The name Narragansett (pronounced nah-ruh-GAN-sit) refers to both the people and the place where they lived. Some believe it means “people of the little points and bays.” The name currently applies to living members of the Eastern Niantic and Narragansett tribes.
At the height of their authority the Narragansett occupied most of present-day Rhode Island. They lived mainly along the Atlantic Coast and in the valleys and forests west of Narragansett Bay. As of 2007 the Narragansett Indian Tribe owned a 1,943-acre (784 hectares) reservation 45 miles (72 kilometers) south of Providence, Rhode Island. No one had lived on the reservation since the mid-1990s; most Narragansett lived in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. By 2000, however, sixty people lived on the reservation, and the population continued to grow as more housing was built on tribal land.
Population estimates in the year 1600 range from 4,000 to 30,000 Naragansett. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 2,564 people identified themselves as Narragansett. In 2000 that number dropped to 2,228.
Origins and group affiliations
The Narragansett are one of the oldest tribes in North America, dating back about eleven thousand years. Powerful Narragansett chiefs controlled certain groups of Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pokanoket, Wampanoag, Coweset, Shawomet, Mashapaug, and Manissean Indians who lived in southern New England and New York state.
The Narragansett may have been the largest and strongest Native American tribe in New England when British colonists arrived in the New World. The Narragansett were a generous and friendly people. When Puritan minister Roger Williams (1603–1683) made his way to Rhode Island after being expelled from Massachusetts in 1636, he was warmly welcomed. The Narragansett gave him land that became the city of Providence, Rhode Island. But other settlers followed, wars broke out, and in less than forty years, the Narragansett nation was nearly destroyed.
Early contact with Europeans
Prehistoric Native Americans inhabited the northeastern United States at the end of the last Ice Age, around 11,000 bce . They were wandering hunters of large mammals, but were forced to change their lifestyle when the great ice caps melted and the Arctic mammals died or moved farther north. Those who settled along the coast, rivers, streams, and bogs of New England between 10,000 and 700 bce were the ancestors of the Narragansett.
Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano (c. 1485–c. 1528) visited the area in 1524 and lived among the Narragansett for 15 days. He wrote that the people “have the most civil customs that we have found on this voyage.… Their manner is sweet and gentle.” Over the next century European contact with the Narragansett increased gradually; relations were usually friendly.
Seafaring Europeans came to Rhode Island because the nearby waters provided one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. They brought trade goods made of iron to exchange with the tribe. They also brought foreign diseases such as smallpox and plague. The Narragansett managed to escape the worst epidemics (uncontrolled outbreaks of disease), which destroyed most of the Wampanoag (see entry) and others. Survivors of other tribes joined the Narragansett, making the tribe even stronger than it had been before.
1524: Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano visits the Narragansett, beginning European relations with the tribe.
1675: The Great Swamp Fight during King Philip’s War nearly wipes out the tribe.
1880: The Rhode Island state legislature attempts to break up the tribe.
1934: The Narragansett Indian Tribe incorporates and creates a constitution and bylaws.
1983: The U.S. government officially recognizes the Narragansett tribe.
2007: The Northern Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island incorporates.
Settlers come, wars follow
In 1636 the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Puritan minister Roger Williams and a few of his followers. Colonial officials forced Williams to leave the colony because he spoke out against taking Native American land by force and against punishing people whose religious beliefs were different. Narragansett chief Miantonomi had heard of Williams. He welcomed Williams and his followers and gave them a place to build their homes.
Over the next forty years the Narragansett were frequently involved in wars with other tribes as they tried to maintain their dominance over New England. They also had to contend with more and more British settlers. In 1675 the United Colonies of New England began King Philip’s War (1675–76) against the Wampanoag. They also declared war on the Narragansett because the great Narragansett chief Canonchet, son of Miantonomi, refused to surrender Wampanoag refugees from the war.
On December 16, 1675, the colonial army laid siege to a Narragansett stronghold and destroyed it in what became known as the Great Swamp Fight. One participant of the battle estimated that between six hundred and one thousand Narragansett warriors died. Their parents, widows, and children were hunted down and brutally treated. By the end of King Philip’s War in the summer of 1676, possibly as few as two hundred Narragansett remained alive.
Survivors on the reservation
Of the surviving Narragansett, some were sold into slavery. Others merged with the Niantic, a related tribe; the combined group took the name Narragansett. They maintained themselves as a small independent unit on a 64-square-mile (165-sqare-kilometer) reservation in southern New England for more than two hundred years. In 1880, however, the Rhode Island legislature purchased the reservation, hoping to break up the tribe. Despite this, the Narragansett remained a community and, in the 1920s, began a long struggle to win back their ancestral lands.
