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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Errant in the Wilderness





Readers of this history will likely be familiar with the famous 19th century painting by George Henry Boughton, which depicts a group of Pilgrims in a procession to the meeting house. The procession is led by two men with muskets, behind which are a cloaked minister and his wife, and three women and two children that follow. They are flanked by stern looking men with muskets who peer intently into the woods surrounding them.  Inspired by a popular American history of the period, the inference from the painting is usually that this band of Pilgrims was wary of the local native American population. Yet the likelier concern among these and other early settlers were the packs of wolves that roamed early NewEngland. . William Wood wrote that “The wolves be in some respect different from them in other countries. It was never known yet that a wolf ever set upon a man or woman. Neither do they trouble horses or cows…” but he made no bones about the menace of wolves upon the early farms in New England:

“…swine, goats, and red calves, which they take for deer, be often destroyed by them…In the time of autumn and in the beginning of spring, these ravenous rangers do most frequent our English habitations, following the deer which come down to those parts”.

Wood described the wolves as “much like a mongrel, being big boned, lank paunched, deep breasted, having a thick neck and head, prick ears, and long snout, with dangerous teeth, long-staring hair, and a great bush tail….Many good dogs have been spoiled by them. Once a fair greyhound, hearing them at their howlings, run out to chide them, who was torn in piece before he could be rescued.”


To the Pilgrims and Puritan settlers, wolves seemed to move like ghosts through the new wilderness, silent and menacing. Their howls at night were unearthly to those who had perhaps learned of European legends,  and as John T. Coleman suggests, the biblical metaphors of the wolf suddenly came to light with the constant need to protect livestock. Wolves were seen as  “skulking criminals” that knew no end of greed and theft.

Bounties to protect livestock were usually among the first edicts in the early colonies. William Bradford would write from Plymouth in October of 1624 that

“The countrie is annoyed with foxes and wolves”.  Initially, a bounty of two pence was established per wolf “for the incouragement of persons to seeke the destruction of those ravenous creatures”. The problem persisted however, so much so that the bounty was abolished by 1633, and changed to five bushels of corn, a more valuable commodity in the colony, for one or more wolves that were destroyed. The fledgling community of Boston was also beset by the predators, for John Winthrop would write that in 1631, the wolves did much harm to calves and swine between Charles River and Mistic”.  Two years later he would note: “The wolves continued to do much hurt among our cattle”.

By 1641, it became law for each town to bait and set traps for wolves, and to

“look daily after wolf traps, under penalty”. In 1651, the colony sought assistance from Native Americans, providing a coat in trade for every wolf pelt brought into Plymouth. Boston enacted a bounty for wolves in November 1639, as Providence had early on. Roger Williams called them  “fierce, bloodsucking persecuters”, and enjoined every townsman to rid the area of wolves.

There is mention of granting one Tho. Roberts “a share of meadow laid out to him in ye swamp” where he could lay his “woolfe trapp”, but  the town did not officially create a bounty until the January  meeting in 1659, when it was ordered that

“…whosoever shall from this tyme forward kill any woolves, that they shall have for each woolfe, a halfe penny a head for each head of catell, they who kill the Wolfe to gather it vpp;, provided they kill them within Providence Limetes”[i]

One recipient of this bounty was Benjamin Hernton (Herndon), a nefarious citizen of the town who often quarreled with neighbors and the court alike, but was apparently a valued hunter. We find that in the October meeting of 1667, it was orderd that he should “receve according to ye Towne order Concerning wolves a halfe penny per head for all and Every of the Chattle in this Towne”.[ii]

The bounties were of considerable profit to some, the early town records show that in January of 1680, Thomas Fenner “come to ye office desirein that cognizance might be taken, they had (then) lately killed two wolves (within our townshippe)”.

David Whipple and Edward Inman also sought bounties in February of 1681. The following month, John Haughkines (Hawkins?) sought the bounty for a wolf he had killed. In December of 1683, John Mathuson also brought the head of a wolf to the council meeting.

The domestic livestock duly imported to New England proved unwieldy to maintain in the landscape of New England.  Fences were in constant need of repair, most of the colonies made it law that townsmen maintain their fences, but stray cattle and swine were always getting into the woods.

In the early days of the common, a community meadow for citizens livestock, wolves were a constant threat. Roger Williams helped large cattle and sheep owners acquire the Islands of Narragansett Bay, from the Sachems Canonicus, and Miantinomo, but the poor farms of Providence were still under siege. Despite the efforts of digging traps, the bounties offered, and even, as historian Joseph Adler noted, experimenting  “with exotic technologies like mackerel hooks and ‘wolf bullets with adder’s tongues’, the wolves continued to menace the settlers livestock.

In the aftermath of the bloody Pequot war, Roger Williams suggested that those captive Native Americans be “Divided and dispersed” with “a tribute of wolves heads be imposed on them etc. wch (with Submission) I conceave an incomparable way to Save much Cattell alive in the land.”  Towns encouraged farmers to “purchase hounds and mastiffs and train them to hunt wolves.”

A generation later, those dogs who had become strays, or were adopted into Indian packs were becoming a problem as well. An order of 1661 from the town of Providence assigned Valentine Whitman and Thomas Clemence to “go unto the Indians dwelling at Pomecansett, and unto those Indians living neere this Towne, and warne them to Take some course with theire Dogges, to Keep them from ffalling upon the Inglish cattell or else the must Expect to have theire Dogges Killed”.[iii]

Wood concluded that “they be the greatest inconvenience the country hath”, and reported that “These be killed daily in some place or other, either by the English or Indian, who have a certain rate for every head. Yet there is little hope of their utter destruction, the country being so spacious and they so numerous, traveling in the swamps by kennels. Sometimes ten or twelve are of a company.”[iv]

Such was the lore of the wolf in New England, that they would be used metaphorically to incite the colonialist’s worst fears during Philip’s war. Increase Mather, in what would become a well-known jeremiad, would prey upon the fear of these “perilous times…when men can scarcely look out of doors, but they are in danger of being seized upon by ravening Wolves, who lye in wait to shed blood, when men go not forth into the field, not walk by the way side, but the Sword of the Enemy, and fear is on every side”[v].

A single incident in the winter of 1742 would establish a young man’s reputation in his community, and open the door for him to become one of the officers of the American militia gathered at Bunker Hill. During that winter, a gray she-wolf, long reputed to be the last in Pomfret, Connecticut, continually attacked sheepfolds in the community. By December, twenty-four year old farmer Israel Putnam had lost seventy sheep. The townspeople had made several attempts to track or trap the wolf, and had even killed her offspring, but the she-wolf eluded them, even chewing off part of one claw, to escape a trap that winter.

Known to roam the woods west of Putnam’s farm, the farmer and five other men kept a constant vigil. One night after a light fall of snow, the wolf attacked again. The men followed her tracks all night to the Connecticut River, and backtracking toward Pomfret by morning’s light. About three miles from Putnam’s farm, seventeen year old John Sharp who had followed the bloodhounds before the older men, discovered the wolf’s lair, which lay among the granite crags and boulders of a hillside. Once the wolf’s location became known, people flocked to the site with guns and torches, and materials for smoking the wolf out.

For hours, it was a costly effort. Hounds that were sent in crawled out badly mauled by the she- wolf, the straw and sulfur lit at the entrance to the den failed to force her from her lair. The men stayed well after darkness fell, but none were compelled to enter the den themselves, until Putnam made the decision to crawl in with a rope tied to his ankle, which at the signal of a kick, would engage the the others to pull him from the lair.

His first crawled in with strips of bark used as a lighted torch to ascertain where the wolf lay. Her growls caused the frightened townsmen to drag Putnam from the cave to the extent where his shirt was pulled over his head, and his body scratched by the rocks and ice at the entrance. He entered again with his rifle loaded with nine buckshot and crept further into the lair than before. Putnam’s later biographer would tell the tale of how

“Holding it in one hand and a torch in the other, he advanced farther than before into the den and found the wolf even fiercer, howling, rolling her eyes, snapping her teeth, and dropping her head between her legs. He fired at her just as she was evidently about to spring upon him. Being instantly pulled out, he refreshed himself and waited for the smoke to disappear out of the den. He then made a third venture.

When he approached the wolf this time he heard nothing from her and touching her nose with his torch, found that she was dead. He grasped her ears, kicked the rope and was drawn out, dragging his victim into the presence of the astonished and exultant people”.

The wolf was carried to a house a mile from the den and suspended from a wooden beam for display while the town held a “wolf jubilee” to celebrate Putnam’s accomplishment. The woods where the incident took place are preserved as “Wolf Den”park, where marked trails lead one to the lair and the brass plaque commemorating the event.

For most of the English who came to settle in North America, the weather was more extreme than they had endured in the old country towns. Even if you had lived upon the coast of southern England, the storms of New England were far fiercer in any season, lights and unexplained “wonders” often appeared in the sky, and the winters were especially harsh, with a bone-chilling cold.

On occasion, these events came to be so memorable as to be called “Remarkable Occurences” as Cotton Mather would name them in his Magnalia Christi Americana .

