Was Cacauwonch “The Beginning Place”?

Was Cacauwonch “The Beginning Place”?

by Robert A. Geake

The first place name under the letter C in Frank Waabu O’Brien’s  American Indian Place Names in Rhode Island, is the name Cacauwonch, with its literal translation as “the beginning place”.  In geographical terms, the place name is given the area we know as Kent County, encompassing the towns of Warwick, West Warwick, and parts of Coventry.

In considering this intriguing name, I want to explore what the name and meaning meant to the Narragansett beyond these geographical boundaries. For instance, is this the area the Narragansett associate literally as the source of their people, an actual “beginning place?” ,  is the connotation spiritual in meaning, and thus a specific place of ceremony ? , or does the name signify something simpler, such  as the name given a place as the starting point of a particular journey?

There are other place names designated in Kent County, just a few words down we find Cacumgunsett, a “place of high rocks”, that was used as a quarry. Cawaude, meaning “pine place” also appears, as well as Cheetoskeunke, a “principal wading place”, in this particular case, a set of stepping stones across the Pawtuxet river. Throughout the Glossary other place names appear from Kent County, Kitachanniqut – the “principal long beach”,  “the rough (stony) path called Machipscat, and the “muddy bend” named Paswonquitte.

     All are place names in the Algonquian language and tradition of denoting an area of resources, a geographical marker, or the landscape itself.  In Sidney S. Rider’s The Lands of Rhode Island: As They were Known To Caunounicus  And Miantunnomu… we find under the heading of Coweset,  a reference that reads “In the ancient records there is recorded an exchange of lands with John Greene, wherin occurs these words;

        Cacawonch, known by ye English name Coeset  Pond”.

This ancient deed that Rider refers to is likely the agreement between Greene, Miantonomo, and Saconoco of Occupasnetuxet, of October 1, 1642 for land that included the farm that would belong to the heirs of Governor John Brown Francis.

Roger Williams named this place Cow-aw-esuck, which has the literal meaning “ a place of young pines”. Trumball, among others noted that there were similar place names throughout New England.

Map showing location of Native American tribes in Rhode Island Courtesy of the Warwick Historical Society

Williams’ definition adds a note of intrigue to the possible spiritual connotation of the place name.  Trees are an integral part of Algonquian creation beliefs. [1] Williams wrote of the Narragansett that “for their later Descent, and whence they came into these pars…They say themselves, that they have sprung and growne up in that very place, like the very trees of the wildernesse.”

The English minister would later learn the significance of those sentiments when he recorded the Narragansett story of Cautantowit’s creation of Ninnimissinnuwock, or, “the people”.[2]

“…They have it from their Fathers, that Kautantowwet made one man and woman of a stone, which disliking, he broke them in pieces, and made another man and woman of a tree, which were the foundations of all mankind.”[3]

For the Narragansett, the pine tree held special significance, they believed the greatest of these had grown in strength from the shed blood of their ancestors, and accordingly, in times of war or ceremony, used the bark of the tree to make a dye with which to paint their faces and clothes. Williams wrote that “Wunnam their red painting which they most delight in, …is both the Barke of the Pine, as also a red Earth”.

The ritual was more than skin deep, the coloring from earth and trees and applying them to the body was a physical acknowledgement of the Ninnimissinnuwock dependency on the earth, and the spirits it harbored that could protect and guide them.  The crows and ravens held a like spiritual entity, and ravens roosting in the pines are the basis of an Algonquian mythological story of  how the raven’s feathers became black. In addition, we find a reference in DeVrie’s descriptons of the beliefs of southern New England natives that “when they die they go to a place where they sing like the ravens”.

In a written tribute to Narragansett leader Chief Pine Tree in the tribal newsletter The Narragansett Dawn of May 1935, the writer speaks to the continuity of this belief and enjoins readers to

“Be a Narragansett brave and true-hearted, thru all the modern changes, that shall come along your future path; and let not your sons and grandsons forget their forefathers of these fair acres. Every hill in South County has been a shrine of prayer; and a million dawns have found the braves of our tribe communing with the Great Spirit…’they were brothers to the storm and the sunshine, and they understood the whisper in the pine trees.”

