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


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Part II: The Ghosting of A People

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

Alice Collins Gleeson- Colonial Rhode Island 1926

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 1675 the Assembly of Providence Plantations declared that

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amidst the rolling hills of Narragansett Country were long established farms and estates of families who became known as the Narragansett Planters. The estates planted tobacco and hemp in their early years,  in their effort to  cultivate a finer, more elite crop than the smaller farms which grew the bulk of produce for the Newport and Providence markets.By this period however, The Planters had come to find the breeding and trading of the “Narragansett Pacer”[17] a lucrative endeavor.

A sleek horse, the Pacer was adept in the New England landscape, and a valuable steed for a messenger or swift traveler. Paul Revere and George Washington were later said to favor the breed. Washington owned two Pacers on his Virginia estate, one so spirited that it became known as the only horse who had ever thrown the equestrian General.

The Pacer became even more valuable during the fever of horse racing that broke out over Britain as well as Rhode Island; the only Colony whose strict adherence to separation of church and state allowed such “frivolous sport” to flourish.

The estates of the Planters employed free Indians for labor as well as the indentured blacks and native Narragansett.

The Hazard, Robinson, and Stanton families were reputed at one time to have owned many slaves. More recent historians have placed the number at about forty each family, but a memoir of  P. Hazard recalls his grandfather “relieved” to pare the household servants down to  seventy. There were also productive dairy farms neighboring these estates, and these farms sometimes rivaled the estates in the breeding of the famed Rhode Island dairy cow, valued in other colonies and often exported to the West Indies. These dairy farms and cattle breeders  “employed” both Black and Indian servants, as well as smaller farms that grew produce for market in Newport.

There were also individual owners of Narragansett slaves.  The will of one Benjamin Barton of Warwick in 1720 lists an Indian boy named “Daniell” along with the boy’s Mother among his valued belongings. In1738, George Hazard registered ”one mustee and two Indian indentured servants.” Likewise, Jeremiah Wilson’s registry of 1749, lists a “Mustee servant named Jacob”.

The term “mustee” was one used to represent the offspring of Black and American Indian partners who shared the experience of slavery and had intermarried for some time. By the time of these registrars, several generations of children of black and Indian parents had been born. Slave owners referred to mixed blacks as mullato or as a native slave from a foreign country: identifying a missing “spanish indian”, or by way of definition, a“clear indian”.

Mustee appears as well in the notices from the Providence Gazette from 1762 on and is a forerunner of the government’s press, and general public reducing the identity of the Narragansett and other tribes during the next century.

These “mustee” generations of the Narragansett often grew up in slavery. If they were not born in a master’s house and added to the property, they were dropped on the doorsteps of estates or farmhouses and even meetinghouses by free Narragansett women  who were often impoverished and sometimes shamed by their relatives for their inter-racial union. Perhaps the most poignant telling of the desperation of the people during this period is the infanticide that occurred at what came to be known as Crying Rocks.

Writing in 1761, Rev. Ezra Stiles, who was then pastor of the 2nd Congregational Church, in Newport, wrote of Narragansett women taking to the woods to give birth to “illegitimate” children  near the site “where they killed so many infants, & their bones lay about so thick, that they go by the name of the Bastard Rocks”

Narragansett oral tradition recounts the practice of infanticide, but in the context of a newborn with a crippling disability, or an infant who was sickly, without hope of survival. The Rev. Harold Mars acknowledged in an interview two hundred some years after Stiles account, that “when a child was born deformed or crippled in any manner, it was the plan and practice of the Indian people, with proper ceremony, to put that child to death because obviously the child would be handicapped…and this thing having gone on for many years, why there was a build up of little skeletons.” [18]

At the same time, prominent medicine woman Ella Wilcox Sekatu acknowledged the prejudice that some Narragansett had for children of mixed blood, considering them “imperfect”, and contributing to  the “loss of Indianness”  in the eyes of the Colonists, and even of other tribes, for such prejudice among American Indians of the region was not uncommon.

The Narragansett were familiar with black races as early as the 17th century, for Roger Williams writes that their language described “a coale blacke man” as Suckautacone.

This word, according to Williams, was used to describe an African, but we have no wayof knowing whether the same word applied to other dark skinned people, and if the encounters were with slaves or mariners. Early in the 18th century, interracial unions occurred with little notice, Indian tradition had long allowed visitors to marry into tribes if the newcomer agreed to contribute to the welfare of the people and abide by the peoples’ customs. By mid –Eighteenth century however, many Native women married or absconded with free blacks who worked in the maritime trades, or on the estates in Newport, or other neighboring farms.

Perhaps most telling, are documents that show the state of the tribe during this time.When the Rev. Joseph Fish arrived in Charlestown in 1765, he met with a faction of the tribe to provide religious instruction and to build a school. In December of that year he was given a “list of the Family’s Belonging there unto and number of children Thats fit for Instruction.” Among those listed within this faction of seventy four Christian Indians, were twenty two widows.[19]

A Narragansett perspective is given in the account of William J. Brown, the indentured son of such a marriage, and the grandson of a Narragansett woman who

“purchased her husband from the white people in order to change her mode of living.”

He writes that

“The Indian women observing the colored men working for their wives, and living after the manner of white people in comfortable homes, felt anxious to change their position in life; not being able to carry out their designs in any other way, resorted to making purchases. . .The treatment that Indian women received from the husbands they had purchased was so satisfactory that others were encouraged to follow their example, notwithstanding every effort was made to prevent such union.” [20]

These events presented a perceived threat to the Narragansett and other tribes, and a backlash came in a wave of racially related violence among Indian men within the affected tribes of New England.  The schoolmaster James Deake wrote to his supervisor in December of 1765 that the Narragansett tribal council had voted to disown “a considerable Number of mixtures as mulatoes and mustees” in addition to “Sundry families of Indians which properly belongs to other tribes.”[21]

It appears that this prejudice was not extended to Europeans who had long inter-married or fathered children of Indian women. Gary Nash, among others, writes of the long-standing practice of traders and trappers, even European settlers inter-marrying and taking Indian wives along with them for the practical skills they offered as well as companionship in an unfamiliar landscape.

There were also the many instances over generations, of settlers being drawn in by the freedom that the remaining Indians offered, intermingling with the tribes and sleeping with their women, though the Colonial authorities certainly looked upon such affairs with distaste.

As early as 1640, William Coddington of Rhode Island wrote to John Winthrop to warn him of

“a lude felowe, one Theo. Saverye, whom I heare is now in durance with yow,…Lately I wos informed that at a place called Puncataset, upon the mayne land, wher he kept the last summer,& wos much frequent in following, &c. he hath a child by an Indean womon, which is a boy, & not black-haired lick the Indean children, but yellow haired as the English, & the womon being laitley delivered, doth say English man got it, & some of them name him, & when he ranne away from us, he would at Titecute lyne with Knowe Gods mother, which doth speake of it in detestation, & that those that professe them selves to be Christian should be more barbarous & wyld than Indeans.”[22]

While Plymouth Colony persecuted Natives for infanticide in a ‘proportionately greater number than white women”, such was not the case in Rhode Island, although there is a case on record from a deposition for the court given by an elderly Narragansett woman named in court papers as “Indian Hannah” in 1729 against a squaw named Sarah Pharoah, testifying that the young Sarah came to her

“ and told her yt She was not Well, and was Much out of Order and Desired… (that Hannah) Get Some Roots” for her to take. The elderly woman testified that “ She thought she was with Child, and if So the Taking of Roots would kill…the Child, and She (Sarah) must be hanged for it.’[23]

Little is known about “Indian Hannah” but that she had once been “one of the old women who procured abortions”[24] among the Narragansett. Given the Christian name by which she was sworn in the deposition, and her newly formed belief that such practice constituted a criminal act, we can assume that she had come under the influence of religous teachings and was likely among those “praying Indians” who had converted with the first wave of English missionaries into Rhode Island.