These events, whether they be earthquakes, floods, violent storms, droughts, and even unexplained phenomena were brought upon the people of New England by God himself, and to each their was a purpose, and a puzzle for Puritan ministers to sort out.

In January of 1644, John Winthrop would record a series of unexplained events around Boston:

“(January )18.] About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so to the south point, and there vanished away. They saw them about a quarter of an hour, being between the town and the governor’s garden…and a week after the like was seen again. A light like a moon arose about the N.E. point in Boston, and met the former at Nottles Island, and there they closed in one, and then parted, and closed and parted divers times, and so went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many. About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, boy, boy, come away, come away: and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times. It was heard by divers godly persons”[vi].

Perhaps the most astounding of these events that Winthrop recorded, occurred on June 28, 1648 when “There appeared over the harbor at New Haven, in the evening, the form of a keel of a ship with three masts, to which were suddenly added all the tacking and sails, and presently after, upon the top of the poop, a man standing with one hand akimbo under his left side, and in his right hand a sword stretched out toward the sea. Then from the side of the ship which was from the town arose a great smoke, which covered all the ship, and in that smoke she vanished away; but some saw her keel sink into the water. This was seen by many, men and women, and it continued for about a quarter of an hour”[vii].

Secular writers, though no less faith-minded, wrote of the weather and these more unsettling events in a simple, matter of fact way, as goldsmith and horse breeder John Hull of Boston would record in 1662:

“The former part of this summer was a very great drought, insomuch that the grass and corn was so scorched, there was little likelihood of any harvest, and so as God seemed to shut out their prayers: but at last, elders being met, in a synodical way, to consult of matters ecclesiastical, they kept one day in fasting and prayer; and the Lord gave a speedy answer, and a full supply of rain and a pretty comfortable harvest.”[viii]

In July of 1665, he recorded another event of biblical proportions:

This summer multitudes of flying caterpillars arose out of the ground and from roots of corn, making such a noise that travelers must speak loud to hear one another; yet they only seized upon the trees in the wilderness…wheat generally blasted, and the blast this year took hold of Connecticut and New Haven; yet the Indian barley, pease, and rye were spared.”

The following month brought “a great hail storm; viz, at Linn, Wooburn, and Billirica. Some hail as big as duck’s eggs, many as pullets’ eggs, divers of them snagged like pike-bullets.”

By January of 1666, “the frosts were violent”, and “Charles River was passed on foot, and only the channel open before Boston”. There was a brief thaw, but again in early February, the river was “all frozen again down to the castle”[ix].

In October of 1672, Hull would record the event of “A very great easterly storm, and being about the full moon, brought in so great a tide as hath not been seen these thirty-six years; filled most of the cellars near the waterside; flowed more or less into many warehouses; greatly damnified many merchants in their goods and in their wharves; and one vessel cast away in Ipswidege Bay, going to Black Point, and seven persons drowned nearby”.

The diarist also recorded a number of remarkable occurrences that occurred during his lifetime. During the winter of 1662-1663, Hull wrote that there were

“several falls of deep snow” between November and February, and then on February 26th,   “in the evening, about six o’clock, there was an earthquake, that shook much for near one quarter of an hour”.

The following winter, “A comet with a blaze appeared about 8th of November and did not wholly disappear till about February”. That winter also saw the appearance of “a blazing star” in the last days of November.  Hull records that “most of the 11th & 12th mo. was very temperate; little frost, only not much clear sunshine. On the 19th of February, the winter did, as it were, begin again. A cold spring; no tree budded until the 1st of May”.

Weather would continue to remain a mysterious provenance in the lives of New Englanders for generations to come, and be tethered to biblical interpretations for nearly as long. Particularly alluring to these early diarists were the occasions of a lightening strike, a particular wonder as this was clearly a direct “bolt from heaven”.

In June of 1642, John Winthrop would record that “…in a great tempest of thunder and lightening, in the evening, the lightening struck the upper sail of the windmill in Boston by the ferry[x], and shattered it in many pieces…the miller being under the mill, upon the ground, chopping a piece of board, was struck dead, but company coming in, found him to breathe, so they carried him to an house, and within an hour or two he began to stir, and strove with such force, as six men could scarcely hold him down. The next day he came to his senses, but knew nothing of what had befallen him, but found himself very sore on divers parts of his body. His hair on one side of his head and beard was singed, one of his shoes torn off his foot, but his foot not hurt”.

John Hull would later record a few of these occurrences as well:

“March 23, 1667

Samuel Rugles of Roxbury, going up the meeting hill, was struck by lightening, – his two oxen and horse killed, a chest in the cart, with goods in it, burst in sundry places; himself coming off the cart, carried twenty feet from it, yet no abiding hurt”.

In 1671, he recorded a similar event that seemed to have biblical connotations, though it is clear he heard the story second-hand:

“June 5th…A man in Ipswich repeating a sermon, and because it was darkish, stood at a door or window as a flash of lightening stunned him; but no hurt. His bible being under his arm, the whole book of Revelation was carried away, and the other parts of the bible left untouched”.

What we know today as the “aurora borealis” was an unknown wonder to the settlers in New England. Commonly known as the Northern Lights, they long took on meaning as a sign from the heavens. On the evening of December 17, 1719, the appearance of the aurora borealis in Boston created a panic in the city, many seeing the lights as portending the end of the world. Nearly a decade later, minister John Comer of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote of an October night in 1728 when

“came on the most terrifying awful and amazing Northern light as ever was beheld in New England as I can learn. There was at the bottom of the horizon a very great brightness and over it an amazing red bow extending from North to East like a dreadful fire and many fiery spears, and the East was wonderfully lighted and some part of the appearance continued many hours and people were extremely terrified. Words can’t express ye awfulness of it. What God is about (to do) is only known to himself.”[xi]

For the majority of communities in early America, however, disease was always the deadliest of predators among them. Unfortunately for many settlers, 17th century medicine had not much progressed beyond the treatments prescribed by medieval doctors. As they would into the early part of the next century, scientist and doctors believed most fever and agues were due to miasmas, or noxious vapors that came from the moldering decay in swamps and stagnant water, the gasses from unburied garbage, and by the close of the century, the fumes from the dead on the battlefields

and woods affected by the Indian Wars.

The Pilgrims arrived with a boatload of sick travelers, mostly struck with scurvy for lack of much but a diet of salted meats and crackers. Those hundred or so that went ashore in December 1620, faced a difficult first winter. Governor William Bradford would write in his “ Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647”, that

“In these hard and difficult beginnings they found some discontents and murmurings arose against some, and mutinous speeches and carriages in others; but they were quelled  and overcome by the wisdome, patience, and just and equal carriage of things by the Governor and better part, which clave faithfully in the maine. But that which was most sadd and unfortunate was, that in 2 or 3 months time halfe of their company dyed, espetialy in Jan: and February, being the dead of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvie and other diseases, which this long voyage and their incomusate condition had brought upon them, so as ther dyed some times 2 or 3 a day, in the aforesaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained”[xii].

In January of 1621, the central house they had built on the settlement “by casualty caught fire”, and a number of settlers returned to the ship.  By then, Bradford writes,

“the sickness begane to fall sore amongst them, and the weather so bad as they could not make much sooner any dispatch. Againe, the Governor, and cheefe of them, seeing so many dye, and fall downe sick dayly, thought it no wisdom to send away the ship, their condition considered, and the danger they stood in from the Indians, till they could procure some shelter…The master and seamen likewise, though before they hasted the passengers a shore to be gone, now many of their men being dead…and of the rest many lay sick and weake, the master durst not put to sea, till he saw his men begine to recover, and the hart of winter over.”[xiii]

As it turned out, the feared danger from the Indians was tampered by the meeting of Tisquantum and subsequently with the Wampanoag who signed a pact of peace with the Pilgrims, and almost at once began efforts to aid them in survival, showing them how to plant corn and beans as they did, and to build weirs to catch fish for both eating, and fertilizing their crops. All methods, which the Pilgrims “found true by triall and experience”.

Still, the community was to suffer another blow in April when Governor John Carver “came out of the field very sick, it being a hott day; he complained of his head and lay downe, and within a few howers his sences failed, so as he never spake more till he dyed, which was within a few days after”. His wife would die but a few weeks later.

Turning again, to the diary of John Hull of Boston, his entries show that through the more than twenty years of events recorded, between 1657 and 1677, the colony suffered waves of illness nearly as constant as the seasons. During the summer of 1657, the goldsmith and elected selectman records that

“My boy, John Sanderson, complained of his head aching, and took his bed. A strong fever set on him; and, after seventeen days’ sore sickness, he departed this life…

My cousin Daniel Quincy was also cast upon his sick-bed, within a week after the other, and had also the fever, and was brought very low, but, through God’s favor, well recovered by the 17th of 8th(mid-August). My wife was ill when these first began to be sick; but it pleased God, as they sickened she strengthened; and he kept her, and my little daughter Hannah, that then sucked upon her, from any spice of the fever…”

By mid-August, Hull felt ill himself, but recovered. A month later his maid was

“taken sick with a strong fever; but the Lord was pleased to restore her to health in three or four days.”[xiv]

In late 1660, another sickness swept the town and Hull wrote, with no doubt relief, that “Our family was all partakers of the epidemical cold, but, through favor, very gently. Little Hannah lay two days without any mind to play or food. My wife continued four or five days with a great pain in her head and eyes; and most of us one or two days, exercised with pain either in the head, eyes, or throat.”

