Upcoming Book Events



authorphoto12
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 smallstatebighistory.com 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.

 

Posted in Native American history | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Was Cacauwonch “The Beginning Place”?


Was Cacauwonch “The Beginning Place”?

by Robert A. Geake

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

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

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

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

        Cacawonch, known by ye English name Coeset  Pond”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“the pond the Indians call Cacouoncke”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rocky woodlands surround “cacauwonch”

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

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

One local historian noted that

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

Cowesett (now Greenwich) bay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As historian Joshua Micah Marshall observes,

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

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

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

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

Marshall notes that ultimately

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“place of young pines”-the Cowesett homeland

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

April-June 2012


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

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

[3]

[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

Posted in Native American history, ri history | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Native American history | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Native American history | Leave a comment

Uncas, Miantonomo, and Historical Memory


SourceURL:file:///Volumes/NEW%20ENGLAND/Uncas%20and%20Historical%20Memory.doc @font-face { font-family: “Times New Roman”; }@font-face { font-family: “Arial”; }@font-face { font-family: “Courier New”; }@font-face { font-family: “Geneva”; }@font-face { font-family: “Tms Rmn”; }@font-face { font-family: “Helv”; }@font-face { font-family: “MS Serif”; }@font-face { font-family: “MS Sans Serif”; }@font-face { font-family: “New York”; }@font-face { font-family: “System”; }@font-face { font-family: “Wingdings”; }@font-face { font-family: “MS 明朝”; }@font-face { font-family: “MS ゴシック”; }@font-face { font-family: “Century”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: Times; }p.MsoFootnoteText, li.MsoFootnoteText, div.MsoFootnoteText { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: Times; }span.MsoFootnoteReference { vertical-align: super; }em { }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

Uncas, Miantonomo,  and Historical Memory

by Robert A. Geake

The name of Uncas in the Narragansett language holds the meanings of “circler” and “fox”, and certainly a more appropriate name could not have been given to the crafty and cunning Mohegan Sachem.

Within the histories written in the centuries following his extraordinary life, the person behind the posturing of haughty warrior, self-promoter, manipulator of English concerns, and protector of his people; has remained as elusive as ever.

As with other Native American Sachems of Southern New England who came of age and responsibility during the early Colonial period, Uncas would witness the lives of his people become changed forever with the influx of Europeans and all that came with them. Practical goods seem to have held the most interest for these Native Americans. The New England Algonkians quickly adapted kettles, pots and pans to their everyday existence, as well as exchanging their skins and fur pelts for English style clothing.

Historian Michael Leroy Oberg writes that

“the technology and trade goods that the Europeans carried with them suggested to Indians that the newcomers were a powerful people, perhaps even otherworldly or magical.” The increase in trade also increased the distribution of wampum as an important commodity, and sudden competition among neighboring tribes.

“Strange it was, ”William Bradford of Plymouth would note  “to see the great alteration it made in a few years among the Indians themselves…it makes the Indians of these parts rich and powerful and also proud thereby…”

Uncas’ Father, the Sachem Owaneco, worked early with European traders to ensure a share of the growing trade for the Mohegan. A Dutch map from 1614 shows the tribes engaged with trade along the Thames River, including the “Mahican”. “Maximanes”, “Morhegans”, “Pequats”, and “Wamanoos”. Within a decade of this map being produced, the fur trade in the region was exporting and estimated 10,000 beaver skins each year.

With the advent of this economy and the resultant pressure upon tribes, relations became strained among the tribes of Southern New England. The Pequots and the Narragansett had it seemed, an inherited animosity toward each other. A tentative peace with the Wampanoag was also broken by Massasoit-Oussamequin’s alliance with the English settlement in Plymouth. This was the world into which Uncas grew as a young man.

Coming of age in the village of Monotesuck, near the banks of the Thames, he became conversant in the languages of the English and Dutch. Uncas was to claim lineage from the Pequot, Mohegan, and Narragansett Tribes. Although these claims have been challenged, such allegiances were long a part of his family history. Owaneco arranged a marriage for his son with the daughter of the Pequot sachem Tatobem, in order to secure an alliance between the tribes. The daughter named Momoho, was first promised to an older brother, but when he died before the marriage could take place, she was promised to Uncas.

When his Father died shortly after this marriage, Uncas inherited the role of Sachem but had to submit Mohegan authority to Tatobem, an episode that like Massasoit-Oussamequin with the Narragansett; was held in bitter distaste by these younger Sachems.

In the summer of 1633, a Dutch trader named Jacob Van Curler set up a trading post on the Connecticut River on land purchased from Tatobem. This had previously been a place where “all tribes might trade freely without any fear or danger”, yet the Dutchman set up two cannon and fortified his post which he named “Fort Good Hope”. This act stirred anger among some of those whom had traded and skirmishes broke out between these Indians and the Pequot at the fort. In retaliation, the Dutch killed Tatobem and 33 of his followers. Upon the Sachem’s death, his son Sassacus became his successor.

While his Father-in-law had been Sachem, Uncas had not challenged Peqout authority, but after his death, he “ removed to the interior and placed himself at the head of the Mohegan clans who occupied lands east of the Connecticut river, and west of the great Pequot River now known as the Thames. While Sassacus traded with the Dutch, Uncas developed alliances with the English.”[1]

      Uncas believed he held legitimate claim to the title of Sachem of the Pequot nation. To this end, he challenged Sassacus’ authority time and again. Historian William L. Stone would write that “Uncas raised the standard of revolt; but his power and influence, not being great at first, his rebellion was crushed, and he was ignominiously expelled his country by the haughty victor.” The defeated Uncas fled to Narragansett country in exile with his followers. Roger Williams wrote to John Winthrop  “This man is but a little Sachim, and hath not abou 40 or 50 Mohiganeucks…”.

Oberg writes that “The life of an exile among the Narragansetts suited Uncas poorly. He always returned to his homelands and ritually humiliated himself before Sassacus.”[2] The Mohegan were further weakened by the ravages of small pox in 1633/34 which killed many of Uncas’s followers, who were by this time, banished to the small village and fort his Father had established at Shantok.

The historian suggests that the Sachems tolerance of Uncas subordination may have been because he lacked the support among the Pequots to punish him severely, but there may have been other motives as well.  The Narragansett Sachem Miantonomo, told Williams that “Okace and his men had a hand in the death of all the English and fought against the Rivers mouth (at Qunnihticut) , and that when the Narragansett had allied with the Dutch against the Pequots, the Mohegans had “joined against us.”

Miantonomo claimed that Uncas had sheltered Pequot women and children while their men fought Captain Endicott’s English raiders, and confided that in one incident, the Mohegan Sachem had brought gifts to Canonicus and himself, “yet at the same time killed 2 of his women treacherously.”[3]

These early incidents, as recorded by Williams seem to be at the root of the Narragansett Sachem’s distrust and genuine dislike of the Mohegan that would culminate in their confrontation on the Great Plains.

Uncas’s relationship with the English was complex and based upon the political realities as the Mohegan saw them. Oberg explains that “With the Pequots under attack by the Narragansett  and the Dutch, and ensnared in an increasingly tangled web of controversy with the English, Uncas saw alliance with the newcomers as a means to increase both his own power and that of the Mohegans.”[4]

                                       Statue of John Mason from Connecticut History website

The English Captain John Mason, a veteran of British war with the Netherlands, and a man as  haughty and larger than life as Uncas, arrived in 1635 to build a settlement at what is now Dorchester. Mason had landed in New England five years before. In that time he had gained some military stature, having captured a pirate off the Massachusetts coast in 1632, and helping to redesign fortifications at Boston harbor.

