Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in a 1713 Record
Occasionally a Little Compton man of modest means would own an enslaved person. John Briggs, a tavern owner, purchased an enslaved “Negro” woman to help keep up with all the work running a tavern entailed. The woman, whose name is not known, was expensive. Purchasing her was a risk, and John borrowed money to complete the sale, but it was a risk he willingly took as an investment for the future. John never imagined he would die an early death leaving his widow Margaret with his debts. Inventory takers assigned the enslaved woman and her child a combined value of £900 indicating they were John’s most valuable possessions besides his real estate. Margaret was compelled to sell the woman and child quickly in order to satisfy her husband’s creditors.
Little Compton Town Council Probate Book 1, 252-7(2) Back of book. Little Compton Town Council Probate Book 2, 15-16, 23, 63.
Awashonks was a female chief of the Sakonnet tribe of Little Compton, Rhode Island. Her real name is not known, but Awashonks was her official name as chief. It means “She who is queen.”She lived near the Pilgrims’ settlement, Plymouth Plantation, on the southern side of the bustling establishment. The Natives were not familiar with the settlers, and Awashonks helped her people and their confusion. Her life as a ruler of her Indian tribe was one of importance, and her story will inspire us all.
Awashonks’ birthdate is a mystery, aside from several doubted files. It is thought that she was born around the year 1620 after the Pilgrims arrived on the famous journey and ship, which was called The Mayflower. She was important, even before she became chief because she was the daughter of the current sachem, Corbitant.
Awashonks became the sachem of her tribe when the next chief and husband, Tosoneyin, died in 1660. She didn’t obtain the chief’s position through inheritance only, though. She was also a leader because of her strength, wisdom, and power. Though her tribe was more accommodated to a male chieftain, no one else but her would step up to the highest position. Awashonks also discussed problems with other sachems and tried to find solutions to the issues and obstacles with different tribes. Awashonks also greeted the first settler, Benjamin Church, into her territory with a peaceful welcome.
Awashonks, even before she became sachem, played her part for her tribe, and helped with problems and conflicts among the group. She participated in the signing of a peace treaty among a league of neighboring tribes and with the Plymouth Colony. Her tribe lived to the south of Plymouth Plantation, the Pilgrims’ establishment and the second successful settlement, and stretched east from the Sakonnet River. Her tribe traveled often for gatherings and other important ceremonies. Awashonks and her tribe also traded frequently with the English colonists.
Awashonks played a huge role in the war between King Philip and the English colonists. She thought only of protecting her people, and used strategies and allies to defend her tribe. By the end of the war, she had made numerous peace alliances.
It is also guessed that Awashonks agreed to make an alliance with the English as long as no more men, women, or children would be killed or shipped away as slaves. During this time period, Native Americans were forced to be sent away to places where they would be put into forced labor, against their will. Natives were abused, and Awashonks wanted to put an end to it.
Though Awashonks’ deal with the English after they won the war kept her people safe from slavery and deportation, her tribe still endured stolen land and displacement and even enslavement once more.
Awashonks had two husbands. With her first husband, Tosoneyin, she had three children, two sons and one daughter. Her second husband went by the name of Waweyewet.
Awashonks led her people through hard times. She stayed strong for her people, even when her tribe lost most of their power. The struggle for power was a problem among all tribes during this time period, including Awashonks’.
Awashonks was an aristocrat and is a symbol of strength, and though she isn’t here with us, she has a place in history. She stood to defend her tribe, to protect her people and be a leader and chief to its fullest potential.
Written by: Marjorie Leary, Grade 5 -Wilbur & McMahon School
Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition
Awashonks was the leader of the Sakonnet people after the death of her first husband Tolony. Sakonnet’s location at the far western edge of Plymouth Colony provided some protection from English interference. At first Awashonks resisted English directives, but they raised an army against her in 1671. She submitted to the king’s authority and turned over her guns to prevent that attack. A year later, the Sakonnets were in debt to Tiverton colonist John Almy and began to lose their land.
During King Philip’s War the Sakonnets were divided. Some allied with the English, some with Philip. After English troops burned their homes, Awashonks led her followers to Narragansett, where they were attacked in the Great Swamp Massacre, and then to Wachusett Mountain for the winter. The survivors followed her back to Sakonnet in the spring. In June of 1676 they allied with Benjamin Church at Treaty Rock to avoid the enslavement of their women and children.
After the war Awashonks had to ask permission from the English to resettle in Sakonnet. By 1681 it appears that she and her people were landless, living near East Main Road in a small village. They asked Plymouth for some land to farm in 1688.
JOIN US on Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 7 PM at the Little Compton Community Center, when Jeffrey Fortin will present “Two Generations of Freedom: From Kofi to Paul Cuffe.” Professor Fortin will share the stories of Kofi Slocum, an African man enslaved in Westport, MA, who secured his freedom, and his son, Quaker businessman and sea captain, Paul Cuffe. During his lifetime, Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) was one of the most prosperous and politically active men of color in America. Dr. Fortin is the Paul Cuffe Fellow at Mystic Seaport Museum and Assistant Professor of History at Emmanuel College. His book on the life of Paul Cuffe will be published shortly.
The talk is free and open to the public.
