Bound by Chains of Iron, Chains of Paper: The Enslavement and Involuntary Servitude of Rhode Island’s Indigenous People by Robert A. Geake



The story of slavery in Rhode Island has the same roots as the story of slavery in every corner of the globe where the British Empire set out to occupy and settle plantations that would drain the resources as well as the indigenous population.

In each instance where the empire envisioned a plantation model, the methodology of establishing control was to first coerce the native population into use of land and labor, to confine those of said population who were troublesome or disputed the  legal rights that the occupying settlers claimed, and then to conquer the indigenous people when disputes grew into outright rebellion.

The Plantation model was well tested by the time of the colonization of New England, and those who had plantations already in the West Indies, looked eagerly to the settlement of New England, Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emmanuel Downing, had written in the aftermath of the Pequot war, that with another “just Warre”,

“the lord should deliver [the Indians] into our hands, wee might easily have men woemen and Children enough to exchange for Moores, which wilbe more gaynefull pilladge for us then wee conceive…”


But the British faced problems in New England that they had not faced in other parts of the world. For one, the indigenous tribes were not gathered at one location, but rather scattered over a wide range of territory, and their society held numerous tribes, though often aligned by family and political ties. For another, they were not easily coerced, as the militant Miles Standish discovered in Plymouth.

Those first explorers in New England made landfall only to raid stores of supplies and kidnap indigenous men and women to be brought back to Europe and displayed as though exotic animals. When the Pilgrims made their settlement, they were followed by speculators in a ship called the Fortunewhose disastrous efforts to hoodwink the Nemaschet people led to political tensions for the first time between the settlers and the remaining indigenous people.

It may be argued by military historians that Miles Standish’s mustering of men in Plymouth and their march against a small band of surviving Nemaschet people in August 1621 could be called the first action of any militia in the colonies.

But that band of ten men were wholly guided by Standish’s suspicions that the indigenous leader of this band, a man named by Edward Winslow as Corbitant, was in league with the Narragansett, of whom Sqaunto had spoken of as a dreaded adversary to both the Wampanoag and the English.

Standish and the men at Plymouth had been deceived, and the murder of a suspected informant at his hands was proof of the lack of discipline among the men, who, after disarming the indigenous men within the home of this man, allowed their leader to kill the informant to strike fear into the hearts of the others, especially the rogue leader who wanted no parley with Plymouth.

That kidnapping, murder, and deceit were the hallmarks of the introduction of European peoples to the indigenous tribes of New England, meant that those lofty goals intoned by John Winthrop, the Pilgrim fathers, and even Roger Williams in our own collective histories, were viewed with a skeptical, even scornful eye by tribal leaders.

The first opportunity for British North American colonies to profit from the traffic in indigenous slaves came in the aftermath of the Pequot War in 1645. Rhode Island was also complicit in the distribution of slaves with vessels from Newport transporting many of those captured to the West Indies. That same year participation in the African slave trade also began with ships from ports in southern New England.

Little is written in the early histories of these indigenous captives from New England, as Richard Ligon wrote in his colonial tract luring British traders to Barbados,

“As for Indians, we have but few, and those fetcht from other Countries; some from neighboring Islands, some from the Maine (South America) which we make slaves”.


The indigenous uprising in North America that came to be known as “King Philips War” would provide another opportunity for captives to be converted to cash or credit in Barbados and other islands. The opportunity came before the actual war had begun, when, as tensions rose Massachusetts authorities invited the women, children, and elderly of the regional tribes that could come under fire in the coming conflict to gather under their protection in Plymouth. Surprising numbers of trusting indigenous people arrived, who were then placed on ships and carted off to the West Indies.

Rhode Island’s Quaker government had ostensibly kept the colony neutral, but Governor William Coddington’s acceptance of Richard Smith Juniors’ request to assist troops in coming into Narragansett country nullified any prior efforts to keep the colony at peace. Massachusetts soldiers were especially brutal, raiding the fort of the elderly Queen at Stony Fort, as well as other sites nearby. As historian Douglas Leach would write

“Before long the army had a sizeable collection of enemy prisoners, who were subsequently sold to Captain Davenport and transported to Aquidneck Island for safekeeping.”

The brash Davenport, would be among the first to fall at the battle of the Great Swamp days later, the Captain in his new red “buff coat” an easy target for Narragansett marksmen.

The battle at Great Swamp, the Narragansett winter encampment, procured another 350 captives, three hundred of which were women and children[i].