The Mohegan sachem soon “fell into an intimate acquaintance”  with the Englishman that was to last for thirty five years. Uncas also met John Brewster, son of the Plymouth founder, who had long meandered upriver to trade with the Indians and seek out prospects for the Colony. In June of 1636, Brewster sent a Native American interpreter to Shantok to interview Uncas concerning “the proceedings of the Pequots, as also there present abode”.

Brewster’s courier returned with startling news. Uncas had informed him that Sassacus and a confederation of other Sachems were actively plotting against the English.

A plan to destroy Plymouth’s trading ship had only been foiled when the ship had fled the advancing canoes “under sayle with a fayre wind”. The Sachem had also told the courier that Sassacus with his brother and others, had been responsible for the death of the Englishman Stone, two years before, and that since then, the Pequots had heard rumors that the English would “shortly come against them”, and predicted that “out of desperate madnesse”, the Pequots would “shortly…sett both upon Indians, and English, jointly.”[5]

The news that Uncas sent to Brewster had the desired effect. Brewster believed the Mohegan to be “faithful to the English” and quickly passed the dire warning along to John Winthrop Jr. who had settled Saybrook. While the message generated talk up and down the river, it was not until the news reached Boston, that a definitive response was formed, and a summons was immediately dispatched to Sassacus. When the Pequot delegation arrived, they found themselves confronted by Winthrop, and the issue of justice for the murder of Stone, was raised again. Winslow told them that

“if they shall not give…satisfaction…or shall be found guilty of any of the sayd murders, and will not deliver the actours in them”, the Bay Colony had no choice but to determine itself “free from any league or peace with them, and shall revenge the blood of our countrimen as occasion shall serve”.

In the months that followed, Uncas took every opportunity to urge war upon the Pequot nation. As Native American tribes grew disenchanted with the European idea of settlement, so these tensions erupted in sporadic episodes of violence. The murders of John Stone, and the John Oldham, Brewster’s brother in law, were examples of these.

While the Pequot had been widely implicated in Stone’s death two years earlier, they were not the perpetrators of this crime. According to John Winthrop’s account,

“all the sachems of the Narragansett, except Canonicus and Miantunnomoh, were the contrivers of Mr. Oldham’s death”

This act was apparently committed to avenge Oldham’s trading with the Pequot. The Narragansett took responsibility for the crime, with Miantonomo reportedly ordering the execution of Anduah, the Block Island sachem for his role in planning the murder.

Oberg writes that by the time of that summer of 1636, tensions were such that

“Oldham’s death showed how quickly disputes between Indians could involve Englishmen, and his death complicated an already tense situation along the southern New England frontier.”[6]

Despite Miantonomo’s measure of justice, and a substantial amount of wampum sent to Governor John Winthrop, in August, the Massachusetts Bay Authority sent a force of one hundred soldiers under Captain John Endicott to “put to death the men of Block Island”. The Native American woman and children were to be spared harm, but collected and ferried from their homes.

When the Massachusetts force landed on the Island, they found the inhabitants had fled and satisfied themselves with burning the wigwams, killing the few dogs left wandering the encampment, and ruining the storage of corn the Islanders had prepared for winter. The militia next moved on to Saybrook where they were confronted by Lyon Gardner, the commander of the settlement’s fort, who made it clear that Endicott’s men were not welcome to come and stir up trouble then “take wing and flee away.”

                                           Early map from Connecticut History website

Undaunted, the men sailed East along the coast and soon found themselves taunted by the Pequots from shore. Negotiations were brief and to Endicott, unsatisfactory. On these breaking down, the English “gave fire to as many “ as they could, but the Pequots escaped, and they once again destroyed the wigwams and storages of corn.

As Commander Gardner had intoned, the surrounding settlements were not please with the actions of the Bay Colony. Neither Saybrook, or Connecticut, or Plymouth authorities wished to become embroiled in a war with Native American nations. Indeed, the Pequots took advantage of Endicott’s invasion too attempt to enlist the Narragansett, but Miantonomo’s message to John Winthrop, delivered in Boston that his people “had always loved the English and desired firm peace”, was a clear rebuke to the tribe’s old adversary. The caution the colonies showed soon proved to be warranted, as the Pequots retaliated with a siege of Saybrook that was to last into the new year.

Throughout this long “siege” and the subsequent attack on Wethersfield, Uncas urged the Colonial authorities to act against the Pequot nation. During the long winter, the Connecticut authorities had wavered, much to the Sachem’s displeasure. He had effectively isolated the Pequot nation from other Native American nations in the region. Even Miantonomo had presented a plan of attack on the Pequots to pass along to the Bay authorities, and a Massachusetts sachem named Cutshamakin had sailed along the coast with Endicott, and taken a Pequot scalp in the fight at the harbor. The Mohegan sachem vented his frustration on the minister Thomas Hooker who wrote with trepidation to John Winthrop that

“How the Pequoyts have made an inrode by a suddayne surprisall upon some of our bretheren at Watertowne, slaying weomen and children who were sent out carelessly without watch and guard, this bearer will tell you: Though we feel nether the tyme nor our strength fitt for such service, yet the Indians here our friends were so importunate with us to make warr presently that unless we had attempted some thing we had delivered our persons unto contrmpt of base feare and cowardice, and caused them to turne enemyes against us: Agaynst our mynds, being constrained by necessity, we have sent out a company, taking some Indian guides with us…”[7]

But after the attack on Wethersfield, Uncas was not the only one urging war. Another letter to Winthrop from John Higginson of Salem implored the Governor to put all other matters aside:

“In all these respects and many more I desire it may be considered whither the serious and speedie prosecution of this warre be not the greatest business New England hath.”

He warned Winthrop that

“Let not Boston Roxburie etc. thinke warre is far enough from them, for this seems to be an universal deluge creeping and encroaching on all the English in the land: The Multitudes of our enemies daily encrease, by the falling of Mohigoners,  Nepmets, (who live not many miles from the bay) Niantucuts at Narrohiganset and their malice is not to be questioned, their cruelty divers of ours have felt.”

Higginson reminded the Masachusetts Governor that

“…the eyes of all the Indians in the countrey are upon the English, to see what they will doe…”[8]

In this way, writes Oberg,

“Uncas pulled the English into his battle with Sassacus. He demanded that they act against his enemy. or face the consequence: a larger and more dangerous Indian opponent that did not fear the Puritans”.[9]

When the English did act, it was Captain Mason, the Mohegan sachem’s friend who devised the plan they would undertake. Advised by Uncas and Underhill, who contributed nineteen men to the force of ninety that Mason had mustered, the militia sailed from Saybrook with seventy Mohegans on May 19th,  past the entrance of the Thames River to Narragansett Bay, where they set anchor. Bad weather prevented their landing at Miantonomo’s village for several days, and when they did meet with the sachem, he was noncommittal about joining an assault, warning that the Pequot had “very great Captains and Men skilful in War”, but permitted the Englishman to lead his force through Narragansett Country toward the Pequot encampment.

On May 24th however, a number of Narragansett men came to Mason and joined his force. The warriors professed to the English Captain “how galliantly they would demean themselves, and how many men they would kill,”

Once they were at the Pawcatuck River, some Narragansett refused to cross into Pequot territory. Those who stayed, continued the march through the “extreme heat” with little provisions to aussage their exhaustion. Uncas and Endicott parleyed with Mason and determined to attack a closer Pequot settlement near Mystic where there were far more women and children than the warriors at Weinshauks.

