Errant in the Wilderness





Readers of this history will likely be familiar with the famous 19th century painting by George Henry Boughton, which depicts a group of Pilgrims in a procession to the meeting house. The procession is led by two men with muskets, behind which are a cloaked minister and his wife, and three women and two children that follow. They are flanked by stern looking men with muskets who peer intently into the woods surrounding them.  Inspired by a popular American history of the period, the inference from the painting is usually that this band of Pilgrims was wary of the local native American population. Yet the likelier concern among these and other early settlers were the packs of wolves that roamed early NewEngland. . William Wood wrote that “The wolves be in some respect different from them in other countries. It was never known yet that a wolf ever set upon a man or woman. Neither do they trouble horses or cows…” but he made no bones about the menace of wolves upon the early farms in New England:

“…swine, goats, and red calves, which they take for deer, be often destroyed by them…In the time of autumn and in the beginning of spring, these ravenous rangers do most frequent our English habitations, following the deer which come down to those parts”.

Wood described the wolves as “much like a mongrel, being big boned, lank paunched, deep breasted, having a thick neck and head, prick ears, and long snout, with dangerous teeth, long-staring hair, and a great bush tail….Many good dogs have been spoiled by them. Once a fair greyhound, hearing them at their howlings, run out to chide them, who was torn in piece before he could be rescued.”


To the Pilgrims and Puritan settlers, wolves seemed to move like ghosts through the new wilderness, silent and menacing. Their howls at night were unearthly to those who had perhaps learned of European legends,  and as John T. Coleman suggests, the biblical metaphors of the wolf suddenly came to light with the constant need to protect livestock. Wolves were seen as  “skulking criminals” that knew no end of greed and theft.

Bounties to protect livestock were usually among the first edicts in the early colonies. William Bradford would write from Plymouth in October of 1624 that

“The countrie is annoyed with foxes and wolves”.  Initially, a bounty of two pence was established per wolf “for the incouragement of persons to seeke the destruction of those ravenous creatures”. The problem persisted however, so much so that the bounty was abolished by 1633, and changed to five bushels of corn, a more valuable commodity in the colony, for one or more wolves that were destroyed. The fledgling community of Boston was also beset by the predators, for John Winthrop would write that in 1631, the wolves did much harm to calves and swine between Charles River and Mistic”.  Two years later he would note: “The wolves continued to do much hurt among our cattle”.

By 1641, it became law for each town to bait and set traps for wolves, and to

“look daily after wolf traps, under penalty”. In 1651, the colony sought assistance from Native Americans, providing a coat in trade for every wolf pelt brought into Plymouth. Boston enacted a bounty for wolves in November 1639, as Providence had early on. Roger Williams called them  “fierce, bloodsucking persecuters”, and enjoined every townsman to rid the area of wolves.

There is mention of granting one Tho. Roberts “a share of meadow laid out to him in ye swamp” where he could lay his “woolfe trapp”, but  the town did not officially create a bounty until the January  meeting in 1659, when it was ordered that

“…whosoever shall from this tyme forward kill any woolves, that they shall have for each woolfe, a halfe penny a head for each head of catell, they who kill the Wolfe to gather it vpp;, provided they kill them within Providence Limetes”[i]

One recipient of this bounty was Benjamin Hernton (Herndon), a nefarious citizen of the town who often quarreled with neighbors and the court alike, but was apparently a valued hunter. We find that in the October meeting of 1667, it was orderd that he should “receve according to ye Towne order Concerning wolves a halfe penny per head for all and Every of the Chattle in this Towne”.[ii]

The bounties were of considerable profit to some, the early town records show that in January of 1680, Thomas Fenner “come to ye office desirein that cognizance might be taken, they had (then) lately killed two wolves (within our townshippe)”.

David Whipple and Edward Inman also sought bounties in February of 1681. The following month, John Haughkines (Hawkins?) sought the bounty for a wolf he had killed. In December of 1683, John Mathuson also brought the head of a wolf to the council meeting.

The domestic livestock duly imported to New England proved unwieldy to maintain in the landscape of New England.  Fences were in constant need of repair, most of the colonies made it law that townsmen maintain their fences, but stray cattle and swine were always getting into the woods.

In the early days of the common, a community meadow for citizens livestock, wolves were a constant threat. Roger Williams helped large cattle and sheep owners acquire the Islands of Narragansett Bay, from the Sachems Canonicus, and Miantinomo, but the poor farms of Providence were still under siege. Despite the efforts of digging traps, the bounties offered, and even, as historian Joseph Adler noted, experimenting  “with exotic technologies like mackerel hooks and ‘wolf bullets with adder’s tongues’, the wolves continued to menace the settlers livestock.

In the aftermath of the bloody Pequot war, Roger Williams suggested that those captive Native Americans be “Divided and dispersed” with “a tribute of wolves heads be imposed on them etc. wch (with Submission) I conceave an incomparable way to Save much Cattell alive in the land.”  Towns encouraged farmers to “purchase hounds and mastiffs and train them to hunt wolves.”

A generation later, those dogs who had become strays, or were adopted into Indian packs were becoming a problem as well. An order of 1661 from the town of Providence assigned Valentine Whitman and Thomas Clemence to “go unto the Indians dwelling at Pomecansett, and unto those Indians living neere this Towne, and warne them to Take some course with theire Dogges, to Keep them from ffalling upon the Inglish cattell or else the must Expect to have theire Dogges Killed”.[iii]

Wood concluded that “they be the greatest inconvenience the country hath”, and reported that “These be killed daily in some place or other, either by the English or Indian, who have a certain rate for every head. Yet there is little hope of their utter destruction, the country being so spacious and they so numerous, traveling in the swamps by kennels. Sometimes ten or twelve are of a company.”[iv]

Such was the lore of the wolf in New England, that they would be used metaphorically to incite the colonialist’s worst fears during Philip’s war. Increase Mather, in what would become a well-known jeremiad, would prey upon the fear of these “perilous times…when men can scarcely look out of doors, but they are in danger of being seized upon by ravening Wolves, who lye in wait to shed blood, when men go not forth into the field, not walk by the way side, but the Sword of the Enemy, and fear is on every side”[v].

A single incident in the winter of 1742 would establish a young man’s reputation in his community, and open the door for him to become one of the officers of the American militia gathered at Bunker Hill. During that winter, a gray she-wolf, long reputed to be the last in Pomfret, Connecticut, continually attacked sheepfolds in the community. By December, twenty-four year old farmer Israel Putnam had lost seventy sheep. The townspeople had made several attempts to track or trap the wolf, and had even killed her offspring, but the she-wolf eluded them, even chewing off part of one claw, to escape a trap that winter.

Known to roam the woods west of Putnam’s farm, the farmer and five other men kept a constant vigil. One night after a light fall of snow, the wolf attacked again. The men followed her tracks all night to the Connecticut River, and backtracking toward Pomfret by morning’s light. About three miles from Putnam’s farm, seventeen year old John Sharp who had followed the bloodhounds before the older men, discovered the wolf’s lair, which lay among the granite crags and boulders of a hillside. Once the wolf’s location became known, people flocked to the site with guns and torches, and materials for smoking the wolf out.

For hours, it was a costly effort. Hounds that were sent in crawled out badly mauled by the she- wolf, the straw and sulfur lit at the entrance to the den failed to force her from her lair. The men stayed well after darkness fell, but none were compelled to enter the den themselves, until Putnam made the decision to crawl in with a rope tied to his ankle, which at the signal of a kick, would engage the the others to pull him from the lair.

His first crawled in with strips of bark used as a lighted torch to ascertain where the wolf lay. Her growls caused the frightened townsmen to drag Putnam from the cave to the extent where his shirt was pulled over his head, and his body scratched by the rocks and ice at the entrance. He entered again with his rifle loaded with nine buckshot and crept further into the lair than before. Putnam’s later biographer would tell the tale of how

“Holding it in one hand and a torch in the other, he advanced farther than before into the den and found the wolf even fiercer, howling, rolling her eyes, snapping her teeth, and dropping her head between her legs. He fired at her just as she was evidently about to spring upon him. Being instantly pulled out, he refreshed himself and waited for the smoke to disappear out of the den. He then made a third venture.

When he approached the wolf this time he heard nothing from her and touching her nose with his torch, found that she was dead. He grasped her ears, kicked the rope and was drawn out, dragging his victim into the presence of the astonished and exultant people”.

The wolf was carried to a house a mile from the den and suspended from a wooden beam for display while the town held a “wolf jubilee” to celebrate Putnam’s accomplishment. The woods where the incident took place are preserved as “Wolf Den”park, where marked trails lead one to the lair and the brass plaque commemorating the event.

For most of the English who came to settle in North America, the weather was more extreme than they had endured in the old country towns. Even if you had lived upon the coast of southern England, the storms of New England were far fiercer in any season, lights and unexplained “wonders” often appeared in the sky, and the winters were especially harsh, with a bone-chilling cold.

On occasion, these events came to be so memorable as to be called “Remarkable Occurences” as Cotton Mather would name them in his Magnalia Christi Americana .

These events, whether they be earthquakes, floods, violent storms, droughts, and even unexplained phenomena were brought upon the people of New England by God himself, and to each their was a purpose, and a puzzle for Puritan ministers to sort out.

In January of 1644, John Winthrop would record a series of unexplained events around Boston:

“(January )18.] About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so to the south point, and there vanished away. They saw them about a quarter of an hour, being between the town and the governor’s garden…and a week after the like was seen again. A light like a moon arose about the N.E. point in Boston, and met the former at Nottles Island, and there they closed in one, and then parted, and closed and parted divers times, and so went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many. About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, boy, boy, come away, come away: and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times. It was heard by divers godly persons”[vi].

Perhaps the most astounding of these events that Winthrop recorded, occurred on June 28, 1648 when “There appeared over the harbor at New Haven, in the evening, the form of a keel of a ship with three masts, to which were suddenly added all the tacking and sails, and presently after, upon the top of the poop, a man standing with one hand akimbo under his left side, and in his right hand a sword stretched out toward the sea. Then from the side of the ship which was from the town arose a great smoke, which covered all the ship, and in that smoke she vanished away; but some saw her keel sink into the water. This was seen by many, men and women, and it continued for about a quarter of an hour”[vii].

Secular writers, though no less faith-minded, wrote of the weather and these more unsettling events in a simple, matter of fact way, as goldsmith and horse breeder John Hull of Boston would record in 1662:

“The former part of this summer was a very great drought, insomuch that the grass and corn was so scorched, there was little likelihood of any harvest, and so as God seemed to shut out their prayers: but at last, elders being met, in a synodical way, to consult of matters ecclesiastical, they kept one day in fasting and prayer; and the Lord gave a speedy answer, and a full supply of rain and a pretty comfortable harvest.”[viii]

In July of 1665, he recorded another event of biblical proportions:

This summer multitudes of flying caterpillars arose out of the ground and from roots of corn, making such a noise that travelers must speak loud to hear one another; yet they only seized upon the trees in the wilderness…wheat generally blasted, and the blast this year took hold of Connecticut and New Haven; yet the Indian barley, pease, and rye were spared.”

The following month brought “a great hail storm; viz, at Linn, Wooburn, and Billirica. Some hail as big as duck’s eggs, many as pullets’ eggs, divers of them snagged like pike-bullets.”

By January of 1666, “the frosts were violent”, and “Charles River was passed on foot, and only the channel open before Boston”. There was a brief thaw, but again in early February, the river was “all frozen again down to the castle”[ix].

In October of 1672, Hull would record the event of “A very great easterly storm, and being about the full moon, brought in so great a tide as hath not been seen these thirty-six years; filled most of the cellars near the waterside; flowed more or less into many warehouses; greatly damnified many merchants in their goods and in their wharves; and one vessel cast away in Ipswidege Bay, going to Black Point, and seven persons drowned nearby”.

The diarist also recorded a number of remarkable occurrences that occurred during his lifetime. During the winter of 1662-1663, Hull wrote that there were

“several falls of deep snow” between November and February, and then on February 26th,   “in the evening, about six o’clock, there was an earthquake, that shook much for near one quarter of an hour”.

The following winter, “A comet with a blaze appeared about 8th of November and did not wholly disappear till about February”. That winter also saw the appearance of “a blazing star” in the last days of November.  Hull records that “most of the 11th & 12th mo. was very temperate; little frost, only not much clear sunshine. On the 19th of February, the winter did, as it were, begin again. A cold spring; no tree budded until the 1st of May”.

Weather would continue to remain a mysterious provenance in the lives of New Englanders for generations to come, and be tethered to biblical interpretations for nearly as long. Particularly alluring to these early diarists were the occasions of a lightening strike, a particular wonder as this was clearly a direct “bolt from heaven”.

In June of 1642, John Winthrop would record that “…in a great tempest of thunder and lightening, in the evening, the lightening struck the upper sail of the windmill in Boston by the ferry[x], and shattered it in many pieces…the miller being under the mill, upon the ground, chopping a piece of board, was struck dead, but company coming in, found him to breathe, so they carried him to an house, and within an hour or two he began to stir, and strove with such force, as six men could scarcely hold him down. The next day he came to his senses, but knew nothing of what had befallen him, but found himself very sore on divers parts of his body. His hair on one side of his head and beard was singed, one of his shoes torn off his foot, but his foot not hurt”.