Perhaps as Patricia Rubertone has suggested, by the period that Ezra Stiles was  writing his grisly account of infanticide, Narragansett women faced “allowing a baby who carried the stigma of mixed blood to grow up in a world where its life would be defined by worthlessness and degeneracy in the eyes of European Americans… Or permitting such a child to become the possible object of mounting frustration and uncontrolled rage among close relatives and members of their natal communities”[25]

Between 1750 and 1800, towns within the colony officially “indentured” ninety-eight Narragansett children, one as young as twenty one months old, another boy named John of “4 years 4 months & 6 days old”.

As Ruth Wallis Henderson and Ella Wilcox Sekatu write in their study of this era,

“This was a common practice in eighteenth-century New England; town “fathers” acting in the stead of natural parents, placed poor and/or orphaned children of all races in more prosperous households under contracts that obligated the children to live with and work for their masters until adulthood.”[26]

Whatever caused some Narragansett women to consider this “necessary evil”, it was apparently during this period of integration and shared slavery that the traditional practice was adapted to include unwanted children of mixed race.

This natural integration of Blacks and Indians, and the tragic consequences are the story that has only been touched upon in the written histories, and perhaps among the oral histories of the tribe as well.

Of those Narragansett who served time as slaves, we know that they were valued less than the black slaves on the planters estate, and there is little evidence that they were given any task above that of an unskilled laborer. This meant that Narragansett slaves were suppressed in ways beyond the black slaves on these estates. To fully understand what this meant in the day to day living of the Indian slaves, we must examine a little of the shared life they inhabited.

As slaves on the planter’s estate, they would have been segregated from the master’s family during meals, eating with black slaves in the kitchen, while the family ate in the parlor. The food sent back for slaves to eat in the kitchen was often little more than the leftover’s from the family table. As slaves drew rank according to responsibilities, the Narragansett, confined to the basest of all jobs would certainly have endured a tradition of ridicule and poverty.

Some historians have ventured that slaves, like those in New England who often slept in the large farmhouses and outbuildings, enjoyed a familial closeness with their masters, and often this argument has used the aforementioned example of Toby and the Colonel to showhow this easily occurred. More recently, Robert K. Fitts makes the point that rather than fostering closer relations, such arrangements restricted the ability of northern slaves to keep alive their traditional culture and beliefs. Fitts writes that

“ during daylight slaves were supervised as they worked-yet southern slaves, living in quarters, had the nighttime to talk freely amongst themselves, By living within the main house- this was difficult for most Narragansett slaves…to practice traditions and exchange information to help them resist their master’s domination.” [27]

While the Narragansett slaves toiled as farm laborers, shoveling the stalls, driving the cattle to pasture, or cleaning the main house, black slaves were given all manner of skilled jobs to perform. They shrewdly used this time to reconnect with relations or visit other slaves they were acquainted with in Wickford or Newport, or at neighboring estates in Narragansett when they were sent to deliver messages, produce, or livestock.

Other slaves professed to “retreating to the woods to pray” and certainly Narragansett slaves would have taken any opportunity to keep alive sacred rituals and practices. It is known that as early as 1726, and well into the latter part of the 19th century, Narragansett slaves gathered “once a year in June…on Rose Hill in Potters woods to hold a fair”[28] The traditional pow-wow held in August also continued to be attended by Narragansett slaves, if they were not prohibited by their masters.

The Planters tried various means over the years to maintain a rigid control over every aspect of their slaves lives: enjoining the Colony to pass laws such as that of 1704, which imposed a nine o’clock evening curfew on “any Negroes or Indians, Freemen or Slaves” and the act in 1708 which aimed to “suppress any person from entertaining of negroes or Indian servants that are not their own, in their houses or unlawfully letting them have strong drink”. Masters segregated slaves in church by forcing them to sit separately from other worshippers and in death also, by burying them in scarcely marked graves beyond the formal boundaries of the family plot.

Despite these efforts, Narragansett and other slaves found ways to circumvent the authority of their masters. The Narragansett were in effect, always a gamble to the Planters and other masters throughout the colony. There was always the risk of flight, and the slave quickly hiding himself within the reservation, or with those Narragansett who continued the long tradition of traveling for extended visits with relatives, or making pilgrimage to a sacred sites.[29]

As the generations of Narragansett slaves merged in the registers of Planters with black slaves, planters no longer cared to make the distinction, the identity of a people began to be erased from the records of the colony. By the time of the Rhode Island’s adoption of gradual Emancipation in 1784, and the ban on trading of slaves within the State three years later, most of the Estates and farms in Narragansett county already employed a number of former slaves and servants, some of whom chose to remain living on the properties.

Employment of Narragansett Indians by individuals and even towns within the Colony had it’s own long tradition. As early as 1639, a handful of Narragansett were enlisted, by Thomas Hazard, Nicholas Easton, and William Brenton to help clear land on the newly acquired Island of “Aquedneck”.  According to several accounts, the white settlers, having cleared trees, found their work hampered by the “impenetrable low brush”. of the swamplands. A group of Narragansett were hired for the sum of “five fathom of wampum peage and a coat, “ the Indians soon after fired the swamp and…. it was in time cleared and filled in with gravel and sand, and thus, after much labor, made sufficiently firm for building lots.” [30]

Communities also hired Narragansett laborers, as did the town of Warwick in the spring of 1653, paying a group of Narragansett 12 pounds and 10 shillings for building stone fences[31], a novel necessity once the woodland resources were expended. The aforementioned John Wall – Maker, whose Narragansett name was Nawhaum, was better known as Stone-Wall John by the English.

Stone-Wall John was considered to be a pioneer of this trade, for his skills were well known throughout the colony. Roger Williams knew him from his early days as a servant to Richard Smith, and described him as “ …an ingenius fellow and peasable.” Stone-Wall John was thought to have helped design Queen Anne’s fort in Wickford as well as the stone balustrades that kept the English at bay for some hours during the Great Swamp fight. He was also a blacksmith, “the only man amongst them that fitted their Guns and Arrowheads”[32],  fleeing from the burning encampment at the Great Swamp with his tools.

Early settlers of Rhode Island hired Narragansett men on a regular basis before the outbreak of that conflict for seasonal work on farms, as well as short term construction labor, and this tradition re-established itself after the war was over. Despite one writer’s assessment early in the 18th century that the Narragansett were “scattered about where the English will employ them”, [33] free Indians survived with skill and cunning as laborers; allowing them, even with what most considered a marginal existence, to keep the lifestyle of their people and a certain independence and freedom that those who had chosen or fallen into indentured servitude could not have enjoyed.

By the close of the 18th century, another testament, written by Daniel Gookin, a missionary  who despite having failed to convert the Indians to Christianity, shows an undeniable admiration; for these “active, laborious, and ingenious people; which is demonstrated in their labors they do for the English of whom more are employed, especially in making stone fences.”[34]

Some Narragansett men found “employment” by acting as guides or even mercenaries for the English in their military skirmishes against other Native American or European enemies. Unaccustomed to the “skulking way of war” practiced by the Narragansett and other tribes, European military leaders nonetheless noticed the intrinsic value it had in the wilderness as opposed to the open fields and hillsides of European battles. A Swiss officer in the British forces summed up the difficulties  of European soldiers in the unfamiliar terrain:

“I cannot think it Advisable to employ regulars in the Woods against Savages, as they cannot procure any Intelligence, and are open to Continual Surprises, nor can they Pursue at any distance their Enemy when they have Routed them, and should they have the Misfortune to be Defeated the whole would be destroyed if above one day’s March from a Fort.”[35]

Indians were “far more capable than the English “, as well as “very terrifying to the enemy” and served as the “indispensable eyes of the colonial forces”.[36] Narragansett men joined military excursions for a number of reasons. Most often was the simple need for an income in the newly European dominated colony. Others became Christians,  and joined to further assimilate themselves into the white man’s world. This transformation occurred within a generation or two, with the resulting irony that in 1709, Benjamin Church, the now elderly Plymouth commander who had fought the Narragansett at the Great Swamp, was in Newport, enlisting a force of 200 Indians “ skilled in handling the whaleboats” which he planned in using for a second attack on Port Royal.[37]

Church later successfully lobbied for the Indians who had served under him to receive a tract of land in Tiverton.

