Remembering the Narragansetts
Statues Across the State Help Remind Us of the Narragansett Tribes
There are dozens of green men standing around Rhode Island. They’re weathered bronze statues of leaders and heroes who have earned a place in the hearts and foundries of the people of the state. From Columbus to Chaffee, they stand or stride their way into our everyday lives. They remind us of our history from the revolution on. They’re all a part of the story of how the state came to be.
But there are three statues to leaders in South County that are different from the rest. Made from a variety of materials, they recognize other residents of this land. They are the monuments to the Narragansetts.
The first one stands on the Green at Exchange Place, Gazebo Park, or Canonchet Memorial Corner in Narragansett, depending on which guide you read. They’re all names for the same place.
The statue honors Canonchet, the tragic leader of the Narragansetts who was killed in the Great Swamp Fight. He stands as he must have been then, in the heavy furs of winter. He’s massive; just over 8 feet tall, and about half as wide, sculpted out of limestone. At his feet a tied bundle represents his earthly goods.
The statue’s very accurate, according to its sculptor, Robert Carsten. Two Narragansetts actually modeled for the piece, one for details and one for the robes, and he studied historic robes at the Plimouth Plantation.
The figure was raised in 1977, just over 300 years after the Great Swamp Massacre.
Down the road a bit, at the entrance to Sprague Memorial Park, stands a huge carved wood Indian bust with the unwieldy name of Enishkeetompauog Narragansett. It’s by noted Hungarian carver Peter Toth who has placed dozens of figures like this one all over the nation.
He calls the statues his “Whispering Giants” or the “Trail of Tears” series. Forced from his homeland by the 1956 Revolution, the artist identified with the Native Americans who had experienced a similar fate with the coming of the European settlers and he wanted to pay tribute to them. He’s said, “My monuments are made to remind people of the contributions of the Indians of this country- statues to honor the plight of the native peoples of North America.”
This piece, like the others, is 20ft tall and approximately 4 feet around. The rock base was made by Narragansetts, who have long been noted for their fine stonework.
But the earliest tribute still standing in the state was created by a woman, Enid Yarnell, in 1914. She was a well-known Kentucky sculptor who had studied under Rodin in Paris and was one of the main exhibitors at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, a real trailblazer among women sculptors. She was well-known for her bronze portrait statues of such notables as Daniel Boone and Henry Clay and worked in sizes from the monumental, such as her 25 foot Athena, to very delicate figures for Tiffany’s.
So when Watch Hill wanted to commemorate Clement Acton Griscom, it turned to her.
She gave them the bronze figure of Ninigret, the chief of the Niantic Indians who originally settled the Watch Hill area. They combined with the Narragansetts after King Phillip’s war when they were decimated.
For her model, she used a Native American who was touring Europe with Buffalo Bills’ “Wild West Show”.
Today, Ninigret, half-kneeling, looks out over the water and the bobbing boats, holding a large fish in each hand. There are holes in the fishes’ mouths to contain water spouts, since this was originally meant to be a fountain.
In this quiet way, Rhode Island remembers her earliest citizens and gives them equal footing with those who came later.