JHS 100 years: The sale of Conanicut and Dutch islands
In March 1657, 106 potential investors agreed in principle to act jointly in an attempt to purchase Conanicut and Dutch islands. They documented the rules for their joint venture in a pre-purchase contract. The contract they wrote – and that 101 of them formally signed the following February – was purchased by the Jamestown Historical Society in 2005 and is on display in the Jamestown Town Hall.
The document set up a committee of seven to negotiate the purchase. The largest investors – Benedict Arnold (ancestor to the Revolutionary War traitor) and William Coddington, who each promised to pay 5 percent of the purchase price – were, of course, on the committee. So was Richard Smith Sr. of Wickford, who with his son, Richard Jr., contributed another 5 percent. Richard Smith Jr., who dealt with the Narragansett regularly at his father’s trading post at Smith’s Castle and spoke their language, handled the negotiations with Cashanaquont, the most important of the Narragansett sachems.
To ensure consortium unity, the investors “engage ourselves not to do nor act anything concerning the said Islands…but for the use of the purchasers according to the contents of this present, writing… upon forfeiture of all Right forever, in Either of the foresaid Islands.”
They also agreed, “It shall not be lawful for the purchasers or Any of them to dispose or Make any Sale of their or any of their proportions of the premised purchase…but only to a purchaser or purchasers of the premises.” By limiting the sale of shares to investors already involved in the project, the signers hoped to limit speculation.
The longest article in the sevenpage document named each investor and said what percentage of the total land on Conanicut he would receive in return for paying an equal percentage of the cost of buying the two islands. Dutch Island was to be shared as common pasture, much as Conanicut Island had been shared since 1637 by the Newporters.
In April 1657, Cashanaquont agreed to accept the equivalent of 100 pounds sterling in wampum and peage (a form of white wampum) for Conanicut and Dutch islands. (Both the Narragansett and the colonists used wampum as an exchange medium at the time, silver and gold being rare in the colonies.) In the sales document signed later that year in Newport, Cashanaquont acknowledged receipt of the 100 pounds and “several gifts of value beforehand received.”
Although Cashanaquont also promised to “clear and satisfy all ye other Sachems or others pretending, or that shall or may hereafter pretend or lay claim and interest in the premises to the disturbance of the premised purchasers,” Indians and colonists continued to question the title to the island, and the purchasers, intend on a “full and firm purchase” continued to settle all claims.
In addition to the sales agreement with Cashanaquont, the Jamestown Land Evidence records contain three other sales documents between the colonists and individual Narragansett sachems. In May 1658, a powerful mainland sachem named Quisaquann relinquished his title to Conanicut and Dutch islands for an unspecifi ed payment in cloth and peage. In July 1659, Caskotappe and Wequaquanuit, the grandsons of Canonicus who had according to Roger Williams charged the Newporters “at extreame rates” for removing grass from the island, deeded their rights in return for £155 sterling in peage. Finally, in January 1660, Towasibbam accepted £5 for his interest in the island.
Cashanaquont, Caskotappe and Wequaquanuit each promised to remove any Indians that lived or worked on either of the two islands. The inclusion of such a provision in these sales agreements seems to confirm Williams’ statement that Conanicut could have been a bloody battleground between the two cultures.
The total amount paid for approximately 6,000 acres, some of them virtually unusable, was over £260 and probably about £300. Since the material goods given to the sachems aren’t specified, a more precise figure cannot be calculated. By addressing the claims of all possible owners – even of Towasibbam whose claim was tenuous – the Jamestown purchasers could legitimately say they had achieved their goal of a “full and firm purchase” of the islands.
Whether the sachems or the Europeans understood the other’s concept of land ownership will always remain a question.
This is the third in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.