The first winters: what archeologists have found

Sat, 11/25/2000 - 6:00am
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Editor's note: The following was originally printed in the Block Island Times of Nov. 24, 1990. It was written by Tristram Korten with reports from Robert Downie

Today there are just a few descendants of the native Manisses Indians. The decline of the Manisses runs a parallel course with the arrival of European colonists. It is a thread of history spun thick with bullets, disease and slavery.

As the colonists settled, the Manisses population dwindled rapidly. They were either killed directly by the settlers' guns or were victims of European diseases such as small pox and bubonic plague. Finally the Indians' culture was gutted when their land was seized in the mid-17th century and they were subjugated into slavery.

But there was a time, before the white settlers, when the island was not bisected by roads and cleared for planting; a time when stone walls did not divide up the land for private ownership. Dense forests of maple, birch and oak covered the Island. Otters swam in the ponds, herds of deer skirted across the tops of the bluffs, and perhaps black bear crashed through the chest-high alder. Around 500 B.C., a community of Native Americans dug into the soft soil of the Great Salt Pond's northern edge and set the poles of their wigwams fast against the winds of winter.

Even though the holes in which those poles were placed have been discovered, little is known about the natives of that time. They were probably the ancestors of, but cannot conclusively be called, the Manisses. The most detailed first-hand account of the native community is a 1636 description by Capt. John Underhill of the Massachusetts Militia. One of four officers in charge of a company of 90 soldiers under the command of a Colonel Endicott, Underhill came out to Block Island to avenge the death of a trader named Oldham, whom the Manisses murdered. The soldiers' mission was to destroy as much of the Manisses' village and as many of the tribesmen as daylight would allow. Underhill's journal entry provides one of the only glimpses of a material culture that has all but vanished.

"…We met with several famous Wigwams, with great heaps of pleasant corn ready shelled; but not being able to bring it away, we did throw their mats upon it, and set fire and burnt it. Many well-wrought mats our soldiers brought from thence, and several delightful baskets."

Island dig

Last year a more peaceful mission was underway, headed by Kevin McBride, a professor of archaeology at the University of Connecticut, with a team of researchers including Island residents Chris Blane, Bob Downie and Cindy Littlefield.

In the spring of 1989, McBride and crew uncovered an Indian settlement at the Great Salt Pond that dates back 2,500 years, long before the Manisses' fated encounter with British colonists, and much earlier than archaeologists had theorized. It was previously believed that the first settlement was in 1000 A.D. The new finds may designate the Block Island site as the oldest yet uncovered in New England.

At the Great Salt Pond dig, the archaeologists found the precious dumpsites, or middens, of the Indians. The discovery of seasonally different foodstuffs found together — like raspberry seeds and winter seals that date back to 500 B.C. — has revolutionized thinking about the Island's earliest inhabitants.

First year 'rounders

"We're about 80 percent sure that there was a year-round population [in the pre-Christian era]," says McBride in a telephone interview from his University of Connecticut office. "On purely an educated guess, I'd say that population was around 600 [in the winter]."

As the dirt is carefully brushed off the clay pot shards and bone fragments, a portrait of early island life emerges. Today, as winter comes hurling along in 60-mph gusts, it gives one pause to consider what life here would have been like in 500 B.C.

"These Indians lived mostly off marine resources," said McBride. "And they seem to have been advanced enough fishermen to hunt open-ocean animals," he said, referring to the bones of harbor and gray seals, sharks, sea turtles, striped bass, bluefish, cod and sturgeon that were found. Also [bones of ]a fair amount of geese, ducks, eagles and crows were found. Less prominent are the remains of terrestrial animals. Some deer, black bear, and otter have been uncovered but they seem to make up less than 10 percent of the diet. Of course most plentiful are the huge midden heaps of discarded shells — quahogs, oysters, scallops — that were a staple food source.

Sealskin coats

"Seal was a major resource, comparable to deer on the mainland, and may have served as a source of clothing as well as food," states a BI Historical Society abstract on the native islanders. To ward off the cold, the natives probably wrapped themselves in sealskin robes and wore sealskin leggings. The discovery of needles indicates that they may have done some sewing and therefore had tunics to wear. And always an effective cure against the cold was to smear their bodies in grease. Their mainland relatives were described by early explorers such as Verrazano as a handsome, long-limbed people, who as a rule, wore their hair long. Various hairdos, braids and coils helped distinguish age groups and marital status.

Where now the sound of bell buoys is heard, and cars rumble by on Corn Neck Road, dark plumes of smoke from the natives' cooking fires once smudged the sky before December winds scattered them. By this time of year the women of the tribe would have winterized the wigwams, by replacing the woven mats used to cover the frames in warm weather with coils of wrapped bark. They may have hung mats on the inside for further insulation.

Basic wigwams

The wigwam was the basic structure of most of the New England tribes. It was constructed by setting sapling poles at two foot intervals in the ground in a ring, bending their tips inward and fastening them together. A hole was left in the center of the roof so that smoke could escape. They could be up to 30 feet in diameter, and house 10 or more people. An extended family unit probably inhabited each wigwam, which with a fire and a lot of sleeping bodies was very warm.

As winter approached, the sea would soon become too mean to navigate in the dugout canoes men used for fishing. But the waning days of autumn still found them returning at dusk, pushing their canoes with a shush onto the gravely shore of the Great Salt Pond, their nets tangled with cold water fish such as striped bass and cod.

These fish would be smoked and put in storage bins dug into the ground inside the wigwams. For fishing, the men used nets with stone sinkers tied along one edge. They also used spears tipped with sharpened quartzite. The limited land hunting they did was probably done with nets, snares, and bolas; in 500 B.C. the bow had yet to be invented in North America.

The women were responsible for child care and collecting the hickory nuts, squash, seeds and grains that would serve as the winter reserves of food. They prepared them in mortar pestles and on pounding stones, some of the tools that have been found on Block Island.

Although some inland hunting parties would go out for fresh meat, and the taking of seals certainly indicates winter fishing activities, the cold months were primarily a time of maintenance, said McBride. New quartzite cutting tools must be chipped away. Nets must be mended and spears built. The women will weave mats to cover the wigwams and to sleep on. They will also construct the "delightful baskets" that Underhill wrote of, to carry food and belongings when they move to cooler campsites in the summer.

It is possible the native American artifacts unearthed here may be some of the oldest in New England.

A display of Indian artifacts and archeological methods was presented in the early 1990s at the Block Island Historical Society. The exhibit featured the work of archeologist Kevin McBride. A portion of that material is still on display. Since the flurry of archeological activity from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, there have been no scientific excavations on Block Island.