In the aftermath of this devastating blow to the Narragansett people, deputy governor of Rhode Island John Easton, would record that the troops continued to hunt down the surviving indigenous people-many of them elderly men, along with women and children who had escaped the swamp battle, and

“killed and took prisoners-divers of them, as they were found straggling; and burnt great Numbers of their Wigwams (or Houses)…they solde those Indians they had taken…for slaves,…but one old man that was carried of(f) our Island upon his suns back. he was so decrepid Could not go and when the army tooke them upone his back Caried him to the garrison, sum would have had him devoured by doges but the tenderness of sum of them prevailed to Cut ofe his head…[ii]”

Throughout the war, individual commanders took captives and dealt in differing ways. Plymouth’s Benjamin Church is said to have offered captives the choice of joining his forces, and proving their loyalty by killing or bringing in other Indian prisoners; or face being sold out of the colony. While some took him up on the offer, he sent captives throughout the war for processing in Plymouth. In the fall of 1676, Church led a raid on Martha’s Vineyard to seek Wampanoag and Narragansett who had fled there.

The soldiers “tooke many captives and brought them to Plymouth”, but also took captives for themselves in lieu of payment from authorities, including Church’s gift of a nine year old boy to the Thatcher family of Hingham.

That same fall Massachusetts authorities interned many “Christian Indians” who had learned English and worshiped in Puritan fashion to internment camps on Deer Island in Boston Harbor, as well as to Long Island. While the official order stated the need to “protect” those indigenous people who had accepted Christianity, they marched them to the boats roped with yokes around their necks and hands-like slaves.

The eventual European victory would only prove to provide money to grow the commerce of the colonies even further, as thousands more captured indigenous people were sent to the West Indies as slaves for the sugar plantations.

In the aftermath of this forced exodus, Quaker Rhode Island forbid the slavery of the remaining Indian population in 1676, except in case of debt. More specifically “to pay their debts for their bringing up, or Custody they have received”, or “to performe Covenant, as if they had been Countreymen and not taken in warre”.

Countreymen, meaning those indigenous people who had agreed to serve in a household, or “who had broken their covenants of submission and subjected themselves to colonial authority via treaty or agreement could be sentenced to slavery[iii]”

Captives from the war, which included widows and orphans, were also legally declared servants and ordered to serve nine years time. The problem was, that town laws often superseded those of the Assembly, and those towns varied greatly in their dispensation of servitude. In fact, the average time of servitude in Rhode Island would come to slightly less than twenty-eight years[iv].

In Providence, those who already owned indigenous slaves were now required to obtain a certificate for their servant. Any indigenous person in town without a certificate would be sold into servitude.

As historian Mary Ellen Newell writes in her scholarly work “Brethren by Nature”,

“Of the more than two thousand Indians reduced to servitude and slavery as captives during the war, the colonists exported approximately one forth into the hungry maw of global markets throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean. ..The rest remained within New England households all over the region. New England was well on its way to being a “society with slaves”, to quote Ira Berlin, even before the region began importing Africans in large numbers[v]”

Between 1670 and 1700, as Newell points out, laws in the New England colonies, including Rhode island increased the damages colonists could claim against defendants, leading to what she rightly calls “Judicial Enslavement”, whereupon 75% of indigenous cases brought before the court on charges of debt, theft, or other minor crimes were sentenced to servitude. Between 1704 and 1730, 69% of cases involving Indians that were sent to the court resulted in sentences of servitude.

Narragansett mothers complained bitterly to schoolteacher Edward Deake about the “sinister” motives of Rhode Islanders who “oblige us to bind our children servants to the English creditors to keep out of prison”.

Probate and Court records from Newport show that in the years following the war, the enslavement of Indigenous people, especially women and children, had become well enmeshed in colonial Rhode Island.

Here are a few examples:

-The will of Giles Slocum dated December 5, 1713, bequeathed to his wife Mary

“All ye household goods she brought with her and my Indian girls Audrey and Sarah, her performing their covenant…”

-Samuel Holmes, a merchant of Newport sued William May, a pavier for payment due from “49 days work of the plaintiffs Indian man Cubit and goods sold and delivered from 19 October 1714 to 29 November 1715”

-Josiah Arnold of South Kingstown took Benedict Arnold of Jamestown to court in January 1725 for “retaining and keeping an Indian servant man known by the name of George” left to him by his Father’s will. According to Josiah, the terms of the will let him have “my Indian slave called George to serve until he attain the age of thirty-four years old- but the defendant refused to deliver him”.

-Abigail Townsend sued a former lodger in September 1727 for “16 weeks boarded at my house, and my Indian woman’s work for 2 days”.

-The will of Edward Smith in 1730 distributed his three black slaves among his sons, but left his wife “my Indian woman called Joan, and my two girls named Jenny and Dinah”.

-John Chapman, schoolmaster, took Job Lawton to court for “labor and services” due from Mr. Lawton’s late father George, by the plaintiff’s wife, as well as “service done by the plaintiff’s Indian girl, beginning in October 1726 and ending 28 May 1732”.

