When the first European settlers arrived in the region around Narragansett Bay (present-day Rhode Island) around 1635, they encountered a number of Indigenous peoples, including the Algonquian-speaking Narragansett. In 1636, the tribe’s chiefs granted Roger Williams land-use rights to establish Providence; a year later, the Narragansett joined with the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony and Connecticut in a war against the Pequot, their longtime rivals for territorial control. Good relations between the colonists and the Narragansett continued until King Philip’s War (1675-6), when the Narragansett—along with other Native American tribes—attempted to limit colonial expansion, an effort that ended in the tribe’s defeat and abandonment of their homeland.

Origins of the Narragansett

Archaeological evidence places Narragansett peoples in the region that later became the colony and state of Rhode Island more than 30,000 years ago. They inhabited the area along Narragansett Bay from present-day Warwick to South Kingstown and were the largest of a number of native tribes living in the area. In 1524, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano encountered a large Native American population living near Narragansett Bay, hunting and practicing agriculture and organized into systems under “kings.”

Did you know? Though the total number of Narragansetts declined in the 18th and early 19th centuries, it later bounced back and by the early 21st century population estimates showed some 4,500 individuals of Narragansett descent living in the United States.

In fact, the Narragansett divided themselves into eight divisions, each ruled by a territorial chief; these chiefs were then subject to a head chief or sachem. For subsistence, the Narragansett depended on the cultivation of corn (maize), hunting, and fishing. Members of the tribe were also known for their prowess as warriors, offering protection to smaller tribes (such as the Niantic, Wampanoag and Manisseans) who in turn paid tribute to them.

Relations with European Settlers

The first European settlers arrived in the region around 1635, and the following year the Narragansett sachems Canonicus and his nephew Miantonomi granted Roger Williams land use rights to establish the settlement that would become the city of Providence.

Williams had been banished by the civil authorities of Massachusetts Bay Colony due to his non-conformist religious views, and he established a policy of political and religious freedom in the new colony of Rhode Island. (The colony, which would earn a charter from King Charles II in 1663, soon became a haven for Anabaptists, Quakers and other non-conformists drawn to its atmosphere of tolerance and relative independence.) For his part, Williams learned the Algonquian language and became renowned for his role as a peacemaker with the Narragansett and other tribes on behalf of Rhode Island and other colonies.

Also in 1636, a Boston trader was murdered on Block Island (off the shore of southern Rhode Island). The culprit was presumed to be a member of the Pequot tribe, who had earlier challenged the Narragansett for control over an area of land. Though the Pequots had been living peacefully alongside the colonists of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, tensions had been building, and this incident proved to be the breaking point. After Massachusetts authorities sent a punitive expedition against the Pequot, the tribe mounted a fierce defense of their homeland. The so-called Pequot War reached its peak when warriors from the Mohegan and Narragansett tribes joined English settlers under Captain John Mason in mounting a surprise attack on the main Pequot fort at Mystic, Connecticut. Some 500-600 inhabitants of the fort were burned alive or killed; the attack devastated the Pequot, who fled the fort in smaller groups, many of which were killed or captured and sold into slavery or placed under the control of other tribes, including the Narragansett.

King Philip’s War

Good relations between the Narragansett and the European colonists lasted barely another decade before King Philip’s War—the first major war between colonists and Native Americans—broke out in 1675. Philip was the English name given to Metacom, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe and the son of Massasoit, the Native American leader who famously helped the Plymouth settlers survive their first winter in the New World. The Wampanoag and other tribes made a stand against the Europeans’ continuing territorial expansion, and in December 1675 the settlers launched an attack on the previously neutral Narragansetts. Some 700 Narragansett, including many women and children, were killed in the single battle known as the Great Swamp Massacre.

After this bloody battle, the Narragansett–led by their war chief Canonchet– joined in Philip’s struggle against the Europeans. In March 1676, a party of Narragansett destroyed a company of English soldiers and their Native American allies along the Blackstone River, and after negotiations brokered by Williams failed, the Narragansett burned Providence. By April 1676, however, the settlers had defeated the Narragansett and killed Canonchet. The tribe soon abandoned its territorial homeland, with some joining the Mohegan or Abenaki tribes and more settling among the Niantic, with the combined group taking the Narragansett name.

HISTORY Vault: Native American History

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