Rediscovering Native American Places of Memory


A talk given at the Audubon Society on February 26, 2012

In the closing years of the nineteenth century a tide of nostalgia seemed to sweep the nation. In American historiography, this was the second such wave that swept the public when books recounting the founding of our country and local histories were published at a prodigious rate, and while these histories retold stories that were familiar to many Americans with like patriotic fervor, a subtle change had also occurred; and that was to view those Native Americans who defended their lands in a more heroic light.

One result of this “new view” of Native Americans, at least during the Colonial period, was the effect these popular and academic histories had upon state and community societies dedicated to preserving the local history. In Rhode Island, a number of monuments were erected in what some historians see today as an effort to  place a physical stamp on what were perceived in the histories as a “people of the past”, when in fact the descendents of the Narragansett heroes memorialized on these sites were struggling to maintain their culture in the wake of detribalization.

The first such monument was in fact erected to commemorate the tribal council’s decision to become citizens of the state. On August 30, 1883 Over a hundred delegates from the state including Rhode Island’s Governor, the Mayor of Charleston, the town council and other invited guests, stood with a handful of Narragansett and dedicated the site at Fort Ninigret. The remains of the 17th century balustrades  were outlined neatly with steel posts and rails; and a massive boulder now lay at it’s center which proclaimed the Narragansett and Niantic peoples as the “unwavering Friends and Allies of our Fathers”.

Two weeks later, in an elaborate ceremony, the Rhode Island Historical Society dedicated, a tall, rough hewn boulder on the site of the newly renovated North Burial Ground dedicated to the Sachem Canonicus. The Narragansett leader’s name was carved in English across the stone, and a mark in imitation of the crude bow anarrow that the Sachem had used as a mark to sign the deed to Providence Plantations  was carved into the rock as well. This was, in effect, the first memorialto a Narragansett sachem in Rhode Island, though the town of Norwich, Connecticut had placed a tombstone to the Sachem Miantonomo in 1842, to replace a large cairn of stones that had lain there for generations. The city had also erected an obelisk to the Mohegan leader Uncas that same year.

In 1906, the Societies of Colonial Wars in Rhode Island and Massachusetts erected the massive, rough-hewn granite column on the site of Great Swamp, where

one of the most infamous battles of King Philip’s War had taken place. The Great Swamp monument, as it came to be called, was dedicated to the comparatively few white fatalities from the battle-only two were from Rhode Island, but at the dedication, nearly all present acknowledged, in the Chaplin’s words,  “the noble but now almost vanished Narragansett Tribe”

In the coming years, the memorializing continued. In 1907, a plaque was placed in

the heart of Central Falls to commemorate the place where Captain John Pierce and his small militia encountered and began battle with a group of Wampanoag from a nearby encampment in the swamplands above the Blackstone River. Nine members of the militia including Pierce were captured and put to death at the edge of what was known as “Camp Swamp” . Ten years after the plaque was dedicated in Central Falls where the fight began, the Rhode Island Historical society rebuilt the cairn beneath which the men were buried, and set a formal plaque of dedication at the site of what has long been called “Nine Men’s Misery”.

But as we have seen, these sites, though associated with Narragansett and Native American events, were memorials to our white colonial past, and only a small part of the historiography of Rhode Island, and New England as a whole. As such, those places of Native American memory are all around us, even in the present day.

Some are sites that our descendants knew well, from the efforts of Samuel Drake, John Truslow Adams, and other historians who detailed Native American life in the colonial era, and those local historians like Howard Chapin and Sidney S. Rider who speculated on artifacts found during the early twentieth century in Rhode Island

Neutaconkanut Hill, just east of Hipses Rock, the border of Narragansett land deeded to Roger Williams in 1637, was long the site of a soapstone quarry whose yield allowed large Narragansett production of smoking pipes, bowls of all kinds, and other implements primarily for trade with Dutch and English merchants, but also with neighboring tribes.

This was likely the site of production of a unique soapstone bowl whose underside is carved with a human face, that was found by a Brown University student at Fields Point in Providence, in the 1920’s.