John Hull would later record a few of these occurrences as well:

“March 23, 1667

Samuel Rugles of Roxbury, going up the meeting hill, was struck by lightening, – his two oxen and horse killed, a chest in the cart, with goods in it, burst in sundry places; himself coming off the cart, carried twenty feet from it, yet no abiding hurt”.

In 1671, he recorded a similar event that seemed to have biblical connotations, though it is clear he heard the story second-hand:

“June 5th…A man in Ipswich repeating a sermon, and because it was darkish, stood at a door or window as a flash of lightening stunned him; but no hurt. His bible being under his arm, the whole book of Revelation was carried away, and the other parts of the bible left untouched”.

What we know today as the “aurora borealis” was an unknown wonder to the settlers in New England. Commonly known as the Northern Lights, they long took on meaning as a sign from the heavens. On the evening of December 17, 1719, the appearance of the aurora borealis in Boston created a panic in the city, many seeing the lights as portending the end of the world. Nearly a decade later, minister John Comer of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote of an October night in 1728 when

“came on the most terrifying awful and amazing Northern light as ever was beheld in New England as I can learn. There was at the bottom of the horizon a very great brightness and over it an amazing red bow extending from North to East like a dreadful fire and many fiery spears, and the East was wonderfully lighted and some part of the appearance continued many hours and people were extremely terrified. Words can’t express ye awfulness of it. What God is about (to do) is only known to himself.”[xi]

For the majority of communities in early America, however, disease was always the deadliest of predators among them. Unfortunately for many settlers, 17th century medicine had not much progressed beyond the treatments prescribed by medieval doctors. As they would into the early part of the next century, scientist and doctors believed most fever and agues were due to miasmas, or noxious vapors that came from the moldering decay in swamps and stagnant water, the gasses from unburied garbage, and by the close of the century, the fumes from the dead on the battlefields

and woods affected by the Indian Wars.

The Pilgrims arrived with a boatload of sick travelers, mostly struck with scurvy for lack of much but a diet of salted meats and crackers. Those hundred or so that went ashore in December 1620, faced a difficult first winter. Governor William Bradford would write in his “ Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647”, that

“In these hard and difficult beginnings they found some discontents and murmurings arose against some, and mutinous speeches and carriages in others; but they were quelled  and overcome by the wisdome, patience, and just and equal carriage of things by the Governor and better part, which clave faithfully in the maine. But that which was most sadd and unfortunate was, that in 2 or 3 months time halfe of their company dyed, espetialy in Jan: and February, being the dead of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvie and other diseases, which this long voyage and their incomusate condition had brought upon them, so as ther dyed some times 2 or 3 a day, in the aforesaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained”[xii].

In January of 1621, the central house they had built on the settlement “by casualty caught fire”, and a number of settlers returned to the ship.  By then, Bradford writes,

“the sickness begane to fall sore amongst them, and the weather so bad as they could not make much sooner any dispatch. Againe, the Governor, and cheefe of them, seeing so many dye, and fall downe sick dayly, thought it no wisdom to send away the ship, their condition considered, and the danger they stood in from the Indians, till they could procure some shelter…The master and seamen likewise, though before they hasted the passengers a shore to be gone, now many of their men being dead…and of the rest many lay sick and weake, the master durst not put to sea, till he saw his men begine to recover, and the hart of winter over.”[xiii]

As it turned out, the feared danger from the Indians was tampered by the meeting of Tisquantum and subsequently with the Wampanoag who signed a pact of peace with the Pilgrims, and almost at once began efforts to aid them in survival, showing them how to plant corn and beans as they did, and to build weirs to catch fish for both eating, and fertilizing their crops. All methods, which the Pilgrims “found true by triall and experience”.

Still, the community was to suffer another blow in April when Governor John Carver “came out of the field very sick, it being a hott day; he complained of his head and lay downe, and within a few howers his sences failed, so as he never spake more till he dyed, which was within a few days after”. His wife would die but a few weeks later.

Turning again, to the diary of John Hull of Boston, his entries show that through the more than twenty years of events recorded, between 1657 and 1677, the colony suffered waves of illness nearly as constant as the seasons. During the summer of 1657, the goldsmith and elected selectman records that

“My boy, John Sanderson, complained of his head aching, and took his bed. A strong fever set on him; and, after seventeen days’ sore sickness, he departed this life…

My cousin Daniel Quincy was also cast upon his sick-bed, within a week after the other, and had also the fever, and was brought very low, but, through God’s favor, well recovered by the 17th of 8th(mid-August). My wife was ill when these first began to be sick; but it pleased God, as they sickened she strengthened; and he kept her, and my little daughter Hannah, that then sucked upon her, from any spice of the fever…”

By mid-August, Hull felt ill himself, but recovered. A month later his maid was

“taken sick with a strong fever; but the Lord was pleased to restore her to health in three or four days.”[xiv]

In late 1660, another sickness swept the town and Hull wrote, with no doubt relief, that “Our family was all partakers of the epidemical cold, but, through favor, very gently. Little Hannah lay two days without any mind to play or food. My wife continued four or five days with a great pain in her head and eyes; and most of us one or two days, exercised with pain either in the head, eyes, or throat.”

Four years later, Hull would note in a January entry that “about this time began an epidemical cold, and scarcely missed a touch of any; and many people were laid low by it, a fever setting in with it upon many…but it pleased the Lord that few died”.

Hull’s father would die in July of 1666 “being two days before taken with a flux, and then with violent cramp in his legs and burning at his heart”. The following fall season and winter would bring the greatest fear to the community:

“Dec. 10th, 11th  Sam. Paddy fell sick of the small-pox. He went to his mother’s house; but there I provided for him…. Joseph Green had a very few…Jer. Drummer fell ill of the same disease…Deborah Bell had a few, and, about a month after, had them pretty full”. Most recovered within a few weeks, but then January 1st, Hull would write anxiously

“my wife taken ill of the small-pox, having had about twelve day’s trouble with a hot humor in her neck and shoulders; and together with the pox which came, she had much trouble in her head by vapors from matrix and spleen, much impeding sleep, oftentimes fainting of spirits, beating of the heart”.

His son and daughter were also taken ill, but all “through the mercy of God”, recovered much to his relief: “The Lord enlarge my heart, and all mine, with praise to his great name” Hull wrote when the ordeal was over.

Small-pox during the colonial period was the “most dreaded of the scourges that afflict mankind”[xv]. Historically, smallpox killed over twenty-five percent of those infected during an outbreak, often devastating whole communities; though there were other troubling illnesses as well, such as measles, chicken-pox,  diptheria, cholera, and yellow fever that could grow to epidemic proportions.[xvi] In late 1672,

Hull would record that

“This summer, very many in most parts of the country, from east to west, from south to north, were taken with agues, and it proved mortal to many…And at the later end of the year, about October, some was thought to have spotted fever in Ipswige, Wenham, and Salem…Sundry persons died in September and October of voiding much blood and some worms, persons of grown age and young men…”

Five years later, the small-pox would return, beginning in December with the death of Mr. Thomas Shepherd, the Minister of Charlestown, and continuing through the spring:

“June 6. A public fast in this Colony. The small-pox since they first began, had seized upon about_[   ] persons; and about forty persons were dead of that disease. In Charltown, about so many also died since it began there, being in 5th month, ’77 to this time. About two hundred persons had had the disease there…

June 22. Mr. Edmund Brown, pastor of the church at Sudbury, died.

Sept. 22. To this time, there were about eighty persons of Charltown that died of the small-pox, and about seven hundred that have had the disease.

Oct. 3. To this time, there was about one hundred and eighty persons had died in Boston of the small-pox, in a little above a year’s space since the disease began.”

Hull records that the disease continued through the fall, taking among many others, Samuel Symonds, the deputy governor, the senior pastor of the third church in Boston, as well as three ministers of the nearby communities of Wethersfield and Hingham. In Woburn in late December, “One David Wyman,…taken with the small-pox, was distracted, and ran out of his bed barefoot, in his shirt, five miles to a friends house. There was put into bed, but after died.”

Another epidemic illness swept the colony in 1685, when

“The Court having taken into their serious consideration, that in respect of afflictive Sicknesses in many Places, and some Threatening of Scarcity as to the necessary food, and upon other Accounts also, we are under solemn Frowns of the Divine Providence…Do therefore appoint the Sixteenth of July next, to be set apart as a Day of publick Humiliation by Fasting and Prayer throughout this Colony…And do hereby prohibit the Inhabitants of this Jurisdiction all servile Labour upon the said Day.”

As was common in times of any crisis, the Puritans turned to fasting and prayer seeking forgiveness and divine intervention in healing these sicknesses that many ministers intoned as a punishment from God for their sin. This incantation would survive in America well after European nations began experimenting with cow-pox Inoculations. The practice in the west caused a great stir among the licensed medical practitioners as well, and for decades, medical doctors opposed to the new methods, and ministers who clung to Puritan doctrine would share a strange, but steadfast alliance that would allow waves of illness to continue to sweep the New England communities for generations.

Another small pox epidemic hit the colony in 1689-1690, and then twelve years later,in 1702,  a siege struck Boston again.

The disease was then absent for nineteen years, but would come back with a vengeance. Sixteen year old seminary student John Comer would write of the epidemic:

“April 1721 The latter end of this month the small pox was brought into Boston, which was exceeding surprising to me. The first man who brought it in died…the distemper prevailing in town, some of ye youth of my acquaintance were taken away by death.”


While many older Bostonians had been exposed to the disease during the earlier epidemics, and were thus immune from infection, the smallpox ravaged the very young who had grown in the now prosperous city. As historians Stanley Aronson and Lucille Newman explain,

“those younger than nineteen years had never encountered smallpox; and as each smallpox-free day passed, some of the older people with immunity died of unrelated causes while newborns were continually added to the local population of susceptibles. Thus, as the interval between smallpox epidemics lengthened, the fraction of the population with immunity to smallpox diminished, the number of susceptibles increased, and the likelihood of a major epidemic heightened. “

The disease had been brought into town in April by the British ship Seahorse, when a number of her crewmen became afflicted while the ship lay in port. Despite frantic efforts to quarantine those infected, by May the citizens of Boston were becoming ill, and minister Cotton Mather would note that “The grievous calamity of the small pox has now entered the town.” It was during this outbreak that Cotton Mather would make a significant shift from the long intoned Puritan remedies of prayer and attending of the patient by a bedside cleric.

This long time practice of minster as “physician” had occurred, especially in rural areas, for the simple reason that the clergy installed in the community was often the most learned among the them. Such authority was not lost on many of the city-bred and educated ministers. When Cotton Mather intoned his support for the efforts of inoculation, the clergy beyond the reach and influence of his pulpit refused to be persuaded, and continued to admonished the practice in their sermons and competing pamphlets as the outbreak progressed. But the clergy were not the only authority to resist the efforts to inoculate citizens. Many of the physicians of the time railed against the practice as well, despite the promising experiments in Europe and in Turkey as well.

One brave Boston physician named Zabdiel Boylston administered the vaccine to his own six year old son, as well as his “negro man Jack” and a young African-American boy just two and a half years old. Nearby residents who knew the doctor soon came for vaccines as well. Such was the outcry over the practice in much of the city that Boylston was nearly lynched, but of the nearly two hundred and fifty people the doctor inoculated, only six died; compared to the 800 that refused vaccination and perished.

The stubbornness of the medical authorities, as well as the rooted clergymen and their influence on parishoners practices,  would cause years of needless suffering and death in many New England communities.

This position of the clergy also meant that legions of young ministers were dispatched into New England towns and villages with the same indoctrination. No matter how learned they might personally become, the  church long held them to this time worn doctrine of prayer and visitation, rather than inoculation, and often upheld the clergy in a supervisory role to the town doctor.

This must have been a singular struggle for young clergy, being brought into an age with a heightened awareness of science and the growing progress of medicine in European schools. Even in a well-toned community, young minister John Green would find that administering to the sick would be a  almost daily part of his duties as minister to Salem village.

In January 2, 1702, the twenty-six year old minister would write:

”Old William Buckly dyed this evening. He was at ye meeting last Sabbath and died with ye cold ( I fear ) for want of comfort and good tending. Lord forgive. He was about 80 years old  I visited him and prayed with him on Monday and also ye evening before he dyed. He was very poor, but I hope had not his portion in this life”[xvii].

In May of that year, he himself felt “very faint and ill and preached with difficulty” at Sabbath. In mid-August, he noted that it was a “sickly time”, and visited a Mr. Andrews a few days later who was “very ill”.   At the beginning of December we find

“Dec. 3. Cold. Mr. Andrews dyed in ye night  of ye small pox”.

Green’s diary is often sparsely worded, with many entries a single sentence, or abbreviated notations. Some entries are spaced weeks or even months apart, though most hold a few notations for each month of the year.   

Minister John Comer’s diary reveals that tending to the sick through visits and prayer were an equal challenge to his young ministry in Swansea, Massachusetts, and then Newport, Rhode Island. Having survived a bout with smallpox as a young student, he felt “obliged to serve God in a more eminent manner yn heretofore, and looking on myself as having ye vows of God lying on me to serve him in ye ways of his Holy Institutions and more especially in ye commemoration of his dying love at his table.”

