At Adamsville Landing, the water is calm and the river is shallow. Salt marshes and forested areas line the river’s banks. Wild deer, turkeys, coyotes, and foxes make homes in the woods, and blue herons, terns, ospreys, and gulls swoop through the sky.
The water near the landing is part of an estuary, which means that salt water moving in from Buzzard’s Bay meets fresh water washing down the river. It’s a unique and beautiful natural space.
At the time of King Philip’s War, in the late 1670s, the west branch of the Westport River (then called the Acoaxet River) was inhabited by a branch of the Sakonnet people led by Mamanuah, whose stepmother was Awashonks, sachem of the Sakonnets who inhabited the west side of Little Compton. The English at that time considered the entire area to be part of Plymouth Colony, whose leaders refused to acknowledge the dual leadership of the Sakonnet people. They preferred to deal solely with Mamanuah, whose land holdings were more extensive than Awashonks’. To reward Mamanuah and his people for their assistance in fighting King Philip, the English granted them deeds to some of their ancestral lands on the Acoaxet River including the area around Adamsville Landing.
These deeds became a source of power for the native inhabitants, who sold their land in piecemeal to the English settlers in ways that were “troublesome and costly” to the purchasers. With this land as leverage, Mamanuah’s people were more able to resist the indentured servitude and displacement experienced by Awashonks’ people. However, in the sixty years that followed King Philp’s War, the Adamsville area gradually became English property as a result of systemic colonization, coercion, and indebtedness. An 1861 census report of native peoples in Massachusetts indicated that the west side of the Westport River remained the “most numerous settlement” of the descendants of the Sakonnets, although they no longer held deeds to the land.
Official documents can’t tell the whole story of the land. Information included in historical timelines—and in historical tours—is limited, carefully worded and selected, and never neutral. We should always be asking more questions. How did ideas of land ownership differ between the English and the Sakonnets? What role did the threat of violence play in the dealings between these cultures?
Today, Adamsville Landing is a common destination for kayakers and canoers on scenic day trips. Maybe, today, as you take this tour, that’s what you’re doing. What does it mean to be paddling here? Who does this land belong to, and what does it mean to own a river? A salt marsh? A forest? Who else has paddled here, and when, and why? How can you engage more deeply and critically with the many, many histories of the land around you?