In August of 1757, when after the French attacked Fort William Henry in New York, the colony of Rhode Island issued “ An ACT for raising One Sixth Part of the Militia in this Colony, to proceed immediately to Albany, to join the Forces which have marched to oppose the French near Lake George.

Among those listed on the muster roll to be marched out of the County of Newport

was one “ Josiah…an Indian”[38] the distinction of race being unusual, it is likely it was listed as the man identified himself without a Christian surname.

With the onset of conflicts with Great Britain and the “Gaspee” burning, communities throughout Rhode Island mustered Militias into service and included Narragansett Indians among the rolls. Narragansett oral history tells us that when war was imminent with the English, word was sent out among the tribes and places where the people had gone and  many were “called back” to enlist  in these militias.

The historian Colin G. Calloway makes the compelling argument, that as well as the economic reasons for enlisting, the

“New England Algonkians, already surrounded, if not submerged, in Anglo-American society may in some cases have seen in the revolution an opportunity to demonstrate their right to equality…When war broke out, most had little desire to go to war against their American neighbors, and many chose to support them against redcoats who often resorted to tactics of coercian to enlist Indian support.””[39] Later generations spoke proudly of their ancestor’s involvement in the war, and their own perseverance on the land.

“My Grandfather in his time stood second in the council for years and years. He was a member, went to the Revolutionary war, and came back and lived and died at home“

Narragansett Joshua Nokes proudly told the Committee that would eventually strip the tribe of their sovereignty.

The Revolutionary War took a heavy toll on those tribes that participated in both the English and Continental Army. As Calloway has noted, “ The war sapped the remaining strength of the Connecticut tribes and the Narragansetts…”  People returned to ravaged reservations, where among survivors, “idleness and intemperance increased”. Villages were suddenly populated with widows and orphans without any means of support but that which  their impoverished neighbors could offer.

As with slaves and  “praying Indians”, the Christianized names used on the muster rolls often disguise the individual’s heritage, and it is difficult to come to an exact number or percentage of Narragansett who enlisted in the War. Most telling, are the desertion notices, which, as with runaway slaves, mention origin and characteristics. And while the numbers of Narragansett deserters were far fewer than the Irish, Scottish, and English indentured servants, or the black slaves who had enlisted for freedom and a paycheck; they identify what we must assume would be a low percentile of those who volunteered. In fact of the 38 “slaves” listed in the Narragansett Historical Register as enlisted in the Continental Army, only 20 year old William Greene shows in the desertion notices, leaving the regiment of Capt. John Dexter’s company of the 9th Battalion in the early spring of 1777. He, like hundreds of others had deserted after the dismal winter with barely the clothes on their backs, and then like many of his compatriots, re-enlisted the following year. Of the Narragansett listed, we find the following:

On July 5, 1777 the Providence Gazette included in it’s desertion notices, one

“Benjamin Wicket, an Indian, 26 years of age, about 5 feet 10 inches high, long black hair, cut square off at the earlocks…”

and in March of 1778,

“ Deserted from my company, in Col. Crary’s regiment, about the middle of February last, James Allen, a likely, well-set Indian fellow, 22 years of age. 5 feet 5 inches high; he belongs to East Greenwich.”

These notices often listed the deserter’s “home of origin, or where they enlisted; implying in legalese  that if the “renegade” returned, the town would be responsible for his detainment. Often these notices were quite detailed, as seen in that which appeared of deserters from Col. Grreene’s regiment on May 19, 1781:

“…James Booney, an Indian (inlisted for South Kingston) born in Westerly, 30 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches high, and is a cooper by trade.”

Such a wealth of information often left the Narragansett and other natives little choice but to vanish into the wilderness or take to the sea, a possibility further noted by the authorities. These notices often ended with a stern, but hardly enforceable warning:

“All masters of vessels are forbid carrying off said deserter, at their peril.”

Some Narragansett men inherently chose a life in maritime service by joining the fishing boats out of New England ports, but more often opting to sign on whaling vessels for “long lays”-journeys that could easily last for  three to five years out of ports as far north as Provincetown and Nantucket, but also from New Bedford and “ a number of outposts on Narragansett Bay”[40].  Most recently, a researcher from the Mystic Maritime Museum has speculated that Narragansett whalers may more likely have signed onto vessels in New London.

The occupation of whaling, as difficult and arduous as it was, apparently came naturally to many Narragansett. As Elmo Paul Hohman points out in his definitive The American Whaleman,

, “For an undetermined length of time before the white man came, the Indian tribes living along the southern coast of New England had pursued the whale in canoes from the shore.”[41]

According to the historian, these events of early whaling in Narragansett Bay were somewhat of a rarity, but apparently occurred often enough that Indians developed the courage and skills necessary for the occupation and “when the whaling knowledge and dexterity of the Indians were combined with the heavier boats and implements of the colonists, the percentage of captures rose materially.”[42]

Courtesy Providence Public Library Special Collections

As with the slaves and soldiers, many a mariner’s name was a Christian surname, given, or adopted in order to better assimilate into the burgeoning population and become one of many “Freebornes” and “Smiths”, “Tuckers” and “Woods” looking for work in the Southern New England ports.  Whalers also became active in the Revolutionary war. In 1775, John Paul Jones, the newly named commander of the sloop Providence, met among his crew “ a full-blooded Narragansett from Martha’s Vineyard- a whaleman by trade” and some have speculated the model for Melville’s “Moby Dick” was none other than a Narragansett whaler named Queequegunent, killed by the British during the war.

It was not unusual in this period, for the wives of the whale men to be an indentured domestics in one of the Newport or Narragansett estates, while they waited for their husbands to return. Newport employed the largest number of Narragansett females as domestic servants with Charlestown and South Kingstown following close behind. The largest population of free Narragansett women, according to the 1774 census were the estimated 252 living on the reservation in Charlestown. But there were also Narragansett women, and presumably wives scattered throughout the colony, from Tiverton and Little Compton, to Providence, and Barrington and Bristol. Oral history of the tribe speaks to the fact that Narragansett women lived more often among colonial people, moving “more easily between the two worlds”.[43] Despite this, these free women of the Narragansett often faced economic uncertainty, and the brunt of a colonial authorities who remained largely ignorant of Narragansett tradition.

While the months that a whaler or mariners voyage took him from his wife were a perfectly aligned occurrence to the Narragansett, the colonial authorities viewed such absences as abandonment. In the latter half of the 18th century, local authorities spent an increasing amount of time and legal paper dealing with “transient “residents. If these individuals became in need of assistance, local authorities issued “warn-out” orders, essentially a removal notice for the resident to return to their “hometown” where they would be entitled to town relief. As a recent study of the period pointed out, “women were the targets of most of the warn out orders issued to native people.”[44]

For the wives of mariners and whalers, this meant an adult life of uprooting and re-settling from town to town. For the elderly, it was worse.

The councilmen of Jamestown decreed that Mary Pisquish, being “lame and incapable of supporting herself” be moved to Warwick. Officials there sent her back. She was “transported several times between the homes of the overseers in the towns”[45] until the case was settled. Other elderly native women were “transported” to their hometowns, which often were not the towns of their own family but that of their husband or a place of earlier servitude.

