Keepers of the Bay Part III: The Return of Sovereignty

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Part III: The Return of Sovereignty

As the nineteenth century unfolded across the country with unprecedented changes in industry, transportation, and population growth, even the smallest of states in the Republic were affected in new and profound ways and all the people therein. For the Narragansett, it proved to be a century of continual change, as long-time natives gave up their land and joined other groups, moved on from what had been years of desperation and hopelessness. By 1842, the farmer who owned the land on which lay Miantonomo’s grave had never seen an Indian come near, and so, dismantled the cairn and used the stones lain for centuries by Narragansett hands to build the foundation for a new barn. When the State detribalized the Narragansett in 1883, those people who remained were described as little more than a remnant of what “ had once been a proud tribe”.

The minds of New Englanders had long been captured by Indian Narratives of adventure or captivity, accounts of encounters and lives shared with Native Americans, as well as the treaties printed by Ben Franklin in America. The young nation’s emerging literature had also played an inestimable role in what framed the picture Americans had of local Indians.

One such mind was that of Henry David Thoreau, who late in his young life met Martha Simon, “ the only pure-blooded Indian left about New Bedford”, believed by locals to be a Narragansett. Thoreau sought out and found the elderly woman  “alone on the narrowest point of the Neck”[1] and wrote somewhat disappointedly:

“To judge from her physiognomy, she might have been King Philip’s own daughter. Yet she could not speak a word of Indian, and knew nothing of her race. She said she had lived with the whites, gone out to service for them when she was seven years old.”[2]

Courtesy of the Millicent Library

From early in his adult life, Thoreau had kept a series of notebooks filled with quotes, odd facts, historical references, and personal experiences with Native Americans. He intended to one day collect enough material for a definitive work. As Robert F. Sayre points out in his book Thoreau and the Indians, followers of the naturalist and transcendentalist essayist believe he would have penned a “ book about Indians free of prejudice, rhetoric, and melodrama, depending instead upon poetry, or the exact imitation of real life in the right images.”[3]

Such an achievement would have been a long struggle for Thoreau, “…for he certainly began his literary vocation and his early pursuit of Indian relics and lore under the spell of Savagism.”[4] Martha Simons was also portrayed by the young Albeirt Beirstadt in 1857 after his return from painting lessons in Europe. Beirstadt subtitled the portrait “The Last of The Narragansett”. While the legend of her ancestry was later questioned, the portrait of this woman is also a portrait of a people, and her story was the life that many Narragansett and  members of other remaining tribes were living at this time.

Natural scientists like Thoreau, and historians writing from the Anglo-American tradition, were veiled in their view by the earlier histories in how they saw the native population. Even as an American generation that was for the first time breaking from European influence, these historians and wanderers, and experimentalists like Thoreau, leading the followers of natural science onto the path of anthropology, still saw the remaining members of the Indians they observed and interviewed as the fragmented remnants of the people of their inquiry.

In fact, it could be argued, that as Europeans had viewed Native Americans with irreverence from the moment they stepped upon the shore, this thread of prejudice had woven it’s way so strongly into the “american” fabric, that it’s hold would not be broken for many generations.

Early irreverence from European visitors came in the pillaging of villages abandoned for the season and the robbing of provisions stored but soon they would discover more interesting bounty. The disturbance of Indian graves by English settlers began within two weeks of the Pilgrims stepping ashore in 1620. A party of armed men, sent inland, walked six miles or so and found an Indian burial ground, where they dug up “various pretty and sundry items”.

An attempted robbing of a Narragansett grave had occurred as early as 1653 when a Dutch trader and his crew were caught in the act of desecrating the tomb of the sister of the Sachem Pessacus. The robbers reputedly fled empty-handed to Warwick with a band of angry Indians on their trail[5]

As chronicled by Howard M. Chapin, there were numerous occurrences of accidental discoveries as well, such as the unearthing of an Indian grave along the banks of the Sakonnet River in Tiverton in 1834, and the excavation in 1835-1836 of numerous artifacts by the workers constructing the railroad between Westerly and Providence. Workers constructing another Railroad bridge unearthed an Indian cemetery just west of the city in 1848. Artifacts collected from these sites were given to local historical groups, and to the Rhode Island Historical Society.

These accidental discoveries were of keen interest to the amateur historians and academics alike. Collecting skulls and artifacts had become increasingly popular as a “hobby of gentlemen”[6], especially to those interested in the theories of cranial capacity as a determining factor of intelligent race. Local “gentlemen” and their societies were no exception, and perhaps these accidental discoveries fueled the passions of more than one individual to commit the desecration of Narragansett graves.

In 1859, workers, led by Dr. Usher Parsons, excavated two graves long suspected to be the sachem Ninigret and his daughter in the ancient “Royal” Burial Ground. Parsons described the site at the present time as

“a swell of land covered by a dense forest. Through the center of this, and running from East to West is a strip of ground ten feet wide, and raised two or three feet above the adjoining land and supported on each side by a stone wall…the only lettered gravestone is to the east end.”[7]

The workers unearthed a body interred in two halves of a hollowed log-as though to imitate an English coffin. Parsons later wrote of the female remains they’d found:

“Her dress and ornaments denoted that this was a female of exalted rank, and she was buried in the west end of the Sachem’s cemetery, where internments first commenced”.

The body was

“enshrouded with a silk robe, and on its head a cap or bonnet of green silk. Extending from the top of the head, was a chain like a watchguard, down to the sole of the foot…Surrounding the waist was a belt made of wampumpeag, and covered with silver brooches, as ornaments. Around the neck was a necklace, and at the waist were silver sleeve buttons. They also found two Dutch coins, one of silver, dated 1650, and a copper farthing.”

The supposed grave of the Sachem Ninigret, who had died twenty years after his daughter, was disappointingly devoid of any ornaments, only a

“skull and other bones that present exactly the appearance we might expect to see in the skeleton of Ninigret.”

Parsons was a distinguished surgeon and wrote many medical texts including one on sea-sickness and its remedies for the U.S. Navy. He was also, as were many men of wealth and standing, an amateur historian. Among his histories was a review of the Battle of Lake Erie, in which he attended to the wounded as a young surgeon. Parson’s also held a fascination with the Narragansett and published “Indian Names of Places in Rhode Island”.

In his role as historian he had joined and enlisted the support of the Rhode Island Historical Society, which sanctioned the exhumations. Parsons reported his findings in talks at both the Rhode Island Historical Society on October 7, 1862, and the New York Historical Society the following year, exhibiting the artifacts, including the skull and femur of Ninigret to his audiences.

As reported by the Providence Journal, Dr Parsons told his audience that two years before, “with a view of ascertaining the posture of the buried remains, Mssrs Joshua P. Carrd, Asa Noyrs, Samuel Nocake, Charles Cross, Christopher Card, George E. Mattison, George F. Babcock, and Oliver Fiske, lately opened one of the graves in the Sachem’s cemetery in Charleston, R.I.”

The Journal recounted the dramatic efforts of the men when after digging four feet, they

“came to three very large flat stones, weighing perhaps a ton each. Raising them out of the way, they continued digging four feet deeper, including the thickness of the stones. They then struck a large iron pot filled with smaller pots, kettles, and skillets. They found also a large brass kettle, filled with porringers and other kitchen ware and bottles. “

It was beneath these items that the great, hollowed out log, chained and padlocked, and containing the body of the princess was found.

Due to the location of the bodies, and also to the Dutch coinage found with the body, Parsons concluded that the graves held the remains of a young daughter of Ninigret and the sachem himself. Another local historian, Sidney S. Rider, disputed Parsons conclusion, declaring that the grave he had unearthed belonged to Weunquesh, elder sister of Ninigret II.

Howard M. Chapin took this theory further with his argument that the method of burial would surely not have been used in 1660, but by 1686 or 1690 when the Squaw Sachem died, an adaptation of an “English burial” would have been more likely.

According to Chapin, after these artifacts were displayed in the RI Historical Society, “the relics from the Sachem’s grave” had been dispersed. At the time of his article in 1927, Chapin wrote that “The skull of the princess, the spoons, some pewter porringers, a piece of iron chain, some beads , and one of the so-called brooches” remained at the RI Historical Society. The Peabody Museum at Harvard accrued some of the artifacts, and others, went to at least one private collector.

Parsons was not the only person at Brown with anthropological yearnings. In 1917, an essay in the Brunonian, bemoaned the fact that “ we only have one skull and the bone of a femur” to claim any collection of natural history.

