Then and Now

Fact, fancy and folklore circa 1980 continues


Areas in Warwick such as Apponaug, “the place of the shellfish,” have been uncovered by archeologists and give us some insight into Indian culture. Apponaug was the place where two main Indian trails, the Pequot and the Nooseneck, met. The Narragansetts allowed all travelers not at war with the tribe to gather shellfish and feast there. Layer upon layer of clam and quahog shells testify to the use of the area.

About 10 miles south of Apponaug, on the Pequot trail, was Cocumscussoc, the main camp of Canonicus, the tribe’s ruling sachem when Roger Williams came to the area. It was here at Cocumscussoc, just north of present-day Wickford, that Williams and Richard Smith were allowed to set up a trading post in 1636-39. Cocumscussoc was a thriving village known for its agriculture and trade. Wampum-peage made hare could be found 600 mile away from the ocean. All along the coast, fields of corn, squash and beans were an indication of the tribe’s early ability to supplement hunting and fishing with agriculture.

Due to a great deal of prejudice on the part of the early settlers, the accomplishments of these Indians and their gifts to our heritage have often been minimized or ignored. Much of the reason for this was due to misunderstanding, fear, resentment and religious beliefs. The Englishman regarded farming as a means of not only feeding his family but of amassing wealth and gaining possessions he felt necessary to a proper lifestyle. It was his “duty” to clear the land and farm it. The Indian, it appeared, left most of the planting and other aspects of agriculture to the female, as well as the tedious tasks of shellfishing. The Indian male, on the other hand, engaged primarily in hunting and fishing, areas the English regarded as supplemental or even recreational. The Indian male seemed to spend most of the summer months taking his ease or playing, occupations that many Calvinist settlers regarded as “sinful.” All along the shore in the summer, especially in the Wickford area, the Narragansett tribe played a game not unlike our football. The “ball” was made of deerskin and was filled with moss or other soft material. Rival tribes came from many miles around to play in the games and brought along their followers. There was a great deal of yelling, shouting, cheering and gambling in much the same manner that accompanies our college and Super Bowl games. Other contests, including a contest much like lacrosse, plus foot races, tomahawk throwing and exhibits of skill and endurance brought the Indians from as far away as Maine and South Carolina.

These contests served as an important occasion for trade. The Narragansetts excelled in the making of “peage,” skillfully rounded shells that could be used for the exchange of goods. By trading this peage, as well as agricultural products, fish and meat, the Narragansetts were able to obtain goods they needed.

When the English first came into contact with the Narragansetts, hunting and fishing was the basis for the economy, but trade and agriculture were being developed to a satisfactory degree of sophistication. The Narragansetts were already very proficient in growing corn, squash and beans and were willing to share their knowledge with the 17th century European settlers. The Indian males worked hard in clearing the fields, removing boulders and breaking up soil. Land ownership was based on a tribal rather than individual ownership, and a great deal of cooperation was necessary. Often, 30 to 100 people would gather and work all day breaking up soil, using crude “hoes” that were little more than sharp sticks or tools made from stones and large animal bones. At the close of the day, the workers would eat or “feast upon” the food prepared by their females and often engaged in singing and dancing, pastimes frowned upon by the Puritans.

Among the crops planted were corn, beans (forerunners of kidney, lima and scarlet runners), squash )crookneck and winter) and pumpkins. The main crop was corn, which was planted in hills, each of which was fertilized by fish such as herring. The hills of corn were in rows, with the other crops planted between the rows. The female hoed the area with flat stones and for many years it was easy to tell the Indian fields from the English, as the Indian ones were free of weeds.

Fact, fancy and folklore as it was written circa 1980 will be continued.


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