After a short time in Swansea, Comer married a Newport woman and in February of 1726, accepted a ministry at the First Church in the town.  On December 21st the twenty-one year old minister would write “This year has been a year of great exercise to me. I have been as it were in a furnace of affliction. The difficulty in my flock has been heart wounding, and almost sometimes confounding, but I see God’s grace is sufficient for me.”

The young minister was awakened to the hardships of New England life, for during that year alone,  of his community, “there were 6 lost, there were 6 drowned, accidentally as some term it, one kill’d with thunder, one kill’d in a well, one found dead with his neck broke.”

Comer conducted “missionary work” in outlying towns such as Sutton, Leicestor, Middleborough, and other places.[xviii] He also visited and preached to prisoners in Bristol as he continued to work in Newport, administering to his aging parishoners there, conducting funerals, and visiting the sick, a task which often taxed him physically as well as spiritually. One entry from 1729 reads:

“This day I being sent for to ye almshouse by Mrs. Steadman being ye sick; went and prayed with her. She seemed in great terror about her soul. She expressed great fear of death. O, said she with great anguish, I am afraid to die, I am afraid. O may I have my work well done”.

Comer saw outbreaks of fever and agues throughout his years of ministry, as well as the small pox which continued its deadly visitations. In May of 1729, the minister recorded “This day the town was mightily alarmed by ye death of a stranger at ye house of Mays Nichols, tavern keeper…it appeared to those yt inspected the body to be ye small of wh he died. By order of authority he was with utmost dispatched buried…”

Nichols wife, and a Narragansett servant were dispatched to a quarantined hospital on Goat Island. The tavern keeper’s wife recovered, the Indian girl died. The outbreak placed Comer in a melancholy mood, recording epitaphs from the graves in the common burial ground, and “a most unaccountable piece of wickedness” that came in news from Block Island, of

“A negro man belonging to Capt. Simon Ray of Block Island being in Newport, in ye heart of ye town, a man being an utter stranger to ye sd negro gave him a letter and charged him to give it to his master himself, which accordingly he did; and upon his opening it it was a blank, with sundry scabs (as is supposed,) taken from some person sick of ye small pox. In surprise he threw it on ye floor immediarely, and ye maid of ye house took it up and burnt it. O wt wickedness is lodged in ye heart of man…”[xix]

The minister continued in Newport until 1731, recording dutifully those he visited that were sick and dying, the funerals he conducted, and the visits with grieving families.  John Comer would remove to Rehobeth that year, having contracted consumption, and died less than three years later.

Outbreaks of smallpox would recur in Boston in 1751, 1764, and 1775, though through these years the idea of inoculation was slowly taking hold. One of the first scientifically minded and influential American’s lent his voice to the debate in 1759 in a written introduction to “Some Account of the Success of Inoculation for the Small-Pox in England and America”. Benjamin Franklin had long regretted his decision to not inoculate his son in 1736 and lost him. Such was the shadow that fell over his life after his boy’s death that  he promoted the treatment vigorously.

Other medical perils came with the vigorous expansion of the China trade and the pursuit of the whale in the Pacific Ocean in the late 18th century, home ports of New England were suddenly exposed to new diseases, of which there were scarcely a clue for a cure.

Yellow Fever made its appearance in New England during the late summer of 1797.  In Providence, Rhode Island in mid-August of that year, the schooner Betsy anchored on the south side of India Pont, and lingered for two weeks. She had come from St. Nicholas Mole in the Island of Haiti, and two men had died with fever during the passage, but the Captain kept that from authorities. As the Betsy had come upriver, she had taken on Nicholas Windsor of Seekonk, who was on his way to the Providence market with bushels of vegetables.  On his return home, Nicholas fell ill and died of a “billous fever” within the week. The crew of the vessel had sent laundry and bedding to be washed at the “long House” at the corner of Wickenden and South Main Streets.

Within days, numerous people had fallen ill. By the end of the outbreak, thirty-six people would die. Another sixteen mortalities occurred in Bristol, Rhode Island, with an outbreak the same year.[xx]

Providence would see recurring outbreaks in 1803, 1805, and again in 1820.

Though these physical ailments would come to prove a common factor in everyday colonial life, the more uncommon occurrence of mental illness, rattled the nerves of clergy and common citizens alike. Most cases were individuals whose desperation was borne from hardship-whether poverty or loss of a loved one, though if one had the misfortune to be a widow in early New England, the two often went hand in hand. Such was the case of Margaret Goodwin of Providence, who in March of 1651, was found  “in distraction” after the death of her husband Adam. Six men of the towne were appointed to “take care…of Goodwin’s wife during her time

of distraction”.  Her possessions were sold to settle her debts, and the remaining

goods were given to the towne in exchange for her care. Such care seemed to be minimal at best, save for her being allowed to remain in her husband’s house, as she

was found dead in their home, seven years later on March 4, 1657. A “jury” of twelve

men were sent to investigate the death and reported to the towne assembly that

“So neare as we can judge, that either the terribleness of the crack of Thunder on the second or third of the month, or the coldness of the night, being she was naked, did kill her”. [xxi]

The long, cold winters that settlers in New England endured often meant death for those most frail, either from disease as we have seen, or from the effects upon a mentally ill person of the bleakness and desolation during those months of snow and ice, with little sun beneath an almost constant mackerel sky.

Incidents of suicide appear periodically in the journals of early New Englanders, as in John Hull’s diary when he writes in solemn perplexity:

“One Elizabeth Bishop, who had lived, according to visible appearance, both maid, wife, and three times a widow, under many no small trials and now about fifty years of age, in good and very commendable repute for Christianity as well as family and neighborly civility, yet cast herself this morning, as soon as up, into a well; was drowned: all her profession issued in such a snuff…”

Samuel Sewall would record these incidents as well, as with his entry of April 4, 1688:

“At night Sam Marion’s wife hanged herself in the chamber, fastening a cord to the rafter-joice. Two or three swear she was distracted, and had been for some time, and so she was buried in the burying place.”[xxii]

Minister John Comer would also diligently record these unfortunate events, such as a pair of entries during that difficult first year he served in Newport, Rhode Island reveal:

“Septemr (1726)     About ye middle of this month one Hannah Suderick, a disconsolate young woman, as is supposed, drowned herself about 11 of ye o’clock at night. …And in ye afternoon of ye next day one Catherine Cook attempted ye like action, but was discovered after she had fallen down in ye water; but upon examination before Edward Thirston (Thurston), Assistant, and Job Lawton, Justice of ye Peace, she seemed to be under ye power of Satan in a very awful manner.”[xxiii]

In January of 1728, he would record that

“This night Mary Dye went and drowned herself as the Jewry (Jury) gave it; but most concluded she was murthered by her husband. One of her arms was broke and on yt arm appeared 10 black and blue stripes. She was not found until (incomplete)…If she drowned herself, her husband’s ill carriage was the cause.”

Of course it was not only distracted or “disconsolate” woman who committed suicide, men also took their lives, though more often to escape punishment for wrongs they had done, though some too fell into despair for unknown reasons

Samuel Sewall’s diary records an incident in February of 1723:

“Saturday, February the First…John Valentine Esq. went out in the morning to speak with Mr. Auchmuty but found him not at home. He staid so long before he returned home that his family grew uneasy, and sent to many places in the town to enquire after him. At last they searched his own house from chamber to chamber and closet to Closet. At last Mr. Bowdoin look’d into the cockloft in the north end of the house, that has no light but from the stairs; and there, by his Candlelight, saw him hanging…”[xxiv]

The aforementioned minister Comer, then ailing, but still serving as pastor of a newly founded Baptist church, recorded on March 27th 1732 that “This day in the town of Rehoboth, one Joshua Abel cut his own throat with a razor about sunrise. He had been ill in body for some time”[xxv].

Whatever the causes that lay at the heart of these self-inflicted deaths, their effect was carried in part by the fears and desperation many felt in the dark period after King Philips war. Conflicts in the northern territories continued well after the last battle in Southern New England. Many of the young women that showed signs of trauma and “possession” to the Salem authorities in 1692, were survivors of Indian raids on the small wilderness towns in the areas we now call Vermont and Maine.

Local violence was increasing as well, as indicated in our previous chapter. How the colonial authorities dealt with this increase of lawlessness and its causes, would weave it’s own blood-dark thread through the fabric of the New England tapestry.

[i] “Early Records of the Town of Providence” Vol. 1 p. 122

[ii] Ibid. Vol. 3 p. 110

[iii] Ibid. Vol. 3  p. 7

[iv] Wood, William “”New England’s Prospect” pp 45-46

[v] Mather, Increase  ”Exhortation”  p. 179

[vi] Winthrop, John “Winthrop’s Journal History of New England” Vol. 2  p. 156

[vii] Ibid. Vol. 2,  p. 346

[viii] Hull, John “Diary of…” p.206

[ix] Ibid. p. 220

[x] According to Hosmer’s footnote, the mill was located on Copp’s Hill, opposite Charlestown.

[xi] Comer, John “John Comer’s Diary” p. 112

[xii] Bradford, William “Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1642” p. 192

[xiii] Ibid. p. 215

[xiv] “Memoir and Diary of John Hull” p. 148

[xv] Footnote from John Combers Diary p. 20

[xvi] See “Revolutionary Medicine”

[xvii] Diary of Rev. Joseph Green, of Salem Village. p. 220-221

[xviii] See James W. Willmarth’s introduction to John Comer’s diary.

[xix] “The Diary of John Comer” pp. 106-107

[xx] “History of Yellow Fever in Providence” The Providence Journal, September 23, 1878

[xxi] Early Records of the Town of Providence Vol. 2 pp. 56, 104.

[xxii] The Diary of Samuel Sewall p. 53

[xxiii] Diary of John Comer, p. 42

[xxiv] Diary of Samuel Sewall p. 177

[xxv] Diary of John Comer p. 121

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An Unsettled Land

Chapter 1. An Unsettled Land

New England was a haunted land before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1600’s. Native American trading relations with the Norse along the Charles and Taunton Rivers, as well as Mount Hope Bay, and Narragansett Bay had occurred as far back as the 14th century. Trading with the Dutch, French, and the English had occurred for nearly a century before those religious refuges from England rowed ashore. Some early traders had stayed and integrated themselves, even married into some of the Algonquian tribes that lived along the New England coastlines and inland along the rivers.

remnants of a nordic fort along the Charles River near Waltham, Massachusetts

remnants of a nordic fort along the Charles River near Waltham, Massachusetts

By the time of the pilgrims arrival in 1620, many tribes were already acquainted with household wares, the pots and pans, and utensils brought by European traders along with tools, even clothing; exchanged for wampum (for better exchange with other tribes up north), pottery, and clay pipes of easy manufacture by Narragansett, Massachusett and Wampanoag craftswomen. These tribes adopted these goods into their culture for both practical and spiritual purposes.

An early western depiction of Algonquian people in the 17th century.

An early western depiction of Algonquian people in the 17th century.

On a coasting journey in the dead of winter, a band of pilgrims hoping to trade for provisions from whatever Indians they found, walked inland some distance and circled back again, to come upon

“a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any we had yet seen. It was also covered with boards, so we mused what it should be, and resolved to dig it up…”

The men, in their slow dismantling of the grave found between the mats placed above the body, “…bowls, trays, dishes, and such like trinkets”. [i]

Roger Williams would write of the Narragansett ritual of  Nickommo, a great feast and dance where

“they give I say a great quantity of money, and all sort of their goods…to one person: and that person that receives this Gift, upon the receiving of it goes out, and hollowes thrice for the health and prosperity of the Party that gave it…”[ii]

Edward Winslow, 1621 courtesy of Wickimedia

Edward Winslow, 1621
courtesy of Wickimedia

     Edward Winslow would write in astonishment of the ceremony he witnessed, where a great fire was lit, and those in the gathering, including visitors from neighboring tribes would come forward and throw pots, bowls, dishes, and silverware into the cauldron. During the early attacks on white settlements in Maine and Vermont during King George’s war, almost all of the English goods that filled the house were left behind for archeologists to unearth three hundred and some years later.

What Europeans brought most to the native Americans on New England’s shores were diseases unfathomable to the native healers. Narragansett oral historians speak of a great plague among their people in the late 16th century. The first recorded incident of what 17th century historians have called a plague, occurred between 1616-1619. Elderly survivors described the symptom of yellowed skin and the remaining scars, to the Reverend Daniel Gookin. While the cause of the plague has long been debated, there is no doubt as to the toll it took upon the native American population. As historian Karen Bragdon would write

“This terrible epidemic reduced populations among the Ninnimissinuok of the northern and central Massachusetts Bay by as much as 90 percent”[iii].

Indeed, when the pilgrims came to realize the full measure of the Wampanoag, they were astonished that there were but sixty men under Massasoit’s command.

William Bradford would write of the “sad spectacle” of bones left above ground and unburied. The pilgrims found in their coasting journeys, abandoned fields and villages along the Massachusetts shore. Edward Winslow pondered the empty fields and thought of  the “thousands of men… which  died in a great plague not long since, and pity it was, and is, to see so many goodly fields, and so well seated, without men to dress and manure the same”.