Narragansett poet Orville Leonard finishes his ode “To The Pine Tree” with the words

“…I am the symbol of quiet strength- And I am the spirit of sleep.”

So if Cacauwonch, this “beginning place”, or “place of young pines” is in fact a place of spiritual association, where might it be?

There is no Cacauwonch on Sidney S. Rider’s “An Indian Map of the Lands of Rhode Island” that was inserted into his volume, though Coweset is there, just south of Opponaug. There are however two unnamed bodies of water located on his map (locations 16 and 17 respectively) that appear to be just a few miles west of Cowesett Bay.

Rider’s 1903 Map of “The Lands of Rhode Island as Canonicus and Miantonomo Knew Them”


Looking at the landscape of Cowesett today, we find some intriguing possibilities for the location of these bodies of water.

Warwick Pond, being close by the property owned by Greene, is a place where many early artifacts were found for generations. Writing of the “Unusal Indian Implements Found in Rhode Island”, historian Howard M. Chapin mentions a now famous “soapstone face, about 1 ½ inches tall…found near Warwick Pond by Samuel King”, as well as a “full length image, …found near Warwick Pond by Mr. Carl Romer.”

Chapin chronicled these finds in an article for the Rhode Island Historical Society Bulletin in 1921 and 1922, but these donations to the museums collection were likely uncovered years earlier when the pond had become a “summer resort” which held an “annual outing of 12-20 gentlemen for fishing and dinner and sports”- largely attended by Providence merchants.

Gorton pond may also be considered a possibility, as there are certainly several references to the body of water being called “Cowesett Pond” for some time. A petition from Samuel Greene in 1722 to the town asks that he be given use of “4 acres and 23 rods adjoining Cowesett Pond lying on both sides of the brook coming out of said pond.”

But this does not appear to be the same pond mentioned in the deed.

Warwick historian Henry A.L. Brown, and a descendent of John Greene, speculates that the body of water referred to in this early deed was an area that held a shallow pond “of no great distinction”, and thus, never named on a map of the town.

There are however, mentions of the area in the town records. In 1656, the “Towne Council” ordered that “John Greene shall have the meadow at the northeast side of the pond called by the Indians Cacouncke, lying by a brooke that runs out of aforesaid pond”.

And on February 4, 1659 the ruling body ordered that “John Greene shall have as much land at his meadow Cacawonch, known by the name of Coeset pond for to fence his meadow in, he leaving (leasing) out so much of his land at Occupasnetuxet”[4].

The final document is Greene’s will ,  in which he leaves his last wife their household, as well as

“half ye orchard; also I give unto her my lott adjoining to ye orchard together with ye swamp which the towne granted me…”

This area is off of Route 2 behind the asphalt parking lots, brick and mortar stores, and office buildings that now permeate the landscape.

Surveying the satellite photos available, we see two ponds, aligned as on Rider’s map. One, a small “kettle” pond, is just north of a  slightly larger “c” shaped pond that lies within the heavily wooded Dawley Farm property, between Major Potter and Cowesett roads. This is an area now protected and preserved as open space by the Warwick Conservation Society.

This land, along with an adjacent site ¼ miles east, known as the Lambert Farm, is nestled in the heart of what was once called the “Coweset homeland”. Excavations at the Lambert Farm site in 1980, and then again a decade later revealed evidence of a major settlement near a small spring that included a variety of features and artifacts including a shell mound which contained the remains of two young dogs, carefully prepared for burial, as well as pieces of pottery, special stones that had been acquired in trade, and various foodstuffs.

Could this area with this small ,“insignificant” pond have been named “the beginning place”, or did the meaning have a broader reach over the landscape?

“the pond the Indians call Cacouoncke”

Could the evidence from archeological undertakings provide an answer to the true place of origin of the Narragansett?

In the past decade, archeologists working in conjunction with the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission have steadily unearthed the remains of an Indian village that dates as far back as 2000 BC. making it  the oldest site of a year-round village found in southern New England.  These were not the Narragansett however, as state archaeologist Paul Robinson explains, these were the Manisses’; who inhabited the southern side of the island in that time.

