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Narraganset Tribe

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Narraganset Indians (‘people of the small point,’ from naiagans, diminutive of naiag, ‘small point of land,’ with locative ending -et). An Algonquian tribe, formerly one of the leading tribes of New England. west of Narragansett Bay, including the Niantic territory, form Providence River on the northeast to Pawcatuck River on the southwest.  On the northwest they claimed control over a part of the country of the Coweset and Nipmuc, and on the southwest they claimed by conquest form the Pequot a strip extending to the Connecticut line.

They also owned most of the islands in the bay, some of which had been conquered from the Wampanoag. The Niantic, living in the western part of the country, were a subordinate tribe who became merged with the Narraganset after King Philip’s war. The Narraganset escaped the great pestilence that in 1617 desolated the southern New England coast, and, being joined by numbers of the fugitives from the east, became a strong tribe. The early estimates, as usual, greatly exaggerate, but it is certain that they numbered, including their dependents, several thousand when first known to the whites. In 1633 they lost 700 by smallpox, but in 1674 they still numbered about 5,000. The next year saw the outbreak of King Philip’s War, which involved all the neighboring tribes and resulted in the destruction of the Indian power in southern New England.

The Narraganset threw their whole strength into the contest and shared the common fate. In the celebrated swamp fight near Kingston, Rhode Island, on Dec. 19, 1675, they lost nearly 1,000 in killed and prisoners, and soon thereafter the survivors were forced to abandon their country and take refuge in small bands among the interior tribes in the north and west. It is probable that most of them joined the Mahican and Abnaki, though some may have found their way to Canada. In 1682 a party of about 100 fugitives at Albany asked permission to return in peace. The Niantic had taken no part in the war against the whites, and in this way preserved their tribal organization and territory. The scattered Narraganset, as they surrendered, were settled among them, and the whole body henceforth took the name of Narraganset.

They were assigned a tract near Charlestown, Rhode Island, and constantly decreased in numbers, as they were hemmed in by the whites. Many of them joined the Brotherton Indians in New York in 1788. Those who remained numbered about 140 in 1812, and 80 in 1832, but these are now reduced to a few individuals of mixed Indian and Negro blood, some of whom have joined the Mohegan near Norwich, Connecticut.

The Narraganset were ruled by eight chiefs, each of whom had his own particular territory, but was subject to the head chief, who lived at their principal village, called Narraganset, about the site of Kingston. Of the religion of the aborigines of Rhode Island, Roger Williams wrote, Feb. 28, 1638[1] as follows:

“They have plenty of Gods or divine powers: the Sunn, Moone, Fire, Water, Earth, the Deere, the Beare, &c. I brought home lately from the Nanhiggonsicks the names of 38 of their Gods, all they could remember.” Demson says: “They made no images; their divinities were ghosts; they were extreme spiritualists. Every element and material and object had its ruling spirit, called a god, or Maniton. These divinities seemed ever passionate and engaged in war with each other; hence the passionate and warlike character of the worshippers. They adored not intelligence and virtue, but power and revenge. Every person was believed to be under the influence of some spirit, good or evil that is, weak or strong to further the person’s desires. These spirits, or Manitous, inhabited different material forms, or dwelt at times in them. The symbolic signature employed by sachems and chiefs, in signing deeds, represented, in many cases, the forms inhabited by their guardian or inspiring spirits; these were bows, arrows, birds, fishes, beasts, reptiles, and the like.”

The following were the Narraganset and Niantic villages:

  • Charlestown
  • Chaubatick
  • Maushapogue
  • Mittaubscut
  • Narraganset
  • Niantic
  • Pawchauquet
  • Shawonet

Footnotes

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  1. Mass. Hist. Soc. Coll., 4th s., vi, 225, 1863

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