Rhode Island Relations with the Indians

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Verrazzano, in his letter to King Francis, recorded the general friendliness of Indians along the Atlantic Coast south of Maine to white visitors, and particularly the cordial relations maintained with the Indians for the two weeks the Florentine navigator spent in Narragansett Bay. The relations between the settlers of Pennsylvania and the Indians, established under William Penn’s treaty, indicate the possibilities for peace with aboriginal inhabitants. The Dutch were wise enough to purchase Manhattan Island from the Iroquois, and had little trouble with them thereafter. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth they encountered no Indians, and learned subsequently that Squanto was the only survivor of the Indians in that vicinity, called Patuxet by the Indians, the others having died in a pestilence. Squanto was friendly, as was Samoset, the Indian who came from the north to Plymouth in the spring of 1621. Squanto taught the Pilgrims the Indian method of planting corn and of using the fish called menhaden as fertilizer. Through Squanto friendly relations were established with Massasoit, Chief Sachem of the Wampanoags, and visits were exchanged with him, Pilgrims going to his headquarters at Mount Hope, which the Indians called Pokanoket. The Pilgrims nursed Massasoit through one serious illness and thus won his lifelong friendship. Massasoit was probably forty years of age in 1620; he lived for forty years thereafter, continuously at peace with the white settlers. There is a tradition that the Narragansett Indians sent to Plymouth shortly after the settlement a sheaf of arrows tied with a snakeskin. When Squanto interpreted this as a threat, the Pilgrims returned the snakeskin filled with powder and shot. There were no hostilities between Pilgrims and Narragansetts, nevertheless; the Plymouth colony reached the boundary of Narragansett dominion, but did not infringe upon it.

Roger Williams had established a friendship with Massasoit and the Wampanoags, and with Canonicus and Miantonomah, Chief Sachems of the Narragansetts, while he resided at Plymouth. The land first occupied by him in East Providence was purchased from Massasoit; when he settled at Providence he bought land from Canonicus and Miantonomah, and he made other purchases later. He also negotiated with the Indians the purchase of Aquidneck on behalf of John Clarke and William Coddington. The details of the Aquidneck purchase furnish a key to the general policy of Roger Williams and the Rhode Island settlers, which explains the satisfactory relations between them and the Indians. Roger Williams advised not only generous payment to the Chief Sachems, but also compensation for Indians dispossessed and asked to remove from the island. In this recognition and distinction of sovereignty and of private ownership, Roger Williams anticipated a principle of international law, and of justice in dealing with the inhabitants of a territory which was as unusual in the seventeenth century as it was significant for continued peace.

The Rhode Island Indian Tribes

Westward in Connecticut early settlers in the Hartford colony encountered the Pequot Indians, who by 1636 were already divided into two rival tribes, the Pequots led by Sassacus, their hereditary Chief Sachem, and the Mohicans, consisting of followers of Uncas, who had been banished from the Pequots for rebellion against his chief. Uncas became the outstanding figure among the Indians in Connecticut, with the subjection of the Pequots in the Pequot War, which was the first in a series of Indian wars in southern New England, in none of which Rhode Island participated, but in all of which matters of interest to the colony and the people were involved. Viewing the situation as of 1630, there were three principal tribes corresponding practically with the territories later assigned to three colonies.

As Caesar might have described it, all of New England south of the forty-second parallel of north latitude, which corresponds to the northern boundaries of old Plymouth, Rhode Island and Connecticut, was divided into three parts, of which one part, Plymouth, was inhabited by the Wampanoags; another part, Rhode Island, the Narragansetts occupied; and the third part, Connecticut, was the territory of the Pequots and Mohicans. Of these the Narragansetts were the most warlike, though by no means the most troublesome, the latter characterization being reserved for the Mohicans and Pequots. Prior to the coming of the Pilgrims the Narragansetts had reduced all the Indians of southeastern New England, including the weakling Massachusetts Indians to the north, to the position of tributaries. The Narragansetts could place 1000 warriors in the field; some writers estimate their effective military strength at 5000 warriors. An indication of the relations between Narragansetts and Wampanoags appears in the Aquidneck deed, in the words by virtue of our general command of this bay and also the particular subjecting of the dead sachems of Aquidneck and Kitackamuckqutt, themselves and land unto us.” An enduring hostility between Narragansetts and Mohicans was fanned into a personal feud between the Sachems Miantonomah and Uncas, and occasioned much of the turmoil among the Indians in the half-century from the landing of the Pilgrims to King Philip’s War. The relations between the Indian tribes was significant, as it tended to affect the policy of the sachems toward the white settlers. Had that policy been hostile in the first instance, while the Indian strength was intact, and while the settlers were still weak, the permanent settling of New England by the English might have been delayed for at least another century, if indeed New England meanwhile had not become part of New France. The Indian policy was peace. The peace policy was based upon the sagacity of the Indian Sachems, and the events of the period indicate the keenly practical diplomacy of three great chieftains—Massasoit, Canonicus and Uncas.

Massasoit was far from being in his dotage when he established a friendship with the Pilgrims which amounted to an alliance. He had merely grasped an opportunity, as he saw it, to rescue his tribe from the bondage imposed by the Narragansetts, and he took advantage of a favorable opportunity to renounce subjection, with the assurance of support by the Pilgrims. Had his policy been war, the issue might have been different; he was content with peace, once independence had been secured. He felt that the lesson of the sheaf of arrows had not been wasted upon the Pilgrims, and that they would join him in resisting an invasion by the Narragansetts. In this interpretation of his policy Massasoit rises to a stature commensurate with the rugged nobility of the Indian character as displayed in unswerving loyalty and devotion to those with whom he had made an alliance. Massasoit was not vindictive. His peace policy had achieved the success he had wished. Over in Connecticut the wily Uncas sought to increase his own strength by enlisting with the settlers against his kinsmen in the Pequot War, and thereafter through alliance with the white men to reestablish the glory of the tribe. The policy of Uncas was not peace, except so far as peace could be made advantageous in increasing his strength for the destruction of the Narragansetts, which he continually plotted. The policy of Canonicus was peaceful. Canonicus had not failed to recognize the possible and probable effects upon the Indians of the steady immigration of white settlers. He understood clearly and appreciated thoroughly the weakness, from the point of view of military strategy, of the Narragansetts, as they lay between the Wampanoags and the Pequots, each watching and waiting for an opportunity to strike. The Pequots were far more formidable than the Wampanoags. Canonicus welcomed an alliance with Massachusetts, which was negotiated by Roger Williams, as it promised maintenance of the status quo and comparative security for his people. Eventually the three Indian tribes were allied each with a distinctive body of settlers—Wampanoags with Plymouth, Narragansetts with Massachusetts, and Mohicans with the Connecticut settlers of the Hartford colony. Advantage lay with the colonists, inasmuch as there was no alliance binding the Indian tribes together, which might have produced an alignment of Indians as common friends against settlers as common enemies of the Indians. As it was, the Indian quarrels continued, tribe fighting tribe relentlessly, wasting life and strength while the colonists continued to become more and more formidable. The situation, though peaceable enough in its external appearances, as all the parties except Uncas favored peace, was tense with possibilities for war, and Uncas plotted unceasingly.