On the mainland, it sometimes seems difficult to ascertain which discoveries are the most important in grasping a pattern of tribal living to settlement and uses of the land, but  it is worth reviewing a few early discoveries from the area known as Kent County if only to gain an archeological perspective.  William L. Fowler who explored and excavated numerous sites throughout southern New England from 1946 into the late 1960’s, gives us perhaps the most informative view of the area:

“During the Paleo and first half of the Early Archaic occupations, Narragansett Bay was non-existent due to high land and a low sea level; a wide river flowed where the Bay is now. As time passed, it seems probable that camps of Paleo, and later on, Early Archaic caribou hunters were made along this river, and continued there for many years. However, toward the close of the Early Archaic the rising sea level forced the river to overflow its banks which must have driven the people from their skin huts.”

Encampments retreated inland with some hunting tribes moving up tributaries their ancestors had only explored, while others simply continued to move encampments along the banks.  According to Fowler,

“…by the time the present shores of Narragansett Bay were formed, some 5000 years ago, the Early Archaic occupation had come to a close, with most hunters having moved north pursuing the retreat of caribou and tundra; remnants may have camped for a short time along present day bay shores…”

Among the sites excavated in the region of our concern, were the Locust Spring, and Sweet Meadow Brook, locations.  During the summers of 1954 and 1955, Fowler, along with Berger E. Anderson excavated an area on the small knoll outside of Apponaug, which became known as the Sweet Meadow Brook site. They found a long-used campsite, and the dig , under the auspices of the Narragansett Archeology Society, yielded 2,267 artifacts, including products of Indian labor such as pieces of pottery, stone hearths, tools made of stone and bone, and pipes.

Fowler and his researchers concluded that there was evidence to suggest that as far back as 8000 years ago, the surrounding area “was the heart of a prolific Indian culture”.

An article written of the finds in a January 1957 edition of the Providence Journal describes an area that seems like a foreign land to us today:

“Dr. Fowler believes that Rhode Island then had no forest. Everywhere were sand dunes, gravel hillocks, tundra and arctic moss. Later a warmer climate attracted native Americans from the north around 2,500 BC. These were followed by the stone bowl men, Indians from the Great Lakes region  who quarried the soft stone near Oaklawn and manufactured dishes and bowls. … By the time America was discovered by the white man, Rhode Island Aborigines knew how to hunt with a bow and arrow, how to raise agricultural produce and manufacture simple items of primitive civilization”.[5]

Today, such an evolutionary timeline is questioned by the Narragansett and other Algonquian tribes who contest that they are descendants of a people who came into New England through a great migration.  Lineage to the land goes as far back as “time out of mind” to the Narragansett, who are naturally skeptical of an archaeologists’ gridline of time and place of their ancestry and cultural history.

Perhaps the most scholarly approaches on this tenuous path have been made by William Simmons of Brown University and Paul Robinson of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Society.  Simmons, a native Rhode Islander, established an early rapport with tribal leaders and gained their respect through his  archaeological and spiritual histories. Robinson has worked closely with the Narragansett Nation for thirty years in examining and interpreting archeological sites throughout Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Historical Preservation Society’s report  “Native American Archeology in Rhode Island” summarizes that

“During the long stretch between 8000 and 3000 years ago, the archeological record suggests that there was a substantial increase in population in the Rhode Island area and that for the first time people settled in villages which had some permanence and stability…Sites from 8000 to 4500 years ago are found in East Providence, Providence, Coventry, North Kingston and throughout South County”.

But who were these early descendants of the tribes who gathered in what became Rhode Island, and where is the lost thread of oral history that once must have bound them together?

Simmons’ work, carefully excavating 17th century graves at what became known as the “West Ferry site”, was featured in his book “Cautantowwit’s House”. The excavations took place yards away from an earlier burial site, that Simmons mused was likely unknown to those descendants he discovered on the hillside above the bay.

Before the discovery of the Block Island settlement, the earliest known village had been uncovered at the Joyner site in Jamestown. According to archeologists, the Joyner site was used for thousands of years, with its earliest use dating between 3700 and 3100 years ago.  Evidence from the same period was also found in what were called the “Providence Covelands” when workers in 1983 removed six feet of urban fill from the shore of the ancient salt pond that had been gradually filled and bridged over to accommodate the growth of the city. The RIHPS records that

“Underneath the fill, on the North Shore and on what was called Carpenter’s Point, archeologists found the tools, refuse, and cooking hearths of people who had lived around the pond from the time it was formed (between 3800 and 2700 years ago) to the coming of English people in the 17th century”.

