Narragansett Indians: History & Overview

Instructor: Lia Winfield
How did the Narragansett Indians live and what happened when the English settled in their region? In this lesson, you'll learn the history of the Narragansett and how they interacted with the colonists. Afterward, test your knowledge with a short quiz.

History

As Americans, we pride ourselves not only on our common values but also on our ethnic, cultural, and political diversity. When we think of Indians, however, we often forget diversity and instead imagine that all Indians are the same and have been the same throughout time. While different Indian groups possess commonalities with each other, the term 'Indian' describes peoples of tremendous geographic, cultural, linguistic, and political diversity. Moreover, each group of Indians experienced contact with the European settlers differently. In this lesson, we will learn about one of these diverse groups, the Narragansett Indians. We'll explore their way of life and their interaction with other Indians and New England colonists.

When the colonists arrived in New England in the early 17th century, the Narragansett were some of the most powerful Indians in the southeastern New England region. The Narragansett inhabited what is now Rhode Island, and although they numbered in the thousands, they lived in small bands of several hundred people. They were part of the Algonquian-speaking peoples, a linguistically and culturally similar but not united group of Indians in the region including the Pequot, Mohegan, and Wampanoag Indians.

This is a map of New England. The Narragansett lived in what is now Rhode Island.
Map of southeastern New England

The Narragansett way of life differed greatly from that of the European settlers which, as you can imagine, led to serious misunderstandings and decades of conflict. Colonial men, for example, saw farming as the man's role, while in Narragansett culture the women were responsible for the farming and the men hunted, fished, and made weapons and tools. The settlers established permanent homes and fenced their property, while the Narragansett were mobile and had no concept of either private property or personal ownership of land or goods. Narragansett rulers, called sachems, won loyalty by generous gift giving, whereas leaders in Europe often maintained power through accumulating riches and disseminating fear. Finally, in warfare, the Narragansett sought captives and tribute from their defeated foes, while the European style of warfare aimed to destroy the enemy.

The Narragansett and Roger Williams

Conflict between the settlers and the Narragansett did not start immediately. Roger Williams, a minister living in Massachusetts in the 1630s, demonstrated how the Narragansett and colonists could live relatively amicably together. Unlike most of his fellow colonists, Williams acknowledged that the Indians occupied the land first and believed the settlers should purchase the land from the Indians rather than just take it. Williams's fellow Massachusetts colonists strongly resented this idea and banished him. The Narragansett provided Williams with refuge and sold him land to create the town of Providence. Unfortunately, the Williams model of Indian relations would not be the norm.

Colonist Roger Williams sought refuge with the Narragansett.
Narragansett and Roger Williams

Pequot War

In 1637, the year of the Pequot War, the Narragansett could not have known that the story between the Indians and the colonists would end with the decimation (though not destruction) of Indian peoples. Indeed, no pan-Indian identity yet existed. What the Narragansett did know was that the Pequot Indians were their rivals and they hoped to capture some Pequot to boost their numbers, which had declined with the European diseases the settlers brought with them. In May 1637, the Narragansett and settlers surrounded a Pequot village in the Mystic River Valley in Connecticut, set the village on fire, and shot any Pequot who tried to escape the flames. In the end, about 400 Pequot died, most of whom were women, children, and old men. Rather than acquiring the captives they thought would come from the war, the Narragansett aided the English in massacring the Pequot village.

Miantonomi

In 1642, a Narragansett sachem, or leader, named Miantonomi considered the destruction to Indian peoples that resulted from warfare with the settlers. Miantonomi urged an alliance between all the different Indians in the region. Only through unity, Miantonomi argued, could the Indians effectively resist the colonists and preserve their way of life. Unfortunately, the historic differences between the Indians and some Indians' strategic alliances with the settlers meant Miantonomi's ideas never took hold and the Mohegan Indians killed him in 1643.

Narragansett sachem Miantonomo urged a pan-Indian alliance.
Miantonomo

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