The real Indiginous story.
by Nancy Coggeshall
Rhode Island is rife with place names bestowed by the Narragansett, Nipmuc, Niantic, Pequot, and Wampanoag tribes. Their presence harkens back fifteen thousand years, or more. Exeter's Tomaquag Museum tells that story and addresses issues facing the tribes today. The Museum's director, Lorén Spears, maintains that there is no U.S. history, no Rhode Island history—or any other state's history—without knowing the history of the first people on the land. The Tomaquag Museum's mission is education to promote a thoughtful dialogue that highlights all aspects of Rhode Island's indigenous history and culture through the indigenous lens. Key to that perspective is the tribes' respect for and appreciation of the environment that emphasizes the preservation of natural resources for the next seven generations.
Two women founded the Museum in 1958. Princess Red Wing, née Mary E. Glasco, was a Narragansett and Pokanonet-Wampanoag elder, prominent storyteller, and Squaw Sachem of the New England Council of Chiefs. She also served as a member of the Speaker's Research Committee of the under secretary of the United Nations from 1947 to 1970.
Cofounder Eva L. Butler worked as an archaeologist and anthropologist, a teacher, and a historian. She established a children's museum in New London, Connecticut. David L. Browman included her among the 148 women in his Cultural Negotiations: The Role of Women in the Founding of American Archaeology.
The Museum was first located on Butler family property in the Tomaquag Valley in the village of Ashaway in the town of Hopkinton. Butler's collection, gleaned from her study of the Pequot and Mohegan tribes in southeastern Connecticut, laid the foundation for Tomaquag's collection. Princess Red Wing was committed to telling her peoples' stories and teaching Indian crafts and lore. In the 1960s Ferris and Eleanor Dove folded the Museum into their Dovecrest Indian Restaurant, Tomaquag's location in Exeter today. With its homestead and gift shop the property assumed the look of a trading post, ultimately becoming a tourist destination, mentioned in such publications as the New York Times.
The direction of the Museum has been in the hands of Dove family women ever since. Eleanor provided a home for Tomaquag in the 1960s. Under her daughter Dawn's direction the Museum acquired nonprofit status in the 1970s. Tomaquag struggled in isolation for a period of years until today's director, Dawn's daughter, Lorén Spears arrived on the scene. Like Princess Red Wing, Spears is passionate about native culture and teaching. Consequently, she established the Nuweetooun School beside the Museum in 2003. The native-focused school, taught in the Narragansett language, rejuvenated Tomaquag. Because of extreme flooding in the area in 2010, however, the school was forced to close. In the aftermath Tomaquag's board of directors named Spears the executive director of the Museum. Under her aegis the staff grew from one person to seven in 2018. In 2022 there are thirteen. In 2016 the small, unsung, remotely located museum won the National Medal for Museum and Library Science award presented by then-first lady Michelle Obama.
The Museum's archival collection consists of more than 100,000 items. Hand-stamped baskets woven from ash splints rest on shelving. Two ocean-going canoes hang from rafters in the main hall. A fanciful bag from the 1800s is beaded on velvet and decorated in the style of Eastern Woodland tribes. Its beaded floral pattern is so detailed that different shades of a given color are used in the design. Individual archival collections range from letters, diaries, journals, business records, and photographs to a small reference library and collection of digital assets. Limited in scope, the Archival Collection focuses on the very late nineteenth-century to the early twenty-first-century material.
The Ellison "Tarzan" Brown exhibit is noteworthy. The detribalization policy of the 1880s had rendered indigenous people invisible. The Narragansett long-distance runner, whose tribal name was "Deerfoot," brought attention to the tribe. In 1936 Brown won the Boston Marathon. He passed Johnny Kelly, who was favored to win, on the toughest stretch of the race. Thereafter it was dubbed "Heartbreak Hill." Brown participated in the 1936 Olympic Games, won Boston again in 1939, and once ran two marathons in forty-eight hours. On the 85th anniversary of the year of Brown's first win, the Boston Athletic Association honored his prowess and achievement when the Marathon took place on Indigenous Peoples Day 2021.
