Native Americans in Rhode Island- The Narragansetts

Narragansett tribe negotiating with Roger Williams during the founding of Rhode Island. Provided by

The Narragansetts were the indigenous tribe of the Rhode Island area. They were a mainly a coastal people whose primary food source was clams. They had a distinct warrior culture and were considered some of the best fighters in the region by the neighboring Wampanoag and Pequot tribes. The Narragansetts spoke the Algonquin language, which was spoken by of most of the tribes in the coastal Northeast United States.

In 1675, most of the Narragansetts fled into the southern swamps of the Rhode Island area following a puritan expedition to force Indians out of the region and they have stayed there ever since. The 1780s saw an increase in encroachment onto their lands. The frontiersmen brought wild hogs, which ruined the clam beds on the coast. Quahog clam shells were the primary currency within the tribe, as they were plentiful and the clams themselves were a nutritious food source. This greatly affected the Indians and forced them to deal with the Americans for food. The Narragansetts then fell heavily into debt, which they then tried to rectify by selling grants of land to the settlers.

From a cultural perspective, the Narragansetts were fairly typical of a costal Algonquin Indian tribe. Their social structure was governed by Sachems, who held the highest position in society. Their advisors were the next rung, followed by common landowning people who were given lands to farm communally. Those without land, or hostages captured from rival tribes were used as slaves. Slaves could not own land and allegedly did not have formal names.

Men and women played different roles in historical Narragansett society. Men were typically the ones to leave the tribal grounds to hunt and fish. They also were involved in trade with other tribes as well as local diplomacy. Women stayed at home and farmed beans, squash and maize and took care of children. They knitted and wove clothing and made most household items.

One unique characteristic among the Narragansetts was their seasonal moves. Every village had two communities and occupied one at a time depending on he season. During the summer and fall months, the villages moved to the coast to fish and harvest clam beds. When winter came, the tribe would move further inland to hunt game and harvest winter crops.

Hoxie, Frederick H. Encyclopedia of American Indians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

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