The documents shown here demonstrate that Native American people in Rhode Island utilized the colonial legal system for their own benefit as well as were subject to the criminal justice system. In two documents, Native Americans are appealing to the British authorities to protect their rights and land residence. The third item shows punishment through the colonial justice process.
Letter, Nicholas Boss to R. M. Johnson (July 25, 1835)
In this letter, Nicholas Boss writes in response to Johnson’s inquiry about gallows which stood on Easton’s Beach. According to two eyewitnesses, at least three individuals were executed there. The first a man named John Shearman, convicted of burglary, the second, Fortune, an African slave convicted of setting fire to a warehouse on Long Wharf. Both crimes are independently documented in contemporary accounts in the Newport Mercury. The third execution was a Native American woman named Nanny, who was convicted of killing a young girl and throwing her in a well. This account could not be verified through other sources.
Newport Historical Society Collection (Box 121A, Folder 24)
Minutes of Meeting of the Governor, Deputy and Assistant at Newport
(November 26, 1663)
This document indicates that some years prior, the Narragansett sachems had submitted themselves as subjects to the British king. In addition to the written record of that submission, they petitioned the king for relief of several wrongs that were committed against them by colonies other than Rhode Island. The minutes indicate that sachems were informed and showed thanks that the king had released their lands from forced purchases and mortgages from other colonies.
Newport Historical Society Collection (Box 60, Folder 8)
Order Concerning Herman Garretts
(True copy August 13, 1720, original document November 20, 1666)
Order signed by Richard Nicolls and Robert Carr warning “all his majesties loving subjects whome this do or may concerne” to desist the harassment of Herman Garretts in Narragansett County. Garretts, also known as Weequsnock, is referred to as a sachem of the Narragansett tribe. The Court ruled that he had permission from authorities in Boston to maintain his residence and have common justice and protection as his majesty’s subject.
Newport Historical Society Collection (Box 78, Folder 2)