It is part of the Little Compton Historical Society’s Slavery and Freedom Speakers’ Series and is sponsored by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Later in the month the last talk in the series will take place on Thursday, February 23, 2017 at 7PM, when Tony Connors, President of the Westport Historical Society, will present “Westport’s Stories of Unfreedom” based on his extensive research using Westport’s primary source documents. Through the years changing borders and family connections have created strong ties between Westport’s and Little Compton’s historic people of color.
Join us as our Slavery and Freedom Speakers’ Series continues Wednesday, January 25 at 7 PM at the Little Compton Community Center with Elon Cook, Program Manager and Curator for The Center for Reconciliation. Elon will present, “Race in Dialogue: Where do we go from here?” She will discuss why The Center for Reconciliation in Providence was created by the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island and how individuals, churches and communities across Rhode Island can join statewide dialogues on race and our history of slavery. Sponsored by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. Free and open to the public.
Free and Open to the Public – Sponsored by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities
As part of a year-long project honoring the 200th anniversary of the end of slavery in Little Compton, the Little Compton Historical Society is hosting a speakers’ series featuring authors and historians with expertise on slavery and freedom in New England. The series is made possible by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and will run through February, 2017. Each event is free and open to the public.
The Historical Society is pleased to welcome Linford Fisher as its next speaker on Tuesday, September 27, at 7 PM at the United Congregational Church on the Commons. Dr. Fisher, Associate Professor of History at Brown University, writes and teaches on religion, Native Americans, and slavery in colonial America. During his talk he will help place slavery in Little Compton and the surrounding areas into the context of the wider Atlantic World.
Dr. Fisher is the author of The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford, 2012) and the co-author of Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island’s Founding Father (Baylor, 2014), with J. Stanley Lemons and Lucas Mason-Brown. These books will be available for purchase before and after his talk and are now available for borrowing at the Brownell Library in Little Compton. Dr. Fisher is currently working on a book-length project on Indian and African enslavement in colonial New England and several select English Atlantic islands, including Bermuda, Barbados, and Jamaica. His course at Brown University entitled “Enslaved, Slavery in the Atlantic World” inspired the Historical Society’s Director, Marjory O’Toole, to begin her research on local slavery, indenture and freedom and prompted the Historical Society to explore the topic throughout the year with a book, a special exhibition, school programs and this speakers’ series.
The next two talks in the series are:
On Friday, October 21 at 1 PM, at the Little Compton Historical Society, Kevin Ryan, President and CEO of Covenant House International will speak on the persistence of slavery today in the United States and across the globe in the form of human trafficking especially as it pertains to the young people seeking help from Covenant House shelters in the United States and abroad.
On Wednesday, November 2 at the United Congregational Church on the Little Compton, Commons at 7 PM, Keith Stokes will present “American Irony—Slavery & Religious Freedom in Colonial Newport.” Mr. Stokes is the co-founder of the 1696 Heritage Group.
Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton
Speaker: Marjory Gomez O’Toole
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
United Congregational Church
7:00 PM Business Meeting
7:15 PM Speaker
8:00 PM Refreshments, Book Sales, Author Signing
Please Note: The memorial dedication originally planned for 6:30 PM in the cemetery has been postponed because of a delay with the monument.
Marjory O’Toole, Little Compton Historical Society Managing Director, will share the personal stories of some of Little Compton’s 250 enslaved and forcibly indentured people during her talk at the organization’s Annual Meeting. The event is free and open to the public and will be held on Wednesday, August 10 at 7 PM at the United Congregational Church on the Little Compton Commons. Members of the Historical Society are especially encouraged to attend to vote on the organization’s board members and officers. A brief business meeting will take place from 7 to 7:15, followed by Ms. O’Toole’s talk. The evening will conclude with refreshments and a book-signing.
Ms. O’Toole has been the Managing Director of the Historical Society for over a decade. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Humanities at Brown University. For the last three years she has been conducting primary source research that sheds light on the lives of Little Compton’s enslaved and forcibly indentured men, women and children who lived and worked in the community from 1674 to 1816.
This summer, and specifically August 5, 2016, marks the 200th anniversary of the end of slavery in Little Compton. Kate Hilliard, the last person known to be enslaved in Little Compton, gained her freedom on August 5, 1816 when her owner, David Hilliard’s will, was approved in the local probate court. David granted Kate her freedom in his will and directed his grandson to care for her in her old age. Kate was enslaved by the Hilliard family throughout her life and worked in their tavern and the poor house that they ran. She married an enslaved man named Prince Grinnell and together they had at least two children.
The Historical Society is celebrating the end of slavery in Little Compton by honoring the lives of enslaved people like Kate Hilliard. Their stories were lost from our local history for over two hundred years and have only recently been rediscovered through the Historical Society and Ms. O’Toole’s efforts. This July the Society published Ms. O’Toole’s book entitled “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold, Stories of Enslavement Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island” and opened a special exhibit by the same title. The book is now available at the Historical Society’s museum shop and Wilbur’s General Store, Earle’s Gas Station, Gray’s Daily Grind and Partner’s Village Store as well as amazon.com. It is also available for loan at the Brownell Library and other libraries throughout the state.
Reservations are not required for the annual meeting. Directions and more information is available by calling 401-635-4035.