Smithfield’s Native People

Originally published in “Your Smithfield Magazine”, July, 2013


By Jim Ignasher   

Stone Arrowhead.

      Imagine if you can, New England covered by an icy glacier measuring in some places up to one mile thick. Nothing but vast whiteness all around: no animals, no people. The only sounds being the chill-wind accompanied by the groans and tremors of the ever shifting ice as it slowly ground away the earth below creating the rocky landscape we know today. Even at the height of summer, the frigid air temperature would seldom rise above freezing.

     There actually was such a time, thousands of years ago, when a massive sheet of ice covered the land that is today Smithfield. Then the world began to warm (Without benefit of fossil fuels!) and the glaciers slowly melted. Over the ensuing centuries, rivers of melting ice carried trillions of tons of rocky debris that further scoured and shaped the landscape. The “glacial scarring” left by these ancient rivers can still be seen on granite outcrops today.

     As the melting water found its way to the oceans, the world’s sea level began to rise. Rhode Island’s coastline, once eighty miles south of its present location, began to recede and disappear. Narragansett Bay, once a small river, began to take on its present-day appearance.

     After awhile, the exposed land began to sprout vegetation. The vegetation attracted game, and game brought the first humans to the area – about ten thousand years ago.

     There is a place on the shore of the Wenscott Reservoir located where the towns of Smithfield, Lincoln, and North Providence, all meet, that is known to have been a seasonal camp site used by migrating hunting parties several thousand years ago. After its initial discovery in the early 1950s, an extensive archeological dig was commenced that revealed the remains of stone hearths, projectile points, (Arrowheads), and numerous other stone tools, as well as the ancient grave of a dog!

     One can only imagine what it must have been like to sit by a fire at that site seven millennia ago. The reservoir didn’t exist then, so the water level was much lower, giving the location a more elevated position for spotting game, or an approaching enemy. The landscape would have consisted of old growth forest – wide width trees hundreds of years old that were perfect for making dug-out canoes.

      What did those people talk about as they sat around the hearth? Language aside, would their topics of conversation be that far removed from what we talk about today as we sit around the kitchen table? One thing is certain; they would have communicated using the human voice as they sat together, not via text message.

     One can’t help wondering about the stone artifacts recovered by archeologists more than sixty years ago. Were the broken ones the result of someone’s learning process, or simply a defect in the stone? In either case, they were likely cast aside as worthless rejects, and lay where they fell for thousands of years until the day an archeologist carefully and methodically dug them from the ground as if they were gold. And what of the perfect specimens? Were they accidentally dropped, or intentionally left behind for the next time the hunting party would be in the area. If they were left as a cache, then why didn’t the hunters ever return for them? Imagine being the one to recover such artifacts. The only thing that would separate you from the last person who handled them is the passage of time.

     The Wenscott Reservoir site isn’t the only Native American site known to be in Smithfield, or what was once Smithfield. Nipsachuck Swamp and Nipsachuck Hill, located on the Smithfield – North Smithfield boarder, were places of long-term occupation spanning by some estimations hundreds of years. The word Nipsachuck is Native American in origin and is said to mean “water near the hill” which would describe Nipsachuck Swamp at the base of Nipsachuck Hill. Nipsachuck can be found spelled several different ways in old records including; Nipchossuck, Nipsachook, Nipsochoke, and Nippsatchuck.

     The area is dotted with numerous rock piles of uncertain origin. Some claim they are ancient graves, while others disagree. The only things for certain are the number of lawsuits currently making their way through the courts over developmental rights to the area. (A word of caution: do not venture into this area without permission from landowners or you will likely be arrested for trespassing!)

     On August 1, 1675, what became known as the Battle of Nipsachuck was fought in this area during King Phillip’s War. Historians have said that if those in charge of the colonial militia had pressed the attack further, the war might have ended at Nipsachuck. Instead it raged on for another year culminating with the Great Swamp Fight/Massacre in Charlestown.

     There was also a second “battle” at Nipsachuck, or a massacre, depending on one’s point of view. On July 1, 1676, militiamen attacked a native village and routed the inhabitants into Nipsachuck Swamp. Over the next three hours 171 Native Americans were killed and 41 women and children taken prisoner.

     Over the last three years, a team of archeologists and historians have sought to find the exact locations where these instances took place. As of last summer, one site has been found with the discovery of spent musket balls, but its exact location is being kept secret for obvious reasons.

     New England natives didn’t live in teepees like the ones depicted in Hollywood westerns. According to an article by L. F. Hallett, published in the July, 1954, edition of the Bulletin of The Massachusetts Archaeological Society, native shelters were built using small poles set in the ground in a circular or rectangular pattern, which were then bent over and tied together to form an arch at the top. The structure would then be covered with mats or large pieces of tree bark. The size of the structure depended upon how many people it was meant to house. In the center there would be a stone hearth and a ventilation hole in the roof.

     Hallett wrote that “Village sites were chosen with care”, and that water sources, good soil for planting, and game availability all came into play. At times a village would relocate due to seasonal weather, lack of game, or for “reasons of hygiene”.

     One misconception that many people have is the recognition of so-called “Indian graves”. Throughout Rhode Island there are cemeteries where graves are indicated with simple un-marked field stones, such as the one at the Smith-Appleby House Museum, or where the town’s poor farm was once located on Route 7. While there are always exceptions to the rule, such markers generally don’t indicate a Native American cemetery, but an early American one. Some religions used simple headstones for rich and poor alike. Other people used field stones out of economic necessity, or due to a lack of monument makers. Early Native American graves, those pre-dating European contact, are entirely different, and one could write pages as to how, which space does not permit here.

     In speaking of burial customs of New England’s Native Americans, Mr. Hallett stated, “The corpse was usually sewn into a mat, and the remains were often buried with grave goods including implements and food. Finely powdered red oxide of iron was sometimes scattered in the grave.”

     Such burial customs would indicate that ancient man believed in some kind of an after life. They also loved their faithful pets just as we do today, judging by the dog burial found at the Wenscott Reservoir site.

     Most people are unaware that the woods of northern Rhode Island contain many Native American sites. And why wouldn’t they, since native people were here thousands of years before Roger Williams landed in Providence? One just has to learn how to recognize them. Then they must be respected.


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