Environment


Essays

With help from the Narragansetts, Roger Williams became skillful at living in his unfamiliar new environment. He studied the land and water around Narragansett Bay and used traditional places like waterfalls and large rocks to mark off the boundaries of his settlement. From the Narragansetts, he also learned fishing and farming techniques and their strategies of wise land use.

To survive his banishment, Roger needed to learn from the land, the water, and the Native Americans who had lived in this place for thousands of years.  When he was sent into the woods in January 1636, it was the coldest time of the year. For a bookish young man from London, it must have been terrifying to make his way through a wilderness populated by wolves and bears. There were no easy places to find food or to sleep, and he could only go as far as his feet would carry him. But he survived, thanks to his ability to adapt to new surroundings.

Roger had probably come to Narragansett Bay earlier, when he lived at Plymouth, and spent time with the Wampanoag people.  That early training would have helped him to know how to find food in the woods. To know nature well was essential to survival.  He probably took shelter with the Wampanoag people, and there is a tradition that he lived in a cave near Swansea called Margaret’s Rock. Then, when he came to live in his first settlement, on the eastern shore of the Seekonk River, he planted crops to help feed his tiny community. When he resettled later in 1636, he built a house near a spring of fresh water, near the site of the Roger Williams Memorial

Nature never stopped teaching Roger. Through his many dealings with the Natives, he learned to see the land and water as they did, and he put many of the words they used into his first book, A Key into the Language of America. To a hungry Englishman, it was important to know words like Sickìssuog (clams) or Ewáchim-neash (corn). A knowledge of the land was also important for making boundaries, and the earliest definitions of the settlement included rivers and even large rocks in the woods.  

As it turned out, Roger had found a beautiful place to settle. Narragansett Bay was a welcoming body of water, protected from the ocean, and full of fish and shellfish to eat. It was already known to earlier explorers. More than a hundred years earlier, in 1524, the first European, an Italian explorer named Verrazano, had visited this region and mapped it. Other explorers had put Narragansett Bay on their maps. One Englishman, William Blackstone, had come to live here, but he was a hermit, and the last thing he wanted to do was to found a colony. Roger was different; he had found a place that was natural for the kind of community he wanted to start.

Why? Providence was a pretty place, at the confluence of several rivers, by a Great Salt Cove, at the head of Narragansett Bay.  The Bay was full of islands, large and small, which supported the natural independence of the people who followed Roger here, seeking to escape the central authority of Boston. Islands were also useful in another way; they were perfect for keeping flocks of sheep who could not run away. Rhode Island’s many coves and inlets would later help provide privacy to those who wanted to avoid scrutiny from tax collectors and other government officials, including pirates, Sons of Liberty, and slave-traders. 

Over time, it was clear that Roger had been fortunate in being banished to such a desirable location. Unfortunately, that secret was soon known around New England, and for most of his life, Roger had to work to keep Massachusetts and Connecticut from taking over the small area he and his fellow settlers had developed into a colony. Reflecting these struggles, Rhode Island’s boundaries have been adjusted over and over again, for centuries.

In addition to his home at Providence, Roger spent much time at his trading post near the present site of Wickford.  That suggests that this former city boy had grown comfortable in the wilderness, as a place to think, worship, and simply to enjoy nature.  It is fitting that his main monument today is a natural environment of its own, Roger Williams Park, filled with living trees, flowers, plants, and even a zoo. 

Ted Widmer, Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Brown University

Essay-RImap.png#asset:1386

[Source: National Geographic (September 1968)]

Part One:  A Dot on the Map

Rhode Island is famously the smallest of the fifty states.  From far away, it can look like a dot upon the map, hard to find between Massachusetts and Connecticut.  But up close, that dot can be surprisingly dense with information.  Maps add another layer to the story of Rhode Island’s founding, and convey how hard it was to invent a colony from scratch.     

Roger Williams pioneered a place as well as an idea, and the two were linked.  Narragansett Bay was in many ways the perfect place to launch a free-thinking experiment.  But its desirability created constant problems for Roger, and for much of his life, he had to defend his land against aggressive rivals who did not want to see Rhode Island become a recognized location.

Where, exactly, did Roger think he had come to?  How did he begin to define it as a new place on the map, with a name, and boundaries?  All of these questions were complicated in 1636, when he arrived at a location that was not clearly a part of either Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, or Connecticut, and also overlapped with Narragansett and Wampanoag claims. 

Of course, Roger Williams did not “discover” Rhode Island.  It goes without saying that native peoples had been living here for many thousands of years.  But Europeans had been here as well.  An Englishman, William Blackstone, moved into the area just before Roger Williams, though he never sought to establish a colony.  More than a century earlier, in 1524, Narragansett Bay was charted by an Italian explorer, Verrazzano, sailing for the King of France.  He described it as a beautiful place, and called it “Refugio,” a refuge – much as Roger Williams would describe it.  The first map of Narragansett Bay was included in a book that was published at Venice in 1556, based on Verrazzano’s discoveries.  It is difficult to see the resemblance, but it is there all the same. 

Essay-RivalClaims.png#asset:1387

[Source:  Ramusio, Viagi (Voyages), 1556]

Part Two:  Rival Claims

In the 17th century, many more maps were created, as the Dutch came to New York, the French came to Canada, and the English came to New England.  These maps began to show a better understanding of the land, but they almost always ignored the indigenous peoples, and exaggerated claims of ownership.  For example, the Dutch often put Narragansett Bay inside their area of control, completely ignoring the fact that Roger Williams was there.  In this map, they decided that the western half of Rhode Island belonged to them:

Essay-novibelgilmap.png#asset:1388

[Recens Edita Totius Novi Belgii in America Septentrionali, circa 1730; Source: Digital Commonwealth] 

In Massachusetts, Rhode Island was only grudgingly acknowledged to exist.  Throughout his life, Roger was forced to defend his tiny colony from constant harassment from all sides, as new settlers disputed land ownership with him, and Massachusetts and Connecticut tried to take pieces of Rhode Island for themselves.  Many of these tensions can be seen in the maps.   

This map from 1677 makes it look very much like it belongs to Massachusetts (the map is oriented sideways).  One can imagine the exasperation Roger Williams must have felt, after his life’s struggle to create Rhode Island.  It is almost as if, by denying Rhode Island as a place, the mapmakers were trying to deny the forms of freedom that were linked to it.

Essay-JohnFosterMap.png#asset:1389  

[John Foster map, 1677; source:  Massachusetts Historical Society]

Part Three:  Coming into View

Well into the 18th century, Rhode Island could be very hard to find on the maps.  If you zoom into this English map [http://www.oshermaps.org/search/zoom.php?no=632.0001#img0], from 1732, you will have trouble finding Rhode Island.  Somehow the mapmaker placed Narragansett Bay in the Plymouth colony (which no longer existed), and invented a town called “Eastham” below Warwick.  Can you find it?  There has never been a town with that name in Rhode Island.   

But slowly and surely, a recognizable Rhode Island began to emerge.  Boundary commissions were created by the British to define the colony’s borders, a process that continued well into the 19th century.

One of the most beautiful maps of Rhode Island ever created was this one, drawn in 1777 by an English surveyor named Charles Blaskowitz.  During the American Revolution, Rhode Island was close to the front lines and mapmakers needed to understand the land for military reasons.  But as beautiful as it is, the map does not come close to showing all of Rhode Island.  

Essay-pvdmap.png#asset:1390

Providence was growing quickly in these years, and needed maps of its own.  Shortly after Roger arrived, it was a very small community of settlers, as imagined by a later mapmaker:

 Essay-homelots.png#asset:1391

[Source:  Edward Field, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History (Boston: Mason, 1902)

In 1777, a fascinating map was carved into a powder horn

The earliest paper map of Providence was drawn in 1790. 

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[Fitch Map, 1790; Source: RI Historical Society]

This is a later map, of roughly the same scene, created for a book in the 20th century:

Essay-newpvdmap.png#asset:1393

[a projection of Providence in 1798, created for the book Mill Stream by Hortense Lion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941)

Part Four:  Modern Maps

In the 19th and 20th century, the maps became much better, of course.  Some maps tried to show what a place looked like from the sky, even before there were airplanes.  This link [http://maps.bpl.org/id/10162] shows Providence, growing very fast, in 1882.   You can zoom in to see the cove, the body of water Roger Williams settled near, by the old train station at the center of town. 

Now, with satellites, we have an extremely precise idea of what the state looks like.  But it is still wise to view the map of Rhode Island as a work in progress.  We tend to think of maps as scientific measurements of place, fixed and unalterable.  Yet reality is more complicated.  Land and water features change, as rivers find new channels, estuaries expand and recede, and low-lying peninsulas go underwater.  Hurricanes can alter the map dramatically, erasing fragile features in a night’s work.  If you study old maps of Napatree Point in Westerly, at the extreme southwest corner of Rhode Island, you will see how much its shape changed before and after the hurricane of 1938.

Of course, nothing changes the map more than humans themselves, adding landfill, shoring up beaches, filling in ponds in some places, creating them in others.  Roger Williams would find much of Providence unrecognizable today.  Just consider how much change has come to the cove that used to be near his house, a body of water that still exists underneath and around the State House, and the channels that flow nearby.  Here is a map showing changes to the cove:

Essay-covemap.png#asset:1394

[Source:  George Leland Miner, Angell's Lane: The History of a Little Street in Providence (Providence: Ackerman-Standard Press, 1948)]

Humans can also change maps in other ways.  They sometimes change the names of places, for reasons that can range from real estate salesmanship to changing economic priorities (many old R.I. factory villages can be seen in 19th century maps, but have vanished from current ones).  In politics, the map of electoral districts changes as politicians draw new districts to keep up with changing demographic realities.  Other kinds of maps – zip codes, for example (invented in 1963) can be created for new purposes, like efficient delivery of the mail.  

In other words, we need to keep our eyes open when looking at the map. 

Part Six:  A Place of Constant Change

All of that is especially true in Rhode Island.  The state’s features are unusual to begin with.  Rhode Island may be small, but it is diverse, and the landscape changes from town to town.  There are farms, orchards and forests in the interior; cities and mill villages along rivers; suburban sprawl around greater Providence; and a striking variety of coastal communities, near tidal bodies of water that are always moving up and down.  Narragansett Bay is dotted with many small and large islands, including the original Rhode Island (Aquidneck). 

How many islands, exactly, are in Rhode Island?  It is not easy to answer that question, partly because the answer keeps changing.  Some islands have disappeared over the centuries, including Starvegoat Island, which was near Field’s Point in Providence, but absorbed when Providence added landfill .  It can be seen in this unusual map, near the words “Providence River:”

Essay-narragansettbay.png#asset:1395

Balloon View of Narragansett Bay, 1892

Source: Stuart O. Hale, Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective (Narragansett: URI Marine Advisory Service), 112

One website calculates the answer as 108!  [https://rigea.org/2013/12/05/how-many-islands-in-rhode-island/]. 

There is no particular logic to Rhode Island’s boundaries, which do not follow clear geographical features, like the Connecticut River that separates Vermont and New Hampshire.  They merely reflect agreements that were hammered out centuries ago between Roger Williams and his contemporaries. 

A close study of these boundaries shows just how hard it is to draw a map.  Like many other states, Rhode Island has rectilinear boundaries in its northwestern and northeastern corners.  But its northeastern corner is awkward, and Rhode’s Island’s border with Massachusetts does not line up with Connecticut’s.  In the southwest and southeast, it is even more complicated.  Rhode Island’s southwest corner, which follows the Pawcatuck River, abandons the concept, and  meanders in a zigzag toward Little Narragansett Bay, where the state comes very near to Fisher’s Island, which belongs to New York.  In the southeast, a series of jagged lines south of Fall River define Rhode Island’s final corner, but they are hardly straight.   The boundary changed substantially in 1862, when Rhode Island relinquished land to Massachusetts (adding to Fall River), in exchange for new land that was added to Pawtucket and East Providence.        

Changing maps will become even more of a reality as sea levels are expected to rise in the decades ahead.  That is likely to have a dramatic impact on a state so closely linked to the ocean. 

Aerial photographs already show the parts of the shoreline that are affected:

[http://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=a54ede99a2704409a320183de01766b6&extent=-72.3165,41.1025,-70.2881,41.968]

This website, hosted by Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council, gives information and maps about how Rhode Island’s landscapes are continuing to shift.  

[http://www.crmc.ri.gov/climatechange.html]

To read a map well is a way to protect this small sanctuary and extend the legacy of Roger Williams for another generation.  We don’t need to make Rhode Island larger than it is, although some have tried to do that.  This map, for example, was hoping to impress people with how far Rhode Island business relationships extended:

Essay-gatewaymap.png#asset:1396

[Source: Providence - New England's Southern Gateway (Providence: Providence Board of Trade, 1912]

But to understand Rhode Island exactly as it is, with all of its unusual features, is a good beginning.  It may be small; it is certainly fragile, and it is always changing.  But thanks to Roger Williams, it is very much on the map.


RESOURCES:

websites

RI Geography Education Alliance

Rhode Island Aerial Photographs Through History

RI Geographic Information System links

Google Earth

Insurance Maps in the Collection of Brown University

Dutch Maps in the New Netherland Institute, Fordham University 

Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine

Osher Map Library page for Colonial New England

Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library

Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Library of Congress Site about Portuguese settlement in Providence

Early Rhode Island Maps at Barrington Preservation Society

Guide to the 1790 Fitch Map of Providence

Books and Articles

Guide to the 1777 Powder Horn Map of Rhode Island

Boston and Beyond: A Bird’s Eye View of New England (Boston: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, 2008)

John Hutchins Cady, The Civic and Architectural Development of Providence (Providence: The Book Shop, 1957)

John Hutchins Cady, Rhode Island Boundaries, 1636-1936 (Providence: Rhode Island Tercentenary Commission, 1936)

Howard M. Chapin, Cartography of Rhode Island (Providence:  Preston and Round, 1915)

J.B. Harley, “New England Cartography and the Native Americans,” in The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

Albert T. Klyberg and Nancy Grey Osterud, The Lay of the Land (Providence: RIHS, 1979) 

Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier:  Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015)

Christopher L. Pastore, Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014)

Seymour I. Schwartz and Ralph Ehrenberg, The Mapping of America (New York: Harry Abrams, 1980)

Marion I. Wright and Robert J. Sullivan, The Rhode Island Atlas (Providence: RI Publications Society, 1982)

Ted Widmer, Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Brown University

Narragansett Bay is the defining feature of Rhode Island, the body of water at the heart of the state, near all of the different islands, pieces of shoreline, and inland areas that make up this unusually-shaped state.

Without Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island would be quite a lot smaller than it is. Famously, it’s the smallest of the fifty states, but it’s also watery.  Rhode Island is the third-most watery state – 33.1% of its territory is water, after only Hawaii (41.2%)and Michigan (41.5%).[1]  What little land we have is usually pretty close to Narragansett Bay.  But it’s always changing – at high tide, our land area is even smaller!    

Narragansett Bay occupies 147 square miles; but it’s not as easy to define as it looks on that map of Rhode Island. Throughout the centuries, there have been different definitions of the Bay, larger and smaller, eastern and western, and these definitions have affected the state’s sense of its boundaries.  Some early Rhode Islanders identified “Narragansett Bay” as the passage between Jamestown and Narragansett and insisted that the Sakonnet River had nothing to do with the Bay. Others claimed that Narragansett Bay went all the way to Cape Cod and included Buzzards Bay. Some might still argue that the waters near Providence are not part of the Bay; it does not really begin until it expands, to the south of Prudence Island. Still others might claim that it goes all the way up to Worcester and Taunton, in Massachusetts, because of the Blackstone and Taunton Rivers that feed the Bay.   

Essay-narragansettbayprogram.png#asset:1

[Narragansett Bay Estuary Program]

To know those rivers helps to give a better definition of the Bay – it’s not just the water that we see on a map of Rhode Island, it’s the “watershed” – all the rivers that drain into the Bay.  That makes the Bay seem larger; and it is surprising to know that more people from Massachusetts live in the Bay’s watershed than people from Rhode Island.   

Despite these changing definitions, we know a lot about it.  On average, according to Save the Bay, it holds 706 billion gallons of water.  Its average depth is 26 feet.  Every twelve hours, the tides rise and fall 3-4 feet.  The entire bay is flushed out every 26 days.  You could say that Narragansett Bay acts as Rhode Island’s lungs as well as its heart, helping us to breathe better air, and to clean the pollutants that flow down the many rivers that empty into the Bay.

Although the Bay is versatile and resilient, it is also vulnerable, as recent storms and surges have shown.  If sea levels rise, it will bring yet another round of change to the Rhode Islanders who live so close to this essential body of water.  And to the many species of wildlife who also call the Bay home.  More than 350 kinds of birds have been seen here. 

Over the years there have been many wonderful maps, photographs, and satellite images of Narragansett Bay.  Of course, the Native Americans knew it very well for thousands of years before Roger Williams came here.  Many of the words he gathered from the Narragansett describe their lives near the Bay – the fish and shellfish they ate, the boats they built, the wampum they made from seashells.  Roger deliberately chose a place near the Bay for his trading post, so he could travel there by water or land.  He also came to Providence by water, as we can see in the City Seal. 

Essay-seal.png#asset:1399

[waterfire.com]

To be near the Bay was important for all of the early Rhode Islanders, including the Natives.  Roger admired their skill on the water, and wrote, “it is wonderful to see how they [the natives] will venture in those Canoes.”

More than a hundred years before Roger Williams came here, an Italian explorer named Verrazzano came to the Bay, which he called “Refugio,” because it reminded him of a refuge – exactly what it became for Roger Williams.  This Gallery of Maps show how different Narragansett Bay has appeared to the mapmakers over the years:

Visit our interactive page for Narragansett Bay with images and videos >>

To see the Bay in a variety of different ways would not have surprised Roger Williams – this place was always supposed to be a meeting place of different kinds of seekers.  Even before he was banished, Roger Williams knew that he wanted to be near Narragansett Bay to start a new life.  Even centuries later, there is something about this free space – an ever-shifting mixture of water, land and air – that liberates people. 

Activities (from Save the Bay

Printed Sources:                    

Stuart O. Hale, Narragansett Bay:  A Friend’s Perspective

Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast

Stephen Olsen, Donald D. Robadue, Jr., Virginia Lee, An Interpretive Atlas of Narragansett Bay

Christopher L. Pastore, Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England

What a Difference a Bay Makes

Web Resources 

Aerial Photos

For more about Narragansett Bay today, we encourage you to check out Save the Bay and its wealth of educational resources.

NOAA

RI Coastal Resources Management Council

RI Sea Grant

URI Coastal Resources Center

[1] water.usgs.gov/edu/wetstates


narragansett_bay.png#asset:1029

Image: Satellite Image of Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay – geology.com

Ted Widmer, Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Brown University

(and a few in Massachusetts) There are many different kinds of historic monuments. Some are built from stone – and some are the actual stones we come across in the woods, silent witnesses to some of the most important negotiations in Rhode Island’s early history. Stone walls, of course, are easy to find in Rhode Island woods, but there are other, larger rocks too. The forests around Southeastern New England still have significant boulders, cliffs, and outcroppings that Roger would recognize immediately. The Narragansett and Wampanoag people considered certain rocks to be very important meeting places and held important conversations about war and peace there. Some of the most important land purchases took place there, as well. In a time of some uncertainty about boundaries, a huge rock could serve as a good permanent marker. And rocks could also be identified with powerful sachems, as King Philip’s Seat still testifies.

Here are some of the important rocks of Roger’s day:

  • Margaret’s Rock, Swansea MA: where Roger spent time healing from illness and surviving the worst of the winter of 1636, according to tradition
  • Treaty Rock or Pettaquamscutt Rock, South Kingstown: where Roger Williams and William Coddington purchased Aquidneck Island in 1637 and where the Pettaquamscutt Purchase was completed in 1657 
  • Treaty Rock, Little Compton: where a meeting was arranged during King Philip’s War between Benjamin Church and the female sachem Awashonks  
  • Queen’s Fort, Exeter: a traditional hiding place for the Narragansett
  • Mark Rock, Warwick: a ledge with inscribed rocks
  • Devil’s Foot Rock, North Kingstown: according to legend, this was the site of a chase between the Devil and a Native American woman
  • Hipses Rock, Johnston: one of the western boundary markers of the Providence Plantations
  • Profile Rock, Freetown, MA; a rock believed to be a likeness of the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit
  • Dighton Rock, Berkley, MA: a legendary rock with extensive carvings, alternatively attributed to Native Americans, Norse explorers, Portuguese settlers and ancient Phoenicians
  • King Philip’s Seat, Bristol: a natural throne in a cliff overlooking Mount Hope Bay, where Metacom (King Philip) held tribal meetings
  • Mount Hope Rock, Bristol: a flattened rock on a beach with old carvings and inscriptions

hipsesrock.jpg#asset:1159

Source: Sidney S. Rider, The Lands of Rhode Island, as They Were Known to Caunonicus and Mianunnomu, When Roger Williams Came in 1636 (Providence: Author, 1904), between 152 and 153.

inscriptionrock.jpg#asset:1150

Source: From Edmund B. Delabarre, "The Inscribed Rocks of Narragansett Bay, " Rhode Island Historical Society Collections, XIII (January 1920), between 20 and 21. 

inscription2.jpg#asset:1157

Mark Rock inscriptions, Warwick RI 
Source: Rhode Island Historical Society Collections XVI (April 1923), 56

slaterock.jpg#asset:1161

Slate Rock, from a painting by Edward L. Peckham, 1832
Source: Gertrude Welwyn Kimball, Providence in Colonial Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912), between 18 and 19


Sources:

Edward Brecher, “The Enigma of Dighton Rock,” American Heritage (June 1958)

Edmund B. Delabarre, The Inscribed Rocks of Narragansett Bay, (Providence, 1924)

Robert A. Geake, “Natural Sites of Rhode Island’s Historical Memory,

Robert A. Geake, “Rediscovering Native American Places of Memory,” 

James W. Mavor Jr. and Byron E. Dix, Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization (Rochester VT)

Sidney Smith Rider, The Lands of Rhode Island as They were Known to Canonicus and Miantunnomu (Providence, 1901)

Rock Piles blog

Ted Widmer, Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Brown University

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