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Tales From Narragansett Country

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  • Tales From Narragansett Country

    At the outbreak of King Philip's War in New England(1675-76 in southern New England, continuing till 1678 along the frontier in Maine), the Narragansett were the largest and most powerful tribe in the region. They had largely escaped the European diseases that preceded, by a few years, the settlements in Plymouth and Boston.

    The Narragansett were decimated by that war. At its conclusion, many were sold into slavery in the West Indies, some escaped and joined tribes in Maine, and many others were allowed to settle with the Eastern Niantics, led by Sachem Ninigret, who lived in what is now Westerly and Charlestown, RI, and who had chosen to remain neutral during that great colonial war, which, on a per capita basis, was one of the bloodiest wars in American history. Eventually the merged tribes took the name Narragansett. The Eastern Niantic had been vassals of the Narragansett, and close relatives to them.

    In 1983, the Narragansett earned federal recognition as a tribe, and there 1800 acre reservation surrounds School House Pond, in Charlestown, RI. It lies east of Watchaug Pond in Charlestown.

    What follows is a personal tale, describing how I first learned that the Narragansett survived, and how, as a young child, I first met members of that tribe...

    In the early 1950's, I remember day outings my dad's extended family undertook on summer weekends. To the woods of Charlestown, RI, and an open lean-to cabin atop the slopes above the southeastern shore of Watchaug Pond. Down from Providence most of us drove, on Route 1, the old Post Road. Once in Charlestown, we branched right and up King's Factory Rd., not yet paved, still a gravel road. Set back from the road, here and there, worn out houses, and worn out abandoned cars littering yards, in a rural poor look that somehow I have always actually appreciated, as if it portrayed some Americana tableau. I remember my mother telling me one day, as we passed these houses on our way to the picnic spot, that these were where the Narragansett Indians lived. And I remember, when she told me, thinking "wow, still Indians in Rhode Island".

    On the left, a rutted dirt road, almost more a path as road, wound up the wooded slopes to the lean-to cabin above the Pond. And there we enjoyed the summer day, going swimming in the pond, crossing over by rowboat to the other side to go blueberrying, and having a cookout using the stone built fireplace that stood near each lean-to. My father was one of 7, 3 brothers, and 4 sisters, and they, their spouses, and their children at that time, all made the journey.

    On the shore of the southeast side of Watchaug Pond, I remember a tall abandoned home, and knowing a Narragansett family had once lived there. We would pass it on our way to the beach.

    One day, my cousin Mike and I, decided we would walk to the ocean. We knew it was south of where we were, and I'm not sure we knew more then that. And, of course, we decided we would do this without telling the adults. I was about 6, soon to be 7, or 7, soon to be 8. My best guess as to my age at the time. Mike was a number of months younger then I, not quite a year I believe.

    We never reached the ocean. There is a large salt pond in the way. It's called Ninigret Pond, and is the largest of the string of salt ponds/barrier beaches on Rhode Island's Washington County, or "South County" Atlantic coast. We reached a house, I think it was on or near the north shore of that salt pond. An elderly woman invited us inside. She was a kind woman, and fed each of us a slice of apple pie.

    Then it was time to walk back. We must have crossed Rt. 1, as we must have done on the way down, and up the gravel road that was King's Factory Rd at the time.

    By that time at least the adults had called out the Camp Fire Girls, who had a camp nearby on the pond, to help in the search for Mike and I. I remember being told later, in addition to searching themselves, the adults were about to ask for help from the police. Town or state, I don't know.

    Mike and I came to a bend in King's Factory Rd., where it curved to the right and you could not see ahead. On the right was a huge tree, just set back and slightly elevated above the road, right at the curve. A driveway, yard, clapboard house, and a small group of boys standing in the road. 5 or 6 boys, about our age. One stood out as the leader. He approached us, blocked our way, as the others gathered around him. "Do you know where you are?" he asked us. Before we could answer, he said, in a proud and threatening tone, "This is Narragansett land, and we are going to scalp you!" One of the boys held a rope, and we were to be tied to the big tree.

    Before they could actually grab hold of us, at which point I assume a struggle would have ensued, around the sharp curve from the north drove my Uncle Frank, who was Mike's father, with Mike's mom, my Aunt Trudy in the passenger seat. Mike and I both threw our arms in the air, I remember yelling "yay!", as I had been scared out of my wits, and into the back seat of the car we jumped. And back to the family encampment, to catch hell, we drove.

    Strange as it may seem, I've always felt a connection to the Narragansett, that dates from those days. Because of the country we were in, as my mother had first told me, because of the homes on the road, and on the pond, and because of that encounter. I've often wondered who that leader grew up to be. He was very proud to be a Narragansett and I've always assumed he grew into a leader. Maybe not, who can really say, but I was impressed, as a young boy his age. I was impressed, lol.

    That's how I was introduced to the first nations of Rhode Island, the native people of my home state. It was a heck of an introduction.

    And I never did return after that day to any family picnic on Watchaug Pond. Nor did my parents. I really can't say why. Those lean-to half cabin picnic sites still existed in the 80's, perhaps they still do. Of course I'll take my memories of those times to the grave, and I very much appreciate having met the Narragansett in that fashion! Scared me half to death at the time, makes me smile broadly today.
    Last edited by CMD; 03-10-2018, 11:21 AM.

