Fact, fancy and folklore: The Narragansett Indians
From this column forward I will be proudly submitting the writings of my father, Don D’Amato. I hope you all enjoy.
The following article on the Narragansett Indians was written in the 1970s and 1980s and it nearly marked the end of my writing career. I approached the subject with a great deal of confidence. I knew very well that much of the material that I would be using would not come from the Narragansett Indians, as they had no writing of their own. Much of the story would be from the perspective of the English colonists during the early 17th century.
I knew it would be prejudicial, but a lot of it would be taken from the writing of Roger Williams in his "Key to the Understanding of the Language of the Americas." I was very much impressed with this book as, unlike some of the other writers of the period who were very prejudiced, I thought that Williams was more sympathetic and understanding to what was happening when the two cultures clashed.
Later, of course, Dr. Carl Woodward, the past president of URI, wrote a great deal about the agricultural pursuits of the Narragansett Indians and would seem to explain a lot about the mores and culture.
In more recent years, I became greatly influenced by Dr. J. Louis Giddings, Professor of Anthropology at Brown University and Director of the Haffenreffer Museum. When I took a course at Brown with Dr. Giddings, I was fascinated with the fact that he had lived for a number of years with the Kobuk Indians. Dr. Giddings, a well-known scholar, brought to life the idea of the culture and lifestyle of the American Indian and I felt gave me an insight into how the Narragansetts were developing in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Feeling that I would be doing a credible job of looking into the Narragansett Indians, I was shocked by the criticism that I received from a young professor at URI. Up until that time, most of the mail that I received regarding my Beacon article was very positive and encouraging. The letter was critical and I was amazed that editor John Howell printed it in the Beacon. I was shocked and devastated, to put it mildly. The author said that while I was trying to be positive, I was patronizing instead. He said that my language was archaic and no longer used by scholars in the field. He said it was obvious that I had not been to school in a number of years and I was unaware of the research being done by scholars in the field.
When the letter appeared in the Beacon I felt that I was a failure as a historian and a writer. I was ready to call it quits. Fortunately, I spoke to Howell expecting criticism from him. Instead he laughed and told me that this is what’s going to happen. People are going to criticize and I should be happy that people are reading the articles and they care enough to comment on them. He told me, “Keep writing! This is great!”
So I kept on writing, and I hope you enjoy the following that caused me so much concern all those years ago. I have learned since then that not everyone views history in the same light. Modern Narragansett Indians see things quite differently, which leads me to believe that history is often a mixture of fact, fancy and folklore. This is the article as it was written in the 1980s.
Many centuries before the first Europeans settled in the area we call Rhode Island; the American Indian was well established with a tribal government and a hunting and fishing economy. The first written description of the natives of the area comes from Giovanni Verrazzano who came to Narragansett Bay in 1524. He wrote that the natives were, "tall, comely…of sweet and gentle countenance...full of pity and charity for their neighbors, very liberal...they give what they have."
Verrazzano's stay in the Bay area was very short and he made no further attempt to study the people he found in this "pleasant land." Most of what we know about the Indians in the area comes from Roger Williams' observations and writings. Williams was one of the very few Englishmen who made the effort to learn the Indian languages and to write them down. His "Key to Understanding of the Language of the Americas," written around 1643, is one of the main sources of information about the Narragansett, the large and prosperous tribe that once claimed to number over 30,000 with 5000 warriors. Their domain extended from the shores of Narragansett Bay inland for nearly 25 miles. Tribes such as the Shawomets, the Pawcatucks, and the Cowesetts were all under their domination, and nearly all other tribes in New England paid tribute to and traded with the Narragansetts.
This story will be continued next week.