The Pequot War

The first war, called the Pequot War, was precipitated by the murder by Indians of an English trader, John Oldham, on Block Island in July, 1636, one month after Roger Williams had settled at Providence. Two boys, who had been with Oldham, were held as captives. Whether the murderers were Narragansetts or Pequots, some of whom had invaded Block Island, the outrage had been committed within the domain of the Narragansetts. Miantonomah, at the request of Roger Williams, sent an expedition to Block Island to avenge the murder, recover the property of the trader and secure the release of the two boys. The boys were sent to Boston, Canonicus received ambassadors from Massachusetts kindly, and sent them home with assurances of friendship. Massachusetts then sent out a punitive expedition with instructions to go to Block Island, kill all the men, carry off the women and children, and take possession of the island. John Endicott, who led the expedition, could not find the hiding places of the Indians; he burned the Indian villages and stove in their canoes. Proceeding from Block Island to the mouth of the Pequot River, later called the Thames, the Pequot town there on the site of New London was burned, fourteen Indians were killed and forty wounded. The Pequots went on the warpath immediately, harassing the defenceless Connecticut settlements through a winter of mingled dread and horror. Sassacus, the Pequot Sachem, was on Long Island at the time his town was burned. On his return he undertook to form a confederation of Indians, including Pequots, Mohicans and Narragansetts, against the white settlers, and sent emissaries to the Narragansetts to make peace with them and to endeavor to persuade Canonicus and Miantonomah to join the common enterprise. New England faced a crisis, and Massachusetts turned to the only white man in New England who could avert the tragedy-—Roger Williams, against whom an edict of banishment was still in force in Massachusetts. At the risk of his life Roger Williams made his way to the Indian council. As he described the event later:

Upon letters received from the Governor and Council at Boston, requesting me to use my utmost and speediest endeavors to break and hinder the league labored for by the Pequots and Mohicans against the English (excusing the not sending of company and supplies by the haste of the business), the Lord helped me immediately to put my life into my hand, and scarce acquainting my wife, to ship myself alone, in a poor canoe, and to cut through a stormy wind, with great seas, every minute in hazard of life, to the Sachem’s house. Three days and nights my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequot ambassador*, whose hands and arms, methought, reeked with the blood of my countrymen, murdered and massacred by them on Connecticut River, and from whom I could not but nightly look for their bloody knives at my throat also. God wondrouslv preserved me, and helped me to break to pieces the Pequots’ negotiation and design; and to make and finish, by many travels and charges, the English league with the Narragansetts and Mohicans against the Pequots.

On October 21, 1636, Miantonomah, two sons of Canonicus, and other Narragansett Indians were received with military honors by Governor Harry Vane at Boston, and within two days concluded the making of a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, against the Pequots. Similar peace was made with Uncas, who was crafty enough not to join with his brethren, the Pequots, once it was certain that the Narragansetts would not become members of the proposed confederation. Sassacus could not be deterred from making a fight for the freedom he saw vanishing with the increasing strength of the colonies. Following winter and spring attacks by Indians, the Connecticut settlers organized an expedition against the Pequots, which Uncas joined with a band of his Mohican warriors. After making a demonstration in front of one of two fortified Pequot villages between the Mystic River and the Pequot River, the attacking force apparently retreated. Actually they sailed for Narragansett Bay, debarked near Wickford, and marched across country with the purpose of attacking the Pequots from the rear. Reinforcements from the Narragansetts joined the expedition. At daybreak on May 26, 1637, the colonists, who had been deserted by all but a few of their Indian allies, made an attack upon the Pequot village from two sides, meeting determined resistance from the Pequots, who were slow in arousing themselves from heavy slumber following a prolonged celebration the night before of the supposed withdrawal of the attacking party. Captain John Mason, commanding, set the Indian village on fire, and his followers, including the Indians who had meanwhile returned, picked off the Pequots who escaped from the flames. Five to seven hundred Pequots, men, women and children, perished, most of them slowly roasting to death hemmed in by a circle of determined foes. Seven were taken prisoners, and not more than eight escaped. The English casualties were twenty-two, including two killed. Other Pequots, coming up as the slaughter ended, were repulsed, and the attackers retired in good order.

The power of the Pequots had been broken; the remnants of the tribe were systematically hunted down and annihilated. One historian relates that Sassacus and seventy warriors made their way to the Mohawks; another that Sassacus and twenty warriors were massacred by Mohicans with whom they had taken refuge. The Mohicans sent a scalp lock, alleged to be that of Sassacus, to Boston. In a last determined stand by the Pequots, westward near New Haven, 200 old men, women and children were surrendered, and eighty warriors fought to the last man. Of the prisoners taken a division was made amongst Mohicans, Narragansetts and the colonists. The colonists’ prisoners were kept as slaves in New England or sold as slaves in the West Indies. Roger Williams advised vainly against the ultimately harsh measures against the Pequots. Their destruction strengthened the power of Uncas with the Indians of Connecticut and increased his prestige with the colonists of Massachusetts and Connecticut. At the same time it opened up the possibility of further colonization, and new towns were planted along the shores of the Sound, including New Haven.

Death of Miantonomah

Allies for the time being in a common enterprise against the Pequots, hostile to both, the Narragansetts and Mohicans soon found occasion for renewing ancient animosities in a quarrel over the division of Pequots taken captive in the war. To quiet this conflict commissioners of the colonies summoned Miantonomah and Uncas to a conference at Hartford, and on September 21, 1638, a treaty to outlaw war was negotiated, which included provisions for arbitration of Indian quarrels by the English, in the following terms: “If there fall out injuries and wrongs, each to the other or their men, they shall not presently revenge it, but they are to appeal to the English, and they are to decide the same, and if one or the other shall refuse to do it, it shall be lawful for the English to compel him and take part if they see cause against the obstinate or refusing party.” Uncas continued to plot. Miantonomah in 1640 was accused of conspiring with the Mohawks, and in 1642 of planning a general Indian uprising against the settlers; of both charges he was acquitted by the Massachusetts magistrates, who appear not to have been deceived by Uncas. When, however, in 1642-1643 Miantonomah and Canonicus sold land at Shawomet to Samuel Gorton, they incurred the displeasure of Massachusetts. Pomham and Soconoco, local sachems, disclaimed the right of Canonicus and Miantonomah to sell Shawomet, themselves sold Shawomet to Benedict Arnold and others, and with Arnold and his company submitted themselves to the jurisdiction of Massachusetts, which then was seeking a seaport on Narragansett Bay.1)For further discussion see Rhode Island Relations with Massachusetts and Connecticut. Massachusetts sustained the claims of Pomham and Soconoco. Returning home from Boston, Miantonomah learned that Sequassen, a Narragansett, had been set upon by Uncas and several of his followers killed. Miantonomah, as required by the terms of the Hartford treaty, complained to Connecticut and was repulsed with the answer that “the English had no hand in it,” Massachusetts also turned a deaf ear to his complaint, giving Miantonomah leave “to take his own course.” Miantonomah marched against Uncas, and the Narragansetts and Mohicans faced each other in battle array near the present town of Norwich, Connecticut. Uncas in parley with Miantonomah, who commanded a superior force, proposed a personal combat, and when this was refused, treacherously dropped to the ground, a prearranged signal, while his warriors fired over his body and charged upon Miantonomah and the Narragansetts. Miantonomah’s life was saved from the Mohican arrows by a coat of mail which he wore, but in the flight precipitated by the unexpected onslaught of the Mohicans the same coat of mail so hampered his movements that he was taken prisoner. Uncas hesitated to slay Miantonomah, according to the Indian practice, and carried his prisoner to Hartford. On appeal, the commissioners of the colonies found that the Narragansetts had violated the treaty, though both Connecticut and Massachusetts had waived aside Miantonomah’s complaints before he had undertaken hostilities. Caught in a dilemma, hesitating to incur the enmity of Uncas by releasing Miantonomah, which could be justified by the treachery of the former, or to incur the hatred of the Narragansetts by condemning him, the commissioners referred the matter to a convocation of ministers assembled at Boston. On the advice of the synod Miantonomah was turned over to Uncas, in September, 1643, and tomahawked by Mohican warriors in the presence of English witnesses sent for the purpose. Once more the civil authority in Massachusetts had submitted to the church authority. The execution of Miantonomah has been condemned by unbiased historians as clerico-judicial murder, and the motives for it are found in the greed of Massachusetts to obtain a seaport on Narragansett Bay, hatred for Samuel Gorton, and the fact that Miantonomah was friendly to Gorton and had sold land to Gorton. Roger Williams was in England at the time; it is rather doubtful, however, that his influence, always potent with the Indians, would have prevailed to the extent of rescuing Miantonomah. The friendship of the Narragansetts had been flaunted, in spite of the truth of the remark of Roger Williams, “I cannot learn that ever it pleased the Lord to let the Narragansetts stain their hands with any English blood.”

“The savage soul of Uncas,” wrote Stephen Hopkins a century later, “doubted whether he ought to take away the life of a great king, who had fallen into his hands by misfortune; and to resolve this doubt he appealed to the Christian commissioners of the four united colonies, who met at Hartford in September, 1643. They were less scrupulous, and ordered Uncas to carry Miantonomah out of their jurisdiction and slay him; but kindly added that he should not be tortured. They sent some persons to see execution done, who had the satisfaction to see the captive king murdered in cold blood. This was the end of Miantonomah, the most potent Indian prince the people of New England ever had any concern with; and this was the reward he received for assisting them seven years before in their wars with the Pequots. Surely a Rhode Island man may be permitted to mourn his unhappy fate, and drop a tear on the ashes of Miantonomah, who, with his uncle, Canonicus, were the best friends the colony ever had; they kindly received, fed and protected the first settlers of it when they were in distress and were strangers and exiles, and all mankind elsewhere their enemies; and by their kindness to them drew upon themselves the resentment of the neighboring colonies, and hastened the untimely end of the old king.”

The reference in preceding paragraphs to the commissioners of the colonies is to the New England confederation under the title “United Colonies of New England,” which was organized on May 19, 1643. The confederation included Plymouth, Connecticut, New Haven and Massachusetts Bay. Maine’s application for membership was rejected, and an application from Rhode Island met “utter refusal” unless they would “absolutely and without reservation submit” themselves to Plymouth or Massachusetts.2)Rhode Island Relations with Massachusetts and Connecticut. The confederation was organized for concerted action, particularly with reference to the Indians. Uncas received, along with the privilege of murdering Miantonomah, an assurance of assistance from the colonies in the event of reprisals by Canonicus and the Narragansetts. The latter had raised and paid an enormous ransom for Miantonomah, which was retained in spite of the murder. To the grief of his followers was added the economic loss of the ransom. The spirit of the Narragansetts was bitter, and both Canonicus and Pessacus, brother of Miantonomah, who had become the new Sachem, brooded and plotted. In October, 1643, and again in March of the following year Pessacus sent presents to Massachusetts, seeking colonial neutrality in a war to be waged on Uncas. The presents were rejected, and Pessacus was advised that the colonies would stand by Uncas.

On April 19, 1644, Pessacus, as Chief Sachem; Canonicus, as guardian of Miantonomah; and Mixan, son and heir of Canonicus, submitted themselves to the sovereignty of the King of England, and placed themselves under the King’s protection. Samuel Gorton is credited with having obtained this submission; the Indians were persuaded to it by the better treatment accorded Gorton in England than in America. Canonicus and Pessacus refused to attend a session of the court in Massachusetts, to which they had been summoned. Their letter of refusal recited their submission to the King, and contained this significant observation on justice as administered by the colonies: “So that if any small thing of difference should fall out betwixt us, only the sending of a message may bring it to rights again; but if any great matter should fall (which we hope and desire will not nor may not) then neither yourselves nor we are to be judges, but both of us are to have recourse and repair unto that honorable and just government.” Samuel Gorton had taken his appeal to England against the injustice of the Massachusetts authorities,3)Rhode Island Relations with Massachusetts and Connecticut. who experienced no embarrassment in assuming the dual office of accusers and judges. Massachusetts at once sent messengers to the Narragansetts. Canonicus received them sullenly and referred them to Pessacus, whose answers “were witty and full to the questions.” Pessacus very plainly told the messengers that he intended to go to war with Uncas, “but not after the manner that Miantonomah did with a great army, but by sending out small parties to catch his men, and prevent them getting a livelihood.” The Indians excelled in this type of guerilla warfare. Pessacus was true to his promise, and harassed Uncas so successfully that the commissioners from New England intervened on behalf of the latter, and negotiated a truce until after the next planting time. In 1645 the colonies ordered an army raised, and with this as a threat a treaty was negotiated and concluded on August 27. Under the terms of this treaty both Narragansetts and Mohicans made mutual reparations, and both paid indemnities to the English. Subsequently the Narragansetts, and the Niantics, who were also parties to the treaty, claimed misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the treaty’s provisions. The collection of indemnities occasioned further quarrelling between the Indians and the colonies. Canonicus died on June 4, 1:647, an d for some time following the almost continuous warfare between the Indians was the work of petty sachems of much less ability than the great sachems of the preceding period. It was internecine and destructive; and the Indian power was disintegrating rapidly.

Puritan Meddling

Rhode Island and Plymouth had been vastly more successful in dealing with the Indians than had the aggressive Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. Neither of the former had committed a blunder so egregious as the unprovoked attack by Endicott which had precipitated the Pequot War; both remained at peace with the sachems and their followers. Even Connecticut and New Haven found ways of dealing with the wily and always treacherous Uncas that tended to maintain peace between them and him. To a considerable extent the prolonged conflict between the Narragansett Indians and Massachusetts was due to the Puritans’ habit of meddlesome interference and to their unabated greed for land and for the extension of their own power. The prize at stake was the territory of the Narragansett Indians, embracing first all of Rhode Island west of Narragansett Bay, but reduced by cession to settlers to Washington County and part of Kent County; and with the land access to the harbors of Narragansett Bay. The policy pursued eventually convinced the Indians of the injustice of the Massachusetts Puritans, and induced the former to submit themselves to the sovereignty and protection of the King of England. The submission was not without effect upon definition of boundaries in the Rhode Island Charter of 1663, which included the Narragansett territory, and also clauses in the Charter that affected the Indians positively and directly. It is fair to assume that so much of the Charter as referred to the Indians was intended by John Clarke to bring to an end the conflict between the Narragansetts and Massachusetts, and thus to restore peace within Rhode Island. Between the people of Rhode Island and the Indians there had been and was no quarrel; the Charter might tend to deter Massachusetts from meddling in Rhode Island. The Charter referred to the Narragansett Indians as “the most potent princes and people of all that country, and recited that the Rhode Island settlers had “by near neighborhood to and friendly society with the great body of the Narragansett Indians given them encouragement of their own accord to subject themselves, their people and lands, unto us; whereby, as is hoped, there may, in time, by the bluing of God upon their endeavors be laid a sure foundation of happiness to all America. It authorized the colony to “direct, rule, order and dispose of all other matters and things, and particularly that which relates to the making of purchases of the native Indians, as to them shall seem meet; whereby our said people and inhabitants in the said plantations may be so religiously, peaceably and civilly governed as that by their good life and orderly conversation they may win and invite the native Indians of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind.” The Charter conferred ample war powers on the people of Rhode Island, including the power “upon just causes to invade and destroy the native Indians, or other enemies of said colony,” with these prohibitions: Nevertheless, our will and pleasure is, and we do hereby declare to the rest of our colonies in New England, that it shall not be lawful for this our said Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in America, in New England, to invade the natives inhabiting within the bounds and limits of their said colonies, without the knowledge and consent of said other colonies. And it is hereby declared that it shall not be lawful to or for the rest of the colonies to invade or molest the native Indians or any other inhabitants inhabiting within the bounds and limits (Rhode Island) hereafter mentioned (they having subjected themselves unto us, and being by us taken into our special protection), without the knowledge and consent of the Governor and Company of our Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” In spite of these very definite restrictions, intended to reduce the Indian problem in Rhode Island to issues between the people of Rhode Island and the Narragansett Indians, the military forces of the united colonies did not hesitate to invade Rhode Island during King Philip’s War, for which the stage was being prepared even as the Charter of 1663 was written.

King Philip’s War

Except Uncas the old New England sachems were dead by 1665. Canonicus, who died in 1647, had survived the murder of Miantonomah by only four years. Though Pessacus, brother of Miantonomah, who succeeded the latter immediately, was still alive, Canonchet, Miantonomah’s son, was soon to be Chief Sachem of the main body of the Narragansett Indians, and Ninigret was Chief Sachem of the Niantics, a related tribe. Massasoit died in the winter of 1660-1661, leaving two sons, Wamsutta, whom the English called Alexander, and Metacom, who was also named Philip, and better known as King Philip. Tradition records that Metacom and Wamsutta had asked for English names, and were called, respectively, Philip for Philip of Macedonia, and Alexander for Alexander the Great, son of Philip, both of whom died in the fourth century before the Christian era! Wamsutta died in 1662. His death was attributed to fever by the English; the Indians suspected poison. Because of rumors that he was unfriendly and conducting negotiations with the Narragansetts for an alliance, he had been summoned to Plymouth. Failing to appear promptly, for what appears to have been a good reason, he was seized by a posse and carried to Plymouth forcibly. Falling seriously sick, he was permitted to start for home, and died suddenly on the way. Metacom, or Philip, who succeeded his brother as Sachem, renewed the old treaty made by Massasoit with the Pilgrims more than forty years earlier, and though proud and haughty, remorseful because of the death of his brother, and keenly sensitive to the dangers to his people portended by the increase in the number of white settlers and their rapid preemption of available land, seemed disposed not to be hostile, though openly not so friendly as Massasoit had been to the first Pilgrims. Nevertheless, stirred by rumors, some of which originated with Uncas, who still was playing his role of disturber, the Plymouth Colony adopted a nagging policy in dealing with Philip, which eventually confirmed him as a conspirator, whether the plan was originally his own or was suggested by the frequent reiteration of it made by his accusers. Philip undertook negotiations with Canonchet and Ninigret and with other sachems, which had for their purpose a confederation of Indian tribes and the project of destroying the white power. In the Pequot War the Indians had fought with their own primitive weapons against the firearms of the settlers; in King Philip’s War many of the Indians had muskets, and as marksmen rivalled, if they did not surpass, the colonists. The war opened in 1675, somewhat in advance of the completion of Philip’s plans, and under circumstances that make reasonably doubtful the actual accomplishment of a league between the Wampanoags and the Narragansetts. So far as the former were concerned hostilities were opened in the Plymouth Colony by the Indians; so far as the latter were concerned the initiative was taken by Massachusetts in an assault upon the Indians. Canonchet was forced to choose between abject submission and a desperate conflict for the preservation of his people. The noble Indian, last sachem of the Narragansetts, chose the latter.

A punitive expedition which invaded the Wampanoag country almost immediately after the opening attacks by Indians failed of its principal objectives—the capture of Philip and the suppression of the Indians. Both escaped, and a military movement, which, if executed skillfully and with promptness, vigor and thoroughness, might have ended the insurrection almost in the borning, broke down completely for want of coordination. As it was, the expedition, on failure to find the main body of Wampanoags, who had withdrawn from Mount Hope to the neighborhood of Tiverton and Fall River, retired after having done little more than make a gesture. Philip escaped and made his way to other Indians north and west, gradually extending the war, which soon was raging throughout much of New England. Through August, September and October of 1675 western Massachusetts was the seat of warfare, Brookfield, Hatfield, Hadley, Dudley, Northfield, and Springfield suffering’. The Indians in the valley of the Connecticut River joined Philip; Uncas held the Mohicans steadily on the side of the colonies. In the winter of 1675 many of the Indians, discouraged by the strength of the Connecticut forces, withdrew and were received by the Narragansetts. Among these were young braves of the Narragansett tribe, some of whom returned home from the front wounded.

Uncas at the very beginning of the war, anxious as he always had been to cast suspicion on his ancient enemies, alleged that the Wampanoag braves had sent their squaws and children to the Rhode Island Indians. News of Philip’s conspiracy had been revealed by renegade Indians before the outbreak. While little of preparation to avert it or meet it was made in Plymouth commissioners were sent to the Narragansett Indians in June, 1675, who were joined by Roger Williams on half an hour’s notice as they passed through Providence The commissioners were received courteously by Pessacus, Canonchet and Ninigret, and departed with what they thought were promises of neutrality. Roger Williams believed otherwise and warned the Massachusetts authorities that the friendly answers of the Indians were “words of falsehood and treachery.” When the outbreak in Plymouth occurred, renewing its former policy of interference, Massachusetts committed exactly the blunder that would drive the Narragansetts into the war as allies of Philip. Troops were sent into Rhode Island, in violation of the Charter and without the consent of the Governor and Company, with instructions to “go make peace with a sword in their hands.” One detachment proceeded overland, through Providence, while another, which was joined by Roger Williams, sailed to Wickford. Connecticut troops and a contingent of Mohicans moved from the west. The Narragansett villages were found deserted, the Indians having withdrawn into the swamps. At Pettaquamscott, in South Kingstown, on July 15, 1675, four aged Indians were compelled, “as counselors and attorneys to Canonicus, Ninigret and Pomham,” to sign a treaty on behalf of the tribe of Narragansetts, binding the latter to hostility to the Wampanoags and to deliver up the latter, alive or dead. The treaty promised a bounty for every Wampanoag surrendered. Roger Williams warned the Massachusetts magistrates of the futility of this procedure. It aroused bitter resentment among the Narragansetts, who did not, of course, deliver up the Wampanoags and other fugitive Indians who reached their villages. Not even Roger Williams, had he been so disposed, could persuade the Rhode Island Indians otherwise. To a request for the surrender of the fugitives Canonchet answered: “Not a Wampanoag, nor the paring of a Wampanoag’s nail, shall be delivered up.” The united colonies began preparations in November of 1675 to send an army to attack the Narragansetts in winter quarters, thus to prevent the anticipated union with Philip in the spring of 1676. The colony of Rhode Island thus far had taken no part in the war; it was at peace with the Indians. As earlier in the year, no notice of the prohibition in the Charter was taken by Massachusetts.

Wickford Light, Wickford
Wickford Light, Wickford

The expedition into Rhode Island was undertaken jointly by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Plymouth, each of which furnished a quota to make the 1000 soldiers called for by the united colonies. The Massachusetts contingent assembled at Dedham, marched to and spent one night at Attleboro, and proceeded to Seekonk (now East Providence). At Seekonk the party divided, one division sailing to Wickford, the other marching overland with the Plymouth contingent through Providence and Warwick. Volunteer recruits from Rhode Island towns joined the expedition. The Connecticut troops and 150 Mohicans and Pequots marched eastward over Indian trails to Pettaquamscott, only to find the buildings burned and the inhabitants butchered. On December 18, the army was completely assembled, and spent the night under the stars near Pettaquamscott. At dawn on the morning of Sunday, December 19, the march for the Indian fort, located in the great swamp southwest of what is now the village of West Kingston, was undertaken, and, guided by renegade Indians, continued until one o’clock in the afternoon. The Indians occupied an island in the swamp which was admirably fortified after the Indian fashion with palisades, supplemented by impenetrable abattis, and logs and stones used as breastworks. Except when the swamp was frozen in winter the single approach was by a tree trunk over water, and this narrow passageway was enfiladed by a blockhouse. Precautions against winter attack had been taken, and the first assaults of the colonists were repulsed with losses. Eventually an unfinished place in the stockade was found, and stormed in the face of murderous fire from the Indians. The fighting was fierce, and the losses by both colonists and Indians were heavy. While the issue of battle hung in the balance, the Indian wigwams caught fire or were set on fire by the colonists, as had been the wigwams in the finish fight with the Pequots near the Mystic River nearly forty years previously. Then followed a massacre of Indians, men, women and children indiscriminately roasting to death in the flames or rushing to death at the hands of the soldiers. The battle continued through the afternoon of the short winter day, and was ended by the light of the burning wigwams. A remnant of the Narragansetts, including Canonchet, broke through the lines and escaped into the woods, from which they still fired on the colonists.

