JHS 100 years: Narragansett Bay before the Europeans
In April 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian explorer under the French flag, sailed his ship, La Dauphine, into Narragansett Bay. He described the people he met in a letter to his patron, Francis I of France:
“This is the goodliest people, & of the fairest conditions that we have found in this our voyage. They exceed us in bignes, they are the color of brasse, some of them incline more the whitenesse: others are of yellow colour, of comely visage, with long and blacke hair, which they are very careful to trim and deck up: they are blacke and quicke eyed, and of sweete and pleasant countenance, imitating much the old fashion.”
As the weather worsened, the Indians “made signes unto us where we might safest ride in the Haven for the safeguard of our ship keeping still our company.”
Most historians believe that Verrazzano found shelter in Newport Harbor and that the people he met were Wampanoag. In the 16th century, the Wampanoag occupied Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and parts of eastern Rhode Island. A few suggest that La Dauphine’s haven was west of Conanicut Island in Dutch Island Harbor. If so, the welcoming people were probably Narragansett, who lived in western Rhode Island and on the islands in western and central Narragansett Bay.
Algonquian societies were matrilineal, that is, hereditary status and property was passed through the mother to her sons. They were also matrifocal: When a couple married, they lived with the woman’s family. Women elders participated in the selection of chiefs or sachems, although men held most of the positions of power.
These native New Englanders moved each year between a winter home and a summer home. In the winter, they lived in large inland “long houses” that, according to modern day Narragansett, held as many as 20 families. During the summer, the families moved to the shore and constructed temporary shelters. According to tradition, Conanicut Island was the summer home of those Narragansett who wintered near Kingston in South County.
Verrazzano described the Narragansett’s summer homes: “We saw their houses made in circular or round forme 10 or 12 paces in compasse, made with halfe circles of timber, separate one from another without any order of building, covered with mattes of straw wrought cunningly together, which save them from the wind and raine.”
While individuals did not own land, each community had authority over a specific territory from which the people derived their livelihood through a seasonal round of fishing, planting, harvesting and hunting. The division of labor was based on gender. Women did most of the farming – they grew corn (maize), beans and squash, and gathered natural fruits, nuts and other produce of the land. The men hunted and fished, and in times of danger they protected the communal territory. If the group prospered and grew, they negotiated or fought for an extension of the communal territory.
A hundred years later
During the 100 years between Verrazzano’s visit and the English settlement in eastern Massachusetts, Narragansett control of the area around Narragansett Bay increased. Diseases reduced the Wampanoag to less than a third of their earlier strength, and most of them lived on the islands south of Cape Cod.
The Narragansett, relatively unscathed by the illnesses that destroyed their neighbors, profited from their weakness. They expanded their control of Narragansett Bay, customarily offering protection to smaller tribes in the area. Nipmuck, the Niantic and Manissean bands all paid tribute to the Narragansett.
Narragansett supremacy did not go undisputed. The Pequot and Mohegan on the west and a reviving Wampanoag presence to the east – strengthened by an alliance with the English in Plymouth Colony – were constant threats. Alliances among the rival tribes and the European newcomers shifted continually as each group tried to secure its position and authority.
In 1637, the powerful Narragansett sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi (also Miantunnomu) deeded Aquidneck Island to a group of exiles from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. At the time, the Narragansett were hard-pressed by the Pequot, and some historians believe that Canonicus wanted to create a buffer between his people and the Wampanoag in order to be able to concentrate on the western threat. According to Roger Williams, however, “Rode Iland [Aquidneck Island] was obtained by love, by yt love and favour wh that hon’ble Gentleman, Sir Hen. Vane and myself had with yt great Sachim, Miantunnomu.”
Along with the right to live on Aquidneck Island came the right to use “the Marsh or grasse upon Quinunigut,” now called Conanicut Island.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.