Uncas had told Mason that he could not trust the Narragansett warriors to stand and fight, telling the Captain “they will all leave you…but as for myself,…I will never leave you”. The Mohegan led the militia through the darkness to the sleeping encampment. Mason handed out yellow headbands to the Mohegan warriors so the English could identify them in battle. He had none for the remaining  Narragansett who fell to the rear as the English surrounded the palisade fort.

                                                 Early print of the battle at Mistik

In the ensuing assault, Mason and Underhill set fire to the wigwams, fearing that Pequot reinforcements would arrive before they finished the battle. In the process they slaughtered many of the women and children who became entrapped in the flaming fortress. The Narragansett called out to Underhill as the attack continued, crying that it was too much, that too many were being killed. Those who escaped the fire were

“slaine with the sword, some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatche, and very few escaped. While Mason and the Mohegans rejoiced at their swift victory, the Narragansett returned to Miantonomo, some of them wounded by the English who mistook them for Pequots in the melee, and told the sachem of the brutality of the English way of war.

Native warfare had long held a tradition of limited engagement for a specific purpose – to avenge a death or wrong committed by one tribe against another. The avenging action was swift and inflicted minor casualties. Women and children were spared from the conflict, villages left unrazed. For these reasons, Underhill and others thought that

“Indian warfare hardly deserved the name of fighting”.

Uncas had led the English to the scene of battle, and now he led them through the wilderness back to the safety of their boats, his warriors skirmishing with bands of re-grouped Pequots who shadowed them to the harbor. Once the wounded were placed on boats, the Mohegan led Mason another twenty miles through the Niantic country to Saybrook.

After the massacre at Mistick, the Pequots became, in Roger Williams words, “a prey to all Indians.”  The Montauks from Long Island agreed to aid Lyon Gardner in gathering any fugitives in exchange for trade in Saybrook, and Sequassen, a sachem from the Connecticut River valley sent his warriors almost daily to Hartford and Windsor to “bring in [Pequot] heads to the English.”

Nearly a month after the assault, the Massachusetts Bay Authorities sent another force to Saybrook, where it met with Uncas and a sizeable body of Mohegans. They chased the remaining bands of Pequots westward, killing those who fell behind, or who were found digging for clams in hunger along the shore. The eighty or so remaining warriors made a stand in a swamp outside of Quinninpiac. A first attack by the English was beaten back.

Commander Israel Stoughton ordered the swamp to be surrounded, and sent in a Native American messenger with an offer to spare those Pequots that surrendered. As night fell, women and children emerged from the thickets, leaving their men to fight one last battle.

Through the night, gunfire was exchanged. At dawn, a handful of Pequot warriors attempted to escape and were beaten back, then the English marched headlong into the swamp firing their muskets “loaded with Ten or Twelve Pistol bullets at a time, within a few yards of them” The resultant slaughter left the dead warriors “in heaps“ among the victorious English and Mohegan allies.

The effective annihilation of the Pequot nation propelled Uncas to a prestige among both English and Native American leaders that he may have desired, but whose extent he could never have anticipated. In the aftermath of the war, the Connecticut authorities sent a small force to align with Uncas  “to maynteine our right that God by Conquest hath given to us”[10] . The Massachusetts Bay Colony took the view that the settlers at Saybrook had “rushed them selves into a warr with the heathen”, and would have lost everything

“had not we [the Massachusetts Authority] reskued them at so many hundred charges” .

The Colonies and Native Americans were also divided on what to do with the remaining Pequots who had been captured, the women and children who had been gathered or surrendered at Quinnipiac.

The Narragansett had expressed to John Winthrop through Roger Williams that the Governor should look “toward mercy and to give them their lives”, that they “be used kindly, have houses and goods and fields given them.”  Uncas told Richard Davenport that he wished “to make women of all the Pecotts, except the sachems and captains and murtherers”[11] He pledged to kill anyone found who had fought the English or his own people. Many of these remaining Pequots  were adopted into newly formed Mohegan

communities. As Oberg writes:

“Uncas created a powerful chiefdom that included the surviving Pequots and their former tributaries, Indian villagers in southern and eastern Connecticut, in the Connecticut River Valley, and on Long Island.”

In the year that followed the war, the Mohegan sachem would cement his claims to tributaries and lands by marrying a widow of the sachem Tatobem,  and at least six other prominent women among the people now subject to his authority.  In a show of his new power, Uncas even offered the Pequot women who were captives of John Winthrop Sr. protection if they would escape the Bay Colony and come to Shantock.

Winthrop would eventually exert his authority upon the Mohegan, and Uncas would learn to compromise with English authority, but he maintained Mohegan interests throughout, and displayed a cunningness whose reputation would only add to the myth of the man, in the later remembrances, and biographies of his life.

One of the most prominent stories that has survived into present time concerns the battle at the Great Plains between Uncas and Miantonomo that resulted in the latter’s capture and death. As might be expected, Mohegan lore, and Narragansett oral history differ in the events leading up to the battle and after. The English versions of events differ also, and in curious and unusual ways. These provide us an opportunity to examine the life of an historical story, and how it is perceived in memory by succeeding generations of both historians, and the public.

Events leading up to this confrontation are indisputable. Though the Mohegan and Narragansett had signed a treaty at the behest of Massachusetts Authorities to keep peaceful relations, disagreements concerning prisoners and land use rights continued to simmer. It may be remembered that the Narragansett had plead for those innocent captives of the Pequot nation to be treated fairly. The fate of those who did not assimilate into Mohegan or other tribes was decidedly unfair. William L. Stone noted that of those who surrendered at the swamp near Quinnipiac, “the female prisoners and children were divided among the soldiers, and numbers of them were sent to the West Indies and sold as slaves.[12]

Tensions between the English and Narragansett over the treatment of the surviving Pequots, exacerbated other disputes as well. The Narragansett felt that they were denied use of land promised to them by Colonial authorities after the war, and in addition, were forced to pay tribute for the Pequots they had taken as slaves into the tribe. Until the Mohegans attack on Sequassen’s village, Roger Williams had tempered the Sachems impatience, with missives to Winthrop and assurances that the English would seriously weigh their concerns.

