Northeastern Indian Adaptation to European Perception of Person, Property, and Law: Part I The Mark of A Man

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Part I The Mark of A Man

When the sachems Canonicus and Miantonomo etched their “signatures” with the symbols of a bow and an arrow respectively, on the deed that granted land to Roger Williams, one wonders what experiences had they already encountered in affixing, or even determining what would come to be known as their “signature” on documents attesting their agreements with English settlers and governors in the Colonial period.

Original deed for Providence Plantations in the Archives of the city of Providence. Photo from the Providence Journal.

It must have seemed a curious custom to the Narragansett, as it did with the Wampanoag, and other neighboring tribes throughout the Northeast when they first encountered European ideas of person, property, and law.

Of the Narragansett, Roger Williams wrote

“they have no Bookes nor Letters, and conceive their Fathers never had…having no letters, their painting…(on garments, bodies, and faces) comes nearest”

Other early accounts by Europeans to Narragansett villages portray a people embedded in the land, and indebted to the gods who provided for them. Native Americans engaged in trade with Europeans from the 16th century and certainly coveted some goods, but had little regard for the famed baubles and beads that adventurers swore would buy the bearer swaths of Indian land.

As historian Eric Jay Dolan wrote in his recent volume “Fur, Fortune and Empire”,

“The Indians interest in European goods…must not be confused with the desire to accumulate wealth or become rich. Unlike the Europeans, for whom becoming richer through trade was the chief goal, the Indians had no interest in that pursuit.”

Edward Winslow, an early visitor from Plymouth, wrote in astonishment of such adornments being ceremonially cast into a great fire, along with “kettles, skins, hatchets, …knives, &c.” [1]

Some years later, Roger Williams recounts a similar ritual, enacted during Keesaqunnamun, a harvest feast of thanksgiving in a Long House built for the occasion 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.”[2]

Such accounts lay bare only some of the striking differences between European and Native American beliefs that were at the core of the struggle of European expansion in North America. Embedded with the land as the Narragansett and other tribes had been for centuries, their beliefs of a sacred permanence in the land, the continuity of spirit, made European ideas of property intangible, and a perceived threat to their way of life.  Despite this, “the sociableness of the nature of man…in the wildest of them, who love societie, families, cohabitation,…”,  led Native Americans to generally welcome European visitors from the time that the Dutch flytes, looking like “great tree’d Islands” to the Narragansett; anchored offshore.

As neighboring lands were colonized, the Narragansett naturally grew wary of  English expansion and discouraged communication between the colonies. To the far west, beyond the Pequot and Mohegan lands, Native tribes had become reckless in war, in part due to confrontation fueled by the competition for furs and goods for trade.

As a people, the Narragansett were wary of “the uncertain events of warre” William Wood recorded in 1634, “they rest secure under the conceit of their popularitie, and seeke rather to grow rich by industrie, than famous by deeds of Chevalry” [3]

The lives of the Narragansett had seen centuries of relative harmony, whose people had grown into a dominant, but peaceful nation. Their “wealth” came from trade with neighboring tribes, again forming a peaceful bond and also lucrative trading places from Charlestown as far north as Pawtucket.  The Narragansett were an agricultural people, whose exports would have included corn, squashes, pumpkins, and various beans.

The women grew and harvested the great “gardens” and also dried fish that the men caught for winter storage as well as trade. They also manufactured a type of pemmican cake of dried deer meet, berries and animal fat that was a staple among Indians and trappers alike on long journeys.

Narragansett women also fashioned bowls, plates, cups, and amulets of pottery as well as textiles and woven baskets and “purses”. These items were long used in both daily living and for trade with other tribes, but with the advent of the Europeans, the manufacturing of goods for trade, especially clay pipes for smoking tobacco increased expeditiously.

Another major source of secure income was the manufacturing of Wampumpeage or “wampum” as it came to be called. Wood writes that the Narragansett were the “mint-masters “ of the region, for the currency that was used up and down the eastern seaboard.

