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The Landing of Roger Williams

This painting by Alonzo Chappel was painted in 1857, over two hundred years after Roger Williams arrived in Providence. It is a romanticized view of Roger Williams meeting the Narragansett in 1636 in what will later become Providence. The Indigenous people depicted in the painting are not wearing traditional Narragansett clothing, but their dress and other aspects of the painting were more typical for the West Indies. The painting repaints the relationship between the Indigenous people and the English as idyllic.

Slavery, Displacement and Re-Connection

 Essay by Lorén Spears, MsEd., Narragansett, Executive Director of Tomaquag Museum

The Narragansett and Roger Williams are often depicted as friends. This myth is represented in Alonzo Chappel’s painting, The Landing of Roger Williams at the RISD Museum of Art and depicts the Narragansett sachems, or leaders, and Roger Williams greeting each other as equals. Rather, what really happened between the Narragansett and Roger Williams (and other colonists) was a more complex story that changed the course of history in this area. After he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1635 for his political and religious ideals. He traveled south in the winter of 1636, and Indigenous people, including the Wampanoag, helped Roger Williams navigate the terrain. Then, the Narragansett helped him survive the cold, harsh and snowy winter by housing him, teaching him their language,[1] and showing him how to access and utilize the resources of the land and waters. They also allowed him to create a settlement in their territory.[2] This territory eventually became Providence in 1638 after Canonicus and Miantonomi, sachems, “deeded” the land to him.[3] Despite all this help and the “friendship” that is depicted in the painting and other history books, Roger Williams was not always a positive force for Indigenous people of the region.[4]

The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was officially formed with the signing of the Royal Charter in 1663 by King Charles II, the King of England who ruled over the British colonies. In the Charter, the King granted the colony the right “to invade and destroy the native Indians.”[5] Twelve years later, in 1676, the Rhode Island colonists along with those of the United Colonies did just that during King Phillip’s War. Metacomet, a Wampanoag sachem who was called “King Philip” by the English, went to war against the New England colonies after being unable to resolve long-standing conflicts over land and resources.[6] The Narragansett and Niantic people remained neutral during the early part of the war, although the Narragansett allowed Wampanoag women, children, and elderly to take refuge at the fort at Great Swamp located in what is now known as South Kingstown. On December 19, 1675 the colonial militia of the United Colonies invaded and killed the people taking refuge here. This event became known as the Great Swamp Massacre because over 500 people, mostly women, children, and elders, were killed.[7][8]

The Narragansett people today hold ceremony to remember this horrific massacre that changed everything for them. The Great Swamp Memorial Pilgrimage, initiated by Princess Red Wing in the 1930s, is still held on the 4th Sunday in the month of September. The Narragansett and other people continue to come together to honor those who perished in the past, acknowledge the leaders and community of the present, and celebrate the future generations to come.[9]

This massacre of their people led the Narragansett to participate in the rest of the war, joining a multitribal alliance. It was a long and deadly war that raged until 1676 in southern New England and 1678 for northern New England. It impacted the Nipmuc, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Podunks, Nashaway, Mohegan, Wabanaki, and Pequot peoples who were all fighting to keep their way of life, lands, and resources. There were many other battles and massacres aside from that at the Great Swamp. The war may have ended Indigenous rule as we knew it and exacerbated genocide, enslavement, and displacement but it also continued attempts at diplomacy and continued resistance.

Both during and after King Phillip’s War, some of the Narragansett, Niantic, Wampanoag, and other Indigenous peoples were sold into slavery as part of the “Triangular Slave Trade.”[10] Since the institution of slavery and the Triangular Slave Trade was already established, some of the Indigenous peoples in Rhode Island were captured by military forces and sent away by the colonial governments to the islands in the North Atlantic and Caribbean. There, they were sold into slavery to work on the plantations as punishment for their participation in the War, as well as continued subjugation for those who did not participate in the war. People were taken captive and killed while clamming, planting, fishing, and gathering, not just in battles, during the spring and summer of 1676. Colonial forces searched relentlessly for Wampanoag and Narragansett people, as well as any Indian people, throughout their homelands.

