[Note: This is a single part of what will be, by my classification, about 240 compact tribal histories (contact to 1900). It is limited to the lower 48 states of the U.S. but also includes those First Nations from Canada and Mexico that had important roles (Huron, Micmac, Assiniboine, etc.).
This history's content and style are representative. The normal process at this point is to circulate an almost finished product among a peer group for comment and criticism.
Using the Internet, this can be more inclusive. Feel free to comment or suggest corrections via e-mail. Working together we can end some of the historical misinformation about Native Americans. You will find the ego at this end to be of standard size. Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to your comments...Lee Sultzman.]
Narragansett Bay and western Rhode Island
Probably more than 10,000 in 1610, but by 1674 this had dropped to 5,000. The Narragansett lost almost 20% of their population in a single battle with the English in December of 1675. Massacre and starvation soon killed most of the others. By 1682 less than 500 Narragansett remained. They were allowed to settle with the Eastern Niantic on a reservation at Charlestown, Rhode Island. Though increasingly racially intermixed, the Narragansett have
been able to maintain their reservation, organization and population through the years. Federally recognized since 1983, the Narragansett tribal rolls currently list over 2,400 members, most of whom still reside in Rhode Island.
Narragansett is an English corruption of Nanhigganeuck, their actual name meaning "people of the small point." The Dutch used the shortened form of Nahican.
Algonquin. Y-dialect like the Pequot, Mohegan, Niantic, and Montauk.
Narragansett Confederation: Aquidneck, Chaubatick, Maushapogue, Mittaubscut, Narragansett, Pawchauquet, Pawtuxet, Ponaganset, and Shawomet (Shanomet).
Allied or Subject Tribes
Coweset (Nipmuc), Eastern Niantic, Manissean (Block Island Indians), and after 1653, the Metoac of Long Island. Narragansett Reservation 1682: Charlestown
Narragansett Reservation after 1682
Eastern Woodland. Well organized with central authority, the Narragansett were governed by eight hereditary sachems each subordinate to the grand sachem who usually resided in the largest village. Their villages of medium-sized longhouses were usually large, fortified and located on the islands of Narragansett Bay. They farmed extensively with large fields of corn, beans, and squash. Expert with the canoe, their diet was supplemented by hunting - with fish and other seafood being an important staple.
The pre-contact wave of epidemics which swept across New England and the Canadian Maritimes between 1614 and 1620 somehow missed the Narragansett ...probably because of the isolation of their villages on the islands of Narragansett Bay. With their population relatively unscathed and later reinforced by incorporation of survivors from other tribes, they emerged from this disaster as the dominant tribe in southern New England and subjugated many of their neighbors. By 1620 the Narragansett had already experienced some contact with Europeans and traded with the Dutch from New York. Located just to the east in southeast Massachusetts between Plymouth and the Narragansett in Rhode Island, the Wampanoag were one of the tribes forced to pay tribute, so it is hardly surprising that the Wampanoag welcomed the new English settlement at Plymouth in 1620 and sought an alliance with them. It is even less surprising that the Narragansett were suspicious of the English and viewed this alliance as a threat to their authority.
In 1621 the Narragansett sachem Canonicus sent a war challenge to Plymouth in the form of some arrows wrapped in a snakeskin. William Bradford sent back gunpowder wrapped in the same snakeskin, and the Narragansett, after much puzzled discussion among themselves, decided to leave these strange people alone for the moment. The English took the precaution of building a fort, but the crisis, which may well have destroyed the tiny Plymouth colony, was ended through the timely intervention of other enemies which forced the Narragansett to turn their attention elsewhere. In 1622 the Pequot attacked the Narragansett who seized a disputed hunting territory in southwest Rhode Island from them. The following year the Narragansett were drawn into in a prolonged war with the Mohawk during which Pessacus, an important sachem, was killed. By the time the Narragansett were free to deal with the English at Plymouth, they were firmly established, and large numbers of Puritans were settling at Massachusetts Bay.
