Throughout the 22 years that we have been journeying through time here in our fair town, I have had many occasions to mention the three principle Chief Sachems of North Kingstown’s original citizens, the Narragansett people, during the time of first contact. Indeed, in columns in the past promoting the idea of a North Kingstown Hall of Fame, I, without question, knew that Canonicus, Miantonomi, and Canonchet belonged at the “head of the class”; these three individuals were just that critical to the story of our community. It only seems fair, instead of examining the fairy tale holiday story of Thanksgiving that we Americans have been sold for decade upon decade, that we instead examine the lives of these three fine men who lived so many years ago.
Chief Sachem Canonicus, whose summer village was thought to have been in the vicinity of the Devil’s Foot Rock, presided over the Narragansett people during the time of “first contact”; the period when the Narragansett and the English and European explorers, and then settlers, began to intermingle. During his time at the helm of the tribe, through his own acumen and a set of circumstances brought about by the deadly plagues that beset the New England area native populations as a result of that first contact, the Narragansett became the dominant power in the region. As the sphere of influence of the Narragansett got larger, and with the early influx of English settlers, more complicated, he shared leadership with his nephew Miantonomi. Canonicus, it is thought, was the final arbiter of the tribe and ruled over it, Miantonomi dealt directly with the other tribes in the region and the emerging population of English colonists. It was Canonicus truly who was responsible for the beginnings of Rhode Island, his friendship with Roger Williams resulted in the agreements that allowed the colony of outcasts and upstarts to be formed. Canonicus intuitively knew that rapidly expanding colony at Plymouth was ultimately to be a threat to the world he lived in and sent them a message which spoke volumes. He had a trusted messenger deliver a “bundle of arrows wrapped in a snake skin” to the Pilgrim leadership. Throughout the period of his leadership Canonicus remained faithful to the peace compact he had negotiated with Williams, although he did avenge the death of his nephew Miantonomi at the hands of the Mohegan sachem Uncas. Canonicus died in June of 1647, it was thought that he was more than 80 years old. John Winthrop, a historian of the day wrote, “Canonicus, the great Sachem of the Narragansett, died, a very old man.” Roger Williams recalled Canonicus as a great and benevolent friend to him.
Miantonomi, who ruled in concert with Canonicus, lived during a time of turmoil. It is thought he was born sometime around 1600 and rose to a position of leadership by the time he was in his late 20’s. Miantonomi was involved in a leadership role in the alliance between the English, the Mohegans, and the Narragansett that formed for the purpose of attacking the Pequots in Connecticut. This action led to the end of the Pequot tribe as an independent entity. The Mohegan leader at the time of this alliance was Uncas. Uncas coveted the power that the Narragansett’s wielded during this period and through guile and deception plotted with the English to usurp them. In 1642, Uncas convinced the colonial authorities that Miantonomi was attempting to build an anticolonial alliance and the Puritan authorities captured and imprisoned him for a time. After this experience, Miantonomi did indeed begin to foment resistance among the tribes of New England against colonial expansion and Uncas, upon hearing of it, again betrayed him to the Puritan leaders. In a battle in 1643 near Norwich, Uncas, at Colonial urging, attacked the Narragansetts and captured Miantonomi. They turned him over to the English in Connecticut, who sentenced him to death. The Connecticut colonial leadership however did not wish be directly involved with his execution and therefore gave him back to Uncas. It is thought that Uncas instructed his brother Wawequa to kill Uncas and he did in September of 1643. As a footnote to this entire unfortunate series of events between the Narragansett, Pequot, and Mohegan people, all of this animosity was exacerbated by Colonial influences as these tribes struggled to survive, in some cases at any cost. I am occasionally approached by folks who unknowingly ask me why these tribes today, do not work together more, “Why don’t the two Connecticut tribes help the Narragansett?” is often the question. The answer lies here in this story.
Sometime after the death of the aging sachem Canonicus, day to day control of the Narragansett nation fell to Miantonomi’s son Canonchet, who assumed the role of Chief Sachem. Cananchet was born sometime around 1630, and his summer village was thought to be near present-day Wickford. His life, like his father’s before was centered upon the turmoil that swirled around the interactions between the tribe and the English settlers that were arriving in increasing numbers. The details of the King Philips War are too substantial to be described here, but one important one was that in July of 1675 Canonchet signed a treaty with the colonists focused on non-aggression and loyalty to the British Crown. At nearly the same Canonchet also agree to shelter the women, children, and elderly members of the Wampanoag tribe, led by Philip, who were already at war with the colonists. When the colonial leadership of the United Colonies – Connecticut, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay caught wind of this, they, through emissaries, confronted Canonchet and accused him of breaking their treaty with this action. They demanded he turn over the Wampanoag members he was sheltering. Canonchet was purported to have replied, through the same emissaries, “Deliver the Indians of Philip? Never! Not a Wampanoag will I ever give up! No! Nor the paring of a Wampanoag’s nail!” This began the events that ended with the Great Swamp Massacre.
The then venerable Roger Williams, his friend, the friend of his father and the friend of the long-dead Canonicus, around this time advised him to stay out of the war. “Massachusetts,” said Roger Williams, “can raise thousands of men at this moment; and if you kill them, the king of England will supply their place as fast as they fall.”
“It is well,” replied Canonchet. “Let them come. We are ready for them. But as for you, Brother Williams, you are a good man; you have been kind to us many years. We shall burn the English in their houses, but not a hair of your head shall be touched.” The Narragansetts were now in the War.
Canonchet was eventually captured by a Connecticut force led by Capt. George Denison. The end of his days was eerily like his father’s. He was sentenced to death and turned over to the Mohegans who shot and then beheaded him. Upon learning he was to be executed Canonchet is reputed to have said, “ I like it well, I should die before my heart was soft or I have spoken anything unworthy of myself”. He was killed in April of 1676 and his head was displayed on a pike in Connecticut for all to see.