John Winthrop’s account of the confrontation on the Great Plains comes from his

Journal, in which he wrote on August 6, 1643:

“We received news of a great defeat given the Narragansetts by Onkas…”

Winthrop recounts the attack by Uncas upon Sequasson that “slew divers of his men,and burnt his wigwams” that provoked the Narragansett, and how in answer,

“Miantunnomoh, being his kinsman, took offence against Onkus, and went with near 1000 men and set upon Onkas before he could provide for defence…But it pleased God to give Onkus the victory, after he had killed about 30 Narragansett and wounded many more, and among these two of Canonicus’ sons and a brother of Miantunnomoh”

Winthrop also mentions in the Journal  that  Miantonomo fled, wearing a coat of mail, and that

“he was easily overtaken, which two of his captains perceiving, they laid hold on him and carried him to Uncas, hoping thereby to procure their own pardon.” These two Narragansett who had betrayed their Sachem were immediately slain by Uncas, and Miantonomo was taken prisoner. Winthrop then recounts the imprisonment of the Narragansett sachem,

“they kept him under guard, but used him very courteously” and a troublesome letter from Samuel Gorton, demanding the release of his friend and threatening English intervention, the response by Uncas to take the matter to Hartford, and then Boston where the Commissioners of the United Colonies found themselves in a quagmire:

“that it would not be safe to set him at liberty, neither had we sufficient ground for us to put him to death. In this difficulty we called in five of the most judicious elders (it being the time of the general assembly of elders,) and proposing the case to them, they all agreed that he ought to be put to death” (Winthrop’s Journal Vol. II p134-136)

Another early mention of the conflict by William Bradford, demonstrates the extent to which the loyalty and words of Uncas were regarded by the English after the Peqout uprising:

“The Narragansetts, after the subduing of the Pequots, thought to have ruled over all the Indians about them. But the English, especially those of Connecticut, holding correspondency and friendship with Uncas…were engaged to support him in his just liberties and were contented that such of the surviving Pequots as had submitted to him should remain with him and quietly under his protection. This did much increase his power and augment his greatness, which the Narragansetts could not endure to see.”[13]

Bradford repeats some of the falsities that Uncas was spreading between the Bay Colony and Connecticut at the time, mainly that Miantonomo was behind a plot to assassinate the Mohegan, through various means: poisoning, or “to knock him on the head in his house or secretly shoot him…”

Uncas had complained to Connecticut Authorities that his entourage of canoes had come under arrow fire more than once in his travels. He had taken an arrow in the arm at Shantok, in an attempted assassination; and the Pequot suspected had fled to the Narragansett and received protection.

The Plymouth Governor wrote in his secondhand account that

“none of these taking effect, he [Miantonomo] made open war upon him [Uncas] (though it was against the covenants both between the English and them, as also between themselves and a plain breech of the same}. He came suddenly upon him with 900 or 1000 men, never denouncing any war before. The other’s power at the present was not above half so many, but it pleased God to give Uncas the victory and he slew many of his men and wounded many more, but the chief of all was, he took Miantonomo prisoner.”[14]

William Bradford’s account was written, like many memoirs of those days, years after the described events took place. Still, this is one of the earliest written accounts of this event which would grow in historical memory . Bradford’s telling is also tempered by his careful noting of the proceedings of perceived justice that followed the sachem’s capture:

“The Commissioners weighed the cause and passages as they were clearly represented and sufficiently evidenced betwixt Uncas and Miantonomo, and the things being duly considered, the Commissioners apparently saw that Uncas could not be safe while Miantonomo lived…Wheras they thought he [Uncas] might justly put such a false and bloodthirsty enemy to death; but in his own jurisdiction, not in the English plantations.”

Indeed, in his summation, Bradford seems unaware of the marriages made by Uncas that contributed greatly to his esteem through land holdings in the eyes  (especially), of the Connecticut authorities. He is also unaware of the prodigious correspondence of Roger Williams during this period, promoting the peaceful intentions of his friend, the Narragansett sachem, and of his reluctance to draw the English into what Miantonomo saw as an “Indian affaire”.

“…if I mistake not I observe in Miantunnomu some sparkes of true Friendshipp. could it be deeply imprinted into him that the English never intended to despoile him of the Countrey I probably conjecture his friendship would appeare in attending of us with 500 men (in case) nagainst any forreigne Enemie.”[15]

Williams also told the Bay Colony Governor that ”concerning Miantunnumu I have not heard as yet of ant unfaithfulness toward us…”

Despite Uncas’ rise in power, the Narragansett exhibited assured self-confidence  in the greatness of the Narragansett nation compared to Uncas’ Mohegan confederacy. Miantonomo told Williams that Uncas and his followers were

“but … a twig….while we are as a great tree.”

If Williams’ letters made any impact on John Winthrop, he did not share this with Bradford, indeed, he had written to the Plymouth leader that

“we conceive that you looke at the pequents, and all other Indeans as a commonnenimie…”

Bradford also makes no mention of the provocative attacks by Uncas and the English on encampments along the Pawcatuck River in the summer of 1639 that were filled with Pequot refugees who had long been tributaries of the Niantic sachem, Ninigret. This attack, stirred the embers of the long simmering hatred for the Mohegan once again, and enflamed the Niantic and Narragansett, along with other tribes who were becoming wary of Uncas’ influence on the English.

Roger Williams wrote to Winthrop during these unsettling times:

“ I have dealt with Caunounicus and Miantunnomu to desert the Nayantaquits in this business. They answer they would if they had shed the bloud of the English, but as they are bretheren so they never hurt the English…Instead they say that the English partialitie to all the Pequots at Monhiggan is so great and the Consequences so grevious upon the abuse of the English love, that all their arguments returne back (which they use to the Nayantaquit Sachems) as arrows from a stone wall…”[16]

In these early accounts and letters, only John Winthrop Sr., seems,with these epistles from Williams, to have acknowledged the haughtiness of Uncas in a continued pattern of harassing and provoking the Narragansett which ultimately led to the conflict.

The first “full” account of the battle on Great Plains would come in the pages of the Rev. Benjamin Trumbull’s History of Connecticut (1797). Rev. Trumbull penned many sermons and lectures, and by 1767, he had also completed a manuscript entitled A Compendium of the Indian Wars in New England, more particularly, the Colony of Connecticut have been Concerned and Active in.”

While this work remains in his papers, it was never published, and his efforts went into the larger work, which was enhanced by correspondence with many of the State’s local historians. In his account, Benjamin Trumbull uses all sources known to him and weaves them into the fabric of his narrative; creating an interesting tableau of the accumulated historical record to date.

                                    topographical map of Norwich and the “Sachem’s Plain”

Trumbull repeats Bradford’s assertion that Miantonomo marched upon Uncas without provocation, or informing the English. The Mohegan spies sent word back to Uncas at Shantok, that Narragansetts had entered Mohegan territory, and he set out to meet the Narragansett sachem.

This account presents for the first time, mention of a strategy of Uncas’ making: to offer a friendly parley with Miantonomo, and challenge him to fight man to man, and settle their long dispute. While most historians have framed the outrage of the Narragansett sachem to the power that the English enabled the Mohegan to gather, Uncas knew more than anyone that Miantonomo valued the pride of his people more than his own. He would not leave warriors to stand and deprive them of the pride they garnered from battle with such an enemy.

That certainty gave Uncas the element of surprise, for his ruse worked, and the Narragansett sachem came to meet him, and as expected, refused the Mohegan’s offer:

“…upon which Uncas falling instantly to the ground his men discharged a shower of arrows upon the Narragansetts, and without a moment’s interval, rushed upon them in the most furious manner, with a hideous yell, put them to flight.”

The Mohegan warriors chased the Narragansett “like a doe by the huntsman”, and

“-among others Miantonom was exceedingly pressed. Some of the most forward of Uncas’ bravest men, who were most light of foot, coming up with him, twitched him back, impeding his flight, and passed him, that Uncas might take him Uncas was a stout man, and rushing forward, like a lion greedy of his prey, seized him by his shoulder.”

In this account, the battle on the Great Plains was hardly a battle, but an embarrassing rout of the Narragansett.  In the matter of Miantonomo’s death, Trumball details the captured sachem being taken to Shantok, and then to Hartford to await the word of the Commission of the United Colonies, where

“The whole affair of Uncas and Miantonimoh was laid before the Commissioners, and the facts already related, were, in their opinion, fully proved…” Those facts, of course were Uncas’ long standing allegations that could hardly be proven, given the Mohegan’s many adversaries. The Commission declared that the Mohegan sachem “could not be safe, while Miantonomoh lived, …his life would be continually in danger”, and that Uncas  “might justly put such a false and blood-thirsty enemy to death.”