As early as 1834, artifacts of Native American life in Rhode Island had been unearthed along the banks of the Sakonnet River, and in the years 1835-1836 numerous artifacts were found by workers constructing the Providence to Westerly Railroad.  Many of these artifacts were given to the Rhode Island Historical Society, allowing Chapin especially, to keep an interest in Narragansett culture alive in the pages of the Society’s bulletin.

courtesy of the Peabody-Essex Museum

There were also the infamous and illegal robbing of the Narragansett Burial Ground by Dr. Usher Parson’s of Brown, among others in 1860, and the decimation of the remaining “Royals” conducted by the Anthropologist Harris Hawthorne Wilder in the 1920’s, both of which are presented in detail in “Keepers of the Bay”, and whose artifacts were also written about and speculated on by local historians, none of whom seemed least fazed by so callous an encroachment of an aboriginal site.

courtesy of the Peabody-Essex Museum

The finding of artifacts in such a wide area of the state, affirms what we already know of the Narragansett as a dominant tribe in the region who inhabited the lands of much of Rhode Island. But what of their, and other Native American places of memory ? What sites were of importance to their history, and an understanding of their people’s story ?

A few glimpses of the places of Native American memory come to us from those early chroniclers and their observations of Native life in Rhode Island.  Among these was Newport minister Ezra Stiles whose diary revealed several written accounts of excursions into Native American territory, observations upon their lifestyle and mode of worship,  even drawings of mysterious places and “inscribed rocks” that he was led to in his travels as far north as Brattleboro, and Bellows Falls Vermont, and Deer Island in Maine.

One of these drawings of Stiles’ is the first known modern sketch of Dighton Rock.

drawing by Delabarre, (after Stiles)

Since its discovery by Europeans, – the first mention of it in print is a description from John Danforth of Dorchester in 1680, the flat surfaced rock inscribed with petroglyphs and peckings from several generations of people was originally located on the east bank of the Taunton River in Berkley, Massachusetts. From the time of Stiles’ sketches on through the twentieth century, the meanings of its many intricate carvings have been the subject of hundreds of articles, books and presentations like the one here today.

While early scholars attributed these markings to Native Americans, in the sometimes political subtext of written histories, speculation of the “writing” on the rock turned to early Norse or Viking visitors, or the more exotic theories of glyphs of Phonician or Egyptian  origin.

Of these scholars who studied the Rock in the twentieth century, the most prominent and outspoken was likely Edmund Delabarre, of Brown University. The professor undertook extensive archeological excavations on “Grassy Island” just 900 feet upriver from where Dighton Rock lay, and discovered stone tools, as well as a burial site among what had been a large encampment. Delabarre was convinced that the “enigmatic carvings” were of Native American origin, and of historical significance to the region.

Writing in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Magazine in January of 1925, Delabarre wrote that the Rock had

“probably received more attention and aroused more controversy than any other similar monument anywhere … more than twenty attempts have been made to depict its inscriptions in drawings…and at least a dozen more in photographs…We can say with complete confidence that not one of these drawings or photographs, or chalked lines is at all reliable, and that all of the theories are mistaken, except in part the one which attributes the mark to the Indians…”

We now know through later anthropological interpretation of some symbols, namely those by William Simmons, and more recent research by Archaeologist Edward J. Lenik, and, most significantly, those who have relayed Wampanoag oral tradition, that the symbols represent the coming of the Europeans, as carved by Weetucks, who was visited by spirit messengers, and led to incise the original markings on the southern face of the rock. [1] This same Native American is mentioned in Roger William’s A Key into the Language of  America where we find:

“They have many strange Relations of one W’etucks, a man that wrought great Miracles amongst them, and walking upon the waters,, &c. with some kind of broken Resemblance to the Sonne of God.

We see then, that this area near the rock, has long been a sacred site to the Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes.

Delabarre knew, that while all of this research had been centered on what Edward Lenik called “a natural billboard located on a major inland waterway”, there were other inscribed rocks in the region, particularly around his home shore of Narragansett Bay.

In articles published in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s magazine from 1921- 1925, Delabarre chronicled 18 sites of “inscribed rocks” from the coastal tip of Westerly as far inland as Assonet Neck, where Dighton Rock lay.  After investigating such sites along the shores of Narragansett Bay

early drawing of Mount Hope Rock

Delabarre concluded like many anthropologists of his time that while the markings on certain sites were of Native American inscription, these were most certainly made after the European introduction of writing and symbols. This of course, goes against tribal oral histories and modern anthropological findings. Mark Rock in Warwick, in particular of these, has undergone much scrutiny by local scholars.

Delabarre had drawn and photographed twelve different locations on the rock that held petroglyphs.

A sad fate of nature is that the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954 changed the landscape of Occupawtuxet cove where the rock lies, and it was later concluded that up to 60 % of Mark Rock had been covered by sand. Despite this, later research and subsequent photographs by Charles Devine and Edward Lenik  further illustrated Lenik’s conclusion published in his book “Picture Rocks” in 2002, that the oldest glyphs on the rock pre-date the coming of the Europeans. He notes that

“These glyphs are older than the others…They have been pecked into the rock, most likely with sharp pointed stone picks; the lines vary in width and have a crude appearance. Furthermore, these glyphs occur on lower elevations on the rock surfaces, which suggests that such areas were first exposed for carving.”

