Sowams Heritage Area Project

When the American Aboriginal Chief, the Massasoit Ousamequin (Yellow Feather), first met the Pilgrims in what is now Plymouth, MA in 1620, he was living forty miles to the west in an area known as Sowams. While  Massasoit presided over a network of tribes extending from just south of present-day Boston to Bristol, RI and from the Atlantic coast to present day Providence, RI. the area he chose for his home was along the Providence, Barrington, Kickemuit and Palmer Rivers.

Sowams was a rich land, described as a “garden” by Miles Standish and prized by the aboriginal tribes for its rich soil, abundant wildlife and access to the water that provided their food. When the colonists arrived, much of the land had already been cleared over the centuries to provide good hunting and easy access to fishing. Though tribes moved their settlements from place to place depending the seasons, the area known as Sowams was highly prized for its natural resources.

Though he had met briefly many times with European explorers and traders, Massasoit’s first meeting with the Pilgrims in Plymouth on March 22, 1621 entered into a treaty that led to a continuous peaceful relationship that lasted until his death in 1661. However, over those forty years, the land over which the Massasoit Osamequin presided was gradually sold to the colonists in exchange for tools, guns and other items that the English supplied.

As more colonists moved into Sowams, it became clear to both the Massasoit and his sons, Wamsutta *(English name Alexander) and Metacom (English name King Philip), that they were losing control of the land and losing much of their population due to diseases that the colonists brought. Finally, following Massasoit’s death in 1661 and continued encroachments and perceived injustices, war broke out  in June, 1675 in present-day Warren. Pokanoket, Narragansett and Nipmuc tribes joined forces to burn colonial villages from Dartmouth to Northampton, including all of Sowams, in an effort to force colonists to flee. In 1676, colonial armies were able to gain the upper hand, and with help from other tribes, were able to bring the war to a close in August, 1676.

In the ensuing years, the unsold native land was occupied by the colonists, and nearly all of the remaining aboriginal population was either enslaved or moved onto reservations. Over the next 150 years, towns were laid out in what was once Sowams, and nearly all traces of its original inhabitants were erased. What followed were years of continual development, the growth of towns, and the gradual loss of much of the original natural abundance that the colonist first encountered.

This web site is designed to identify the vestiges of that original landscape and the evidence of the first steps in 17th century colonial occupation that transformed Sowams into what we have today. Granted, there are still areas where the natural beauty still shines through, like the Ten Mile River in East Providence, Sowams Woods in Barrington or the Weypoyset Preserve in Bristol, but much of the original “garden” that the English settlers described when they discovered it is now buried in asphalt, covered with urban structures or modified to such a degree that it’s unrecognizable from what the native population once knew.

We invite you to explore the many remaining locations that are identified and described on this site that still give evidence of Sowams in the 17th century and some of the important events that began the transformation of the land into what we have today. We hope that your increased awareness of the history of this region will help you to appreciate not only what we once had but also what we still have that is essential to protect. And let us know by contacting one of us below if you’re interested in working on this project.

While we cannot undo history, this web site argues for continued efforts to identify, preserve and protect the open spaces and water that we still have remaining, to locate places of importance to the indigenous people, to identify markers that signal the historical transition, and to reduce the unrelenting pace of development that could devour what is left of this beautiful land. If you wish to join this effort, consider joining a local land trust or preservation group and add your voice to that of those who are already committed to the task.


Greg Spiess                               Helen Hersh Tjader                        David Stanley Weed