Four years later, Hull would note in a January entry that “about this time began an epidemical cold, and scarcely missed a touch of any; and many people were laid low by it, a fever setting in with it upon many…but it pleased the Lord that few died”.

Hull’s father would die in July of 1666 “being two days before taken with a flux, and then with violent cramp in his legs and burning at his heart”. The following fall season and winter would bring the greatest fear to the community:

“Dec. 10th, 11th  Sam. Paddy fell sick of the small-pox. He went to his mother’s house; but there I provided for him…. Joseph Green had a very few…Jer. Drummer fell ill of the same disease…Deborah Bell had a few, and, about a month after, had them pretty full”. Most recovered within a few weeks, but then January 1st, Hull would write anxiously

“my wife taken ill of the small-pox, having had about twelve day’s trouble with a hot humor in her neck and shoulders; and together with the pox which came, she had much trouble in her head by vapors from matrix and spleen, much impeding sleep, oftentimes fainting of spirits, beating of the heart”.

His son and daughter were also taken ill, but all “through the mercy of God”, recovered much to his relief: “The Lord enlarge my heart, and all mine, with praise to his great name” Hull wrote when the ordeal was over.

Small-pox during the colonial period was the “most dreaded of the scourges that afflict mankind”[xv]. Historically, smallpox killed over twenty-five percent of those infected during an outbreak, often devastating whole communities; though there were other troubling illnesses as well, such as measles, chicken-pox,  diptheria, cholera, and yellow fever that could grow to epidemic proportions.[xvi] In late 1672,

Hull would record that

“This summer, very many in most parts of the country, from east to west, from south to north, were taken with agues, and it proved mortal to many…And at the later end of the year, about October, some was thought to have spotted fever in Ipswige, Wenham, and Salem…Sundry persons died in September and October of voiding much blood and some worms, persons of grown age and young men…”

Five years later, the small-pox would return, beginning in December with the death of Mr. Thomas Shepherd, the Minister of Charlestown, and continuing through the spring:

“June 6. A public fast in this Colony. The small-pox since they first began, had seized upon about_[   ] persons; and about forty persons were dead of that disease. In Charltown, about so many also died since it began there, being in 5th month, ’77 to this time. About two hundred persons had had the disease there…

June 22. Mr. Edmund Brown, pastor of the church at Sudbury, died.

Sept. 22. To this time, there were about eighty persons of Charltown that died of the small-pox, and about seven hundred that have had the disease.

Oct. 3. To this time, there was about one hundred and eighty persons had died in Boston of the small-pox, in a little above a year’s space since the disease began.”

Hull records that the disease continued through the fall, taking among many others, Samuel Symonds, the deputy governor, the senior pastor of the third church in Boston, as well as three ministers of the nearby communities of Wethersfield and Hingham. In Woburn in late December, “One David Wyman,…taken with the small-pox, was distracted, and ran out of his bed barefoot, in his shirt, five miles to a friends house. There was put into bed, but after died.”

Another epidemic illness swept the colony in 1685, when

“The Court having taken into their serious consideration, that in respect of afflictive Sicknesses in many Places, and some Threatening of Scarcity as to the necessary food, and upon other Accounts also, we are under solemn Frowns of the Divine Providence…Do therefore appoint the Sixteenth of July next, to be set apart as a Day of publick Humiliation by Fasting and Prayer throughout this Colony…And do hereby prohibit the Inhabitants of this Jurisdiction all servile Labour upon the said Day.”

As was common in times of any crisis, the Puritans turned to fasting and prayer seeking forgiveness and divine intervention in healing these sicknesses that many ministers intoned as a punishment from God for their sin. This incantation would survive in America well after European nations began experimenting with cow-pox Inoculations. The practice in the west caused a great stir among the licensed medical practitioners as well, and for decades, medical doctors opposed to the new methods, and ministers who clung to Puritan doctrine would share a strange, but steadfast alliance that would allow waves of illness to continue to sweep the New England communities for generations.

Another small pox epidemic hit the colony in 1689-1690, and then twelve years later,in 1702,  a siege struck Boston again.

The disease was then absent for nineteen years, but would come back with a vengeance. Sixteen year old seminary student John Comer would write of the epidemic:

“April 1721 The latter end of this month the small pox was brought into Boston, which was exceeding surprising to me. The first man who brought it in died…the distemper prevailing in town, some of ye youth of my acquaintance were taken away by death.”


While many older Bostonians had been exposed to the disease during the earlier epidemics, and were thus immune from infection, the smallpox ravaged the very young who had grown in the now prosperous city. As historians Stanley Aronson and Lucille Newman explain,

“those younger than nineteen years had never encountered smallpox; and as each smallpox-free day passed, some of the older people with immunity died of unrelated causes while newborns were continually added to the local population of susceptibles. Thus, as the interval between smallpox epidemics lengthened, the fraction of the population with immunity to smallpox diminished, the number of susceptibles increased, and the likelihood of a major epidemic heightened. “

The disease had been brought into town in April by the British ship Seahorse, when a number of her crewmen became afflicted while the ship lay in port. Despite frantic efforts to quarantine those infected, by May the citizens of Boston were becoming ill, and minister Cotton Mather would note that “The grievous calamity of the small pox has now entered the town.” It was during this outbreak that Cotton Mather would make a significant shift from the long intoned Puritan remedies of prayer and attending of the patient by a bedside cleric.

This long time practice of minster as “physician” had occurred, especially in rural areas, for the simple reason that the clergy installed in the community was often the most learned among the them. Such authority was not lost on many of the city-bred and educated ministers. When Cotton Mather intoned his support for the efforts of inoculation, the clergy beyond the reach and influence of his pulpit refused to be persuaded, and continued to admonished the practice in their sermons and competing pamphlets as the outbreak progressed. But the clergy were not the only authority to resist the efforts to inoculate citizens. Many of the physicians of the time railed against the practice as well, despite the promising experiments in Europe and in Turkey as well.

One brave Boston physician named Zabdiel Boylston administered the vaccine to his own six year old son, as well as his “negro man Jack” and a young African-American boy just two and a half years old. Nearby residents who knew the doctor soon came for vaccines as well. Such was the outcry over the practice in much of the city that Boylston was nearly lynched, but of the nearly two hundred and fifty people the doctor inoculated, only six died; compared to the 800 that refused vaccination and perished.

The stubbornness of the medical authorities, as well as the rooted clergymen and their influence on parishoners practices,  would cause years of needless suffering and death in many New England communities.

This position of the clergy also meant that legions of young ministers were dispatched into New England towns and villages with the same indoctrination. No matter how learned they might personally become, the  church long held them to this time worn doctrine of prayer and visitation, rather than inoculation, and often upheld the clergy in a supervisory role to the town doctor.

This must have been a singular struggle for young clergy, being brought into an age with a heightened awareness of science and the growing progress of medicine in European schools. Even in a well-toned community, young minister John Green would find that administering to the sick would be a  almost daily part of his duties as minister to Salem village.

In January 2, 1702, the twenty-six year old minister would write:

”Old William Buckly dyed this evening. He was at ye meeting last Sabbath and died with ye cold ( I fear ) for want of comfort and good tending. Lord forgive. He was about 80 years old  I visited him and prayed with him on Monday and also ye evening before he dyed. He was very poor, but I hope had not his portion in this life”[xvii].

In May of that year, he himself felt “very faint and ill and preached with difficulty” at Sabbath. In mid-August, he noted that it was a “sickly time”, and visited a Mr. Andrews a few days later who was “very ill”.   At the beginning of December we find

“Dec. 3. Cold. Mr. Andrews dyed in ye night  of ye small pox”.

Green’s diary is often sparsely worded, with many entries a single sentence, or abbreviated notations. Some entries are spaced weeks or even months apart, though most hold a few notations for each month of the year.   

Minister John Comer’s diary reveals that tending to the sick through visits and prayer were an equal challenge to his young ministry in Swansea, Massachusetts, and then Newport, Rhode Island. Having survived a bout with smallpox as a young student, he felt “obliged to serve God in a more eminent manner yn heretofore, and looking on myself as having ye vows of God lying on me to serve him in ye ways of his Holy Institutions and more especially in ye commemoration of his dying love at his table.”

After a short time in Swansea, Comer married a Newport woman and in February of 1726, accepted a ministry at the First Church in the town.  On December 21st the twenty-one year old minister would write “This year has been a year of great exercise to me. I have been as it were in a furnace of affliction. The difficulty in my flock has been heart wounding, and almost sometimes confounding, but I see God’s grace is sufficient for me.”

The young minister was awakened to the hardships of New England life, for during that year alone,  of his community, “there were 6 lost, there were 6 drowned, accidentally as some term it, one kill’d with thunder, one kill’d in a well, one found dead with his neck broke.”