Lenik likewise concluded that others of the “inscribed rocks” that Delabarre had

chronicled were of Native American origin. The inscribed rock in Tiverton, for

example, which Ezra Stiles speculated was of a Phonecian hand and thus, three

thousand years old, were found by Lenik to date from the middle to late woodland period.

Early 20th century photograph of the "written rocks" in Tiverton, courtesy of RIHS

Lenik is also the first I believe to associate one of the more prominent markings on Mount Hope rock, or “Leif’s Rock” as it was called among those Norsemen enthusiasts, contained a remarkable similarity to the boat carved upon Mark Rock, and wonders, as William Simmons proposed of Dighton rock, if this craft carved onto the flat surfaced, rectangular sandstone pointing out toward the water is an historical record of European arrival in the bay.

We know that the Narragansett and other tribes traveled to encampments throughout the region, spending the warm summers close to the bay, and retreating inland during the winter. So what of these inland sites, besides the Great Swamp, that haunted, desolate place? The aforementioned Camp Swamp into which Captain Pierce stumbled, was long a shared Wampanoag and Narragansett territory for its proximity to the Blackstone and Seekonk tributaries.

site at "camp Swamp" photo by author

In the late nineteenth century, a part of this area was purchased by the Cistercian Order who in 1902 proceeded to build a massive-English style monastery on the grounds.  The Brothers spent nearly fifty years tilling the grounds, building roads through the swamps, and struggling to reach a sustainable living off the difficult property. In  1950, a fire destroyed the monastery and the Brothers moved to another property owned by the order in Massachusetts.

When the town acquired the property, they set out to develop a fitness path called Monument Loop that would circle part of the property adjacent to the monastery. Construction was stopped however, by an appeal from the American Heritage Society. As the report later issued read,

“Construction of the trail was inadvertently started prior to any archeological survey, disturbing portions of at least two buried pre-historic sites. AHS completed emergency archeological surveys, resulting in the identification of seven pre-historic sites ranging in age from the middle archaic to the late woodlands period-and a small 17th century site associated with the on site deaths of nine colonial militia during King Philip’s War (1675).

site in "Camp Swamp" photo by author

Throughout this region, if one looks carefully, are reminders of the Native American past. Much has been lost, and much has been forgotten of the stories of these places, so when we find these traces we should respect their meaning, even if it is unknown to us, and leave such places undisturbed as much as possible.

In 1934, the Narragansett tribe began a newspaper called the “Narragansett Dawn”, an effort not only to keep the tribe informed in a modern way, of news and gatherings, but even history, a component that had a long tradition of only being spoken. For the first time for many in the tribe, the Narragansett Dawn let them tell their history in its pages. In one of those early editions, a Narragansett historian wrote of her grandmother telling her of  “old Indian graves tucked away off on the hillsides”, places only reachable on foot in the dense forest.

The discovery of stone cairns , long held to be sites of burials or  ceremony have come to the forefront of late in the wake of proposed development projects and the efforts of the Narragansett and the Rhode island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission as well as the National Park Service to identify and preserve these sites.

Cairn in Parker woodland, Coventry. Photo by author

In some areas such as Coventry, these sites have long been protected under the Audubon auspices, and while I am not aware of any official study of the cairns in this location, evidence shows that the area was long used by the Narragansett and Nipmuc people up to the period preceding the Revolutionary War. Cairns of differing age and condition lie throughout the region, the most famous and most photographed being one section of neatly constructed rock piles that are likely the most recent in the area, perhaps dating from that period of the 18th century.

I would suggest that those of you with an interest in Native American places of

memory, of ceremony, look into a blog called “rockpiles”, a site founded by Peter Waksman, and with contributors Tim McSweeney, photographer Larry Harrop, who has chronicled a considerable number of these places, and taken and taken some fine pictures of the sites in Coventry, as well as photographer Norman Muller and researcher Jim Porter. This site is very informative and covers an extensive area of New England and beyond where some of these ceremonial and sacred sites can be found.

In Smithfield Rhode Island, the more recent-re-discovery of cairns in the Nipsachuck Hill area, long known to be the site of two battles during King Philip’s war, prompted the Narragansett Tribal Historic Preservation office to fight land developers intent on building a 122 lot sub-division on the site, and to file suit to have Nipsachuck named an historical burial ground.

