Early history examines the archaeological record that tells the story of the first inhabitants of Rhode Island. Learn about the prehistory and culture of the first early inhabitants, and what lessons it might teach us about the early history of Rhode Island.
Native people occupied Rhode Island for thousands of years before explorers and settlers from Europe came to North America. The Narragansett tribe was the largest and occupied the greatest area of land. The Narragansett were part of loosely organized confederation of tribes called the Algonquin, with settlements up and down the East coast of North America. Other groups of Algonquin, some allied with the Narragansett, and some enemies, also lived in the area that would become Rhode Island.
Other tribal people who lived on many of the islands in the bay, including the Wampanoag, the Cowesett, the Shawoment, the Nipmuck, the Niantic, and the Pequot, also lived in the area.
Experts believe that around 7,000 Narragansett Indians lived in the area at the time the first European settlers arrived. The native tribes farmed the land and also fished and hunted. Women were responsible for planting, harvesting, preparing the food, gathering shellfish, and the building of the bark huts the people lived in. Men, on the other hand, spent much of their time in recreational activities, and assisted the women with fishing and hunting. Men called "sachems"l ed small villages of Indians who lived in family groups. Each village owed allegiance to two chief sachems who inherited their positions.
Soon after the arrival of European settlers, famine and diseases brought by the new settlers greatly reduced the number of native people in the area. In 1676, the killing of Metacom, the Wampanoag chief, by an Indian allied with white settlers, ended the worst of the conflicts between European settlers and native people. The remaining tribes banded together and eventually came to use the tribal name Narragansett.
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