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