Uncas received his prisoner, and “marched with him to the spot where he had been taken. At the instant they arrived on the ground, one of Uncas’ men, who marched behind Miantonomoh, split his head with a hatchet, killing him with a single stroke”.

The murder of Miantonomo. From Cassell’s History of the United States.

The Reverend concludes this episode with a grisly and spectacular scene certain to send a chill into the reader:

“Uncas cut out a large piece of his shoulder which he devoured in savage triumph! He said  “it was the sweetest meat he ever ate; it made his heart strong!”[17]

This description of the battle is reprinted nearly verbatim by Henry Trumball in his ambitious History of the Discovery of America… (1814), as well as in a later edition of 1832, and then again in the 1846 edition of Trumbull’s History of the Indian Wars.  But the publisher adds a curious addition to the tale, that as the Narragansett  fled,

“many of them to escape…plunged into a river from rocks of near sixty feet in height”.

Henry Trumball was a Providence printer and publisher. Like many ambitious publishers, he borrowed heavily from others books and accounts to publish his own works, even if some accounts were embellished for dramatic effect, or as some suspect, created by the publisher himself. A modern assessment of Trumbull tells us that

“Trumbull’s many works touched every part of the scale from wartime adventure to shipwrecks and castaway cannibalism, never content with the everyday”[18]

Aside from his popular Indian Wars, Trumball penned and published The Life of Israel Potter, and Robert the Hermit among other titles, and gained a reputation as a “talented and thorough going rogue”.

In this instance, it is likely that Trumball had simply added another bit of local lore, which, as we shall see, continues to survive in present day historical memory.

This story of the battle at Great Plains was then rewritten, in a more delicate tone by Miss Frances M. Caulkins in her History of Norwich, and she references the source of the tale, for the first time, as being from a letter written by the Rev. Richard Hyde of Norwich to the Rev. Trumbull in October of 1769.

The Reverend Hyde was well known for his discourse among the Mohegans, and it is clear that he was by then, one hundred and twenty six years after the event, passing along what had become a legend in the tribe’s oral history.[19] Similar accounts of battles related through oral history were recorded by Frank Speck at the turn of the twentieth century, and by William Simmons among the Narragansett late in that century.

Hyde was sixty two when he wrote the Mohegan account to Trumbull, and he gave no indication of when he had heard the tale, only that it was “communicated to me from some of the ancient Fathers of this town, who were Contemporaries of Uncas…”

The letter itself was printed in Daniel Coit Gilman’s A Historical Discourse (1859) along with a letter from Miss Caulkin, concerning the long dispute over the location of “Sachem Plains” and Miantonomo’s burial there.

The story comes to its most detailed and elaborate telling in the pages of John S. De Forest’s  History of the Indians of Connecticut (1851) . The account in these pages provides greater detail to the aftermath of Miantonono’s capture, including the giving of wampum to Uncas, which the Narragansett had long claimed was ransom for their sachem’s life.

“It would appear…that a truce was opened between the tribes, which continued as long as the fate of Miantonomo remained in suspense. The Narragansetts sent their sachem several packages of wampum during his captivity, which he gave away, some to Uncas, some to Uncas’ wife, and some to his principal councilors. He made these presents…partly by way of thanks for his courteous treatment, and partly to persuade Uncas to put him into the hands of the English and refer his fate to their decision.”[20]

The historian further asserts that when Miantonomo was brought to Hartford, he  “begged earnestly that he might be kept there in the custody of the English magistrates. He doubtless expected that the English would preserve his life…”

More recently, the historians Neal Salisbury and Michael Leroy Oberg have speculated that the Narragansett sachem attempted  to broker a deal with the Mohegan. Miantonomo told Uncas of the recent Musee mischief against the Dutch, and hinted that it was but a part of a larger uprising. Uncas and the Mohegans could join the insurgency, and to cement the alliance,

“Miantonomo would marry one of Uncas’ daughters…Meanwhile, Miantonomo’s younger brother, Pessicus, would marry the daughter of the powerful Pakonoket sachem Massasoit. If consummated, the alliance would have brought together Indians from the Hudson River eastward to the Massachusetts Bay in a powerful union against the English and the Dutch.”

A first hand account written by John Haynes to John Winthrop however, places the issue of ransom, and the courage of the Narragansett sachem in a different light:

“That the express, that Onkas should take wampham of the Narragansetts for Myantonimo’s ransom (which I have understood also from Mr. Eaton,) I cannot but concur with you, if it really appears so, equity and justice call for no less; but this I must needs say, that this very thing was cast abroad by some Indians of the Narragansett party…both myself and Captain Mason strictly examined Onkus concerning the matter, acquainting him with what we had heard. He utterly denied, that he had taken any wampham or any other thing upon any such terms. He confessed, indeed, he had wampham and other things given him and his brother freely; and he as freely promised to bring him to the English…and this I also know…that the same day that Myantonimo was delivered into our hands and imprisoned…Onkas desired him to speak before us all; and this Myantonimo did utter and confess that the Mohegan sachems had dealt nobly with him in sparing his life, when they took him, and performing their promise in bringing him to the English, (a thing the like he never heard of, that so great a sachem should be so dealt with) although he himself pressed it upon them, again and again, (as they all could witness) to slay him…”[21]

Clearly Miantonomo had expected to die within the tenants of “Indian Justice”, as he and Uncas understood those inherent laws. There is no mention of him begging for his life, only a grudging answer that the Mohegans had treated him well during this humiliation.

William Cullen Bryant would write that being taken prisoner

“no doubt overwhelmed him, for he begged his enemies repeatedly to take his life, taunting them, perhaps, after the Indian fashion, with his own deeds of prowess in the past…”[22]

It is also improbable, given this testimony from Hartford and the apparent demeanor of Miantonomo at these proceedings that any such union was discussed, or that either Sachem, given their history, would have been open to such a proposal. Indeed, the sources used that mention a speculative “deal” discussed, clearly express what the English feared might happen, should Miantonomo be allowed to live.

Uncas apparently had no regrets of taking “gifts” from the Narragansett during their sachem’s imprisonment, as in his mind, he had not expressed any promises in return. He likely expected the Hartford authorities to wash their hands of the matter. In fact, he had made an agreement with authorities in 1638 to seek “advice from the English” should he capture the sachemand place him on trial for “sundry treacherous attempts on his life.”

Surely compliance with that treaty made it easier for the Massachusetts Authorities to place Miantonomo back in Mohegan hands.

Salisbury indicates in the final pages of his work, that the English, more than Uncas, had reason to see that the :”great sachem” was executed, and thus made sure that

“…several Englishmen would accompany the party to see that the execution was actually carried out. No Indian, not even Uncas, could be trusted alone with the remarkable leader who was urging Indians tp bury their present differences in order to recover the autonomy, unity,  and abundance of the pre-European past.”

          Miantonomo’s grave, Norwich, Conn. Photo by author.

John Winthrop was to write after the death of Miantonomo that Uncas had “slew an enemy, but not the enmity against him”

Indeed, as Oberg observes in his biography,

“Uncas’ close alliance with Connecticut and the Commissioners of the United Colonies allowed him to survive the Narragansett raids of 1644 and 1645” when the tribe’s effort to exact revenge was at its most fervent.

The enmity, over this affair,  would also flow from the pens of later historians of the Colonial period.

Daniel Gookin, the missionary who had written admiring words about the Narragansett, claimed that Uncas was “ a wicked, willful man, a drunkard and otherwise very vitious.”

De Forest, who had provided the most extent account of the battle and its aftermath, echoed the missionary’s missive, and more:

“His nature was selfish, jealous, and tyrannical; his ambition was grasping, and unrelieved by a single trait of magnanimity.”

But the Mohegan sachem also had his defenders. The lore of Uncas as “the great Indian benefactor” became strongest in the 19th century, beginning with the dedication of the Uncas Memorial, and with less fanfare, a modest monument to Miantonomo, that was placed upon the remains of a once great heap of stones.

In the address given at the Memorial’s dedication, William L. Stone praised Uncas as

“brave and fearless, the white man’s friend.” Indeed, the Sachem had sold the land on

which Norwich was raised in 1659 and two hundred some odd years later, the town’s pre-eminent historian, acknowledged that despite his faults, Uncas was to be admired for his “persevering activity in securing the independence of his tribe.”

This tale from history, of the mythical struggle between Uncas and Miantonomo faded in historical  texts as the narrative expanded and later events acquired more prominence in the evolving American story.

James Truslow Adams in his three volume History of New England (1927), makes scarce mention of the battle, except that it was sanctioned by Massachusetts Authorities, and that “Miantonomo was taken prisoner through treachery”. [23]

Adams infers that the animosity of the Puritan judges in determining the sachem’s fate, may have been driven more by Miantonomo’s friendships with Samuel Gorton and Roger Williams, than his rivalry with Uncas, though these ”most judicious elders” had found the Narragansett to be “of a turbulent and proud spirit”.

The historian also decries the English failure to enact real justice according to their own written treaties.

“There had been no pretence of trial, and neither the accused nor any witnesses had been summoned. Nor did the English execute the sentence which duty was entrusted to Uncas”, and leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the assassination.

“Aside from the injustice of the course pursued, it is difficult to think of one more certain to turn the “proud and turbulent” spirits of the slain man’s thousand followers permanently against the English settlers.”[24]

In the years after Miantonomo’s death, these feelings simmered and occasionally flared with the stirrings of one dispute or another. On the verge of Metacom’s War, with the English desperate to dissuade  Narragansett involvement, the issue of punishment of Uncas, now an elderly man, for his role in the death of Miantonomo, was still being raised as a pretence to any negotiation with the English.

During this conflict, which the Narragansett had been dragged into by the English declaration of war upon them, the death of their great sachem reverberated once more, with the capture and death of Nannuntennew, the son of Miantonomo, more commonly called Canonchet, in April of 1676. A contemporary account, included by Samuel Drake in his Old Indian Chronicles (1867) tells us that the younger Sachem’s “Carriage was strangely proud and lofty after he was taken.” The English brought their prisoner to New London where he was interrogated as to

“…why he did foment that War, which would certainly be the Destruction of him and all the Heathen Indians in the Country &c.? He would make no other Reply…but this;- That he was born a Prince, and if Princes came to speak with him he would answer, but none present being such, he thought himself obliged in Honor to hold his Tongue, and not hold Discourse with such persons, below his Birth and Quality.”[25]

Like his Father, Canonchet desired that he be put to death rather than confined, and in a further recall of his Father’s demise, requested that the act “might be done by young Unkus, (Oneco) that aided us; acknowledging him his fellow Prince…”

Canonchet promised the English captains that he had 2,000 men who would avenge his death. They placed the Narragansett under heavy guard and marched him to Stonington where most of the English soldiers, as well as the Mohegans, the Pequots, and the Niantics who had led Denison’s force out of New London, expressed growing their growing unease with holding such a valued prisoner for any length of time. There were fears also, that the English authorities, perhaps not wishing to commit the same desecration of justice again, might release Canonchet, and thus his vengeance upon the neighboring tribes friendly to the English.

Before any trial could be conducted, the sachem was murdered by his Native American enemies, no doubt releasing some drawn out vengeance upon the Narragansett; desecrating his body, and bringing the head triumphantly to Hartford.

Uncas would, in the end, outlive all his enemies. Thus by longevity alone, and his familiarity with the English Colonial governments, would a kind of mythical status already be given the sachem. His name would be immortalized by the popular author James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans, though the “noble savage” the novelist portrayed had little of the characteristics his name sake thrived in holding.

In the recent historical texts, one writer has acknowledged, “Uncas is viewed widely as a self –serving collaborator,” citing Francis Jennings and John Sainsbury among others who have continued the thread of enmity toward Uncas in their own narratives. In his essay Uncas and Political Contact, Eric S. Johnson makes the point that

“To the Mohegans, Uncas is a hero. Their view is best understood in the light of Native political organization. Uncas, like all sachems, was a servant of his people. He cooperated with the English for the most part on his own terms, in the interests of the Mohegan community, and with its consent and support. With Uncas’ guidance, the Mohegan went from a small, subordinate community to a dominant regional power within a span of twenty years.”[26]

Unsurprisingly, Oberg in his biography takes a similarly pragmatic view of the Native American leader:

“Uncas constructed the Mohegans out of the wreckage spawned by epidemic disease and warfare against the Pequots, He assembled a powerful Native American chiefdom that remained a significant power in southern New England for much of the seventeenth century. He lived a long life as Mohegan Sachem, dying a peaceful death without converting to Christianity and abandoning his people’s customary beliefs. “ Though he shared the landscape of New England with powerful figures such as the Winthrops, and Bradford, among others, “He played as large a role in the history of this part of Anglo-America, a region shaped by its English settlers and Indian natives, as any other individual.”[27]

That the Mohegan community remains, and is thriving today due to lucrative casino profits and land holdings, may largely be responsible for keeping the story of Uncas alive in written and oral history.

But let us return to this mythical battle, and its present place in historical memory.

The site of Miantonomo’s grave on a small, rocky hillside is a desolate place, even today, surrounded by aging ranch houses. and a block away from a busy route. The remains of sachem plain are a bare field stretching out from the hillside to housing on one side and a stretch of brambles before the Yantic River.

The Yantic is a fast moving tributary, known for its rapids and quick water passages. In local lore, as first reported by Henry Trumball, it was across this river that the Narragansetts tried to escape the battle. Therein however, lies the uncertainty of the tale and the location of the Great Plains.

Local myth has placed the site of “Indian Leap” and those “rocks near sixty feat in height” as that of Yantic Falls, some two miles upriver from the hillside bearing Miantonomo’s grave, historically, the place where he was captured, and then returned to be put to death.

                                   “Indian Leap” at Yantic Falls. Photo by CLK Hatcher

With modern websites the story is repeated of the great battle and the sachem’s capture. On the town of Bolton Historical Society webpage, we find the following account of the scene on the Great Plains:

“It required a large open field east of what is now Norwich, where Uncas would let the great Narragansett sachem proudly array his overwhelming army of warriors. As it happens, it was also a place where the Mohegan bow and arrow would be effective on a very large scale. Miantinomo typically attacked with upward of 700 warriors. While Uncas sometimes maintained as many as 500 warriors, they were primarily defensive and spread thinly through Moheganeak. Uncas usually led between 100 and 200 elite warriors into battle. The Mohegan warriors were the best and brightest warriors from all the other nations because Uncas welcomed all nations, offered the greatest freedom, and upheld the Native American traditions and virtues.