Roger Conant would write some years later, as he reached Cape Ann, that “Though all the countrey bee as it were a thicke wood for the generall, yet in divers places there is much ground cleared by the Indians…I am told that about three miles from us a man may stand on a little hilly place and see divers thousands of acres of ground as good as need to be, and not a Tree in the same”[iv].

What native Americans the pilgrims did meet were remnants of once thriving communities, or transitional native Americans like Squanto who vacillated  between the remnants of his own tribe on the Weir river, and the larger Pokanoket(Wampanoag) tribe.

Conant would write of his native American neighbors in 1628:

“Upon the River of Mistick is seated sagamore John, and upon the River Saugus sagamore James…The elder brother, John, is a handsome young man…conversant with us, affecting English apparel and houses, and speaking well of our God. His brother James is of a far worse disposition, yet repaireth often to us. Both these brothers command not above thirty to forty men”.

By a decade later, the sachem Chickataubot, living near what became Quincy, Massachusetts, was said to have only fifty to sixty subjects, and the great empire of Nanepashmet which extended from Chelsea to Marblehead was now controlled by his sons, Wonouaham and Montowomsate, who between them “commanded not above thirty or forty men”. In 1633-1634 small pox ravaged the tribes along the Rhode Island, and Connecticut coastlines; as well as inland, along the riverside communities.

Samuel Drake would write that illness began that year, among Native Americans in Plymouth:

“During the autumn of this year the small pox destroyed great numbers of the Indians…about Pascataqua River nearly all perish… About Plymouth too, many are carried off by a malignant distemper; with which about twenty of the pilgrims die also…In January of 1634 it was reported that the small pox had swept over the Narragansett country, destroying in its course seven hundred of that nation, and that it was extending among the westward of them”.

Indeed, some native communities along the lower and middle Connecticut River were wiped out entirely. It was a plague that the sachem Canonicus never forgot.

Years later, in rebuking the overtures of John Winthrop, he would complain to Roger Williams that the English had brought the disease to his people, and that the Narragansett had mistrusted the English from the beginning. This mistrust began to grow among neighboring tribes, a fact not lost on Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, who, to frighten Massasoit and his leaders, told them that the English at Plymouth harbored a great plague that they could unleash with a volley of their cannon upon the Natives.

The suspicion that white settlers were capable of poisoning the native populations  did not deter trade, but neither was it ever discounted, and was ultimately at the heart of events which led to the outbreak of King Philip’s War.

Little wonder then, that by the late 17th century, the white man was to take the form of Hobbomock in Algonquian culture, and in dreams, was almost always a harbinger of death.

But disease was not all that came with the Europeans. The vices of greed, and the consumption of alcohol, while certainly not unknown to the native Americans, reached a new level once settlements sprang up along the coast. As early as 1626, Conant had recorded the incident of a Native American found frozen to death on Cape Ann, “reared up against a tree and his bottle….at his head”.  Often, to the native leaders alarm, the two were bound together. The resultant mix of drunkenness and violence presented before colonial courts is succinctly summarized by Samuel Drake and bears reprinting here:

Although from 1623-1675 there was no general War with the Indians in New England, yet there were often and frequent Disturbances…There were also frequent Quarrels and Murders among the Indians themselves, with which the white People had Nothing to do; though after such Occurrences, they sometimes espoused the Cause of the Party they considered injured, and used their Endeavors to bring the Offender to Punishment. So when any Wrong was done to an Indian by any of the Settlers, Justice was speedily extended to the injured Party. Of course Cases would often arise wherein, from conflicting Evidence, the Ends of Justice were frustrated. This was oftenest the Case when the English interfered with the Indians’ private Quarrels, or Quarrels among themselves”[v].

Native Americans scarcely understood the English protocols of law. While they often presented their arguments in an elegant and persuasive manner, they resented the delays and  further inquiries by the court.

“Hence the Party suffering by it often determined on taking the first Opportunity to be revenged; or as it used to be said, ‘to right themselves’. In this way Feuds and Jelousies were perpetuated”.

In numerous cases, both native and new Americans took the law into their own hands. There were attacks on white settlers in Massachusetts, as well as fighting brought to Ipswich by hostile Tarratine warriors. These were the Abenaki, whose lands stretched into the territory now known as Maine. Long hated among the Algonquian tribes, the Abenaki were not an agricultural or manufacturing people. Almost all they owned came from plunder, as they raided storehouses along the coast of Massachusetts, and randomly attacked villages in the course of their travels.

In the fall of 1631, trader Walter Bagnal was murdered at his trading post on the Saco river. As Bagnal was known to overcharge the natives for goods, and had engaged in many an argument in trade, it was believed that had been his undoing.

In the winter of 1631-1632, these warriors came upon Henry Way’s boat in the waters off Dorchester. Way, three friends, and his son were all murdered, and the boat sunk with stones to “hide the Evidence of their Barbarity”. According to Drake, in the aftermath of the hunt for these Indians and subsequent hanging , of at least some of the perpetrators; soldiers were sent to Ipswich, and from shore the next spring, watched as “twenty canoes full of them” paddled past Ipswich, though “they did not dare to land”[vi].

Fighting also broke out between the Narragansett and the Pequots. Canonicus, the Narragansett sachem, enlisted the help of Massachusetts tribes in Neponset and Winnisemmet. Though the skirmishes were largely confined to the swamps and woodlands of Rhode Island and Connecticut, some of the Massachusetts warriors attacked homes in Dorchester in August, and were soon “set in the Bilboes at Boston”.

In September, another trader from Dorchester was killed, and the sachem Passaconay reportedly “pursued and captured the Murderer”, as well as meted out a punishment that satisfied the authorities. At the same time, courts in Boston came down hard on those convicted of selling gun powder and shot to the native Americans. The Court even considered the death penalty for this offense, and were equally harsh with those settlers who commited acts that might provoke neighboring tribes. One Nicholas Frost, was branded and banished from the colony after ”stealing from the Indians at Damerill’s Cove”.

In January of 1633, a group of Englishmen seized the former Nahant sachem Poquanam  at his home on Richmond’s Island. Known as “Black Will” among the white settlers, he had long been suspected in the murder of the trader Bagnel. The whites lynched him and left, in pursuit of pirates. There is no record to indicate that these men ever met justice for their crime.

Such was not the case in 1638 for one Arthur Peach, and two unfortunate men he enticed into his murderous scheme. Peach, who was described as “A young desperado, who had been a Soldier in the Pequot War, and done notable Service…,”[vii]  seems  after his time as a soldier to have deigned work and headed to the Dutch settlement on the Hudson River, where he met Thomas Jackson and Richard Slinnings. He soon enticed the men to leave their masters and join with him in traveling the eastern seaboard. Three men joined Peach and traveled south through the woods.

At some point, they met up with Penowanyanquis, a Narragansett man who was traveling with a significant amount of wampum. After proposing the deed to his fellow travelers, Peach invited Penowanyanquis to sit and smoke with them; an invitation that was accepted. When the opportunity came, Peach ran through the Narragansett courier with his sword, and the men robbed him of his wampum, leaving the Indian for dead. Though mortally wounded, Penowanyanquis managed to make it back to his homeland and give details to the Narragansett about the men who had robbed him before he died. Narragansett sachems immediately sent men in pursuit of Peach and the others. They captured him as well as Jackson and Slinnings, who were marched to Rhode Island where the whites were thrown in prison.

With the Narragansett sachems demanding justice over the incident, the authorities of Plymouth County where the murder had taken place took hold of the matter, and the three men were executed in Plymouth on September 4, 1638.

Ironically, during these same years that this tension and resultant events were taking place, those logging journals and writing books to be consumed back home in Great Britain, were portraying native Americans in a positive light.

In the chapter of Mourt’s Relation entitled “A Journey to Pokanoket, the Habitation of the Great King Massasoit”,  the writer recounts the days in June of 1621, when a band of the pilgrims spent several days in the company of the sachem:

“…he lighted tobacco for us and fell to discoursing of England, and of the King’s Majesty, marveling that he would live without a wife. Also he talked of the Frenchmen, bidding us not to suffer them to come to Narraganset, for it was King James his country, and he also was King James his man. Late it grew…So we desired to go to rest. He laid us on the bed with himself and his wife, they at one end and we at the other…”

In his New England’s Prospect (1634), William Wood wrote of the tribes that populated southern New England:

“The Pequots be a stately, warlike people, of whom I never heard of any misdemeanor, but that they were just and equal in their dealings, not treacherous either to their countrymen or English, requiters of courtesies, affable towards the English.

Their next neighbors, The Narragansets, be at this present the most numerous people in those parts, the most rich also,  and the most industrious, being the storehouse of all such kind of wild merchandise as is among them…”

The Narragansett fished, hunted and trapped beaver, muskrat, and otters for the English and traded them for commodities which they sold to inland tribes at a profit. They also manufactured  “great stone pipes, which will hold a quarter ounce of tobacco”,  as well as bowls and utensils for trade.  The tribe is estimated to have numbered about 4,000 during this period, but as Wood wrote: “although these be populous, yet I never heard they were desirous to take in hand any martial enterprise or expose themselves to the uncertain events of war…they rest secure under the conceit of their popularity and seek rather to grow rich by industry than famous by deeds of chivalry”.

Puritan minister and trader Roger Williams came to know the Narragansett better than any European visitor.  He would remark, in his A Key into the Language of America (1643) “I have acknowledged amongst them an heart sensible of kindnesses, and have reaped kindnesses against from many, seven yeares after, when I myselfe had forgotten…”[viii]

Yet while these visitors were writing warmly of their interactions with native Americans, many settlers arrived with a predestined sense of conquest, of New England as a God-given gift of resources nearly rid of savages that would impede the steady growth of profits such resources would provide.

In Edward Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Savior in New England(1654), the first general history published of the region, the puritan justification of establishing a “new eden” in the wake of these devastating plagues is articulated for the first time. Writing of the smallpox epidemic of 1619,

“as the ancient Indians report,  there befell a great mortality among them, the greatest that ever the memory of Father to Sonne took notice of, chiefly desolating those places where the English afterward planted…by this means Christ…not only made room for his people to plant; but also tamed the hard and cruell hearts of these barbarous Indians”.[ix]

Johnson referred to the uneasy peace between the Massachusetts colonies and the tribes that had signed an alliance in Plymouth. The Narragansett in Rhode Island kept the colonists at arms length, using Roger Williams as an intermediary between John Winthrop, and later his son and namesake in Connecticut, but were always mistrustful of English intentions.  Colonial authorities were also mistrustful of the Indians, especially as carefully laid out English-style court systems had failed to corral tensions between settlers and native Americans.

Authorities were assuaged for a time, by efforts to moralize the native Americans, first by the writings of  European religious thinkers that envisioned the native Americans as part of the “lost tribes of Israel”, and then by those who sought to evangelize among the Indians. These efforts largely began with minister John Eliot in 1640 when he began to learn the Massachusetts language in order to preach to the natives in their own tongue, and began to conceive his greatest work, the translation of the King James Bible into the Algonquian language.

He preached his first sermon to Roxbury natives at a gathering just outside of town in 1646, and began as well to establish separate communities for those Indians who had converted. According to historian Linford Fisher, “Between 1646 and 1675 Eliot founded fourteen “praying towns” throughout Massachusetts, in which he gathered Christianized Indians into highly organized towns designed to inculcate European cultural, religious, and agricultural values”.[x][xi]

Eliot sent pamphlets on a regular basis to wealthy backers in England, a group that would come to call itself the “Company for the Propigation of the Gospel in New England”, and would eventually fund other ministers throughout the region.

The Reverend Thomas Mayhew Jr. established a similar community on Martha’s Vineyard, and the Reverends James Thompson and James Fitch were sent to preach to the Pequots and Mohegans in 1657.  Eliot’s Gospel was published in 1660, and seemed to establish a hope for increased evangelization, but these efforts and the communities established were always controversial among the native populations.

While some Massachusetts indians saw these “towns” as a way of stabilizing the large losses of land they had suffered, the Massachusetts court in negotiating the land grants with Eliot, required local natives who moved into the towns to sign away all current and future rights to vast tracts of land.[xii]

After the death of Ousamequin (Massasoit) in 1661, the peace that he had brokered with Massachusetts authorities began to unravel. The mysterious death of his eldest son and heir apparent Wamsutta (Alexander), while in English hands exacerbated Wampanoag mistrust of the English, and with the succession of his younger brother Metacom(Phillip) as sachem of the tribe, this mistrust became more vocal. According to John Easton, Phillip and his counselors told Rhode Island authorities that “that had a great fear to have ani of their indians…called or forsed to be Christian indians. Thay saied that such wer in everi thing more mischivous, only disemblers, and then the English made them not subject to their kings, and by ther lying to rong their kings”.[xiii]

Portrait of "King Philip" Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Portrait of “King Philip”
Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Tensions were also exacerbated as speculators and second-generation settlers continued to take land or settle away from townships where authority and spiritual guidance were far removed from their doorstep. As historian Jill Lepore would note,

“By the 1670’s in the years before King Philip’s War broke out, there were many signs that the English had degenerated. Church membership and church attendance had declined. People were settling farther and farther from the coast, nearer to the Indians, and farther from the civilizing influence of English neighbors. Trade and contact with the Indians were increasing, though little of this contact involved sharing the good news of the gospel”[xiv]

Puritan minister Increase Mather cautioned New Englanders in a series of jeremiads,  most notably, in The Day of Trouble is Near, with which he decried the “great decay as to the power of godliness amongst us”.  Other ministers in similar jeremiads, or sermons, spoke to the rise in violence, drunkenness, and lewd behavior that “turnith man into a bruit beast”.