It was around this time that the dichotomy of the tribe changed as well. When the last of the Ninigret men, corpulent “King Tom” married “a mulatto woman” named Moll Drummer, he was heavily in debt and drink. The two children his wife bore, like those of his great grandfather, died before him, though he was only to live eight years after his union.

Many of the remaining leaders of the tribe signed a petition to abolish the title of Sachem at this time, [46] but were persuaded by the remaining members of the Ninigret family to elect Thomas Ninigret’s sister Esther as Squaw Sachem.

Our first glimpse of her in the state record is upon her petition in 1770 to sell more land in order to settle the late Thomas’ debts. Her petition was granted. Three years later the committee of white men who had long overseen tribal affairs agreed to sell the remaining lands but for “the point of “Fort neck” which was by this time the remaining legal access the Narragansett had to the bay.

With the advent of Esther, the spendthrift days of the Ninigret men, the aspiration to “royalty” had finally ended. When she petitioned the court, she did so with her husband Thomas beside her, playing the role she must play for the Governor Lord Huffington, but “Queen Esther” had managed tribal affairs with the committee for some time before Thomas’ death, and hoped that her actions in strengthening the tribal council to deal with authorities would benefit the tribe in the future and ensure democracy.

After seventy some years of an enforced monarchy, borne of envy for the wealth of European nations and the stature of “royalty”, the Narragansett were to be a nation of council once again.

But it was also a tribe fractured by the changes of those years outside the reservation, including the ongoing influence of European culture, and Christianity. The excesses of Ninigret II had for some time divided the tribe. With the advent of missionaries and meetings of the Great Awakening, some Narragansett turned away from the sachem and his own adaptation of Anglicanism to the faith offered them by Jesuit and  Protestant missionaries,  and then the “new lights” of the Great Awakening.

As it was with European traders, contact with missionaries and believers came early to the Narragansett. Roger Williams briefly wrote of the Native beliefs in his A Key ToThe Language of America, whose first paragraph on the topic begins with a tribute:

“ He that questions whether God made the World, the Indians will teach him. I must acknowledge I have received in my converse with them many Confirmations of those two great points, Heb II 6. viz

  1. That God is.
  2. That he is a rewarder of all them that diligently seek him.

They will generally confesse that God made all: but then in speciall, although they deny not that English-mans God made English Men, and the heavens and earth there! yet their Gods made them and the Heaven and Earth where they dwell”[47]

Williams recalled that in one conversation

“…when I had discoursed about many points of God , of the creation, of the soule, of the danger of it, and the saving of it, he assented, but when I spake of the rising againe of his body, he cryed out, I shall never believe this..[48]

In fact, despite visits from Massachusetts missionaries like Mayhew, William Simmons, and others in the first decades of the eighteenth century, Narragansett’s clung to their own beliefs and resisted outside influences on their faith. Many found the various English faiths practiced in New England to be confusing, and the white man’s faith or lack of a consistent belief to be a sign of their own spiritual discord.

For many Indians in Rhode Island, the first real exposure to Christianity came with the appointment of Rev. James MacSparren to St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Narragansett, around 1720. The minister actively sought converts among the population of black and Indian slaves who attended his congregation, baptizing 14 Narragansett of full or mixed blood and marrying one couple in the 37 years of his ministry.[49]

The Sachem Charles Ninigret petitioned King George for an Episcopal church to be built on tribal land, though the small wooden church built there, known as the Church of England in Charlestown never attracted the same number of Indians as MacSparren’s congregation.

The first man of the cloth to achieve a major conversion among the Narragansett on the reservation was the Rev. Joseph Park, a Harvard educated minister, and one of others sent out on an “errand in the wilderness” to convert natives to Christianity.

Park arrived in 1733, and though preaching and notably presiding over sachem Charles Ninigret’s funeral two years later, he found the Narragansett resistant to his efforts. With the first wave of the Great Awakening however, and the evident equality among those who attended outdoor meetings, interest was stirred among the native communities and Park found himself integrated into a new formed community of “new lights”  where neighboring preachers traveled to nearby communities during the winter of 1741-1742 in what must have seemed a continuous flurry of meetings with “Ministers and Exhorters” preaching “ among the English and Indians.”

By the spring, Park had many new converts and the congregation determined to form a church, and this was accomplished by August of 1742 with Park ordained by a handful of the “new light” ministers in attendance. Initially, Park’s congregation was mostly English, but a shift seems to have occurred during a visit from a party of Indian converts from Stonington[50].

On February 6th, Park preached a sermon to the assembled Indians and found

“The Glory of the LORD was manifested more and more. The Enlightened among them had a great Sense of spiritual and eternal Things: A SPIRIT of Prayer and Supplication was poured out among them; and a SPIRIT of Conviction upon the Enemies of God.

I attempted to preach from 2 Cor. 6. 2. but was unable to continue my Discourse by Reason of the Outcry”[51]

After this meeting, Indian attendance increased until by February of 1744, the church membership consisted of 106 members with 64 being baptized Indians, and at least 2 members of the congregation were black. Park wrote enthusiastically of the Indian converts, that “there is among them a Change for good respecting the outward as well as the inward Man. They grow more decent and cleanly in their outward Dress, provide better for their Households, and get clearer of Debt.”[52]

According to Park’s account, the conversion and new “lifestyle” also stirred an interest in education among the tribal women, especially in teaching their children to read. Park writes that

“All that we have been able yet to do, is employ an Indian Woman to keep School in a Wigwam. “

The peace between the newly Christianized Narragansett and the English congregants was not to last. An English faction under the leadership of Elder Stephen Babcock separated from the church, and soon after, the Narragansett, when a remaining English member chastised Narragansett Samuel Niles for “exhorting in the congregation”[53]

Such was Niles influence among the Narragansett that one hundred left with him to a form a new church on the reservation.

Little is known about Samuel Niles, the Narragansett. Early historians often confused him with the more famous preacher, born on Block Island, Harvard educated, and also a minister to the Indian community in Braintree. Samuel Niles the Narragansett, was to achieve somewhat less status among the remnant of puritan raised preachers, but he was to have a significant influence over those Narragansett who followed the Christian faith.

According to one account, Niles ministry began as a young man, in his role as a pow-wow, or spiritual leader. He was close to the Sachem’s family and married Charles Ninigret to “Betty”, the daughter of Tobias Cohes, a union that was not sanctioned by the tribe.  Niles was given a tract of land by the old Queen Toccommah on which he built a small, English style house for his family, and turned his farm into a model of English husbandry.[54]

When the New Light movement swept through New England, Niles was converted and joined Park’s church in 1742.  By the time of their departure from Park’s church, Samuel Niles and his followers were true separatists from the constraints of the Anglican Church. In 1750.  Nile’s congregation constructed a wooden meeting house on the place where the granite Narragansett church now stands.

Rev. Joseph Fish wrote promisingly to his friend Dr. Sewel in the fall of 1765, that the Narragansett

“…seem tender and Very Susceptible of Impressions, from Truths, peculiarly interesting. And, must confess, by the Small experience I had of their Temper, They appeared to be of a More teachable Disposition, than I expected…”

In this correspondence, he writes of their spiritual leader:

“This Niles, (Who I have known Some Years) is a Sober Religious Man of Good Sense and great Fluency of Speech: and know not but a very honest Man. Has a good deal of the scriptures by heart, and professes a Regard for the Bible. But his unhappiness is this, He cannot read a Word, and So is wholly dependent Upon the (too seldom) reading of others: Which exposes him (doubtless) to a great deal of inaccuracy in using Texts of Scripture, if not to gross Mistakes in the Application of them. And as hereby, (I conclude,) very Much upon the Spirit to teach him Doctrine and Conduct…”[55]

In spite of his having visited the Narragansett and knowing Niles “ for some years”, the Rev. Fish apparently was naïve to believe he could establish himself as a “teacher” among the tribe. The church of Samuel Niles was an anomaly to Fish and other rigid overseers of the Narragansett Church. The English defectors from Park’s congregation at first blended in with Niles followers. Their leader Deacon Babcock, assumed the role of overseer, but would not participate in Nile’s convocation as minister. The account left by Ezra Stiles, purportedly from Niles himself, show the extent to which the Narragansett Christians separated themselves from the English.