19th century popular history illustration of European traders exchanging goods for wampum. The Native American holds a “wampum belt” the equivalent of today’s wallet.

Trade with Europeans however, was always seen as a risk to elders among the tribes. While their long standing trade with the French, Dutch, and English provided the cooking wares, hoes, rakes, axes, and other implements and adornments that, as Patricia Rubertone has written, were “incorporated…into their everyday lives and sacred traditions”,  trade was also changing their way of life and creating a dependency which leaders would come to regret, for with theEuropean trade came also disease, liquor, and weapons.

The Narragansett were certainly aware of the bloody result of Dutch trade with the Iroquois who used European weapons to wage revenge on old adversaries for nearly thirty years. Canonicus gift of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin and his refusal of gunpowder and bullets from Bradford in Plymouth was a clear warning against their overtures, no matter how bold it might seem given the risk of military action. It was not until 1631 that he would send his son in the company of a Massachusetts Sachem to visit Governor John Winthrop with the gift of an animal skin. The Governor of the Bay Colony reciprocated with “ a fair pewter pot, which he took very thankfully”.  Thus, an extension of the same bond afforded by trade, with subject expectations, was created by the Narragansett toward Massachusetts Authorities.

But then, “Rid Island” was a mystery to many in the Bay Colony, and few found its swamplands and rocky shores of much value to invest in settlement.  Until friendship with Roger Williams, any agreements with Europeans were transfers of goods in trade and as such,  terms of peace. Trade established a bond, one personal and political in Native American’s eyes. As one Indian told William Wood, “to trade is to seeke peace.” The selling of Narragansett land to anyone, would not have come without the advantage of an earned trust and mutual respect.

Writing some twenty years after his purchase of Providence Plantations and his assistance with the purchase of Aquidneck Island,  Williams declared:

“It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode-Island. Rhode-Island was obtained by love; by the love and favour which that honorable gentleman Sir Henry Vane and myself had with that great Sachem Miantonomu, about the league which I procured between the Massachusetts English, & c, and the Narragansett in the Pequod war.”[4]

Narragansett custom placed individuality above all other characteristics of their tribal life. The people came together in Council at appointed times, worshipped with customary rituals, and worked together as a community throughout the changing seasons, but their inherent grasp of individualism, like other Native American tribes became both a nemesis and a symbol that New Americans would adopt in the name of their own independence.

Roger Williams, as a trader who learned the Algonquian language, respected customs and  rituals, and was himself a free-thinker, was thus viewed as a sympathetic exile from the neighboring European colony. Williams came to act as mediator for Narragansett and Massachusetts Authorities as the Pequot relationship with the Dutch descended into war.

The Pequots had long tested Narragansett authority. At the time of Verrazanno’s visit, the tribe had recently concluded a long eunning dispute with the Pequot over Acquidneck Island. In 1636 Canonicus’ grim gift of the hand of a Pequot warrior along with a substantial amount of wampum, was the first indication that political pressure had brought the Narragansett to negotiation with the Bay Colony.  The terms of friendship secured, the tribe would side with Massachusetts despite overtures from their old enemies to join in alliance against both European intruders.

Despite these developments, there were ever more individuals who desired to purchase land from the Narragansett and settle in the newly founded colony. When a group which included William Coddington, William Hutchinson, and John Clarke among others, set out to buy Aquidneck Island in 1637,  Williams composed the deed, and led the party to confer with Wonnumentonomey, the local sachem, who referred them to the chief  Sachems Canonicus and Miantonomu. When the party crossed the Bay to Narragansett, Williams again mediated and persuaded the sachems to affix their “signatures” on the deed which read in part:

“That we…the two chiefe sachems of the Nanhiggansets, by vertue of our generall Command of this Bay, as also the particular subjecting of the dead Sachims of Aquednecke & Kitackmuckqut, themselves and Lands unto us, have sold unto Mr Coddington and his friends untited unto him, the great Island of Acquednecke lying from hence Eastward in this Bay, as also the Marsh or grasse upon Quinunigut and the rest of the Islands in the Bay, (exeptinge Chibachuwesa formerly sold unto Mr Winthrop, the now Gov’ of the Massachusetts and Mr Williams of Providence) also the grasse upon the rivers and Coves about Kitackamuckqut, and from these to Paupasquatch…”

