Published on January 5, 2013 by Amy
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Canonicus (c. 1565 – June 4, 1647) was a Native American chief of the Narragansett people. Although wary of the European newcomers, he bowed before superior armaments and surrendered a portion of the territory of his people to the immigrants without war. He ultimately proved to be a firm friend of Roger Williams and other English settlers.
Canonicus was born around 1565. Nothing is known of his early life.
Canonicus was chief of the Narragansett tribe when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, and one of the first with whom they had dealings.
In the words of historian Benjamin Lossing, Canonicus “regarded the advent of the white men with a jealous fear” and in 1622 he challenged the Plymouth colony, in front of a force of about 5,000 men. As a challenge to the head of Plymouth colony, William Bradford, Canonicus sent a bundle of arrows in a leather wrap tied with a snake skin. In reply, Bradford filled the wrap with gunpowder and lead round shot and returned it to Canonicus.
This first exposure to explosive powder and metal was met with “superstitious awe,” in the words of Lossing, who added:
“They were sent from village to village, and excited so much alarm, that the sachem sued for peace, and made a treaty of friendship; which he never violated, notwithstanding, he often received provocations that would have justified him in scattering all compacts to the winds.”
The peace that resulted extended between the Narragansett and the English colonists extended beyond Canonicus’s death in 1647.
When Roger Williams and his company felt constrained to withdraw from Massachusetts Bay Colony, they sought refuge at Narragansett, where Canonicus made them welcome. In 1636, he gave Williams the large tract of land which became the first nucleus of the colony of Providence Plantation. In 1637, Canonicus was largely responsible for the Narragansetts’ decision to side with the English during the Pequot War.
Canonicus was succeeded by his nephew Miantonomoh; he returned to power after Miantonomoh was killed in 1643. On April 19, 1644, Canonicus made a formal treaty acknowledging the sovereignty of Britain. The influence of his counsels lasted for many years after his death, and the Narragansett tribe maintained peaceful relations with the English until King Philip’s War in 1675.