History Of Southern Rhode Island
Peace Dale Revitalization
HISTORY OF SOUTHERN RHODE ISLAND-
BY SANDY MCCAW- CHAMBER HISTORIAN
Aborigines, American Indians & Adventurers
Southern Rhode Island has long proved to be a wonderful place to live, enjoy, and to prosper. Aboriginal people reputed to have arrived in Rhode Island as early as 5,000 years ago as the last glaciers retreated, settled in late archaic or early woodland sites found throughout the county. Later, Narragansett and Niantic Indians and their ancestors fished, farmed, hunted and defended the fields, forests, wetlands, and fresh and salt water ponds that defined their territory lining the coasts of the ocean and bay. The tribal population estimated at about 7,000 at contact, resided in kin-based villages consisting of winter long houses in the forests and summer camps scattered among the dunes.
Despite rumors that Vikings visited these shores as early as 1000 AD, the first recorded ‘contact’ between the tribes and European explorers occurred in 1524 when Giovanni de Verrazano visited Narragansett Bay and bequeathed the name Rhode Island to the area. About a century later, in 1614, John Smith from Virginia sailed the coast and named it ‘New England’. That same year, Dutchman Adrian Block, visited an off-shore island and, immodestly, named it after himself. Otherwise all remained as it had always been and the tribes continued to hunt, fish and farm as they had for millennia.
Protestants, Prospectors & Purchasers
History got underway officially in 1635 when Roger Williams, a dissident churchman expelled from Massachusetts, first negotiated settlement rights from Narragansett Tribal Sachems and began leading groups of English settlers to the Providence area. Many of the settlers were free-thinkers fleeing church dominated settlements in surrounding Colonies, others were enterprising businessmen, and their numbers continued to swell.
First to come to the area now known as southern Rhode Island was Roger Williams himself who bought a parcel of land from the Narragansett sachem Canonicus and established a trading post in Wickford in 1637. A few years later in 1640, Richard Smith built his trading post, now called Smith’s Castle, in Cocumscussoc, just north of Wickford and over the years, Smith's plantation became a center of social, religious and political life in the area.
Edward Wilox and Thomas Stanton settled farther south. It is recorded that Manesses Indians from Block Island came to the mainland, in 1655 to attack the Niantics who occupied Weekapaug, and carried away an Indian princess as hostage. The Manesses demanded such a high ransom that the Niantics, unable to gather together sufficient wampum, appealed to the early settler and celebrated Indian interpreter, Thomas Stanton, who kept a "trading-house" near Westerly on the Pawcatuck River. In return for the help Stanton gave the Niantics, he was deeded a large tract of land in what is now Charlestown which became the Stanton estate.
A few years later in 1657/8 and 1659 competing prospectors from Boston, Newport and Hartford negotiating separately with Narragansett Sachems for Native American lands included in the Pettaquamscutt and Atherton Purchases, opened most of the so-called “Narragansett Country” to European settlement. The colonies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut vied through these different land companies for lands extending from Wickford to Westerly. The competition between the three colonies and the competing land companies continued from the 1650s until 1664 when a royal commission under Charles II stepped in to adjudicate their conflicting claims in favor of Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, following forty years of settlement, strife between the Tribes, the Colonies and the European settlers led to the outbreak of King Philip’s War. In 1675 the Great Swamp Massacre was perpetrated on the western banks of South Kingstown’s Worden’s Pond on a frozen December night during which 300 braves and 400 Tribal women, children and elders were killed. The Narragansett Indian Tribe was largely decimated. Survivors were sold into slavery to local plantations or throughout the Caribbean. A remaining few retreated deep into nearby swamplands - where now a federally recognized Tribal Reservation serves as headquarters for today’s 2,400-member Narragansett Indian Tribe.
Even though most of the European settlements had been destroyed during the brief King Philip’s War, populations of these early towns soon revived, grew and by 1709/11, large expanses of the Atherton Purchase, previously claimed by Connecticut and Massachusetts, and known as the “vacant lands” were sold off and settled. The settlements were remarkably diverse, containing many dissident denominations, Quakers, Baptists, Huguenots, Catholics, Jews and others - all assured of religious toleration guaranteed by Rhode Island’s Royal Charter negotiated and granted by Charles II in 1663. This charter contained the first guarantee of ‘freedom of religion’ in America. It was the most liberal charter to be issued by an English King during the entire Colonial era.