At first glance this seems an enormous tract to cede to English hands, but a closer reading gives revealing hints at the temper of the times, and the transitions the Narragansett were facing as a people. One indication of the sachems willingness to part with the land was that the tracts sold, for the most part were inherited lands from the “dead Sachims”  of the Island now known as Newport as well as lands around Bristol leading down Bay to present day Popasquash Point. With these inheritances, no doubt came great responsibilities and time away from home and duties in Narragansett.

Roger Williams clearly saw the purchase of these and other lands as laying the foundation of his colony  under “liberty of conscience”. The Narragansett, with a dwindling population after early epidemics, may merely have wanted to sell the lands and distance themselves further from the Europeans.  A further indication of this is their agreement after selling the land that “ no Indian under his Jurisdiction shall eyther Winter or summer kindle or cause to be kindled any fiers upon the Lands…That no trappe or Engine be set by them upon the Island, to take or stroye the deare or other cattle theron,…That upon their trading and bargaining having agreed they shall not revoke the sde bargaine or take their goods away by force, & that they shall not be Ideling about nor resort to or howses, but for trade message or in their journeys.”

Such language shows a clear measure of mistrust beyond William Coddington’s comment that “Our Indians here are peaceable though we trust them not.”[5]

Narragansetts were also by this time, wary of European designs, and were suspect of their honesty in trade and agreements. Roger Williams records that

“Who ever deale or trade with them,had need of Wisedome, Patience, and Faithfulnesse In dealing: for they frequently say Cuppennauem, you lye, Cuttassokakomme, you deceive me.”

In signing the deed, however, there is also an indication of the two Sachems asserting to the English a clear hierarchy and a suggestion of a native code of law that would be followed in future negotiations. The Sachems seemed to recognized the importance of an individual’s signature in English customs, and adapted this importance in the evolution of their own “signatures” on the document.

Drawings of signatures deeds from Chapin’s “Documentary History of Rhode Island” Photos by author.

We see clearly that the elder Sachem has added a poised arrow to his bow. The younger Sachem Miantonomo, has depicted his signature as the arrow leaving the bow, a clear indication of whom the English would deal with in the future. Indeed, by 1639, when it became clear to Coddington that there were still some Narragansett on the south side of the Island, it was Miantonomo who negotiated with two lesser sachems and received

“(as a gratuety) of Mr Coddington and his Friends united for my paines and Travill in removeing off the natuves on the Island of Aquednecke tenn fathom of Wampum peage and one broad cloth coate.”

Miantonomo signed this receipt with his lone arrow signature, while the lesser Sachem adapted what looks to be the waves of the Bay.

By November, when the Island had been cleared and final gratuities of “Twenty and three Coates and thirteen howes to the Indians that did Inhabit off the Island of Aquednecke” were to be made, the document lists all Sachems involved with their individual “signatures”

Again, we see the distinctive “signatures of Canonicus and Miantonomo along with those symbols chosen by the lesser Sachems, what is apparently an English style hay rake for Wampammaquitt and a circle for Mompauke. These symbols may refer in Wampammaquitt’s case to the “English howes” that were part of the bargain, while Mompauke’s circle may be an example of Edward Winslow’s account of Indians making a simple hole in the ground to mark the site of a remarkable event, transferred by the Sachem onto parchment.

For many years historians maintained that there was scant evidence to suggest that Native Americans in New England practiced drawing symbols on rocks along the shore or on hides, and certainly not parchment before the influence of the Europeans. But there were sites and artifacts which caused some dispute in the historic and scientific communities. One of the most popular and puzzling sites was Dighton Rock. An early mention by Cotton Mather of this “curiosity of New England” describes

“ a mighty rock, on a perpendicular side whereof, by a river which at high tide covers part of it, there are very deeply engraved, no man alive knows how or when, about half a score lines near ten foot long and a foot and a half broad, filled with strange characters, which would suggest as odd thoughts about them that were here before us as there are odd shapes in that elaborate monument, whereof you shall see the first line transcribed here.”

