The history of North Kingstown is closely allied with two aspects of its topography: its thirty-mile coastline and its three river systems. The town's irregular northern border follows the Hunts River as it flows northeasterly into the Potowomut River estuary. In the central portion of the town a series of small mill villages follow the line of the Annaquatucket River through a chain of glacial kettle holes. The smaller Mattatuxet and Pettaquamscutt River system winds through the irregular, hilly terrain in the southern part of town. In the west, around the village of Slocum, is a level glacial outwash plain with a rich topsoil ideal for agriculture.
By the seventeenth century the sheltered coastal inlet north of present-day Wickford had become a tribal center for the 25,000 Narragansett Indians who lived in the area from Narragansett Bay west to the present-day Connecticut border and south to what is now Westerly. Early in the seventeenth century the Dutch came to this cove to trade with the Narragansett. They were shortly followed by the English. Roger Williams spent the summer of 1636 at the cove making peace with the friendly Narragansett chief Miantonomi. Subsequently Richard Smith built a trading post, Cocumscussoc (Smith's Castle) on the cove near the home of Chief Canonicus. Between them, Smith and Williams made Cocumscussoc the social, political, and religious capital of the region. However, the growth of the white population created increasing tensions. A series of small skirmishes led up to The Great Swamp Fight of 1675, in which the Narragansett were all but annihilated. The survivors are said to have burned every house south of Warwick early in 1676. Cocumscussoc was quickly rebuilt, and the English population reestablished its farming, fishing, and trading operations.
Beginning in the seventeenth century the area's prosperity fostered the growth of a society unique in New England, the Narragansett Planters. Unlike New England's subsistence farmers, the Planters made extensive use of slaves in raising livestock and dairy cattle on large farms in the temperate climate of southwestern Rhode Island. The stock, dairy products, and wool were then sent on Planter-owned ships to be sold along the eastern seaboard and in the West Indies. It was this plantation society which gave Rhode Island the highest proportion of slaves of any New England colony in the eighteenth century. Today, the outlines of the Planters' large, rectangular, east-west landholdings can be seen in the long stone walls abutting Route 1A (Boston Neck Road) south of Wickford.
Immediately following the Revolution most of Rhode Island's slaves were freed, and the loss of this labor force, coupled with the war's long interruption of trade, caused the plantation economy to wither. Economic activity shifted increasingly to the villages and towns, where, after 1790, there was a resurgence in the shipping trade. From 1790 until it was again halted by the War of 1812, shipping was a tremendous source of wealth for all of Rhode Island's ports. The many houses from this period still standing along Wickford's tree-lined streets are eloquent testimony to this rapid and short-lived prosperity. Following the War of 1812, however, Wickford's fortunes began to fade and the town was given a serious financial blow when it was bypassed by the new railroad line in the 1830s.
While Wickford was declining, the rest of North Kingstown was experiencing a boom in the construction of textile mills. Although the town's three rivers had helped to power a number of sawmills, gristmills, and fulling mills in the eighteenth century, the first cotton mill appeared on a tributary of the Annaquatucket around 1800. Cotton and woolen mills were quickly established in the early 1800s: nine mills existed by 1832 and twelve by 1870. Manufacturing soon became the town's primary source of wealth. The mills inevitably generated the growth of nearby villages to house the workers, foremen, and owners.
The latter part of the nineteenth century brought a wave of summer residents, most of them settling either to the far north on the broad, rolling fields of Quidnesset or south in the tightly knit communities of shingled cottages at Plum Beach and Saunders-town. This influx of summer visitors was greatly increased in 1900 with the construction of the Seaview Trolley line from Providence to Narragansett. The trolley brought day trippers from Providence's large working and middle class communities. They eventually established their own sheltered summer colonies at Shore Acres, Bay View, and elsewhere north of Wickford.
After 1939 North Kingstown's fortunes became increasingly tied to those of military installations at Quonset Point. The Quonset Naval Air Station, designed to protect the entire northeast coast, covered more than 1,000 acres (some of which were cleared of houses just rebuilt following the 1938 hurricane). Its rapid construction was followed in 1942 by that of the Davisville Naval Construction Training Center and the accompanying Advance Base Depot and Proving Ground for the prefabrication and shipment of buildings and equipment to overseas military bases. It was here that the Quonset hut was developed. The navy ceased its operations at Quonset in 1974, leaving much of central and northern North Kingstown an abandoned hulk.
Increasingly the town has been subsumed into the larger metropolitan area of Providence, and its entire eastern half is now heavily suburbanized. Fertile farmlands of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries are now cultivated as sod for suburban lawns, providing an unusual New England landscape of level fields of lush, manicured grass. North Kingstown has nevertheless retained the deep woods in its interior portion, as well as much of its character as an assortment of villages built up at different periods and for different purposes. Although strip commercial development along Route 1 has diverted attention from many of the villages that lie along it, recent interest in old houses and cohesive pedestrian communities has given new life to long-dormant Wickford. A continued interest in historic district zoning and open space preservation will help North Kingstown retain the complex fabric of its history.
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