In papers published in American Anthropologist in 1912 and 1923, Harris Hawthorne Wilder mentioned a “small square cabinet of glass and rosewood, containing a female skull, with the mandible missing” in Brown University’s Arnold Hall. The author refers to an earlier account that the skull came to the University by way of Dr. Parson’s son, and had been displayed since that time.

H.H. Wilder was an Anthropologist teaching at Smith College, when he first encountered the skull. Today he is considered the “Father’ of forensic medicine for his work in facial reconstruction.

Dr. Wilder’s paper in 1912, The Physiognomy of the Indians of Southern New England, published in the American Anthropologist, describes the skull as “having real historical value, being that of the daughterof the Niantic chieftain Ninigret”, and thanks Dr Albert Mead, the “present director of the museum there” for entrusting the skull.

Wilder wished to apply the current European methods for reconstructing faces upon skulls. As he writes:

Wilder’s reconstruction of “Ninigret’s daughter”

”Interested now for several years in these European attempts at reconstructing faces upon skulls, I determined to apply the methods to the skulls of New England Indians, in a region the extermination of this race has been so complete that no living representatives are now left except two or three small communities where intermarriage with other races, especially negroes has been long continued (e.g., Gay Head Mass; Charlestown R.I.)”[8]

In the summer of 1912, Wilder and his wife Inez Whipple Wilder, a fellow anthropologist, obtained permission from the town of Charlestown and the owner of the property on which the ancient “Royal” Burying Ground rests, to excavate ten graves. The Wilders claimed to have found two graves already emptied including one whose tombstone Parsons had referred to sixty years before :

“Here lieth  ye Body of George ye son of Charles Ninigret, King of ye Natives and his wife Hanna.”

The footstone indicated the grave was that of an infant, dying less than a year old in December of 1732.

The Wilders exhumed eight Narragansett bodies and brought the remains back to Smith College where they were displayed in the Anthropological and Zoological Museum at Burton Hall.[9]

In his 1923 article entitled Notes on the Indians of Southeastern New England, Wilder’s reconstructed  Narragansett “princess” was featured along with a newly constructed bust created by Miss Eunice E. Chase. In recounting the background of the skull’s discovery, Wilder repeats Parson’s story as written in his 1863 article, in an almost folksy manner:

“In Charlestown in 1859 a discussion arose one day among a group of young men, two or three of them being of Niantic-Narragansett blood, about the method of burying their dead formerly practiced among the local aborigines…Not coming to a satisfactory conclusion with the data at hand, some one proposed that they repair to the old Indian burial ground a mile away, and dig up a body as a test case…”

This supports Wilder’s earlier account in 1912, that

“her body was exhumed in 1859, apparently out of curiosity, but by good fortune came into the possession of Dr. Usher Parsons of Providence”.

Concerning the other artifacts found within the grave, Wilder writes: “Many of these seem to have been distributed among the diggers as individual memento’s of the occasion; other things are reported to have been sent to the collections at Brown University… What the condition of this skull was, when presented exhibited by Dr. Usher Parsons, whether it had lost its jaw, whether any of the other bones had been preserved, and what happened to the silk green dress, the remains of the moccasins, and the silver chain, are questions that are now unanswerable”

There are several difficulties that present themselves with this account, and I endeavor to discuss them in an effort to both clear up the misunderstandings that were apparent, as well as offer an insight into the grievous mishandling of these remains and artifacts.

First, the condition of the “Princess’ skull” was duly noted by Parsons in his article “Indian Relics” published in the Historical Register of February 1863:

“the skull…was in a fine state of preservation. The sockets of the teeth were symmetrical and perfect, indicating a fine set of teeth, and the form of the head was well proportioned. The hair was neatly dressed and abundant.”

This would seem to reference a different skull than the one in Arnold Hall, a difficulty that Wilder referred to in his paper, where

“the hair when exhumed was in great quantity…now only a few course patches remain of light brown…”

and Parsons makes no further reference or offers any description of the skull he extracted with difficulty from the second grave.

The reference to a skull at Brown University’s Arnold Hall indicates that this artifact, presumably under the care of Parson and later his son, was given to the University sometime after Usher Parson’s death in 1868. A question still lingers however, in my mind as to the true identity of this skull. With sixty years past, would the mishandling of the skull, other bones and artifacts result in the condition of Wilder’s “princess” ?

It is unlikely that those citizens, including those of “Niantic-Narragansett” blood, would offer relics to Brown or any other Institution, being robbers employed more likely by private collectors, or by dint of curiosity and perhaps in hope of privately selling someartifacts. It may be that the current owner of the property gave the men permission to excavate the long burial mound. [10]

William F. Tucker, in his A Historical Sketch of Charlestown places Parsons on the scene, not just once, but that he opened “quite a number of graves” in his subsequent visits to add to his collection. Wilder also alludes to subsequent visits by Parsons as well in his paper.

Members of the Narragansett filed charges against Parson’s and the others, but the State Supreme Court exonerated the accused and their case was never heard.

American Anthropology Jan. 1923

Records from the Rhode Island Historical Society show that Brown University donated the skull and the sculpture, now catalogued as that of Weunquesh on March 24th , 1925.[11] There is no further reference found to what happened to the skull of Ninigret, assuming that was the identity of the second skull unearthed by Parsons. According to librarians and scholars at Brown recently interviewed, the skull and other artifacts likely became part of the Jenks Museum at Brown.

Jenks Taxidermy class of 1875 on the steps of the Museum. Note the two gentlemen holding skulls on the extreme left and right of the photo. (courtesy of Brown University Archives)

This was Brown’s first Museum of Natural History, painstakingly collected and catalogued largely at its curator, John Whipple Potter Jenks, expense. An eccentric naturalist and expert taxidermist, Jenks began his collection in 1871, hoping to model his museum on the successful Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, founded by Louis Aggassiz in 1859.

Unfortunately, funding was problematic over the years, and despite Jenks repeated efforts to secure funds from the University and outside donors, it never attained the standing of Harvard’s museum.

Despite these setbacks, the collection that Jenks came to assemble proved to be of popular interest. In 1893, the Providence Journal noted that “In the absence of a city museum of Natural History, the Brown University Museum has attracted a great deal of attention during the last few years and has been visited by scientists in search of knowledge and the general curiosity seeker…”

Alumni also offered generous donations acquired in world travels, and it must be assumed that the collection came to the attention of Dr. Charles Parsons, and the skull in his care was duly donated. In 1891, Jenks divided the large collection he had amassed into two collections, one which remained as the Jenks Museum of Zoology, and the other which became the Museum of Anthropology.

Courtesy: Brown University Archives

Jenks died on September 24, 1894, literally on the steps of his museum, and on his passing, the collection began a long and strange journey. The collection was administered for a short time after the professor’s death by his assistant Herman Carey Bumpus. On his leaving the University in 1900, the collection was without an overseer. A fire in Rhode Island Hall in 1906 destroyed a part of the collection as well as Jenks’ records.

Wilder’s mention of Mead as the curator, a Professor of biology at the time, seems to indicate that the care of the collection was tenuous at best. In 1915, the Biology Department  moved out of Rhode Island Hall and the greater part of the collection was placed in storage at various locations- Van Winkle Hall, Robinson Hall, and Arnold Laboratory were some of the buildings used to house the boxed up artifacts. Only the birds and other animals that Jenks so meticulously preserved, remained in Arnold Hall, with the skull in the rosewood and glass display.

Lacking space, and apparent interest in a Natural History Museum, Brown began to disperse the collection as early as 1915, giving a number of objects to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, and by 1931, had also donated artifacts to the Roger Williams Park Museum of Natural History. In 1954, an effort was made to donate the part of the collection stored in Van Winkle Hall to the Park Museum, and after some negotiating, the director Mirabelle Cormack arrived at the school with an assistant to collect the items:

“We lugged those heathen idols, etc. home. They were covered with the dirt of ages. We cleaned them up, cared for them, and have them on display, all integrated with our own specimens, and filling in many spaces where we had little or nothing.”

The remainder of the collection was stored in Van Winkle Hall and offered up to any interested institutions. In an infamous tale perpetuated by J. Walter Wilson and the Encyclopedia Brunonia, no institutions wanted the objects, and Wilson, knowing that Brown “owned a dump on the banks of the Seekonk River”, deemed this a “suitable storage place” and “dumped 92 truckloads” beside the river. This proved however, to be only part of the collection, and in 1962, the Anthropologist Dwight Heath and his wife recovered boxes stored in the attic of Van Winkle Hall just hours before it’s demolition, packing up their car and driving the objects to the Haffenrefer Museum in Bristol.[12]

Parson’s desecration of Narragansett graves, and then Wilder’s mass exhumation and removal of “Royals” from the ancient Burying Ground were acts these men “justified” on behalf of science.  But this idea was really a continuing thread of the earlier narrative that led historians, and then anthropologists to see the Narragansett only as a people of the past.

