November 15, 2010

Rhode Island: Part 1


Carolyn Cornell Holland


     What comes in the smallest packages, the cliché inquires.

     And the cliché answers: the best things.

     Egotist that I can be, I note that I must be a “best thing” since I was introduced to the world in Rhode Island, the smallest state.

     A 2010 Rhode Island election issue made me realize how ignorant I am about my natal state. The controversy was, and remains, the state’s name: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Some Rhode Islanders want to drop and Providence Plantations—making the official name just Rhode Island. Of course I wrote a post about it: Change the Name of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations?

     But then I wondered what else I didn’t know about the state, which is a whole lot, starting with the names of the Native American tribes.


     I was familiar with Miantonomi Hill in Newport (to view photo click on But did the name Miantonomi belong to an Indian tribe or was he an Indian Chief?

     The first Indian tribe, alphabetically, was the Cowesetts. So that’s the source of the name of the Cowesett Cemetery in Brocton, Massachusetts, where my grandmother Cornell is buried. Then there is the Narragansett tribe, familiar because of Narrangasett Bay. The homestead of my 1600 ancestors, Thomas and Rebecca Cornell, fronted on this bay. I was slightly familiar with the Niantic, Nipmuc, and Pocasset tribal names. However, I’d never heard of the Manisses, Moswansicut, Pawtuxet, Sakonnet, Tunky, or Wampanoag tribes.

     Further research uncovered the fact that Miantonomi was an Indian chief, one of two (the other was Canonicus) from whom Roger Williams purchased land. Williams named his settlement Providence in thanks to God. Since no money was exchanged, the land was essentially a grant. The original deed remains in the Archives of the City of Providence.

     Miantonomi Hill was used as a vantage spot by the Naragansett Indians prior to 1776, when it became the site of a beacon light and place of public executions by the colonists.

     The beacon light gave “the country an alarm in case of invasion.” A fortification was constructed. Count Rochambeau, commander of the French forces in Newport.

     Of the public executions, I know of one: that of Thomas Cornell, Jr., who was hung after he was convicted of murdering his mother , Rebecca Cornell, in 1673. The conviction was based on the testimony of her ghost.

     Although I knew Roger Williams founded Rhode Island (more in depth on that later). I was unaware that the writer of I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy and You’re a Grand Old Flag, George M. Cohan, was, like me, born in Providence—in 1878.


     Pawtuxet Village in Warwick, settled in 1642, claims to be New England’s oldest Village.

     According to the website of the White Horse Tavern in Newport, this is the nation’s oldest operating tavern/restaurant. Originally constructed in 1652 as a two story, two room residence for Francis Brinley, the massively framed building and quarter acre of land fenced with Pailes at the corner of Farewell and Marlborough Streets was acquired by William Mayes, Sr. in 1673. Mayes converted it to a tavern, which opened in 1673. Later, its “necessary” rooms were labeled “Stallions” and “Mares.”

     Two of Rhode Island’s oldest houses, both built in the “stone-enders” style, are the Clemence-Irons House in Johnston, built in 1691, and the Arnold House, in Lincoln, built in 1693.

     Saylesville Friends Meeting House in Lincoln claims to be the nation’s oldest Quaker Meeting House in continuous use—built between 1704 – 1705. 

     A school built in Portsmouth in 1716 is the oldest schoolhouse in the United States.

     The Redwood Library and Athenæum claims to be the oldest lending library in America, and the oldest library building in continuous use in the country. It was founded in 1747 by forty-six proprietors, lead by Abraham Redwood. It was a public library—open to the public, but not free. Its founding principle, “having nothing in view but the good of mankind,” is still its mission over 250 years later.

     The Touro Synagogue in Newport, completed in 1763, is the oldest United States synagogue. It contains the oldest Torah in North America.
     The Flying Horse Carousel Watch Hill in Watch Hill is home to the nation’s oldest merry-go-round, built in 1867.

     Adamsville has the state’s oldest continually operating store, built in 1788.

     The Industrial Revolution started in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790,  when Samuel Slater invented the water-powered cotton mill.

     John and Priscilla Alden were parents of the first white girl born in New England. Arriving in 1623, Elizabeth lived to be 94 and is buried at Little Compton.


    Traffic law: Created in Newport in 1678, to ban galloping horses on local streets.

     To declare independence from British Rule: The other twelve original colonies did so later.

     Circus: In 1774 in Newport. It featured an exotic Indian Elephant, Betty the Learned Elephant, owned by Hakaliah Baily (forefather of the Baily circus family). Her first visit to the town of Chepachet in 1822 was a huge success. Hakaliah took Betty from town to town in New England, amazing locals with her spectacle of the. While revisiting Chepachet in 1826, tragedy struck. As Betty crossed the wooden bridge spanning the Chepachet River, shots rang out. Betty was killed. Five boys, apprehended behind a gristmill, admitted the crime.  Bailey’s own promotion of Betty ultimately led to her demise—having declared her tough hide impenetrable to bullets, the boys wanted to find out if it was true. Four years later, the guilty parties paid $1,500 in damages and were released from responsibility in the crime.

     Site of the Industrial Revolution: When Samuel Slater of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, invented the water-powered cotton mill in 1790 it ushered in this new era.

     Gas-illuminated streetlights: Installed by David Melville on Pelham Street in Newport in 1806.

     Speeding ticket: Given to Jeremiah Johnson in Newport on August 28, 1904. Judge Darius Baker sentenced him to jail for speeding in an automobile.


…of the original thirteen colonies to become a state.

…to ratify the United States Constitution


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Change the Name of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations?



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