Comer conducted “missionary work” in outlying towns such as Sutton, Leicestor, Middleborough, and other places.[xviii] He also visited and preached to prisoners in Bristol as he continued to work in Newport, administering to his aging parishoners there, conducting funerals, and visiting the sick, a task which often taxed him physically as well as spiritually. One entry from 1729 reads:

“This day I being sent for to ye almshouse by Mrs. Steadman being ye sick; went and prayed with her. She seemed in great terror about her soul. She expressed great fear of death. O, said she with great anguish, I am afraid to die, I am afraid. O may I have my work well done”.

Comer saw outbreaks of fever and agues throughout his years of ministry, as well as the small pox which continued its deadly visitations. In May of 1729, the minister recorded “This day the town was mightily alarmed by ye death of a stranger at ye house of Mays Nichols, tavern keeper…it appeared to those yt inspected the body to be ye small of wh he died. By order of authority he was with utmost dispatched buried…”

Nichols wife, and a Narragansett servant were dispatched to a quarantined hospital on Goat Island. The tavern keeper’s wife recovered, the Indian girl died. The outbreak placed Comer in a melancholy mood, recording epitaphs from the graves in the common burial ground, and “a most unaccountable piece of wickedness” that came in news from Block Island, of

“A negro man belonging to Capt. Simon Ray of Block Island being in Newport, in ye heart of ye town, a man being an utter stranger to ye sd negro gave him a letter and charged him to give it to his master himself, which accordingly he did; and upon his opening it it was a blank, with sundry scabs (as is supposed,) taken from some person sick of ye small pox. In surprise he threw it on ye floor immediarely, and ye maid of ye house took it up and burnt it. O wt wickedness is lodged in ye heart of man…”[xix]

The minister continued in Newport until 1731, recording dutifully those he visited that were sick and dying, the funerals he conducted, and the visits with grieving families.  John Comer would remove to Rehobeth that year, having contracted consumption, and died less than three years later.

Outbreaks of smallpox would recur in Boston in 1751, 1764, and 1775, though through these years the idea of inoculation was slowly taking hold. One of the first scientifically minded and influential American’s lent his voice to the debate in 1759 in a written introduction to “Some Account of the Success of Inoculation for the Small-Pox in England and America”. Benjamin Franklin had long regretted his decision to not inoculate his son in 1736 and lost him. Such was the shadow that fell over his life after his boy’s death that  he promoted the treatment vigorously.

Other medical perils came with the vigorous expansion of the China trade and the pursuit of the whale in the Pacific Ocean in the late 18th century, home ports of New England were suddenly exposed to new diseases, of which there were scarcely a clue for a cure.

Yellow Fever made its appearance in New England during the late summer of 1797.  In Providence, Rhode Island in mid-August of that year, the schooner Betsy anchored on the south side of India Pont, and lingered for two weeks. She had come from St. Nicholas Mole in the Island of Haiti, and two men had died with fever during the passage, but the Captain kept that from authorities. As the Betsy had come upriver, she had taken on Nicholas Windsor of Seekonk, who was on his way to the Providence market with bushels of vegetables.  On his return home, Nicholas fell ill and died of a “billous fever” within the week. The crew of the vessel had sent laundry and bedding to be washed at the “long House” at the corner of Wickenden and South Main Streets.

Within days, numerous people had fallen ill. By the end of the outbreak, thirty-six people would die. Another sixteen mortalities occurred in Bristol, Rhode Island, with an outbreak the same year.[xx]

Providence would see recurring outbreaks in 1803, 1805, and again in 1820.

Though these physical ailments would come to prove a common factor in everyday colonial life, the more uncommon occurrence of mental illness, rattled the nerves of clergy and common citizens alike. Most cases were individuals whose desperation was borne from hardship-whether poverty or loss of a loved one, though if one had the misfortune to be a widow in early New England, the two often went hand in hand. Such was the case of Margaret Goodwin of Providence, who in March of 1651, was found  “in distraction” after the death of her husband Adam. Six men of the towne were appointed to “take care…of Goodwin’s wife during her time

of distraction”.  Her possessions were sold to settle her debts, and the remaining

goods were given to the towne in exchange for her care. Such care seemed to be minimal at best, save for her being allowed to remain in her husband’s house, as she

was found dead in their home, seven years later on March 4, 1657. A “jury” of twelve

men were sent to investigate the death and reported to the towne assembly that

“So neare as we can judge, that either the terribleness of the crack of Thunder on the second or third of the month, or the coldness of the night, being she was naked, did kill her”. [xxi]

The long, cold winters that settlers in New England endured often meant death for those most frail, either from disease as we have seen, or from the effects upon a mentally ill person of the bleakness and desolation during those months of snow and ice, with little sun beneath an almost constant mackerel sky.

Incidents of suicide appear periodically in the journals of early New Englanders, as in John Hull’s diary when he writes in solemn perplexity:

“One Elizabeth Bishop, who had lived, according to visible appearance, both maid, wife, and three times a widow, under many no small trials and now about fifty years of age, in good and very commendable repute for Christianity as well as family and neighborly civility, yet cast herself this morning, as soon as up, into a well; was drowned: all her profession issued in such a snuff…”

Samuel Sewall would record these incidents as well, as with his entry of April 4, 1688:

“At night Sam Marion’s wife hanged herself in the chamber, fastening a cord to the rafter-joice. Two or three swear she was distracted, and had been for some time, and so she was buried in the burying place.”[xxii]

Minister John Comer would also diligently record these unfortunate events, such as a pair of entries during that difficult first year he served in Newport, Rhode Island reveal:

“Septemr (1726)     About ye middle of this month one Hannah Suderick, a disconsolate young woman, as is supposed, drowned herself about 11 of ye o’clock at night. …And in ye afternoon of ye next day one Catherine Cook attempted ye like action, but was discovered after she had fallen down in ye water; but upon examination before Edward Thirston (Thurston), Assistant, and Job Lawton, Justice of ye Peace, she seemed to be under ye power of Satan in a very awful manner.”[xxiii]

In January of 1728, he would record that

“This night Mary Dye went and drowned herself as the Jewry (Jury) gave it; but most concluded she was murthered by her husband. One of her arms was broke and on yt arm appeared 10 black and blue stripes. She was not found until (incomplete)…If she drowned herself, her husband’s ill carriage was the cause.”

Of course it was not only distracted or “disconsolate” woman who committed suicide, men also took their lives, though more often to escape punishment for wrongs they had done, though some too fell into despair for unknown reasons

Samuel Sewall’s diary records an incident in February of 1723:

“Saturday, February the First…John Valentine Esq. went out in the morning to speak with Mr. Auchmuty but found him not at home. He staid so long before he returned home that his family grew uneasy, and sent to many places in the town to enquire after him. At last they searched his own house from chamber to chamber and closet to Closet. At last Mr. Bowdoin look’d into the cockloft in the north end of the house, that has no light but from the stairs; and there, by his Candlelight, saw him hanging…”[xxiv]

The aforementioned minister Comer, then ailing, but still serving as pastor of a newly founded Baptist church, recorded on March 27th 1732 that “This day in the town of Rehoboth, one Joshua Abel cut his own throat with a razor about sunrise. He had been ill in body for some time”[xxv].

Whatever the causes that lay at the heart of these self-inflicted deaths, their effect was carried in part by the fears and desperation many felt in the dark period after King Philips war. Conflicts in the northern territories continued well after the last battle in Southern New England. Many of the young women that showed signs of trauma and “possession” to the Salem authorities in 1692, were survivors of Indian raids on the small wilderness towns in the areas we now call Vermont and Maine.

Local violence was increasing as well, as indicated in our previous chapter. How the colonial authorities dealt with this increase of lawlessness and its causes, would weave it’s own blood-dark thread through the fabric of the New England tapestry.

[i] “Early Records of the Town of Providence” Vol. 1 p. 122

[ii] Ibid. Vol. 3 p. 110

[iii] Ibid. Vol. 3  p. 7

[iv] Wood, William “”New England’s Prospect” pp 45-46

[v] Mather, Increase  ”Exhortation”  p. 179

[vi] Winthrop, John “Winthrop’s Journal History of New England” Vol. 2  p. 156

[vii] Ibid. Vol. 2,  p. 346

[viii] Hull, John “Diary of…” p.206

[ix] Ibid. p. 220

[x] According to Hosmer’s footnote, the mill was located on Copp’s Hill, opposite Charlestown.

[xi] Comer, John “John Comer’s Diary” p. 112

[xii] Bradford, William “Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1642” p. 192

[xiii] Ibid. p. 215

[xiv] “Memoir and Diary of John Hull” p. 148

[xv] Footnote from John Combers Diary p. 20

[xvi] See “Revolutionary Medicine”

[xvii] Diary of Rev. Joseph Green, of Salem Village. p. 220-221

[xviii] See James W. Willmarth’s introduction to John Comer’s diary.

[xix] “The Diary of John Comer” pp. 106-107

[xx] “History of Yellow Fever in Providence” The Providence Journal, September 23, 1878

[xxi] Early Records of the Town of Providence Vol. 2 pp. 56, 104.