The Colony of Rhode Island’s decision to send Indigenous people far away was another means to break their power and further establish the English colony. Even Roger Williams participated in the sale of Indigenous people captured in the war. He was especially angry with Native peoples because during King Phillip’s War, they burned his home and he lost his possessions. Williams led a group of citizens of Providence who arranged the sale of those captured to be enslaved with many being sent to islands in the Caribbean and North Atlantic. He received a portion of the proceeds from these sales of humans.[11]

While Europeans had visited the lands we now call the Americas for many years before Christopher Columbus’s voyages, it was his trip in 1492 that led directly to the exploration and subsequent exploitation and colonization of these lands. The Caribbean plantations established by Christopher Columbus and his family in the late 1400s were the first such farms in the so-called New World, and the first to be enslaved there were Indigenous peoples such as the Tiaño. The colonization of the land led to the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of still more. These colonization efforts were undertaken not only by the Spanish, but also the Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, French, and as is the case for Rhode Island, the English.[12]

Some of the Indigenous people were not sent away but remained in the Rhode Island colony as indentured servants. With indentured servitude, a person’s time of servitude was supposed to have an end date. However, for many, the end date would be continually extended due to “infractions” such as bad behavior, running away, theft, or owing for their room, clothing, food, or medical needs. Because of this, indentured servitude really became another form of enslavement. Enslaved people served as masonsmasons, farmers, blacksmiths, and housemaids. Many served on the plantations in South County that were led by colonial families such as the Hazards, Browns, Stantons, Robinsons, Greenes, Harrises, Babcocks, and others. Prior to European conquest, Narragansett and other Indigenous people did not have surnames. As colonial authorities asserted control over them, they were assigned surnames whether through their school or through their work as apprentices, or as indentured or enslaved laborers. These surnames are still prevalent within the Narragansett community and reflect this history.[13]

During the Revolutionary War, some of the enslaved found freedom by enlisting in the colonial militia in their town. In some cases, their owner enlisted them in order to serve in their place or fill a town’s quota for enlistment. The owner would receive payment for the service of their indentured servant. There were also free Blacks and free Indians who enlisted after the General Assembly passed a resolution stating that “negro, mullatto, and Indian slaves belonging to the inhabitants of this state are permitted to enlist into the Continental Battalions ordered to be raised by this state.”[14] Some earned their freedom after the war, but others were re-enslaved by unethical slave owners.[15]

A later means of enslaving and controlling Indigenous people in North America was through forced schooling and boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those in power within the United States government used education as a weapon by separating families in an attempt to extinguish the language, culture, religion, and lifeways of Native Americans. The federal government took young children from their families and placed them into boarding schools where they would live and not be allowed to visit their families. Some Narragansett children were sent as far away as the Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania, as well as to schools in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Teachers and staff at the schools would not allow them to speak in their Native language, practice or even talk about traditional customs, eat traditional foods, or wear traditional dress.  Being away from their families, children would not learn traditions and ceremonies from their elders and would instead learn to behave in the manner of the white majority. The purpose for doing this to Indigenous youth was to keep them from learning about their history and traditions which would eventually lead to the disappearance of Indigenous cultures and peoples. This is called forced assimilation.

This history of Indigenous enslavement and forced assimilation is difficult and one that is often excluded in today’s school textbooks. Because this difficult history is often left out of books, people forget, or never learn, about the enslavement of Indigenous people. Colonization is about conquest. Conquest includes several factors such as greed, power, entitlement, fear, and censorship. Colonial powers had greed for the resources of the earth. They had political, economic, military, and police power. They felt entitled to resources, lands and domination over the people already on those lands.  They promoted fear and hate to divide the people already there, and they suppressed their voices. By excluding this history from modern day text books or other educational curricula, people today will not learn this hard history. This is essentially a continuation of colonization, erases the history, and makes the Indigenous descendants feel invisible. Indigenous people today believe that these histories must be remembered and taught.

