Saturday, June 24, 2006

Stone Masons of the Narragansetts

by JimP
A cairn at Francis C. Carter Preserve
But yet let me add this by way of commendation of the Narragansitt and Warwick Indians, who inhabit in the jurisdiction, that they are an active, laborious, and ingenious people; which is demonstrated in their labours they do for the English; of whom more are employed, especially in making stone fences, and many other hard labours, than of any other Indian people or neighbours.
- Daniel Gookin, Historical Collections of the Indians in New-England (1674)
Narragansett Indians were employed by the earliest settlers of Rhode Island to make stone fences. As we discover more and more remarkable dry stone work in the remaining wilderness, it becomes quite apparent why the English paid them to do such work -- it was most likely a skill they already possessed. The amazing examples found in cairns all over the state, from the Tomaquag site in Hopkinton, to the Queen's Cairns in Exeter, to Parker Woodland, and many more -- few can deny that building these structures took time and hard work. A testament to the workmanship is how these structures have survived hundreds of harsh New England winters, various hurricanes, and countless nor'easters.

One of the earliest Presidents of Warwick was a man named John Smith (1652-1653). Interestingly enough, Smith was a stone mason by trade. Historians generally believe that in 1649 John Smith was responsible for building the famed, "stone castle," in Warwick, RI -- a building that played a historic role in King Philip's War. It certainly isn't a stretch to theorize that the castle might have been the melding of the knowledge of both Smith and the Indians, and built with mostly Indian labor. The stone castle was demolished in 1795.

Following King Phillip's War, Rhode Islanders no longer had to pay for Narragansett stone masons. Instead, they enslaved them. Many of those who were not enslaved were forced into, "involuntary," indentured servitude. Narragansett children were placed into English homes not only to be Christianized, but to work as apprentices to English masters. Many of them remained indentured well into their 20's. More than one historian has written that most of the stone walls built in 17th century Rhode Island were the work of Indian laborers, slaves, and servants. I find nothing in early colonial records that refutes such a claim, but plenty of data that supports it.

The cairn pictured above was taken at the Francis C. Carter Preserve in Charlestown, RI. The preserve is only a few miles from present-day Narragansett Tribal Lands. On display there is an undeniable history of Narragansett masonry. An array of eras is evidenced by the many features, from ancient stone rows, cairns, and split-wedged rocks, to 18th and 19th century drilling techniques. This site, better than any other in Rhode Island, tells the story of the stone masons of the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

Larry Harrop's excellent photo gallery is far more extensive than mine, and therefore (with thanks to Larry) I point you there:

Stone masonry continues to be a traditional craft of the Narragansetts. For example, Narragansett masons were employed to build the stone walls that criss-cross the Pequot Reservation, home of Foxwoods Casino. The Narragansett Indian Church was burned to the ground and rebuilt twice using granite shaped by the hands of Narragansett masons. Present-day Narragansetts are able to trace the craft back several generations in their families. The skills are handed down from grandfathers, fathers, and uncles.

Many years ago, a wonderful Narragansett woman told me a story of a crowning achievement by ancestors of Narragansett masons that still stands today in Newport, RI. She explained that it was symbolic of a short period of time when the English and the Narragansett lived in peace and worked together. I'll leave it to brighter minds than mine to figure out what structure she may have been referring to -- all I will say is that the history and the evidence has been under our very noses for centuries, and it has gone largely ignored.

Stone Walls And Good Neighbors by Michael Bell -

One Nation, Two Worlds - Providence Journal Series (registration required - but it's free)


pwax said...

Just one point. You write about "...survived hundreds of harsh New England winters, various hurricanes,..."

I think in most cases the piles we see today that are in good shape are recent. Older ones are broken down and spread out. For example the one photo'd looks very new to me. The hurricanes etc do occur and do knock over rock piles.

JimP said...

It might look new to you, but that land hasn't been in use since the early 1800's. Additionally, all of the cairns (including the one pictured) as well as the other features on the site, all occur near granite boulders showing evidence of late 18th and early 19th century drilling techniques.

By researching land records (which I have done), cairns at Parker Woodland, Pachaug State Forest in CT, and those in Exeter, RI can be dated even earlier than that.

I don't think it is a stretch to conclude that the cairn pictured from Carter Preserve was made around the same time as the other features on the site nearby. Since that is the best indication we have of their date, then they have indeed seen hundreds of New England winters.

I once spoke with a good friend of mine who works at Boston's Museum of Science. He's a biologist, among other things. We talked extensively about the lack of lichens and mosses, and the lack of leaf litter, on the Queen's Cairns in Exeter.

He told me that if it was once wide open field, which Carter Preserve was, exposure to the sun would keep lichens and mosses from growing, and lack of forest cover would keep leaf litter low. Exposure to wind and rain would keep whatever litter there was from collecting on the cairns.

He really didn't believe you can look at a cairn and know its age. There are too many factors involved. For example, a cairn built in a moist, shaded area would have a rapid build-up of mosses and lichens. It would look quite old, but it is really the conditions where it occurs that determines that growth -- not age.

In my mind, land records and other features occurring nearby that can be dated are our best indications of the age of these stuctures. It is far more accurate than litter build-up, or mosses and lichen.

I'm very willing to hear why anyone might think I'm wrong, however.

JimP said...

Also, I really only used that photo as representative of Francis Carter Preserve, not so much as an example of Narragansett Stone Masonry. I see the confusion, though. Sorry about that. Everyone should really look over Larry's collection of photos from the preserve. The story is told in his pictures.

pwax said...

I still make my point: Indians have probably been making rock piles recently and the recent ones are the most likely to have retained their shape. In other words rock piles were being built long after the advent of the steel drill.

Anonymous said...

The crowning achievement made by the early stone masons who are the ancestors of the Narragansett masons is the Stone Tower of Newport, RI. I firmly have no doubt that this is true.

Martino said...

Really interesting post about the Naragansett stone mason history. Thanks!