The Narragansett Indian Records Collection features documents from the State Archives' holdings of colonial and state government records. Totaling 196 documents covering 1746 - 1978, this compilation of records consists primarily of eighteenth and nineteenth century General Assembly acts and resolutions, petitions, memorials, and reports that relate to land transfers between tribal leaders and the colony and state, or between individual members of the Narragansetts residing both inside and outside of Rhode Island. Also included are several documents concerning efforts toward tribal recognition and federal acknowledgement, commencing in the 1970s. The majority of the Collection may have been organized by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, an office established by a January 30, 1840 act of the General Assembly, to oversee the affairs of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and to settle controversies arising from real and personal estates. The office of Commissioner existed until tribal authority was abolished by Public Law Chapter 800, passed March 31, 1880.
The Collection presents a slice of the long and rich history of the Indigenous people of Rhode Island. Even with the earliest records, the story only begins long after the first "Indians", as Europeans called them, had settled in Rhode Island. As in other parts of the country, government came to play a decided role in the destiny of Indigenous communities living in our state. Limited to state government records, however, these documents tell a significant, but incomplete part of the story of the life and times of the First Nations experience in Rhode Island.
There are no written records attesting to what life was like for Indigenous people before the arrival of English colonists. Indigenous people did not keep written records. What we know about life before Europeans arrived comes largely from Indigenous people's oral traditions and memory, and archaeological evidence - for example grave goods, buried artefacts, tools and weapons, and other remains, as well as clues from climate data.
One thing is certain - Rhode Island was entirely comprised of Indigenous people before the arrival of Europeans. By the time Roger Williams arrived in 1636, the territory had already been occupied for some eight to ten thousand years by people who belonged to tribes with names such as: Narragansett, Nipmuc, Wampanoag, and Niantic, though these may not always have been the names they gave themselves. Finally, these people - known as "Indians" and "Native Americans" only after the arrival of Europeans - were not likely native to Rhode Island. No one is sure where they came from, except that they came from outside Rhode Island, perhaps from the American Southwest, after migrating down from the northwestern part of the continent. (According to Roger Williams' A Key into the Language of America (1643), some natives to whom he spoke believed they originally came from what he called "Tartaria," that is, North and Central Asia.)
By the time of the first colonial settlements, the Narragansetts had become one of the most dominant of the many First Nations in New England. Centered on lands located in what is now the general area of Providence, the Narragansett Sachems or Chiefs reigned over most of present day Rhode Island and allowed the first colonies established at Providence (1636), Portsmouth (1638), Newport (1639), and Warwick (1642/3).
Fight for Survival - King Philip's War
For a time, relations between the First Nations and European settlers were cordial and cooperative. However, relations became increasingly strained, sometimes erupting into episodes of violence. Clouds of mutual suspicion and distrust, episodes of mutual misunderstanding, increasing intrusion of colonists into tribal affairs, continuing encroachments on native lands, racial prejudice, playing tribes off against each other, and intermittent violence and bad will, were fueled by differing moral values and religious beliefs, and clashing economic interests, including contention over lands, their occupancy, and use - though some colonists, including Roger Williams, disavowed any right to simply appropriate land from non-Christians, or that Indigenous people had no conception of property.
Within a mere forty years after the first white settlements, the centuries-long dominion of the Narragansett, Wampanoag, Niantic, Nipmuc, Potowomut, Shawomet, and Aquedneck over their lives and land would be severely reduced amid colonists' increasing territorial claims, various colonial government-imposed economic and political restrictions, and finally, by the clash between Indigenous people and colonists in a conflict known as King Phillip's War (or Metacomet's Rebellion) led by the Wampanoag Chief Metacomet. Triggered by encroachments of the Massachusetts Bay Colony into tribal lands and to regain lost territory, the war drew many First Nations into this extremely violent conflict, which lasted from June 1675 to April 1678. Although initially offering the Wampanoags assistance and refuge, the neighboring Narragansetts were reluctant to commit to wartime alliances with other Indigenous people, having earlier signed a treaty to remain loyal to the English. The Narragansetts' neutrality ended in December 1675, when a combined force of colonists from Connecticut, Plymouth, and Massachusetts, apparently suspicious of where Narragansett loyalties lay, preemptively massacred hundreds of tribal members at Great Swamp, including many woman and children. The war curtailed tribal aspirations to control over their destiny and territory. In the aftermath of the war, many Narragansetts were dispersed or sold into slavery. Those who remained, merged with surviving members of the Eastern Niantic Tribe. By 1709, the Narragansetts and their Sachem Ninnigret II had ceded most of their vacant lands to the colony and were relegated to an area of approximately 18,000 acres in what is now the town of Charlestown.
