190801ind History

Peter LaFarge was born Oliver A. LaFarge in April of 1931

As you might imagine, my reading preferences always tend towards the historical. I love biographies, well-written straight out history focused tomes, and accurately portrayed historical fiction. I look for books with lots of maps because I love maps; they help me understand spatially how things transpired. I also tend towards books with good source material listings and indexes. Glossaries too, are great; books just don’t feature them enough anymore if you ask me. Invariably, because I’m always looking for that South County angle, I end up with nose buried in those aforementioned features long before I finish the book. You never know where you might find a great column idea, you know. Just recently I took my time to learn more about a favorite singer of mine, Johnny Cash; an American icon if there ever was one. I spent my time digging through all those “back of the book” features I just mentioned, just like I always do, and there it was, a nugget of South County gold - notations about seminal American folk singer Peter La Farge and his Narragansett Indian heritage. Jackpot! A jackpot though, that got me thinking.

The thing about this that really caught my interest was the fact that, I soon learned, even the Smithsonian Institute bought into this Narragansett Indian thing. You see, my gateway, my entry point into the intriguing world of North Kingstown history was genealogy and archaeology. I learned much of what I know about our fair town while studying up on the history of my own family. Additionally, I spent years at the side of my grandfather Paul St. Pierre, perhaps South County’s most enthusiastic and impassioned archaeologist ever, learning all I could about the extraordinary souls that were the Narragansett people. This immersion into the story of the early settlers of South County and the noble people that they supplanted set off alarm bells in my sieve-like memory banks as I scanned the internet looking for even a shred of truth in this story. I knew immediately that the only possible connection to the Narragansetts for our folksinger would come through his great great-grandfather Christopher Grant Perry, the son of famed naval hero Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and the more I looked at the “Hero of the War of 1812” the more sure I was that Peter La Farge’s claim of a Narragansett blood line was spurious.

Peter LaFarge was born Oliver A. LaFarge in April of 1931. His father was famed writer and anthropologist Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge, who actually won a Pulitizer Prize for his novel “Laughing Boy” a sympathetic and accurate treatment of the Navaho Indians. Indeed he spent much of his adult life championing Indian rights and was the president of the Association on American Indian Affairs for many years. Peter’s grandfather was famed NYC architect, writer, and artist C. Grant La Farge who also cared deeply about the treatment of Native Americans. In between designing many of the Big Apple’s major cathedrals and Beaux-Arts subway stations, Grant La Farge illustrated a number of important anthropological treatises and books on Native American tribes and also wrote passionately about them. A wonderful short story written by Grant LaFarge is included in the DAR book “Facts & Fancies concerning North Kingstown” that focuses on the Narragansett people. So it’s easy to see where Peter LaFarge’s overarching interest in Native American subjects found its beginnings.

Right about now you are probably asking yourself, “Where does South County fit in to all this?” Well, each and every summer, beginning in the late 1800’s, the La Farge family, joined their Lockwood and Wharton relations at their adjacent summer houses in the little seaside village of Saunderstown. Certainly Peter and his father came from their home out in Colorado and visited with the relatives here in Saunderstown each summer and indeed his education into the ways of the Narragansett people may have happened here on the lap of his father and grandfather. Sadly the LaFarge home burned down in 1946. But Peter’s dad Oliver was a principle in the Saunderstown Hotel Association the group that took over ownership of the Saunders House properties after Stillman Saunders family sold it off; so they may have come here a few more times after the fire. A few years after the fire, Peter LaFarge assumed his new first name, to differentiate himself from his well-known dad, and set off on his own. He began his adult life working as a cowboy, a rodeo rider and a now and again singer. His friendships with folk music roots artists Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and particularly his friend and mentor Cisco Houston led him from the Wild West to the wild life of NY City’s Greenwich Village in the late 1950’s.

While there, the young singer-songwriter hung out with a youthful Bob Dylan, Rambling Jack Elliot, Moe Asch and Dave Van Ronk, he took the stage with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and influenced the likes of, yes, Johnny Cash and the aforementioned Mr. Dylan. With his five Folkway Records albums, all dedicated to Native American and cowboy themes and featuring songs like “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” the true story of a Pima Indian who was one of the marines that raised the flag at Iwo Jima, and “As Long as the Grass shall Grow” the story of government treaty violations with the Seneca nation, Pete carved out a reputation as the first folk singer to integrate Native American issues into folk and protest songs. Following in his father’s footsteps, Pete LaFarge was an initial organizer of FAIR (Federation for American Indian Rights) a move that put him on the radar screen of the FBI. When Johnny Cash heard Pete LaFarge’s work, he was so inspired to action that he not only recorded the album “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian”, which featured Ira Hayes and a number of other LaFarge tunes, but also created his own Indian heritage, an act which he later recanted.

Sadly, Peter LaFarge, died in October of 1965, under mysterious circumstances. Various sources have called the death a suicide, an accidental drug overdose, and a death by natural causes. But whatever the case, Peter LaFarge left behind a legacy of Native American advocacy that lives on today and perhaps, like the proverbial stones of native lore, forever.

The ironic thing to me is that, with a legacy of concern for Native American rights that is truly generational, Peter LaFarge already possessed all the requisite “Street cred” that he would ever need to be remembered as someone worthy of the honor at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He didn’t need to make up a questionable connection to the Narragansett people – he was already bound to them by the incredible worth of the life that he had led.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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