The colonists were in a precarious position. They had marched steadily from daybreak, and had entered the battle without food. They were eighteen miles from their base of supplies. Six captains and more than twenty soldiers were dead, and 150 wounded men must be cared for. To the intensity of cold was added a howling December snowstorm, as the march back to communications was undertaken on the advice of those who feared the consequences should the Indians rally and attack in the morning. Twenty-two of the wounded died during the retreat to Wickford, which was reached at two o’clock the next morning. The list of dead from wounds or exposure was increased during the days that followed. The estimates of Indian losses vary from 14,000 down to “forty fighting men, one sachem, and 300 old men, women and children, burned in the wigwams.” The Narragansetts were stunned for the moment, but not beaten. Their provisions for the winter had been destroyed in large part in the fire, but the fighting braves were soon reorganized and active in obtaining other provisions in Indian camps or by raiding farmers’ barns.

The colonials, except the Connecticut contingent, which had been withdrawn, lay at Wickford for more than a month. Provisions were received by water, and the wounded were sent to Aquidneck. Negotiations for terms were opened by Canonchet, although his disdain in rejecting overtures later suggested that he was either fencing for time or trying to find out through his messengers the actual strength of the colonial troops. The latter raided Pom-ham’s village in Warwick and burned the wigwams, but found no Indians. Ninigret and Pessacus favored peace, but Canonchet was obdurate, declaring that he would rather die than become a slave to the English. Later in January reinforcements from Connecticut, Plymouth and Massachusetts reached Wickford, and soon thereafter the army, by this time numbering 1400, marched out again, pursuing the Narragansetts, who retreated steadily, raiding and burning as they went to clear the country of provisions. The “hunger march” proceeded through Rhode Island northwestward to Woodstock, Connecticut, and thence into Massachusetts. The retreat of Canonchet was masterful and worthy of a Greene or Kutuzoff. Had the colonists persisted, no doubt they would have been drawn away from their towns into the wild Indian country toward which Canonchet was headed, and destroyed there. Abandoning the pursuit, the colonial army, save a small garrison stationed at Marlboro, was disbanded.

Canonchet and his Narragansetts joined the Wampanoags and other fugitive Indians in the valley of the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts. Near Northfield on March 9, 1676, Canonchet and Philip met for the first time during the war, in solemn conclave with other sachems; and there plans were made for continuing the war, including the planting of the valley between Northfield and Deerfield as a source of food supplies. Meanwhile there had been no abatement of Indian activity. Lancaster, Medfield, Weymouth, Northampton, Springfield, Chelmsford, Gorton, Sudbury and Marlboro, all in Massachusetts, were attacked. Warwick, Rhode Island, was burned. Captain Wadsworth and fifty men, marching to the relief of Sudbury, were slain to the last man. Captain Pearce and fifty soldiers were surrounded by Canonchet and his band near Pawtucket Falls; only a few escaped. Nine men captured were led to the swamp since known as Nine Men’s Misery and tortured and killed. The location is on the grounds of the Trappist monastery in Cumberland. The circumstances of his capture a few days later cleared Canonchet of the charge of torturing prisoners. Rehoboth was attacked on March 28, and Providence was burned on March 29 or 30. Two places in Providence had been fortified, and Roger Williams, then seventy-seven years of age and holding a captain’s commission as defender, went out to parley with the Indians. The latter declined to listen to persuasion for peace even from Roger Williams. “As for you, brother Williams, they said, you are a good man; you have been kind to us many years; not a hair of your head shall be touched.” It is recorded that Philip, also, before the opening of hostilities, charged his followers not to harm certain of the colonists who had been particularly friendly with his father or his family.

Canonchet’s purpose in visiting Rhode Island was the quest of seed corn for spring planting, pursuant to the plan of the sachems to make the Connecticut Valley an Indian granary. Within a month after the conference with Philip he was dead. A few days after the encounter with Captain Pearce, he and a few of his followers were surprised near Study Hill, the home of the late William Blackstone, by a superior force of Connecticut troops with scouts of the Mohicans, Pequots and Niantics, including Oneco, son of Uncas. Canonchet appears to have been cut off from the main body of his followers, and sought to escape. He was recognized by pursuing Indians as he discarded blanket, silver-trimmed coat and royal belt Attempting to cross the river, he slipped and fell into the water, and was drawn out a captive. Offered his life as the price for persuading the Narragansetts to abandon the war he refused to make peace; when sentenced to death he said he ‘‘liked it well that he shou d die before his heart was soft or he had spoken words unworthy of himself.” He was executed near Stonington. According to tradition he requested that Oneco kill him, being an Indian prince of equal rank. That was not to be, however. The Pequots shot him; the Mohicans cut off his head and quartered his body; the Niantics burned his quarters over a fire, and sent the head to the council at Hartford, as “a token of love and fidelity.”

Elsewhere the war went on unabated. The Indians made frequent attacks in unexpected places; occasionally the colonists undertook to carry the war to the Indians. An expedition of the latter sort raided the Narragansett territory, killing and capturing Indians, and destroying their villages. On July 2, 1676, an Indian camp at Nachek was raided; the location of Nachek, seven or eight miles from Providence, sometimes erroneously associated with Natick in Warwick, was probably in Smithfield. Philip had returned to the neighborhood of Mount Hope, and there was tracked down by Captain Church, and shot to death on August 12, 1676, by a renegade Indian. Like Canonchet his body was violated. An Indian beheaded it and quartered it. The head was exhibited on a gibbet at Plymouth for twenty years. One hand was sent to Boston as a trophy. The other hand was given to Alderman the Indian who had shot Philip. The quartered body was hung on four trees. Anawan, chief counselor of Philip, was captured by Captain Church and shot at Plymouth. Qumapan, second m command to Canonchet, and his brother were shot, following sentence to death. Pomham died fighting, July 25, near Dedham.

