Friday, August 19, 2022

The Battle of Shannock Falls

Wednesday I was driving to the opening day of the Washington County Fair in Richmond, coming from Wakefield Books and Hera Gallery in South Kingstown. Rather than battle the congestion of summer traffic on Route One, I took Worden's Pond Road and wended my way through the mill village of Shannock. 

I stopped for a few minutes to take photos of this monument.

These are the falls the battle was fought over:

Textile manufacturer John Knowles built a mill here circa 1834 and constructed a dam here sometime in the 1830s or 1840s, according to the NRHP nomination form for Shannock Village. The dam was removed in 2010, according to the historic signage for this area of the historic district (image below):

Map of the Shannock Historic District, RIHPHC 1983.
The location of the monument is the red dot, beside the bridge
on Shannock Road over the Pawcatuck River. The falls are labeled 52,
and the ruins of the power building are labeled 53.

Not that I doubt there was a battle here -- it makes sense that this region in general and these fishing grounds in particular would be a contested frontier between the Pequot and Narragansett -- but other than there was a battle, there are no other details about it. This short blurb from the 1981 RIHPHC survey of Charlestown is typical of all the secondary accounts I've read about it:

"The Narragansetts and Pequots were rivals and they repeatedly fought for local dominance in Niantic territory. Their most famous battle occurred at Shannock Falls. Here, the Narragansetts successfully defended the important fishing rights which they controlled" (Charlestown, 6)

A similar snippet is found in the 1937 report of the Rhode Island Tercentenary Commission for a site the Commission called "Shannock Hill" (which is actually located a mile or so north of the falls and the site of the battle; see map below). The Tercentenary Commission were responsible for erecting the monument, in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Rhode Island's founding.

"Here the Narragansetts won a fierce battle against the Pequots for control of the fishing falls. A wooden marker was placed by Rhode Island Historical Society June 1897 on the 250th Anniversary of the Death of Canonicus." 

Topographic map of Shannock Hill (elevation 269 feet at red marker), in relation
to the
 Shannock Village Historic District and Shannock Falls (inside rectangle)
at the foot of the hill.

The latter account does provide more information about the history of the monument, but nothing more about the battle itself. It's possible there are narratives nearer to the time of the actual battle -- Roger Williams did spend quality time with his friend, Narragansett leader Canonicus, in the 1630s and 1640s before the sachem's death in 1647. Williams may have recorded something Canonicus told him about this event, but I have yet to find anything attributed to him about it. (Yeah, me -- yet another good argument for picking up the seven-volume set of  The Complete Writings of Roger Williams...scanning it, OCR'ing it and making all 3,052 pages keyword searchable.) If the battle took place after 1580, Canonicus likely fought in it and if he did not, he would have been able to provide a narrative of the conflict considerably longer than two sentences I've been able to find.

But just as likely there is no greater account of the Battle of Shannock Falls in Roger William's surviving papers, because there is exactly zero mention of it in Elisha R. Potter Jr.'s 1835 account, The Early History of Narragansett. Like most antiquarian historians, Potter's narrative relies on -- in his words -- "printed or manuscript works of writers living at the same time with, or soon after the events they describe; the records of the state and towns; and tradition." While he offers little information beyond simply re-writing what he read, with little to no interpretation of events, had he encountered the details of the Battle of Shannock Falls he doubtlessly would have included them. 

This is what Elisha R. Potter Jr. wrote about the Pequots, Narragansetts, and their boundary disputes:

Roger Williams says the Indians were very particular in the boundaries between different tribes: " The natives are very exact and punctual in the bounds of their lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People, (even to a River. Brooke.) &c... (Potter, footnote on xi)

The Narragansett Tribe, occupied the whole of the present county of Washington, excepting the country between Pawcatuck river and Wekapaug [sic], the possession of which appears to have been a frequent subject of contention between them and their western neighbors the Pequots. The Narragansetts, however, appear to have taken final and quiet possession of this disputed tract, alter the destruction of the Pequots, in 1637... (Potter 1)

...[John] Winthrop mentions that there was a quarrel between [the two tribes] this year, (1634,) and that the Pequots endeavored to obtain the assistance of the English, "because they were at war with the Narragansetts..." (Potter 17)

The Pequots had, according to some accounts, pushed their conquests into the Narragansett country, as far East as Wecapaug Brook; and these two tribes were always at variance (Potter 23)

While it is possible the Battle of Shannock Falls took place in 1634 as part of this conflict between the two tribes, Potter's account includes no actual details about the Pequot's quarrel was with the Narragansetts or where any actual fighting took place. The only location Potter references is Weekapaug, Niantic territory along the coast in present-day Westerly, a good 15 miles to the south and east of Shannock. It is a better argument based on the evidence that the conflict in 1634 was over which tribe maintained hegemony over the Western Niantics along the coast rather than inland fishing rights on the Pawcatuck River in Charlestown and Richmond. It is not possible to connect anything Potter reports to the battle in Shannock.

Based on the evidence at hand, the story of the battle began as Narragansett oral tradition that was passed on to the English at some point after the "Vacant Lands" were sorted out, and after the location for the Narragansett reservation was established in 1709, in what later became the town of Charlestown in 1738. That it is based on a tradition passed on by white settlers explain why there are no other details that accompany the story. 

I have a theory (absolutely unprovable), about the origins of the story, since it doesn't appear in early written accounts. Early white settlers in Charlestown would have purchased lumber from the so-called Indian Saw Mill, which operated from c. 1700 to 1900 on Old Mill Road. The saw mill is in the heartland of the region that the colony of Rhode Island reserved for the Narragansett. The ruins of the saw mill are only about a mile and half miles south of Shannock Falls, not far from Narragansett Trail.

The remains of the Indian Saw Mill, located on Saw Mill Pond
off of Old Mill Road, Charlestown RI

The Indigenous operators of the saw mill told the story of the battle to their white customers in the early 1700s. The story about the battle at the falls continued to be passed down by word of mouth among white Rhode Islanders, until the first marker was finally erected in the late 1800s. There is evidence of similar local "folk traditions" passed on among Charlestown's white inhabitants. The saw mill was certainly a point of contact between Charlestown's white and Indigenous societies, and perhaps it took on a similar role to that of the local barbershop, passing on tales of local events between its operators and customers.

If I do discover any more evidence beyond "there was a battle here," I will update this post.


Christensen, Robert O., Shannock Village Historical District. National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form, June 1983. 

Davis, Jack L., "Roger Williams among the Narragansett Indians," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Dec., 1970), pp. 593-604.

Nebiker, Walter, Historic and Architectural Resources of Charlestown, Rhode Island: A Preliminary Report. Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission, June 1981.

Potter, Elisha R. The Early History of Narragansett: With an Appendix of Original Documents, Many of which are Now for the First Time Published. Providence, Marshall, Brown and Company, 1835.

Rhode Island tercentenary, 1636-1936. A report by the Rhode Island Tercentenary commission of the celebration of the three-hundredth anniversary of the settlement of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Rhode Island Tercentenary Commission. Providence, 1937.

All photos and images by the author unless otherwise noted.

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