The Native and Black communities: ‘We are still here’
Native American and Black communities are still present on Block Island.
But the stories of these communities on the island have rarely been included in the public acknowledgement of the founding and settlement of the island; the majority of the island’s historical context has been told through the perspectives of the settlers of European descent. A virtual talk hosted by the Block Island Historical Society on Sunday, Sept. 20, titled “Recognizing Black and Native Histories on Block Island: Public Memory, Place, and Belonging,” focused on the research into the historical background of Native and Black communities on the island, and the idea that these communities have become “extinct” on the island.
Block Island Historical Society board member Sue Hagedorn introduced the three presenters: Maryann Gobern Mathews, Director of the Manissean Tribal Council, an island Native descendant, and currently living part-time on the island and in East Providence; Amelia Moore, Associate Professor in the Marine Affairs department at URI; and Jessica Frazier, Associate Professor in Marine Affairs, History, and Gender and Women’s Studies at URI.
Public memory of Black and Native communities
Moore opened with her research and documentation to address the public memory and the remains of Black and Native history on the island.
“Block Island is steeped in what we are calling ‘public memory.’ The Oxford Encyclopedia explains that ‘the term public memory refers to the circulation of recollections among members of a given community. These recollections are far from being perfect records of the past; rather, they entail what we remember, the ways we frame it, and what aspects we forget.’ In the few minutes I have to talk to you today, I want to give you some brief examples of the way public memory has been framed on the island as it pertains to Maryann’s concerns about Manissean history and continued presence. In sum, Manissean history is currently not a substantive part of the narratives of public memory on the island, and when it is presented, it is framed in ways that do not signal perpetuity. We can also say the same about African American history. Some people talk about Isaac Church, ‘the last Manissean,’ or Fred Benson, ‘Block Island’s only black man,’ but these people have become mythologized in public memory in ways that obscure more complex and populated realities,” said Moore.
Moore provided examples of public memories and documentation on the island, including the Fort Island Monument found along the road leading to New Harbor; a poster in the BIHS used to represent the Indigenous experience of settler colonialism; and the remains of a tractor, owned by Mathews’s grandmother, on Beacon Hill. The following passage shared by Moore describes the Fort Island monument and the image it presents to the community:
“As many of you already know, this monument is one of several placed at points of significance around the island by the BIHS during the 20th century. This particular monument can be found along the road leading to New Harbor… The text reads ‘Fort Island, Indian Fort. 1661. On this spot 300 Block Island Indians were challenged to battle by sixteen men and one boy. Here Indians held feasts making many shell heaps. Original Settlers: Ackurs, Barker, Billings, Cahoone, Dodge, Dering, Faxun, Kimball, Rathbone, Ray, Rose, Terry, Tosh Vorse, White, Williamson.’ What is this memorializing? What was it intended to celebrate? There is no other interpretive material in sight. What message does this send to passerby? For Maryann, this is a marker of genocide. Were these monuments intended to look like tombstones marking the death of the island’s indigenous people? At this time, they certainly raise more questions than they answer.”
The erasure of land claims and generations of first Native communities perpetuates the idea that Natives were not the first settlers of the land, and “are essentially unrecognized and unseen in the stories islanders tell about the island and its populace,” said Moore.
The Squaw Hollow Tractor on Beacon Hill, a lasting memory that not many know about, is tied into the history of Mathews’s family and sense of place.
“The tractor has become a kind of lawn ornament for the homeowners, but for Maryann, it is a personal monument to her family legacy on Beacon Hill and on the island. She has photographs of her grandmother on this tractor, of herself and her siblings and cousins on the tractor, and now of her own children and grandchildren sitting in the rusted out seat. Who will remember who this tractor belonged to once Maryann is gone? Who even knows now that this tractor is all that remains of generations of Manissean community and family life at this site? When we visited, Maryann told us that this land is also known to some on the island as ‘Squaw Hollow’, supposedly a site of refuge for the Indigenous women and children fleeing the violent invasion of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636. There is currently no documentation of any kind for that event at this site. There is very little documentation that this place even exists in the historical record at all, let alone in public memory,” said Moore.
A sense of place
Frazier shared her research on how, and who, writes the history of a place.
