Steven Slosberg: Execution site is part of town’s hidden history

Steven Slosberg: Execution site is part of town’s hidden history

The Westerly Sun

As the Mayflower II confronts restoration woes and rot wrought by the wharf-boring beetle at a pier near Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., I’ve been reading “Mayflower,” Nathaniel Philbrick’s sobering, fair-minded and bloody history of the arrival of the English here. In it, I came across a facet of Stonington’s past also chronicled in various texts through the ages but heretofore unknown to me.

In 1676, Canonchet, grand sachem of the Narragansetts, was executed in that area of Stonington known as Anguilla by order of the English and carried out by members of several tribes.

In Philbrick’s account, published in 2006, Canonchet was shot by Pequots, decapitated and quartered by Mohegans and what remained of him incinerated by Ninigrets (Niantics). Just before being executed, wrote Philbrick, he also apparently said that killing him would not end what was known as King Philip’s War.

“The Stonington Chronology 1649-1976 (Bicentennial Edition)” sets this scene: Brought to a council held at Anguilla Plain, Canonchet “bravely refused to sue for peace and when told that he must die replied, ‘I like it well that I should die before my heart has grown soft and I have said anything unworthy of myself.’”

“Pequot Plantation: The Story of an Early Settlement” (2005) by Richard A. Radune recounts the deed thusly, citing John W. De Forest’s “History of Indians in Connecticut,” first published in 1851: “Canonchet bravely faced his executioners and threw open his coat to give them a better target. The Pequots, under Cassacinamon and Catapeset, shot Canonchet, while the Mohegans, under Oweneco, beheaded and quartered him. His body was burned on a fire kindled by Catapezet. The head was then given to George Denison as a trophy which he sent to Colonial officials in Hartford.”

Those, by and large, reflect the English record of the sachem’s death and ritually gruesome aftermath. Why was he taken to Stonington for execution? He was captured in Rhode Island. A recent visit to the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, in Narragansett country, was engaging and edifying, but shed little light on this particular question.

However, David J. Naumec, senior historian and archaeologist at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, did offer his perspective. One central figure was Capt. George Denison. Some background:

King Philip’s War, so called for the name bestowed in derision by the English on Metacom, son of Massasoit and leader of what became known as the Wampanoag Confederacy, lasted just over a year, from June 1675 through August 1676. Its causes were attributed to the expansion of colonist territories, collapse of trade partnerships, and intra-tribal betrayal. Brutality was rampant on both sides. Among the New England tribes siding with Philip were Nipmucks and more tenuously the Narragansetts. Those aligning with the English were the Mohegans, Niantics, a subset of the Narragansetts, and Pequots, the latter having suffered near annihilation at Mystic under the sword of Capt. John Mason in 1637.

Denison, appointed to organize the defense of the Connecticut frontier and most of Rhode Island, had erected some type of stockade near where the Denison Homestead Museum stands today on Pequotsepos Road in Stonington. In March 1676, Canonchet and his Narragansetts wiped out a command of Plymouth Colony soldiers and allied Indians along the Blackstone River near Central Falls. They then attacked Providence. Denison, leading some 180 men, including tribal warriors, English volunteers and soldiers, set out after Canonchet.

“Canonchet was captured in Rhode Island while on a mission to retrieve buried corn kernels that were stored in Narragansett Country in order to bring north to the Upper Connecticut River Valley to plant. In that region around present-day Turners Falls, Mass., a collation of tribes from all over southern New England had gathered for safety,” wrote Naumec in a recent email. “He was caught somewhere in present-day Seekonk, R.I. I believe he refused to speak to any English soldier or Natives, only Natives of his rank. Namely Cassacinamon (Pequot), Oneco (Mohegan), and another Pequot sachem. Those three Native leaders executed Canonchet.”

Naumec continued: “I’m not sure why he was killed in that exact spot in the Anguilla Swamp, but it was near the present-day Pequot Trail, which was a major road even then. Connecticut forces and Native allies were raiding Narragansett Country at this time. They would usually depart from the Denison House in Stonington or from Norwich and would often return on present-day Route 1 or Pequot Trail. Perhaps that Anguilla Swamp area had some cultural significance that we will never be aware of and that is why he was killed in that exact spot.”

“Why was he killed?” the historian asked. “Nearly all Narragansett leaders, male and female, were killed by Connecticut English forces at this stage of the war (1676). They were trying to clear Narragansett Country of Narragansetts, I think today some people would refer to that as ‘Ethnic Cleansing.’ Connecticut was hoping to take Narragansett County (western R.I.) after King Philip’s War by right of conquest much like the Pequot War. In Canonchet’s case, they let their Native forces execute this high value prisoner in their own manner.”

In 2013, the Stonington Conservation Commission considered pursuing funding to aid in the preservation of property along Anguilla Brook Road owned by Donald Walsh, supposedly including the place of execution. The land is near the Pawcatuck Little League complex, off Pequot Trail and extending toward Interstate 95. The land is still for sale, but Walsh said he hasn’t heard anything more from the commission.

It may well be only conjecture, or lost to the expansion of I-95 years ago, but somewhere out there is the site of Canonchet’s historic, honorable and grisly demise. His father, Miantonomo, met a similar fate at the hands of the Mohegans in 1643, and is duly named on a plaque in Norwich.

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington. He was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day of New London.


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