In so observing a people in the shadow of elders that have long been portrayed as the heroic, if not tragic Native Americans of pure blood, a certain disdain for the remaining lineage of these heroes inks out upon the page.

Parsons wrote that after King Philips War, the remaining Narragansett “remained in a deteriorate, and declining state, addicted to vice and intemperance”, but saw hope among the Christian Indians he met that the Narragansett had become “ within a few years past…a moral, religious and industrious people, and are enjoying the privileges of education.”

In Wilder’s papers, this sometimes rises more blatantly to the surface. In summing up the historical record of the people of the Princess which gained him such reputation, the Anthropologist writes:

“Thus the descendants of the Niantic sachems, together with those of less royal blood, and blended with a Negro strain, have now disbanded tribal relations and are lost in the general current of “Americans”…In and about Charlestown we see them everywhere, serving mainly as farmers and farm helpers, while the more enterprising find their way into Providence, and serve as chauffeurs, hotel porters, and care-takers”[13]

During this period, in a continuation of placing a physical stamp on this public imagining, Societies of influence engaged in the construction of monuments “celebrating the Narragansett past”, while their descendants struggled to maintain their culture in the society they’d been forced to join after detribalization.

The aforementioned Thomas Bicknell played his role among the influential of Providence with his Indian Council of New England. The Rhode Island Historical Society, and local organizations as well; created a plethora of monuments, and as Patricia Rubertone describes, “memory making places” which were dedicated at locations throughout the State between 1883 and 1928.

The movement began with the dedication of Fort Ninigret in Charlestown, the preservation of their early encampment a centerpiece of the Narragansett council’s agreement to dissolve tribal status and become State citizens.

On August 30, 1883, a handful of Narragansett joined nearly one hundred people including Rhode Island’s Governor, the Mayor of Charlestown, the Town Council, and other state and local dignitaries. In the crowd also, were historians, and members from the Rhode Island and various other historic societies, as well as reporters and photographers on the grounds of their old fort[14].

It was now enclosed with a decorative wrought iron fence, and at its center rested a massive boulder on which words proclaimed the Narragansett and Niantic tribes as “ The Unwavering Friends and Allies of our Fathers.”

Old Postcard of Monument Rock, Charlestown, R.I.

Among the handful of Narragansett who attended the ceremony was Joshua Noka who had spoken so forcefully in the hearings against detribalization. When he addressed the gathering, after the host of white speakers, a chorus, the recitation of a grandiose poem, he did not  offer words of reconciliation, but rather “spoke of the scorn and the impatience of some of the tribes white neighbors, who had lobbied for detribalization.” [15]

Noka saw a troubled future, a turbulent time in the wake of the tribe’s loss, and he wanted to reaffirm the existence of his people before these white visitors who had flooded to this funereal ceremony.

“ We have the same blood running through our veins that we had before we sold our land.” he told the gathering.

No one else among the delegation of Narragansett spoke, but sat  silently throughout the proceedings.

Less than two weeks later, in an even more extravagant ceremony, the Rhode Island Historical Society dedicated a “ rude, rough, and rugged” boulder as a memorial to the Sachem Canonicus in the city’s newly renovated North Burial Ground, the park like environs around the monument offering great appeal for those seeking a final destination.

On the large boulder was carved the Sachems name in English, as well as a primitive bow and arrow in imitation of the signature Canonicus had used in his deed with Roger Williams and other early Rhode Island settlers.  This was the second monument erected to a Narragansett Sachem. After the large cairn to Miantonomo was dismantled, the town erected a granite tombstone in its place in 1841.

In Providence, in September of 1883, among the nearly 1,000 people at the occasion, was Moses Prophet, a Narragansett who had been chosen to unveil the monument even though the State had determined that he had no claim as a tribal member.[16] The only other Narragansett present amid the throng was a little girl named Annie Thomas who presented a bouquet to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the ceremony.

In 1906 the Societies of Colonial Wars in Rhode Island and Massachusetts erected the massive, rough- hewn granite column on the site of the “Great Swamp Fight” It is today, as it was then, a place of utter isolation. In a somber ceremony befitting its location, with a steady rain falling “as if the clouds shed tears over the memory of the bloody scene recalled by the memorial about to be unveiled”.[17]

Frederick Rowland Hazard, representing the five Rowland heirs on whose land the monument stood, presented the deed of land to Wilfred H. Munro of the Rhode Island Historic Society, in the “Indiancustom” of passing the title by deed, turf and twig.

Courtesy of Colonial Society of RI

Munro’s speech in response was “necessarily short because of the heavily falling rain, and immediately the veil was torn away by three of the Indians present.” Chaplain William M. Bodge ascended the mound before the monument and dedicated

”this rugged granite shaft, frost-riven from the native hills, untouched by the tool of man as a fitting emblem “ of the “rugged and unadorned” settlers who had fought in King Philips War, but also to the “brave Sachem of the Narragansetts, who here fought valiantly for his rights, his people and their homes.”  Bodge acknowledged the threeIndians present as descendants of “the noble but now almost vanished Narragansett tribe”, and offered a prayer of peace.

The Hazards present and others performed the ceremony of “beating out the bounds… “ and “Thus ended the exercises in the Direful Swamp.”[18]

In his oration that afternoon at the Memorial Hall in Peacedale, Rowland Hazard spoke of the Narragansett as “confessedly the most powerful and richest, as well as the bravest and most capable, of all the New England tribes.”   Hazard repeated the oft quoted refrain that the Narragansett had been” a true friend” to the English and regretted that

“The leaders of our Colonial forces yielded to the bitter feeling of the baser sort among their followers and friends, and set forward to dealing a crushing blow to the Narragansett…”[19]

The list of contributors to the Great Swamp Fight Monument reveal that all were given in memory of the Colonial soldiers who died in the battle. Only two were from Rhode Island, and once the ceremony was over and a generation gone, the monument became merely a solitary blight on the landscape.

This did not stop those who wished to deed and entrust such commemorative places on the urban cityscape, or in historical locations in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Historical Society, in one edition of January 1921, reports from the Committee that over 40 plaques had been installed around the state in the past years.

Thomas Bicknell especially, was devoted to monuments and commemorations of the past. He wrote in his text “American Education” that

“ patriotic exercises, hero days, memorial pageants, monuments- all testify to the intensity of the group instinct. The pupil needs also to learn humility, sacrifice, cooperativeness. It is less important for him to insist’ on his rights’ than it is to stress his duties and privileges.”

Bicknell first erected a monument in his home-town of Barrington in recognition of the town’s negro slaves and servants “valuable domestic and patriotic services before and during the Revolutionary War.”  An impressive boulder of white quartz, bordered at each corner by  black columns “emblematic of the interdependent relations of the white andblack races”, the monument was dedicated in 1903,

“In memory of Negro servants and their descendants who faithfully served Barrington’s families.”

In 1907, he lobbied local civic leaders and the Historical Society for a plaque commemorating the fight led by Capt. John Pierce against the Wampanoag encamped nearby in the Swamplands above the Blackstone River. The plaque was duly dedicated in the heart of urban Central Falls where it lay mostly unnoticed by the poor, mill-working folk that the educator hoped to illuminate through these physical reminders or markers of history.

Bicknell was also instrumental in aligning Wilfred Munro of the Rhode Island Historical society of erecting a slate tablet at the site of Queen Ponham’s fort in 1927, and a decade later, the RIHS cemented a long-standing cairn and erected a plaque at the site a short distance beyond the Blackstone, where the nine men captured by the Wampanoag were executed and left for the Colonial soldiers to find.

Photo by author

Other monuments and memorials became s fixture on the New England landscape. In Westerly, the long admired sculpture of Canochet still resides by the harbor, along with newer tributes to the Narragansett along South County’s shoreline.

It may be noted that despite these ceremonies and designations of historical areas, these were, with the exception of Fort Ninigret, and with some evidence, the Cumberland site, merely sites of white historical interest, and were not adopted as Narragansett places of memory

Gradually, and with more abundance as the twentieth century developed long undisturbed lands, these sites have been uncovered. The oldest of these have long been a source of debate among historians and Indian elders and other interested parties. One Narragansett historian wrote in the 1930’s of her grandmother telling her of “old Indian graves tucked away off on the hillsides”[20] that could only be reached on foot in the dense forests.

