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South Kingstown

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South Kingstown (as for North Kingstown, the final syllable should not be slurred) is shaped like a skewed axehead with beaches and open ocean at its cutting edge, but with water marking its eastern boundary as well, along Point Judith Pond to the south and the Pettaquamscutt River to the north. (Until 1901, in fact, when Narragansett became an independent town, South Kingstown had by far the largest stretch of shoreline in Rhode Island.) Fronting on its watery eastern and southern edge, and extending back two to four miles, in an arc from the northern boundary of South Kingstown into Charlestown, is some of the richest agricultural land in New England. It encouraged early colonization, and, in 1657–1658, the Pettaquamscutt Purchase from the native Narragansett tribe. The land along the water became meadows, and behind this sweeping arc (in the triangle roughly bounded by present-day Ministerial and Tuckertown roads with Route 1) are the Matunuck Hills, a choppy wooded area dotted with small ponds marking the melting edge of the glacier. Inland from these colonial land holdings, Worden Pond, which is the largest natural lake in Rhode Island, serves as the catchbasin to the Great Swamp, by far the most extensive swamp in the state and now state-protected. There, in 1675, after colonist victories over the Pequot and Wampanoag tribes to the north and east, the Narragansett were driven. Although neutral in skirmishes with the other tribes, the Narragansett refused to relinquish Pequot and Wampanoag refugees, which was excuse enough for the colonists to turn against their former allies. In the Battle of the Great Swamp, the Narragansett leader, King Philip, was killed, and further native resistance to colonial settlement collapsed. A monument in the heart of the Great Swamp off South County Trail (Route 2) commemorates the colonial usurpation.

With the Pettaquamscutt Purchase, the area became known as “the King's province,” later Kings County, and, eventually, Kingstown (North and South). Each of the Pettaquamscutt investors received a huge tract of land extending back from the water. Several began to aggrandize on their already large territories, above all Robert Hazard, who owned a farm at Little Rest (now the village of Kingston). Before his death in 1718, Hazard was the largest landowner in the area. Building on their inheritance, subsequent generations made the Hazard family the largest landholders in colonial New England. They were, however, only one of a group of large landowners who, from around 1660, developed the remarkable plantation culture of the so-called Narragansett Planters. By the mid-eighteenth century, African and American Indian slaves amounted to almost half the white population of what is now South Kingstown. Fertile meadowlands supported corn and cattle as the principal crops. The ocean moderated harsh New England winters and provided transport for agricultural products down the East Coast and to the West Indies. Sheep grazed in higher pastures, especially in the Matunuck Hills, making the area the most important area for sheep in New England through most of the nineteenth century.

Around the time of the Revolution, the glory days of the system collapsed in a combination of setbacks. Trade changed because of agricultural competition from other areas as new frontiers opened up closer to what had been markets for the Narragansett Planters. The Revolution also altered trade patterns with the Indies. Land holdings were divided by successive generations, and the supply of labor was disrupted by antislavery legislation in the state (supported especially by Quakers who had been attracted to Rhode Island by Roger Williams's doctrine of religious tolerance, prominent among them members of the Hazard family, which was traditionally Quaker). By the time of the Revolution, the wanton export of breeding stock for quick profit had even decimated the trade in the renowned Narragansett Pacer. Prosperous, large-sized farms continued where the Narrangansett Planters had reigned; but of a more modest sort, and without their global reach.

Inevitably, some of the leading planter families turned to industry: the Robinsons in Wakefield; the Rodmans in Rocky Brook; most spectacularly, the Hazards in Peace Dale (see under these villages). These three villages on the Saugatucket River, closely clustered but clearly defined into the twentieth century, have more recently tended to merge as the principal urban area in South Kingstown. North of this cluster is the village of Kingston, rescued from a period of decline from its early preeminence in South Kingstown's professional, political, and cultural life, when it became the home of the state university in 1883. The rest of South Kingstown to the north and west long remained mostly in small farming, with occasional village industry which generally collapsed in the late nineteenth century. Granite quarrying, centered in Westerly and Charlestown, extended into South Kingstown and, in fact, for reasons which are obscure, South Kingstown probably boasts more stone buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than any other Rhode Island town. As for the former realm of the Narragansett Planters, a flurry of demand for gentlemen's estates during the late nineteenth century revived the legends of old plantation life. Only temporarily, however: Vacationers and, increasingly, year-round residents have swarmed over their holdings, taking advantage of industries which have moved into the area, of relatively easy connections to Boston and New York and, of course, some of the finest beaches and sailing on the East Coast. They have planted their lawns and ornamental shrubs where the great agricultural domains once existed. Where large farms still exist, the principal crop, in this rich, relatively stoneless soil, tends to be turf.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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