Drawing of characters on Dighton Rock. After Delabarre.

Samuel Drake mentions in his “Nooks and Corners of the New England Coast” in 1857 that “the characters on Dighton rock are generally admitted to be of Indian creation.” Yet a few generations later, their authenticity had somehow come into question.

In describing the inscriptions in an article in 1924, Edmund Delabarre, who early in that decade chronicled an impressive history of inscribed rocks around Narragansett Bay, concluded that

“between 1640 and 1675, inspired by the white men’s example, …Indians drew pictures and designs of their own, probably with little or no significance…”

photo of Dighton Rock, 1904

There is a hint of regret in that conclusion by Delabarre, and in more recent years Historians and Anthropologists have re-examined the idea that those pictographs on inscribed rocks around the Bay may have been carved long before European influence, and indeed may have been sites of sacred memory to the Native Americans. One scholar re-visiting that probability is the Anthropologist Kathleen Bragdon who has written of such inscribed rocks:

“It seems clear…that pictographs are strongly associated with shamanic practice and provide evidence for a long history of such practice in southeastern New England. Widespread “visual literacy” , and a generalized knowledge of the meaning of these signs…no doubt provide a source of shared understanding between otherwise separate polities, and underlay the practice of ritual as well”[6]

In the same volume on New England, Drake writes that there was earlier evidence that Native Americans in the region “were acquainted with sculpture”, and in some instances carved out “descriptive drawings on the bark of trees.”

Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

In the various artifacts unearthed at locations around Rhode Island, we find that many are adorned with a carved or painted symbol. In an article of the Rhode Island Historical Magazine of October 1926, entitled “Unusual Indian Implements Found in Rhode Island”, Howard Chapin discusses a few new and surprising finds that included a number of soapstone effigies, pieces of pottery and adornments as well as a clay pipe carved in the image of a bird.

Despite what would seem some evidence to the contrary, Chapin writes that those pipes and pieces of pottery with “incised ornamental lines in diamond shaped patterns” is a “design which may have been due to contact with Europeans”. Likewise, a soapstone statue found at Neutaconkanut Hill, and effigies, including a face carved on a circular stone and another figure, both found near Warwick Pond were likely” made in theColonial period by Indians who had come in contact with European civilization and had seen figures made in Europe. The effigies all have a certain cast of countenance due tothe environment of the artisan, even though he received his general inspiration from European objects.”

It remains uncertain as to why historians of the time found it implausible that the Narragansett would be less “advanced” or culturally expressive than other indigenous peoples, yet Chapin notes that “Some consider that they were made by prehistoric tribes that preceded the Indians, who were found here by the whitemen.”

More recent finds studied by modern achaeologists, such as a similar face carved on the underside of a soapstone bowl found at Fields Point, and artifacts unearthed at Greene Farm and at burial sites carefully excavated from Burr’s Hill in Warren and others in Charlestown by teams of anthropologists Brown University, have been dated to at least 3000 to 3500 years ago. Meticulous examination of pottery, textiles,and amulets suggest that the Narragansett people created unique and meaningful symbols, and patterns in their manufacture of pottery, garments and other “accessories” long before the Europeans arrived.

All of this would suggest that the Sachems “signing” early deeds with like markings, demonstrates  a familiarity with symbols and their importance in ceremony.

We know that much later, in treaties with Colonial governors, the Mohawks, Senecas and Onondagas for example, sketched the likeness of the animal symbol for their Clan as their signatures, as on a 1701 land deed which holds five different symbols including a wolf and a turtle. A little more than a decade later, a treaty between settlers in New Hampshire and “Eastern Indians” included similar “signatures”

But what of these early documents and the apparent individualism of Narragansett “signatures”?  Narragansett leadership like other tribes was based upon a family hiearchy, a son or daughter generally assumed the role of Sachem upon the elder’s passing. What of the possibility that the major families among the Narragansett during the peak of their population had similar “signature” symbols to represent the family?  Canonicus would have known this information, and it is possible that the “signature” of bow and arrow used by the Uncle and Nephew may have been an icon developed from an earlier era, but in my research I have found no definitive way of knowing.

