Diplomacy, War & Power in 17th Century New England and Indian Country

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Ninigret (c1600–1676) was a sachem of the Niantic and Narragansett Indians in what is now Rhode Island from the mid-1630s through the mid-1670s. For Ninigret and his contemporaries, Indian Country and New England were multipolar political worlds shaped by ever-shifting intertribal rivalries. On October 2, 2014 the Newport Historical Society will host the authors of Ninigret, Sachem of the Niantics and Narragansetts (Cornell University Press) to discuss Ninigret’s powerful position in early colonial America.

Ninigret was the most influential Indian leader of his era in southern New England. As such, he was a key to the balance of power in both Indian-colonial and intertribal relations. He was at the center of almost every major development involving southern New England Indians between the Pequot War of 1636–37 and King Philip’s War of 1675–76. He led the Narragansetts’ campaign to become the region’s major power, including a decades-long war against the Mohegans led by Uncas, Ninigret’s archrival.

To offset growing English power, Ninigret formed long-distance alliances with the powerful Mohawks of the Iroquois League and the Pocumtucks of the Connecticut River Valley. Over the course of Ningret’s life, English officials repeatedly charged him with plotting to organize a coalition of tribes and even the Dutch to roll back English settlement. Ironically, though, he refused to take up arms against the English in King Philip’s War. Ninigret died at the end of the war, having guided his people through one of the most tumultuous chapters of the colonial era.

“Ninigret, Sachem of the Niantics and Narragansetts is an important book,” states Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Silver Professor of History Emerita, New York University, author of Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. “Fisher and Silverman present Ninigret as an able politician, a flexible and resourceful leader, who saw in the European presence a means to accomplish his own agenda. In an extremely engaging portrait of early New England from the Indians’ point of view they establish that Ninigret was possibly the most important—certainly the most feared—man in that time and place.”

Julie A. Fisher is an advanced graduate student in history at the University of Delaware.
David J. Silverman is Professor of History at George Washington University and the author of Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (Cornell University Press) as well as Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1600–1871 (Cambridge University Press).