February 27, 2020

This Once Was Called Sowams

Rehoboth Ramblings

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Are you interested in local history and in preserving historic sites? If so, do you know about the Sowams Heritage Area project? This far-reaching project was launched in 2018 at the John Hunt House Museum in East Providence. Its goals are helping people explore the history of Sowams, the original homeland of the native people of this area, and preserving what remains of its original geography, a landscape prized for its rich land and waters and abundant wildlife.

Today this area comprises eight cities and towns in Rhode Island and Massachusetts: Providence, East Providence, Barrington, Warren, and Bristol, and Seekonk, Rehoboth and Swansea. The Sowams Heritage organizers hope that their work might also lead to the establishment of a National Heritage Area similar to the Blackstone Valley Heritage Corridor that could bring in additional resources and attract visitors from outside the region.

Project coordinator Dr. David Weed recently spoke to Hank Coleman’s Tuesday morning history discussion group that meets at the Blanding Library (for more information on this group, contact hjcoleman@comcast.net.) One of the first things you learn from Dr. Weed is that Massasoit was the tribal leader’s title, not his name, which was Ousamequin, or Yellow Feather.

For those who missed Dr. Weed’s talk at that time, it is available on YouTube. There is a link to this and other videos on the group’s excellent website, www.SowamsHeritageArea.org. The other Sowams Heritage team members are Carl Ferreira, Greg Spiess, and Helen Hersh Tjader.

The project organizers also have a very helpful brochure, available at the Blanding Library, the Carpenter Museum and elsewhere, called “Discovering Sowams.” There are 51 heritage area sites listed, ranging from the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence to Rehoboth Village and dam and Anawan Rock, along with four dozen other historic locations just a short drive away.

Some of these places I’m familiar with, such as King Philip’s Seat at Mt. Hope in Bristol and Newman Church in Rumford. Other sites are new to me, such as Margaret’s Rock and Cave in Warren. This was a lean-to shelter in the Massasoit’s winter camp, where Roger Williams was nursed back to health by a Pokanoket woman named Margaret, following his banishment from Salem in the bitter winter of 1636.

The group’s website (mentioned above) is a treasure trove of information with many links to monuments and markers, historic houses and churches, burial grounds and aboriginal sites, as well as an interesting blog, interactive maps, videos, and some self-guided tour brochures to download. You can also take guided group tours.  Contact drweed@cox.net for more information.

According to the project’s leaders, their website is designed “to identify the vestiges of that originally pristine land and the evidence of the first steps in 17th century colonial occupation that transformed Sowams into what we have today. It can be argued that Sowams was the pivotal place of cultural exchange between indigenous people and colonizing settlers in North America.”

“These lands and waters have proven to be a bountiful resource for those making their area their home. The land came to be known as Sowams or ‘south country’. The original Algonquian people came to be known as the Pokanoket ‘place of cleared land’ and as the Wampanoag, ‘people of the first light.’”

They add, “It is our hope that your increased awareness of the history of this region will encourage you to become involved in protecting our remaining natural resources.” The Sowams Heritage folks encourage all those who care about preserving “what is left of this beautiful land” to join a local land trust or preservation group with this in mind.

Along these lines, those interested in 17th century New England history may want to read “Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War” by Lisa Brooks, who teaches at Amherst. This historian gave a very interesting talk on the subject to a full house at the Carpenter Museum in 2018. Her book is available at the Blanding Library.

Described as “a complex picture of war, captivity and Native resistance”, “Our Beloved Kin” includes the stories of Weetamoo, the female Wampanoag leader, and of James Printer, a Nipmuc scholar of that time. Prof. Brooks also examines the well-known captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson. There’s still lots to learn about this troubled time in the history of Sowams.

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