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‘Great Swamp Massacre’ site returned to the Narragansett Indian Tribe

Rhode Island Historical Society transfers the 5-acre site in South Kingstown that was the scene of an attack by English colonial soldiers in 1675

John Brown III, the medicine man and historic preservation officer for the Narragansett Indian Tribe, speaks during a ceremony on Saturday at the site of the "Great Swamp Massacre" in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
John Brown III, the medicine man and historic preservation officer for the Narragansett Indian Tribe, speaks during a ceremony on Saturday at the site of the "Great Swamp Massacre" in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.J.D. Kay

PROVIDENCE — No longer will members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe come to the site of the “Great Swamp Massacre” as visitors.

Now that the Rhode Island Historical Society has transferred the 5-acre site in South Kingstown to the tribe, Narragansetts can step onto land they consider sacred, knowing that it is once again theirs.

The “Great Swamp Massacre” took place on a cold and snowy day in December 1675, when more than 1,000 English colonial soldiers, along with about 150 Pequot and Mohegan soldiers, attacked the Narragansett stronghold there, burning the settlement and killing hundreds, including women and children, and drawing the then-neutral Narragansetts into King Philip’s War.

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“The return of the property is in itself historic,” Narragansett Indian Tribe medicine man and historic preservation officer John Brown III told the Globe on Tuesday. “For many years, the Narragansetts were visitors to a place that was theirs. Now that this has happened, we know we can go back to a place of our forefathers, where there was happiness and sorrow, and we can go there as rightful owners.”

About 35 people gathered at the site on Saturday for a ceremony marking the transfer of the property, culminating a process that began years ago.

C. Morgan Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, explained that the Hazard family gave the site to the historical society in 1906 so that the land would be preserved and the history there would not be forgotten. At that time, the Societies of Colonial Wars had erected a monument that includes a granite obelisk.

In the 1930s, a longtime Narragansett and Wampanoag elder and scholar, Princess Red Wing, began an annual commemoration at the site that continues today.

In the 1990s, conversations began about returning the site to the Narragansett tribe, and that process intensified over the past four years, Grefe said.

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Since the land was held in trust, the process of transferring it was complicated, and it involved working with the attorney general’s office and Rhode Island Superior Court, she said. Restrictions on the property will continue, leaving it as open space with public access, she said.

“We take our responsibility seriously when we are given anything — a collection or a land deed — to make sure we are doing right by the donors,” Grefe said. “This was an opportunity to do the right thing and the ethical and moral thing for this community.”

The Historical Society was “so happy” to make the transfer happen, Grefe said. “This was an incredibly profound and humbling experience to work on this,” she said.

She noted that the property was transferred to the tribe’s historic preservation office, saying, “They are the ideal people to have this site. It could not be in better hands.”

Brown said the “Great Swamp Massacre” site marks the “greatest defeat” in Narragansett tribal history.

“The loss there was immeasurable, not in the form of fighting people but in the form of the fact that non-combatants were attacked — old men, women, and children were attacked and destroyed,” he said. “For us, when you take the generations that come before us and the generations that come after us, there is no greater loss.”

The tribe is thankful for the work the historical society did to transfer the property, Brown said. “At this juncture, it is historical, a turning of the page,” he said. “The land is back where it should have been.”

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The Narragansetts plan to continue using the site for the annual ceremonies, held on the fourth Sunday each September, Brown said.

“We went there in years past to do the ceremonies as visitors to a sacred site, a place of sorrow for the Narragansetts,” he said. “We now can go down there and do the ceremonies as the owners.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.