Environmental Protection Agency Narragansett Bay Commission University of Rhode Island Office of Marine Programs

History and Culture

Native American

The Tribes of Rhode Island

At first, the Native Americans were disposed kindly toward the European colonists. Their feeling was reflected, in June of 1636, in the Narragansetts' famous greeting to Roger Williams: "What cheer, Netop (friend)." Yet, in only 40 years, friendship between the races was to deteriorate into hostility and war.

In the early 1600s, an estimated 30,000 Indians roamed the dense forests and coastal plains of southern New England. In what is now Rhode Island, some 4,000 were Narragansetts (People of the Small Point) and 1,500 were Wampanoags (Eastern People).

Life was simple, but structured. The center of activity was the village, often of ten lodges. A Narragansett lodge was constructed from a ring of green wood poles, bent in at the top and covered by bark or reed matting. Longhouses were oblong and looked something like the Quonset huts of World War II fame.

The Native Americans hunted for deer and wolf with bow and arrow and with spear. They caught tautog (blackfish) and striped bass with bone hooks, nets, and weirs; they set snares for beaver and muskrat. They gathered clams, quahogs, oysters and lobsters in the shallows, and cooked them over hot stones (the origin of the clambake). Evidence of Narragansett feasts can be seen today in the windrow of discarded shells along Apponaug (where he roasts oysters) Cove. The blue-black part of the quahog shell was used for wampum. Perhaps the cove was also a Narragansett "mint."

The trails the Native Americans trod can be traced even in the 20th century. One is the Pequot Trail, which began at the Pawcatuck (clear, divided, tidal stream) River in Westerly; another is the Wampanoag Trail, which ran through what is now Bristol, Warren, and Barrington. The two intersect at what is now Weybosset (crossing places) Street in Providence.

The women tilled the fields, harvested crops of white corn (ground into meal, the basic ingredient of the famous Johnnycake), beans, pumpkins, and squash. They gathered nuts and berries for winter storage. Deerskin was worked into breechcloths for the men and a wraparound skirt for the women. In winter, coats and leggings of fur were worn. The women cared for the children, lavishing affection on them.

The Narragansetts were shamanistic, believing in good and evil spirits. Their supreme being was Cantantowit, who sent them, in a crow's beak, the first kernel of corn from his dwelling place in the Southwest.

Each community or sub-tribe was governed by a sachem who was subordinate to the tribe's chief sachem. Rulership was determined by royal bloodlines. A woman might be a sovereign by virtue of birth or marriage.

During the first half of the 17th century, the Narragansetts became increasingly more powerful. By the time of Roger Williams arrival, the dual sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomi, had gained ascendancy in war over their main rivals, the Wampanoags, who were governed by the chief sachem Ousamequin (Massasoit).

At Mount Hope, the home of the Wampanoags in Bristol, an already tense situation grew worse. In 1621, Massasoit had made an alliance with the fledging Plymouth Colony, swearing loyalty to the Crown. This loyalty was constantly suspect.

Massasoit had two sons, given the English names of Alexander and Phillip. On Massasoit's death in 1661, Alexander was named sachem. The Plymouth authorities, treating him harshly, immediately demanded a loyalty oath. On the return trip to Mount Hope, Alexander fell ill and died. The more warlike Phillip accused the British of poisoning his brother. Phillip, greatly embittered, began collecting a host of grievances against colonists. Chief among them were the failure to respect the sanctity of Wampanoag tribal lands and unequal justice under the English law. Phillip considered his treatment at hands of the Plymouth governors to be demeaning. He saw war as the only solution.

By 1675, with offers of assistance from the Narragansetts and Nipmuks, Phillip felt strong enough to strike. Superstition, however, decreed that the first side to draw blood would lose; what Phillip needed was an "incident." On June 23, an Indian was wounded in a fracas near Swansea. Phillip's warriors raided the settlement the following day, and the war had begun.

A small force from Plymouth attacked the Mount Hope peninsula. Phillip escaped eastward, sending his squaws and children to the Narragansetts.

Canoncchet, the Narragansett sachem, defiantly refused to surrender his refugees to the colonists; "No, not a Wampanoag, nor the paring of a Wanpanoag's nail!" Thus Canonchet sealed the fate of his people.

Declaring war on November 2, the United Colonies of New England raised a brigade of 1,000 men and sent them to attack the Narragansetts at the Great Swamp in West Kingston. No Rhode Island troops participated in that decisive battle.

On the bitter cold December 19, the troops marched from the garrison house in Cocumscussoc (Wickford) to the frozen swamp. Guided by an native traitor, they came upon a fortress containing 600 lodges ringed by palisades and blocking houses.

Charge after charge was repulsed. Finally, a gap in the defenses was discovered and the soldiers poured into the fort.

Now the fighting was hand-to-hand. Gradually, the Narragansetts gave ground and were defeated. A few escaped into the swamp.

The vengeful colonists massacred about 600 braves. Women, children, and elders were burned to death in their lodges. Cotton Mather, the "Boston divine," rejoiced at the news of the Indians "terribly Barbikew'd." The English lost about 200, some of them dying on the terrible return march to Wickford.

The power of the Narragansetts had been broken. Canochet was captured and taken to Stonington, CT, where he was executed.

Phillip- his wife and son captured, his main fighting force destroyed- returned home to Mount Hope. There, on August 12, 1676, he was shot. His head was displayed on a pole in Plymouth.

It is estimated that there were 4,000 Narragansetts before King Phillip's War. Of them, 3,500 were either killed or sold into slavery and exported. The surviving 500 were relegated to servitude within the colony. The day of their glory was over, but their heritage will live forever.

(Information is from Cruising Guide to Historic Rhode Island, published by The Marine Advisory Service, A Sea Grant Program, The University of Rhode island, 1976.)

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