We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [1]

However, the Early State Records collection and Indigenous Law collection, formerly the Native American collection, provide abundant research documentation that many Native American tribes did not enjoy this more perfect union with respect to their right of self-government.  While many people envision the “cowboy and Indian” version of the conquest of the Native Americans, many tribes lost their rights to land and government through the legislative process.  These tribes lost their independence through strokes of a pen passing laws, rather than by guns.  The result, at times, was similar: the decimation of an indigenous tribe. 

A good example is the Narragansett Indian Tribe, which was and is found in what is now the state of Rhode Island.  A committee report for Indian Affairs, found in the Rhode Island Session Laws from January 1839 (LLMC #99928, pp. 28-31) traced the beginnings of the Narragansett’s dependence on and control by the colonial and then state governments.  The report traced the beginnings of the government’s involvement, when the Indian Sachem Ninigret, then chief of the tribe, quit-claimed all land to the colony on March 28, 1709, with the exception of a defined tract.[2]  This report further noted that although the tribal lands had been consistently confirmed by the Assembly, large quantities of that land were sold without restriction to non-tribal persons.[3]  Thus in 1787, a committee was appointed to run the “Indian Line,” in order to again divide the Indians and white people.  (LLMC #99928, March 1787 session, p. 9; #41034).  By October 1790, the committee reported that the survey had been completed; and resolutions passed to stop trespassing on the Indian lands (LLMC #99928, October 1790 session, pp. 15-16).  More significantly, a January 23rd act, most likely passed in 1789, established a committee to establish rules and regulations regarding the peace and welfare of the Narragansett Tribe.  These and subsequent regulations covered civil matters between different members and councils, investigations of trespassers and seeking justice, as well as establishing the boundary line Unlike the tribe’s sole reliance on its own government of sachem and council, this commission and appointed treasurer were charged with these duties (LLMC# 41035).[4]

This paternalistic attitude continued throughout the history of the Narragansett Tribe.  For example, a February 1792 act, found on p. 26 in LLMC #99928, allowed an annual vote of all males aged twenty-one and older for the purpose of electing council and other meetings.  However, the act restricted the voting privileges to only those men born of tribal women or men, excluding those born of Negro women.  This was followed by a resolution during the October 1811 session (#99928, p. 22) which allowed the committee to direct a “correct register” of all tribal members.  The tribe was not even allowed to determine its own membership.[5] As noted in a petition of tribal members in LLMC 41335, “as to the mixture of African and European Blood with that of the native Indian, it has been done and cannot be undone by any Legislative Act.”

Committees on Indian or Narragansett Affairs continued to supervise the tribe’s activities.  In a lengthy committee report dated January 31, 1831, the author, Dan King, reviewed the tribal laws, and proposed numerous changes.  Following an extremely disparaging assessment of the tribal members and the current council, the committee suggested that common lands be sold for the benefit of the nearby towns, and the monies used to support the poor, pay an overseer of the tribe, and pay down debts. (LLMC #42327).  In response, numerous members of the tribe presented a remonstrance in January1832 to the negative representations of King and the committee (LLMC #41335),   That remonstrance noted that the tribe’s communal land was of poor quality, and insufficient to support its poor, as the “white citizens have got away all the best of our Lands;” particularly as numerous sales of land to pay debts resulted in payments that far exceeded the debts.[6]  Another report in 1832 from the same committee again assessed the tribe’s finances, its ability to care for the poor, and other relevant matters.  The committee suggested a guardian to take over the tribal land for its benefit, given the destitute and “forlorn” nature of the tribe (LLMC #41339). Indeed, a bill so appointing a guardian was introduced in 1832, although it was continued for a year (LLMC #41338).

Ultimately, the General Assembly determined that a guardian was necessary.  In January 29, 1846, a bill was presented which appointed a Commissioner of the Narragansett Indian Tribe.  The position would be appointed by the governor and would supervise and determine all controversies, bring actions in his hand, and otherwise enforce the laws regarding the tribe (LLMC 41360).  Thereafter, the Narragansett Tribal Council presented a February 1, 1849 petition to the General Assembly, seeking to remove the Commissioner and return the power to the Council.  Sadly, the petitioners’ attempt to convince the General Assembly to allow the Council to handle the tribal affairs, even to "try us for one year" was unsuccessful (LLMC #41363).  The Commissioner position continued, even as the tribe complained about his actions.[7]

Ultimately, more changes resulted, eventually resulting in detribalization of the Narragansett Tribe by Rhode Island and loss of much of their tribal lands. While they have somewhat recovered, with federal recognition in 1983, and an independent tribal government, the latest population count was approximately 2,400 members.[8]

Often other tribes experienced similar fates of loss of land and power.  LLMC is privileged to maintain the Early State Records and Indigenous collections, as well as becoming the home of the Indigenous Law Portal.  All those sources allow researchers to find and evaluate the actions of governments and tribal communities and to determine the history and policies concerning indigenous people. 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1028 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many hidden documents, such as the manuscripts, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 




[1] The beginning of the United States Constitution

[2] That land was defined as “beginning where the brook that Joseph Daniels Mills standeth and runs into the Great Salt Pond, and so from said brook on a straight line northerly to Pesquamscut pond, etc.” LLMC #99928, January 1839 session, pp.28-29. 

[3] See, for example, LLMC #41013, which contained seven manuscript documents from 1759-1763 dealing with the ability of the Narragansett tribe to sell tribal lands.  The then Sachem, Thomas Ninigret, in order to pay his debts. sought repeal of an act limiting the sale by tribe.  After this was granted, the tribe challenged this alienation of the tribal lands, with no effect. 

[4] See LLMC #41344, an 1839 Committee report that contained these regulations from 1793 as well as subsequent additions. 

[5] As noted in an 1831 committee report, intermarriage between Negroes, Indians, and whites was not uncommon in the Narragansett tribe.  LLMC #41327)   Ultimately, as found in the history section of the Narragansett Tribe contained in the Indigenous Law Portal, the membership was set in 1880-1884 rolls, as commissioned by Rhode Island. 

[6] See LLMC #41362 for numerous examples of petitions to sell or convey tribal lands. 

[7] See, LLMC #41365; a 1851 petition of the Narragansett Council to the General Assembly requesting a committee to settle the tribe's accounts, given the Council's opinion that the current commissioner had endangered the tribe by his actions.

[8] See history section of the Narragansett Tribe, found in the Indigenous Law Portal.