“But as none of even the Separate Elders would ordain him; the Church chose and appointed three Brethren Indians to ordain him. They began Exercise in the meetinghouse about noon and held it till near sunset. The 3 Brethren laid their Hands on Samuel Niles, and one of them viz Wm. ‘Choise or Cohoize or OcHoyze prayed over him and gave him the charge of the Flock: during which such a Spirit was outpoured and fell upon them (as he expresses it) that many others of the Congregation prayed aloud and lifted their hearts with prayers and Tears to God. This continued for a long Time above half an hour or nearer an hour:-the white people present taking this for Confusion were disgusted and went away.”

Fish began his work with he tribe in earnest around 1765, appointing a schoolmaster named Edward Deake who kept the Reverend appraised of things between visits. In December of that year he writes to Fish enthusiastically

“The tribe is of the opinion twill answer to Build the School House But 40 feet in Length and 16 feet of Bredth, one Storey with a Strait Roof, and the Chimney in the middle with two Smokes etc.”

Deake had been instructing the Narragansett children who attended his school since June, and a week after the decision to build a school house, he writes

“I would Inform your honour, that our School Dayly Increases: I have Had already Fifty three children under my Instruction, and Expect many more. What Gives me the greatest Incouragements is that I find them, in general, Ingenious to learn.”

In a postscript he adds “”I Should Be much obliged to you if you would Help me tp Some Cash-my Second Quarter will Be out the first of January.”

He’d apparently been teaching without pay for six months.

Despite the best laid plans, by June Deake was writing to the minister that

“Soon after your last visit, the Carpenter called upon the Indians for his Wages…The poor Indians being unable to Answer his Demand for want of money, the Carpenter was Obliged to Labor else where.” [56]

The young schoolmaster urged the minister to write and secure money for the materials and so the Carpenter to be paid. Eventually work was restored, but even by October work had just begun on the chimney, and the building, much to Fisk’s annoyance – who’d been touting the school in “fund-raising” letters, was still uncompleted by early December.

A tone of frustration, misunderstanding, and often ignorance of Narragansett traditions permeate the correspondence and diary of the Reverend Joseph Fish. He complained during visits, of the drinking that went on within sight of “the Lecture”,   that the Narragansett mistrusted him because he was paid a salary to “bring” the gospel as a “gift’, Samuel Niles himself, Fish reports,

“came out fully and plainly Against them. Said these learned Ministers Are Thieves, Robbers, Pirates etc. They Steal the word…It was full bitter against them”.

Rev. Fish wrote most disdainfully, of the persistent Indian belief that

“they are also taught by the Spirit, immediately from Heaven; so have teachings above the Bible.”

On May 22nd 1771, the Minister wrote in his diary:

“It looks as if my Service among These Indians draws nigh to an end. They are all about their own business, or taking their own Ways-Some at Labour, and others at their Diversions.”[57]

By mid-August Fish writes bitterly

“…Much discouraged about this Indian Mission, at Seeing the Indians So generally despise their privileges-Set no Store at All by the blessed institution, of a preached Gospel…They had rather follow That ignorant, proud, conceited, Obstinate Teacher, poor Sam Niles, than Attend regular preaching of Sound Gospel Doctrine. Rather follow, Some of their work, others their pleasures, Idleness, Drunkenness, or any Way of Serving the Devil and their Lusts, than to Spend An hour or Two in hearing the precious Truths of the Gospel.”[58]

I’ve included nearly the whole of Fish’s diatribe because it illustrates several points among the failings of his own and others ministry to the Narragansett and other tribes.

It is plain among the correspondence and diaries that Fish remains perpetually confused about Indian customs- their belief in the Spirit’s guidance, their long excursions from home to sacred sites, their absence during hunting and planting seasons.

Joseph Fish, like other ordained, wandering Ministers seeking a mission among the natives, never educated themselves in the customs and beliefs of the Indians, and scarcely acknowledged the abject poverty in which they lived, or recognized that it came from their dependence upon white communities.

Those “at their labors” were there out of economic necessity, those at “their diversions” had often worked all week on a neighboring farm, or labored on a series of menial tasks in the neighboring community for the lowest of wages. Those ravaged by alcoholism were among the many Indians ignored by charity and frowned upon by the clergy who turned their black cloaks to the cause and those who  profited from such misery.

Like many evangelical Ministers of his generation, Joseph Fish expected the Narragansett to adapt their way of living to the tenets of the church, once they discovered the Truths of the Gospel. While Rev. Parks had succeeded with some Indian conversions by allowing Narragansett worshipers to slowly adapt the Gospel into their storehouse of other truths that the Spirit gave them, Joseph Fish lived mostly at a distance; relying upon Schoolmaster Deake and others to keep him appraised of the Mission. His diary of visits records his mounting belief that his Mission has been betrayed by the very people it was meant to serve. But his own, continued ignorance of the ways of the Narragansett can be seen in one diary passage from May of 1772, a full seven years after the school had opened.

Fish writes

“Preachd to 13 Indians and a number of White people from Jno. 14.6…Had a measure of Freedom, was enabled to Open the Subject with Some Clearness; and would hope the poor Indians learnd Something. But alas! I know not What method to take, nor Argument or Motive to Use, to engage them to Attend the Lecture or regard the School.”[59]

Later that same day, Fish went in search of his Indian “deacon” John Shattucks,  and found him “Busy at planting, but had no thought of the Lecture. Pretended he had forgot all about it.”

The school itself was sporadically attended as the years passed, though Schoolmaster Deake was to stay fourteen years, and through letters provides some clear idea of the time. Deakes letters and Fish’s Diary portray a native community divided by land claims, the struggle that Niles and others waged to unseat the Sachem, and the continued poverty that pervaded Narragansett lives.

Fish sometimes wrote bitterly about the  Indians “Ignorance and blindness as to the Advantages of the School and Gospel Ministry”, and the Parents who “Will not get wood for the school, … their naked or ragged children cannot sit in the cold.” But the only “charity” Fish provided was through the Indian Commissioners and consisted mostly of the distribution of blankets to “the most needy persons Among them…”, and at least on one occasion, while he ”exhorted and Sirrd them up to Send their Children to School”,  the promise of “one or two pair shoes.”

Rev. Joseph Fish attempted to minister to the Narragansett for ten years, leaving by December of 1774, another biter entry in his diary:

“Preached at Mr Deake’s to 3 Indians, on 1 Peter 2.2…Discoursed with Some what of Freedom, and, hope, not entirely without Sensibility. But the Indians remain Indisposed to hear Me. A Publick Training, This day at Mr. Champlains Tavern, Suppose, hindered Some few from attending the Lecture…Wrote a letter to Sam Niles to let him know I had frequently heard of his Charging the Indians not to come and hear Me preach: Which, if true, I had a right to know what it was for, and twas his duty as a Christian to come and Tell me…”[60]

William S. Simmons writes most effectively that in establishing their own church, and resisting white overseers,

“they strengthened the boundary that separated them from other poor and common people….their new faith appealed to and gave an organizational focus for those most actively involved in challenging the abuses of tribal and colonial authority…Finally, in Separate belief and ritual they found a vehicle for preserving some deeper aspects of their traditional culture.”

Samuel Niles ministered to the Narragansett followers long after Fish had departed. He continued to fight the Sachem’s indiscriminate sale of lands to Narragansett planters, petitioning the state in August of 1779, asking that the council, with the addition of “two substantial honest white People” be allowed to review and approve any sales or lease of lands.. This petition did not pass, but led the way for later legislation in 1782 that createda board, as Niles and the Council recommended. This struggle would continue to dominate the Narragansett political landscape. Niles proved to be the People’s most ardent advocate, as the conflict did not end until the state intervened six years later and gave the council sole authority in approval of any further sales.