If one investigates the symbols as correlating to individuals names, we clearly find that Miantonomo’s symbol of the arrow could easily relate to “one who wages war”[7] as his name translates, but the elder Sachem Canonicus, whose name means “of the long place” (meaning Jamestown) the theory quickly dissolves.

We know that Canonicus was among the first Narragansett to encounter European visitors. He greeted Verazzano with his Grandfather Tashtasick  as a young boy. At the time of Williams’ purchase of Providence, he was known by the founder to be “four score yeares of age”.

Miantonomo, by the time of the sale of Narragansett lands would have had many an agreement with European traders. That the two Sachems “signed” trade agreements with the French, or Dutch Captains is another point of inquiry.  Of interest to this writer, is whether the signatures of the two sachems might truly be individualized, and further, adopted as a symbol in response to this European ritual of ceremony. In treating the agreements thus, we can also acknowledge that the Narragansett and other tribes reciprocated with the introduction of like rituals, the recitation of memory, for example, in both early, and later negotiations with the Europeans.

The first document known to hold an agreement between Europeans and Native Americans of the Northeast occurred on June 1, of 1629 when Samuel Godyn, an officer of the Dutch West India Company sent sailor Gillas Hossitt in a shallop  to the western shore of Delaware Bay to purchase land from the Indians. The Dutch by this time had already set up trading posts at Borenson Island and Fort Nassau. Hossitt met with a “full council of the Sickoneysinks”[8] and purchased from them a large tract of land that extended some thirty miles to the mouth of the Delaware Bay. A little more than a year later, two Sachems traveled with Dutch representatives to Manhattan, where in a deposition, they confirmed the deal. The following spring, twenty eight men under Hossitt arrived to establish the settlement of Swanendale.

Unfortunately, according to the authorative “Early American Indian Documents”[9],the signatures are missing from the deed, so we have no way of knowing what marks or symbols the Sikoneysinks might have used. As it was, the peace established, and the settlement, were short lived. Just six months after the agreement had been confirmed, a second Dutch expedition arrived to find Swanendale

“…well beset with palisades in place of breastworks, but it was almost burnt up. Found lying here and there the skulls and bones of our people whom they had killed, and the heads of the horses and cows which they had brought with them.”[10]

The Swedish also speculated in land and America in an attempt to capture some of the now lucrative fur trade in 1638. Although the Swedish venture was also to last but more than a few years, being essentially paid off by the Dutch to leave, a Swedish historian recounted the transaction:

“A deed was drawn up for the land thus purchased, This was written in Dutch, because no Swede was yet able to interpret the language of the heathen. The Indians subscribed their hands and marks. The writing was sent home to Sweden, to be preserved in the Royal Archives”[11]

In a deposition nearly fifty years later, three elderly Sachems who had been present at the original purchase, signed their testimony with three inverted X’s.

In 1648, six Sachems “over the district of country called Amenveruis “ signed an agreement to “declare well and truly to have sold to Arent Corsen, the Shuylkill and adjoining lands…”

On this document we clearly see that the marks of the Native Americans, with the exception perhaps of Mechecksouivebe and Quironkehouk, appear to be an imitation of European cursive writing in establishing, however fleeting, their own “signature”.

Photos of deed fascimiles from “Early American Indian Documents”

A later agreement with the Dutch in 1651 holds more distinctive markings, and the Sachem Sinquees has abandoned an imitation of cursive, to draw his “signature” like the other Sachems, in symbolic form.

Another separate deed with the Sachem Wappanghzewan demonstrates an even more elaborate “signature” composed of numerous symbols.