In 1978 the Narragansett finally won a lawsuit against the state of Rhode Island for the return of some of their traditional territory. In 1983 the Narragansett won recognition from the U.S. government. Federally recognized tribes are those with which the U.S. government maintains official relations. Without federal recognition, the tribe does not exist as far as the government is concerned, so they are not entitled to financial or other government help.
The Narragansett believed in a creator god called Cautantowwit. He made the first people from stone, then smashed them to create the ancestors of all other people. Second in importance to Cautantowwit was a spirit called Chepi, who descended from the souls of the dead. Specially trained healers could call upon his power. Chepi was feared because he could punish people who behaved improperly by causing them to become sick or die. Chepi warned Native Americans who followed the English lifestyle that evil consequences would result if they did not return to a Native American way of life.
The Narragansett also believed in many lesser gods and powerful spirits, such as the crow who gave them their staple crops, corn and beans, after he stole them from Cautantowwit’s garden.
Many Native Americans in southern New England believed that an unusual or outstanding event had to be the work of the god Manittoo. Because of this belief, the white people who knew metallurgy (the science of metals), sailing technology, printing, and writing were often viewed as gods. The English colonists had an easier time among the Narragansett because of this belief.
All southern New England Indians, including the Narragansett, spoke related languages of the eastern Algonquian family. A study done in 1861 declared that nobody had spoken Narragansett regularly since before 1816. According to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, no Narragansett person knew or used their native language in 1997.
As of 2007 the Narragansett were working to revive their language. Using books written during colonial times and other research sources, several scholars pieced together the vocabulary and grammar of this extinct language. The Aquidneck Indian Council, with support from The Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, published a book with basic language instruction. They also developed classroom materials.
Roger Williams wrote a book published in 1643 called A Key into the Language of America. It remains the largest collection of Narragansett vocabulary. Later efforts, dating from 1769 to 1879, added 82 words, raising the total known to about 200. Isolated terms, such as wigwam and powwow, have become well known. Williams listed information about the tribal customs as well as their language and how it related to the Eastern Algonquian dialects (language varieties) of the Massachusett, Pequot (see entry), Mohegan, and Wampanoag tribes.
The Narragansett lived under the authority of lesser chiefs called sachems (pronounced SAY-chums), who were under the command of a grand sachem, who lived in the largest village. The position was hereditary (handed down to relatives), and often a sachem shared power with another person. The favorite arrangement was to share power with a nephew. When there were no close male relatives, a female relative might become sachem.
The sachems ensured that all members of the tribe had enough land to support themselves. They were paid for their services in corn, deerskins, and food. Sachems were careful to treat their subjects well because it was a matter of pride and wealth to have a large number of subjects. If a family disagreed with a sachem’s decisions, it could join another tribe.
In the eighteenth century Rhode Island abolished the position of sachem as the U.S. government began taking over tribal lands. The Narragansett ignored this action and continued to act under the authority of sachems and a tribal council.
In 1983 the Narragansett won recognition from the federal government. In the early twenty-first century the tribal government was run by an elected tribal council and a chief sachem, a medicine man or woman, a secretary, an assistant secretary, a treasurer, and an assistant treasurer. The government also consisted of several departments including Housing, Health, Education, Human Services, Natural Resources, and Finance. Vocational training, community planning, real estate rights protection, historic preservation, health care, and child care are other programs administered by the tribe.
The Narragansett traditionally farmed, fished, hunted, and gathered to provide themselves with a varied diet. When they won recognition from the federal government in 1983, they became eligible for public education, health care, job training, and housing aid. They set about trying to make themselves self-sufficient.
In 2007, the largest single employer of the Narragansett was tribal government. Others affiliated with the reservation maintained a community garden, harvested trees, or worked in the building trades in nearby towns. Some worked in the tourist trade at the Dover Indian Trading Post in Rockville and at the Narragansett Indian Longhouse, which offered lectures and tours. Most tribal members worked in the nearby communities as doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, fishermen, lobsterman, cooks, and masons.
In the Narragansett tradition, men not only provided for their own families, but helped others in need. This remains a common practice among the people today.
For recreation, Narragansett men in traditional times enjoyed smoking and gossiping, playing games such as an early version of football, throwing dice, and dancing. Women were often busy with food cultivation and preparation; they prided themselves on interesting recipes that combined several different foods.
The Narragansett moved in both winter and summer. In summer they moved to take advantage of good lands for planting and gathering, and in winter they moved to a warmer place with good hunting. Sometimes they had to move when fleas and other biting insects became troublesome or to avoid infection when illness struck their village. Their wigwams, or wetus, had to be portable and easy to take apart and reassemble. Roofs were made of chestnut or birch bark attached to the top of bent poles, which were stuck in the ground. In cold weather they insulated the wigwams with mats or animal skins attached to the roof or spread on the floor. Smoke from the fire escaped through a hole in the roof.