Despite these sad histories, there are ways Narragansett people today work on healing our communities. One way to move through a healing process is by reconnecting with other descendants of our ancestors who ended up in other parts of the world. In 2002, the people of Bermuda on Saint David’s Island established the St. David’s Island Indian Committee with the goal to reconnect with the Native North American tribal communities. The Indigenous population of Saint David’s Island is specifically connected to Indigenous people right here in what is now known as Southern New England – the Narragansett, Niantic, Wampanoag, Pequot, Mohegan, Nipmuc – as well as tribal communities from the mid-Atlantic region. These are the areas where St. David’s Islanders’ ancestors came from before being shipped to Bermuda during the time of slavery. Tall Oak Weeden, who is a Pequot, Wampanoag, and Narragansett Elder, supported this project and helped organize the participation of the descendant communities in New England. Our community members here have visited Saint David’s island and participated in their biannual festival of Indigenous culture. In turn, they come here to participate in our ceremonies, pow wows, and community activities. In our work with them, we have come to see that their art, dance, and music represents the intersection of African, Carib, and Native American cultures that were brought to the island during the period of enslavement.[16]

In 2008, The Nuweetooun School, a non-profit private school founded by this essay’s author, Lorén Spears, focused on Native history, culture, arts, sciences, and literature intersected with modern educational requirements[17], had an exchange program with the Petra Academy, led by Devine Hollis, of Saint David’s Island Indian Community. Some of the Narragansett students went to Bermuda and some of the St. David’s Island Indigenous students came to Rhode Island to explore the intersection of our cultures, histories, and lifeways. Through ceremonies, relationship building, and cultural exchange, this ongoing relationship between the two communities helps bring healing to our peoples.

We have also reconnected with descendants of those who traveled west in the Brothertown Movement. As mentioned elsewhere in this module, Brothertown was a cluster of Mohegan, Pequot, Niantic, Nipmuk, and other eastern tribal peoples who had migrated north to Iroquois territory to escape oppression occurring on their homelands. They first made a settlement in Oneida Territory in New York but later went westward to Wisconsin due to the U.S. government’s Removal policy, which included an attempt to remove the people of the Iroquois Confederacy who had provided land for the Brothertown community. This distinct plan for removal included state and federal governments, land companies and missionaries. Today, we have connections with the Brothertown people of Wisconsin where they visit the eastern tribal nations with which they have genealogical and kinship ties, including the Narragansett.[18]

These reconnections are part of the ongoing healing from this historical trauma forced upon the Indigenous people of this region. Learning about how those forced into to slavery survived, persevered, and, through self-emancipation, made lives for themselves and taught their history to the next generations allows each subsequent generation to maintain their culture, traditions and understand their history. Learning this history creates a pathway for healing, reclamation, and in some cases justice.[19]



Sachem: a leader or chief

United Colonies (of New England): also called the New England Confederation, the United Colonies of New England included Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Haven, and Plymoth. Rhode Island did not join the United Colonies

Plantations: a large farm or estate where crops are grown such as corn, tobacco, squash and beans. Also, farm animals like cows, hogs, and sheep were raised. It is also thought of as a term of conquest, colonization and subjugation of Indigenous peoples

Indentured Servants: a termed enslavement

Masons: builders of stone or brick

Blacksmiths: people who make or fix things of metal

Quota: the share or amount required from or due or belongs to a particular person, group, or entity

Negro:  an old term used to describe people of African descent. Although some older generation African Americans still self-identify with this term, it has been used derogatorily by the white majority population for hundreds of years and is not appropriate to use in writing or in speech. You may come across the term in research or in old documents

Mullatto: child of one white parent and one black parent.  It is an outdated term no longer used