The discoveries of stone cairns, long described by elders and some historians as sites of Indian burial or sacredness, have come to be refuted by other historians, and more recently in court by lawyers representing land developers. Some historians have speculated that the cairns like those discovered in Smithfield, and long protected in Coventry, Rhode Island, are simply the result of a farmer’s toil, to rid the soil of rock, though in the standard form of English style husbandry, which these settlers would have practiced, some frugal use of the stone would have been found; for a stable, a well, any number of necessities on a New England farm.

                                          Old Cairn in Parker Woodland. Photo by author.

Archeologist Frederick Meli told the Providence Journal that the site in North Smithfield “was in use by Native Americans and it contained these mounds. Whether they’re burial or ceremonial, I think they go back at least a couple of thousands of years.”

The site is actually near the scene of a deadly battle in which the Narragansett, having been pursued from the Queen’s Fort, made a stand at the swampland where on July 2, 1676

“The English calvarymen, assisted by their Indian allies. fell upon the Narragansetts, and killed all the warriors who were defending the swamp. The victors rushed into the swamp, killing and capturing the rest.”[21]

Narragansett Preservation officer John Brown, acknowledged the history of the site on Nipsachuk Hill.  Narragansett had gathered there for sunrise ceremonies and other ceremonies into the 1960’s or 1970’s , when conflicts  with property owners halted the meetings.

“We would meet there and discuss that it was a meeting place of our ancestors, and that we come at this time to give acknowledgement of those people that have passed.”

In 2008, the tribe fought a land developer determined to build a 122-lot subdivision on the property, and with the assistance of the town, filed suit to have the site declared an historic burial ground. In 2009, the National Park Service granted an award to the Rhode Island Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission and the Narragansett tribe to

“examine documentary records and archaeological collections, collect tribal and Yankee oral histories and use military terrain analysis to identify likely places where..the battles took place.”

Two stone cairns from Rhode Island locations of Native American  memory places

In numerous locations throughout New England and beyond, evidence of Native sacred places lie, literally at our feet. In woodlands still incredibly, largely undisturbed, are cairns, rock piles, and the playful adaptation of stone to turtles, hares, and other creatures. We find them inland along the lengths of a swampland, which seems to have been more a gathering, a ceremonial place. In a hillock above a field stands an impressive boulder, within sight of a walking path. There is no path tread through the woods to this place. It seems unnoticed. A glance around finds other stones planted in a specific design before the larger stone. About ninety yards away, in a direct line from the center of the stone I find an old mound. I cannot comprehend the meaning of the place, but I recognize it at once as having some meaning, as a place of ceremony or simply perhaps a landmark to indicate place or direction.

Photo by author

At the lands edge also, are remnants of their past. Runic like messages carved upon rock, only visible at low tide, other rocks along rivers and shores, sketched with petroglyphs, an unknown script, and faded from time’s glare.

Perhaps the most complete and authenticated record of these rocks was compiled by Edmund B. Delabarre, a local historian on Indian sites who published his searches in articles titled “The Inscribed Rocks of Narragansett Bay” in the Rhode Island Historical Society Journal during the 1920’s.

Delabarre’s map of sites on Narragansett Bay. Courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Delabarre tracked down legends and earlier written accounts. Ezra Stiles had been a early recorder of these “written rocks”, often drawing a facsimile of the figures and markings in the journal he kept of his travels Earlier local historians had also mentioned rocks at various locations, often musing toward a Nordic visitation as an explanation for the markings. He located and reported on the present condition of these rocks in his articles, relating, for instance, that the characters on the Mount Hope rock, long yearned by historians to be a Nordic inscription, were in fact identified to be Cherokee, and likely written by one Thomas C. Broaner, a “mixed blood Indian married into a Massasoit clan and an admirer of King Philip”.

DellaBarre’s drawing of pictographs on “Mark Rock” RIHS

The crude, but fanciful Indian figure thumbing his nose at a set of distinctly different figures on Mark Rock off Conimicut are said to be Miantonomo’s last word to the white settlers to whom he’d sold the surrounding land.

Other rocks were more mysterious, but Dellabarre catalogued what he found to be authentic sites in Warwick, Tiverton and Warren as well as other areas and reported that what was long believed to be a documented site in Portsmouth was now lost. The inscribed rocks had been taken from the beach by the town at the turn of the century and used in building a new dam.

In some cases, the rocks held petroglyphs and inscriptions from several generations.Time and the elements have mostly erased the markings on what sites remain today. Mark Rock was reportedly completely covered by the 1938 hurricane, and has only recently been partly exposed. Some are on private land, others accessible only by kayak or canoe, as they were when inscribed.

These places in particular, speak to me of a resilience, which is in character with the people from which many of these sites are associated. For while these native places were being discovered and written about, the Narragansett were re-establishing themselves as a people in the wake of the State’s detribalization and monument making.

Ironically, it was one organization of Bicknell’s founding that became a central activist network for the Narragansett. By the 1920’s, there were individual tribal members researching Narragansett history and customs.

Bicknell’s own enthusiasm for Roger Williams writings, led to his and the Council’s efforts to use William’s A Key, as an educational tool to relearn Narragansett language and traditions.[22]

In 1925, the Indian Council of New England joined the National Algonquian Indian Council, thereby strengthening their numbers. This organization, along with the American Indian Federation actively promoted lectures by Native Americans on Indian culture, and staged massive pow-wows, encouraging local tribes to research their own traditions and adapt tribal dress[23] for these public events.

For many tribes in the Northeast, little of their culture remained for them to draw upon, and the popularization of pan-Indian expression, of adapting western style native dress and dance, along with rhetorical speech and “Indian” names became prevalent. But as Ann McMulen has noted,

“Pan-Indianism allowed native people to be recognized but simultaneously createda generic Indian culture that masked local specifics.”[24]

Though the Narragansett were less inclined to adapt pan-Indian dress and rhetoric for their events, they participated in public powwows as an opportunity for exposure and also as an act of solidarity with other participating tribes. Indeed, there were many Native American tribes enduring similar struggles with State and Federal authorities. Large gatherings in select locations elicited great interest among tourists and local historical societies during this time.

For the Narragansett, this was a period of re-gathering, during which the tribe saw the return of some tribal members from Brothertown, Wisconsin, whose relations had removed with others from New York generations before.

The Narragansett Church and adjoining property became a focal point for Narragansett resurgence. Tribal meetings were held in the church, and the August gatherings were held in a large field nearby. These events continued the traditions of oral storytelling, individual dances, and competitive games.

The Narragansett adapted some western style dress in public powwows that showed an influence from the Brothertown Narragansett who had attended western-style gatherings in Wisconsin.

Individuals from Eastern tribes also began to adopt the Western tradition of public gatherings to celebrate their heritage, and even lectures given to the public on Native history and way of life.

Princess Redwing as depicted in a Charlestown postcard from the 1930’s

One such person was Princess Red Wing. Born Martha Congdon, a Wampanoag, she became well educated, married into the tribe and began researching the history of her new relatives, the Narragansett, and their legal battles with the state. In adopting the name of Princess Red Wing, she was following a trend among modernized Indians to adapt names and rhetoric, especially at public powwows that were familiar to white listeners. She became an outspoken and familiar figure throughout the State and Nation, spending much of her adult life as a teacher to both dignitaries and school children; explaining that like the blackbird, she was

“to  fling her mission far with grace, for ears that harken for the uplift of my race.”

In 1934, she and other members of the tribe began the publication Narragansett Dawn in an effort to keep communication open between members of the tribe in Charlestown and those scattered about the country, but also to highlight the history of her people by publishing stories and contributions from Narragansett writers, a sometimes uneasy transition from the tradition of oral histories.

Princess Red Wing was also active with the Indian Council in assuring a Narragansett presence in the Rhode Island Tertecery Celebrations of 1936, and the dedication of the Roger Williams memorial. In a lavish ceremony, a contingent of Narragansett walked with the Assembly and assorted dignitaries in solemn procession to the memorial, though their presence was cropped from the Providence Journal photo published in the paper the next day.

Rev. Harold Mars, who could trace the family lineage from his Father White Buffalo, a preacher of some renown among Christian Indians, as well as to the family of James,  brother of Samuel Niles, the founder of the Narragansett Indian Church. Rev. Mars earned five dollars a day during the 1940’s, preaching to congregations in Providence, Peace Dale, and Wakefield. He later moved his family to Rochester, New York where he led another congregation for over a decade. During those years, his family always returned for the August powwow, and Rev. Mars would preach in the Indian Church on Sunday.[25]

His son Roland, would carry on the calling into the turn of the century, preaching to a smaller congregation as many younger Narragansett turned away from the religion that “came over on a ship” and returned to their ancestral beliefs.

