First Peoples of Rhode Island

The First Peoples of the area now referred to as Rhode Island have cared for these lands and, in turn, been cared for by them for thousands of years. When Europeans arrived, colonists were met by strong tribal nations with complex societies and vibrant cultures. Beginning in the early 17th century, colonization began to disrupt Native groups in Rhode Island and across New England on social, political, and cultural levels. In seeking a better life for themselves and their families, colonists changed the futures of the First Peoples as well. The changes that ensued often contradicted and frequently dismissed Indigenous worldviews and led to the persecution of Native communities.

Through difficult times, the First Peoples of Rhode Island have managed to both survive and thrive. Thanks to the strength and dignity of various Native leaders and tribal members from the 17th to the 21st centuries, the Narragansett Indian Tribe has maintained a vibrant cultural legacy in Rhode Island. Institutions like The Narragansett Indian Church, the Tomaquag Museum, and the Rhode Island Indian Council have been bastions of First Peoples' identity and community making. To date, The Narragansett Indian Tribe is the only federally recognized tribe in Rhode Island. However, the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Niantic lived within Rhode Island's Eurocentric boundaries prior to, and during colonization.

In the development of this tour, many primary and secondary sources were consulted. This was done with a critical eye on these sources, considering the context within which they were created. Accordingly, many of the sources should not be viewed as innately factual documents, but as documents created by colonial powers to justify colonization. Some of the primary sources cited here are controversial, and even painful reminders to Native communities of what their ancestors endured and overcame.

While there are countless places that are important to the First Peoples of Rhode Island, and many individuals that have worked for the betterment of their community, those involved in crafting this tour had the very difficult task of selecting just a handful of places and people to highlight. The individuals and locations selected are chosen to illustrate larger themes and topics relevant to the history of the First Peoples of Rhode Island.

In experiencing this tour, it is important to note that any group of people who have a shared cultural identity are diverse in their views and opinions on their heritage. The Narragansett Indian Tribe is no exception. Accordingly, the secondary sources informing this tour do not reflect the views of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, or necessarily, its tribal members. Our hope is that by sharing these sources, we inspire respectful dialogue between Native and non-Native groups about the history of the First Peoples of Rhode Island.

Canonicus and Miantonomi

Miantonomi and Canonicus lived and ruled in a period of extreme change for the Narragansett. Although there were no colonists in the region when Miantonomi was born (c. 1600), early trading interactions between Europeans and First Peoples eventually…

Ninigret

In 1664, not far from this locale, Ninigret defeated a daring nighttime raid launched by his longtime enemy, Wyandanch, the Sachem of the Montaukett Indians of Long Island. Both men had reasons to seek revenge. Wyandanch had killed some of Ningret's…

Metacomet

Within a mile of this location, Metacomet, also called King Philip, and his men were ambushed by Captain Benjamin Church of the Plymouth Colony on August 12, 1676. Church had followed Metacomet to his long-time stronghold on Montaup (Mount Hope)…

Quaiapen

Quiapen was a powerful Niantic female sachem through birth and marriage and was the last Narragansett-Niantic leader to be captured or killed in King Philip's War (1675-1676).During the summer of 1676, Quaiapen and her followers, mainly women and…

Samuel Niles

The church that you see here today was not the original structure built on this site in 1750. The earlier church was made of wood; its chimney can still be seen in the interior of the current church. Here, Samuel Niles was one of the first in a long…

Sarah Muckamug

Near this location in 1741, Mary Wilkinson found Sarah Muckamug crying after a visit from the father of her four children, Aaron Whipple, an enslaved man living in Providence. Their relationship was over after more than a decade. The couple had never…

Ellison Myers "Tarzan" Brown

On April 21st 1936, 22-year old Ellison Brown arrived at the Rhode Island State House and was met by a roaring ovation from the Rhode Island General Assembly. When asked to speak, he said "I did it for Rhode Island." What Ellison had done…

Princess Red Wing

Wanting to animate the ground that had become cold over the centuries, Princess Red Wing initiated the Great Swamp Massacre Ceremony in the late 1930s. The ceremony starkly contrasted with the 1906 dedication of the monument to the Great Swamp Fight.…

Ferris Babcock Dove and Eleanor Dove

When Ferris Babcock Dove (1915-1983) and Eleanor Dove (1918-present) opened the Dovecrest Restaurant in 1963, it was the first Native American restaurant in New England. Perched on Summit Road, the restaurant gained national attention for their…

Dawn Spears and Cassius Spears Sr.

Welcome to the Crandall Minacommuck Farm! Food and culture are intimately connected, with both helping to sustain the well-being of any society. This was true for the Narragansett Tribe both before and after European arrival. Traditionally, the…
This tour was supported by a generous grant from the Heritage Harbor Foundation.

Tour developers would also like thank Anthony Belz, Archivist, Lorén Spears, Executive Director, and Dawn Dove, Tribal Elder, who helped support content from the Tomaquag Museum.