The descendents of indigenous people have long maintained that Nipsachuck is also an ancient ceremonial place that pre-dates the arrival of the Europeans by centuries. The ceremonial landscape is marked by many stone features that are unrecognizable to most contemporary non-indian residents. Archeologist Frank Meli, was among the first to document these sites and told the Providence Journal in 2007, “ whether they are burial or ceremonial, I think they go back a couple of thousands of years”.

one of the older cairns at Nipsachuck, photo by author

The tribe worked with the Town of Smithfield, and their efforts culminated in an award from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection program to

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

another site in Nipsachuck, photo by author

These efforts, which ultimately brought together the resources and cooperative

research among the National Park Service, The Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, The Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office, as well as the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, the Mohegan tribe, and the Nipmuc Tribe; is a unique occurrence, and what I hope will be a model for future identification and preservation of  sacred sites.

No.Smithfield site of cairns, Nipsachuck area. Photo by author.

In the final technical report issued in August of 2011, the researchers write that

“working collaboratively, we accomplished much. We identified likely areas where the battles took place and we developed a research design for ground-truthing these likely areas with archaeological identification and documentation. We also gained a deeper appreciation and understanding for the conflicts that came from the English settlement of Indian country in northern Rhode Island, for the complexity and fluidness of indigenous society, for the battles themselves, and for the legacy of the war among today’s Indian and non-Indian people…

One of the notable outcomes of this collaborative project has been to suggest a further examination of the relationship between Nipsachuck, as a ceremonial place of tribal importance, and the Nipsachuk battle fields themselves.”

This continued work with Tribal leaders and archeological investigations will continue through at least this year, but it is hopeful that a long term effort to protect the battlefields and the sacred areas around them will result in a nationally recognized historic area.

Other long-term efforts have also taken up much of the Narragansett resources and time, most notably those sites discovered along the shores of Point Judith pond.

In an early map published in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s magazine in 1923 identified eight known sites around the pond.

In the fall of 1986, just east of Point Judith Pond, researchers from Rhode Island College made a cursory investigation for artifacts in an area purchase by a developer for a seventy nine unit housing complex. Workers found evidence almost immediately, and these first finds ultimately led to the discovery of a twenty five acre settlement that included the remains of Narragansett dwellings and circular storage pits for corn and other staples.

The discovery of this site in fact, proved to be one of the most extensive ancient seaside settlements found on the eastern coast of the United States. A similar site found in Virginia, had long been under state protection, even though it remained privately owned. In Rhode Island however, a long and protracted legal battle has taken place between the developer and the state.

Initially, the developers project was stalled by state demands that developers had to meet in searching for artifacts before proceeding. These searches led to more discoveries, including an Indian burial ground. Excavations in 2006, when developers planned to lay a road into the property, yielded evidence of twenty two dwellings. This led the State Historic Preservation Commission to request that the permit issued to the developer be withdrawn, arguing that the area was “a site of great importance that would be studied by several generations of scholars”.  The developers responded by filing suit, asking that the court end the state’s interference and asking for “substantial damages” in light of the long delay.

While not taking a direct role in the lawsuit, John Brown, the Narragansett Tribe’s preservation officer told the Providence Journal that “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 going in and building on Arlington National Cemetery.”

Since the writing of my book “Keepers of the Bay”, the State and the developers have been slowly inching toward a settlement, not an easy task in financially troubled times.  And it’s in times like these that such places are often most at risk.

As people who appreciate, and have respect for the land and the long history of the indigenous people of Rhode Island, it is imperative that we preserve, as much as we can, those places that hold such history.

Present day photo of Fort Ninigret, taken by author.

And so we come full circle as we see the old monuments from the past are fading now from view and we look to the future and a way to preserve these sites. In October of 2009, Narragansett Preservation Officer John Brown received the Frederick C. Williamson Leadership award from the State’s Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission. Brown was praised by the Director in an interview with the Journal for his role in preserving the traditions and cultural values of the Narragansett as well as for his careful consultation with Lloyd Wilcox, Medicine Man, Ella Sekatau, tribal etho-historian and medicine woman, and other tribal leaders.

In presenting the award, Edward 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”.

View of Tautog Cove from Fort Ninigret, photo by author

While state officials and the Narragansett do not always see eye to eye, Paul Robinson told the Journal that  Brown has accomplished much in educating state officials about historic sites.

“I think he’s shown us that sometimes we walk a fine line between preservation and excavation, and sometimes its better to wait and preserve, than to excavate.”


[1] Lenick, Edward “Picture Rocks” p. 133-134

About rag57

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