Rhode Island as a colony, excluded from the New England confederation, had had no part in King Philip’s War. The colonial government for the time being was controlled by Quakers, and they have been criticized by some writers as neglectful, in their opposition to war, in not making provision for garrisons and fortifications in Providence and Warwick. As it was, many of the Rhode Island settlers withdrew to the Island of Rhode Island as a refuge, and the loss of life was not large. The property loss was staggering. Practically every house between Providence and Stonington had been destroyed, and fields had been laid waste. In other colonies an attempt at recoupment of losses was made by sale of Indian captives as slaves. Hundreds of Indians were shipped to West Indian plantations. The latter included the immediate family of Philip and his son, Metacom, who was sold as a slave in the West Indies. In March, 1676, the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted a statute “that no Indian in this colony be a slave, but only to pay their debts, or for their bringing up, or custody they have received, or to perform covenant as if they had been countrymen and taken in war.” Captive Indians were bound out to service for periods of years depending upon the age of the Indian; the proceeds of the sales of contracts of this sort were divided among the townspeople to offset damage to property incurred during the war. Connecticut claimed the Narragansett territory by right of conquest thus opening a new and disturbing phase of intercolonial relations.4)Rhode Island Relations with Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Disintegration of Narragansetts

The power of the Narragansett Indians was broken in King Philip’s War. There never was a successor to Canonchet. The royal line of Canonicus and Miantonomah had been extinguished. The Narragansett braves, the virile men of the tribe, had followed Canonchet on the long trek in the winter of 1675-1676 from Rhode Island to the valley of the Connecticut River, most of them never more to revisit the homeland of their ancestors in the Narragansett territory. Some, no doubt, remained with the western Massachusetts Indian tribes and were adopted according to the Indian custom. Many fell in battle, or died from exposure, famine or camp diseases. Many were hunted down by colonial soldiers and their renegade Indian allies—Mohicans, Pequots and Niantics, and some also of Narragansett, Wampanoag and Nipmunk, who deserted rather than “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Of the Narragansett Indians who did not follow Canonchet most were old men, women and children. These were treated harshly by the punitive expeditions sent by Connecticut into the Narragansett territory to scour it for Indians, to harass the Indian inhabitants, to ravage the villages, to destroy crops and thus to prevent its use as a base of supplies for continuing the war. The remnant of the Narragansett tribe left at home and not destroyed eventually found sanctuary and adoption in Ninigret’s tribe of Niantics, who thus became heirs of the Narragansetts. Canonchet and his Narragansett warriors had chosen “to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” “Give me liberty or give me death” meant no more to Patrick Henry than to Canonchet. He and his braves had chosen death in preference to slavery and the degradation of Indian life in close contact with civilization.

A new phase of relations with the Indians opened in 1708, when the Rhode Island General Assembly appointed a committee to negotiate with Ninigret,5)A descendant of the Ninigret mentioned in preceding paragraphs. the recognized sachem of the remaining Rhode Island Indians, as to “what may be a sufficient competence of land for him and his people to live upon.” In March of the following year the committee reported an agreement with Ninigret establishing an Indian reservation of approximately sixty-four square miles in the town of Charlestown, and a quitclaim deed to the colony, under date of March 29, 1709, of all other Indian lands. Four years later the General Assembly declared sales of land from the Indian reservation null and void as contrary to the purpose of establishing the reservation as a perpetual home for the Indian tribe. The statute affected all sales, whether voluntary or judicial sales on execution for debt, thus guarantying undisturbed possession. Subsequent legislation, from time to time, authorized leases of Indian lands, the rents to be applied to the repayment of money loaned to the sachem from the colony treasury, and in 1731 sale of certain parcels of land was authorized. The general nature of the legislation indicated that the colony had assumed an economic guardianship for the Indians and their property, the policy of forbidding sales or authorizing sales being adjustable as expediency for the time being suggested. During the reign of “King Tom” the statute forbidding alienation was repealed; much of the Indian holdings were sold outright, and a large number of the Indians emigrated to New York. Among those who “went west” were “King Tom’s” wife and his only son. At the death of “King Tom,” 1769-1770, more Indian lands were sold to pay his debts. On request of the Indians the General Assembly in 1773 forbade further sales of land, and exempted the Indian lands from sales on execution to pay debts. In 1779 the General Assembly further forbade leases for long terms of years with whole rent payment in advance, a device invented to procure practical alienation without violating the statute.

The royal belt of wampum, symbol of the Sachem, continued with Ninigret’s descendants. Thomas Ninigret, better known as “King Tom,” was born in 1736, and became Sachem in July 1746. Sent to England by the tribe, he received a common school education there and on his return built the dwelling known as the Sachem house, in which he lived until his death. The house was sold to pay “King Tom’s” debts, as his estate was settled. In 1750 the Indian Christian church was established, and in 1764 the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sent a teacher to the tribe. Queen Esther, who succeeded “King Tom,” was crowned on a large flat rock near the Sachem house; her son George, last Sachem of the royal line, was crushed to death accidentally when a tree fell upon him. With the death of George the monarchy ended, and the Indian tribe was reorganized practically as a republic, with a president and council of four, all of whom were elected annually by the tribe. This occurred during the Revolutionary War, while Rhode Island was fighting to preserve its own republican government and to establish the independence declared on May 4, 1776. The election of president and council occurred annually on the first Tuesday in March after 1792, when the date was regulated by statute.

Later relations with the Indians indicated a steady advancing dependency. In 1792 the General Assembly made provision for the election by the tribe of a treasurer for the Indian tribe; the office was discontinued in 1818. Thereafter the Indian problem was frequently before the General Assembly, as the latter was asked, from time to time, to authorize sales of specific parcels of land, or to strengthen the statutes intended to maintain the reservation, which was steadily decreasing. In 1838 the state established a public school for the Indians, which it maintained thereafter at state expense until the tribal relation was dissolved by statute in 1880. In 1840 the General Assembly established the office of Commissioner of the Indian Tribe; the commissioner was legally a public guardian of the Indians and a public administrator of their property.

