The Mystery of Fort Ninigret

One of the biggest mysteries in Rhode Island is down the Old Post Road in Charlestown. Who built Fort Ninigret?

Canon found in Charlestown

The fort was named after the great sachem of the Niantics, Chief Ninigret. The remains of the fort, considered to be the oldest military post in America, were long ago designated as an Indian fort in atlases of the state. Indian tradition records that this site was the Royal Burial Ground of the Niantic and Narragansett Indians. The first evidence of Native American habitation goes back to 700AD but the fort itself is of obvious European origin designed with typical five-sided Bastions on three sides.

In 1812 a large study was conducted by archaeologist H.H. Wilde and he found many artifacts of Dutch origin. The Dutch in the 1500s were based in New York and could have built a trading post here but there is another intriguing possibility.

Archaeologist William Goodwin, excavating at the fort, found a piece of blue pottery with the letter “R” on it. Some experts believe this might have been the logo belonging to two Portuguese brothers, the explorers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real.

In 1500, King Manuel of Portugal encouraged Gasper Corte-Real, the younger brother, to search for lands in America for which he would be granted extended rights. Unfortunately, Gasper disappeared in 1501 while on his voyage. A year later Gasper’s older brother, Miguel Corte-Real, set out to search for his missing brother but he also disappeared.

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Fort Ninigret’s mystery deepened in 1921 when an ancient cannon and rusted sword were discovered not far from Fort Ninigret. Along with the cannon several skeletons were also discovered, at least one of which was headless. The cannon identifies as a “cao” meaning dog and was only made by the Portuguese and dated from the 1500s. The sword was of Spanish origin and dated to the late 1400s.

Canon at the Lisbon Museum

Fifty miles from Fort Ninigret is the famous Dighton Rock. This mysterious rock is liberally incised with Indian petroglyphs, dates, and initials. In 1919 Professor Edmund Burke Delabarre of Brown University discovered an inscription in Latin on the rock he translated to “I, Miquel Corte-Real, by the will of God, in this place became chief of the Indians, 1511.” The noted Rhode Island historian the Rev. W. David Crockett wrote, “I have seen and touched these letters, and I have absolutely no doubt that they tell us of the presence of that explorer.”

So who built Fort Ninigret? Could it be the skeletons of Miguel Corte-Real and his crew? Was the cannon off one of Miguel’s Portuguese ships? Why were some of the skeletons headless? Did they die in battle or were they executed? Was the inscription on Dighton Rock made by Miguel Corte-Real? These and many other questions remain.

If you like mysteries and want to see an unusual and scenic place, try the short trip to Fort Ninigret. The public park is easily located at the end of Fort Ninigret Road in Charlestown. The park has fine views of the pond and a surrounding wall of stone and earth that outlines the original fort.

The palisade contains about ¾ of an acre of grass which is surrounded by an iron fence erected in 1893 when the park was dedicated to the Indians. There is a large boulder with an inscription which reads:

Fort Ninigret
Memorial of the Narragansett and Niantic Indians
Unwavering Friends and Allies of Our Fathers
Erected by the State of Rhode Island
Dwight R. Adams, William P. Sheffield, Jr., George Carmichael, Jr.: Comrs

There is parking and a small kiosk with some historical information. The large shade trees make it a nice place for a picnic lunch. It’s a quiet spot and the times I’ve visited I was the only one there. There is a sense that seems to pervade this tranquil place. It’s as if the spirits of the great chiefs are still lingering here – or was that just the wind blowing through the trees?

Click here for the Google Map to find out where Fort Ninigret is!

Mystery at Ninigret
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Posted in Local History, Places to Visit and tagged , , , , , .
Gregory Pettys Shore Cottage, Misquamicut, Rhode Island I always knew I was going to be an artist. I went to the Silvermine College of Art and then the School of Visual Arts, Film School in New York. I studied under Charlie Reynolds, Picture Editor for Popular Photography and worked at Richard Avedon’s studio as an assistant photographer. After leaving school I opened a photography business and did commercial and portrait work. I exhibited in many local galleries and was the Director of the Rowayton Art Association. In 1975 I built a large darkroom able to produce prints from 40 inch wide photo paper rolls. My old Omega D2 enlarger was projected on the floor and the large prints were wet mounted on board. Some are still on display almost 50 years later. In the late 80’s I started working more as a freelance television cameraman and photo-journalist. I spent the next 40 years doing many PBS shows, such as Bill Moyer’s “World of Ideas and shooting, producing and editing numerous award winning documentaries. Today I run Pettys Productions out of my home in Misquamicut where I have a full Avid Video Editing Suite. I specialize in videos for pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer in Groton. I also write articles for publication, create fine art photography and produce historical documentaries. The most recent documentary “The Last Voyage of the U-853” about the U-boat sunk off Block Island was shown on RI-PBS. I love nature and the sea, so a lot of my work is and will be stories about the people and life along the New England coast.

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