A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections and events at the RIHS

Object Thursday: The Narragansett Basket

Basket ca. 1675. RIHS 1842.2.1

The Narragansett Basket is one of only two surviving 17th-century Algonkian baskets in the world. Despite an accompanying note describing a gift made in haste, the basket is in fact carefully woven of basswood splints and cornhusk interwoven with red wool. While recently on exhibition at the Haffenreffer Museum, this basket’s condition precludes frequent display.

The basket’s diminutive size and humble materials belie significant stories from the past. Woven in its splints are the interactions between Native Peoples and English colonists in 17th-century New England, the transformation of the local economy under the influence of Native-European trade, and 19th-century antiquarian notions of history and national origin. Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Award-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich recognized the many strands bound together in the basket and dedicated an entire chapter to it in her 2001 book, The Age of Homespun, offering profound insights on the study of material culture and its revelations on the past.

A gift to the Rhode Island Historical Society in 1842, the basket was presented with a note which survives with it to this day:

The little basket, was given by a squaw, a native of the forest to Dinah Fenner, wife of Major Thomas Fenner, who fought in Churche’s Wars; then living in a garrison in Providence, now Cranston, R.I. The squaw went into the garrison; Mrs. Fenner gave her some milk to drink, she went out by the side of a river, peeled the inner bark from the Wickup tree, sat down, under the tree, drew the shreds out of her blanket, mingled them with the bark, wrought this little basket, took it to the garrison and presented it to Mrs. Fenner. Mrs. Fenner gave it to her daughter Freelove, wife of Samuel Westcoat, Mrs. Westcoat gave it to her granddaughter Wait Field , Wife of William Field, at Field’s Point, Mrs. Field gave it to her daughter Sarah, Sarah left it with her sister Elinor who now presents it to the Historical Society of Rhode Island. Field’s Point, September, 1842

While the note is mostly myth, the description of the weaving process has been confirmed by examination.

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