Meanwhile the tribe had steadily dwindled, as Indians left the Rhode Island reservation to emigrate to western states, or as other Indians left the reservation and renounced the tribal relation to become citizens of the United States. The condition of the remnant remaining on the reservation was tending to become intolerable. In an advisory opinion6)The Narragansett Indians, 20 R. I., 713. as to the constitutionality of legislation dealing with the Indians the Supreme Court of Rhode Island summarized parts of reports on the condition of the Indian tribe made by committees appointed by the General Assembly in 1852 and 1880 as follows: “For at least thirty years,” prior to 1880, “it was apparent that the Narragansett tribe had become extinct in all but name. Its members had even ceased to be red men, for their complexions had been darkened by the plentiful infusion of negro blood, or bleached by the admixture of blood from Caucasian veins. From the report of a committee referred to in the Indian commissioner’s report of 1858 we learn that in 1833 the whole number, of all grades and conditions, residing in Charlestown at that time, was 199. Of this number only seven were of genuine Narragansett blood; fourteen were about half blood; 158 were of other grades, less than half; and twenty were foreigners having no connection with the tribe except by marriage or other promiscuous intercourse. All of the whole blood were aged females; most of the half blood were females; and the 158 of less than half blood were, in the opinion of the committee, of probably more than three-fourths of the African negro race. From fifty to eighty, partially of Narragansett extraction, were supposed to be absent. The Commissioner of the Indian tribe in his report to the General Assembly at the January session, 1858, says: ‘The whole number of all grades residing in Charlestown at the present time is 147. Of this number fifteen are foreigners, eleven of them being connected with the tribe by marriage and four by illicit intercourse. Of the whole number, there is not an Indian of full blood remaining; only two of three-fourths, and nine of half-blood. The 121 of less than half blood are of mixed grades of Indian, negro and white. Of the number absent, claiming connection with the tribe, I have no means of knowing. Some estimate them from 150 to 200.’ ”

In a special report made by the Commissioner in 1859, he said: “Of the whole number of persons belonging to the tribe, 122, twenty-eight can read and not write, forty can read and write, leaving fifty-four who can neither read nor write.”

So early as 1852 it was suggested that the “time must soon come when the public good would require that the members of the Narragansett Indian tribe should be placed on the same footing as other citizens of the state,” and noted that “the objection made by the tribe to being subject to the same laws as the whites is that they should be soon traded out of their property, and they should be left poor and dependent upon the whites for support.” In 1857 the Commissioner reported: “It is believed that there are many of the tribe who would be willing, and some, indeed, anxious to be put on the same footing, as to property, with white citizens.” In 1866 a legislative committee, after investigation, reported that “the tribe was not yet ready to agree” to a measure for withdrawing state guardianship and settlement of tribal affairs. In 1879 the president, council and other members of the tribe petitioned for an investigation. In the following year the General Assembly authorized purchase of the remaining common tribal lands for $5000, and dissolved the tribal relation. It should be noted and understood that this legislation referred exclusively to land still held by the Indians in common ownership, principally wood and forest land; by far the most of arable land and land suitable for dwellings was held at that time by individual owners under deeds asserting title in fee simple and confirmed by undisturbed possession for periods longer than the statutory requirement. The $5000 was divided equally among 324 persons, each receiving $15.43! The explanation of the large number of distributees is that it included members of the tribe not living on the reservation. The commission in charge of the distribution marveled at the large number of persons who claimed kinship with the Indians with the purpose of sharing the $5000. The land acquired by the state was sold subsequently at public auction in parcels to suit purchasers, the proceeds being $1,604.72. It is evident that the price paid by the state to the Indians was more than generous. The sale of lands and the dissolution of the tribe subsequently were sustained as constitutional by the Supreme Court of Rhode Island in an advisory opinion.7)The Narragansett Indians, 20 R. I., 713.

The report of the commission which conducted the final settlement with the tribe concluded with these words: “This relation which has existed for nearly 250 years is now terminated, and the name of the Narragansett tribe now passes from the statute books of the state. No portion of its past legislation does Rhode Island cherish more, and upon no page of its history does it point with greater pride than upon its dealings with the Narragansett Indians. The debt of gratitude that it owed for the protection and assistance which it had early received, the state has amply repaid by the protection and care which it has bestowed upon the descendants of its benefactors. Mindful of these historic associations, your commissioners have endeavored faithfully to perform the duties which your honorable body assigned them, and to deal with all questions submitted to them in such a manner that there may be nothing to reflect discredit on our state, and that Rhode Island may look back hereafter with the same satisfaction upon the termination of its relations with the tribe with which it regards the long course of its dealings with the Narragansett Indians.”

At old Fort Ninigret, at Fort Neck in the town of Charlestown, a monumental boulder suitably marked has been erected by the state of Rhode Island as a “memorial of the Narragansett and Niantic Indians, the Unwavering Friends and Allies of Our Fathers.” The location of the Narragansett fort in the great swamp, scene of the Great Swamp Fight of December 19, 1675, marked by a granite shaft. The royal burial ground of the Narragansett tribe, in Charlestown, one mile north of Cross’s Mills, was purchased by the state of Rhode Island in 1878, and the mound containing the remains of kings, queens and other members of the royal Indian family was surrounded by a post-and-rail fence and marked by a tablet, with this inscription:

This tablet is erected, and this spot of ground enclosed by the state of Rhode Island, to mark the place which Indian tradition identifies as the royal burying ground of the Narragansett tribe, and in recognition of the kindness and hospitality of this once powerful nation to the founders of this state.

Twenty colonists, killed in the Great Swamp Fight, were buried by Ninigret and Indians close to the battlefield. Forty wounded who died on the retreat to Wickford or at Wickford were buried near Wickford. Their graves are marked by a memorial tablet. The scene of Pearce’s fight with Canonchet is marked, and a monument has been placed at Nine Men’s Misery, near the Trappist Monastery in Cumberland. Massasoit’s spring in Warren is site of a memorial to the noble Wampanoag, and a monument on Mount Hope is dedicated to Metacom, King Philip.

References   [ + ]

1.For further discussion see Rhode Island Relations with Massachusetts and Connecticut.
2, 3, 4.Rhode Island Relations with Massachusetts and Connecticut.
5.A descendant of the Ninigret mentioned in preceding paragraphs.
6, 7.The Narragansett Indians, 20 R. I., 713.
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