Sunday, December 07, 2014

A view from Exeter: A sacred place, possibly from the time of glaciers

post by JimP
From the Providence Journal article:
As Brown University anthropology professor William Simmons tells it, tensions in 1675 “had begun to build between Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony over interest in acquiring Narragansett land.” The Colonists feared the Narragansetts were so numerous that they could overpower the English. They formed an army of about 1,000. “The Narragansetts fortified two places,” Simmons said. “One, that hill in Exeter and another, an island in the Great Swamp.”
I am sorry, Professor Simmons. While I have a great respect for your body of work, there is scant evidence for you to draw the conclusion that the Narragansett fortified, "two places" in preparation for war. First and foremost there is absolutely no evidence that the stone walls at Queen's Fort were built for defensive purposes or even in preparation for King Philip's War.

You are further perpetuating the myth of Stonewall John -- the idea that the Narragansett did not build stone walls until the English taught Stonewall John how to lay dry stones. Furthermore, you are basing your entire premise on a single reference through the filter of Nathaniel Saltonstall who wrote in 1676:
. . . Stonewall, or Stone-Layer John, for that being an active ingenious Fellow he had learnt the Mason's Trade, and was of great Use to the Indians in building their Forts, etc. (Saltonstall [1676]1913:96) 

But in 1674, during the same period of tensions leading up to the war, Daniel Gookin wrote:
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. (Gookin [1674]1968:37)
So which was it? Was there only one Narragansett man who had, "learnt the Mason's Trade," and was responsible for building the stone walls at Queen's Fort and the Great Swamp Fort as tensions rose? Or were there many Narragansett and neighboring Indians who learned how to lay dry stone walls from the English? Or was masonry a skill the native people already possessed? (Did they build fish weirs from stone walls before the English taught them how? Did they build stone walls for game drive systems? Is it even logical to conclude that for thousands of years of working with stone that the Narragansett never figured out how to stack them into a wall until the English showed them how?)

Until a preponderance of the evidence finally gives us a solid date for the construction of the walls at Queen's Fort, it is simply inaccurate to conclude who built them or even that they were built anywhere near 1675. I hope someday soon you will help correct the record. The history of Narragansett masonry has been misunderstood for far too long.

Jim Porter

GOOKIN, Daniel. [1674] 1968. Historical Collections of the Indians in New England. In Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society,  For the Year 1792. Vol. 1. Reprint, New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation.

SALTONSTALL, Nathaniel. [1676] 1913. A New and Further Narrative of the State of New-England. In Narratives of the Indian Wars, 1675-1699. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.


Unknown said...

The Stonewall John story reminds me of the story told about the origins of the Cherokee script. It is usually attributed to Sequoyah, who was supposedly trained in letters by a White man and then brought the innovation to his people. But there is at least a possibility that the script - which is syllabic, not alphabetic - antedates European contact.

JimP said...

Professor Simmons responded to my email and has been very kind. Still no word on whether he will change his views on Queen's Fort and Narragansett stone masons, but we have opened a dialog and he was impressed with my knowledge of the topic. I am thankful, too, because Frank Speck is the only author who appears more often than Professor Simmons in my list of stonework references. The man is a legend of northeast anthropology.

Matt Howes said...

I'm not Cherokee but the story of Sequoyah is fascinating.

I heard it was possible that Sequoyah (George Guess)edited an already exisiting Cherokee syllabry so it could be translated more easily into English, rather than outright creating the whole syllabry in his lifetime (which would have made him a super-genius.) He was also from the Red Paint Clan, so he would have been a "learned" person.