxii] See Porter, Colin “Uncomfortable Consequence: Colonial Collisions at the Jireh Bull house in Narragansett” RIH, 72, 1.

[xxiii] See Hough, Franklin B. ed. “A Narrative of the causes which led to Philip’s Indian War, of 1675, and 1676, By John Easton , of Rhode Island…” p. 181

[xxiv] Leach, Douglas “Flintlock and Tomahawk” p. 128

[xxv] Stone-Wall John receives credit also for the smaller design of the “Queen’s Fort” by most historians.

[xxvi] Dudley refers to Gen. Josiah Winslow and Major Benjamin Church.

[xxvii] Mather, Increase “A History of the War with the Indians in New England” p. 46

[xxviii] Salstonstall, Nathaniel “The Present State of New England” in Narratives of the Indian Wars p. 59

[xxix] Ibid. p. 79

[xxx] It is unclear whether the “old Indian” was once of Weetamoe’s band at Nipsachuk, but more likely found near the Queen’s Fort, and an adviser to Quaiapen, perhaps   even the unfortunate Potock.

[xxxi] Hazard, Thomas R. ”Recollections of Olden Days” p.44

[xxxii] Updike, Daniel Berkeley “Richard Smith First English Settler of the Narragansett Country, Rhode Island” p. 70

[xxxiii] Leach, Douglas “Flintlock and Tomahawk” p. 139

[xxxiv] Lafantasie, Glenn ed. “The Correspondence of Roger Williams” Vol. 2 p. 715

I have been unable to determine the identity of this sachem. Lafantasie does not procvide it, and the name, or any phonetic likeness is not to be found in Chapin’s geneology of the royal Narragansett of this period. The description of this “middling thick set man of a very stout fierce Countenance” most closely resembles that of Canonchet.

[xxxv] Ibid. p. 715

[xxxvi] Woodward, Carl R. “Plantation in Yankeeland” p. 43

[xxxvii] A telling sign of this comes from the words of Christine Kalina in her article on the Ghosts of Smith’s Castle when she writes “some members point to the large iron hook in a beam in the dining room as evidence today”. The house was greatly modified in the 1740’s by Daniel Updike.

[xxxviii] Simmons, William “Spirit of the New England Tribes” p. 149

[xxxix] Updike, Daniel Berekely “Richard Smith…” p. 70

[xl] Ibid. p. 70

[xli] Updike in fact, tells us that the items were in his possession, apparently for some time, before he donated them to the hospital.

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