Miscegenation and Acculturation in the Narragansett Country of Rhode Island, 1710-1790
Volume 3, Issue 1 (1989)
Rhett S. Jones, Professor of History and Africana Studies
The histories of most New England states view blacks as a strange, foreign people enslaved in southern states, whom New Englanders rescued first by forming colonization and abolitionist societies and later by fighting a Civil War to free them. The existence of a black population in New England as early as the seventeenth century has been pretty much ignored. Indeed Anderson and Marten, of the Parting Ways Museum of Afro-American Ethnohistory, touched off a furor with their discovery that Abraham Pearse, one of the early residents of Plymouth Colony, was black.
The long neglect of New England’s black history has recently come to an end. Historical societies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have been formed to facilitate the study of black life in the colonial era as well as in later periods. A number of these organizations—notably the African Meeting House Museum, the Parting Ways Museum of Afro-American Ethnohistory, and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society—have won national awards and acclaim. The scholarly literature now reflects this new interest in New England blacks. Carvalho’s Black Families in Hampden Country, 1650-1855, while not strictly speaking a history, provides much useful insight into black life. Randolph Domonic presented a paper reflecting his work on the Abyssinian Church of Portland, Maine, and Randolph Stakeman has two articles forthcoming on black life in New England’s largest state. Cottrol explores the history of blacks in Providence before the Civil War, while Horton examines Boston during the same period. Coughtry and Jones have each published articles on Rhode Island blacks. The present work is part of growing scholarly interest in New England’s colonial black past…
…Race, Economics, and Miscegenation…
…By the end of the Revolutionary War, the economic system that made possible the unique planter lifestyle lay in ruins.
It was against this backdrop that the three races met and mingled along the western shore of Narragansett Bay. Long before the end of the eighteenth century, miscegenation had become a problem for New England settlers, who, if they had no clear idea of the nature of Africans, had even less understanding of the nature of the growing number of mulattos. Unlike blacks, who might be of African, Caribbean, or American birth, mulattos were usually born in the New World and were, therefore, not only racially distinct from Africans and Europeans but culturally distinct as well. The New England colonies recognized them as a separate group. Massachusetts made the first distinction between blacks and mulattos in 1693, Connecticut did so in 1704, and Rhode Island and New Hampshire followed in 1714. In addition to sexual relations between blacks and whites, Native Americans and blacks also came together and produced children. Greene believes the lowly status assigned both groups in white dominated New England served to erase any distinction between them, and, as they were common victims of oppression, they naturally drew together. In any event, along the eastern seaboard there was a mixing of Native Americans, whites, and blacks during the colonial era.
Unlike the Spaniards and the Portuguese, the Englishmen who settled New England were not accustomed to race mixture and so had not developed the elaborate racial hierarchy that characterized much of the rest of the New World. Hence they were none too precise in the racial terminology they developed. While they freely borrowed the term “mulatto” from the Spaniards to refer to a person of mixed African and European ancestry, they used neither the Spanish term “mestizo” to refer to a person of mixed Native American and European ancestry, nor the term “zambo” to refer to a person of mixed Native American and African ancestry. In New England, and in some other British colonies along the Atlantic coast, the term “mestee” or “mustee” was sometimes applied to an individual whose ancestry was both Amerindian and black. The same term, however, was also sometimes applied to persons whom the Spaniards called “mestizos.” The English never fully agreed on what to call persons of mixed Indian and European background. Race mixture was common in all the New England colonies, but only Massachusetts ever legally prohibited it, passing a law in 1706 that made illegal not only marriage between blacks and whites, but sex relations between them as well.
Miscegenation was common in the Narragansett Country, scholars agreeing that the Narragansett Indians had considerable sexual contact with both whites and blacks. The Indians were as unprepared for the cultural consequences of miscegenation as were blacks and whites, so that for a number of years it was not clear whether persons of mixed ancestry were members of the tribe, Woodward concludes that in the latter part of the eighteenth century “social lines between Indians and blacks became less distinct as inter-marriages multiplied.” And Boissevain claims that one of the consequences of the Narragansett’s contact with both whites and blacks was that they lost their language by 1800. The planter elite, having constructed a multi-racial labor force in the Narragansett Country, gradually became uneasy about both blacks and the Narragansett Indians. In 1726 a South Kingstown law forbade both racial groups to hold social gatherings and assemblages out of doors.
Regardless of the law, Native Americans and blacks continued to meet in both public places and in private. James and Simonds agree that the resultant population was one of ill-defined racial status, but these men and women found a niche for themselves in the workplace of the Narragansett Country. Thomas Waimsely (the name is variously spelled in the eighteenth century records), described as a “a mustee or at least an octoroon,” married an Indian woman and not only had a small holding of his own and a slave but did odd jobs for the planter aristocracy. Despite his mixed heritage, Waimsely apparently felt no especial sympathy for blacks and was willing to track down and return a fugitive slave. While some blacks and members of the Narragansett tribe intermarried and freely associated with one another, there was no emergent sense that Indians and blacks ought to band together against whites. The two associated with one another in the workplace and elsewhere but did not create an ideology that might have enabled them to present a unified front against their white oppressors. In this they were no different from blacks and Amerindians in other parts of the colonial Americas.
The Reverend Joseph Fish, a standing order minister from Connecticut who travelled to the Narragansett Country to preach to the Indians in the 1760s and early 1770s, reflected in his diary on the confusion of these Amerindians as the result of miscegenation. Fish employed and worked with Joseph Deake to establish a school for the Narragansett. Deake, who was for a time schoolmaster, wrote Fish in December, 1765, to say there might be as many as 151 Indian children who were eligible for the school, He continued, “Besides these there is a considerable Number of mixtures such as mulattos and mustees which the tribe Disowns.” Fish himself urged the Narragansett to make room for “Molattos” who lived with them and “to behave peaceably and friendly towards them, allowing their Children benefit of the School, if there was Room and the Master Leisure from tending Schollars of their own Tribe,” The Indians were divided over persons of mixed ancestry who were the children of the Narragansett and who lived with their parents and were loved by them yet were persons whom some tribal members sought to “disown.” Fish noted that although he rode from Connecticut to teach the Indians, blacks, whites, and mixed bloods all attened his sermons. Fish also candidly recorded observations of cross racial sexual liaisons, such as the case of a “Molatto” named George, who in 1774 was living with an Indian woman who had at one time been married to the “king” of the Narragansett.
While the planters of South County passed a law aimed at preventing blacks and Indians from conducting public meetings, apparently a law was never passed prohibiting their living together or marrying one another, nor did they prohibit whites and blacks from doing so. The Charlestown Council Record Book duly recorded, for example, that lahue, described as the son of “Negro Will” of Charlestown, and Phelby, “a malatto woman of Westerly,” had been married on November 5, 1753. Thomas Walmsley, a “mustee,” was married to Elizabeth, an Indian.
Despite the frequency with which red, white, and black intermarried or formed sexual liaisons with one another in the Narragansett Country, and despite their failure to agree upon a neatly ordered racial terminology, eighteenth century Rhode Islanders seem never to have become confused about the three original races. While there was much con fusion about the intermediate peoples who were the result of miscegenation, residents of South County retained a clear sense of the racial identity and moral character of whites, Amerindians, and blacks…
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