Colonies, Counties, Towns, Villages & Hamlets
In 1729, the colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations divided southern Rhode Island from Providence County, and named it King's County. Boundary disputes between the colonies, however, continued throughout the first half of the 18th century. Finally, in 1781, after the Revolution, King's County’s name was changed to Washington County. Today the county has a total area of 563 square miles (1,458 km²), of which 333 square miles (862 km²) is land and 230 square miles (596 km²) (40.87%) is water. As of 2010, the population was 126,979.
• Westerly was founded on May 13, 1669 on the eastern shore of Pawcatuck River. Long claimed by both Connecticut and Rhode Island and sometimes by Massachusetts as well, the border was not finally established until 1720. John Babcock is recognized as the town’s founding father. The town was briefly renamed Haversham in 1686, but reverted to the original name again three years later. The towns of Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton were originally part of Westerly. The villages of Westerly include Watch Hill, Misquamicut and Bradford.
• North Kingstown was founded as the town of Kings Towne in 1674 and it included the present day towns of North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Exeter, and Narragansett. Although settled as early as 1637, many of the homes built before King Phillip's War, were destroyed. North Kingstown villages and hamlets include Allenton, Belleville, Davisville, Hamilton, Lafayette, Quidnessett, Saunderstown, Slocum and Wickford.
• South Kingstown was founded in 1722 when Kings Towne was split into two parts. South Kingstown included the area that later became Narragansett. North Kingstown included the area that later became Exeter. A large portion of South Kingstown had first been settled in1657/8 at the time of the Pettaquamscutt Purchase. The town hall was originally located at Tower Hill, it was later moved to the village of Kingston before being moved to Wakefield in 1878 where it remains. South Kingstown’s other major villages include Peace Dale, West Kingston, Usquapaug, Green Hill, Perryville, Matunuck, and Middlebridge.
• Charlestown was founded in 1738 when it was divided from Westerly. At the time, it included the town of Richmond which was not divided as a separate town until 1747. Charlestown contains the villages of Cross Mills, Quonochontaug, Watchaug, and Ninigrit,
• Exeter was founded in 1742 when as the western part of North Kingstown it was divided and became a separate town. The villages of Exeter include Exeter, Slocum and Liberty Millville, Arcadia, and Austin.
• Richmond was founded in 1747 when the town of Charlestown was divided north of the Pawcatuck River. Several of its settlements were of an earlier date, one of which, the "Shannock Purchase" was part of the so-called “vacant lands” and its plat was filed in Westerly, R.I. on February 28, 1710-11. Richmond villages include Shannock, Kenyon, Carolina, Wood River Junction,
• Hopkinton was founded in 1757 when it was divided from the town of Westerly. It was named after Stephen Hopkins (a signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of the colony of Rhode Island when the town was partitioned. Hopkinton included a number of industrial villages, such as Locustville, Moscow, Centerville, Burdickville, Wyoming and Woodville, Ashaway, each being named after the mill they surrounded. The town hall is located in the village of Hopkinton City, which was once a major stagecoach hub.
• Narragansett was founded in 1882 when it separated from South Kingstown. The villages of Narragansett include Bay Campus, Galilee, Bonnet Shores, Anawan Cliffs, Jerusalem, and Narragansett Pier.
Planters & Pacers
By mid-eighteenth century the prosperous plantations of Southern Rhode Island, utilizing the labor of black and Indian slaves, reached their peak prosperity. The magical mix of ocean, pond and meadow bathed by balmy breezes, warmed by the Gulf Stream, soon attracted a special breed of settler. Aided by the practice of primogenitor, large farms were inherited undivided which resulted in an aristocratic ‘Southern Plantation Culture’ based on dairy and livestock production for export to the British West Indies and other ports-of-call on the Triangle Trade. The 17th and 18th centuries saw vast plantations extend across fertile coastal flats from Wickford to Westerly. Here and in the rolling fields of the island towns, colonial farmers raised livestock, cattle, horses, sheep and pigs and the grains to fatten them. They cultivated such commodities as apples, onions, flax and dairy products. The virgin forests yielded lumber for boards, planks, timber, and barrels, and the sea provided whales and an abundance of fish for food and fertilizer Most of these items soon became valuable exports for Rhode Island's ever- expanding trade network and brought unimagined wealth to the colony.