The Providence Covelands were situated at the convergence of trails leading “east to Boston and Plymouth, west to Hartford, south to Cocumsossoc and Pequot Country, and north along the Blackstone River”. Another early site in Providence was found on a hillside above the Seekonk River where the remains of several settlements dating back to 5000 years were found.[6]

Between 3000 and 500 years ago, Native American villages grew alongside the bay in “places like Greenwich Cove, Wickford Cove, and Nonquit Pond, and also near the lagoons (called “salt ponds”) in coastal areas, in places like Potter Pond in South Kingston and Great Salt Pond on Block Island”.

The RIHPS reported that over 200 sites had been identified from this era throughout Rhode Island as of 2002, with more discoveries made since, in both Warwick, and the town of Warren at Burr’s Hill; the site of earlier discoveries. This era is clearly the most documented, and with a scarcity of evidence from earlier periods, the archeological examination fails to pinpoint a specific area or place where the earliest land dwelling aboriginal  may have settled; a site that would be,  in effect, “the beginning place”.

Perhaps the fault is mine in casting too wide a net. Perhaps this name of Cacauwonch has its origin and meaning with the people of the Coweset homeland.

This place, inland from the winter gales, with small ponds to ice fish upon, and woodlands for hunting deer, may have been known so long as a place of winter hibernation, its meaning may have more to do with the people’s reemergence in spring, and the beginning again of the cycle of seasons.

rocky woodlands surround “cacauwonch”

Or could Cacauwonch hold its literal meaning with the Cowesett people as the understood place of their origin?

If so, and if true also that the name was adopted into the greater Algonquian dialect in Southern New England, it must have been a place of some prominence long before its footnote-like mention in a 17th century deed of land. No other word in the Algonquian language holds such a noble title, a word that may originate with a tribe that was long held in respect by their neighbors, including the Narragansett. They were industrious in trade and the manufacture of wampum, adorning themselves and members of the family with the beads as a sign of status to the traders.

One local historian noted that

“the Coweset Indians in particular, living along the bay which once bore their name and is now called Greenwich, appears to have taken advantage of their opportunities”.

Cowesett (now Greenwich) bay.

By the mid 17th century, their lands were being sold by their overseers, the Narragansett, and while the Cowesett people had long been assimilated into the greater Narragansett people, bands of Shawomet, Pawtuxet, and Cowesett indians refused to leave their homeland.

Ponham, the Shawomet sachem had been compliant with Miantonomo’s deed of the territory that covered most of what were Warwick and Coventry, some 60,000 acres,  but for the tract previously deeded to Greene in the Potowomut purchase. On July 13, 1654, the sachem Tocommanan deeded to the “inhabitants” of Warwick, “all the land of Potowomut Neck north of the Powtowomut river”.

More land was deeded to settler Robert Westcott on June 23, 1659, and later that year,  Tacomanan, his son Wasewkil, and grandson Namowish  “made a formal submission of the “Coheassuck lands” to the Rhode Island government, and on August 23, 1660, deeded to the colony a tract of land bounded on the north by the Potowomut River, south by the Cocumsquisset (Stony) Brook, and east by the bay”.

These deeds were in conflict both among settlers and with the native Americans living on the lands. To review the legal and illegal activities conducted by some “inhabitants” of Warwick since the sale of Potowomut, and “the wild craze for land”, would be to lose sight of our inquiry, so let us concern ourselves with the Native American perspective.

Sidney S. Rider wrote that “Taccomanan was a very insignificant Sachem, almost unknown…” and indeed the Narragansett Sachem Coghaquand completely ignored this sale of land, and wrote another deed, specifically preserving Potowomut “for planting ground for me and my friends until such time as we see cause to forsake it”, thus sowing the seeds, so to speak, of a later confrontation.