A Native Rhode Islander who came into national prominence during these years was Ellison Myers “Tarzan” Brown, a feted long distance runner who competed in every Boston Marathon between 1934 and 1946. He won twice in 1936 and 1939, and was also a participant on the American team in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. As sports historian Tom Derderian wrote in his book about Brown

“ The economy in these depression times provided little for most Americans and nothing for Indians…Brown…saw running as his only way out of poverty.”[26]

A publicity photo of “Tarzan” Brown

The efforts of the Narragansett and other tribes to educate the public about Indian culture and obtain political support for reform in Indian Management were interrupted by the advent of the Second World War. By this time, those Narragansett who had remained in Brothertown found themselves in an impoverished community with no Federal or state support to sustain them. Many moved away to where defense plants were operating, including Rhode Island where Charlestown utilized Indian workers to assist Naval Contractors in building the cluster of fortifications that pointed anti-aircraft and anti- submarine guns toward the bay.

Some Narragansett enlisted, and became part of the 25, 000 Native Americans who served in the armed forces during the war, though even their enlistment, at the start of the conflict, was cause for debate. There were those in Congress, when passing the Selective Service act who advocated for segregation, that Black and all-Indian units be established, but the Roosevelt administration ignored that debate and Native American who enlisted served in integrated units throughout the war.[27] It has only been recently that the Native American contribution to the war has materialized, in the stories of the Cherokee Code-Talkers and individual acts of bravery and heroism. Among those Native American veterans is John A. Hopkins Sr., who enlisted in Charlestown, but found his name absent from the five- foot marker commemorating those who served that was erected by town officials after the war. It took Charleston forty- six years to correct the error, and by that time, an embittered Hopkins had long left town.

The years after the war settled in slowly as Narragansetts returned to their former lives in Charlestown as farmers or farmhands, carpenters, stone artisans, and road workers. It was a time of integration rather than individualism, and a relatively peaceful time as remembered by Ellen Brown.

Artisans like Russell Spears continued traditions of Narragansett craft. A Narragansett born in Providence, Spears found himself working in Kenyon Dye Mills as a young man, but was restless to be working with his hands outdoors. He left the Mill and went to work with Uncles and other relatives who were Masons, and learned the craft that tradition says had begun with Stone-wall John. Spears built stone walls, patios and fireplaces, and worked on buildings in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Cape Cod for nearly seventy years, teaching his sons to shape and carve rock. Spears work became distinctively his own, renowned for its craftsmanship, and unique in individual touches, a an etching, or portrait within the stonework. His legacy was recorded in the documentary film “Stories in Stone” in 2008.

It was also during this time after the Second World War that Congress passed P.L. 280, an act

“empowering any state by an act of its own legislature to take over civil and criminal jurisdiction on Indian reservations, without consent of the tribes.”[28]

Individual states made efforts to take tribal lands and strip tribal authority as Rhode Island had done long before, in exchange for citizenship. But as Narragansett and other tribes had found, the long harbored prejudice and distrust made it a citizenship with limited rights. It was not until 1953 that Native Americans in Maine, not under Federal jurisdiction, were given the right to vote.

That same year, a Joint Congressional Resolution for the federal termination of Indian lands was heard with the aim “to end their status as wards of the United States, and to grant them all the rights and prerogatives pertaining to citizenship.” Despite their hopes for a quick solution to the remaining “Indian problem”, repatriation of lands would take more than 30 years to complete, with hundreds of cases heard around the country.

By the nineteen sixties the prevailing winds had changed and Native American affairs began to be seriously viewed by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The Federal government passed the Repatriation Acts, allowing tribes to petition state and federal museums for remains and artifacts. Indian affairs began to get more press in the growing medium of television, and protests by Native Americans became National and local news.

“The Narragansett kept living and acting as they’d always done.” says preservation officer John Brown, “The times changed, and suddenly people were interested in the Narragansett again.”

There is no doubt however, that Native Americans became empowered by these changes and more visible and vocal in local and national protests. Members of the Narragansett were involved with the National Day of Mourning, begun in 1970 by the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), which has continued in various form of protest- some confrontational, such as the celebrated “burying” of Plymouth Rock by Native Americans, and the alleged police force which was used to break up the demonstration in 1997, in which twenty five people were arrested and numerous others were pepper sprayed in a show of force whose origin seems to have been the Wampanoag’s lack of a permit, despite the tradition having been held for the last twenty eight years.[29] Most protests on the National Day of Mourning have been solemn occasions from the gathering of Wampanoag and representatives from other tribes on Coles Hill, across from the harbor in the shadow of the bronze statue of Massasoit.

In January of 1975, the Narragansett filed suit against the private owners of former tribal lands in Charlestown, to gain possession of some 3,200 acres that the Narragansett cited as aboriginal territory. The land had been confiscated and sold by the state of Rhode Island just seven years after stripping the remaining Narragansett of their tribal status.

Ninety-two years later, a repopulated and rejuvenated tribe based their suit on the supposition that the state had taken the land illegally, and in selling the land had broken a Federal law enacted in 1790.

For three years the state and the Narragansett prepared their cases, arguments and evidence from both sides of the issue are held in the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Among the documents in the Edwards and Angel Legal Files and the Paul Campbell Research notes for the law firm of Tillinghast, Collins and Graham, are the documents that indicate what would have been a long, and protracted battle.

The Narragansett prepared to exhibit as evidence, the numerous deeds that had been drawn up with both the state and private parties from 1709 on into the nineteenth century, as well as the petitions the tribe had sent to the State, regarding the sale of their lands. There are minutes from tribal meetings dating back to 1850, personal correspondence, and the Report of Commission on the affairs of the Narragansett Indians made to the General Assembly of January 1881 which includes a list of the 324 individuals accepted as tribal members. The basis of their claim rested on the argument that the States’ sale of their aboriginal lands had been without Federal consent, which violated the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790, which states:

“No purchase, grant, lease, or other conveyance of lands, or of any title or claim thereto, from any Indian nation or tribe of Indians, shall be of any validity in law or equity, unless the same be made by treaty or convention entered into pursuant to the Constitution.”[30]

The state by contrast, seemed prepared to argue an echo of the nineteenth century view of the tribe, relying upon old histories and documents supporting the original design of detribalizing the Narragansett and integrating them as citizens of the State. In papers published by two of the legal counsel for the State ex Facto, we see largely, a resurgence of old arguments and explanations that indicate the State’s preparedness to defend legislature from a century before, despite the tribe being federally recognized.

In “Scattered to the Winds of Heaven-Narragansett Indians 1676-1880” the two legal scholars attempt a reconciliation of the traditional white history of the tribe, and the “red man’s myth” as written by Fred Brown in a 1935 edition of “Narragansett Dawn”  and summarized as follows:

“The red man’s myth claims that Narragansett warriors and the largest part of the Indian population were away from the fort.[31] Thus the Narragansetts…eventually became the dominant people comprising the Indian community in Charlestown, Rhode Island. This community then carried on traditions and customs of the Narragansetts, and although many Indians were later forced to intermarry with black slaves, and although whites forced Indians to partially assimilate into white society, the traditions of the Narragansett tribe persisted and remained virtually intact throughout the following three hundred years of history.”[32]

While this version of Narragansett history remains close to the oral history given today by the tribe, the scholars set out to debunk the “myth” through the use of those same arguments that led to detribalization.

First, the authors claim irrefutably that the “aboriginal oasis”, situated in Charlestown and Westerly, “were the lands of Ninigret, sachem of the Niantics…perhaps the largest remaining indigenous group of Indians left in southern New England”; and further state, that “By the end of the seventeenth century the surviving Indian population in what was then called Narragansett country was an aggregate of peoples.” Such statements would appear to refute any Narragansett claim to the lands in question.

The subject of integration is also raised again, with the authors contention that as early as 1790, when “ political factionalism had virtually stagnated the Indians attempt to govern themselves”, and the first efforts at control were taken by the State;

“Narragansetts …had already undergone numerous cultural and societal changes…Indians in Rhode Island were beginning to work their way into the white marketplace…more and more Indians were following trades and livelihoods not traditionally Indian. “

However, the trades of stonemasonry, carpentry, and farm labor, mentioned by the authors were part of the Narragansett “traditions” for at least a century before the time the scholars claim, and certainly when Narragansett were forced to work as indentured servants, or those who chose that role in exchange for pay. It was not necessarily integration by choice. Nonetheless,

“Such changes, coupled with rampant internal factionalism, led the assembly to believe that Narragansetts were on their way toward entering the mainstream of white society.”[33]

This coupling of the political view of the tribe’s internal affairs and the State’s “civic sense” of what is “best” for the Narragansett have always and continue to be interwoven into the fabric of relations with the tribe, and thus, the posturing and policy disputes that have dominated in recent years.