[xxii] The Diary of Samuel Sewall p. 53

[xxiii] Diary of John Comer, p. 42

[xxiv] Diary of Samuel Sewall p. 177

[xxv] Diary of John Comer p. 121

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An Unsettled Land

Chapter 1. An Unsettled Land

New England was a haunted land before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1600’s. Native American trading relations with the Norse along the Charles and Taunton Rivers, as well as Mount Hope Bay, and Narragansett Bay had occurred as far back as the 14th century. Trading with the Dutch, French, and the English had occurred for nearly a century before those religious refuges from England rowed ashore. Some early traders had stayed and integrated themselves, even married into some of the Algonquian tribes that lived along the New England coastlines and inland along the rivers.

remnants of a nordic fort along the Charles River near Waltham, Massachusetts

remnants of a nordic fort along the Charles River near Waltham, Massachusetts

By the time of the pilgrims arrival in 1620, many tribes were already acquainted with household wares, the pots and pans, and utensils brought by European traders along with tools, even clothing; exchanged for wampum (for better exchange with other tribes up north), pottery, and clay pipes of easy manufacture by Narragansett, Massachusett and Wampanoag craftswomen. These tribes adopted these goods into their culture for both practical and spiritual purposes.

An early western depiction of Algonquian people in the 17th century.

An early western depiction of Algonquian people in the 17th century.

On a coasting journey in the dead of winter, a band of pilgrims hoping to trade for provisions from whatever Indians they found, walked inland some distance and circled back again, to come upon

“a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any we had yet seen. It was also covered with boards, so we mused what it should be, and resolved to dig it up…”

The men, in their slow dismantling of the grave found between the mats placed above the body, “…bowls, trays, dishes, and such like trinkets”. [i]

Roger Williams would write of the Narragansett ritual of  Nickommo, a great feast and dance where

“they give I say a great quantity of money, and all sort of their goods…to one person: and that person that receives this Gift, upon the receiving of it goes out, and hollowes thrice for the health and prosperity of the Party that gave it…”[ii]

Edward Winslow, 1621 courtesy of Wickimedia

Edward Winslow, 1621
courtesy of Wickimedia

     Edward Winslow would write in astonishment of the ceremony he witnessed, where a great fire was lit, and those in the gathering, including visitors from neighboring tribes would come forward and throw pots, bowls, dishes, and silverware into the cauldron. During the early attacks on white settlements in Maine and Vermont during King George’s war, almost all of the English goods that filled the house were left behind for archeologists to unearth three hundred and some years later.

What Europeans brought most to the native Americans on New England’s shores were diseases unfathomable to the native healers. Narragansett oral historians speak of a great plague among their people in the late 16th century. The first recorded incident of what 17th century historians have called a plague, occurred between 1616-1619. Elderly survivors described the symptom of yellowed skin and the remaining scars, to the Reverend Daniel Gookin. While the cause of the plague has long been debated, there is no doubt as to the toll it took upon the native American population. As historian Karen Bragdon would write

“This terrible epidemic reduced populations among the Ninnimissinuok of the northern and central Massachusetts Bay by as much as 90 percent”[iii].

Indeed, when the pilgrims came to realize the full measure of the Wampanoag, they were astonished that there were but sixty men under Massasoit’s command.

William Bradford would write of the “sad spectacle” of bones left above ground and unburied. The pilgrims found in their coasting journeys, abandoned fields and villages along the Massachusetts shore. Edward Winslow pondered the empty fields and thought of  the “thousands of men… which  died in a great plague not long since, and pity it was, and is, to see so many goodly fields, and so well seated, without men to dress and manure the same”.

Roger Conant would write some years later, as he reached Cape Ann, that “Though all the countrey bee as it were a thicke wood for the generall, yet in divers places there is much ground cleared by the Indians…I am told that about three miles from us a man may stand on a little hilly place and see divers thousands of acres of ground as good as need to be, and not a Tree in the same”[iv].

What native Americans the pilgrims did meet were remnants of once thriving communities, or transitional native Americans like Squanto who vacillated  between the remnants of his own tribe on the Weir river, and the larger Pokanoket(Wampanoag) tribe.

Conant would write of his native American neighbors in 1628:

“Upon the River of Mistick is seated sagamore John, and upon the River Saugus sagamore James…The elder brother, John, is a handsome young man…conversant with us, affecting English apparel and houses, and speaking well of our God. His brother James is of a far worse disposition, yet repaireth often to us. Both these brothers command not above thirty to forty men”.

By a decade later, the sachem Chickataubot, living near what became Quincy, Massachusetts, was said to have only fifty to sixty subjects, and the great empire of Nanepashmet which extended from Chelsea to Marblehead was now controlled by his sons, Wonouaham and Montowomsate, who between them “commanded not above thirty or forty men”. In 1633-1634 small pox ravaged the tribes along the Rhode Island, and Connecticut coastlines; as well as inland, along the riverside communities.

Samuel Drake would write that illness began that year, among Native Americans in Plymouth:

“During the autumn of this year the small pox destroyed great numbers of the Indians…about Pascataqua River nearly all perish… About Plymouth too, many are carried off by a malignant distemper; with which about twenty of the pilgrims die also…In January of 1634 it was reported that the small pox had swept over the Narragansett country, destroying in its course seven hundred of that nation, and that it was extending among the westward of them”.

Indeed, some native communities along the lower and middle Connecticut River were wiped out entirely. It was a plague that the sachem Canonicus never forgot.

Years later, in rebuking the overtures of John Winthrop, he would complain to Roger Williams that the English had brought the disease to his people, and that the Narragansett had mistrusted the English from the beginning. This mistrust began to grow among neighboring tribes, a fact not lost on Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, who, to frighten Massasoit and his leaders, told them that the English at Plymouth harbored a great plague that they could unleash with a volley of their cannon upon the Natives.

The suspicion that white settlers were capable of poisoning the native populations  did not deter trade, but neither was it ever discounted, and was ultimately at the heart of events which led to the outbreak of King Philip’s War.

Little wonder then, that by the late 17th century, the white man was to take the form of Hobbomock in Algonquian culture, and in dreams, was almost always a harbinger of death.

But disease was not all that came with the Europeans. The vices of greed, and the consumption of alcohol, while certainly not unknown to the native Americans, reached a new level once settlements sprang up along the coast. As early as 1626, Conant had recorded the incident of a Native American found frozen to death on Cape Ann, “reared up against a tree and his bottle….at his head”.  Often, to the native leaders alarm, the two were bound together. The resultant mix of drunkenness and violence presented before colonial courts is succinctly summarized by Samuel Drake and bears reprinting here:

Although from 1623-1675 there was no general War with the Indians in New England, yet there were often and frequent Disturbances…There were also frequent Quarrels and Murders among the Indians themselves, with which the white People had Nothing to do; though after such Occurrences, they sometimes espoused the Cause of the Party they considered injured, and used their Endeavors to bring the Offender to Punishment. So when any Wrong was done to an Indian by any of the Settlers, Justice was speedily extended to the injured Party. Of course Cases would often arise wherein, from conflicting Evidence, the Ends of Justice were frustrated. This was oftenest the Case when the English interfered with the Indians’ private Quarrels, or Quarrels among themselves”[v].

Native Americans scarcely understood the English protocols of law. While they often presented their arguments in an elegant and persuasive manner, they resented the delays and  further inquiries by the court.

“Hence the Party suffering by it often determined on taking the first Opportunity to be revenged; or as it used to be said, ‘to right themselves’. In this way Feuds and Jelousies were perpetuated”.

In numerous cases, both native and new Americans took the law into their own hands. There were attacks on white settlers in Massachusetts, as well as fighting brought to Ipswich by hostile Tarratine warriors. These were the Abenaki, whose lands stretched into the territory now known as Maine. Long hated among the Algonquian tribes, the Abenaki were not an agricultural or manufacturing people. Almost all they owned came from plunder, as they raided storehouses along the coast of Massachusetts, and randomly attacked villages in the course of their travels.

In the fall of 1631, trader Walter Bagnal was murdered at his trading post on the Saco river. As Bagnal was known to overcharge the natives for goods, and had engaged in many an argument in trade, it was believed that had been his undoing.

In the winter of 1631-1632, these warriors came upon Henry Way’s boat in the waters off Dorchester. Way, three friends, and his son were all murdered, and the boat sunk with stones to “hide the Evidence of their Barbarity”. According to Drake, in the aftermath of the hunt for these Indians and subsequent hanging , of at least some of the perpetrators; soldiers were sent to Ipswich, and from shore the next spring, watched as “twenty canoes full of them” paddled past Ipswich, though “they did not dare to land”[vi].

Fighting also broke out between the Narragansett and the Pequots. Canonicus, the Narragansett sachem, enlisted the help of Massachusetts tribes in Neponset and Winnisemmet. Though the skirmishes were largely confined to the swamps and woodlands of Rhode Island and Connecticut, some of the Massachusetts warriors attacked homes in Dorchester in August, and were soon “set in the Bilboes at Boston”.