It was to be his last battle. In June of 1785, the Mohegan preacher Samsom Occom, already on familiar terms with Nile’s brother James, visited “Charles Town” and recorded in his journal on June 19th:

“went in the morning to see old Samuel Niles, and found him very low, and I believe he never will get up again…went back to James, (Niles) and then to the meeting house, and was a number of people, but not large, they had but a Short Notice of my coming and I preached from Romans 4…in the afternoon went to see Sam Niles and I preached from Daniel 5:25…”[61]

In many ways the life of Samuel Niles is emblematic of the conflicts within many of the Narragansett during this time. He initially embraced the “improvements” that the English brought in housing and husbandry. Niles never learned to read or write, but he sent his son Samuel Jr. along with nephew James Jr to  learn under the supervision of Eleazer Wheelock at Moore’s Indian Charity School in Connecticut, along with other sons of prominent Christian Narragansett. The “guardians” of the young sachem “King Tom” sent him to receive his education in England.[62]

But at some point, Niles began to negate the value of English style education for the Narragansett. Those entries of Fish’s diary wherin Niles argues against the relevance of a school in Charlestown had to have come from some personal experience or disappointment.  Joseph Fish found Niles nephew James “a sensible man…far from being of Sam’s spirit or way of conduct…”

Some have suggested that Samuel Niles lost faith in the English system during his long battles with the State over the sachem’s authority to sell Narragansett lands. Others seem to suggest that Niles had a bad taste in his mouth over much of his lifetime for the lack of acceptance he found from educated and ordained clergy beyond the reservation as a Christian leader, a true minister to his people.

Spiritually, it might be said that Niles shepherd’ the Narragansett to integrate the best truths of Christianity into their own beliefs and their own congregation. It proved to be a strong congregation, as shown years later, when another Minister sought the Church’s acceptance. The Rev. Curtis Coe, an elderly Congregationalist, attended a Narragansett service and recorded in his journal:

“…A Mulatto who is a professed preacher made a prayer. Others, also, spoke after him, some the same & others appeared to me different words. They then sung a hymn, commonly used, when they meet, from the penitential cries. “My soul doth magnify the Lord etc. etc. .. After which, both men & women told their feelings…Exhortations were also given to one another…Again they sing the same hymn, as last before, took hold of one another’s hands & reeled back & forward, in their devotion.”[63]

When Coe stood to plead his case for preaching to the congregation, he was astonished that everyone present (including the women) had the right to stand and express their opinion, an opinion which was as contrary as “their tumultuous, noisy meetings & what we call regular, decent worship…”. The assembled congregation “…wanted to hear no preacher that was paid-That my preaching prevented their speaking when they felt the spirit…That their mode was for all to speak…”[64]

The Narragansett had held their congregation together on their own terms, and while this was never accepted by the Society for Propagating the Gospel, local Ministers came to accept the method of Separatism the Narragansett practiced. In the midst of Samuel Nile’s ministry, Ezra Stiles wrote a grudging acceptance in his journal:

”It seems extraordinary that such an one should be a Pastor. He is however acquainted with the Doctrines of the Gospel, and an earnest zealous Man, and perhaps does more good to the Indians than any White Man could do…”[65]

Like the wars before, the American Revolutionary war brought a disruption and loss to  the Narragansett that were to have a profound impact on the tribe. The Squaw Sachem Esther died during the war, and the upstart son George, keen on joining the American forces, was felled by a tree before even that dream was realized. That tragedy was echoed throughout the tribe as the death or disappearance of so many young men left many widows and unsupported elderly among the population.

Facing little more than the bleak prospect of further poverty on their own rapidly diminishing lands, manyNarragansett chose to leave Charlestown and other Rhode Island communities.

In 1775, a significant number of Narragansett Christians had joined displace peoples from  other Algonquin tribes and moved to what would become the community of Brothertown. As the reputation of that community grew, other Narragansett would follow.

John Niles, brother of Samuel, had served on the tribal council for some years and married a wife named Jerusha, who bore him three children. One named John, who was attending Ebenezer Wheelock’s Christian school, left to join the Second Connecticut Regiment at age 17, and a Rhode Island regiment a year later in 1781.[66] Yet, by 1796, the family had removed to Brothertown,  receiving two lots on which to begin their new life.

In 1799, John Hammer, a “prisoner for Debt which arose from his purchasing a horse which he lost by “Death”, petitioned the Smithfield Friends Meeting to help him and a number of other Narragansett remove to Oneida, New York. The Meeting approved the gift of over two hundred dollars to pay of the Narragansett debts, and assist with their move.[67]

This slow exodus was to last for several generations as we find in an article from the Providence Journal of August 14, 1843, which records a meeting held in the church amidst the large annual August  gathering, and attended by Commissioner Potter as

“the General Assembly had been informed that a number of the tribe wished to have liberty to sell their lands and emigrate…their land here was poor and exhausted; the land at Green Bay, where their brethren were, was of the most exuberant fertility.”

Deacon Sekatur, the successor of Samuel Niles as the Church’s leader was among the few who spoke out against the ongoing exodus. The Deacon told the Narragansett who were intent upon leaving that “if they were only industrious and temperate, they could get along here as well as the whites.”

But by the time of the Deacon’s plea, a serious migration had already occurred. In January of 1833, a report by the Commissioner to the State Assembly provided a list of one hundred and ninety nine Narragansett residing in Charlestown and fifty or more names of the people “ who were supposedly absent”. This of course, was not the whole of the tribe, there were simply fewer families in Charlestown to speak of other relatives in other places.

A later report, issued in 1839 described the Assembly’s growing viewpoint of the remaining Narragansett.

“The state of morals among the Indians has, for many years, been very low, and it has had a debasing effect upon many of the white people near them.  The people of their neighborhood will, undoubtably, rejoice to have them better educated, and their morals, if possible improved, as the only way of correcting the evils they must otherwise suffer from, in consequence of their presence.”

This growing disenchantment with the plight of Native Americans was fed by the popularity of the scientific and academic studies of race purporting the superiority of the Caucasian race, and the consequential dwindling of other races in the white man’s shadow. In Europe and America, these ideas stirred tensions between Americans of European descent and Black Americans as well as Native Americans, and proceeded a swell of violence against the later immigrant tides.

The idea of racial superiority had fomented for decades by the mid-nineteenth century. In America, this ideal was presented in patriotic form, within the first histories written as the Republic gained firm footing, so to speak, in the world. States began to publish their own local histories as well as the communities within. Many of these histories were written by prominent and wealthy citizens of diverse backgrounds, but almost all consumed with the Anglo-Saxon heroes of the Revolution, and the “progress” that came at their descendants hand.

Samuel Greene Arnold’s “History of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” (1853) takes a dim view of the remaining Narragansett, promoting their decline by citing  “an inevitable law controlling the occupancy of the earth” and mistakes Samuel Niles for the famous minister  from Braintree,[68] who had visited Park’s congregation.

Wilkin Updike’s “History of the Episcopal Church in RI (1907)” corrects Arnold on this matter, but holds an equally disparaging view of the people and their identity:

“It was a well known custom for Indians and Negroes to assume the name of white people of prominence, who had been their patrons or masters, a class to which this Indian preacher Niles, doubtless belongs.”[69]

William F. Tucker’s  “An Historical sketch of Charlestown” deemed the true Narragansett long deceased. The remnants of the tribe were of Niantic blood, and shared not a drop of the blood that once coursed through the great sachems of the past.

Frederic Denison’s “Westerly and it’s Witnesses (1878) compiles a chronology of Indian names and places, a reference of tools and implements used, as well as a reference guide to tribal customs and a vocabulary, before commenting on the present state of the Narragansett:

“A subtle decay seems to be in the Indian nature, and it is only too evident that the remnant of the hordes of the forest must soon follow their Fathers to the land of forgetfulness”[70]

William Cullen Bryant and Sidney Howard Gay’s A Popular History of the United States (1879) included an “ engraving made from ambrotype of “Esther Kenyon, The last of the Royal Narragansetts”.

Among the local historians, there was none who took a more romanticized view of a heroic, deceased nation of Indians than Thomas W. Bicknell.

Elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly while a senior at Brown, Bicknell would become Commissioner of Public Schools, where he helped to re-establish what is now Rhode Island College. He also established a Board of Education and opened 50 new schools during his tenure. He supported the election of the first all-female school board in Tiverton, and promoted the desegregation of public schools.

In photographs we s a man tall in stature among his contemporaries, a look of clear determination on a face framed by a distinguished white beard above the starched shirt and black tie. Bicknell’s ego was equal to his stature in the community. As president of the New England Publishing Company, he produced a massive five-volume “History of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”. Deciding that he desired a town to be named after him, he posited a proposal of his 1000 volume library to any town in Utah, willing to adopt the name of Bicknell.[71]

He was the founder of the National society of the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, proudly proclaiming his old Nordic stock in his “History and Genealogy of the Bicknell Family”. Relishing his self–appointed role as state historian, Bicknell began to engineer and foster the dedication of “monuments” to the Narragansett tribe. He published  “A Statement of the Case of the Narragansett Indian Tribe” and founded the New England Indian Council, sharing the title of “Head Pale-Faced Sachem” with another council member. While the Council was open to native and non-native members, the first few pamphlets published of the meetings reveal that only white men held the leading roles, with titles such as “Keeper of Wigwams” and lodge –like lexicons of the white man’s Society’s.

Bicknell’s voluminous “History” published in 1920, borrows much from previous historians, but held it’s own share of notable passages. One is perhaps the most egregious whitewashing of northern slavery every penned:

“The Narragansett county was the slave paradise of the Northern colonies…Every farm had it’s quota, and the family life of the slaves was recognized and protected. Labor indoors and out was not excessive, the relation of master to slave was kind and humane, and punishments for offenses were usually mild and corrective. The social and convivial life of the masters, mistresses and young people was communicated to the servant class and the natural happy-go-easy spirit of the slaves was made more joyous by the examples of their surperiors.”

In his treatment of the Narragansett, he writes poetically of Canonchet and the heroic Miantonomo, and provides a standard, romanticized version of the Great Swamp fight, citing less casualties than earlier accounts. He then writes poignantly of their demise after King Philip’s War, continuing the drumbeat of the earlier historians.

Bicknell ignores the later existence of the Narragansett when he confuses Samuel Niles, the later Narragansett with that of Niles the minister, of whom he writes a brief biography, which concludes:

“ In his later years, Rev. Mr. Niles returned to Rhode Island and became a pastor of a church in Charlestown, composed chiefly of Indians of the Niantic Tribe.”

Bicknell’s enthusiasm with erecting monuments to Narragansett lore perpetuatedthe proclamation of the tribe’s “death” on paper into the physical world. Through his “Council” and by persuading communities and the state to erect these “tombstones”, the public perception naturally grew that the Narragansett were a people of the past.

In the midst of the maelstrom of popular histories, and a populist political climate, the Rhode Island State Assembly held meetings in 1879 and again in 1880, and 1881 to effectively dismantle the Narragansett tribe of it’s title and property. Citing several of the afore-mentioned “histories” the Committee met to  “Inquire into the Justice, Expediency, and Practicabillity of abolishing the tribal relations of the Narragansett Indians, of Conferring the rights of citizenship upon the members thereof…”

The Committee held three public hearings, beginning with one at the meetinghouse in Charlestown on July 30, 1879 where the committee traveled to respond to an appeal by the Council for the Assembly to investigate complaints about continued white encroachment. Instead, the two members present before the tribe informed them that it might be in their best interests to disban and become citizens.

The first response wasfrom Gideon Ammons, the head of the tribal council, who re-iterated why he had asked them to come, and remarked:

“Now as it appears the State wants to dispose of our public lands, we don’t wish to stop the wheels of any business. We will sell them the land for just what it is worth. We don’t expect to sell it as we used it- a great tract for a little rum. We would rather have a few greenbacks than the firewater.”

He submitted to the committee a sworn “deed” from Ninigret , outlying the boundaries of the original reservation. and told the members:

“the state has accused us of making an enormous expense for them, and  here is this tract of land. The railroad passes across it. They have built upon it and don’t call our property anything, but the three hundred dollars that is given to the tribe is enormous expense. Well now then, before I become a citizen I want what belongs to me. What belongs to me is mine. Congress is the third party to settle it therefore I don’t wish to be a citizen until this thing is settled up”[72]

Joshua Noka, another tribal council member, asked the representatives:

“Why should the Narragansett tribe be willing, just for the sake of being a citizen, to throw away the rights and privileges that they now have ?…Now, if we were citizens somebody would compel us to fence our lands. We can’t fence them to save our lives; and if we can’t fence our lands, suddenly the right must be forfeited. And now we are not obliged to fence the land that we hold.”

Council member Daniel Sekater, descendant of the Deacon who had overseen the Narragansett church after Samuel Niles, spoke bluntly, and addressed the prejudice that had led to the Assembly’s proposal.

“I can’t see for my life wherein we shall be benefited any more than we are at the present time by coming out as citizens…some argue that they ought to come out as citizens because they are mixed up with others…But other classes are mixed up with other nations as well. There is hardly one who can say I am a clear-blooded Yankee.”[73]

In subsequent meetings in August and October, the Committee heard similar protestations and testimony from a proud people attesting to their long family history in the tribe and the state. They also heard testimony from Charles Cross, the town clerk of Charlestown and other white administrators including Indian Commissioner Cornell, who while admitting that he was not “very acquainted with the land up there” nonetheless felt it for the betterment of the tribe if they abolished the Indian school and the tribe’s children be sent to the town schools, remarking “I would send my boy to school where they went just as soon as anywhere.”

Many of the tribe were also in favor of abandoning an “Indian” school, and sending their children to white schools. Many wanted more of an assimilation into white society, especially jobs. The testimony of one Indian laborer, clearly annoyed one member of the Committee who insisted that the skilled and educated Indians he had witnessed elsewhere, and the “negroes in the senate” should be what the Narragansett wanted their people to become.

The laborer responded “that may be, but in Rhode Island there is no such thing.”

As far as citizenship, he told the Committee,

“To be a citizen I think wouldn’t be any use to me. I shouldn’t be permitted, or any of my sons to be a juryman. Might do, as some one said a little while ago to dig out a cesspool or some other job.”

By the third meeting on October 31st 1879, the Tribal Council seemed impelled to sell the land the State coveted in exchange for retaining their sovereignty. Mr. Ammons told the Committee that he estimated the Narragansett land holdings to be “in the neighborhood of 14 or 15 hundred acres, all told”

The Committee scoffed at the estimated value the tribe had determined for their lands, and their claim as overseers of ponds within their lands. The Committee asked Ammons:

“Suppose the state should say to the tribe ‘We will remove the guardianship over you,take your lands and do what we like with them, and hereafter they shall be subject to taxation the same as other lands in the State, and you shall be subject to the same rights and privileges, and under the same law that any other citizen takes.’ Would that be satisfactory to you?”

Ammons response was brusque:

“If they removed the guardianship we would stand the same as any other white man.”