Yet, in contrast to these, another agreement, signed on June 7, 1659 includes the marks of sixteen representatives of the Delaware Nation, all of which, seem again, to be crude imitations of cursive writing.

And finally, a later deed of 1675 for the purchase of more  land “on the west side of the Delaware River and the Islands on the said river near the falls”, is signed in distinctive manner by three Sachems, including Nanneckos, who has clearly drawn an indigenous symbol as a his mark.

As we research northeastern treaties into the 18th century, we find the same dichotomy well into mid century, when some Sachems like Mohawk Hendrick Peters Theyanoguin had experience of at least some European schooling and signed documents with the printed initials of their name. It may be however, that the Narragansett Sachem Miantonomo was a precursor of those education Native Americans.

In Howard Chapin’s The Narragansett Sachems, the local historian provides once again, evidence that Miantonomo’s “signature” continued to evolve. By the time of a deed signed in 1642, the Sachem has clearly drawn letters from the English alphabet to signify his name: an inverted “M” perhaps and “O”, would indicate that the Narragansett had learned some association of sound with the letters of the language,  likely through his friendship and conversations with Roger Williams.

So what does this mean as to the adaptation and “acceptance “ of European importance placed upon an individual’s signature? It would seem that such acceptance or not was arbitrary, and that some Sachems placed more importance in the ceremony of the event, and that those whose marks were not associated with already long used symbols took more deliberate care in creating the symbol(s) that expressed not only a name, but an inkling of their own nature, their mark upon a page of history.

Jan-Feb. 2011

[1] Winslow, Edward “Journal, 1624”

[2] Williams, Roger “A Key to the Language of America”

[3] Wood, William “Goode News for New Englande”

[4] As cited in Howard Chapin’s “Documentary History of Rhode Island” pp 25

[5] Coddington, William Letter to Governor John Winthrop of December 9, 1639

[6] Bragdon, Kathleen J. “Native People of Southern New England 1500-1650” p210

[7] This, and other translations relating to Narragansett names and places are from “American Indian Place Names in Rhode Island Past and Present” by Frank Waabu O’Brien 2003

[8] Morison, Samuel Eliot “The Great Explorers”

[9] ed. by Kent. Vol 1, 1607-1789 Treaties and Laws

[10] ibid.

[11] Acrelius “Account of the Swedish Churches in New Sweden” 1769 pp 60-61


About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
This entry was posted in Native American history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Northeastern Indian Adaptation to European Perception of Person, Property, and Law: Part I The Mark of A Man

  1. Paul Cormier says:

    Would anyone know the day or month Roger Williams signed his agreements with the Narragansetts and Sachem. I know the year was 1634 for Providence and 1636 for Hipses Rock in Johnson. I’m looking for day and or month of these agreements.


    Paul Cormier

    • rag57 says:

      There is some discrepancy as to the actual date- Williams wrote that it was signed or “executed” on March 24, 1638- nearly two years after he first set foot in RI

  2. I just recently discovered your writings and have enjoyed reading them. I’m a frequent contributor to the blog Rock Piles, have been field researching Native American Stonework for about 21 years. I’ve called some of what I’ve found “sculpture” my self. So I’m wondering if Bragdon the correct reference for: “In the same volume on New England, Drake writes that there was earlier evidence that Native Americans in the region “were acquainted with sculpture”…” I’ve read that one a couple times or more and don’t recall that as being in there.

    • rag57 says:

      Hi Tim, The reference from Drake is in “Nooks and Corners of New England”. I reference Bragdon in regard to Dighton Rock…thanks for your comment. I am a big fan of the Rock Piles blog.

  3. This site was… how do you say it? Relevant!
    ! Finally I’ve found something which helped me. Many thanks!

  4. Michael cononchet says:

    Great writings.. I think I have just found my NEW favorite wed site.

  5. tingali2015 says:

    I agree this is a great article. I have waited for years to try and understand the complex relationships we had and still have with native Americans. We have a street named ‘uncas’ in my town and I want a street named ‘miantonomo’ added.

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