Fight for Survival - From the Protection of the State to Detribalization
With their numbers, wealth, and power depleted by the war, Rhode Island's Indigenous people entered a prolonged period of struggle for political, economic, and cultural survival. Over the next three hundred years, the Narragansetts' fight for the reclamation, advancement, and protection of tribal rights and lands shifted from armed conflict on the battlefield, to contestation in the colony and state's governing institutions, and in state and federal courts of law.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Narragansetts experienced an outflow of members from Rhode Island, principally to upstate New York and Brotherton, Wisconsin. The Narragansetts sought protection behind continually shrinking reservation land and government guardianship, or trusteeship. These protections only went so far. White Rhode Islanders spent a good part of the nineteenth century trying to "disappear" the Narragansetts. Along with land transfers, financial hardship, intermarriage, and racial mixing, government re-education campaigns, Christian conversion efforts, and other methods, all worked to diminish, or dilute and fragment Narragansett culture and identity. In any case, the state's special protections came to an end in 1880. In that year, the state's General Assembly finally succeeded in accomplishing what it had been trying to do for decades - it passed a law detribalizing the Narragansetts. The law declared that the Narragansetts had forfeited their legal status as tribe because it had lost its distinctiveness as a people, having become composed of mere "mongrels" and been reduced to insignificant numbers. The remaining members were to be considered Rhode Island citizens.
Following their detribalization, the Narragansetts still managed to retain forms of leadership, tribal government practices, and traditions, including powwows. Much of the twentieth century was marked by conflicts for the return of tribal land, negotiations and conflict over recognition of tribal legitimacy and tribal sovereignty, and the promotion of cultural identity and preservation, often fought in the state and federal courts. In 1934, Articles of Association for the tribe and Meeting Church were obtained from the Rhode Island Secretary of State. Two years later, an Act of the General Assembly established annual "Indian Day" observances and proclamations by the Governor. Nevertheless, suffrage rights were not recognized until November 1950 under an Article of Amendment to the state Constitution. During the 1970s, the Narragansetts embarked on campaigns to reestablish ancestral lands and to gain federal recognition. In 1975, they filed a suit against the state for the return of over three thousand acres of land in Charlestown. In a 1978 out of court settlement, the state and the Narragansetts signed a joint memorandum of understanding allowing for the acquisition of some eighteen hundred acres of land. The following year saw the establishment of the Narragansett Indian Land Management Corporation to allow for the management and purchase of those lands granted under the settlement. On April 11, 1983, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs finally granted the Narragansetts federal recognition and declared it a sovereign nation. Today they number approximately 2,400 individuals.
Native American Research - Manuscript / Printed Sources in the Rhode Island State Archives holdings
Records of the Island of Rhode Island, 1637 - 1663 (1 vol.) C#00206
Ancient Records of the Colony of Rhode Island (Gyles Record), 1638 - 1670 C#00207
Proceedings of the General Assembly, 1649 - 1723 C#00260
Rhode Island Colony Records, 1646 - 1851 C#00209
See also Bartlett, James Russell, Rhode Island Colony Records, 1636 - 1792 (10 vols,)
See also Rhode Island Court Records abstracts (2 vols.) - RI Historical Society Publication, 1922
Records of Deeds, Agreements and Orders - Proprietors of Narragansett, 1651 - 1703; Fones Record C#00209
published abstract by James N. Arnold, 1894 C#00209
Body of Laws of the Colony of Rhode Island, 1663 - 1705 - Acts and Resolves C#00208
Public Laws of Rhode Island, 1719, 1730-36, 1744 - 52, 1767, 1772, 1798 - 1810 (printed abstracts) C#00612
Petitions to the General Assembly, 1725 - 1867 (72 vols.) C#00165
Rhode Island Land and Public Notary Records, 1648 - 1776 C#00481
Published abstract of vol. 1 - RI Historical Society Publication, 1921
Governor and Council Records, 1667 - 1753 C#00558
Governor and Council Records, 1667 - 1802 C#01185
Narragansett Indians Documents, 1709 - 1979 C#00213
Committee Reports to General Assembly, 1728 - 1860 C#00261
Rhode Island Commission for Indian Affairs, 1977 - 1986 C#1996 - 68
Narragansett Indians - Commission Reports, 1858, 1880 - 1883
Narragansett Indians, Commission on, - Minute Book, 1880 - 1883 C#00241
Portsmouth Records, 1638 - 1700; 1639 - 1697
See also, Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth (1 vol.), E. L. Freeman and Sons, Providence, 1901
Early Records of the Town of Warwick (1 vol.), E. A. Johnson and Co., Providence, 1926
Early Records of the Town of Providence (22 vols.), Snow and Farnum, Providence, 1892 - 1915
United States Office of Indian Affairs - Bulletins 1 through 21, 1921 - 1923
Colonial / State Census Records, 1774 - 1935/6
Municipal / State Vital Registrations