The suspected murder of Christian Indian John Sassamon has long been pointed to by historians as the turning point that led to war, but as we have seen, the disputes over the taking of land, the attempted and mostly failed Europeanization of native Americans, and the subsequent threats upon their own beliefs and culture would breed these ill suspicions of both English and Indians against each other, and often of one another, and would inextricably draw them into armed conflict.  When war finally erupted in the spring of 1675, historian Linford Fisher writes that the fighting

“ …pitted Indian against Indian and Christian against Christian…while Wampanoags, Massachusetts, Narragansetts, Nipmucks, Pocomtucks, and Abenakis all fought against the Euroamericans, the Mohegans, Pequots, Mohawks, Christian Wampanoags, and a smattering of other Christian Indians from a variety of native groups fought alongside the New England colonists and aided them in countless ways as spies, interpreters, messengers, and assassins.[xv]

The war exposed the skepticism and hostility that the second generation of settlers held for native Americans living among them. Where those indigenous people had once been seen in English eyes as being contrary and inferior, the early colonists had mostly held them kindred spirits, not yet civilized. “There is a day coming”, Cotton Mather had declared, “when God will receive them into favor again”.

But the conflict turned the narrative into one of biblical and metaphorical rhetoric, portraying the native Americans as heathen savages, Ameleks against those saintly new Americans who would bring forth a new Israel in the wilderness. In this vein, the New England Confederation declared war upon the Narragansett in 1675, whose sheltering of Wampanoag elders and women were seen as complicity and evidence of the greater conspiracy to drive the whites from the land:

“So Satthan may combine, and stir up many of his instruments” in the same way that the “Amalek and the Philistines did confederate against Israel”.

The diary of Samuel Sewall, who would later become a judge during the Salem witch trials, casts light on the violence of the times:

“Friday about 3 in the afternoon, April 21, 1676, Capt. Wadsworth and Capt.

Brocklebank fall. Almost an hundred since, I hear, about fifty men, slain three miles

off Sudbury: the said Town burned, Garrison houses except.

…Friday May 5, 16 Indians killed: no English hurt: near Mendham, 19 May. Capt.

Turner, 200 Indians. 22 May, about 12 Indians killed by Troop

.…June 22. Two Indians, Capt. Tom and another, executed after lecture …Note. This week Troopers, a party killed two men, and took an Indian Boy alive. Just between the Thanksgiving, June 29, and Sab. day, July, 2, Capt. Bradfords expedition 20 killed and taken, almost 100 came in: Squaw Sachem

.…Saturday, July 1, 1676. Mr Hezekiah Willet slain by Naragansets, a little more than Gun-shot off from his house, his head taken off, body stript. Jethro, his Niger was then taken: retaken by Capt. Bradford the Thorsday following.”

Willet’s slave had seen the English in the woods and run up to them. He told Bradford’s party that Philip had about a thousand native Americans of “all sorts” with him, but that many were sickly. Three had died while he was in captivity.

Later that summer, even as Indians came into Plymouth to “prove themselves faithful”, Sewall heard of  “one hundred twenty one Indians killed and taken” and then of the English victory in Medfield where Canonicus II was captured. He also heard the ominous report of “One Englishman lost in the woods taken and tortured to death”[xvi]

Whites were equally brutal at the close of the war. In Taunton, Massachusetts in August 1676, a group of twenty men led by a turncoat Indian, surprised a band led by Queen Weetamoe. In the ensuing skirmish, Weetamoe attempted to escape by crossing the Taunton river “upon a raft, or some pieces of broken Wood”. She was later found, naked and drowned on the Swansea side of the river. Those that found the Queen mutilated her corpse., paraded it through the town of Taunton and placed her for public display on the village green.[xvii]

The very brutality of King Philip’s War was to cast a long shadow over New England, and like the grisly remains of the sachems head, placed in a cage and hung before the Plymouth Courthouse, the memories of the savagery on both sides, were slow to decay, and transposed the war into a darker metaphor. The Puritans especially, seemed vexed by the native Americans rejection of the gospel, even among those Christian Indians, many of whom had been secreted away from their communities, there were some who fought with their people against the whites and their native allies. Eliot’s bibles printed in the Massachusetts language, were gathered up by marauding Indians and destroyed.

Portrait of Cotton Mather Courtesy of Wickimedia

Portrait of Cotton Mather
Courtesy of Wickimedia

Cotton Mather, though but a toddler when the war erupted, would, by his own account; ride his horse as an adult to Plymouth and pluck the jawbone from Philip’s skull as a souvenir. Though his Father had taken a milder approach to the Native Americans in his history of the war, Cotton had no doubt that what had begun in the spring of 1675, was a holy war that would likely last his lifetime. In his biography of minister John Eliot, he summarized what the Puritans faced on their arrival:

“The natives of the country now possessed by the (New Englanders) had been forlorn and wretched (heathens) ever since their first herding here; and tho we know not when or how these Indians first became inhabitants of this mighty continent, yet we may guess that probably, the divil decoy’d those miserable savages hither, in Hopes that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus would never come here to destroy or disturb his absolute empire over them.” [xviii]

In the throes of the conflicts that occurred for nearly three decades after King Philip’s War, Mather would exhort those joining the fight against “these Amaleks now annoying this new Israel in the wilderness”:

“Turn not back till they are consumed…tho they cry, let there be none to save them; but beat them small as the dust before the wind…”

But underlying this hatred of the native Americans and these efforts at their elimination, was the fear that the hoped for “new Israel” was not going to be.

The isolation and relative numbers of men compared to women had begat violence from the beginning in the form of fistfights and skirmishes among neighbors. But in rural areas in particular, isolated cases of odd and disarming behavior began to emerge with greater regularity. Worse still, those who came to the colonies in the generations after the Puritans establishing their religious communities, were a decidedly secular wave of immigrants.  John Winthrop had complained as early as 1641 in his diary that ”as people increased, so sin abounded”.

In the aftermath of the Indian wars nearly forty years later, Increase Mather would bemoan those settlers who were “all ready to run wild into the woods again, and be as heathenish as ever.”

But it would be Cotton Mather who would  attempt to turn the mirror on those he saw as being little more than those savages that the survivors of the war had feared for so long. In an irony that surely could not have been lost upon the Boston minister, the younger Mather now blamed the remaining Native Americans and their vices of drinking, gaming, and carefree wandering as an evil influence on these later generations of settlers.

“We have become shamefully inhumanized in all those abominable things…our Indian wars are not over yet.”

Indeed, Mather’s war to exterminate the last shred of nobility of Indian belief and culture was to last far longer than Metacom’s desperate effort to rid the land of the whites.

Though in the first histories of New England, the Native American leaders would come to be eulogized as heroic  defenders of their land, their descendants became vilified for their ongoing struggle with the European borne disease of alcoholism, their abject poverty after the war, and their continued resistance to adapt to the English style of living.

As these, and later popular histories were written, they often included colorful stories from local communities. These “indian tales” all held some moral invective and reflect the vice and shifty behavior that became associated with native Americans, underscoring the prejudice that white Americans displayed toward their race.  These tales of wandering Indians, itinerant and lazy, sure to be drunk at any given time of day, reduced a once proud race to individuals who were hapless, overindulgent,  and essentially lost in the afterlife.

One of the earliest stories from Rhode Island involves the ghost of an itinerant Indian who haunted a room of the Black Horse tavern in North Scituate. The tavern had been in the family for several generations by the time that Ruben Jenks was the keeper, and the hauntings began. Guests in the room complained of being woken at night after the terrible vision of a fully dressed warrior, yielding a tomahawk above their heads.

This occurred frequently over a period of time, so that the place soon had a reputation far and wide for its “Indian Room”. Friends told him that the ghost was that of an indigent Indian who had frequently loitered at the Pine Tree tavern up the road, and was doubtless determined to scare his customers away. When Mrs Jenks took the room for her own, the visitations took a different turn.

The Black Horse Tavern today.

The Black Horse Tavern today.

According to the story, the Indian gestured to Mrs Jenks, and led her outside to a large cedar by the front gate and pointed to the base repeatedly, and muttering in broken English about needing to revenge an insult to his race. When Mrs Jenks relayed the visitation to her husband, he determined that the place where the Indian had pointed must contain some treasure he had kept secret, and dug furiously, but in vain around the base of the tree. Later visitations brought Mrs Jenks outside to other trees on the property, all of which her husband dutifully dug around, including the orchard which was nearly destroyed in the search for treasure. Eventually Jenks decided as did his friends, that the ghost was merely bent on destroying his livelihood.

One night the Indian spirit came to Jenks’ daughter and led her to the old barn behind the tavern. Leader the girl inside, he gestured and spoke in broken English to the girl, but made her to understand that an old blackened trunk in the loft of the barn held the key to his disgruntled spirit. Though her mother were skeptical, she unearthed the trunk and opened it. Inside was a mannequin head and materials for making wigs. It seems that Jenks grandfather had doubled as a wig-maker in his time of owning the tavern and that this Indian, on attempting one night to scalp a visitor to the Inn, walked away in his anger and shame, with a bloodless wig in his hand. Thus he laid his revenge upon the present visitors.

The tale was purportedly first written down by one Parson Pillsbury, who had been witness to Rueben Jenks attempts to find the “treasure”, and recorded the “indian speak” as told by Jenks’ daughter. It was republished several times in popular titles at the turn of the 19th century, including Edward Field’s “Colonial Taverns” and most expansively in Alice Morse Earl’s “Stagecoach and Tavern Days”.

In her summary of the tale, Mrs Earle concluded that the Itinerant Indian “simply belonged to a class of ghosts …that…have a passion for pointing out places and saying treasure or skeletons are buried therein; wheras it always proves that nothing of the sort is ever found”.

While a whimsical ending for white readers, the caricature of a poverty-stricken Indian lurking about a tavern in the afterlife is a purely white reflection of those “wandering indians” in the aftermath of King Philip’s War.. Parson Pillsbury may have persuaded himself that attaching a moral lesson as from those biblical texts he used as inspiration for his sermons, was an appropriate use of poetic license,  but he was not alone in this respect.

Anthropologist William S. Simmons writes that these treasure-hunting dreams are quite common in both European and American mythology. There were many tales about the greed and the ills brought on by the pursuit of riches. They are not however, indigenous to New England’s Native Americans.  In Spirit of the New England Tribes, his seminal book on the folklore of the indigenous peoples of the region, we learn that

“Early historic New England Indians often buried their most valuable possessions with the dead and did not excavate graves to obtain their contents…New England Indians would rather see archeological sites and burial grounds left undisturbed.Thus, not only was the treasure story alien to the aboriginal tradition, but Indians disapproved of attempts to recover whatever treasures their ancestors might have buried”.

By the late 19th century, such tales had been incorporated into Native American mythology, but in the Indian mythology, it is nearly always the Europeans lured to the treasure, often by the devil himself, as in the Mashpee tale of  the Frenchman who sold his soul for a pot of gold.[xix]

In this new colonial mythology, spirits that deceived gullible people like Jenks were not tethered to this earth of their own free will, but were often associated with the devil or his “imps”.  In this respect, Native American places of history often became the haven of these spirits.

In Charlestown, Rhode Island, the site known as “Coronation Rock”, the place where the Sachems of the Narragansett people were received, became a lonely and desolate place with the tribes reduced numbers. In this period, the site became woven into New England folklore with the tale of one Tom Rodgers, most popularly recorded by Edward R. Snow.

Rogers it is said, was originally from Nantucket, and perhaps that upheaval, with the “wilderness” suddenly outside his own door, gave him the certainty that the region in which he now lived was haunted, and he had heard such stories about spirits gathering at Coronation rock.  One night after drinking a good quantity of spirits to fortify his courage, he set off for home and wandered close to the woods where the rock lay.  Snow writes that

“…as he approached the rock he saw a glow through the trees and heard the sound of a fiddle playing like mad, and when he reached the rock he saw that a wild dance was in progress. Finding a mischievous looking maid alone on a mossy hummock, Tom quickly took her by the waist and took her to the clearing- as they danced, he had the sensation of soaring above the clearing and noticed that the crowd were now seated watching them dance. As they separated and came back again, Tom noticed his partner’s features were changing from the rosy-cheeked girl he first noticed, to that of a lank and withered hag whose eyes now glowed green with evil, and whose sharp teeth now projected from the once delicate mouth. He flung off his coat, hat, and vest, and then fled for his life, tumbling once in the woods

and hearing growling, hissing, and a strange language about him. He had the sensation of a hideous form hovering over him”.[xx]

When Rogers woke in the woods the following morning, he noticed that his jackknife bore two portraits of the witch he’d met the night before. When he reached home he fell ill for a time, but recovered. In the coming months he would eschew alcohol, get married, and became a member of the church, eventually becoming “a deacon in good standing”.

The moral lesson is clear in this story, no doubt originating with the backlash against the looseness of morals and the frivolity that had become prevalent in the taverns by this time. Such religion-based morality tales also mingled with Native American mythology.

