HomeHistoryNarragansett – The People of the Small Point
Narragansett – The People of the Small Point
Narragansett, or people of the small point, occupied ancestral territory in the Northeast that is now Rhode Island, especially between the Providence and Pawcatuck Rivers. Their lives were similar to those of other New England ALGONQUIANS.
During most of the year, they lived in wigwam villages that were surrounded by stockaded villages. Forests, rivers, and oceans provided them with resources that they used for farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering. They are credited with naming Narragansett Bay. Whether spelled with one or two t’s, their name is pronounced nah-ruh-GAN-sit.
There are a number of consequences suffered by the Narragansett tribes that are similar to those suffered by other tribes in the region during colonial times. In the 1620s, when the English settled the area, the Narragansett were divided into six main divisions, with six sagamores (subordinate chiefs) under one principal chief.
Moreover, smallpox spread among Native Americans after contact with Europeans in 1616–20, but the Narragansett managed somehow to stay safe. An outbreak in 1633, however, resulted in the deaths of about 700 tribal members. In 1636–37, some Narragansett warriors fought against the PEQUOT in the Pequot War, which was an early ally of the English colonists. Roger Williams, a renegade Puritan who broke away from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded Rhode Island Colony, bought tribal lands from Canonicus, the grand sachem, in 1636
It was Williams’ responsibility to ensure that his fellow colonists treated Indians with kindness and paid them fairly for their lands. He published a dictionary of the Algonquian language in 1643, which helped improve communication with tribal members. The Narragansett, however, joined the WAMPANOAG and NIPMUC in King Philip’s War of 1675–76 against the colonists because their lands were still being appropriated.
With 3,500 warriors under his command, Canonchet, the Narragansett grand sachem, was King Philip’s most important general in battle. During the Great Swamp Fight of December 1675, the Narragansett suffered the most devastating defeat.
Josiah Winslow led a force of nearly 1,000 Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth colonists, as well as about 150 MOHEGAN warriors, against the Narragansett village near Kingston, Rhode Island, on a snowy day. In the middle of a swamp, surrounded by thick log walls, the colonial militia was unable to breach the Indian village’s thick log walls for hours. In the end, the attackers set most of the 600 wigwams on fire in order to drive the Narragansett into the swamp by breaking through the rear entrance.
The Narragansett lost more than 600 men, women, and children, and 400 others were captured and sold into slavery. It was a brave act by Canonchet, the grand sachem, to the end. He said, “It is well,” when he was taken prisoner and sentenced to death. When a Narragansett warrior died, he was wrapped in skins or woven mats, along with his tools and weapons, so that he would be ready for his journey to the Creator, who they believed lived southwest of them. I shall die before my heart has become soft and before I have said anything unworthy of Canonchet.” Following King Philip’s War, some of the Narragansett settled among the ABENAKI, MAHICAN, and NIANTIC tribes.
Narragansett was the name used by those who lived with the Niantic. In 1788, some of their descendants joined the Brotherton Indians, a band of Mahicans and other Algonquians. There are still descendants living in Rhode Island, near Charlestown. As a result of a lengthy lawsuit filed in 1978, the Rhode Island state returned two pieces of land of 900 acres each to the Narragansett tribe, land taken away from them in 1880.
Lawrence Ollivierre, the tribal secretary, expressed his feelings during the official transfer: “It’s pretty difficult to be an Indian without your own land.” Essentially, it’s like being a nation without a country. In 1983, the Narragansett Indian Tribe was recognized by the federal government. Two years later, they were granted trust status. In August, the tribe holds a Green Corn Thanksgiving and in October, it holds the Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving.