History of Rhode Island’s Five Indigenous Tribes

Inside the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, RI.
Learn more about Indigenous culture and arts (both historic and contemporary) at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter. The museum is operated by the Narragansett Tribe. Photo courtesy of the Tomaquag Museum.

When Europeans first began to explore what is now Rhode Island in the 1500s, there were five indigenous groups living here: the Pequots, the Nipmucs, the Niantics, the Narragansetts, and the Wampanoags.

Among the five, the Pequots—who lived mostly in what is now southeastern Connecticut but also in southwestern Rhode Island—exercised the greatest degree of autonomy and defiance of the settlers. This warlike mentality quickly led to their near-extinction as colonists killed them and even turned friendlier tribes, such as the Narragansetts and the Connecticut Mohegans, against them.

In the 1630s the Pequots killed a pair of British merchants whom they encountered sailing up the Connecticut River on a trading mission. They further raised the ire of the settlers when they killed the respected explorer John Oldham off the coast of Block Island in 1636, an act that led to immediate reprisals in the form of burnings and raids by English troops. The Pequots continued to strike, attacking and murdering several Wethersfield families during the winter of 1636-1637 and unsuccessfully attempting to establish a warring pact with their neighbors, the formidable Narragansett Indians of nearby Aquidneck Island.

These tensions escalated the following spring into the great Pequot War of 1637, during which about 130 European settlers from the Connecticut River towns, along with 70 allied Mohegans, developed a plan to destroy their enemy. Believing it wise to approach from the least likely side, the group attacked from the east, sailing to Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay and marching west with a force of about 400 Narragansetts looking on.

The Pequots were concentrated in a pair of encampments near what is now Norwich, Connecticut, each of these a several-acre enclosure of a few dozen wigwams. The settlers, led by John Mason, struck the largest Pequot community at dawn and killed most of its inhabitants, burning the wigwams and shooting any who attempted to flee. The second Pequot encampment attempted to thwart the invasion but was easily driven to retreat. During the next two months, the remaining members of the severely crippled Pequot league moved west toward New York but were met in a massive swamp, which would later become Fairfield, by Mason and his battalion. Again most of the Indians were killed, with the remaining 180 Pequots taken hostage and brought to Hartford.

The Pequots could not have been conquered without the assistance of the Mohegans and the Narragansetts, with whom the English signed a treaty of friendship in 1637. But peace between the Native Americans and the English would last only a few decades, until King Philip’s War.
The Nipmuc Indians lived principally in central Massachusetts but also occupied some land in Northern Rhode Island. Their fate after King Philip’s War, in which they battled the colonists, is little documented, but it’s believed that most survivors fled west into Canada, and those who stayed behind joined with the few Indian groups that remained friendly to the colonists.

Rhode Island’s Niantics, distinct from but related to the Niantics of southeastern Connecticut, lived in the southern part of mainland Rhode Island, where the sea borders modern-day Westerly and Charlestown. Their leader, Ninigret, managed to prolong their viability by keeping distance from the Native Americans who rebelled against the colonists. Ninigret met on several occasions with colonists, and he even refrained from participating in King Philip’s War. This tribe of Narragansetts (as colonists increasingly came to call all Rhode Island Indians) continued to live on their land through the late 1800s. By that time, their numbers had dwindled, and eventually their final bits of land were taken from them.

Rhode Island’s modern-day Narragansetts are mostly of Niantic descent, but they’re joined by some who descend from the actual Narragansett nation, which was perhaps the largest tribe in Rhode Island during the 17th century. By the time of King Philip’s War, there were 5,000 Narragansetts living throughout Rhode Island. Their larger numbers are explained in part by their not succumbing to the diseases that brought down the more powerful Wampanoags, who lived mostly in southeastern Massachusetts but also in part of eastern Rhode Island. As the Wampanoags declined, the Narragansetts took over their territory on the islands of what is now Narragansett Bay.

It was with Narragansett and Wampanoag leaders that Roger Williams socialized and negotiated a land treaty on his arrival in the 1630s. Canonicus was the sachem, or ruler, of the Narragansetts and would become a close friend of Williams until his death in 1647; Massasoit headed the Wampanoags, and Williams assisted in bringing some degree of peace between these two nations. He also made peace between the Native Americans of Rhode Island and the colonists of Massachusetts, who had arrested and banished Williams in the first place.

By the 1670s, the Narragansetts were led by a descendant of Canonicus named Canonchet. The leader of the Wampanoags, Philip, the son of Massasoit, sought to unify New England’s many Native American groups in an ambitious and perhaps desperate attempt to overthrow the Puritan grip on the region. An Indian who was a Christian convert loyal to the settlers betrayed King Philip’s intentions and was quickly killed by Philip’s men. The settlers escalated the conflict by capturing and killing the people who had killed the informant, and so began King Philip’s War, which would ultimately seal the fate of Native Americans in the northeastern United States.

The war was fought near the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border, where the Wampanoags occupied a fort at Mount Hope, today part of the Rhode Island community of Bristol. After several colonists in the town of Swansea were killed, thousands of colonial troops descended on Mount Hope. The Indians managed to destroy about a dozen colonial settlements and significantly damage another 40; in all, roughly half the English villages in New England during the 1670s were damaged. More than 800 colonists and about 3,000 Native Americans were killed. The Indians lost about 15 percent of their total population, while the colonists lost perhaps 1.5 percent.

In the end, although many colonists were killed, all of the region’s Native Americans were ultimately contained. At the onset of the war, Canonchet and his Narragansetts adopted a neutral stance, but the colonists attacked the Narragansetts preemptively, and Canonchet then led several of the violent raids against the colonists, destroying houses in Providence and Warwick. King Philip spent time in northern New England attempting to unify other tribes into a greater resistance. Canonchet was captured and executed near Stonington, Connecticut, in 1676. Soon after, King Philip was captured and killed near Mount Hope. The last remaining Narragansett royal, Quaiapen, sister of Niantic leader Ninigret, died shortly thereafter in a battle at Warwick. By summer 1676, the Narragansetts had been broken and the Wampanoags decimated; Philip’s surviving family members were sold into slavery. The end of King Philip’s War signified the end of the Native American way of life in Rhode Island as it had existed before European settlement.

For travelers seeking to learn more about Rhode Island’s Indigenous culture and arts (historic and contemporary), visit the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter. The museum is operated by the Narragansett Tribe.

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