Canonicus and his nephew Miantonomi were the chief sachems of the powerful Narragansett tribe at the time when Roger Williams and other English colonists settled Rhode Island. The heart of the Narragansett’s strength during their “golden age” under Canonicus and Miantonomi was the tribe’s close association with such smaller bands as the Pawtuxet, the Shawomet, and the Cowesset on the west side of the bay that now bears the Narragansett tribal name. After avoiding a severe epidemic of 1616-1619 that diminished the ranks of several tribes, especially the Wampanoags, the Narragansetts, under their two sachems, became noted among coastal Indians for the intensity of their religious rituals.
Under the uniquely arranged leadership of the two sachems, the Narragansett rose from their home southwest of the bay to dominate the alliance among Pawtuxets, Shawomets, and Cowessets and to push the depopulated and weakened Pokanoket and Seakonke bands from the mouth of the Seekonk River. From there, the Narragansetts extended their influence up the Blackstone and Moshassuck Rivers to the domain of the eastern Nipmucks, from whom they obtained furs. They also controlled the flow of pelts and trade goods between Massachusetts Bay and the interior. Finally, they oversaw Indian-Dutch trade relations for the small Niantic tribe living in modern Charlestown and for the natives of Aquidneck and Block Island. Because of their size and location and the respect they enjoyed among other Indians as shrewd traders, devoted worshipers, and committed pacifists, the Narragansetts under Canonicus and Miantonomi obtained their dominance through persuasion rather than violence.
In the winter of 1635/36, the Wampanoag chief Massasoit sheltered the exiled Roger Williams. In the spring, the Narragansett sachems greeted him on the west bank of the Seekonk and allowed him to establish a settlement (Providence) on lands recently occupied due to the plague that depopulated the Wampanoags. The original deed to Williams from Canonicus (who signed himself with a bow) and Miantonomi (who signed with an arrow) was executed on March 24, 1638. It confirmed earlier verbal grants. “Not a penny was demanded by either,” wrote Williams. “It was not price or money that could have purchased Rhode Island. Rhode Island was purchased by love.” The first town boundaries established by this document (called the “town evidence”) extended from a point just above Pawtucket Falls on the north, southwesterly to Neutaconkanut Hill, thence southeasterly to the mouth of the Pawtuxet River. The Blackstone, Seekonk, and Providence Rivers served as the eastern boundary. In 1638, the sachems sold Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands to William Coddington, and in 1642, Miantonomi permitted Samuel Gorton to settle upon Shawomet lands in present-day Warwick.
Unfortunately for Canonicus and Miantonomi, intertribal jealousies and colonial greed would topple their empire. In 1643, Miantonomi (also called Miantonomoh) journeyed west to the Connecticut Valley at the head of a punitive expedition to chastise the rival Mohegan tribe for threatening a small remnant band of Pequots who were allied with the Narragansetts. The Mohegans repulsed the Narragansetts and captured Miantonomi, who was slowed in his retreat by his suit of armor. The Mohegan chief, Uncas, charged Miantonomi with the murder of an Indian and sent Miantonomi’s case to the English authorities for disposition. The English commissioners (representing the settlements of Connecticut, New Haven, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay) were covetous of Narragansett tribal lands, and this desire no doubt influenced their decision to return Miantonomi to Uncas in Norwich, where Wawequa, the brother of Uncas, executed him.
The fact that Miantonomi had recently been urging natives in southern New England and Long Island to bury their differences and unite to recover their autonomy and strength also sealed his fate with the English confederation. When Miantonomi was executed by blows from a tomahawk in 1643, the hope of Native American unification and successful Indian resistance to English Puritan hegemony was lost. The aging and infirm Canonicus mourned the loss of his statesmanlike nephew until his own death from natural causes in 1647. Before his demise, he joined with his nephew Pessacus, the brother of Miantonomi, in submitting themselves, their land, and their possessions to the king “upon condition of His Majesties’ royal protection.” The submission letter, dated April 19, 1644, was delivered to English authorities by Samuel Gorton, who had traveled to the mother country to secure imperial affirmation of the Shawomet Purchase–a deal that had earned the Narragansetts the wrath of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. This action gave them (or so they felt) a status of equality with the English colonists, “being subjects . . . unto the same king,” and some protection from the New England Confederation. The Narragansetts relied upon this status until they were drawn into King Philip’s War in December 1675 due to a sneak attack upon them by Plymouth Colony. Because they were equal subjects of the king, disputes between them and the colonists could no longer be ruled upon by colonial officials; they could be decided only by a higher power.
Canonicus and Miantonomi were inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.
For additional reading:
Rhode Islander’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley