Cautantowwit, the supreme deity, lived to the southwest. There were also numerous other spirits or deities, who could and did communicate with people through dreams and visions. Priests or medicine men (powwows) were in charge of religious matters. They were usually men who realized their profession in a dream or a vision experience. Their main responsibilities included curing, bringing rain, and ensuring success in war. A harvest ritual was held in a longhouse near the sachem's house. At one important ceremony, possibly held in the winter, participants burned their material possessions.
Narragansetts recognized a dual (junior and senior) chief or sagamore. Power was shared with a council of elders, sachems, and other leaders. Sachems were responsible for seeing to the public welfare and defense and for administering punishment. The office of sagamore may have been inheritable and was occasionally held by a woman. Within the larger administrative body there were smaller groups presided over by lesser sachems.
People changed their names at various life cycle ceremonies. They were generally monogamous. The dead were wrapped in skins or woven mats and then buried with tools and weapons to accompany them to an afterworld located to the southwest. Narragansetts lived in dome-shaped, circular wigwams about ten to twenty feet in diameter, covered with birch and chestnut bark in the summer and with mats in the winter. Smoke passed through an opening at the top. Winter hunting lodges were small and built of bark and rushes. People erected temporary field houses where they stayed when guarding the crops. Villages were often stockaded.
Women grew corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers; men grew tobacco. The men also hunted moose, bear, deer, wolves, and other game, and they trapped beaver, squirrels, and other small animals and fowl. Deer were stalked and may have been hunted communally. People fished in freshwater and saltwater. They gathered much marine life, including the occasional stranded whale, as well as strawberries and a number of other wild foods.
The Narragansetts were notable traders. They dealt in wampum, skins, clay pots, carved bowls, and chestnuts. They imported carved stone and wooden pipes from the Mohawks. People generally wore deerskin breechclouts, skirts, and leggings. They might also wear turkey feather mantles and moccasins. In the winter they donned bear and rabbit skin robes, caps, and mittens.
This group may have originated well to the southwest of their historical territory. They were the most powerful New England tribe until 1675, dominating neighbors such as the Niantics and Nipmucs. They may have encountered non-Natives in 1524, although there was no significant contact for another century or so afterward.
Trade with the British and Dutch was under way by 1623. Although the Narragansetts largely avoided the epidemics of 1617–1619, smallpox and other diseases dramatically weakened the people in 1633 and thereafter. As British allies, some Narragansetts fought against the Indians in the Pequot War of 1636–1637. In 1636, the grand sachem Canonicus sold land to Roger Williams, on which he established the future state of Rhode Island.
In an effort to protect themselves from non-Native depredations, the tribe voluntarily submitted to Britain in 1644. Despite Williams's entreaties to treat the Indians fairly, many British remained extremely hostile. Eventually, they forced the Narragansett people to join the Nipmucs and Wampanoags in King Philip's War (1675–1676). A huge defeat in December 1675, in which more than 600 Narragansetts were killed and hundreds more captured and sold into slavery, signaled the beginning of the end of the war as well as the virtual destruction of the tribe itself.
After the war, survivors dispersed among the Mahicans, Abenakis, and Niantics, the last group thenceforth assuming the name Narragansett. Some of the Mahicans joined the Brotherton Indians in 1788 (see Pequot) and later moved with them to Wisconsin. Those who remained in Rhode Island (probably fewer than 100) worked as servants or slaves of the non-Native settlers, who moved quickly to occupy the vacated Narragansett lands.
The people underwent a general conversion to Christianity in the mideighteenth century, at which time a Christian reservation community was established in Charlestown. After the last hereditary sachem died during that period, government changed to an elected president and council. The last Native speaker died in the early nineteenth century. A constitution was adopted in 1849. All of the Narragansett Reservation, except for two acres, was sold in 1880, and the tribe was terminated by the state at that time. The Rhode Island Narragansetts incorporated in 1934 under the terms of the Indian Reorganization Act.
In 1985, the state of Rhode Island returned two pieces of land of about 900 acres each. The August annual meeting and powwow have been held for the last 250 or more years on the old meeting ground in Charlestown. Other ceremonies are both religious (such as the Fall Harvest Festival held in the long-house) and secular (such as the commemoration of the 1675 battle) in nature. There are tribal programs for the elderly and for children. Tribal representatives are involved in local non-Native cultural and educational programs.