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Rhode Island Indian Land Cessions

 Native American Nations | Indian Land Cessions in the United States                    

When, in the spring of 1636, Roger Williams and his twelve companions, sad, weary, and hungry, succeeded in passing beyond the boundary of the Plymouth colony, they found themselves in the country of the Narragansett Indians. Here the simple story of their unhappy condition excited the pity of Canonicus, chief of the tribe, who granted them CC all that neck of land lying between the mouths of Pawtucket and Moshasuck rivers, that they might sit down in peace upon it and enjoy it forever." Here, as Williams observed to his companions, "The Providence of God had found out a place for them among savages, where they might peaceably worship God according to their consciences; a privilege which had been denied them in all the Christian countries they had ever been in."

As Williams denied the right of the King to the lands, but believed it to be in the Indian occupants, and that the proper course to obtain it was by just and honorable purchase from them, the policy adopted was one of justice and equity.

It appears from certain statements in the "Confirmatory deed of Roger Williams and his wife" to his associates, December 20, 1638, that he had arranged for purchase of lands from the Indians one or two years in advance of his arrival in the territory. As an examination of this deed is necessary to a clear understanding of Williams first steps in this direction, it is given here:

Be it known unto all men by these presents, that I, Roger Williams, of the Towne of Providence, in the Narragansett Bay, in New England, having in the year one thousand six hundred and thirty-four, and in the year one thousand six hundred and thirty-five, had several treaties with Conanicusse and Miantonome, the chief sachems of the Narragansetts, and in the end purchased of them the lands and meadows upon the two fresh rivers called Mooshassick and Wanasquatucket; the two said sachems having y a deed under their hands two years after the sale thereof established and confirmed the bounds of these lands from the river and fields of Pawtuckqut and the great hill of Neotaconconitt on the northwest, and the towne of Mashapauge on the west, notwithstanding I had the frequent promise of Miantenomy my kind friend, that it should not be land that I should want about these bounds mentioned, provided that I satisfied the Indians there inhabiting, I having made covenants of peaceable neighborhood with all the sachems and natives round about us. And having in a sense of God's merciful providence unto me in my distress, called the place Providence, I desired it might he for a shelter for persons distressed of conscience; I then, considering the condition of divers of my distressed countrymen, I communicated my said purchase unto my loving friends John Throckmorton, William Arnold, William Harris, Stukely Westcott, John Greene, senior, Thomas Olney, senior, Richard Waterman and others who then desired to take shelter here with me, and in succession unto so many others as we should receive into the fellowship and society enjoying and disposing of the said purchase; and besides the first that were admitted, our towne records declare that afterwards wee received Chad Brown, William Feild, Thomas Harris, sen'r, William Wickenden, Robert Williams, Gregory Dexter and others, as our towne book declares. And whereas, by God's merciful assistance, I was the procurer of the purchase, not by monies nor payment, the natives being so shy and jealous, that monies could not doe it; but y that language, acquaintance, and favor with the natives and other advantages which it pleased God to give me, and also bore the charges and venture of all the gratuities which I gave to the great sachems, and other sachems and natives round and about us, and lay engaged for a loving and peaceable neighborhood with them all to my great charge and travel. It was, therefore, thonght by some loving friends, that I should receive some loving consideration and gratuity; and it was agreed between us, that every person that should be admitted into the fellowship of enjoying lands and disposing of the purchase, should pay thirty shillings into the public stock; and first about thirty pounds should be paid unto myself by thirty shillings a person, as they are admitted. This sum I received in love to my friends; and with respect to a towne and place of succor for the distressed as aforesaid, I doe acknowledge the said sum and payment as full satisfaction. And whereas in the year one thousand six hundred and thirty seaven, so called, I delivered the deed subscribed y the two aforesaid chief sachems, so much thereof as concerned the aforementioned lands from myself and my heirs unto the whole number of the purchasers, with all my powers right and title therein, reserving only unto myself one single share equal unto any of the rest of that number, I now again in a more formal way, under my hand and seal, confirm my former resignation of that deed of the lands aforesaid, and bind myself, my heirs, my executors, my administrators and assigns never to molest any of the said persons already received or hereafter to be received into the society of purchasers as aforesaid, but they, their heires, executors, administrators and assigns, shall at all times quietly and peaceably enjoy the premises and every part thereof.1

The confirmation by Canonicus and Miantonomi, March 24, 1637, is as follows:

At Nanhiggansick, the 24th of the first month, commonly called March, in ye second year of our plantation or planting at Mooshausick or Providence.