The Mohegans were greatly outnumbered by the Narragansett but Uncas had a plan. Uncas would ask Miantonomo to fight him single handed in mortal combat in the open field. He told his warriors that when Miantonomo refused to fight him, Uncas would drop to the ground and that would be the signal for the Mohegan warriors to fire all their arrows at the Narragansett warriors.When Uncas fell to the ground as though he were dead, the Narragansett were startled and confused. Volleys of arrows struck the Narragansett but carefully missed the area where Uncas and Miantinomo were. The plan worked and most of the Narragansett warriors were finished off within a minute.

Then the Mohegans attacked in hand-to-hand combat. Miantonomo ran for his life but was run down by the Mohegan warrior Tantaquidgeon and brought back to Uncas. Then the mighty Mohegan sachem Uncas, with a great number of his bravest warriors and wisest and most trusted advisors (sagamores), brought Miantonomo through Bolton to the colonial commissioners in the Hartford colony.”[28]

                                Sign at “Indian Leap” retelling local lore. Photo by CLK Hatcher

Another website from an area historian, brings the lore of “Indian Leap” into the twenty first century:

“Rather than surrender, Miantonomo leapt across the gorge and managed to land on the other side, injuring his leg in the process. Others of his tribe attempted to leap the chasm but were unsuccessful and plunged to their death onto the rocks in the abyss below while others simply surrendered and became prisoners of the Mohegans.

When the pursuing Uncas arrived at the top of the gorge and saw his enemy hobbling away on the other side, he took a running start, flew over the rapids, and landed safely on the other side. It was an astounding leap that gave the area above the falls its future name and allowed Uncas to catch up to the injured Miantonomo who was then easily overcome and taken as prisoner.”[29]

Thus we see how local lore, over time and with propogation, becomes historical memory.

Joseph Campbell once famously said that “myth is a public dream”. and this has been borne out by the evolution of the story of the battle on the Great Plains. We will never know the actual acts and course of events that occurred on that day. We know only the outcome, and the effect it was to have on the later history.

Critics may argue that with the onset of modern websites and social media, it becomes easier to perpetuate public myths, but the truth is that local lore is woven into the fabric of American communities, and remains a strong thread among those libraries, societies, and individual citizens keeping historical interest alive whether in print, online, or in public commemorations. Local legend and lore contribute to the dialogue, and the ongoing debate over historical events. It is, as it has always been, how we define ourselves, as a community, a state, and a country.

Perhaps as historians, the best we may do is to include the lore in our narratives so as to explain how events may become embellished to embolden the acts of a person, or a people, especially those within the community itself.

May-June 2011


[1] History of Norwich, Connecticut: From its possesion by the Indians to the year 1866, by Frances Manwaring Caulkins

[2] Oberg, Michael Leroy “Uncas, First of the Mohegans”. p. 48

[3]  from letter written September 3, 1837 Winthrop Papers Vol 3. p. 496

[4] Oberg,M.L. “Uncas…” p. 50

[5] These details come from the letters written by Brewster to Winthrop Jr. on June 18, 1636.

[6] Oberg “Uncas…” p. 53

[7] Letter of Thomas Hooker to John Winthrop, May 1637. Winthrop Papers Vol 3, p. 407-408

[8] Letter of John Higginson to John Winthrop, May 1637. Winthrop Papers Vol. 3 pp 405-406

[9] Oberg, M.L. “Uncas…” p.57

[10] letter from Thomas Hooker to John Winthrop

[11] letter from Richard Davenport to John Winthrop, quoted in Oberg, p. 72

[12] A prelude to the Narragansett’s fate after King Philip’s War, this began a long Colonial tradition of dealing with unwanted, and unruly Native Americans.

[13] Bradford, William “Of Plymouth Plantation” p. 330

[14] Bradford, “Of Plymouth Plantations” p. 330-331

[15] Letter from Roger Williams to John Winthrop May 15, 1637

[16] letter from Roger Williams to John Winthrop May 21, 1640. Winthrop Papers, Vol. IV p. 269

[17] Trumbull, Benjamin “History of Connecticut” (1898 ed.) p114

[18] Checko and Kulcsar, “The Historical Guide to Gone Over, and The Brimfield Papers”

[19] See Simmons, William for a similar legend from the time of the Narragansett vengeance on the Mohegan in Spirit of the New England Tribes p. 96. VII

[20] DeForest, John S. “History of the Indians of Conn.” p. 192

[21] leyyer from John Haynes to John Winthrop November 17, 1643. Winthrop Papers Vol. IV pp 506- 507.

[22] from Scibners Popular History of the United States (1896)

[23] Adams, J.T. “The Founding of New England” p. 239

[24] Ibid. p. 241

[25] Drake, Samuel “Old Indian Chronicles” from A New and Farther Narrative of the State of New England (1676)

[26] Johnson, Eric S. from Uncas and Political Contact in Northeastern Indian Lives 1632-1816, Grumet, ed. p. 45

[27] Oberg, M.L. “Uncas, First of the Mohegans” p. 216

[28]  Debold, Hans from the Bolton Historical Society

[29] The Legend of Chief Uncas and Indian Leap. from Are We There Yet

Posted in Native American history | 2 Comments

Whom Did Verrazzano visit?


Whom Did Verrazzano Visit?
By Robert A. Geake

In writing “Keepers Of The Bay”, I realized that one of the first points of inquiry would have to be early European encounters, including Verrazzano’s visit to Narragansett Bay in 1524. As many of you know, the evidence that the explorer even visited the new world, based upon a letter he wrote to France’s James I. was a point of contention among early scholars. Although the original has not been found, the explorer also sent copies of the letter to friends after his voyage. Three copies of this letter have been found. The first was published in 1556 by Ramusio in his collection of Voyages. This version of the letter was reprinted by Hakluyt in his Divers Voyages of 1582. Another copy of the letter was found in the Strozzi Library at Florence, and this version, containing a cosmographical appendix which did not appear in the Ramusio version, was printed in 1841 by the New York Historical Society with an introduction and notes by Dr. J.G. Cogswell. A third copy was found and printed in 1909.
Historian George Bancroft seems never to have been convinced of the authenticity of these letters, or at least their content. He withheld the explorers name from his History of the United States (1834-1874), contending that the explorer had never visited the Americas, and that the letters were simply written in France to enhance that nation and King’s prestige during this competitive age of exploration.
The contents of this much debated letter give an account of his journey to the coast of North America and exploration from 30° to 50° N. latitude. It has been described as the first post-Columbian description of the North Atlantic coast, and gives the first description of New York Bay and harbor and the present Hudson River.
From there Verrazzano sailed along Long Island Sound to Block Island and Newport, of which he makes mention. From this notebook of the voyage his brother Hieronimo drew in 1529 a map of the North Atlantic coast, which is now in the museum of the Propaganda at Rome, and testifies to the accuracy of Verrazzano’s observations along the coast as far as a point in present-day Maine, after which he returned to France, arriving at Dieppe in July, 1524. His brother’s map marks as “New France”.