In September, another trader from Dorchester was killed, and the sachem Passaconay reportedly “pursued and captured the Murderer”, as well as meted out a punishment that satisfied the authorities. At the same time, courts in Boston came down hard on those convicted of selling gun powder and shot to the native Americans. The Court even considered the death penalty for this offense, and were equally harsh with those settlers who commited acts that might provoke neighboring tribes. One Nicholas Frost, was branded and banished from the colony after ”stealing from the Indians at Damerill’s Cove”.

In January of 1633, a group of Englishmen seized the former Nahant sachem Poquanam  at his home on Richmond’s Island. Known as “Black Will” among the white settlers, he had long been suspected in the murder of the trader Bagnel. The whites lynched him and left, in pursuit of pirates. There is no record to indicate that these men ever met justice for their crime.

Such was not the case in 1638 for one Arthur Peach, and two unfortunate men he enticed into his murderous scheme. Peach, who was described as “A young desperado, who had been a Soldier in the Pequot War, and done notable Service…,”[vii]  seems  after his time as a soldier to have deigned work and headed to the Dutch settlement on the Hudson River, where he met Thomas Jackson and Richard Slinnings. He soon enticed the men to leave their masters and join with him in traveling the eastern seaboard. Three men joined Peach and traveled south through the woods.

At some point, they met up with Penowanyanquis, a Narragansett man who was traveling with a significant amount of wampum. After proposing the deed to his fellow travelers, Peach invited Penowanyanquis to sit and smoke with them; an invitation that was accepted. When the opportunity came, Peach ran through the Narragansett courier with his sword, and the men robbed him of his wampum, leaving the Indian for dead. Though mortally wounded, Penowanyanquis managed to make it back to his homeland and give details to the Narragansett about the men who had robbed him before he died. Narragansett sachems immediately sent men in pursuit of Peach and the others. They captured him as well as Jackson and Slinnings, who were marched to Rhode Island where the whites were thrown in prison.

With the Narragansett sachems demanding justice over the incident, the authorities of Plymouth County where the murder had taken place took hold of the matter, and the three men were executed in Plymouth on September 4, 1638.

Ironically, during these same years that this tension and resultant events were taking place, those logging journals and writing books to be consumed back home in Great Britain, were portraying native Americans in a positive light.

In the chapter of Mourt’s Relation entitled “A Journey to Pokanoket, the Habitation of the Great King Massasoit”,  the writer recounts the days in June of 1621, when a band of the pilgrims spent several days in the company of the sachem:

“…he lighted tobacco for us and fell to discoursing of England, and of the King’s Majesty, marveling that he would live without a wife. Also he talked of the Frenchmen, bidding us not to suffer them to come to Narraganset, for it was King James his country, and he also was King James his man. Late it grew…So we desired to go to rest. He laid us on the bed with himself and his wife, they at one end and we at the other…”

In his New England’s Prospect (1634), William Wood wrote of the tribes that populated southern New England:

“The Pequots be a stately, warlike people, of whom I never heard of any misdemeanor, but that they were just and equal in their dealings, not treacherous either to their countrymen or English, requiters of courtesies, affable towards the English.

Their next neighbors, The Narragansets, be at this present the most numerous people in those parts, the most rich also,  and the most industrious, being the storehouse of all such kind of wild merchandise as is among them…”

The Narragansett fished, hunted and trapped beaver, muskrat, and otters for the English and traded them for commodities which they sold to inland tribes at a profit. They also manufactured  “great stone pipes, which will hold a quarter ounce of tobacco”,  as well as bowls and utensils for trade.  The tribe is estimated to have numbered about 4,000 during this period, but as Wood wrote: “although these be populous, yet I never heard they were desirous to take in hand any martial enterprise or expose themselves to the uncertain events of war…they rest secure under the conceit of their popularity and seek rather to grow rich by industry than famous by deeds of chivalry”.

Puritan minister and trader Roger Williams came to know the Narragansett better than any European visitor.  He would remark, in his A Key into the Language of America (1643) “I have acknowledged amongst them an heart sensible of kindnesses, and have reaped kindnesses against from many, seven yeares after, when I myselfe had forgotten…”[viii]

Yet while these visitors were writing warmly of their interactions with native Americans, many settlers arrived with a predestined sense of conquest, of New England as a God-given gift of resources nearly rid of savages that would impede the steady growth of profits such resources would provide.

In Edward Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Savior in New England(1654), the first general history published of the region, the puritan justification of establishing a “new eden” in the wake of these devastating plagues is articulated for the first time. Writing of the smallpox epidemic of 1619,

“as the ancient Indians report,  there befell a great mortality among them, the greatest that ever the memory of Father to Sonne took notice of, chiefly desolating those places where the English afterward planted…by this means Christ…not only made room for his people to plant; but also tamed the hard and cruell hearts of these barbarous Indians”.[ix]

Johnson referred to the uneasy peace between the Massachusetts colonies and the tribes that had signed an alliance in Plymouth. The Narragansett in Rhode Island kept the colonists at arms length, using Roger Williams as an intermediary between John Winthrop, and later his son and namesake in Connecticut, but were always mistrustful of English intentions.  Colonial authorities were also mistrustful of the Indians, especially as carefully laid out English-style court systems had failed to corral tensions between settlers and native Americans.

Authorities were assuaged for a time, by efforts to moralize the native Americans, first by the writings of  European religious thinkers that envisioned the native Americans as part of the “lost tribes of Israel”, and then by those who sought to evangelize among the Indians. These efforts largely began with minister John Eliot in 1640 when he began to learn the Massachusetts language in order to preach to the natives in their own tongue, and began to conceive his greatest work, the translation of the King James Bible into the Algonquian language.

He preached his first sermon to Roxbury natives at a gathering just outside of town in 1646, and began as well to establish separate communities for those Indians who had converted. According to historian Linford Fisher, “Between 1646 and 1675 Eliot founded fourteen “praying towns” throughout Massachusetts, in which he gathered Christianized Indians into highly organized towns designed to inculcate European cultural, religious, and agricultural values”.[x][xi]

Eliot sent pamphlets on a regular basis to wealthy backers in England, a group that would come to call itself the “Company for the Propigation of the Gospel in New England”, and would eventually fund other ministers throughout the region.

The Reverend Thomas Mayhew Jr. established a similar community on Martha’s Vineyard, and the Reverends James Thompson and James Fitch were sent to preach to the Pequots and Mohegans in 1657.  Eliot’s Gospel was published in 1660, and seemed to establish a hope for increased evangelization, but these efforts and the communities established were always controversial among the native populations.

While some Massachusetts indians saw these “towns” as a way of stabilizing the large losses of land they had suffered, the Massachusetts court in negotiating the land grants with Eliot, required local natives who moved into the towns to sign away all current and future rights to vast tracts of land.[xii]

After the death of Ousamequin (Massasoit) in 1661, the peace that he had brokered with Massachusetts authorities began to unravel. The mysterious death of his eldest son and heir apparent Wamsutta (Alexander), while in English hands exacerbated Wampanoag mistrust of the English, and with the succession of his younger brother Metacom(Phillip) as sachem of the tribe, this mistrust became more vocal. According to John Easton, Phillip and his counselors told Rhode Island authorities that “that had a great fear to have ani of their indians…called or forsed to be Christian indians. Thay saied that such wer in everi thing more mischivous, only disemblers, and then the English made them not subject to their kings, and by ther lying to rong their kings”.[xiii]

Portrait of "King Philip" Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Portrait of “King Philip”
Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Tensions were also exacerbated as speculators and second-generation settlers continued to take land or settle away from townships where authority and spiritual guidance were far removed from their doorstep. As historian Jill Lepore would note,

“By the 1670’s in the years before King Philip’s War broke out, there were many signs that the English had degenerated. Church membership and church attendance had declined. People were settling farther and farther from the coast, nearer to the Indians, and farther from the civilizing influence of English neighbors. Trade and contact with the Indians were increasing, though little of this contact involved sharing the good news of the gospel”[xiv]

Puritan minister Increase Mather cautioned New Englanders in a series of jeremiads,  most notably, in The Day of Trouble is Near, with which he decried the “great decay as to the power of godliness amongst us”.  Other ministers in similar jeremiads, or sermons, spoke to the rise in violence, drunkenness, and lewd behavior that “turnith man into a bruit beast”.

The suspected murder of Christian Indian John Sassamon has long been pointed to by historians as the turning point that led to war, but as we have seen, the disputes over the taking of land, the attempted and mostly failed Europeanization of native Americans, and the subsequent threats upon their own beliefs and culture would breed these ill suspicions of both English and Indians against each other, and often of one another, and would inextricably draw them into armed conflict.  When war finally erupted in the spring of 1675, historian Linford Fisher writes that the fighting

“ …pitted Indian against Indian and Christian against Christian…while Wampanoags, Massachusetts, Narragansetts, Nipmucks, Pocomtucks, and Abenakis all fought against the Euroamericans, the Mohegans, Pequots, Mohawks, Christian Wampanoags, and a smattering of other Christian Indians from a variety of native groups fought alongside the New England colonists and aided them in countless ways as spies, interpreters, messengers, and assassins.[xv]

The war exposed the skepticism and hostility that the second generation of settlers held for native Americans living among them. Where those indigenous people had once been seen in English eyes as being contrary and inferior, the early colonists had mostly held them kindred spirits, not yet civilized. “There is a day coming”, Cotton Mather had declared, “when God will receive them into favor again”.