Memorandum, that we Cannaunicus and Miantunomi, the two chief sachems of Nanhiggansick, having two years since sold unto Roger Williams, ye lands and meadows upon the two fresh rivers, called Mooshausick and Wanasqutucket, doe now by these presents, establish and confirm ye bounds of those lands, from ye river and fields at Pawtuckqut, ye great hill of Notquonckanet, on ye northwest, and the town of Maushapogue on ye west.

As also, in consideration of the many kindnesses and services he bath continually done for us, both with our friends at Massachusetts, as also at Quinickicutt and Apaum or Plymouth, we doe freely give unto him all that land from those rivers reaching to Pawtuxet river; as also the grass and meadows upon ye said Pawtuxet river.2

It was a fortunate circumstance for this feeble colony that Canonicus was chief sachem of the district when the wanderers reached it, and that his life was spared to old age. Truly did he say, "I have never suffered any wrong to be offered to the English since they landed; nor never will." Winthrop and Williams recognized the fact that during the latter part of his life he kept the peace of New England. He alone of the several New England sachems seemed to comprehend the fact that a new age was coming in; that there was a power behind the few English settlers which would conquer in the end. Philip may have seen the danger which threatened his race, but had not the sagacity to adopt the course best for his people. His chief object was revenge, and all his energies were beret to this end, regardless of the result, which a shrewder chief Would have foreseen. In some respects Canonicus showed greater foresight than Williams. But it is unnecessary to extend these remarks, which have been made simply to emphasize the fact that the policy and peace of the colony was due to these two persons. It may be added here, however, that Williams' enthusiasm and confidence in his own integrity caused him to anticipate results that were not to be obtained, and made him, in his latter years, look upon the Indians with far less favor than when he first made his home among them.

Subsequently to the first deed above mentioned, Williams purchased the principal part of the county of Providence. Of the deeds of purchase of land from the Indians in the colony, the following may be cited as examples:

Deed from Ousamequin (Massasoit). 1646.

This testifyeth, that I Ousamequin chief Sachem of Paukanawket, for and in consideration of full satisfaction in wampum, cloth and other commodities received at present; doe give, grant, sell and make over unto Roger Williams and Gregory Dexter, inhabitants of Providence, together with all those inhabitants of Providence that hath or shall join in this purchase, with all my right and interest of all that parcel or tract of land which lies between Pawtuckqut and Loqusquseit, with all the meadows, trees and appurtenances thereof, and after the And I doe hereby bind myself, my heires and successors, to maintain all and every of their peaceable enjoyment of the aforesaid lands from any other claime or bargain whatsoever. And I do hereby authorize Saunkussecit alias Tom of Wauchimoqut to mark trees and set the bounds of the land aforesaid in case that great meadow at or about Loqusqusitt fall not within the bounds aforesaid, yet it shall be for them to enjoy the said meadow forever.3

Deed from the successors of Canonicus and Miantonomi, 1659.

This he known to all that it may concern, in all ages to come, that I Caujaniquaunte, sachem of the Narragansetts, ratify and confirm to the men of Providence, and to the men of Pawtuxcette, their lands, and deed, that my brother Meantonomeah made over and disposed to them, namely, all the lands, between Pawtuckette. river and Pawtuxcette river, up the streams without limit for their use of cattle.4

This was acknowledged and confirmed by the other sachems interested.

Deed to the Island of Aquedneck (Rhode Island), March 14, 1637.

MEMORANDUM. That we Cannonnicus and Miantunnomu ye two chief Sachems of the Nanhiggansitts, by virtue of our general command of this Bay, as also the particular subjecting of the dead Sachims of Acquednecke and Kitackamuckqutt, themselves and land unto us, have sold unto Mr. Coddington and his friends united unto him, the great Island of Acquednecke lying from hence Eastward in this Bay, as also the marsh or grass upon Quinunicutt and the rest of the Islands in the Bay (excepting Chibachuwesa formerly sold unto Mr. Winthrop, the now Governour of the Massachusetts and Mr. Williams of Providence).5

January 12, 1642, Miantonomi sold to the inhabitants of Shawomot (Warwick): "Lands lying upon the west side of that part of the sea called Sowhomes Bay, from Copassanatuxett, over against a little island in the said bay, being the north bounds, and the utmost point of that neck of land called Shawhomett; being the South bounds from the sea shore of each boundary upon a straight line westward twenty miles."

As the salve system of dealing with the Indians prevailed in the Rhode Island as in the Providence settlement, and also in the colony after the union of the two, the above examples will suffice to show the practical methods adopted in carrying out their policy. This method of obtaining the Indians' right was carried on until practically all the lands included in the state as at present bounded were obtained.

It would seem from some laws which were passed at a comparatively early date, that the vicious practice of individual purchases began to make its appearance in the otherwise prudent and commendable policy. These orders or laws were passed for the purpose of putting a stop to this practice.

The first of these found on the record was passed in 1651, and is as follows:

Ordered; That no purchase shall be made of any Land of ye natives for a plantation without the consent of this State, except it be for the clearing of the Indians from some particular plantations already sett down upon; and if any shall so purchase, they shall forfeit the Land so purchased to the Collonie, as also the President is to grant forth prohibition against any that shall purchase as aforesayd.6

This proving insufficient to put an end to the practice, an additional act (or "order,') was passed in 1658, as follows:

Whereas, there hath been several purchases of land made from the Indians by men within the precincts of this Collony, which, for want of a law thereabout in the colony, cannot be now made void or hindered, as namely, the purchase of Quononicutt Island, and the island called Dutch Island, which hath been made by William Coddington and Benedict Arnold, and many others joined by covenants with them thereabouts cannot now bee made void, but must be and are allowed and confirmed as lawfull as purchased from the Indians if it were not bought before; as also any other purchases made by others as aforesayd formerly. Yet to prevent the licke purchasing hereafter from the Indians; it is ordered, by the authority of this present Assembly, that no person, stranger or other, shall make any further purchases of lands or Islands from the Indians within the precincts of this Collony, butt such only as are soe allowed to doe, and ordered therein by an express order of a court of commissioners, upon penalty of forfeiting all such purchased lands or Islands to the Collony, and to pay besides, a fine of twenty pound to the colony in case of transgressing this order.7

As examples of the orders granting permission to purchase under the aforesaid acts, the following are taken from the proceedings of 1657:

Whereas, we have a law in our colony, dated November the 2d, 1658, that lice person within the precincts of this colony shall bud or purchases any land of the Indians without license of this General Court; and whereas, there is a place for a plantation in the bonds of this Collony, about a place so called Nyantecutt: It is ordered, that the Court appointed one man in each Towne of this Collony to purchases the aforesayd land of Ninecraft, who are, viz.: Mr. Ben: Arnold, Mr. Arthur Fenner, Mr. William Baulston, and Capt. Randall Houlden, and that it be disposed to such as have need of each towne of this colony; they paying sufficiently for it to such as are appointed to purchase it, or otherwise to be ordered, as each town appoint.
It is ordered, that Providence shall have liberty to buy out and clear off Indians within the bounds of Providence, as expressed in their towne evidence, and to purchases a little more in case they wish to add, seeing they are straytened, not exceeding three thousand acres joining to their township.8

Also June 17, 1662:

The Court doe grant free liberty and leave to the petitioners and their said associates to make purchase of the natives within this jurisdiction, and to buy of them that are true owners, a tract of land lying together, and not exceeding four thousand ackers; always provided, it bee such land as is not already granted, or annexed to any of the townships of the Collony y purchase or other lawfull meanes, nor that it be land already purchased and justly claimed y any other perticular persons, freemen of the Collony or there successors.9

In 1696 an act was passed to prevent intrusion upon the lands of the Narragansetts. It provided "that all possessions of any lands in the Narragansett country obtained by intrusion, without the consent and approbation of the general assembly, be deemed and adjudged illegal and void in law." The Indians were made wards of the legislature, and their lauds wholly subject to its control. From 1709 onward the assembly was frequently called upon to exercise its authority for their protection and relief. Commissioners were from time to time appointed to oversee and lease their lands. As time went on. there was some change in the mode of management; laws prohibiting the purchase of lands were repeated, and the guardianship of the legislature was kindly exercised for these natives as their numbers continued to dwindle.

Evidences of the method followed by the people of this colony might be multiplied, but what has been given is sufficient to show that the policy was a just and humane one, that was seldom if ever marred by official acts of injustice in this respect.

1 Rhode Island Colonial Records, vol. i, pp. 22-24.
2 Rhode Island Colonial Records, vol. i, p. 18.
3 Rhode Island Colonial Records, vol. I, pp. 31-32.
4 Ibid., p. 35. I
5 Ibid., p. 45.
6 Rhode Island Colonial Records, Vol. I, p. 236
7 Ibid., pp.403-404
8 Ibid., p. 418
9 Ibid., p. 484

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First annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1879-80

Indian Land Cessions in the United States


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