In 1978, mostly at the behest of the town of Charlestown, the state of Rhode Island and the town of Charlestown reached a Joint Memorandum of Understanding (JMOU) with the Narragansett, granting 1800 acres of land, taken evenly from private parties and state lands, along with a lump sum payment based upon the present fair Market value of other lands.In return, the Narragansett tribe relinquished any legal claim to the 3,200 acres of aboriginal lands, and agreed that

“the settlement lands shall be subject to the civil and criminal laws and jurisdiction of the State of Rhode Island” .

This clause would resurface time and again in the years that followed in confrontations, legal and otherwise with the State.

Narragansett management of these lands has met with many challenges and involved numerous lawsuits against the state and federal governments as well as suits against individual towns in relation to construction projects as well as private developers and building companies within, and outside the Narragansett community.

Perhaps the most contentious dispute in recent years has been that of the Narragansett efforts to bring tribal gaming to the community. In 1988, the federal government had passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act “to provide a balance between the tribe’s interest in autonomy and the states interest in protecting their citizens from the organized criminal activity that is commonly associated with the gaming industry. Furthermore, Indian gaming was viewed as a means of promoting the twin goals of strong tribal government and tribal economic self-sufficiency.”[34]

IGRA separated Indian gaming into three separate classes that ranged from “social games solely for prizes” or “traditional forms of Indian gaming” such as those that occurred at yearly gatherings or pow-wows, to “games of chance “ such as bingo or card games, and third class “high stakes”, or casino gambling that would only be permitted on tribal lands that are “(1)…located within a state that permits gambling for any purpose by any person or organization; (2) the tribe adopts a gaming ordinance that has been approved by the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission; and (3) the activities are conducted in conformity with a tribal-state compact,”[35]

The pursuit of Indian Gaming rights for the Narragansett initially divided the tribe. Details of a lawsuit filed early on reveal a struggle between elders of the tribe who opposed gambling as a means to a tribal economy, and a younger faction who saw Gaming as an opportunity for growth to other, independent tribal businesses.

The suit developed out of a 1985 agreement between the Narragansett Tribal Council and a Texas partnership called RIBO, which would lend the tribe the funds needed to purchase two parcels of land and erect a high-stakes bingo hall.

As representatives from the Texas partner met only with the tribal council, members of the tribe opposed to gaming on Indian land, rose in protest and used the issue to promote a slate of anti-gaming candidates for upcoming tribal elections. When those candidates won election, and the results were approved by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the new Tribal Council filed suit to void the agreement. Former members of the Tribal Council countersued, but their motion to intervene was denied in the U.S. Court of Appeals.[36]

Despite these early disputes and reservations on Indian Gaming by tribal members, the issues were effectively resolved within the tribe in a relatively short time, and the Narragansett have shown a united front in their efforts to gain gaming rights.

In July of 1992, the Narragansett served the Governor of Rhode Island with a letter requesting the state to enter into negotiations with the tribe for a compact that would allow the tribe to operate “high stakes” gambling on their lands. The State responded by filing suit in the United states District Court, contending that the provisions of IGRA did not apply to the settlement lands and that the Narragansett lands, under the previous 1978 agreement, were “subject to the criminal, civil, and civil regulatory laws of Rhode Island and the town of Charlestown.”[37]

The suit centered upon a 31acre site that the Narragansett had purchased for housing and economic development. When hardship caused planned projects to remain unfinished, the tribe appealed to the Department of the Interior to take the land into Indian Trust, and thus this parcel, would be subject to Federal and tribal rather than state law. In 1993, the district court ruled against the State, and the following year, in the U.S. Court of Appeals, the State lost again.

After the court’s ruling, then Governor Bruce Sundlan signed an agreement with the tribe to negotiate for casino rights. But as this was signed during his last months in office, the next Governor, Lincoln Almond, quickly filed suit to terminate the agreement. The Court agreed, citing that under the RI Constitution, the Governor held no power to “enter into any compact establishing a lottery operation or gaming facility in the state. That power was specifically vested in the General Assembly.”[38] An important Federal case just weeks later, proved to be another setback, when the Supreme Court reached a decision based upon their interpretation of limits on the Federal government enforcing the Indian Gaming Rights Act which had allowed tribes to sue States in order to compel them to negotiate in “good faith” for gaming rights. The tribe amended plans for a Class II Bingo Hall that fell within the guidelines of IGRA, and submitted a gaming management contract to the Indian Gaming Commission.

Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation, led by Senator John Chafee remained adamantly opposed to any Indian Gaming facility in the State, and set out to amend the 1978 settlement with the tribe, declaring that the Narragansett relinquished any rights granted by future Federal legislation, and that

“ For purposes of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act settlement lands shall not be treated as Indian lands.”[39]

The Amendment made Indian Gaming in the State possible only through inclusion of a referendum on the state ballot, and voter approval.

Senator John McCain, then Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, stated his disapproval of any attempt to amend the State’s original Agreement, and suggested that a hearing be held for the proposed amendment. But no hearing was held, and the “Chafee Amendment” as it came to be known, was attached by the seasoned Senator to a critical appropriations bill and passed with little individual attention.[40]

In the proceeding years, two term Governor Almond set in motion the State’s reliance on revenues from existing venues, which lately have come to prove costly with the legislative end of dog racing and falling revenue from slot machines. In the meantime, the Mashuntucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes successfully opened resort casinos in neighboring Connecticut and the Wampanoag began the long effort to establish a casino in Massachusetts.

Providence Journal photo.

Under the leadership of Matthew Thomas, a newly elected sachem who had diligently studied the gaming laws and prepared for the rough and tumble politics of Rhode Island, the tribe sought to  build a casino in West Greenwich. Though they managed to get a referendum on the ballot, the Indian casino was rejected by voters.

In 1997 the Narragansett filed suit against the National Indian Gaming Commission in order to compel the Commission to review its proposal, which it had denied review, citing the Chafee Amendment. The suit challenged that the Amendment was a violation of Equal Protection, ie: that the tribe was “singled out” from other tribes by the amendment preventing them from gaming rights. The suit was rejected in the Washington, D.C. district Court.

The struggle for gaming rights continued with the Narragansett partnering with long time business partner Capital Gaming International. The plan called for a Casino in West Warwick, and Sachem Thomas presented a public unveiling of the proposal in early 1999. At the time, the tribe’s proposal was well received, and Thomas told newspaper reporters that “it was so refreshing to have a productive, open dialogue with the people of this community.” [41]

The optimism was not to last. Capital Gaming soon began failing, and a further cloud came over the proposal when the tribe spent some months looking for other investors. When the Narragansett partnered with Boyd Gaming of Las Vegas, and proposed an even more lavish venue, voters became nervous. In the end Legislators killed the bill that would have placed the casino on the November 2000 ballot.

Two years later, Thomas and the Narragansett tried once again to get the Casino question on the ballot. Legislators opted this time to place the bill aside and create a Gaming Study Commission to report on “the desirability of further gaming” in the State.

In 2003 the State’s Lottery Commission approved an increase of nearly two thousand slot machines at the Lincoln and Newport gambling venues, which contributed to Rhode Island’s coffers.

By 2004, the Narragansett had partnered with Harrahs, the nations third largest casino operator and proposed a resort style casino in West Warwick. Thomas and representatives from Harrahs met with senators at the statehouse and outlined the proposal which they estimated would generate 114 million dollars for the state in it’s first year and offer 20 million annually for the tribe. The proposal called for the Narragansett to buy the Casino from Harrahs after twenty years of operation. It was by far the most ambitious, and well underwritten proposal the tribe could have offered.

But once again, opposition to an Indian gaming casino rose in Rhode Island. A “Save Our State” coalition was formed which included the State’s Council of Churches, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the State Tourism Board, and others. The coalition was fueled by financing from the owners of Lincoln Park and Newport Grand casinos, which paid for a barrage of television commercials evoking the dark side of gambling, and questioning whether Rhode Islanders were prepared for the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue the State would lose from the draw a Narragansett casino would create.

The referendum was defeated in 2006. Since that time the owners have renovated the Lincoln venue, now called “Twin Rivers” with restaurants and an entertainment center that were part of the Narragansett proposal which the Lincoln owners warned would take away revenue from Providence landmark theaters and restaurants.

In the courts, it could be said that the efforts to build a tribe run casino came full circle, and culminated in 2009 with the United States Supreme Court finding in favor of the state of Rhode Island in Carcieri v, Salazar, over that thirty one acre parcel of land that began the battle. In the State’s appeal of the U.S. District Court’s opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that tribes who achieved Federal recognition after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 by which lands could be placed in trust, were not subject to those privileges which the Act instated; opening the door to a wave of lawsuits from the 300 tribes who found themselves in similar straights as the Narragansett.

Chief Sachem Thomas vowed to fight the court’s decision.

“ Apparently, the illegal actions of the state weren’t of consideration to the Supreme Court” he told a Journal reporter. “How are you ignoring something that’s been here for hundreds of years?…That to me which is history can’t be ignored.”[42]

For the twenty four years the Narragansett pursued gaming rights, very little came of the struggle, but for legal fees and the wealth of information and cases for students and scholars to place into some perspective.

As of this writing, the Narragansett had appealed to the state’s U.S. Senators after the Committee on Indian Affairs approved legislation that would effectively overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling. The Rhode Island delegation of Senators Reed and Whitehouse have been reluctant to throw their support, even with Thomas’ reassurance that the site would once again be used for elderly housing.

Other efforts to gain the tribe some economic independence met with mixed results. Eleanor and Ferris Dove, created the Dovecrest Restaurant and Trading Post which was highly successful and eventually world renowned. Their efforts to offer Narragansett culture and cuisine to the wider world resulted in the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum, and the Nuweetooun School, which brings the story of “the state’s original inhabitants “ to hundreds of children across the State each year. The Museum’s exhibits and Ceremonies attract visitors from around the globe. The annual powwows presented with other Indian tribes in friendly competition, also draw crowds of people interested in learning of local Native American culture.

A proposal to create an “Indian Village” on the model of Plimoth Plantation met resistance from town officials and the idea was eventually abandoned. Another project to grow and distribute “beefalo” met with similar resistance from neighbors and the town.

Chief Sachem Thomas met with Governor Carcieri several times, the most notable in June of 2003, when he toured the reservation “to get a sense of the economic stress” the Narragansett were facing.[43] Despite the Governor’s apparent interest, there was little further communication until July, when the tribe opened a smoke shop out of a long trailer parked off main route 102 on tribal land.

Carcieri was out of state the weekend the shop opened but spoke with Thomas by phone, insisting that the tribe must collect state taxes from any business on their land.

Thomas reputedly offered to close the shop if the Governor dropped his opposition to casino gambling, though that is highly speculative. What the sachem did promise, was to take the issue to court, but before any motion could be filed, the State sent in 30 troopers to raid the smoke shop on Monday afternoon in an ugly melee that was broadcast throughout the state and nationwide.

Providence Journal photo.

Eight tribal members were arrested, including Sachem Thomas, who had been pushed to the ground and handcuffed during the skirmish. That evening after spending some hours in the Hope Barracks, Thomas compared the treatment of the Narragansett to that of blacks in the South during the civil rights error, and complained again that the State refused to recognize the Federal status of the tribe.

“The State made a huge mistake today, and that will be proven” he told tribal members.

In the weeks that followed, the footage of the raid drew the ire of civil groups as well as other Native American tribes. The NAACP gave Thomas its highest honor some months later for “fighting for his people”. Nearly four years after the raid, those arrested were found guilty of misdemeanor charges, however Thomas and co-defendant Hiawatha Brown were convicted of simple assault.

Oversight of Narragansett lands is presently in the hands of tribal preservation officer John Brown, who must assess the impact of local projects and confirm new finds at development sites as Narragansett property-engaging the complex and sacred process by which tribal remains are removed before developers can return. This role in the tribe has often placed him in a contentious position with local developers and utility engineers, as well as anthropologists and historians.

Providence Journal photo.

Anthropologists involved with a long running dispute over artifacts found at Burr Hill in Warren Rhode Island, contend that Brown has an inflated sense of the Narragansett with respect to neighboring tribes. But in conversation, Brown alludes to the centuries that Narragansett were a thriving people within a vast territory. He has been praised by the state’s archeologist Paul Robinson for his efforts in educating State officials about historic sites. “I think he’s taught us that sometimes we walk a fine line between preservation and excavation, and sometimes it’s better to wait and preserve than to excavate” he told the Providence Journal.[44]

In October 2009, Brown received the Frederick C. Williamson Leadership Award from the state’s Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission. The executive director Edward Sanderson, acknowledged that he and Brown do not always see eye to eye, “we look at some issues from different perspectives” he told the Providence Journal, but also praised Brown for his role in preserving the traditions and the cultural values of the Narragansett, and his careful consultation with Lloyd Wilcox, the tribal medicine man and other elders of the tribe. In presenting the award to Brown, Sanderson told those assembled that

“At a time when Native Americans were routinely left out of historic preservation, John made sure that a Narragansett voice was heard.”

Another Narragansett voice that has resonated over the years has been that of Ella Sekatau, the tribe’s ethnohistorian. In her role, Sekatau has collaborated through oral history with scholars and historians who have published numerous books and papers on aspects of Narragansett life. In this way, Sekatau has ensured that a more accurate history is read by professors and students, and discussed in classrooms across the nation.

On college campuses, interest in Native American studies is flourishing, including Rhode Island, where developments would indicate that there is still much to be studied about the our indigenous people.

Because the Narragansett occupied and traveled in such a vast area of land, evidence of their encampments as well as burial sites continue to be found in the state.

Perhaps the largest, and still, most significant of these sites would be the settlement discovered just east of Point Judith Pond, a location eyed by developers for a 79 unit housing complex. Workers from Rhode Island College were directed to make the obligatory cursory examination for artifacts in the fall of 1986, and found evidence immediately that over the years was revealed to be a 25 acre settlement that included the remains of Narragansett dwellings and circular storage pits for corn and other staples.

The discovery of this site was in fact, one of the most extensive ancient seaside settlements found on the eastern coast of North America. Another had been excavated in Virginia some years earlier, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Though privately owned, the area is protected under Virginia and Federal statutes.

In Rhode Island however, a long and protracted legal battle between the state and developers has taken place. The State Historic Preservation Commission, with the Narragansett looking over their shoulder, contends the significance of the site as “ …a site of great importance that would be studied by several generations of scholars.”[45]

Initially, the project was stalled by state demands that the developers had to meet in searching for artifacts before proceeding. These searches led to more discoveries, including an Indian Burial Ground. Excavations in 2006, paid for by developers who had returned to the site to lay a road, unearthed evidence of 22 dwellings. These findings, led the Historic Preservation Commission to request that the permit issued to developers in 1992 be withdrawn. Developers responded by filing suit, asking the courts to end the State’s interference, and asking for “substantial damages” for the long delay.

While the Narragansett did not take an active role in these proceedings, the tribe naturally supported the state’s efforts to preserve the land. Preservation Officer Brown told the Journal.

“The protection of the property is for everybody…we sympathize with the plight of the owners, but you can’t trade history for a house or three houses…it would be like someone going in and building on the Arlington National Cemetery”.[46]

Another notable site is Greene Farm, a small compound of houses and outbuildings overlooking Occupatuxet cove, whose property dates from Miantonomo’s sale of the land. Owned by the Brown family for several generations, it is now the site of an ongoing Archeology dig sponsored by the University which bears the family name.

Henry A.L. Brown, a descendant of John Brown Francis, who presently resides on the compound, told me of an almost endless unearthing of artifacts by he and his brother as boys on the property. A local historian, who has written of the early days of surrounding Warwick, and also of Block Island, Brown is currently writing a history of Green Spring Farm, where the boy’s Father often took them for long walks on the property, pointing out Mark Rock, which lies on the shoreline of the cove, and explained the various legends surrounding the property.  As eager adventurers, they filled boxes with pieces of pottery, stone tools, and other artifacts and stored the boxes in an old elegant carriage that once belonged to John Nicolas Brown, which was then stored in an old shed on the property. One day they found their Father had donated the carriage to the Rhode Island Historical Society and they confessed to what they had done.  They all packed into the station wagon for the drive to Providence, but to no avail; the artifacts were gone.

At the time of this writing, the archeological dig had been ongoing since 2004, and six years later, so many artifacts had been found, that the summer was to be spent cleaning and cataloging what lay spread out on makeshift tables in a large barn.

Some sites have been found quite recently and often in unexpected places, as when Narragansett remains were found in the cellar of a colonial era home in Warwick. As recently as 2009 in Warren, where such long excavations had already taken place, yet another area of Burr’s Hill yielded fresh artifacts.  No doubt more relics of Narragansett life and culture will be unearthed in the years to come, further evidence that this proud people were once and will always be keepers of the Bay.

October 2009 – October 2010

Copyright 2010 by Robert A. Geake

BOX 1878 Brown University

Providence, RI 02912



Adams, James Truslow “The Founding of New England” Little,Brown, Boston 1923

Axtell, James “The Invasion within” Oxford University Press 1985

Bailyn, Bernard “The Peopling of British North America”

Berger, Jana M. “Narragansett Tribal Gaming and the Indian Giver” Gaming Law Review Vol. 3 No. 1 1999

Brookes, “The Collected Writings of Samsom Occom, Mohegan”

Brown, William J. “The Life of William J. Brown of Providence, Rhode Island”

Burton, William James “Hellish Fiends and Brutish Men” dissertation from Kent State University doctorate program in Philosophy 1976

Callendar, John “An Historical Discourse of the Civil and Religious Affaires of the Colony of Rhode Island”

Calloway, Colin G. “Algonkians in the American Revolution”

Chapin, Howard “ Sachems of the Narragansett” RIHS 1938

“A Documentary History of Rhode Island” RIHS 1939

“Indian Graves” RIHS Jan. 1927

“Queen’s Fort” RIHS Collections October 1931

Conforti, Joseph A. “Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America”

DeForest, John S. “History of the Indians in Connecticut” Hartford, 1851

Dellabarre, Edmund M. “The Inscribed Rocks of Narragansett Bay” RIHS  Collections

Dennis, Henry C. ed. “The American Indian 1492-1976”

Dennison, Frederic “Westerly and its Witnesses” 1878

Derdarian, Tom “The Boston Marathon”

Drake, Samuel G. “Old Indian Chronicle” Boston, 1867

Ellis, George W. and Morris, John E. “King Philip’s War” Grafton, Press 1906

Fitts, Robert K. “Inventing New England’s Slave Paradise”

Gookin, Daniel “Historical Collections of the Indians of New England” 1792

Guilliford, Andrew “Bones of Contention: The Repatriation of Native American Human mains” The American Historian 1996

Herndon, Ruth Wallace and Sekatau, Ella Wilcox “The Right to a Name: The Narragansett People in the Revolutionary Era”

Hohman, Elmo Paul “The American Whaleman”

Johnson, Annie “The Forgotten Collection: Brown’s Jenks Museum of Natural History” 2007

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

Leach, Douglas Edward  “Flintlock and Tomahawk” Macmillan 1958

Mandell, David R. “Tribe, Race, History”

McMullen,         “Soapbox Discourse: Tribal Historiography, Indian-White Relations, and southeastern New England powwows”

Miller, William Davis “The Narragansett Planters” American Antiquities Association 1934

Nichols, Roger L  “American Indians in U.S. History”

Parsons, Usher MD. “Indian Relics” Historical Register February 1863

Providence Journal, Numerous articles as cited in notes

Rubertone, Patricia “ Grave Understakings “

“ Memorializing the Narragansett” 2008

Sayre, Robert F. “Thoreau and the American Indians”

Simmons, William “The Narragansett” NG 1978

“Old Light on Separate Ways: The Diary of Joseph Fish”

“Red Yankees: Narragansett Conversion in the Great Awakening”         American Ethnologist Vol 10 N0. 2 May 1983

Sweet, John Wood “Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race In the American North 1730-1830 John Hopkins 2003

Thoreau, Henry David “The Journals of… 1837-1861”

Tucker, William F. “A Historical Sketch of Charlestown”

Updike, Wilkins “The History of the Episcopal Church in Rhode Island”

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

Wilder, Harris Hawthorn “Notes on the Indians of Southeastern New England” American Anthropologist September 1923

Williams, Roger “A Key to the Language of America” Chapin, ed RIHS 1936

JCB Coll.

[1] “Squaw Betty’s Neck” as Thoureau reports, later called “Betty’s Neck”.

[2] Thoreau, Henry David,  June 26, 1856  “he Journal 1837-1861” p. 389

[3] Sayre, Robert F. Thoreau and the American Indians p. 18 in reference to…

[4] Ibid p.18

[5] Chapin,Howard “Indian Graves” RIHS Jan. 1927

[6] Guilliford, Andrew “Bones of Contention:The Repatriation of Native American Human Remains”The Public Historian 1996

[7] Parsons, Indian Relics published in the Historical Register February 1863

[8] Wilder, H.H. Indians of Southern New England

[9] These, like other Narragansett remains continued to travel. In 1966 Smith College gave the University of Massachusetts the remains, and by 2004, under the Federal Repatriation Act, the University was seeking claimants to the remains. The remains were finally returned to the tribe in 2005.

[10] The property had been sold by Thomas Ninigret. The sale prompted Samuel Niles and his followers to petition the state to prevent the Sachem from selling any more land.

[11] This may have been Chapin’s doing as he was the librarian of the RIHS. It is likely that the board was persuaded by his long-standing argument as to the identity of the remains.

[12] For these most recent updates on this sordid tale, I am grateful to Prof. Steve Lubar for providing Annie Johnson’s paper “The Forgotten Collection: Brown’s Jenks Museum of Natural History (2007)

[13] Wilder, H.H.  Notes on The Indians of Southern New England American Anthropologist Sept. 1923 p. 210

[14] Long thought to be of Dutch origin, and to some speculation, English, these claims of a European fortress are refuted by Leichester Bradner in the RIHS Collections (Jan. 1921) who ventured that the fort was an historic Narragansett encampment, fortified with ammunitions from the longstanding Dutch trade with the Narragansett. Excavations in the 1970’s unearthed two cannon of European origin, thus setting off the debate once again.

[15] Rubertone, Patricia Memorializing the Narragansett 2008

[16] Rubertone, Patricia Memorializing the Narragansett

[17] The Great Swamp Fight Monument

[18] Ibid p. 7

[19] Ibid p. 30

[20] Princess Red Wing in the “Narragansett Dawn”

[21] Chapin, Howard M. “Queens Fort” RIHS Collections, October 1931

[22] Howard M. Chapin’s popular edition of A Key to the Language of America was printed in 1936, but parts were quoted liberally in Bicknell’s History and by Sidney S. Rider, another local historian and champion of A Key as a valuable resource on the Narragansett.

[23] McMullen, “What’s Wrong with This Picture”1994

[24] McMullen, “Soapbox Discourse: Tribal Historiography, Indian-White Relations, and southeastern New England Powows. p. 57

[25] Providence Journal August 4, 2004 “One nation, two world, Part 4: Preacher carries on “the call” handed down through generations. by Paul Davis

[26] Derderian, Tom “The Boston Marathon”

[27] Nichols, Roger L. “American Indians in U.S. History”

[28] Dennis, Henry C. Ed. “The American Indian 1492-1976” p.59

[29] The town of Plymouth reached an agreement with the Wampanoag the following year to waive the need for a permit as long as the tribe gave the town advance notice of a protest or gathering.

[30] 25 U.S.C. S177 (1994)

[31] Reference to the fort at Great Swamp which white histories have portrayed as the turning point of King Philips War and the near extermination of the Narragansett People.

[32] Rhode Island History Vol. 38 1978, pp 68

[33] Rhode Island History Vol 38. pp 75

[34] 25 U.S.C. 2701 as referred to in Berger, Jana M. “Narragansett Tribal Gaming and the Indian Giver” in Gaming Law Review Vol. 3 No.1 1999

[35] ibid

[36] Narragansett Indian Tribe v, Ribo Inc. G. Wilcox E. Decided Feb. 14, 1989

[37] ibid

[38] Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island v, State of Rhode Island 667 A2nd280 (1995)

[39] 25 USC 1708(b)

[40] Berger, J.M.(L) “Narragansett Tribal Gaming and the Indian Giver” Gaming Law Review Vol.3 No.1 (1999)

[41] Providence Journal Aug, 1, 2004 “A Modern Chief” by Paul Davis

[42] Providence Journal, February 26, 2009 “Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas says tribes will fight court ruling” by Katie Mulvaney.

[43] Providence Journal 8/1/2004

[44] Providence Journal Dec. 6, 2009 “ Persistence, Perspective earn Brown award” by Liz Abbott

[45] statement made by Edward F. Sanderson, executive director of RIHPC to the Providence Journal in their article 10/18/2009

[46] Prov. Journal 10/18/2009

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
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