Friday, July 18, 2008

19th Century Narragansett Memorial Stone Pile

by JimP

More than two years ago, Tim MacSweeney posted on this blog about a visit he made to Fort Ninigret in Charlestown, RI.

Click here to see Tim's original post.

In his post, Tim talked about finding a boulder with stones underneath it. Poor Tim got poison ivy trying to look at the boulder. Afterwards, Tim tracked down an old photo of Fort Ninigret showing the boulder with a number of stones around it. Here's a look:In the Records of the General Assembly for the State of Rhode Island, I found a document entitled Addresses at the Dedication of the Memorial Boulder at Fort Ninigret, Aug. 30, 1883. It includes all of the speeches given at the politically-charged affair, coming on the heels of the detribalization of the Narragansett Tribe. Some speakers, for example, called the Indians extinct -- at the same time, two Indians spoke at the dedication.

Another reference reads as follows:
A granite bowlder in the center of the enclosure is inscribed as follows:
Fort Ninigret
Memorial of the Narragansett and Niantic Indians, the Unswerving Friends and Allies of Our Fathers Erected by the State of Rhode Island 1883

According to the reports, the boulder was taken from elsewhere in Niantic/Narragansett territory. I have strong suspicions that it is the infamous Potter's Hill Rocking Stone which was written about earlier in the 19th century, and then just up and disappeared from history, and the hill.

So, then, is this proof that Narragansett Indians were casting stones on memorial piles in the late 19th century?


pwax said...

Is there any documentary evidence that a rock pile was ever made for a non-memorial function?

JimP said...

Yes. Documentary evidence shows rock piles were made for a wide variety of reasons -- to mark graves, to protect graves from animals, as offerings made to a spirit, as walls of the so-called stone forts, as fire pits, as stone-lined storage pits, as boundary markers, in traps, in fish weirs, single rocks on rocks to hold fishing nets, and as chambers for sweat lodges. There is also evidence, although less conclusive, that rock piles were made during vision quest rituals, as part of Pniese training, as part of divination rituals, as part of healing rituals, and to mark sacred places with so-called spirit lights, will-o-the-wisp, or sites exhibiting unusual levels of bioluminescence or triboluminescence.

Still, the most widely documented rock piling by Indians in historic times was as part of memorial piles. The most famous and indisputable was the Mayhew memorial at The Place by the Wayside on Martha's Vineyard. There simply is no question that the pile was built by Indians to preserve the memory of Thomas Mayhew Jr., and that the pile grew over time after Mayhew was lost at sea.