A signature product of the “Narragansett Planters” was the “Narragansett Pacer”, a light-footed saddle horse reputed to have been first introduced by South Kingstown’s Rowland Robinson. Bred from Andalusian and native stock, Pacers are considered the ancestor of all easy gaited horses in America. Small, sorrel, hardy, sure-footed and easy moving, they were first bred as carriage horses for export to southern sea coast and Caribbean colonies. Later they were also bred for speed! When a passion for horse racing swept 18th Century England, Rhode Island found itself the only New England Colony to permit horse racing - due largely to guarantees of religious tolerance and a tradition of separation of church and state. So for much of the century, Southern Rhode Island’s race tracks, saw many a Pacer win fabulous purses for their owners. Sadly the purses were not enough to avert pending economic collapse and eventually - although a Narragansett Pacer had been General George Washington’s favorite mount and Paul Revere rode a Pacer on his midnight ride - the breed became extinct as bankruptcies wiped out the early aristocrats of South County.
Slaves & Silversmiths
Slavery, both cause and effect of the wealth of the planters, distinguished southern Rhode Island and in particular, South Kingstown, as reporting the highest percentage of slaves of all the towns recorded in New England’s first census. Slaves, imported by Narragansett Planters or taken as booty in Indian wars, labored on the plantations as pictured in Hamlin Bacon’s mural, recently re-installed at the Old Washington County Jail by Kingston’s Pettaquamscutt Historical Society and titled, “Labors of the Narragansett Planters”.
By the end of the colonial era, Rhode Island had developed a brisk commerce with the entire Atlantic community, including England, the Portuguese islands, Africa, South America, the West Indies, and other British mainland colonies. Though agriculture was far and away the dominant occupation, commercial activities flourished in Newport, Providence, and Bristol and in lesser ports like Pawtuxet, Wickford, East Greenwich, Warren, and Westerly. The most lucrative and nefarious aspect of this commerce was the slave trade. In which Rhode Island merchants outdid those of any other mainland colony. This traffic formed one leg of a triangular route, which brought molasses from the West Indies to Rhode Island, whose distilleries transformed it to rum. This liquor was bartered along the African coast for slaves, who were carried in crowded, pest-ridden vessels to the West Indies, the Southern colonies, or back home for domestic service in the mansions of the merchants or on the plantations of South County.
The wealth of the planters also served as a magnet to ambitious artisans throughout the Colony. When six silversmiths set up business in Little Rest, today called Kingston Village, they crafted the first renowned artwork of the area while performing much as do bankers of today - in so far as they were entrusted to enhance the value of their prosperous clients’ liquid assets.
It was a sad day when John Casey, most famous of the six silversmiths and scion of prominent North Kingstown planters, had turned to counterfeiting Spanish coin with silver pilfered from his patrons. South Kingstown suffered its first scandal. Long eluding the law with the help of family and friends, the courts finally brought Casey before the law – overcoming the reluctance of two sitting juries to convict. But sadly, justice could not be served as Casey was broken free by his cronies in a sensational break from the Washington County jail and was last seen galloping out of town, headed west, never to be heard from again.
The prominence of slavery on the southern Rhode Island plantations eventually gave rise to abolitionist activities by several leading citizens. Rhode Island’s first legislation in 1652 outlawing slavery in the Colony faced very little compliance and even less enforcement. More than a century later, in 1774, Rhode Island became the first Colony to prohibit the importation of slaves - but slavery itself persisted. It was not until 1843 that unambiguous legislation prohibiting slavery in Rhode Island became law and the last of the slaves became free.
Pirates & Privateers
In the 1760s, when the tightening of the navigation system and the imposition of new administrative controls by the mother country threatened the colony's prosperity and autonomy, Rhode Island became a leader in resisting these British Imperial regulations and took the first halting steps towards revolution and independence. Not to be overlooked as further factors in bringing down the Planters were pirates and privateers plying the trade routes to the Caribbean, the Orient, India, Arabia, Africa, Europe and England throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. These marauders not only jeopardized both imports and exports of plantation wares they discouraged other lucrative mercantilist activity dependent upon the Triangle Trade. That trade featured rum, slaves, and molasses as well as the East Indian trade for silks and spices, or the Arabian Trade for trinkets bound for Muslim harems. As the 17th and 18th centuries drew to a close, the era of the Narragansett Planters drew to a close. The rise of mercantilist cities – Newport, Bristol, and Providence whose wealth was in currency sounded the knell.
Rhode Island was reputed to be a leader in the American Revolutionary movement. Because it had the greatest degree of self-rule of all the original 13 colonies, Rhode Island had the most to lose from the efforts of England to increase her control over her American colonies. Southern Rhode Island had a long tradition of evading the poorly enforced navigation acts and smuggling was commonplace. Revolutionary fervor rose throughout Rhode Island as act after act restraining American freedoms were enacted by the English Parliament.
In April 1775, a week after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the colonial legislature in Kingston authorized raising a 1,500-man ''army of observation'' with Nathanael Greene as its commander. On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island became the first colony to renounce allegiance to King George III. Ten weeks later, on July 18, the Assembly ratified the Declaration of Independence.
During the Revolutionary War itself, Rhode Island furnished men, ships, and money to the cause of independence. Many Negro and Indian slaves from southern Rhode Island gained distinction as the "Black Regiment," a detachment of the First Rhode Island Regiment. Rhode Islander Nathanael Greene of the Kentish Guards became Washington's second-in-command and chief of the Continental army in the South and Rhode Islanders helped create the Continental navy and supplied its first commander in chief.
The Articles of Confederation, with its weak central government was ratified by Rhode Island in 1778, but several years later, when a political faction, led by South Kingstown's Jonathan Hazard, was suspicious of movements to strengthen that government, Rhode Island declined to dispatch delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which drafted the United States Constitution. And when that document was presented to the states for ratification Rhode Island balked. Hazard's faction delayed Rhode Island's approval of the U.S. Constitution. The state's individualism, its democratic localism, and its tradition of autonomy caused it to resist the centralizing tendencies of the federal Constitution.
In the period between September 1787 and January 1790, the rural-dominated General Assembly, meeting in Kingston, rejected no fewer than eleven attempts by the representatives from the mercantile communities to convene a state ratifying convention. Not until mid-January 1790, more than eight months after George Washington's inauguration as first president of the United States, did Rhode Island reluctantly call the required convention, but it took two separate sessions -- one in South Kingstown (March 1-6) and the second in Newport (May 24-29) - before approval was obtained. Most of Rhode Island’s residents feared the encroachment on local autonomy by a central government, whether located in London, Philadelphia, or Washington.
Rhode Island's course during this turbulent era -- first in war and last in peace -- is attributable in part to its tradition of individualism, self-reliance, and dissent.
Manufacturers & Mill Workers
With the demise of the plantation economy at the close of the 18th Century, many of the grand families of southern Rhode Island turned their sights to industry and applied revolutionary new means of manufacturing based on water power, a newly mobilized source of energy. Early gristmills were overshadowed during the early 19th century by the numerous textile mills and manufacturers producing cotton, wool, rubber, metals and wire, leather, wood, paint, soap varnish and solvents, to name but a few. By mid-century Southern Rhode Island mills, enjoying peak markets, supplied woolen blankets to the Union Army during the Civil War and khakis to the U.S. Army in World War I. Between wars the mills produced high quality luxury textiles such as cashmere shawls or silk and varieties of lace weavings. The vast wealth produced by the mills supported many other investments highlighted by the several railroads built throughout Southern Rhode Island.
The enterprises of the Hazard family are representative of the entrepreneurs who founded mills throughout Southern Rhode Island and the lot of mill workers in Peace Dale was enviable. Neighborhood amenities abounded - the Peace Dale Library, the Neighborhood Guild, the first ‘kindergarden’ in America – were all established for the well-being of the mill workers. Because so many mill workers were new immigrants from Southern or Central Europe or from French Canada, efforts were targeted at easing their assimilation. Mill workers houses were specially designed with unusually ample windows to benefit spinners and weavers performing piece work at home - they can still be seen on village streets, lending a special feeling to Peace Dale. In 1878, the Peace Dale Mill introduced a new experimental plan to share a portion of the mill profits with its employees in support of the Hazards' belief that “Capital and labor are interdependent. Their interests are identical”. Sadly the experiment did not long prevail against the turn-of-the-century decline of the New England mill economy.