Two or more families sometimes shared the same wigwam. The Narragansett also built shacks so family members could sleep near their crops to protect young plants from birds and other predators. In winter they stayed in longhouses for greater warmth. (A longhouse is a long, narrow, single-room building used as a communal dwelling.)
In the 1940s the Narragansett built a traditional longhouse on the reservation to serve as a community center. In the 1990s the tribe began building a community center and fifty homes on the reservation. As of 2007 the community center also housed a senior meal center and childcare facilities.
Before the Europeans destroyed the Narragansett culture, the tribe’s food supply was plentiful and varied. Along the coast and in the swamps and streams, women caught spawning alewives, clams, oysters, lobster, and other shellfish. In the woods they collected wild onions, chestnuts, wild strawberries, and other plants in season. Men prepared the fields for planting, and women planted and harvested the crops, including corn, beans, and squash. Some of the favorite dishes of the tribe included jonny cake, corn chowder, quahog (clam) chowder, and Indian pudding (made from boiled cornmeal sweetened with molasses).
Men hunted duck, pigeon, deer, rabbit, squirrel, bear, and beaver. In the winter they fished through the ice. Men also grew their own tobacco and molded or carved special pipes for smoking it. To smoke a peace pipe with another person signified the formation of a new friendship.
The Narragansett introduced the earliest European settlers to their native dish, called msickquatash by the natives and succotash by the settlers. The original dish consisted of corn and lima beans, picked fresh from the garden. New England housewives enlivened the dish by adding green peppers and other vegetables shipped from the West Indies.
- 1 cup fresh or frozen baby lima beans
- salt to taste
- 1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
- 4 Tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter OR
- 1/4 cup heavy [whipping] cream
- freshly ground pepper to taste
In a large saucepan, boil the beans in salted water to cover until nearly done. Add the corn kernels and cook until tender, just a few minutes. Drain, stir in the butter, and check seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.
McCullough, Frances, and Barbara Witt. Classic American Food Without Fuss. New York: Villard Books, 1996, p. 151–152.
Clothing and adornment
Little is known about the traditional clothing worn by the Narragansett. In summer men most likely wore breechcloths, a type of garment secured at the waist that passes between the legs. Women wore leather or woven skirts. We know that beads were popular; wampum (beads carved from the shells of local clams) acted as both decoration and money.
Narragansett healing practices went hand in hand with their religion. People known as pawwaws (this is where the term “powwow” comes from) presided over religious and healing ceremonies. To gain their respected positions, pawwaws had to be able to communicate with the spirit world and to heal or injure others. They might demonstrate their power by creating magic arrows from the hair of an enemy or by causing a real arrowhead to injure someone. However, pawwaws more often relied on massage and the laying on of hands to cure the sick. They were usually men. Women skilled at making medicines from plants were called in to attend the birth of a child.
In the mid-2000s medicine men, and sometimes women, still played an important role in tribal life. Their care was supplemented on the reservation by the tribally-administered Narragansett Indian Health Center. The Center offered traditional care by spiritual leaders and medicine people along with other options for physical care, substance abuse, and mental health programs as well as a lab and pharmacy.
Historically the Narragansett considered elders the most important people in the tribe. The elders passed on culture and traditions, and were treated with great respect. This continues to be the case.
To help everyone in the tribe become employable, productive, and self-sufficient; the Education Department of the tribal government provides financial assistance to college students. They also hold adult education programs and offer tutoring for children who need help with schoolwork.
Historians believe that three generations of two different families lived together in one house. A woman may have moved in with her husband’s family when she married. Sachems married only women of high rank, such as the daughter of another sachem. Sometimes sachems had two or three wives if they could afford to support them.
The Narragansett honored Cautantowwit, the creator, with a nickommo, a special ceremony in which they sacrificed their most precious possessions by burning or burying them. They also honored him with a feast of thanksgiving in autumn. Foods consumed at the feast included turkey, corn, beans, cranberries, and pumpkin pie.
Death and dying
Elderly men prepared the bodies of the dead for burial. First they rubbed them with mud or soot. They placed objects in the grave to accompany the soul to Cautantowwit’s house, where the dead lived much as they had on earth. Sometimes a sick or dead person’s home was burned to prevent infection or a visit from the evil spirit who had afflicted the person. A dead person’s name was never mentioned again.
Current tribal issues
The Narragansett continue to strive for economic self-sufficiency. They designed housing projects to move the elderly and families onto the previously uninhabited reservation. The tribe hoped to build a casino, but needed state approval before construction could proceed. In Rhode Island only the state is authorized to run lotteries. The state was reluctant to grant permission because a tribal casino might cause attendance at state gambling facilities to drop. The casino plan suffered a major setback in 2006 when Rhode Islanders voted against it.