In keeping with the times the educational programs that Tomaquag offers were revamped to a virtual format. A variety of custom programs can be created and booked to fit the needs of researchers, teachers, and group leaders. These include workshops, presentations, and consulting services to individuals, as well as colleges, universities, corporations, and community organizations. There are programs that can be modified for students ranging from pre-school to high school, along with camps, scout groups, and community organizations. The reach of these programs extends from southern New England to New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey, upstate New York, California, and north of the 49th parallel into Canada.
A wealth of resources is also available on the Museum's website. Well-researched articles and booklets, the work of Native artists, and interviews with tribal members number among the posts online.
One of those articles extensively recounts the history of the Dovecrest Indian Restaurant, whose space included the second iteration of the Tomaquag Museum. The restaurant gained a deserved reputation as an indigenous and culinary fixture in southern Rhode Island from 1963 until 1984. Appearing in many "Best of" guides, it won the 1982 Ocean Spray Cranberry Salute to American Food Award and was featured in the New York Times article, "Cuisine as American as Raccoon Pie." The menu's beginnings boasted usual fare such as pork chops, steaks, and chicken but evolved to include venison, Johnnycakes, succotash, rabbit stew, squirrel pie, creamed dried cod, bear, elk, and Indian pudding. Reverence for family and the values of indigenous culture are threaded throughout the web article.
Given the Museum's recent collaboration with the University of Rhode Island, Tomaquag can anticipate a bright future. The University donated eighteen acres for a new campus. The present Museum's modest appearance and remote locale, inaccessible by public transportation, understate its significance. In its new location, a few yards off Ministerial Road, which intersects with Route 138, Tomaquag will be more visible to readily offer tourists and students the means to learn about Rhode Island's indigenous tribes. The benefits will be exponential for expanding programs, increasing the Museum's reputation, and advancing its mission to tell the story of the first people in this place.
Cost: Adults, $6; elders and college students, $5; children, $3; age 5 and under, free (as of 2022).
Hours: Wednesdays, 10am-5pm, and Saturdays, 10am-2pm. Scheduled private and group tours only, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays. Closed Sundays.
Time required: allow a half-hour or more, depending on your level of interest
Directions: from Route 95 take exit 5 to Victory Highway (Route 102) south to Route 3 south (Nooseneck Hill Road); take a right on Route 3, and go about 1.3 miles; turn right on Route 165 (Ten Rod Road) and go about 1.5 miles; turn left on Arcadia Road and go about 2.5 miles; turn right on Summit Road and go about 3/10ths of a mile; the museum is on the right.
- Simmons, The Narragansett, p. 5. Simmons cites archaeological research that dates human habitation in Rhode Island 11,000 years ago. In "Woven in Time," Rhode Island PBS, November 2015, produced by Mark Levitt, Simmons's states a figure of 15,000, based on more recent research. Interview with Lorén Spears, August 20, 2022.
- Lorén Spears: any time she speaks.
- See Ward, Ellison "Tarzan" Brown.
- (401) 491-9063 or send an inquiry to email@example.com.
- Interview with Lorén Spears, August 20, 2022.
Bragdan, Kathleen, Dawn Dove, Dorothy Herman Papp, Sandra Robinson, Lorén Spears. A Key into the Language of America: or An help to the Language of the Natives in that part of America called New England by Roger Williams. The Tomaquag Museum Edition. Yardley: Westholme Publishing, August 2019.
Geake, Robert A. A History of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island: Keepers of the Bay. Charleston: The History Press, 2013.
Simmons, William S. The Narragansett. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Ward, Michael. Ellison "Tarzan" Brown: The Narragansett Indian Who Twice Won the Boston Marathon. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006.
Freelancer Nancy Coggeshall has been writing most of her life. Her first book-length project, the award-winning biography Gila Country Legend, The Life and Times of Quentin Hulse, was published in 2009. She is presently (as of 2022) working on a memoir whose working title is Moveable Feasts: Here, There, and Yonder. A Rhode Islander by birth, she's lived in New Mexico since 1988.