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Archaeologist Jay Waller gives his presentation during the SK 300th Anniversary Committee's Speaker Series event last week at South Kingstown High School.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — For 25 years, archaeologist Jay Waller, Jr. has studied the lifestyle of the Narragansett Tribe before European colonists took over their land during the late 1600s. Last week, as part of the town of South Kingstown’s 300th anniversary celebration, he spoke of the history that laid the foundation for the town as we know it in 2023.

In the second installment of the South Kingstown 300th Anniversary Steering Committee’s monthly speaker series to celebrate the town’s special anniversary year, Waller spoke last Thursday evening at South Kingstown High School and presented his understanding of archaeological examples to tell the story of the tribe’s settlement choices, hunting practices, trade, daily life, and interactions with other tribes.

The speech was meant to honor the history of people who lived in the area for an estimated 12,000 years prior to South Kingstown’s founding.

Waller, of Pawtucket’s Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc., is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island, with a B.A. in anthropology. He received an M.A. in anthropology from the University of Connecticut, with specialization in northeastern Native American studies.

“Something happened in 1524,” Waller said, in reference to the first recorded encounter between the Narragansett population and Europeans when they sailed up the Narragansett Bay.

Martin Pring, John Smith, Thomas Hunt, Thomas Dermer, and Samuel de Champlain each encroached on Native space in the New England area. Hunt abducted Native Americans from the area to bring back to Europe, with Squanto being one of them, Waller said.

During the initial point of contact with the Europeans, the Narragansett Tribe sent them a bundle of arrows wrapped in snakeskin. Squanto interpreted the message to the Europeans as a challenge or warning from the original residents, Waller said.

According to Waller, violence began to ensue between the natives and colonizers around the mid-1630s.

“The Narragansett, they were strong, they were to be feared, they were a power,” Waller said. “These … colonies … they wanted our territory and they wanted to deal with (the) Narragansett problem.”

The colonizers wanted the land for agricultural purposes, Waller said.

Twenty years later, the Pettaquamscutt Purchase was declared in 1658, which gave the Europeans a title to what mostly became established as the settlement of South Kingstown.

When the Natives of the New England area refused to recognize the English’s newly established power and attempted to defend Native land against English settlement, King Philip’s War broke out in 1675.

Waller also reviewed the points in time, prior to English colonization – the Paleoindian Period, the Archaic Period, and the Woodland Period.

The Paleoindian Period saw the natives move between territories between Nova Scotia down to Pennsylvania.

“Back and forth, it’s amazing — the range of these people — travel,” Waller said.

Waller in his lecture explained the Narragansett Tribe’s hunting patterns, while exhibiting images of an array of spearpoints.

With the bow and arrow not yet introduced during the Archaic Period, the spear was instrumental in the Narragansett’s hunting and fishing methods, Waller said.

Waller said prior to his presentation that while he was familiar with South County, he saw the South Kingstown area as an understudied area. He expressed his gratitude to the Narragansett Tribe for its assistance in his many archaeology projects over the years.

“I owe them immensely … I benefitted from them greatly … with my relationship with tribal members,” Waller said. “…The stories, the history, that’s really in their realm … a lot of that is told to me in confidence (and) it’s not my story to tell.”

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