A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections at the RIHS

Trails of Memory

We had such a great turnout and so much interest in last Wednesday’s program that we wanted to post some additional information here for anyone who wasn’t able to attend or who would like further information. The title of the lecture was Trails of Memory in “The Narragansett Country”: Native and Settler Place-Traditions in Rhode Island after King Philip’s War (1675-78), and the author—NERFC fellow Christine M. DeLucia—was kind enough to provide a summary of her talk with some images of the Great Swamp area and suggestions for further reading:

Trails of Memory in “The Narragansett Country”: Native and Settler Place-Traditions in Rhode Island after King Philip’s War (1675-78)

King Philip’s War (1675-78) devastated Algonquian Indian peoples and English settlements in New England.  In its aftermath, “the Narragansett Country,” as the lands west of Narragansett Bay were then known, became contested ground as Rhode Island colonists and surviving Native peoples grappled for control of territory and stories.  This talk examined how Rhode Islanders and Narragansett tribal members have remembered and marked—or forgotten and erased—the area’s violent colonial past.  It stressed that these memories have responded to very local circumstances rather than to more abstract notions of “American” or “Indian” identities.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, surviving Narragansetts confronted dire conditions of servitude and slavery, diaspora, diminished territories, and restrictions on where they could walk, live, and participate in traditional subsistence and cultural practices.  Rhode Island colonists expanded their settlements into the newly “vacated” lands west of the Bay, and began to spin romantic legends and hauntings about certain places connected to the events of 1675-76.  They often visited and mentioned these places, particularly the grounds of King Philip’s seat at Mount Hope (Bristol) and the Great Swamp Fight/Massacre (South Kingstown).

During the Colonial Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, antiquarians sought to re-mark the land in ways that narrated settler victory and sacrifice, and the permanent defeat and even disappearance of the Narragansetts.  Providence-born Zachariah Allen (1795-1882) was one of the most active proponents of these colonial place-claims.  Besides being a prominent textile entrepreneur and President of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Allen wrote extensively on King Philip’s War, escorted local historical enthusiasts out to the conflict’s important “spots,” and enthusiastically supported the installation of monuments on these grounds.  In the same period nativist Yankee Rhode Islanders tended to disparage living Narragansetts, critiquing them as “mixed-bloods” and denying their claims to lands in South County.  Political pressures culminated when the State passed the Detribalization Act (1880) and dismantled reservation lands.

Despite these constraints, Narragansett peoples continued to articulate their own senses of geography and history, which can be read today in publications like the tribal magazine The Narragansett Dawn of the 1930s.  The tribe and allies continued to gather annually at the Great Swamp site, making it a place of protest, remembrance, and regeneration throughout the twentieth century.  Today memory remains contested in this area.  An ethically important project is unfolding at Nipsachuck (North Smithfield), where multiple tribes, local historians, and state offices are collaborating to re-interpret and preserve a battlefield from King Philip’s War.  The Narragansetts, formally recognized as a tribe since 1983, are active contributors to this work.  The regional “memoryscape” will evolve so long as its many inhabitants feel strongly, and even sharply disagree, about the meanings and ongoing effects of seventeenth-century violence.

Reading Suggestions:


  • Allen, Zachariah.  “The Rhode Island System of Treatment of the Indians, and of Establishing Civil and Religious Liberty” (1876).
  • Brown, John, III, and Paul Robinson.  “‘The 368 Years’ War’: The Conditions of Discourse in Narragansett Country.”  In Cross-Cultural Collaboration: Native Peoples and Archaeology in the Northeastern United States, ed. Jordan E. Kerber (2006), 59-75.
  • Herndon, Ruth Wallis and Ella Wilcox Sekatau (The Narragansett Tribe).  “The Right to a Name: Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era,” Ethnohistory 44:3 (Summer 1997), 433-62.
  • Mandell, Daniel.  Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780–1880 (2007).
  • O’Brien, Jean. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (2010).
  • Rubertone, Patricia.  Grave Undertakings: An Archaeology of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians (2001); and “Memorializing the Narragansett: Place-Making and Memory-Keeping in the Aftermath of Detribalization.” In Archaeologies of Placemaking: Monuments, Memories and Engagement in Native North America (2008).
  • Simmons, William. Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984 (1986).
  • The Narragansett Dawn tribal magazine (1930s).  RIHS E99.N16  D39.



–Be sure to check out our Events Calendar for more information about RIHS events.


One comment on “Trails of Memory

  1. Pingback: Native Villages of Rhode Island « A Lively Experiment

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This entry was posted on 8 December 2010 by in Events and tagged , .

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