Joshua Noka told the Committee in regard to the tribe’s claims of land value, that

“ If it is worth something to the State it is worth something to us, and I say it ought to be paid for. If the land is so situated that it can be improved and made more valuable, then if we sell it, we ought to have some of the valuation”

Another tribe member, Mr. Thomas told the Committee respectfully that

“I have thought this thing over for myself, and I look at it this way- That the State has nothing to do with disposing of our property at all. We will admit that we are under guardianship and protection from the State of Rhode Island, but I don’t think the guardian has any right to sell our land and make us expense.  If the state sees fit to raise the guardianship, then we stand as we were before. I don’t think it would be any new thing for them to do it, and then what belongs to me, I have a right to ask for. I don’t want the State…to sell this property and disenfranchise me from the property that belongs to me, and that I inherited. Give me my right.”[74]

Following the public hearings, the Committee met with tribal leaders behind closed doors, eventually reaching an agreement for the sale of the lands, but for 2 acres that included the land upon which the Narragansett Church stood. On the basis of the Committee’s Report, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to abolish the tribal status of the Narragansett. They estimated that only 922 acres of the over 1500 claimed belonged to the tribe, and determined that the assets from the sale of those lands would go to individuals who could claim tribal ancestry, but only after the State undertook a long and tedious process to determine tribal genealogy, contesting the testimony of dozens of tribal members who had come long distances to speak in the public hearings, and whose families had long taken part in the August gatherings and voting for the tribal councils.

With this Act, and the subsequent division of their lands, the “ghosting” of the Narragansett was complete, at least in the minds of those State politicians and Charlestown officials who had long wanted to make the tribe accept ordinary citizenship.

For others, like Thomas Bicknell, Frederic Dennison and others, the Act gave license to continue the promotion of public monuments, and to begin the evacuation of gravesites, a further “ghosting” in removing artifacts from graves, and placing them on public display.

Despite these degrading acts, whether based on true archeology, or more often, undertaken by eager, amateur historians, the people of the Narragansett were to prove resilient, and to reclaim their sovereignty, though it was to take nearly a hundred years to wrest it back from the State.


Notes to Part II:

[1] A typical summary of Narragansett life in the aftermath of the war and into the 19th century historian viewpoint.

[2] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation p 78

[3] Chapin. ”Documentary History of RI” pp 101-102

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid p. 124

[6] printed in Chapin’s The Documentary History of Rhode Island p. 149

[7] Ibid p. 158

[8] Bailyn, Bernard The Peopling of British North America

[9] Sainsbury, John A. Indian Labor in Early Rhode Island

[10] Conforti, Joseph A. “Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America” p. 151

[11] This was a lesson apparently learned from Connecticut’s distribution of Native slaves after the Pequot War.

[12] Sainsbury, John Indian Labor in Early Rhode Island New England QuarterlyVol 48. No. 3 p 383

[13] RI Col. Rec., Vol II p. 535 Miller, in his The Narragansett Planters notes that the earlier law of 1652 prohibiting the holding of negroes or Indians as slaves for longer than ten years, would seem to have become a dead letter.

[14] Miller, William Davis “The Narragansett Planters” American Antiquarian Society 1934

p. 21

[15] Providence Gazette Nov. 6, 1773

[16] Channing, “The Narragansett Planters” JHU Studies IV

[17] A description included in the footnotes of Davis’ The Narragansett Planters bears reprinting here: They have handsome foreheads, the head clean, the neck long, the arms and legs thin and taper…They are very spirited and carry both head and tail high.-quoted from Phillips- the American edition of the Edinburg Encyclopedia Vol. 1 p 336

[18] Quoted in Retelling Narragansett Lives Chapter 7 of Grave Undertakings p 141

[19] Simmons & Simmons ed. Fish, Joseph The Narragansett Diary of…pp 21-22

[20] Brown, William J. The Life of…of Providence R.I. P. 4

[21] Letter of James Deake to Rev. Joseph Fish quoted in “Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England 1780-1880” by Daniel R. Mandell p. 54

[22] Documentary History of RI pp. 170-171

[23] Deposition of Indian Hannah March 3, 1729 for the RI Supreme Court.

[24] Stiles comment from Indian accounts given to him.

[25] Grave Undertakings p. 142

[26] Herndon, Ruth Wallace and Sekatau, Ella Wilcox The Right To A Name: The Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era. p.440

[27]Fitts, Robert K. Inventing New England’s Slave Paradise: Master/Slave Relations in the 18th century.

[28] Ibid

[29] the site of Miantonomo’s burial was one such site, visited regularly on the anniversary by hundreds of Narragansett who would drop a stone on a cairn that was finally dismantled by the town in 1886 and replaced with a cement monument.

[30] Account written by Elizabeth Brenton in the Newport Mercury of August 13, 1853 from family records.

[31] Chapin, Howard M. ed. The Early Records of the Town of Warwick pp 80-81

[32] Drake, Samuel G. Old Indian Chronicles p. 300

[33] Callendar, John An Historical Discourse of the Civil and Religious Affaires of the Colony of Rhode Island

[34] Gookin, Daniel Historical Collections of the Indians of New England 1792

[35] letter of Henry Bouquet to Gen. Jeffrey Amherst, July 26, 1763

[36] Johnson, Richard R. The Search for a Usable Indian: An Aspect of the Defense of      Colonial New England The Journal of American History Vol. 64 No. 3 p 640

[37] Johnson, Richard R. The Search for a Useable Indian…p. 629

[38] A Muster Roll of Newport County Troops sent Toward Albany in 1757 published by the Council of the Society of Colonial Wars  Publication  no.46 1961

[39] Calloway, Colin G. Algonkians in the American Revolution p. 59

[40] Hohman, The American Whaleman

[41] Ibid p. 23

[42] Ibid p. 24

[43] Herndon, Ruth Wallis and Sekatau, Ellen Wilcox The Right to a Name p.440

[44] Ibid. p 442

[45] Ibid. p 442

[46] petition was signed on December 18, 1769

[47] Williams, Roger AKLA p. 123

[48] Ibid p. 56

[49] Simmons, William S. “Red Yankees: Narragansett Conversion in the Great Awakening”

American Ethnologist Vol. 10 no. 2 May 1983

[50] Many Indians had converted in Stonington the year before after Rev. James Davenport’s powerful meetings in 1741.

[51] cited in Simmons Red Yankees…

[52] Ibid p. 262

[53] Cited in Simmons Red Yankee… AE p. 262

[54] Sweet, William Wood “Bodies Politic”

[55] Simmons & Simmons “Old Light on Separate Ways” pp. 4-5

[56] Simmons and Simmons Old Light on Separate Ways

[57] Ibid p. 57

[58] Ibid p. 80

[59] Ibid p. 89

[60] Simmons and Simmons Old Light…p. 110

[61] Brookes “The Collected Writings of Samsom Occom, Mohegan” p. 294

[62] Chapin, Howard “Sachems of the Narragansett” p. 101

[63] from Coe’s Journal, reprinted in David R. Mandell’s Tribe, Race, History p. 85

[64] Ibid p. 86

[65] Simmons and Simmons Old Light on Separate Ways p. 10

[66] Samsun Occum and the Christian Indians of New England p. 353

[67] FN 55 from Herndon, Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials p. 459

[68] I am referring of course to Samuel Niles (16 – 1769) who did indeed visit the Narragansett church but was a guest, as was the Narragansett custom, and never an official “minister” to the congregation.

[69] Updike, Wilkins “The History of the Episcopal Church in RI” Vol. 1 p. 338

[70] Denison, Frederic “westerly and its Witnesses” 1878 p.

[71] Two towns actually bid for the books. After considerable negotiation, the town of Thurber changed its name to Bicknell, while the town of Grayson changed its name to Blanding, the maiden name of Bicknell’s wife. The towns each received 500 books.

[72] Report of the Committee of the Narragansett Indians 1880

[73] Report of the Committee on Narragansett Indians

[74] Report from the Committee on Narragansett Indians p. 89

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
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One Response to Keepers of the Bay Part II: The Ghosting of a People

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