Trade and Use of Materials Among Native and European Peoples in Rhode Island
Essay by Ann Daly, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Brown University
Trade was central to the relationship between Native and European people in Rhode Island. The English traded cloth and tools for fur and wampum. Narragansett people made this basket using traditional methods and incorporated both American and European materials. Although this basket was made after the arrival of English colonists in Rhode Island, the basket demonstrates that the Native Narragansett people were able to incorporate English goods into older traditions. The basket is woven from bark and corn husk, which were native to Rhode Island and were used to make baskets and other woven goods prior to European contact. The basket also contains traces of red and blue wool, which were imported by the English.
Narragansett, Wampanoag, and English people traded goods with each other, and traces of this trade can be found in the basket. Native people valued wool cloth, while English colonists wanted land, fur, and political loyalties. However, the arrival of European goods into Native American society did not make Native people more like Europeans. Instead, the Indigenous people, like the maker of this basket, traded for European goods that they found useful and adapted them to existing ways of life. By using both local material and European trade goods, the basket maker found a middle ground that combined both Native American craft traditions and the new materials brought across the Atlantic Ocean.
Native people and English settlers would have recognized each other’s farms, cloth, and baskets, but they did not think that this made them similar. Narragansett people made most fabric out of easily available and local materials like reeds and bark, while the English preferred to use European plants like flax and wool from English sheep. However, they both used similar techniques to make fabric. Narragansett weavers wove mats and baskets used the same patterns, such as twills and plain weave, as English colonists.
However, the two groups had very different ideas about which kind of people should do what work. According to the note that accompanied the basket when it was given to the Rhode Island Historical Society, a Narragansett woman made this basket in the 1670s. In Narragansett culture, women were responsible for making textiles, including baskets for carrying food and mats that covered wigwams. By contrast, the English thought weaving was men’s work. They believed that wool cloth, which required far more work to produce than the textiles that the Native Americans made, made the English more civilized than Native people. Colonists looked down on the Narragansett women’s textiles as a symbol of their lack of culture.
Native people, however, felt no need to produce English style cloth. Fifty years after the arrival of Roger Williams, they continued to use baskets and live in houses made of woven mats. They did so not because they were not civilized, but because they saw no particular advantage to adopting English ways of life. When they did use English goods, they did so in distinct ways. For example, Native people wore English wool cloth because they found that the English were willing to pay high prices for their traditional fur clothing. However, instead of making English style dresses and shirts out of cloth, they turned wool blankets into coats that resembled earlier fur clothing. Even as English colonists brought new goods to America, the Narragansett and other Indigenous people used them in ways that helped them continue their way of life.
Wampum: A currency of clamshell beads
Wigwam: Seasonal dome-shaped homes made of tree saplings and covered in bark or reed matting. Also known as Wetu.
How is this basket an example of blending Native and English materials?
How did Native Americans use English goods like wool? How did the English use Native American goods?
How did gender roles differ between these two groups?