In the beginning, the English were content to leave the Narragansett alone. In 1627 Plymouth made an agreement with the Dutch not to trade in Narragansett Bay. Canonicus remained aloof from the English colonists, but he could not ignore the defection of the Wampanoag. In 1632 he decided to reassert his authority over them, but when the English colonists supported the Wampanoag, the Narragansett were forced to abandon the effort. The English had altered the balance of power in the region but would soon make themselves felt in other ways. In 1633 the Narragansett, for the first time, felt the full blow of an epidemic when they lost 700 of their people to smallpox. A second epidemic struck in 1635, but the Narragansett were still able to drive the Pequot from the southwest corner of Rhode Island that year and reclaim the territory which they had surrendered in 1622. The following year, a major change occurred in relations between the English and Narragansett.
Rogers Williams was a man of uncommon integrity who believed the English king had no right to claim to native lands, and because he did not hesitate to express this in public, the Puritans banished him from Massachusetts as a dangerous radical. Forced to move to Rhode Island in 1636, his negotiations to purchase land from the Narragansett initiated a long period of mutual trust and respect which continued until the King Philip's War (1675-76). Williams' accommodation with the Narragansett was timely, since the beginning of English settlement in Connecticut had provoked a serious confrontation with the Pequot. Open warfare erupted in 1636 following the seizure of the boat of a Boston trader near Block Island by the western Niantic (Pequot allies). That August, an English retaliatory expedition was sent to Block Island and killed 14 Niantic, burned their village and crops, and then made a similar attack on a Pequot village in eastern Connecticut. During the winter the Pequot planned their retaliation and sent war belts to the Narragansett asking their help. Because of Roger Williams, the Narragansett not only refused the Pequot request, but sent warnings to Boston of impending war, and allied themselves with the English. Narragansett support proved a key factor in the English victory the following year.
In April, the Pequot attacked the settlements along the Connecticut River killing 30 colonists, and the General Court at Hartford formally declared war. In May a small army of 90 colonists and 70 Mohegan warriors assembled at Hartford under the command of John Mason with the intention of attacking the main Pequot fort at Mystic. Mason's command travelled by boat down the Connecticut River to Fort Saybrook and, after adding a few more men, following the coastline east to Mystic, only to find the Pequot waiting for them. Outnumbered, the expedition continued east to the Narragansett villages in Rhode Island. Canonicus took one look at Mason's tiny command, pronounced it much too small, and provided 200 of his own warriors to be led by his son Miontonimo. Canonicus also gave permission for the English to travel overland through Narragansett territory to make a surprise attack on Mystic from the rear. Once enroute, the Narragansett became concerned about the bumbling manner in which English soldiers moved through the woods and considered leaving the expedition before it was discovered and ambushed. A fiery speech by the Mohegan chief Uncas, however, challenged their courage, and they decided to stay.
Mason's army eventually reached Mystic undiscovered. Trapping 700 Pequot inside while its warriors were absent on a raid against the Connecticut settlements, Mason and his men set it afire killing all who tried to escape. The massacre broke the Pequot, but the Narragansett were disturbed by the unnecessary slaughter of Pequot women and children. Unable to plant their crops afterwards, the Pequot abandoned their villages, separated into small groups, and fled for their lives. They were easy prey and few of them escaped. The English joined with Narragansett and Mohegan warriors to track them down, capturing some and killing the rest in a series of small, but deadly, skirmishes. The English were determined to destroy the Pequot. Warriors were executed, and the women and children sold as slaves to the West Indies. In the treaty signed at Hartford in 1638, the Narragansett were given 80 of the captured Pequot as slaves. The Mohegan received an equal number, but the 1,500 Pequot and Western Niantic who had managed to surrender were placed under the control of Uncas and the Mohegan. Since their hosts were required to pay an annual tribute to the English for each Pequot living with them, they were not treated well.
With the addition of so many Pequot to their ranks, the Mohegan suddenly became a serious rival of the Narragansett as the dominant tribe in southern New England, but except for his friendship with the English, the ambition of Uncas differed very little from the Pequot where other tribes were concerned. After the Mohegan allied themselves with the Puritans in Connecticut and Massachusetts, there was nothing to stop them, and they began seizing territory and exacting tribute from the smaller Mattabesic and Nipmuc tribes in the area. Rather than stop this, the English looked the other way, since the Mohegan stood ready to crush any resistance as English settlement took lands from the Mattabesic. However, the Narragansett grew increasingly alarmed at the growing power of Uncas and in 1640 formed an alliance with the Pocumtuc and Tunxis (Mattabesic) against the Mohegan. Sensing the Narragansett were on the verge of starting a war, the Puritans forced them to sign a treaty promising not to go to war with the Mohegan without consulting them beforehand.