-The will of Daniel Coggeshall of North Kingstown, dated April 30, 1736, leaves to his daughter Anne Coggeshall  12 acres in Portsmouth, and “My Indian girl Phillis during the term of her natural life”.

-In June 1762, the will of Joseph Tillinghast leaves his wife “The sum of three  thousand pounds, and my Indian girl”.

As late as 1766, the probate inventory of Damaris Sheffield of Jamestown included “An old Indian woman named Phillis”.

Authorities also used the law to imprison or sentence to servitude those they suspected of being invalid, and thus a potential burden to the town.

In October 1687, the court records mention an indigenous woman named Mary, in the court’s description

“An Indian squaw having been previously committed to gaol upon suspicion of felony and not being brought to this session,” ordered her held in jail until the next court session.

In December, the court ordered that “the said squaw remayne in the custody of the sheriff…”

In January, “with noe person appearing against her” to support the original suspicions, she was finally released.

The Courts imposed servitude on indigenous people for a variety of reasons, debt  being the most common, but debt also occurred from a court imposed fine that the indigenous person had no means to pay.

In 1698, when an indigenous man named Nathaniell was indicted for wounding Gabriell Ginnings in an altercation, he was fined “10 Groats and Twenty pounds, six shillings” for the “breach of his majesties peace” and ordered to pay Ginnings for his “Doctor costs, Court costs, and to be a servant to ye said Gabriell Ginnings or his assignees till said sum aforesaid be payed and to remayne a prisoner till he hath given good security for the same, and pay prison fees”.

When accused of a violent crime, the Indigenous man was often sold, as in the case of one Peter, an Indian “Apprehended and committed to gaol for endeavoring to commit Rape”. The defendant pled “not guilty”, but the jury convicted him and he was sentenced by the Court to have “the letter R” branded on his right hand, and that “he be sold out of ye country at ye first opportunity”.

In the 1730’s the courts began to see cases filed by enslaved indigenous people against their longtime masters. The children and grandchildren of slaves forced into involuntary servitude sued for their freedom, on the grounds that their ancestors had been illegally enslaved. As New England warmed to the fervor that would become the great awakening, a sea change occurred within the colony, as more Rhode Islanders saw the moral wrong that occurred in enslaving the indigenous population.

As Mary Ellen Newell writes,

“these wrongful enslavement suits formed the beginning of an abolitionist movement in New England that had implications for enslaved persons of all races”.

The efforts of these involuntary servants notwithstanding, the enforced servitude of indigenous Rhode Islanders continued through the 18thand into the 19thcentury. Pages of the Providence Gazette and other colonial newspapers printed numerous advertisements for runaway servants of indigenous origin.

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, when both free and indentured Indians enlisted for the war and were placed within the 1stRhode Island regiment, known as the “Black Regiment”, lines of racial identity for indigenous men and women began to be blurred.

Both men and women of indigenous origin who intermarried with black servants or laborers began being listed as “negro” in census’, marriage licenses, and probate inventory’s. Early histories of the state also contributed to what I called in my early work on the Narragansett, “The Ghosting of A People”, by largely dismissing the remaining members of the tribe as descendants of the brave, but conquered Indians of their historical narrative.

Locals too, lost sight of who was indigenous or of African descent among the slaves, servants, and free laborers that populated early nineteenth century New England.

Farmer and shoemaker Daniel Stedman would record in his journal on April 23, 1827

“Died very suddenly, Pat Dimmis a colored person at the widow Sweet’s. Lay down in liquor and never awoke…”

Several days later, he would write in apparent surprise, “The Indians took up Pat Dimmis and carried her to Charlestown to bury…[vi]”

With this loss of political identity was also the story of those indigenous people who remained enslaved during the late colonial period. Their story has in the recent past been resurrected by the late tribal Medicine Woman and Ethno-historian Ella Sekatau with her collaborators, as well as in the important work of Joanne Pope Melish, and others, and most recently, by historians Mary Ellen Newell and Wendy Warren.

I commend the work of the Medallion Project, and their efforts to expand the project beyond the middle passage, and include the full story of slavery in Rhode Island.

[i]Margaret Ellen Newell, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery (Ithica, Cornell University Press 2015) 154

[ii]Nathaniel Saltonstall, The Present State of New Englandfrom Narratives of the Indian Wars 57

[iii]Mary Ellen Newell Brethren by Nature  p. 166

[iv]Ibid. p. 172

[v]Ibid. p. 159

[vi]Cherry Fletcher Bamberg, ed. Daniel Steadman’s Journal 1826-1859Rhode Island Genealogical Society 2003 pp. 24-25

About rag57

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