But the conflict turned the narrative into one of biblical and metaphorical rhetoric, portraying the native Americans as heathen savages, Ameleks against those saintly new Americans who would bring forth a new Israel in the wilderness. In this vein, the New England Confederation declared war upon the Narragansett in 1675, whose sheltering of Wampanoag elders and women were seen as complicity and evidence of the greater conspiracy to drive the whites from the land:

“So Satthan may combine, and stir up many of his instruments” in the same way that the “Amalek and the Philistines did confederate against Israel”.

The diary of Samuel Sewall, who would later become a judge during the Salem witch trials, casts light on the violence of the times:

“Friday about 3 in the afternoon, April 21, 1676, Capt. Wadsworth and Capt.

Brocklebank fall. Almost an hundred since, I hear, about fifty men, slain three miles

off Sudbury: the said Town burned, Garrison houses except.

…Friday May 5, 16 Indians killed: no English hurt: near Mendham, 19 May. Capt.

Turner, 200 Indians. 22 May, about 12 Indians killed by Troop

.…June 22. Two Indians, Capt. Tom and another, executed after lecture …Note. This week Troopers, a party killed two men, and took an Indian Boy alive. Just between the Thanksgiving, June 29, and Sab. day, July, 2, Capt. Bradfords expedition 20 killed and taken, almost 100 came in: Squaw Sachem

.…Saturday, July 1, 1676. Mr Hezekiah Willet slain by Naragansets, a little more than Gun-shot off from his house, his head taken off, body stript. Jethro, his Niger was then taken: retaken by Capt. Bradford the Thorsday following.”

Willet’s slave had seen the English in the woods and run up to them. He told Bradford’s party that Philip had about a thousand native Americans of “all sorts” with him, but that many were sickly. Three had died while he was in captivity.

Later that summer, even as Indians came into Plymouth to “prove themselves faithful”, Sewall heard of  “one hundred twenty one Indians killed and taken” and then of the English victory in Medfield where Canonicus II was captured. He also heard the ominous report of “One Englishman lost in the woods taken and tortured to death”[xvi]

Whites were equally brutal at the close of the war. In Taunton, Massachusetts in August 1676, a group of twenty men led by a turncoat Indian, surprised a band led by Queen Weetamoe. In the ensuing skirmish, Weetamoe attempted to escape by crossing the Taunton river “upon a raft, or some pieces of broken Wood”. She was later found, naked and drowned on the Swansea side of the river. Those that found the Queen mutilated her corpse., paraded it through the town of Taunton and placed her for public display on the village green.[xvii]

The very brutality of King Philip’s War was to cast a long shadow over New England, and like the grisly remains of the sachems head, placed in a cage and hung before the Plymouth Courthouse, the memories of the savagery on both sides, were slow to decay, and transposed the war into a darker metaphor. The Puritans especially, seemed vexed by the native Americans rejection of the gospel, even among those Christian Indians, many of whom had been secreted away from their communities, there were some who fought with their people against the whites and their native allies. Eliot’s bibles printed in the Massachusetts language, were gathered up by marauding Indians and destroyed.

Portrait of Cotton Mather Courtesy of Wickimedia

Portrait of Cotton Mather
Courtesy of Wickimedia

Cotton Mather, though but a toddler when the war erupted, would, by his own account; ride his horse as an adult to Plymouth and pluck the jawbone from Philip’s skull as a souvenir. Though his Father had taken a milder approach to the Native Americans in his history of the war, Cotton had no doubt that what had begun in the spring of 1675, was a holy war that would likely last his lifetime. In his biography of minister John Eliot, he summarized what the Puritans faced on their arrival:

“The natives of the country now possessed by the (New Englanders) had been forlorn and wretched (heathens) ever since their first herding here; and tho we know not when or how these Indians first became inhabitants of this mighty continent, yet we may guess that probably, the divil decoy’d those miserable savages hither, in Hopes that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus would never come here to destroy or disturb his absolute empire over them.” [xviii]

In the throes of the conflicts that occurred for nearly three decades after King Philip’s War, Mather would exhort those joining the fight against “these Amaleks now annoying this new Israel in the wilderness”:

“Turn not back till they are consumed…tho they cry, let there be none to save them; but beat them small as the dust before the wind…”

But underlying this hatred of the native Americans and these efforts at their elimination, was the fear that the hoped for “new Israel” was not going to be.

The isolation and relative numbers of men compared to women had begat violence from the beginning in the form of fistfights and skirmishes among neighbors. But in rural areas in particular, isolated cases of odd and disarming behavior began to emerge with greater regularity. Worse still, those who came to the colonies in the generations after the Puritans establishing their religious communities, were a decidedly secular wave of immigrants.  John Winthrop had complained as early as 1641 in his diary that ”as people increased, so sin abounded”.

In the aftermath of the Indian wars nearly forty years later, Increase Mather would bemoan those settlers who were “all ready to run wild into the woods again, and be as heathenish as ever.”

But it would be Cotton Mather who would  attempt to turn the mirror on those he saw as being little more than those savages that the survivors of the war had feared for so long. In an irony that surely could not have been lost upon the Boston minister, the younger Mather now blamed the remaining Native Americans and their vices of drinking, gaming, and carefree wandering as an evil influence on these later generations of settlers.

“We have become shamefully inhumanized in all those abominable things…our Indian wars are not over yet.”

Indeed, Mather’s war to exterminate the last shred of nobility of Indian belief and culture was to last far longer than Metacom’s desperate effort to rid the land of the whites.

Though in the first histories of New England, the Native American leaders would come to be eulogized as heroic  defenders of their land, their descendants became vilified for their ongoing struggle with the European borne disease of alcoholism, their abject poverty after the war, and their continued resistance to adapt to the English style of living.

As these, and later popular histories were written, they often included colorful stories from local communities. These “indian tales” all held some moral invective and reflect the vice and shifty behavior that became associated with native Americans, underscoring the prejudice that white Americans displayed toward their race.  These tales of wandering Indians, itinerant and lazy, sure to be drunk at any given time of day, reduced a once proud race to individuals who were hapless, overindulgent,  and essentially lost in the afterlife.

One of the earliest stories from Rhode Island involves the ghost of an itinerant Indian who haunted a room of the Black Horse tavern in North Scituate. The tavern had been in the family for several generations by the time that Ruben Jenks was the keeper, and the hauntings began. Guests in the room complained of being woken at night after the terrible vision of a fully dressed warrior, yielding a tomahawk above their heads.

This occurred frequently over a period of time, so that the place soon had a reputation far and wide for its “Indian Room”. Friends told him that the ghost was that of an indigent Indian who had frequently loitered at the Pine Tree tavern up the road, and was doubtless determined to scare his customers away. When Mrs Jenks took the room for her own, the visitations took a different turn.

The Black Horse Tavern today.

The Black Horse Tavern today.

According to the story, the Indian gestured to Mrs Jenks, and led her outside to a large cedar by the front gate and pointed to the base repeatedly, and muttering in broken English about needing to revenge an insult to his race. When Mrs Jenks relayed the visitation to her husband, he determined that the place where the Indian had pointed must contain some treasure he had kept secret, and dug furiously, but in vain around the base of the tree. Later visitations brought Mrs Jenks outside to other trees on the property, all of which her husband dutifully dug around, including the orchard which was nearly destroyed in the search for treasure. Eventually Jenks decided as did his friends, that the ghost was merely bent on destroying his livelihood.

One night the Indian spirit came to Jenks’ daughter and led her to the old barn behind the tavern. Leader the girl inside, he gestured and spoke in broken English to the girl, but made her to understand that an old blackened trunk in the loft of the barn held the key to his disgruntled spirit. Though her mother were skeptical, she unearthed the trunk and opened it. Inside was a mannequin head and materials for making wigs. It seems that Jenks grandfather had doubled as a wig-maker in his time of owning the tavern and that this Indian, on attempting one night to scalp a visitor to the Inn, walked away in his anger and shame, with a bloodless wig in his hand. Thus he laid his revenge upon the present visitors.

The tale was purportedly first written down by one Parson Pillsbury, who had been witness to Rueben Jenks attempts to find the “treasure”, and recorded the “indian speak” as told by Jenks’ daughter. It was republished several times in popular titles at the turn of the 19th century, including Edward Field’s “Colonial Taverns” and most expansively in Alice Morse Earl’s “Stagecoach and Tavern Days”.

In her summary of the tale, Mrs Earle concluded that the Itinerant Indian “simply belonged to a class of ghosts …that…have a passion for pointing out places and saying treasure or skeletons are buried therein; wheras it always proves that nothing of the sort is ever found”.

While a whimsical ending for white readers, the caricature of a poverty-stricken Indian lurking about a tavern in the afterlife is a purely white reflection of those “wandering indians” in the aftermath of King Philip’s War.. Parson Pillsbury may have persuaded himself that attaching a moral lesson as from those biblical texts he used as inspiration for his sermons, was an appropriate use of poetic license,  but he was not alone in this respect.

Anthropologist William S. Simmons writes that these treasure-hunting dreams are quite common in both European and American mythology. There were many tales about the greed and the ills brought on by the pursuit of riches. They are not however, indigenous to New England’s Native Americans.  In Spirit of the New England Tribes, his seminal book on the folklore of the indigenous peoples of the region, we learn that

“Early historic New England Indians often buried their most valuable possessions with the dead and did not excavate graves to obtain their contents…New England Indians would rather see archeological sites and burial grounds left undisturbed.Thus, not only was the treasure story alien to the aboriginal tradition, but Indians disapproved of attempts to recover whatever treasures their ancestors might have buried”.

By the late 19th century, such tales had been incorporated into Native American mythology, but in the Indian mythology, it is nearly always the Europeans lured to the treasure, often by the devil himself, as in the Mashpee tale of  the Frenchman who sold his soul for a pot of gold.[xix]

In this new colonial mythology, spirits that deceived gullible people like Jenks were not tethered to this earth of their own free will, but were often associated with the devil or his “imps”.  In this respect, Native American places of history often became the haven of these spirits.

In Charlestown, Rhode Island, the site known as “Coronation Rock”, the place where the Sachems of the Narragansett people were received, became a lonely and desolate place with the tribes reduced numbers. In this period, the site became woven into New England folklore with the tale of one Tom Rodgers, most popularly recorded by Edward R. Snow.

Rogers it is said, was originally from Nantucket, and perhaps that upheaval, with the “wilderness” suddenly outside his own door, gave him the certainty that the region in which he now lived was haunted, and he had heard such stories about spirits gathering at Coronation rock.  One night after drinking a good quantity of spirits to fortify his courage, he set off for home and wandered close to the woods where the rock lay.  Snow writes that

“…as he approached the rock he saw a glow through the trees and heard the sound of a fiddle playing like mad, and when he reached the rock he saw that a wild dance was in progress. Finding a mischievous looking maid alone on a mossy hummock, Tom quickly took her by the waist and took her to the clearing- as they danced, he had the sensation of soaring above the clearing and noticed that the crowd were now seated watching them dance. As they separated and came back again, Tom noticed his partner’s features were changing from the rosy-cheeked girl he first noticed, to that of a lank and withered hag whose eyes now glowed green with evil, and whose sharp teeth now projected from the once delicate mouth. He flung off his coat, hat, and vest, and then fled for his life, tumbling once in the woods

and hearing growling, hissing, and a strange language about him. He had the sensation of a hideous form hovering over him”.[xx]

When Rogers woke in the woods the following morning, he noticed that his jackknife bore two portraits of the witch he’d met the night before. When he reached home he fell ill for a time, but recovered. In the coming months he would eschew alcohol, get married, and became a member of the church, eventually becoming “a deacon in good standing”.

The moral lesson is clear in this story, no doubt originating with the backlash against the looseness of morals and the frivolity that had become prevalent in the taverns by this time. Such religion-based morality tales also mingled with Native American mythology.

One such tale, which has prevailed into the twenty-first century is the story associated with “Devil’s Rock” in North Kingston, which before European arrival, had long been a gathering place for the Narragansett.

Photo of "Devil's Rock" footprint Courtesy of

Photo of “Devil’s Rock” footprint
Courtesy of

By 1671, the rock had become a boundary marker for the settlers of “Fones Purchase”, and thus out of Narragansett hands. Situated just north of Wickford, in the town of North Kingston, Rhode Island, the “Devil’s Rock” is part of a long, granite ledge that had once been hidden deep in the woods, and then exposed as a railway, and then a road were built near the site in the twentieth century. The tale has a few variations, but has remained largely intact in modern folklore. The legend of “Devil’s Rock” is an intermingling of Native American and White belief, an acknowledgement of a shared uncertainty about the afterlife, which takes the form of each culture’s entity. The story’s first appearance in print seems to be in 1850, though by then the tale had been told for generations.

An Indian woman had murdered a white man (either in Boston, or Wickford, depending upon the version).  She had made her way to the ledge and there knelt and prayed to Hobomoken, the Algonquian god who was both a benevolent and cruel deity, often called upon when a Native American faced  an insurmountable uncertainty over an event or the fate of a loved one.[xxi]

As she prayed, a stern-faced Englishman appeared beside her. Believing herself to be discovered by the white authorities, she attempted to escape, but was seized by the arm. She again called out to Hobomoken to save her, but the black-frocked Englishman told her “I am Hobomoken”, and grabbing her by the waist, stomped his feet on the rock and took her in flight to Purgatory Chasm, from which he flung her into the turbulent waters below.

In his version of the story, historian Edward R. Field concludes the tale by telling readers that

“…to this day may be seen near Wickford, the footprints of Satan on the surface of the ledge near the road. One has the form of a cloven hoof, and the other has the shape and size of a human foot, even to the mark of the great toe”.

In other versions of the story, the last mark of the devil can be found on a ledge on Block Island, said to be where Satan landed before diving into Block Island Sound.

Other tales from the east coast concern similar impressions that have been interpreted in folklore as “the Devil’s footprints”. In Monteville Connecticut, a similar impression on the rocky ledges of Shelter Island  is said to be the stepping off point for the legend that

“…when the Evil Spirit left the island he took three long strides, the first on Shelter Island, the second on Orient Point, and the third on Montauk, whence he plunged into the sea”.

The Rhode Island tale however, is more firmly rooted in moral tradition. In the popular version that appears predominantly in white folklore, the Indian woman, fleeing from a crime, is brought to justice by the Devil, the very deity she prayed to for mercy. Conversely, the Native American interpretation of the stern Englishman in the “devil’s disguise” has precedent in 17th century evocations of Hobomoken,

also called “Cheepie” in other Algonquian tales. The minister Daniel Gookin in his Two Voyages to New England (1673), recounts the experience of being woken by two natives and told that they had fled from a vision of Hobomoken:

“Two Indians and an Indess came running into our house, crying they should all die. Cheepie was gone over the field gliding in the air with a long rope hanging from one of his legs: we asked what he was like, and they said all wone English clothed with a hat and coat, shoos and stockings…”

Many of these “Indian tales” survive in print and on the web today as anecdotal expressions of an earlier time that pre-dates our own fascination with rural and urban legends, and the paranormal investigations that have become popular on television. We should not lose sight however, of how these tales came from, and continued to shape an unflattering perception of our indigenous peoples for generations of readers.

[i] Mourt’s Relation, p. 27 A much later unearthing of a Narragansett woman by various hands overseen by Dr. Usher Parsons in 1862, set off a debate as to her identity, based largely upon the great number of Dutch trinkets found in her grave.

[ii] Williams, Roger “A Key Into the Language of America” Applewood ed. p. 128

[iii] Bragdon, Kathleen

[iv] See Shipton,C. “Roger Conant A Founder of Massachusetts” Harvard, 1944 p. 59

[v] Drake, Samuel “Old Indian Chronicles” Boston, 1867 p. 24

[vi] Ibid. p. 25

[vii] Ibid. p. 28

[viii] Williams, Roger “A Key Into the Language of America” p. 7.

[ix] Johnson, Edward “Wonder-Working Providence” p. 17

[x] Fisher, Linford “The Indian Great Awakening” p. 24

[xi] Ibid. p. 24

[xii] Ibid. p. 29

[xiii] Easton, John “A Relaycion of the Indyan Warre, by Mr. Easton, of Road Isld.” (1675)

[xiv] Lepore, Jill “the Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity” p. 6

[xv] Fisher, Linford TIGA p. 27

[xvi] Wish, Harvey ed. “The Diary of Samuel Sewall” pp 24-25

[xvii] Schultz, Eric B. & Tougias, Michael J. “King Philip’s War” see pp. 129-130

[xviii] Mather, Cotton “Life of the Reverend John Eliot” Boston, 1691

[xix] Simmons, William Spirit of the New England Tribes p. 163

[xx] Snow, Edward R. “

[xxi] Edward Winslow would record a white translation of this deity and “ceremonies” in his journals. Hios interpretation of Hobomok or Hobbomoken as “the devil” would lead generations of historians into a one-sided view of this complex god.

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Upcoming Book Events

This winter into spring, I look forward to meeting some of you during upcoming book events.  My latest book called “Hidden & Forgotten Places of Rhode Island History is now available. I am also working with Loren Spears of the Tomaquag Memorial Indian Museum on a book project about the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

Here are a few upcoming dates

On Saturday, February 20th, I will be at the Rhody Fresh Farmers Market at the Hope Artiste building in Pawtucket from 9:00-1:00 p.m.

On Saturday, February 27th at 1:30 p.m., I will be moderating and participating in a discussion with authors from the blog on “Rhode Island and the Civil War: Lessons Learned and their IMpact Today”. Joining me will be North Kingstown historian Tim Cranston, and Civil War author and Vietnam veteran Frank Grzyb.

On Monday, April 18th at 7:00 p.m. I will present a talk entitled “Citizen Varnum and His Fight for the Veterans of the Revolutionary War”.

On Saturday & Sunday May 7th & 8th, I will be at Smith Castle’s Heritage Days with a talk & signing.


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