Despite this agreement, Miontonimo, continued his efforts to recruit more allies against the Mohegan. Accompanied by 100 of his warriors, he attended councils with the Metoac on Long Island, Mattabesic in western Connecticut, and Mahican and Wappinger of the Hudson Valley during 1642. He found few of these tribes willing to join him, but his visits spooked the Dutch in New Netherlands who were already nervous from the growing hostility they were encountering with the Wappinger and Unami Delaware along the lower Hudson River. The Dutch mistook Miontonimo's intentions and, wrongly concluding that a general uprising was being planned against themselves and the English, passed their suspicions along to Massachusetts and Connecticut. That winter, the Dutch decided to strike first and their surprise attack on a sleeping Wecquaesgeek (Wappinger) village (Pavonia Massacre) started the Wappinger War (1643-45). The outbreak of fighting between the Dutch and lower Hudson tribes only added to the tensions in New England, and the Narragansett friendship with Roger Williams, still considered a radical by most Puritans, only made things worse.
When Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Hartford, and New Haven joined together in a defensive alliance known as the New England Confederation in 1643, Rhode Island was deliberately excluded. Completely isolated, the Narragansett decided they would have to deal with the Mohegan by themselves. Meanwhile, the Wappinger War had spread to include nearly 20 tribes, and the Dutch were very close to being overwhelmed. After concluding a treaty of friendship with the Mahican and Mohawk, they offered 25,000 guilders to the English colonists in Connecticut for soldiers to help put down the uprising. Captain John Underhill organized two companies, with Mohegan scouts and joined the war in 1644. With the departure of the English soldiers and Mohegan warriors to fight the Wappinger, Miontonimo decided the time had come, and without consulting the English, who were certain to warn the Mohegan, he led 900 of his warriors in a surprise attack on the Mohegan capital at Shetucket. The Mohegan were pushed back and near defeat until, with a last desperate effort, they managed to capture Miontonimo. With the loss of their sachem, the Narragansett became confused and broke off the battle.
Uncas delivered his important prisoner to the English at Hartford who locked him in a jail, but the Connecticut colonists were uncertain what to do with him until they had consulted with their counterparts in Massachusetts. After much discussion, it was announced that Miontonimo would be released and allowed to return to his people under a combined English and Mohegan escort. The English took Miontonimo from Hartford to Shetucket to pick up the Mohegan part of the escort, but the combined party had scarcely departed when the brother of Uncas stepped forward and tomahawked Miontonimo from behind, killing him instantly. It is very doubtful this execution could ever have taken place without the express approval of the English authorities.
The death of Miontonimo marked the end of the Narragansett power in southern New England. For their violation of the treaty, the Naragansett were forced to pay an annual tribute of wampum to Massachusetts after 1645. They attempted to pay this in the same manner as the Pequot by crossing Long Island Sound during 1653 and conquering the Montauk (Metoac) on the east end of the island, but the warfare upset the English colonists who had settled at Southampton in 1640. Threatened with war by the English in 1654, the Narragansett conquest of the Metoac was incomplete. Canonicus died in 1647 and was succeeded by his grandson Canonchet (Nanuntemo). Despite their bad experiences with the Puritan colonists, the Narragansett still loved and trusted Roger Williams. Canonicus had sold him additional land during 1643, and this friendship continued under Canonchet.
In the years after the death of the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit in 1661, relations between the New England colonists and tribes took a dangerous turn. Philip (Metacom) eventually succeeded as the grand sachem of the Wampanoag in 1662, but unlike his father, he saw clearly that the English were taking over everything. Not only the land, but their missionaries were converting his people to Christianity and undermining the traditional authority of the Wampanoag sachems. Other tribes shared these misgivings, and Philip found many ears willing to listen as he began to secretly organize an alliance in preparation for a general uprising. Unfortunately, his secret plans were not that much of a secret. A network of informers kept the English aware that something was about to happen. They just were not certain where or when. Philip was summoned several times to explain his actions and sign treaties of peace and friendship.