So who was Tacomanan, how did he believe himself to be “the right owner of all ye meadows and mowable land upon a neck  of ground commonly called by ye English, by ye name of Potawomett” ?

I can find no mention of him anywhere as a Narragansett or Cowesett Sachem. The Warwick records identify him as the “sachem of Powotomut”, and historian Don D’amato has clarified that to mean “the sachem of the Powotomut tribe”. In fact, as late as 1662 when Warwick gave parcels of land to settlers after the long disputes, there was still “a small Indian village” on the neck.

Taccomanan is present at the Shawomet purchase, but that land is  far south of Potowomut, and the sachem must have attended only as a witness for Miantonomo.

This act in and of itself lends an intriguing question. Given the various spellings of Native American names by the early English writers, could “Taccomanan”  have been “the friendly Indian” Tokahomon, who visited Plymouth in 1622 with the Narragansett messenger who brought a snakeskin of arrows for Squanto?

If, as some have suggested, that the sachem was an underling for the chief Sachems of the Narragansett, he may have been given the land in exchange for his services, which by 1654 would have been considerable. It would also underscore the anger felt by many Cowesett, especially those under the influence of Ponham and the Shawomet defiance. When the courts in the colony eventually upheld the sale of their homeland, the Cowesett and Shawomet protested by other means.

In his “History of Warwick” (1903) Oliver Payson Fuller alludes numerous times to the Indians “becoming exceedingly troublesome” during this period, as with April of 1653 when he writes that

“The constant danger to which the inhabitants were exposed from the Indians, and the generally unsettled state of affairs in the colony made it necessary to appoint a guard to be on the constant lookout for trouble”.

Historian Joshua Micah Marshall considers these years when “the English saw every brawl and broken fence as evidence that the Indians were a lawless and uncontrollable people”.[7]

The towne sought to bring those Indians remaining under English law, issuing an edict forbidding any “man in the towne” from selling liquor to the Native Americans, but profits in the trade were so great, that fines, if imposed at all, were merely tolerated and did little to prevent the sale of spirits. Roger Williams for one, lamented that the “bloody sale of liquor” was at its worst in Rhode Island, as well as the sales of guns to these same Indians.

Indeed, by the 1650’s, the native American’s of Warwick were well armed, and this no doubt contributed to the uneasiness felt within the communities of Pawtuxet and Old Warwick. From the native American perspective, it was also clearly a reaction to the murder of Miantonomo, the increase in theft and vandalism by individual native Americans and the episodes of reckless lawlessness exhibited by their sachems exacerbated tensions.

While the Town Council continued to legislate directives against the Indians, Roger Williams saw clearly what had occurred. The sachem of the Shawomet and other local tribes were now “living without all exercise of actual authoritie”. Ponham and the other sachems whose people chose to remain in area’s that the Narragansett left behind, clearly felt the loss of Canonicus and Miantonomo.

In the meantime, Warwick gained its long-sought charter, and immediately sought help from the Crown. On November 2, 1660, the Towne meeting

“ordered that Mr. John Greene is apoynted to write to the President and Assistants about the Indians pressing in upon our lands and spoiling our timber- desiring their assistants to supres their violence”.

In 1667, the “inhabitants” of Warwick tried to remove the Indians from their lands. Three years earlier, they had received reassurances from the Cowesetts that they would cease planting corn on the southwest corner of Four Mile Common, a promise that had been broken every year since then.

copy of map of Four MIles Commons from 1650. Courtesy of the Warwick Historical Society.

In February 1667, the “inhabitants”  decided to “evict” the Indians before the planting season began. The King’s Constable Edmund Calverly took four “inhabitants” and proceeded toward the Indian villages with a warrant from the Commissioners ordering the Cowesett

“to depart, and come no moor one (sic) the towns lands, to plant or inhabit”.

As historian Joshua Micah Marshall observes,

“Realizing the significance of accepting a written document, the ‘Indians did peremptorily aver that they would take no notice thereof, some of them throwing ye copie away’.

About forty Indians at one point surrounded the five Englishmen, “threatening that they would make them carry the said copy back again”. Calverly decided that the “mob” was in witness of his delivery of the commissioners orders and left it at that. The haughty Cowesett around him were bolstered no doubt by the presence of Ponham who had become defiant in the Englishmen’s eyes, having become wary of the sale of more land, and now chafed  at being subject to Miantonomo.

Calverly reported that in the presence of the Shawomet sachem the Indians behaved “very rioutously & in a scornful manner did deryd the King’s Athoryty represented in ye Constable when he charged them to keep ye King’s peace”.

The Constable warned the Indians not to follow Ponham’s example of defiance, but he and the “inhabitants” were escorted away by Awashooke, who almost certainly prevented them from bodily harm, and forced to leave without accomplishing their eviction of the Cowesett.

Marshall notes that ultimately

“The changes settlers brought ripped apart the Indian society that had existed prior to settlement, the settlers could never truly dominate the colony’s Indian population. English settlement thus created tensions, animosities, and hatreds that could only end in war”.

Indeed these bands of Cowesett and Shawomet and Pawtuxet native Americans were among the first to be enlisted by Philip, and were certainly among those who raided Pawtuxet in January of 1676, and executed several attacks by arson in Warwick, razing eleven houses alone, in March.  Clergyman William Hubbard wrote that the town was “all of it burned by the enemy at several times”.

No doubt, these acts emboldened many to join with the forces of Canonchet who burned 54 houses in Providence on June 28th.

As the tide turned in Philip’s War, and the English gained the upper hand, their wrath fell upon those Native American communities that had remained and contested their settlement for so long.

In July of 1676, forces under the command of Captain John Talcott arrived in Warwick. They attacked a large encampment of Narragansett located on the banks of the Pawtuxet River near Natick. Talcott’s army of 300 English troops and native allies killed or captured over 170 Narragansett in the battle. Samuel Greene Arnold in his History of Rhode Island wrote that “Magnus, the old queen of Narragansett, a sister of Ninigret,  was taken, and with ninety other captives put to the sword”.  On hearing that a smaller band of Narragansett were encamped on Warwick Neck, Talcott marched his men there and attacked on July 3rd 1676 capturing, killing, or wounding 67 of the estimated 80 Indians in the community.

Near the end of that bloody month, the Shawomet sachem Ponham was killed in Mendon, Massachusetts after his band of desperate warriors had attacked Medfield and were chased back towards Providence.

And what of Taccomanan and his heirs ? We find no record of them after these deeds of Cowesett lands were given to the colony.  Being “a friendly Indian” and having favored the Europeans on his own matters, it may be that his family took refuge among the settlers themselves, or fled south to Ninigret’s community of neutral Niantic and Narragansett people. The historian Marshall however, believes that the native American Awashooke, who intervened on the Englishmen’s behalf when they were heckled by the Indians was the sachem’s “eldest soun” as written on the 1654 deed as Awashotts, which would indicate that at least as late as 1667, the family were still living on the neck with their people.

The death of Philip brought an end to the war, if not the skirmishes of violence and bitter feelings on both sides that resonated for years after the conflict.  Rev. Hubbard wrote that the remaining remnants of the Shawomett and Cowesett people were now meek and humble, rather than the haughtiness they had previously displayed.

Such were the years of grief for the remaining Native Americans that many names of sachems, as well as the places of memory and meaning disappeared with those who told the stories of their history. It was an Indian custom not to speak the name of a sachem once he was gone. Roger Williams famously wrote that

“…they abhorre to mention the dead by name…and amongst States, the naming of their dead Sachims, is one ground of their warres; so Terrible is the King of Terrors, Death, to all natural men”. [8]

“place of young pines”-the Cowesett homeland

Could the same be true of a place of memory, even “the beginning place”; once it was lost?

April-June 2012

[1] See Geake, “Roots of the Liberty Tree”. Rifootprints.com

[2] See Williams, “A Key into the Language of America” and Bragdon,


[4] The History of Warwick, Arnold 1903

[5] Providence Journal, January 10, 1957

[6] Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission “Native American Archeology in Rhode Island”. 2002

[7] Marshall, Joshua Micah “A Melancholy People” from New England Encounters: Indians & Euroamericans 1600-1850 Vaughn ed.

[8] Williams, Roger “A Key into the Language of America” (1936) p.202

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, ri history. Bookmark the permalink.

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