Forced Assimilation: by force or threat of violence adapting or adjusting to another group, culture, or nation’s norms, mores, or lifestyle. Merging distinct cultural traits into another groups culture, ideology, or lifestyle by force, violence, and/or threat of force or violence

Pow wows: Native American cultural gatherings that originated from “Thanksgivings” of which we celebrated thirteen, one for each moon cycle. Pow Wows include community, ceremony, feasting and celebration. Today, the public is invited to learn more about the culture through music, dance, storytelling, foods, and art. The word originates from the word “Pau Wau” which meant the Spiritual Leader or Medicine Person

Oppression: an act of subjecting others to cruel and unjust actions that are burdensome and remove their authority. Oppression can be physical and mental, causing adverse conditions, anxiety, and depression. Oppression takes away the individual and/or the communities rights

Historical Trauma: the accumulative emotional and psychological pain over an individual’s lifespan and across generations as the result of massive group trauma (Yellow-Horse Brave Heart, 1995)

Self-emancipation: escaping from slavery

Reclamation: reclaiming civil rights



What were some of the ways in which Indigenous people in Rhode Island were oppressed? How do you think that affected the people living at the time?

How has this history affected some of the Indigenous people today?  How have their lives and communities been affected?

Why is it important for those who are not Indigenous to learn and understand this difficult history?

Why is it important for the Indigenous people today to maintain connections with related communities in Brothertown, Wisconsin and St. David’s Island in Bermuda?


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1. Williams likely already knew the Wampanoag language which has the same Algonquian base as the Narragansett language
2. Read more about Roger Williams here
3. There is conflict regarding the term “deeded” since the English imposed their understanding of land ownership onto the Indigenous people who had a different understanding as noted in the main chapter essay
4. See “Roger Williams National Memorial (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed January 13, 2020.; Foundation, Rhode Island. “Native American.” Native American – Roger Williams Initiative. Accessed January 13, 2020.; Gonzalez, Ana. “Ep. 3: Roger Williams And The Pequot War.” The Public’s Radio. The Public’s Radio, November 5, 2019.
5. “Primary Source Document Transcription – Rhode Island.” Accessed January 13, 2020.
6. To learn more about King Phillip, see Kirakosian, Katharine, and Tomaquag Museum. “Metacomet.” Rhode Tour. Accessed January 13, 2020.
7. The estimate of the number of people killed varies between 300 and 1000 in the documents
8. You can read more about King Philip’s War and the Great Swamp Massacre here and here
9. To learn more about Princess Red Wing, see Kirakosian, Katharine, and Tomaquag Museum. “Princess Red Wing.” Rhode Tour. Rhode Island Council For the Humanities. Accessed January 13, 2020.
10. learn about the Triangular Slave Trade in our module titled Rhode Island, Slavery, and the Slave Trade
11. You may read more from a Eurocentric perspective here
12. For more information, see
13. To learn more, see Geake, Robert A., and Spears Lorén M. From Slaves to Soldiers: the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing LLC, 2016. P.45
14. Geake, Robert A., and Spears Lorén M. From Slaves to Soldiers: the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing LLC, 2016.p41-42
15. This can be read about in Geake, Robert A., and Spears Lorén M. From Slaves to Soldiers: the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing LLC
16. To Learn More, see Tucker, St Clair. St. Davids Island, Bermuda: Its People, History, and Culture. St. Davids, Bermuda: St. Clair Tucker, 2009
17. closed in 2010 due to flooding
18. For more information on Brothertown, see Gonzalez, Ana. “Ep. 5: Journey To Brothertown.” The Public’s Radio. The Public’s Radio, November 10, 2019.; Gonzalez, Ana. “Ep. 6: The Brothertown Fight For Recognition.” The Public’s Radio. The Public’s Radio, November 20, 2019.
19. See our essay on Detribalization and Federal Acknowledgement