Of his entrance to Narragansett Bay, Verrazzano wrote:
“We reached another land 15 leagues from the island, where we found an excellent harbor before entering it, we saw about boats full of people who came around the ship uttering various cries of wonderment. They did not come nearer than fifty paces but stopped to look at the structure of our ship, our persons, and our clothes; then all together they raised a loud cry which meant that they were joyful. We reassured them somewhat by imitating their gestures, and they came near enough for us to throw them a few little bells and mirrors and many trinkets, which they took and looked at, laughing, and then they confidently came on board ship. Among them were two kings, who were as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe. The first was about 40 years old, the other a young man of 24, and they were dressed thus: the older man had on his naked body a stag skin, skillfully worked like damask with various embroideries; the head was bare, the hair tied back with various bands, and around the neck hung a wide chain decorated with many different-colored stones. The young man was dressed in almost the same way. These people are the most beautiful and have the most civil customs that we have found on this voyage. They are taller than we are; they are a bronze color, some tending more toward whiteness, others to a tawny color; the face is clear-cut; the hair is long and black, and they take great pains to decorate it; the eyes are black and alert, and their manner is sweet and gentle, very like the manner of the ancients I shall not speak to Your Majesty of the other parts of the body, since they have all the proportions belonging to any well-built man.” (from the NYHS edition of Verrazzano’s Voyages)

Verrazzano lingered in Narragansett Bay for two weeks and in historian George Washington Greene’s retelling, the explorer “continued his observations upon the country and it’s inhabitants…he made several excursions up Narragansett Bay, and examined it with considerable attention. To those who have traced the windings of it’s lovely shores, his rapturous description will hardly seem exaggerated”.

But just who were these Native Americans that the explorer described?

When I was examining the early lives of the Narragansett, I was told emphatically by Preservation Officer John Brown that the “two kings” written of, by the explorer, were Tashtasik and Canonicus. Knowing that most modern histories claim that these descriptions depict the Wampanoag, I delved further into the known histories.

Greene, in his essay on the Life and Voyages of Verrazzano does not venture a guess as to the tribal identity of those “wondering savages” who sat in their canoes “gazing in admiration at the strange objects”. Greene does observe however, the detail with which the voyager described these

“native Rhode Islanders…Their complexion was remarkably clear; their features regular; their hair long and dressed with no ordinary degree of care; their eyes black and lively; their whole aspect pleasing…”

Based upon the description of these people, I encountered both similarities and some differences in other authors writings of the indigenous people of the area.

William Wood writes in New Englands Prospect (1634) that the “Narragansetts be at the present, the most numerous people in those parts, the most rich also…these men are the most curious minters of their wampeage…from hence they have most of their curious pendants and bracelets…although these be populous, yet I never heard that they were desirous to take in hand any martiall enterprise, or expose themselves to the uncertainty of warre: wherefore the Pequots call them women like men.”
( Part II, Chapter III, p. 61
John Josselyn, in the second part of his Account of Two Voyages  made to New England, writes a similar description of the Wampanoag with some curious delineations:
“Their Apparel before the English came amongst them, was the skins of wild beasts with the hair on them, Buskins of deer skin, or Moose drest and drawn with lines into several works, the lines being colored with yellow, blew, or red, Pumps too they have, made with rough skin without soles…under their belly they wear a square piece of leather and the like upon their posteriors, both fastened to a string tyed about them to hide their secrets, on their heads they ware nothing: But since they have had to do with the English they purchase of them a sort of cloth called trading cloth of which they make Mantles, Coats with short sleeves, and caps for their heads which the women use, but the men continue their old fashioned going bare-headed, excepting for some old men amongst them. They are very proud as appeareth by their setting themselves out with white and blew beads of their own making, and painting of their faces with the above mentioned colors…”

Compare this description with Nathaniel Philbrick’s modern retelling of the Pakonoket (Wampanoag)party which set out to greet the English in Plymouth:

“Massasoit stood on the hill, his face painted dark red, his entire head glistening with bear grease.Draped around his neck was a wide necklace made of white shell beads and a long knife suspended from a string. His men’s faces were also painted, ‘some black, some red, some yellow, and some white, some with crosses and other antic works’. Some of them had furs draped over their shoulders, others were naked. But every one of them possessed a stout bow and a quiver of arrows.”

It will be noticed that nowhere in his description does Giovanni di Verrazzano mention his Native American hosts as having their faces painted in such a manner. Indeed he describes at some length the differences in skin tone among them. While the description of the stag skin worn and the bare-headedness comes closest to the explorers observation, the face painting and bear grease mentioned by Philbrick brings another matter to the surface.

The Wampanoags, with encampments at Montop and Sawoms, were more a river people than people of the Bay. The Narrows river empties out into Narragansett Bay just above Montop (Mount Hope) and the Titcut (Taunton) River flows from the east, with Sowams located on a small inland cove that lies at a nearly equal distance between the two tributaries. Living on, and near the rivers; face paint and bear grease would have been everyday protection from flies and “muskeetoes” that those living by the breezes borne in from the Bay would not have had to contend with. Some scholars may contend that the time of year of Massasoit’s visit to Plymouth (in mid-March) would warrant such protection from the cold, and while that may be so, it does not explain Josselyn’s account of faces painted during fair weather.

Thomas Bicknell in his History of Barrington (1898), heads Chapter III with the title “Verrazzano visits the Wampanoags“, though without naming sources or any explanation for why he believes those were the people the explorer met, and wrote about in his letter.

In Samuel Eliot Morison’s book of the Great Explorers, we read another description of the explorer’s discovery of an island “about the bignesse of the Islande of Rhodes,…full of hilles, covered with trees.”

The maritime historian writes:

“ The natives who flocked around La Dauphine in canoes as she anchored a few miles outside Narragansett Bay on a hard, boulder strewn bottom were so friendly that Verrazzano (doubtless to the joy of his crew) decided to make an exception to his practice of mooring in the open. Piloted by an Indian, he sailed La Dauphine into the bay. Leaving the future Point Judith and Beaver Tail to port, he noted the little rocky islands now called The Dumplings as a suitable place for a coast-defense fort…The native pilots conducted La Dauphine to a completely sheltered anchorage, the present day Newport harbor, behind the highest point of Aquidneck. There he spent a fortnight palavering with the natives…

These Indians were the Wampanoag, whose domain extended over the eastern side of Narragansett Bay and southeastern Massachusetts. They had lately taken Aquidneck from the Narragansett and were apprehensive about a comeback. This in part accounts for their friendliness toward the Frenchman…”

Of course this description leads to more speculation. Would in fact, the Wampanoag have given the explorer such a prolonged and care-free welcome if they anticipated a counter attack by the Narragansett ? Or would the Narragansett, as the wealthiest nation in the region have dismissed the skirmish over an island never viewed as particularly valuable to them, and feted the visitor lavishly in anticipation of procuring an exclusive trading partner?
Indeed at the end of the description, Morrison adds a telling aside: “Verrazanno’s description of the Wampanoag corresponds closely to what Roger Williams later wrote about them…”

Could Samuel Eliot Morrison have been thinking of the Narragansett all along?

One possibility remains, that in encountering tribes nearby those who he first met, the explorer assumed the Native Americans were of the same tribe, though as we know there were several tribes that inhabited the region of the Bay.

May 2011

Sources:
Greene, George W. “Life and Voyages of Verrazzano” North American Review Oct. 1837
Josselyn, John “Account of Two Voyages to New England”
Philbrick, Nathaniel “The Mayflower”
Verrazzano, Giovanni de “Voyages”
Williams, Roger “A Key to the Language of America”
Wood, William “New England’s Prospects”
Wroten, William D. “Verrazano’s1524 Letter…” Edward H Nabb Research Ctr.

Posted in Native American history | Leave a comment