Frazier recalled a moment in history, the opening ceremony of the BIHS in 1945, where “botany professor, amateur local historian, and Vice President of Rhode Island State College (now URI), Harold Browning told his audience that they had a duty to the 10-year-old boys of the island (and we should assume he was referring to White boys) ‘to portray and interpret, the history of this island.’ He hoped that those at the historical society would focus on the ‘heroic’ deeds of ‘great’ men rather than partake in what he termed ‘scandalmongering.’” In other words, Browning, the leader of the BIHS, intentionally twisted the historical record of the European’s genocide of the island’s Indigenous people, presenting it as a valiant act of heroes.
In a 1924 publication by journalist Thomas Fielders, titled Block Island: Fact and Fancy, Fielders “not so gently poked fun at and undermined some of Block Island’s founding stories.” In one section of the book, Fielders even states “According to rules and regulations made by the Puritans, the killing of Indians by Whites was a victory; the killing of Whites by Indians was a massacre.”
The conquests of Native land and communities initiated by settlers was celebrated and chosen to be focused on, instead of addressing the violence and abuse that was targeted upon Native communities; a narrative that was urged by Browning at the BIHS’s opening to focus on “the trials and triumphs of people of European descent” which “glosses over the violence of colonization,” said Frazier.
Even the recognition of African descent on Block Island was not addressed at Browning’s opening BIHS speech to the community.
“In the brief historical sketch printed in 1945 alongside Browning’s speech, there was no mention of people of African descent ever living on the island. This despite the fact that we know enslaved Africans were owned by some of the first White settlers. For example, in her 1699 will, Sarah Sands, wife of James Sands, one of the first White settlers, bestowed three girls of African descent to three of Sands’ granddaughters…Sands also bestowed a Black boy named Mingow to her grandson until Mingow reached the age of 33; Sands also declared that any child borne from these people should not be enslaved for longer than 30 years. Similarly, the 1693 will of Peter George, another one of the first White settlers, bequeaths a Black man named Lango to George’s wife Mary until she dies, at which point Lango will be freed. These wills provide evidence of the adoption of enslavement of African peoples and their descendants on Block Island before the first slave ships arrived in Newport (in 1696, although the first enslaved African persons arrived in R.I. around 1652),” said Frazier.
Mathews was the last to speak for the presentation, bringing into focus one word: belonging.
“Belonging: a single word that has an incredible meaning,” said Mathews.
“Our family, [the Gobern family], is still here. My ancestors have lived and fought for their very lives on Block Island and for the freedom… It is certainly time we are acknowledged and respected as the original first settlers,” said Mathews.
Mathews shared slides showing her connection to both Native American and African American descent, and the various lineages of her family tree. Mathews stated her family connection to Isaac Church, adding “he was not the last Indian on the island. His children were still there… there were at least six tribes on the island when the European settlers took over.”
She addressed the Indian Cemetery, located at Isaac’s Corner, where she has family buried and direct bloodlines to those buried. But there are many names that cannot be found in the burial records.
“One hundred and fifty burials in the Indian cemetery, [but] only a handful of names recorded. We recognize one hundred and fifty people were buried there, but I guess it wasn’t important to [record their names],” said Mathews.
“The town did not allow people of color to be buried in the general [cemetery]: they were placed in a section called the Black cemetery… the burials were reported but not documented enough to find them there. You can’t find them even, because the area is covered in brush,” said Mathews.
“Each time we talk about the Native roots, we find more descendants that consider this place their home base: the Manisseans are not gone, we are here. The families come here, share stories with their children. But it doesn’t go anywhere beyond that… we have to do better.”
“We are now reclaiming our family history,” said Mathews.
Mathews added that the Manissean Tribal Council, established in 2015, continues to celebrate Native heritage, and studies the island’s Indigenous history and Native family lineages.
“I am looking forward to growing that organization, a lot of work needs to be done. There are opportunities to come together as groups. We have a full board, we have done some lobbying, and meeting with other folks to bring more cultural awareness to the island,” said Mathews, with plans to bring continued discussion and information to the island next year, depending on the future uncertainty of COVID-19.
“We need to include African history as well – the slave trade has moved into the island as well,” added Mathews.
Mathews concluded the presentation by opening up the virtual talk to the audience members, discussing how to support the work of Black and Native history, what is hoped to be accomplished, and the next steps in revisiting and reaffirming the traditions, cultures, and awareness of the first Native settlers and Black community.
“We are currently working on a traveling exhibit and would appreciate it if you have any stories of histories that you know of. We would love to hear those stories and have access,” said Mathews, encouraging listeners of the audience to reach out to share information, stories, and donations to the organization.
To learn more about the Manissean Tribal Council, https://manisseantribe.com.
A recording of the virtual talk can be found on the Manissean Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Manisses/videos/332770784607426.