He explained, signed, and then left to resume the plotting. By 1674 Philip, over the strong objections of the aging Roger Williams, had convinced the Narragansett to join him. Canonchet, however, personally assured Williams that the Narragansett would not harm one hair on his head when war came ...a promise which was faithfully kept. By 1674 the colonists in New England outnumbered the natives two to one, and if there was to be any chance of success, Philip needed the Narragansett. However, he was forced to wait until they could accumulate enough guns and ammunition. It appears the uprising was planned originally for the summer of 1676, but the murder of John Sassamon, a Praying Indian spy, in January of 1675 forced his hand. Three Wampanoag were arrested, convicted, and hung, after which rumors flew that the English intended to arrest Philip. With Philip no longer able to restrain them, Wampanoag warriors attacked Swansea, Massachusetts in June and started the King Philip's War (1675-76).
The English immediately forced the Narragansett to sign another treaty agreeing to remain neutral. With war all around them, the Narragansett gathered together into a single, large fortified village in a swamp near Kingston, Rhode Island. Throughout the summer, Philip eluded the English soldiers and attacked settlements throughout New England. However, to protect his women and children, he had left them at the Narragansett fort. In the late fall of 1675, Philip returned and took most of his people with him to western Massachusetts. The English, however, considered this a violation of their treaty with the Narragansett, and in December, a 1,000-man colonial army with 150 Mohegan scouts arrived and laid siege to the Narragansett fort. After Canonchet refused demands to surrender the Wampanoag in his village and join the English against Philip, they attacked. Remembered as the Great Swamp Fight, the Narragansett were literally destroyed in this battle losing more than 600 warriors and 20 sachems.
Canonchet, however, escaped and led a large group of Narragansett west to join Philip in western Massachusetts where they gave a good account of themselves for the remainder of the war. Beginning in February, Canonchet led several attacks against English settlements in the Connecticut River Valley and in March was responsible for an ambush which almost wiped out the command of Captain Wadsworth. Another Canonchet-led ambush shortly afterwards cost the English at least 70 killed. The Narragansett also combined with Sancumachu's Pocumtuc to attack Northfield, but by this time hunger had become a greater enemy than the English soldiers. With Philip's people needing seed corn for the spring planting, Canonchet in April accepted the dangerous task of returning to Rhode Island to bring back a supply from a secret Narragansett cache. His mission succeeded, but on the return, Canonchet was captured by the Mohegan, turned over to the English, and later executed by firing squad. The loss of Canonchet seems to have profoundly affected Philip until his own death four months later.
After the Great Swamp Fight and death of Canonchet, about 3,000 Narragansett women, children, and old people were left defenseless without food or shelter. Ruthlessly hunted down, it can be assumed that many of them succumbed to either starvation or deliberate massacre. Hundreds of captured native women and children were shipped as slaves to the West Indies, 500 from Plymouth alone during 1676. The warriors were almost always executed. How many Narragansett were able to avoid this and find refuge among the Abenaki, Mahican, and Iroquois is unknown. From a pre-war population of 5,000, only 500 Narragansett survived the war to sign a peace treaty with the English in 1682. The Eastern Niantic had remained neutral throughout the war, and the Narragansett received permission to join them on their small reservation near Charleston, Rhode Island.
The combined tribe has since been called the Narragansett. Even Uncas and the Mohegan took pity on what had befallen their Narragansett enemies and allowed some of them to settle in their Connecticut villages after the war. In 1788 many of the Narragansett left their Rhode Island reservation or the Mohegan villages in eastern Connecticut and joined the Brotherton Indians on the Oneida reservation in upstate New York. The Brotherton relocated with the Oneida and Stockbridge (Mahican) to northern Wisconsin between 1822 and 1834, and during 1856, the Stockbridge and Brotherton who wished to retain tribal ownership of their land merged and moved to a separate reservation west of Green Bay. The other Brotherton accepted citizenship and allotment at this time, and many of their descendants still live in Wisconsin on the east side of Lake Winnebago.
Despite these losses, the main body of the Narragansett has remained in Rhode Island through the years. Rhode Island unilaterally terminated their tribal status in 1880, and the Narragansett lost 3200 acres from their reservation (leaving them with all of two acres). Attempts at legal redress were denied by the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 1898, and although this was a clear violation of the Non-Intercourse Act of 1790, the federal government refused to intervene because the Narragansett had never signed a treaty with the United States. The Narragansett were unable to regain their reserve until the settlement of a lengthy lawsuit in 1978. Their reservation near Charlestown currently has about 2,500 acres.
First Nations referenced in this History of the Narragansett: