2012-02-23 / Island History

JHS 100 years: Rediscovering the Indians of Conanicut Island


In 1676, less than 20 years after selling Conanicut Island, the Narragansett were virtually destroyed in King Philip’s War. For 2.5 centuries, the men and women living on Conanicut Island seem to have thought little about the Native Americans who had lived on the island before them. But they knew, because bones and grave-goods were sometimes unearthed, that many were buried here.

According to J. R. Cole in Richard Bayles’ “The History of Newport County” in 1888, “The citizens, always respecting their [the Indian] notions of that ‘happy hunting ground beyond,’ have buried their bones again in a decent manner.”

Unfortunately, Cole’s assessment of the attitude of the farmers was probably more hopeful than accurate.

In October 1936, men removing loam from the fields near where the Lawn Avenue School now stands – an area that became known as the West Ferry site – dug up a number of human bones and artifacts. By the following January, at least 17 graves had been opened and bones and grave-goods removed, some ending up in private hands, some simply lost.

As part of his Eagle Scout project, Finn Dwyer led other Boy Scouts in a cleanup of the Indian burial ground between the Lawn and Melrose avenue schools. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROSEMARY ENRIGHT As part of his Eagle Scout project, Finn Dwyer led other Boy Scouts in a cleanup of the Indian burial ground between the Lawn and Melrose avenue schools. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROSEMARY ENRIGHT The carelessness with which the remains were treated roused several Jamestown residents to demand that digging in the area be stopped, and in April 1937 the Jamestown Town Council voted to purchase the farm to “prevent further desecration of the Indian burial ground thereon.” In December, anyone possessing bones from the graves was directed to turn them over to the Town Council, and they were then given into the care of Sydney L. Wright for safekeeping.

The West Ferry dig

In 1966, Wright hired William Scranton Simmons, a young anthropologist from Brown University, to excavate the West Ferry site. Based on the earlier exhumations, Simmons expected to find a large number of Narragansett graves dating from the middle of the 17th century. Seven of the graves he uncovered, however, were from a much earlier period – about 1500 B.C.

The Rhode Islanders buried in these prehistoric graves were hunters. They knew nothing about agriculture or pottery. Their stone tools were made by shaping one stone with another stone or with a piece of bone or wood. They carved elegant bowls and kettles from Rhode Island steatite, a relatively soft soapstone that absorbs and evenly distributes heat. They cremated their dead and buried them with some of their worldly goods. Steatite bowls, a stone-ax head, a jasper-projectile point and a decorative amulet were found along with charred bone fragments in one of the early burial pits.

By far the most numerous graves at the West Ferry site were, as expected, Narragansett graves from the period between the first European settlements in New England and the sale of the island. The bodies in these graves were usually lying on one side with the knees drawn up. All the graves were oriented northeast to southwest, although the bodies within may face either east or west. The orientation probably reflects the Narragansett belief that the power of life and death emanates from a single being in the southwest, Cautantowwit. The funeral offerings in the Narragansett graves were most often of European manufacture. Metal spoons, brass pots, brass bells, flintlock muskets, knives and iron hoes were found more often than locally made pottery and shell beads.

The Narragansett were most likely unaware of the ancient graves nearby, and no connection has been established between the two indigenous groups.

Dr. Simmons recorded the complete story of the West Ferry excavation in Cautantowwit’s House, “An Indian Burial Ground on the Island of Conanicut in Narragansett Bay,” published by Brown University Press in 1970. Objects found during his dig, although legally repatriated to the Narragansett in 1999, are on display in the Sydney L. Wright Museum in the Jamestown Philomenian Library and provide an extraordinary and unique record of early Native American impact on Jamestown.

Caring for Indian graves

The Narragansett believe that part of the soul remains with the body as long as any remnant of the body remains and that disturbing the graves confounds the spirits of the dead, preventing them from finding peace. In 1973, the Rev. Harold S. Mars, pastor of the Narragansett Indian Church, conducted a reburial ritual and reinterred the bones removed during the 1966-67 archaeological dig. The area remains unmarked both because of respect for Indian custom and because of fear of vandalism.

Much of the village of Jamestown is built on what is suspected of being the largest Indian burial ground in New England. To prevent accidental disruption of Indian graves during building, the Jamestown Code of Ordinances, 30-1 through 30-20, outlines procedures to be followed if human gravesites are suspected. The properties on the west side of Southwest Avenue receive special scrutiny because they abut a wetland that has a historical preservation review component.

This is the fourth in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.

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