  • #2
    Years later, in the late 70's and early to mid 80's, as the research coordinator of the New England Antiquities Research Association(NEARA), I enjoyed exploring the land that surrounded Watchaug Pond, in search of possible ancient man made structures/features, and natural features that would have been perhaps notable to the ancient inhabitants. The area surrounding the pond is now Burlingame state park, and Burlingame state forest. It is part of the Charlestown moraine, a recessional moraine, where the last glacier had paused a while during its retreat, creating that recessional moraine. Such areas are full of interesting rock formations created by the retreating and melting glacier. It is one of my favorite undeveloped landscapes in Rhode Island.

    There was a grassy path I followed, off King's Factory Road, and winding its way east toward the pond. One of the neat landscape features I recorded in those days, right alongside that path, was the rocking stone seen here, with a small rock cairn atop it. This is a very nice example of such a feature, as it could be rocked easily with one hand, or by standing upon it. I was usually always on my own. I would set the camera on a tripod, set the timer, and then run and pose in the field of view, so I could serve as scale for the features I photographed. That's how I created the photos seen here.

    On this grassy path, before reaching the area of the rocking stone, was an area where several natural rocks were embedded and set within the ground. I passed through that area many, many times, the trail passed right through the middle of it. One day, I lingered, and scanned my surroundings. A lightbulb went off as I did so. It was an ancient Narragansett burial ground, so perfectly blended into the natural landscape as to have completely escaped my recognition, until that moment. It has to have been a family plot. Not necessarily ancient, perhaps 18th or 19th century even, but created in a way that few would realize what it was, and hence none would be tempted to disturb it. Alas, I never did take photos, and, at this distance in time, I am not sure I could find that path again. But, if I ever do, I will make a photographic record of that burial ground. The Narragansett do not forget these things. Somewhere, there is a Narragansett family that knows exactly where and what that area represents.

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    Last edited by CMD; 03-10-2018, 11:16 AM.


    • #3
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      • #4
        Other interesting features I photographed in those days, in the heart of Narragansett Country, and within the Charlestown moraine. A neat 6' tall standing stone, set in the slope of a hill, and a so-called perched rock. In the photos of the perched rock, the stick for scale is one meter in length. These were very nearby the rocking stone.

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        Last edited by CMD; 03-10-2018, 11:19 AM.


        • #5
          Nearby, an interesting boulder arrangement, of the type to be expected in a glacial moraine...

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          • #6
            Sure enjoyed the story, and seeing these pictures again. Hope you find that path again someday.


            • #7
              Would have enjoyed listening to these tales even more by the flickering light of a fireplace or campfire. Thanks, Charlie.
              Child of the tides


              • #8
                Thanks for sharing


                • #9
                  Great story & pics Charlie. Thanks! I did grit my teeth a little when you mentioned Ninigret Pond. I spent so much time fishing and camping at Charleston Breachway & the Ninigret back pond when I was younger. Unfortunately, I wasn't into pointy rocks at the time. My loss.


                  • CMD
                    CMD commented
                    Editing a comment
                    Alan, I doubt you can find anything on the Atlantic side of any of the salt ponds. In my experience. Not sure of the landward sides, though. And most fields down there are posted.

                • #10
                  I just read this and it enjoyed it so much I am going to re read this over coffee in the morning .
                  thanks Charlie . Wondering about those rocks .


                  • CMD
                    CMD commented
                    Editing a comment
                    Thanks. I had told that story on a Facebook page dedicated to our extended family, and very few of my many cousins are old enough to even remember those summer picnics in Narragansett country. And today, it would not be easy for me to find any of those stone features again, last seen them in the 80's.

                • #11
                  I thoroughly enjoyed following you along on this adventurer Charlie.
                  In looking at your reply to Tamara I think that the only thing holding you back from finding those formations again is your health.
                  Otherwise I feel that your memories would kick in as soon as you were on the path.
                  In life there are losers and finders. Which one are you?


                  • CMD
                    CMD commented
                    Editing a comment
                    Thanks, Bruce. Actually, health issues would not be an impediment. But it would be tough finding where the trail starts. But, I'll likely try again some day!

                • #12
                  Very nice nostalgic stories! Really enjoyed!

                  Was the AM radio on wpro?


                  • #13
                    Originally posted by awassamog View Post
                    Very nice nostalgic stories! Really enjoyed!

                    Was the AM radio on wpro?
                    Lol. Are you kidding, I'm old enough to remember listening to Roy Rogers on the radio in bed at night, and Howdy Doody and Flash Gordon on TV, lol.

                    And later, Salty Brine(whom I once interviewed) on WPRO. BTW, "no school Foster Glouester" yesterday. Lol....


                    • awassamog
                      awassamog commented
                      Editing a comment
                      I do remember salty brine!
                      P.s. dont tell anyone i like old school top 40 and easy listening
                      Last edited by awassamog; 03-14-2018, 09:26 AM.

                  • #14
                    Wonderful stories Charlie! Those incidents as a child seem to stay with one especially when your following the pack and doing something you know you probably shouldnt, but do it because somebody else is doing it and it seems so harmless, well till you get caught. lol Not sure if its because the tail whipping or the nervous excitement of being so free yet knowing you got one coming... They make for good lasting memories... I never got cornered by a group of Narragansett, Never got offered any apple pie either but the adventure felt very familiar lol. Thanks for sharing the memories and the photos!
                    Josh (Ky/Tn collector)


                    • #15
                      I always enjoy these pictures and stories you post. Good read!