One such tale, which has prevailed into the twenty-first century is the story associated with “Devil’s Rock” in North Kingston, which before European arrival, had long been a gathering place for the Narragansett.

Photo of "Devil's Rock" footprint Courtesy of

Photo of “Devil’s Rock” footprint
Courtesy of

By 1671, the rock had become a boundary marker for the settlers of “Fones Purchase”, and thus out of Narragansett hands. Situated just north of Wickford, in the town of North Kingston, Rhode Island, the “Devil’s Rock” is part of a long, granite ledge that had once been hidden deep in the woods, and then exposed as a railway, and then a road were built near the site in the twentieth century. The tale has a few variations, but has remained largely intact in modern folklore. The legend of “Devil’s Rock” is an intermingling of Native American and White belief, an acknowledgement of a shared uncertainty about the afterlife, which takes the form of each culture’s entity. The story’s first appearance in print seems to be in 1850, though by then the tale had been told for generations.

An Indian woman had murdered a white man (either in Boston, or Wickford, depending upon the version).  She had made her way to the ledge and there knelt and prayed to Hobomoken, the Algonquian god who was both a benevolent and cruel deity, often called upon when a Native American faced  an insurmountable uncertainty over an event or the fate of a loved one.[xxi]

As she prayed, a stern-faced Englishman appeared beside her. Believing herself to be discovered by the white authorities, she attempted to escape, but was seized by the arm. She again called out to Hobomoken to save her, but the black-frocked Englishman told her “I am Hobomoken”, and grabbing her by the waist, stomped his feet on the rock and took her in flight to Purgatory Chasm, from which he flung her into the turbulent waters below.

In his version of the story, historian Edward R. Field concludes the tale by telling readers that

“…to this day may be seen near Wickford, the footprints of Satan on the surface of the ledge near the road. One has the form of a cloven hoof, and the other has the shape and size of a human foot, even to the mark of the great toe”.

In other versions of the story, the last mark of the devil can be found on a ledge on Block Island, said to be where Satan landed before diving into Block Island Sound.

Other tales from the east coast concern similar impressions that have been interpreted in folklore as “the Devil’s footprints”. In Monteville Connecticut, a similar impression on the rocky ledges of Shelter Island  is said to be the stepping off point for the legend that

“…when the Evil Spirit left the island he took three long strides, the first on Shelter Island, the second on Orient Point, and the third on Montauk, whence he plunged into the sea”.

The Rhode Island tale however, is more firmly rooted in moral tradition. In the popular version that appears predominantly in white folklore, the Indian woman, fleeing from a crime, is brought to justice by the Devil, the very deity she prayed to for mercy. Conversely, the Native American interpretation of the stern Englishman in the “devil’s disguise” has precedent in 17th century evocations of Hobomoken,

also called “Cheepie” in other Algonquian tales. The minister Daniel Gookin in his Two Voyages to New England (1673), recounts the experience of being woken by two natives and told that they had fled from a vision of Hobomoken:

“Two Indians and an Indess came running into our house, crying they should all die. Cheepie was gone over the field gliding in the air with a long rope hanging from one of his legs: we asked what he was like, and they said all wone English clothed with a hat and coat, shoos and stockings…”

Many of these “Indian tales” survive in print and on the web today as anecdotal expressions of an earlier time that pre-dates our own fascination with rural and urban legends, and the paranormal investigations that have become popular on television. We should not lose sight however, of how these tales came from, and continued to shape an unflattering perception of our indigenous peoples for generations of readers.

[i] Mourt’s Relation, p. 27 A much later unearthing of a Narragansett woman by various hands overseen by Dr. Usher Parsons in 1862, set off a debate as to her identity, based largely upon the great number of Dutch trinkets found in her grave.

[ii] Williams, Roger “A Key Into the Language of America” Applewood ed. p. 128

[iii] Bragdon, Kathleen

[iv] See Shipton,C. “Roger Conant A Founder of Massachusetts” Harvard, 1944 p. 59

[v] Drake, Samuel “Old Indian Chronicles” Boston, 1867 p. 24

[vi] Ibid. p. 25

[vii] Ibid. p. 28

[viii] Williams, Roger “A Key Into the Language of America” p. 7.

[ix] Johnson, Edward “Wonder-Working Providence” p. 17

[x] Fisher, Linford “The Indian Great Awakening” p. 24

[xi] Ibid. p. 24

[xii] Ibid. p. 29

[xiii] Easton, John “A Relaycion of the Indyan Warre, by Mr. Easton, of Road Isld.” (1675)

[xiv] Lepore, Jill “the Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity” p. 6

[xv] Fisher, Linford TIGA p. 27

[xvi] Wish, Harvey ed. “The Diary of Samuel Sewall” pp 24-25

[xvii] Schultz, Eric B. & Tougias, Michael J. “King Philip’s War” see pp. 129-130

[xviii] Mather, Cotton “Life of the Reverend John Eliot” Boston, 1691

[xix] Simmons, William Spirit of the New England Tribes p. 163

[xx] Snow, Edward R. “

[xxi] Edward Winslow would record a white translation of this deity and “ceremonies” in his journals. Hios interpretation of Hobomok or Hobbomoken as “the devil” would lead generations of historians into a one-sided view of this complex god.

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Upcoming Book Events

This winter into spring, I look forward to meeting some of you during upcoming book events.  My latest book called “Hidden & Forgotten Places of Rhode Island History is now available. I am also working with Loren Spears of the Tomaquag Memorial Indian Museum on a book project about the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

Here are a few upcoming dates

On Saturday, February 20th, I will be at the Rhody Fresh Farmers Market at the Hope Artiste building in Pawtucket from 9:00-1:00 p.m.

On Saturday, February 27th at 1:30 p.m., I will be moderating and participating in a discussion with authors from the blog on “Rhode Island and the Civil War: Lessons Learned and their IMpact Today”. Joining me will be North Kingstown historian Tim Cranston, and Civil War author and Vietnam veteran Frank Grzyb.

On Monday, April 18th at 7:00 p.m. I will present a talk entitled “Citizen Varnum and His Fight for the Veterans of the Revolutionary War”.

On Saturday & Sunday May 7th & 8th, I will be at Smith Castle’s Heritage Days with a talk & signing.


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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”.

[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

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An Inquiry into Crookfall Brook and the Woonsocket Watershed Area Part I

A Brief  Inquiry of  the Crookfall Brook and Woonsocket Reservoir Watershed.


Part I.


At a talk I gave recently at the Audubon Society in Bristol on “Rediscovering Places of Native American Memory”, I was approached by Tim Wynne, who enthusiastically told me of an interesting site along the Crookfall brook watershed in Lincoln, an area that is now part of the protected Woonsocket watershed. Knowing little about the area, I undertook some research before what Tim and I hoped, would be a chance to visit the watershed and locate the site he remembered. What follows is a synopsis of what I discovered to be chronicled of these lands and tributaries.

Crookfall Brook was originally named Wessukottomsuk Spring, and the surrounding area has a long history,  including signs of paleo-indian activity from as far back as 10,000 years ago.

Traditionally, these were Nipmuc lands, later controlled and sold in the colonial period (1660) by the Wampanoag as part of what became known as the Inman Purchase. To obtain a perspective on the area itself, we can look to a couple of archeological studies conducted on sites nearby.

William S. Fowler, an amateur archeologist whose work was largely published in Massachusetts Archeological Society Bulletins, excavated three locations in the “Twin River Basin” between 1950 and 1952. His findings were published in the Society’s Bulletin of October 1952.

In this study, the Wenscott reservoir/West river area was identified by Fowler as a hunting site. Numerous spearheads and stone tools were found along the banks of the river and in an area close to the reservoir.  There were also four stone hearths unearthed in this area. The archeologist’s determination was that he had found evidence of man’s imprint on the land as far back as 6,500 years ago at these locations.

The spearheads found were those of Paleo-Amerindians who navigated the west river in search of game. These spears were their chief weapon, and other evidence of their activity were also found in the crude rock tools used to skin and clean the hides of animals. Other stone implements and the remains of “prickly clubs” were also found.

By the Early Archaic period, hunters from the north had found the area, and it is their stone hearths-large and fitted with great flat hearthstones that were found three feet beneath the surface soil. Later hearths were also found in this location, identified by Fowler as having been built in the “stone bowl age” , and used for production of pottery.

In another survey conducted by Ingrid Gearloff Nebiker for her thesis “European Man’s Imprint on the Landscape of Rhode Island” (1975), we find another overview of the area:

“…a second watershed is Crookfall Brook, draining the Island woods along Rocky Hill road and including Woonsocket reservoir number 3. Before this stream which marks the eastern boundary of North Smithfield enters the Blackstone at Manville, it forms two other reservoirs for the city of Woonsocket, and is joined by Spring Brook which rises between Whartlebury(?) and Sayles Hills.”

This relatively remote area came to be regarded by neighboring Indians as a place of refuge as English settlers extended their frontiers inland. As tribal powers fluctuated,  this area became an active site of inter-tribal movement, and contact, both social and commercial became significant. Louisquisset was such an area, as its name literally means in the Nipmuc language,  “at the place of meeting”.

Nebiker writes that  “The location of the Inman-Mowry lands deeded in 1666 from “Loquiset northward”, suggests that the Indian plantation of Louisquisset was located near the present southern boundary of North Smithfield, perhaps in the Island woods.”

By tradition, the first purchase of these lands was made, as mentioned by Edward Inman about 1660. Around the same time, Roger Williams was granted use of a riverside by the Wampanoag sachem Alexander, running some four to five miles beginning “at the old field of Wasquadomsuk”. Inman’s purchase of “a thousand acres” is recorded in numerous references. A later deed suggests that this land adjoined the northeast portion of “wansockut hill”.

The location of this land, according to Nebiker, was “undoubtedly south of the first Indian purchase, but quite possibly along the Crookfall…”

The deed of 1672 to Edward Inman and John Mawry, and submitted by Wampanoag William Minion, contains a colorful description of the landscape:

“I William Minion have set the bounds of their Land, lyinge from loquiset northward. The first bound is a chesnutt on the south marked on fower sides at the first Indian ffield on Wessukkuttomsuk hill runninge a mile due North and then upon a line to vmmohtukkonit takeinge in  all the medow, and soe to run to Nipshacuck , and soe to the Indians growned, and soe to a champ of pines called the Key, and soe to the springe called wessukkuttomsuk (Crookfall brook), to the chesnut tree above mentioned.  And soe to patuket river (the Blackstone) Northward and on the end of the mill north to patukit river.”

Although the deed from Minion only acknowledges  Inman and Mawry, others as Mawry’s brother  Nathaniel, and their associates John Steere and Thomas Walling were also given a share, and thus some use of the land.

As Nebiker wrote in 1975,

“ Locating these features on the present landscape with any certainty is virtually impossible, however, the first Indian field on Wessukkottomsuk hill is probably the same as the old field of Wasquadomsuk, and suggests a new field somewhere near the hill. The first (old field) might have been on the level land atop the hill where clear land prevails now, and where the early homes, by tradition, were built. The spring might be the one near the Arnold house, but more likely might be the Crookfall brook, in the area later flooded by Woonsocket reservoir number 3.”

The hiostorian concludes that

“settlement atop Wesquadomset suggests that a source of potable water was close by…of the original saw mills and grist mills almost nothing is known. But from the Mowry and Inman dwellings near Wesquadomset, there were several possible mill sites on the Crookfall brook within a mile, while a stream known as the Spring brook provided another source of power about one-half mile away.”

In a recent walkthrough of the area, I was guided by Tim ,who as a local resident had spent considerable time in these woods as a young man. Tim had introduced himself to me at a talk given to the Audubon Society, and had told me of a significant site he remembered from the area. The land is now more formally restricted by the Woonsocket Water Authority, and we were given access by the Authority to explore the area.

We walked along the bank of Crookfall brook, the area dry underfoot due to a shortage of snow and rain during the winter. Despite this, the brook had a decent current running towards the lower reservoir whose dam was built in 1883, the water rushing now between the narrow, man made channel of stone.  Just beyond the dam in the woods above the river we found the site that Tim remembered. They were two stone walls, approximately eight feet high built into the hillside, with short end walls extending out from the hill.

The intact walls were approximately thirty feet apart, and it was difficult to discern whether a wall along the hill connected the remaining structure. There were several large boulders at the base of the hill, and other evidence might lead to that conclusion if an historical archeological study was conducted.

Just a ways down from these walls we found a more formal foundation of the same height open to the river. The walls were well formed with fieldstone and in some areas packed with smaller stone or grouted, indicative of 18th and 19th century yeoman masonry.

We walked uphill and backtracked toward the reservoir, in the narrow corridor of woods between Crookfall brook and Interstate 99, finding two more well preserved foundations in close proximity to each other. These contained central chimneys and are indicative of dwellings constructed in the 18th to early 19th century.

Again, a formal study might find that these dwellings were in use at least part of the year alongside the brook, and further lead to speculation that the nearby structures, including the older, of which the two walls remain, might have been a stable of sorts for the horses that brought people out from the nearby farms.