Stoneworkers & Shipbuilders
Among the major industries that have also sustained Southern Rhode Island throughout its history since its founding are stone-working and shipbuilding. The stone walls of South County and the skill of masons have a long history. The fertile fields of Southern Rhode Island, cleared and plowed and harvested each fall, were infamous for emerging each spring from winter snows, newly blanketed by stones. In 1846, the industry took a dramatic turn when Orlando Smith, a stone mason, literally stumbled across an outcropping of granite on Rhode's Hill in Westerly, Rhode Island, thus starting an industry that would leave it's mark across this country and abroad. From 1845 until 1955, Westerly Granite was one of the most sought after granites and granite edifices of the stone cutters of Westerly are found throughout the world.
Both Wickford and Westerly have long histories based upon the maritime trade and shipbuilding became the first business of any significance to the area. Narragansett Bay contained half a dozen small harbors in coves and river mouths that were suitable for the building and launching of ships and the docking of merchant vessels, prime among them Wickford and Quonset. Many of the early fortunes earned in Southern Rhode Island were based on shipbuilding and even today, businesses based on military shipbuilding remains a key portion of the economy.
Just as mill-based manufacturing was entering its final days, South Kingstown turned to a new, exciting direction. In 1892 an agricultural school was established at the 140-acre Oliver Watson Farm in Kingston. It was officially founded as the Rhode Island College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. It was renamed Rhode Island State College in 1909 and was later designated as a land grant college.
In 1951 the college became the University of Rhode Island. It was designated a sea grant institution in 1971 and an urban grant institution in 1995. Beginning with a graduating class of 17 at its first commencement, the University celebrated its one hundred and nineteenth commencement in May 2005. Now with an enrollment of 11,298 undergraduates, 2,979 graduate students and about 87,000 alumni, the University inhabits four campuses with eight college academic divisions and one Graduate School of Oceanography
Also influential is the quality of our public school system whose nine public schools (K-12) educate a student enrollment of 4,238 and whose renown for excellence is a major and abiding reason for the draw our town exerts over young couples seeking to settle down and build new lives amid stimulating surroundings.
Farmers & Fishermen
An agricultural settlement from the very beginning, Southern Rhode Island has always flourished in the farming industry. Its first major crop was flax, soon expanding to include vegetables with potatoes taking the lead for many years, now turning to the production of turf in more recent years. Measured by net revenues, greenhouse and nursery products are the leading source of income for Rhode Island farmers. Milk is the second most important source of agricultural income followed by eggs, sweet corn, cattle & calves and potatoes.
Four new trends are sweeping the agricultural industry. First is the fashion for organic farm produce. Farm income from the growing, processing and marketing of organic food and fiber products became one of the fastest growing segments of the United States during the 1990s. Second are new trends in Farmers Markets featuring sale of fresh and local produce. Third are State priorities supporting farm to school linkages and last are initiatives to enhance marketing of agricultural products on the Internet.
While New England’s coast has been legendary for fishing since the middle ages – if not earlier, and fishing up and down our rivers and ponds yielded a major source of food for Indians, settlers and citizens for centuries, not until 1930 did commercial fishing come to prominence in South County. The industry flourished, unlike other sectors of the economy suffering decline due to the depression. Commercial fishing continued to advance in importance with the construction of the Jerusalem breakwater in the mid 1930s, and expanded greatly after World War II when the Point Judith Fisherman’s Cooperative Association (the Co-op) was formed to include all inshore ground-fishers in the port of Galilee.
With the enactment of the 200-mile limit in 1976, fishing strategies diversified as lobster, shellfish and swordfish assumed greater prominence. By 1978, Point Judith landings make up 61% of the total catch of Rhode Island. Fishing for new, diversified produce, however, did not require the same precision knowledge of the fishing grounds as formerly and a new group of younger, non-Co-op members made lots of money at the expense of the Swamp-Yankees and other longtime local ground-fishers. In 1992, the total value of fish landed in Point Judith was $36.2 million. Such profits brought many changes to the industry. The Co-op tried to survive but collapsed in 1994. Another industry in troubled transition!
Surprisingly there is widespread agreement on the type of person who can properly be called a Swamp Yankee. He has been variously described: Described by a newspaperman - on deadline: “He’s a Yankee from poor origins who had to really hack it out of nothing.” And according to a librarian with leisure to compose her thoughts: “He’s a man who lived in woodland swamps, who became fiercely independent, stubborn, obstinate, and uninformed of what was happening on the outside.” According to a genuinely authentic Swamp Yankee old-timer: “He’s an Anglo Saxon farmer like me. We stayed here. We’re a crotchety, contrarian breed. But pride in the heritage is overwhelming.”