Keepers of the Bay: The Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island

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Keepers of the Bay

The Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island Part I

By Robert A. Geake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Patricia Rubertone points out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(O) ur (F) athers had plenty of deer and skins, our plains were full of deer, as also our woods, of turkies, and our coves full of fish and fowle. But these English have gotten our land, they with scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved”[16]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ truly heare their grievances”

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

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

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

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

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

According to Winthrop:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Dudley, an army chaplain wrote that

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

Another eyewitness recounted how

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

Dudley again, relates how the Narragansett

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

Benjamin Church wrote later that

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Oliver, in his report some days later confirms that

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

Oliver reported that in the days following the battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes to Part I:

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

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

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

[4] Rubertone, Paula “Grave Undertakings”

[5] Cotton, John “Letters Examined”

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

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

[8] Williams, Roger “A Key…” p 80

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

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

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

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

[12] ibid pp77-78

[13] Leach Douglas “Flintlock and Tomahawk” pp14

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

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

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

[17] ibid

[18] Winthrop,

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

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

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

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

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

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

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

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

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

[29] Hubbard “History of the Indian Wars”

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

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

[32] Ibid pp 349

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[41] Mason “Briefe History…”

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

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

[44] Letter of Captain Oliver

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

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
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4 Responses to Keepers of the Bay: The Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island

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