Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective




Indians and Colonists

Primitive man is believed to have arrived in Narragansett basin in the late Pleistocene, about 6500 B.C. From then until the English colonists came, fishing and hunting and local water transportation in dugout canoes were the primary uses.

 When Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts colony for dissenting opinions and settled in Providence in 1636 with a handful of followers, several thousand Indians were in possession of the Bay shore lands and the major islands. The two principal tribes were the Wampanoags and the Narragansetts. The Bay furnished the Indians with a rich diet of fish and shellfish, water fowl for eating and feather decorations, and wampum. The climate, conditioned by the waters of the Bay, contributed to their well-being.

 The earliest written account of these Indians is by Giovanni da Verrazano. Exploring for the King of France, he visited Narragansett Bay in 1524. The following is an excerpt from his report to his employer:

 [On entering the Bay] we founde about 20 small boates of the people which with divers cries and wonderings came about our shippe, comming no nearer than 50 paces toward us, they stayed and behelde the artificialnesse of our stripe, our shape & apparel, I than they al made a loud showte together declaring that they rejoiced. when we had some- thing animated them using their geasters, they came so nears us that wee cast them certaine bells and grasses and many tones, which when they had received them they lookte on them I with Laughlin & came without feare aborde our ship.... This is the goodliest people and of I the fairest conditions that wee haue found in this our voyage. They exceed us in bignes, they I are of the colour of brassse, some of them encline more to whitnes; others are of yellowe colour, of comely visage with long & black haire.... wee were oftentime within the lande 5. or 6. leagues, which we found as pleasant as is possible to declare very apt for any kinds of husbandry of corn, wine and oyle: for that there are plaines 25. or 30. leagues broad, open and without any impediment of trees and such fruitfulness, that any seede being sowne therein, will bringforth most excellent fruite. We entred afterwards into the woods which wee found so great and thicke, that any armie were it never so great might have hid it selfe therein.... We saw their houses made in circular or rounde fourme, 10 or 12 foote in compasse, made with half circles of timber, separate one from another without any order of bulldIng, covered with mattes of strange wrought cunningly together which sane them from the wince and raise.... I say that the south of the haven Iyeth open to the South halfe a league broads, and being entered within betweene the East and the North, It stretcheth twelve leagues. where It weareth broder and broder, and maketh a gulf about 20 leagues in compasse, wherein are five small islands very fruitful and pleasant, full of hie and broads trees, among the which Illandes, any great Nauie may rude safe without any feere of tempest or other daunger.

 In his Key into the Language of America, published in England in 1643, Roger Williams gives valuable information about the Indians. He studied their language, and was interested in their manner of doing things. His Key has lists of words in their language interspersed with observations on their way of life. He said at one point:

 Mishoon an Indian boat or Canow made of a Pine or Oake, or Chestnut-tree: I have scene a Native goe into the woods with his hatchet, carrying onely a Basket of Come with him, and stones to strike fire when he hadJeld his tree (being a chestnut) he made him a little House or shed of the bark of it, he puts fire andfollowes the burning of it with fire, in the midst of many places. his come he boyles and hath the Brooke by him, and sometimes Angles for a little fish; but so tree continues burning and hewing untill he bath within ten or twelve dayes (lying there at his worke alone) finished and (getting hands) ranched his Boater with which afterward tree ventures out toflsh in the Ocean.... Some of lthe canoesl will not well carry above three or foure: but some of them twenty, thirty, forty men.... Their owne reason hath taught them, to pull of a Coat or two and set it up on a small pole, with which they will saile before a wind ten, or twenty mile.... It is wonderfull to see how they will Denture in those Canoes, and how (being oft overset as I have my selfe been with them) they will swim a mile, yea two or more safe to Land I having been necessitated to passe waters diverse times with them, it hath pleased God to make them many times the instruments of my preservation. and when sometimes In great danger I have questioned safety, they have said to me: Feare not, if we be overset I will carry you safe to Land....

 I have knowne thirty or forty of their Canowes fill'd with men, and neere as many more of their enemies In a Sea-fight.

 The Indians fished not only from their canoes; they also fished from shore, used fixed traps, or waded into the water to set or cast their nets. Roger Williams observed that they set their nets "thwart some little River or Cove wherein they kil Basse (at the fall of the water) with their arrows, or sharp sticks, expecially if headed with Iron, gotten from the English."

He said that "the Natives take exceeding great pains in their fishing, especially in watching their seasons by night; so that frequently they lay their naked bodies many a cold night on the cold shoare about a fire of two or three sticks, and oft in the night search their Nets; and sometimes goe in and stay longer in frozen water."

 Describing the Narragansett word for geese as "Honck, honckock," he observed that the Indians hunted a variety of waterfowl, including swans, brants, and ducks, and said:

The Indians having abundance of these sorts of Foule upon their waters, take great pains to kill any of them with their Bow and Arrowes; and are marvellous desirous of our English Guns, powder and shot (though they are wisely and generally denied by the English) yet with those which they get from the French, and some others. . . they kill abundance of Fowle, being naturally excellent marks-men; and also more hardned to endure the weather, and wading, lying, and creeping on the ground, etc. I once saw an exercise of training o; the English, when all the English had mist the mark set up to shoot at, an Indian with his owne Peece (desiring leave to shoot) onely hit it.

 Cormorants. These they take in the night time, where they are asleepe on rocks, off at sea, and bring in at break of day great store of them.

 The Bay provided the Indians with more than food; they used the shells of small quahaugs and periwinkles to make wampum, which they used as tokens of peace at treaty arrangements and as gifts of honor amongst themselves. When the colonists arrived, the Indians found their wampum valuable for trading.

 According to Roger Williams, three small beads made from the "Poquauhock" shell worth one English penny and were twice as valuable as the white beads made from "the stem or stocke of the Periwincle." These were carried in quantity upon their persons. "They hang strings of money about their necks and wrists; as also upon the necks and wrists of their wives and children." The Cowesett Indians in particular, living along the bay which once bore their name and is now called Greenwich, appeared to have taken advantage of their opportunities. Apponaug, a former village on that bay, now part of the city of Warwick, until recent times retained an ancient heap of quahaug shells several hundred feet in length.

 The Indians and colonists of the Bay region shared its land and resources for almost 40 years in mutual accommodation. The first English settlements around Narragansett Bay were Providence, Pocasset (Portsmouth), Newport, Pawtuxet, and Shawomet (Warwick). Portsmouth and Newport were on Aquidneck Island, which was renamed Rhode Island in 1644. The mainland settlements were combined under the name Providence Plantations. Because Roger Williams established the principle of liberty of conscience in the colony, it became a haven for dissenters from the strict Puritan code of Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut. Antinomians, Baptists (who split into Arminians, Five-Principle Baptists, and Seventh-Day Baptists), Quakers, Jews, and other sects were able to settle there without threat of banishment, whippings, or hanging—which was the fate of many a Quaker on Boston Commons. There was even a settlement of Huguenots in East Greenwich in the 1680s, and the name Frenchtown still lingers in the area.

 Relations between the early settlers and the Indians were friendly, due mostly to the friendship and respect between Williams and Miantonomi, the chief sachem of the Narragansetts. Land was purchased from the Indians with fair negotiations and mutual agreement. The Narragansett sachem believed there was enough land around the Bay for both the Indians and the settlers, and that they could live and thrive in cooperative coexistence. The Narragansetts resided mainly on the western side of the Bay, the Wampanoags on the eastern side.

 When the Warwick settlement obtained a mandate from Charles I which confirmed the purchase of that land and granted royal protection to its settlers (to protect them from land claims by the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies), it also secured royal protection for the land of the Narragansetts, which included all the land along the Bay south of Warwick. Narragansett Country was renamed Kings Province. This was in 1646. In 1676, after the bloody King Philip's War, the territory of the Indians was reduced to a virtual reservation in what is now Charlestown, Rhode Island.

 Many Rhode Islanders might not know about King Philip's War (1675-76) but have heard about the Great Swamp Fight in what is now South Kingstown. Metacomet, called King Philip, the chief sachem of the Wampanoags, felt war was the only way to save his land. The Puritan colonies were asserting claims on Indian land without agreement or purchase. Several Rhode Islanders, Roger Williams among them, tried to negotiate for peace with the Indians while the Wampanoags were still gathering allies and making preparations, but Philip could not be talked out of his war. Although the Narragansetts (Miantonomi's son was now chief sachem) did not officially ally themselves with King Philip, they couldn't refuse to help the Wampanoags with their wounded and their refugees.

 The Great Swamp was the winter quarters of the Narragansetts, and in the winter of 1675 many Wampanoag refugees were being sheltered there. On December 19, a turncoat Indian led troops from Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut to a section of the encampment which was not strongly fortified.. Because of the element of surprise, most of the Narragansetts and the Wampanoag refugees were killed. The troops set fire to the first wigwams, the fire spread rapidly, and most of the women and children and aged who were inside were not able to escape.

 King Philip's War came to an end in late summer of 1676, with large numbers of warriors slain, their families and the Indians who surrendered sold into slavery. Those who had remained friendly or neutral were all banded together, with no regard to tribal affiliations, and allowed to live on the small plot of land in Charlestown.

 The era of peaceful coexistence between the Indians and settlers was at an official end in Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.


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