Close to these foundations were found two circular, ground level mounds approximately twenty feet apart in a straight westerly line. Given the proximity of the foundations, these are likely the remains of wells.

Tim and I were also given access to an area alongside Reservoir number 3 by John Beauchemin, the Water Supply Inspector for the town of Woonsocket who with other Water Authority employees, had an avid interest in a structure found in the area. John showed Tim and I a video from his cellphone of a long wall that extended parallel to the reservoir for a long distance. John also told us of a set of foundations we would find close to the end of the wall.

He guided us out along the an access road and when we stopped in an area below a recent housing development, he instructed us to climb over a stone wall and head through the woods toward the southern bank of the reservoir. Tim and I headed in, and soon enough found the wall, a good four feet high, lain with uniform stone walls on either side and approximately five to six feet wide, extending  to the east and west as far as the eye could see.

It was apparent to me that this was an elevated roadway, built no doubt, to traverse goods and materials to and from the sites we would find near the south western side of the reservoir. We took a moment to study its straight path through the trees, a few blow-downs crisscrossing the road, and young pines now two to three feet high, emerging from the topsoil beneath the stones lain for the surface.



We headed back to the road to find the path Rob told us would lead to the foundations, and in a short time were heading down the well-worn ATV route that wove through the woods toward the reservoir. The first foundation was some distance from the water, with the remains of a sluice built with fieldstone still intact that extended underground towards the reservoir.

There were also, two granite columns nearby, standing four feet apart in front of other remaining walls as though this might have been a formal gateway. Nearby, somewhat closer to the water were the remains of two other foundations. One included a large wall built into the hillside, and the other a small structure with two sluices leading to the foundation.

In the historical survey conducted for the National Register of Historic Places we find that in this region of Rhode Island,

“Agriculture was the backbone of the economy throughout  the 17th and 18th centuries with saw, grist, and fuller mills and scythe stone operations developing along streams such as the Branch river and Crookfall brook in the latter 1700’s.”

Never having heard of a “Fulling Mill” before, I ventured on some research and found this amusing description from a like enterprise in Randolph County, Virginia:

“At a fulling mill, woolen cloth was washed in a nasty-smelling combination of boiling urine and fuller’s earth, to remove the natural grease from the wool; then the cloth was beaten in troughs by wooden hammers lifted and dropped by a water wheel.”

Judging by a reading of the present landscape and the likely connectivity of the elevated roadway constructed nearby, it seems that these are likely the remains of a saw mill that was active well into the 19th century, transporting lumber from the mill to the nearby farms and perhaps a market beyond. It is also possible that these separate foundations mark a gathering of separate enterprises within a compound, though an historical archeological study would have to be conducted to confirm this speculation.

More historical research will have to be conducted as well as to who owned this land among the families and associates nearby, and when, to determine when the roadway and mills might have been in use. The walk itself, gave us a fascinating glimpse into the use of land and enterprise of these early farmers and manufacturers.  Deeds, letters, obituaries and other ephemera, if it can be found, will help us to place the people on the land, and in the mills, and on the roadway; these last reminders of their lives of perseverance and hard labor.


Robert A. Geake

March-April 2012

Posted in Native American history | 5 Comments

Known Land, Foreign Tongue: Early European Attempts to Navigate the Algonquian Language.

Known Land, Foreign Tongue: Early European Attempts to Navigate the Algonquian Language.

by Robert A. Geake

For those who ventured out on the sailing voyage to America in the early to mid-  seventeenth century, there was a sense of a continent somewhat known, a familiarity with  a landscape they had not yet laid eyes upon. For those more learned among them, there were images and textual descriptions printed for a hundred years in Europe. By mid-century, these would have had widespread distribution from the fleets of Dutch, French, and finally, English vessels that plied the trade from North America.

Of course, the gap between what was “known”, and what was to be found on the Continent, was often very wide, and none more so than how to approach and engage Native American tribes. Trade conducted with the Aboriginal people of the eastern seaboard included complex agreements sealed and augmented with ritual and ceremony, a complexity completely lost on most Europeans. As historian G. Edward White explains,

“European visitors to the North Americas…were immediately confounded by their ignorance of Amerindian Languages and Amerindians inability to ‘read or write’. For much of the sixteenth century, as European contacts in North America remained limited to commercial adventurers and the occasional voyage of exploration and discovery, Europeans sought to solve the language barrier in two ways. One was to develop ‘pidgin’ languages, blends of some Amerindian and some European words, in order to facilitate some commercial exchange”.[1]

One of the earliest serious attempts to understand the native language came from the pen of Thomas Harriot, an English astronomer and mathematician who visited Roanoke Island with an expedition in 1585-1586. Harriot learned some Algonquian from two native Americans who had been brought to London in 1584 and returned with him on his voyage to Virginia.

Thomas Harriot published an account of his travels in 1588 which shows to modern scholars “a deep understanding and respect for the cultural practices of the people he encountered in Virginia”. More ambitiously, Harriot drafted a phonetic alphabet of the Algonquian he learned, and,  as Richard W. Bailey noted, “a lexicon consisting mostly of nouns but there were many of them”.

Among these was the word “Werowance”, which the Englishman translated as “chief Lorde”. This title stayed in use with writers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as the various “indian histories” were published. Harriot was also the first English writer to make mention of the “Herbe…called by inhabitants Uppowoc…The Spaniardes generally call it Tobacco”.

By mid 17th century, when Roger Williams was penning his “A Key Into The Language of America” after living for over a decade among the Narragansett people, there was more than commerce on the mind of these early interpreters of the language, there was conversion as well. In looking at this period closely, we come to see a true attempt  in published works, to better understand the language and thus improve communication between Europeans and Native Americans.[2]  This improved communication it was hoped, would lead to education for their young, and ultimately to conversion in the protestant faith.

                                        19th century drawing of Roger Williams circa 1636

But within the scope of that design there had to be an understanding of a people and their culture, in effect an acceptance of that culture on a respective level before one could convert them to the English faith.  Williams wrote in his introduction that his book hoped to “unlocke some Rarities concerning the Natives  themselves, not yet discovered”.  His “observations” on Narragansett life, is an almanac of the rites and rituals of seasons, as well as the most extensive vocabulary  then written of a Native American language.

Williams would write of the Narragansett that

“their language is exceedingly copious, and they have five or six words sometimes for one thing”.[3]

Minister John Eliot began his missionary work in 1646 to convert the remnants of those tribes whose people were largely lost to epidemics before he met their descendants, and found  some success both in interpreting their language and in “Christianizing” a fair number of the “Massachusetts people”. These followers began the first “praying town” in Natick. Eliot wrote of the “Massachusetts” language as well that

“the manner of formation of the nouns and verbs have such a latitude of use, that there needeth little other syntaxis in the language”.

Eliot immersed himself in Native dialect to bring the Gospel to the Massachusetts people, first, in the form of religious pamphlets, and then in 1663,  an “Indian Bible” written in the local Natick dialect was published. His teacher (and servant) for more than thirty years was a Native American named Job Nesutan. It was from this “pregnant-witted” Indian, that Eliot learned the language, and several others of the Massachusett, including the later murdered John Sassamon, would contribute to the writing and publication of Eliot’s Bible.

Despite the difficulty in grappling with the language, it is important to remember that these early efforts of understanding the Algonquian language have remained the most reliable for modern scholars. Yet in the main, we find these ministers mocked in modern historic literature and equated, as Biblical fathers to the sins of those mislead and vengeance-minded offspring.

For instance, the student looking for sources available for this period might easily turn to the Routeledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies where we find

“…the first American translators (of Native language) included Puritan ministers who learned Indian languages to convert the natives…Conversion went hand in hand with conquest, so that translation facilitated the expropriation of Indian lands. Here, translators and interpreters mediated between significant cultural differences that were inscribed in the translating language”.

The author refers to the distinct difference in appreciation, and the naming of property. Algonquian place names most often referred to use or an ancient legend in their culture. Use of land was granted to neighboring tribes provided they pay tribute to the tribe within those boundaries, a tacit agreement that appeared among native Americans long before the European arrival.

The English of course, placed property in private hands through written agreements, with carefully drawn out plots and boundaries and signed by both parties and witnesses.  As such, private property was not be violated or trespassed upon by any person. Such fencing off parcels of land belonging to a whole was an unsettling and alien practice to the Native American. The Encyclopedia continues:

“The colonists recognized such differences from the start. Yet driven by an imperialist impulse, they rendered Indian language and culture into characteristically English terms-legal, commercial, political. This is even apparent in A Key to the Language of America (1643)”.

Surely this weighty judgment of imperialist intent, cannot be invoked upon Winslow,  Williams, Eliot,, or a handful of other early secular interpreters.  It is a mistake also, I think, to group these individuals under the mere and malodorous label of “Puritan ministers”, as each, in their unique observances of native life exhibit a humanistic engagement that enabled them to obtain a cache of early American customs and daily living that is still relevant today in the work of students and scholars alike.

As William S. Simmons notes, “…persons who were alienated from the dominant orthodoxy of Puritan society tended to view Indians in a more positive light and identified with them to a greater extent.”[4]

These ministers who took themselves as missionaries to native populations, were not promoting the tenets of imperialism, indeed they, as other early white settlers were seeking escape from those very vices imperialism brings. In their own “conversion” from the Anglican hierarchal faith to the belief in saving the individual soul, as Cohn wrote, was an act of “turning back from sin to embrace God, reversing one’s earlier path”.

This would have certainly applied to Roger Williams who is first mentioned anonymously in William Wood’s “New England Prospects” (1634). Wood wrote:

“One of the English preachers, in a special good intent of doing good to their soules, hath spent much time in attaining to their language, wherein he is so good a proficient, and he can spake to their understanding, and they to his; much loving and respecting him for his love and counsel.”

           19th century painting depicting Williams in the “smokey hovels” of the Narragansett.

Robert Baillie, one of William’s staunchest opponents of soul-liberty, thought the preacher practically alone in his “longing for the Indian’s soules”. In his own treatise, written in 1645, Baillie acknowledged that

“Only Williams in the time of his banishment from among them did assay what could be done with these desolate souls, and by a little experience did find a wonderful great facility to gain thousands of them.”[5]

In order to acquire as much knowledge of the language, as well as the Native “Customes, Manners, and Worship”, Williams adapted, more than any other translator, to native ritual and practices, and learned

“through varieties of intercourses with them Day and Night, Summer and Winter, by Land and Sea”.

While Roger Williams found that the Narragansett and neighboring tribes were often open to hearing about the white man’s God, it did not diminish their respect and loyalty to the deities that intertwined their lives and culture with the cycle of the world around them. The failure to convert many would not initially trouble Williams as it did later Puritan ministers. Williams wrote that

“I was persuaded, and am, that God’s way is first to turne from it’s idolls, both of heart, worship, and conversation, before it is capable of worship, to the true and living God.” The lack of true repentance among the Native Americans was also “the bane of million(s) of soules in England, and all other nations professing to be Christian nations..”

In this respect, Williams refused to view the Native Americans as mere heathens.

He wrote in his “Key into the Language” that

“Nature knows no difference between European and Americans in blood, birth, bodies &c. God having of one blood made all mankind, Acts 17. And all by nature being children of wrath, Eph. 2.”

Still, the Algonquian tongue, though some biographers have made use of his proficiency in old world languages to assert that William’s in effect, learned easily; but in his own writings, it was at first, a source of bafflement and wonder.

“There is a mixture of this Language North and South, from the place of my abode, about six hundred miles; yet within the two hundred miles…their Dialects do exceedingly differ; yet not so, but (within that compasse) a man may, by this helpe, converse with thousands of Natives all over the Countrey…”.

Daniel Gookin would write a generation later that “The Indians of the parts of New England, especially upon the sea coasts, used the same sort of speech and language, only with some difference in the expressions, as they differ in other counties in England, yet so as they can well understand each other”, but those who encountered with the Algonquian dialects in the 1630’s, he were very much in uncharted territory.

Williams recognized that sometimes one “expression” of a word differed from another within the meaning of the same word. He wrote in his Directions for the Use of the Language that

Title page of “A Key Into the Language of America” Courtesy of the Brown     University Library Special Collections.

“Because the Life of all Language is in the Pronunciation, I have been at the Paines and Charged to cause the Accents, Tones, or sounds to be affixed”

These differing dialects however, seem to have been a continuous source of frustration for the English minister. There are several episodes recorded in “A Key”, that illustrate this problem in perceiving the language as a whole. On one occasion,

Williams traveled with the Narragansett to a neighboring town and preached to a Native American audience. They had some difficulty in understanding, but through the old drawback of mixed words and gestures, William’s message was received.

On another occasion, William’s writes:

“I once travailed to an Island in the wildest of our parts, where in the night an Indian (as he said) had a vision or dream of the Sun (whom they worship for a God) darting a Beame into his Breast which he conceived to be the Messenger of his Death”.

The man gathered his friends from near and far and fasted for ten days awaiting death. Williams was stranded on the Island during this ordeal, (having travailed from my Barke, the wind being contrary) and as is evident, frustrated at his inability to minister to the stricken family:

“…little could I speake to them to their understandings especially because of the change of their Dialect, or manner of speech from our neighbors”.