In another ongoing difficulty with the government, the Narragansett people in 2007 were fighting for their right to sell tax-free cigarettes. As a sovereign (self-governing) nation, they believed they could sell duty-free products; the state disagreed. In 2003 state police raided a store on the reservation. In 2005, the tribe won its case in court, but after a 2006 appeal, it ultimately lost.
Another issue concerned a tribal division that occurred in 2006. Many individuals were told they no longer belonged to the tribe. These people incorporated as the Northern Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island. They then sought federal recognition. Rather than rely on casino income, the newly created tribe planned to develop partnerships with state and local governments to provide employment for its members.
The Narragansett sachem Miantonomi (d. 1643), who originally befriended the English colonists, was one of the first Native Americans to try to create a pan-Indian alliance against them (an alliance that would include members of different tribes). In a famous speech he said: “These English having gotten our land, they with scythes cut down the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved.” Miantonomi could not overcome rivalries among tribes, however. The Mohegan tribe executed him in 1643.
Other notable Narragansett include: Canonchet, Miantonomi’s son and successor, a leader during King Philip’s War; Canonicus, Miantonomi’s uncle, governed internal matters in the tribe while Miantonomi dealt with external problems; and Quaiapen, a female sachem and Canonicus’s daughter-in-law, led part of the tribe in King Philip’s War.
Barron, Donna Gentle Spirit. The Long Island Indians and their New England Ancestors: Narragansett, Mohegan, Pequot and Wampanoag Tribes. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006.
Burroughs, Crowder. Algonquians of the East Coast. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 2003.
Doherty, Craig A., and Katherine M. Doherty. The Narragansett. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Publishing, 1994.
Ryan, Marla Felkins, and Linda Schmittroth. Tribes of Native America: Narragansett. San Diego: Blackbirch Press, 2003.
Siegel, Beatrice, and William Sauts Bock. Indians of the Northeast Woodlands. New York: Walker Books for Young Readers, 1992.
Simmons, William S. The Narragansett. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
Through Indian Eyes: The Untold Story of Native American Peoples. Pleasantville, New York: Reader’s Digest, 1995.
Toe, Big. Walk Softly on the Earth: The Words and Wisdom of Narragansett Elder Big Toe. Audio CD. Monterey, MA: BMA Studios, 2004.
Ethnologue Report for Language Code: MOF: Mohegan-Montauk-Narragansett “Summer Institute of Linguistics.” (accessed on July 15, 2007).
Gordon, Raymond G., Jr., ed. Ethnologue: Languages of the World., Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International, 2005. Available online at (accessed on July 15, 2007).
“Narragansett Culture and History Links.” Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous American Indian Languages. (accessed July 15, 2007).
Narragansett Indian Tribe. (accessed on July 15, 2007).
“Native Americans: Narragansett.” Native Americans: American Indians: The First People of America: History of Native American Tribes. (accessed on May 19, 2007).
Waabu O’Brien, Frank. “Bringing Back Our Lost Language.” New England Algonquian Language Revival. (accessed July 15, 2007).
George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute
NARRAGANSETT. Narragansetts first encountered Europeans in 1524. Relatively unaffected by the massive epidemic of 1616–1617, they became players in the fur trade and a major power in southern New England. In 1636 the tribe allowed Roger Williams and other Puritan dissidents to settle in their territory (now southern Rhode Island), and then joined the English in the Pequot War. Their relationship quickly soured, although negotiators managed to prevent war. But when King Philip's War erupted in 1675, an English preemptive strike drove the tribe into the conflict. Ninigret, sachem of the neighboring Niantics, remained neutral; his community drew many survivors and gradually became known as Narragansett. By 1750 Ninigret's descendents were selling tribal lands to pay for their rich lifestyle, alienating most in the tribe. After the Revolution many left for Brothertown in New York. Those remaining became the last autonomous tribe
in the region, governed by an elected council. In 1880 Rhode Island decided to terminate the tribe and sell its reserve. But kinship and gatherings continued to bring Narragansetts together; the tribe incorporated in 1934 and in 1978 won 1,800 acres from the state. In April 1983 the Narragansett tribe was the first in southern New England to win federal recognition, and in 2000 counted about 2,400 members.
Campbell, Paul R., and LaFantosie, Glenn W. "Scattered to the Winds of Heaven: Narrangansett Indians, 1676–1880." Rhode Island History 37, no. 3 (1978): 66–83.
Simmons, William S. "Narragansett." In Handbook of North American Indians. Edited by William C. Sturtevant et al. Volume 15: The Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978.
See alsoIndian Claims Commission .