Williams recorded that “…the varietie of their Dialects and proper speech within thirtie or fortie miles each of other, is very great…”  Despite these difficulties, Williams was able to discern some differences and recorded these. One example for his readers was the different pronunciations of the word for “dog”:

                           Anum,  The Cowweset

                           Ayim    The Narriganset

                           Arum    The Qunnippiuck

                           Alum     The Neepmuck


      In his biographical introduction to The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Reuben Aldridge Guild points out that Williams “ had acquired his knowledge of the language from intercourse with at least three independent tribes…and it is certain that, in some instances, he has admitted words which are not in Narragansett dialect”.

The very name “Narragansett”, containing the letter “r” was first printed in “A Key…” though the letter “r” was not pronounced in the language. The misspelling as it occurred, became part of the English lexicon, though in William’s own “letter” of introduction, he used, and spelled the proper name of Nanhiganeuk. Guild also posed three examples of Nipmuck words that made their way into Williams’ unwieldy grammar-Guild clearly prefers Eliot’s more “civilized” method; but acknowledged that

“On the whole, the language of the Key does not differ more widely from that of Eliot’s Bible, than does the latter from the Massachusetts Psalter and translations of John’s Gospel, printed for the use of the Indians of Massachusetts in 1709”.

                                    Eliot’s “Indian Bible” Courtesy of Non Solus/Wordpress

This debate continues into modern times. In a paper presented before the thirty eighth Algonquian conference, David J. Costa continues the estimations of Ives Goddard, Kathleen Bragdon, and others that much of William’s vocabulary and phrases in “A Key…” are composed in the “Coweset” dialect, rather than what he terms the “Southern Narragansett”, and indicates the presence as well of Massachusetts and Connecticut dialect detected from alternative inflectional endings. [6]

Eliot’s Bible also had an unintended effect upon the different dialects spoken among the Algonquian in southeastern Massachusetts. Writing from Martha’s Vineyard in 1722, Experience Mayhew noted the change, subtle as it was, between the language spoken on the island, and the origin of Eliot’s Bible and Grammar among the Indians of Natick.

“Indeed, the difference was something greater than now it is, before our Indians had use of the Bible and other books translated by Mr. Eliot; but since that, most of the little differences betwixt them have been happily lost.”

By 1769 when Ezra Stiles of Newport composed a 45 word vocabulary of the “Narragansett” , the language had changed significantly from a century before, and the dialect spoken by the Indians of southern Rhode Island had shifted to Eastern-Niantic.

Still, it is generally concurred that Roger Williams and John Eliot succeeded more than any other early interpreters, and their work has been used by Frank Waabu O’Brien and the Aquidneck Indian Council to reconstruct the language. But neither Williams, nor later translators, appear to have recognized that gesture and performance of a story, or descriptive answers to questions, also played a role in their meaning and significance.

While gesture was often noted by the early translators, most famously by Cotton Mather who later coined these rituals as “joining signs with words”, the English clearly were at a loss in translating such gestures or their implicit meanings.

Furthermore, as historian Laura T. Murray points out,

“Euro-American observers were often not aware of the possibility that in their presence Indians may have modified their gestural vocabularies”.[7]

The Algonquian Language itself was deeply rooted in the Native American belief that the world around them was a source of wonder. Early observers often wrote of the Indians placing spiritual qualities on the creatures around them-all had come from  the hand of Caukkawonit , all held meaning, and were paid tribute in pottery, painting, and stone.

When John Eliot visited the Massachusetts people, he was asked many questions concerning the biblical writings he quoted to them. They had a particular curiosity of those of the natural world:

“Why must we be like Salt? …What meaneth that, Let the trees of the Wood rejoice?”

Eliot’s answer that

“God gave us two books, and that in the book of the creature, every creature was a word or sentence& c.”  gave the Native American an interpretation that “the wonder of the world, not the power of the book, was viewed as foundational. By “reading” the natural world , the Indians seemed to have understood Eliot to be saying, one can understand God and be saved by him.”[8]

The telling of a story in metaphor was a common trait among the Algonquian whose long standing practice of oral history bred many great and famous story-tellers. This love of story and metaphor among the people was a god-send for the ministers in relaying Biblical tales to Native Americans. It was less useful however, in translating Native American memory and meaning into the English language.

The acting out of a story or “performance” by Native Americans meant that to Europeans no one story was told the same, but with different gestures, emphasis, and expressions from each speaker. Dennis Tedlock has written of such oral performances that “These are not fixed texts. The stresses, pitches, pauses, and also the sheer words are different from one (performer) to the next., and even from one occasion to the next, according to place and time, according to who is in the audience, according to what they do and do not know, according to what questions they may have been asked”.[9]

In writing of an early encounter with Native Americans on Cape Cod, Thomas Shepard, who accompanied Eliot to many villages, wrote of a Native American’s statement that their forefathers once knew God, but had long fallen into a “great sleep” , that

“with such metaphoricall language they usually express what eminent things they meane”

Edward Winslow had observed in a note appended in his The Glorious Progress of the Gospel, amongst the Indians in New England  that  ”The better sort of them are full of such like expressions, affecting to speak in Parables”[10]

In composing his Tears of Repentance, Eliot opined that while he had “been true & faithful unto their souls, and in writing and reading their Confessions, I have not knowingly or willingly made them better, than the Lord helped themselves to make them, but am verily persuaded that I have rather rendered them weaker (for the most part) than they delivered them; partly by missing some words of weight in some Sentences, partly by my short and curt touches of what they more fully spake, and partly by reason of the different Idioms of their Language and ours”.

We see in the writings of these missionaries that,

“the conversations of prostelytes and preachers involved not only disagreements over how to interpret metaphor but even how to recognize it and how to imagine its opposite, the ever-elusive literal truth”.[11]

Algonquian language was embedded as well and extended upon the body, garments, and everyday items and utensils, as well as the landscape.

“Of Bookes and Letters they have none…” Willaiams had written, yet

“They paint their garments & c. The men paint their faces in Warre. Both men and women for pride & c.”  In one of his “Observations”, Williams notes that “Wannum, their red painting which they most delight in, and is  both the bark of the pine, as also a red earth”.

The Narragansett women who sculpted soapstone bowls, the basket-weavers who wove traditional patterns and motifs throughout generations, were expanding the language into a further realm of Native American understanding. This connectedness to the earth extended to sites within the natural landscape of ceremonial places, burial grounds, and stories pecked on boulders along the shoreline.

As the anthropologist Edward J. Lenick writes,

“Algonquian peoples lived in a physical world that was often harsh and mysterious. Over their long history, they developed a deep spiritual connection with manitous who inhabited special places on the landscape. The people developed rites, rituals, ceremonies, and traditions in dealing with the vast mystery of existence. Some of their visions and dreams were rendered in stone, and specially chosen physical settings became part of a sacred landscape”.[12]

In considering one aspect of the argument in its simplest form, we might say that comparing the painting on canvas to painting on the garment, or the body, is an expansion of the respective languages into the visual, and thus, has an associated vocabulary to express the form, or “story” of the painting into language. If we accept this, we see that native Americans must also have held a representative vocabulary. In the Englishman’s observation that Indians only painted their garments or faces, rather than on wood or canvas, meant that they failed to conceptualize their meaning, and so these expressions were minimized.

Williams records but a handful of colors in his vocabulary, and notes

“It hath been the foolish Custome of all barbarous Nations to paint and figure their Faces and Bodies…” He also observed that,  “they commonly paint these moose and deer-skins for summer wearing, with varieties of forms and colours”

A hint of the ministers’ own disdain for this form of expression can be found in another passage from ”A Key…” when he ponders why a Native American would possess a looking glass:

“They…having no beautie but a swarfish colour, and no dressing but nakedness; but pride appears in any color, and the meanest dress; and besides generally the women paint their faces with all sorts of colours”.

Roger Williams clearly had nothing but contempt for such display, and never thought to observe the practice as anything but vanity. This is seen in the brief dialogue he includes in “A Key…”, which rapidly degenerates into an English scolding of the native American ritual:

Anakesu  /  He is painted

                               Aunakeuck / They are painted

                               Tawhitch auna  / Why doe you paint

Kean ?                     your self   

                               Cheskhosh  /  Wipe off

                               Cummachiteouwu-  /  You spoile your Face.

nash kuskeesuckquash

Mat pitch cowahick  /  The God that made you

manit keesiteonckqus          will not know you.


At first reading, it might be surprising that the English minister makes no mention of the sites of worship around him or the “inscribed” or “written” rocks that so fascinated Ezra Stiles more than a century after Williams’ wanderings in Rhode Island.  Indeed, Eliot makes no mention of them either, though from their own writings it appears that their puritan sensibilities were offended by the rituals and practices of the Native Americans they encountered.  English ministers consistently wrote with reproach of the powwows “antics” and “animal like” noises performed during adulations for the sick.  Williams wrote of Narragansett religious rituals and powwows or “priests”[13]

                                              Early 2oth century powwow, Narragansett

“These do begin and order their service, and Invocation of their Gods, and all the people follow, and join interchangeably in a laborious bodily service, unto sweating, especially of the Priest, who spends himself in strange Antick Gestures, and Actions even unto fainting”.

The minister then clarifies for his readers that

“I confesse to have most of these their customes by their owne Relation, for after once being in their Houses and beholding what their Worship was, I durst never bee an eye witnesse, Spectatour, or looker on, least I should have been partaker of Sathans Inventions and Worships, contrary to Ephes. 5. 14”

This then appears to explain Williams’, and other early interpreters lack of knowledge or at least, any mention of “sacred sites” and inscribed rocks in the area these Native Americans inhabited. As Lenick explains,

“Spirits and places of spiritual power were associated with special topographical features such as unusual boulders, rock formations, mountaintops, waterfalls, lakes, rivers/streams, and islands.”[14]

Individuals, especially powwows, endeavored to make contact with the spirits or Manitou inhabiting these places through isolation and intricate ceremony. By fasting, praying, and partaking of medicinal plants; these spirits could enter the individual and give them, and conversely the people, the guidance and direction they sought. Lenik writes of these “inscribed rocks” that

“Rock art, petroglyphs and pictographs, was often made by individuals who were successful in achieving contact with the spirits and receiving powerful medicine.

Shamans entered the rock haunts of the spirits, the abodes of the manitous, in a quest for spiritual power, and they illustrated the stories of their journeys on rocks as a record of their success”.[15]

                                           Late Algonquian Shaman art, circa 1852

It is my contention therefore that Williams and other early Puritan ministers were most likely unaware of these sacred sites, that the Native Americans “held back” knowledge of the inscribed rocks, sacred sites and their meanings. Only after a century of near decimation from disease and war, would Ezra Stiles be led to these sites, and by that  time there would be few Native Americans remaining to convey their origin and true meaning. In this act of self-exclusion, Williams and other early interpreters missed an integral thread of Native American language associated with spiritual belief and ritual.

A later generation of ministers whose pastoral missions would be torn asunder in the maelstrom of the years between King Philip’s War and the Salem witch trials,would with great effort excoriate the language even further from its origin, and in print, become intolerant of those Native Americans who clung to their beliefs.

Today, the effort to reconstruct the Algonquian tongue are mostly rooted in the vocabularies that Williams and Eliot compiled. A considerable “dictionary” is posted online for students to peruse and get a glimpse of the eloquence that European readers found so compelling. But today, the language is mostly silent, spoken only formally, by elders in ceremony and prayers.

“I don’t speak the language” a Narragansett man recently told me. Not that he didn’t appreciate his native tongue, but for reasons tied more to the spiritual; that to misspeak the language would be a graver insult to his ancestors than not to know the language at all.


[1] White, G. Edward ”Law in American History Vol. 1 From The Colonial Years Through The Civil War” p.19

[2] It may be noted that I continue to use the term “Native Americans” in my work. I’ve no idea if this is no longer politically correct in academic works-as in White’s use of “Amerindian”, but it seems to me the most simple and dignified expression of the people.

[3] Williams, Roger A Key Into the Language of America

[4] Simmons, William S. “Cultural Bias in the New England Puritan’s Perceptions of Indians” The William and Mary Quarterly , Vol. 38 No. 1 (Jan 1981)

[5] Baillie, Robert “Dissuasive From Our Errand of Time” (1645)

[6] Costa, David J. “The Dialectology of Southern New England Algonquian” from Papers of the Thirty-Eighth Algonquian Conference , University of Manitoba Press 2007.

[7] Murray, Laura T. “Joining Signs with Words: Missionaries, Metaphors and the Massachusetts Language” The New England quarterly Vol. 74 No. 1 (March 2001)

[8] Ibid. p. 77

[9] As cited in “John Eliot’s Playing Indian” by Joshua David Bellin.  Early American Literature Vol. 42 No. 1

[10] Winslow observed the respect Native Americans afforded story teller and pow-wows in their society. These ‘pow-wows’ or spiritual leaders would come to be seen as the enemy of European conversion.

[11] Murray, Linda T. “Joining Signs with words…” p. 69

[12] Lenik, Edward J. “Making Pictures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast. University of Alabama Press 2009

[13] Williams use of the word priest highlights further his revulsion of their actions as any Protestant reader would thus place their services and creed as, if not barbaric, then akin to the hated Catholic church.

[14] Leniik, Edward J. “Making Pictures in Stone” p. 4

[15] Ibid. p. 5

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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

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