After watching the president of the United States trade public, bombastic rhetoric with an unstable, hostile foreign nation who reportedly now has the capability to deliver a nuclear strike to our shores, sometimes it is nice to escape from the wet ink of the present into the dried script of the past.
That’s not a difficult thing to do in Rhode Island, where history is steeped into the fabric of every nook, cranny and cove, from the house of Dr. Joshua Babcock and the Flying Horse Carousel in Westerly to the mansions of Newport and the 1761 milestone marker and industrial milling districts of Woonsocket.
The year 2017 seems to be an especially historic one around these parts as well. Warwick is celebrating the 375th anniversary of its founding – when a group of settlers, including Samuel Gorton, bought land known as the Shawomet Purchase from Narragansett tribal chief Sachem Miantonomi for 144 fathoms of wampum in 1642.
Elsewhere historians, history buffs and descendants gathered in Coventry to celebrate the 275th birthday of General Nathanael Greene. The Warwick-born Revolutionary War legend started off as an ironworker, without any formal education or military training, only to become the youngest Major General in the Revolution, and one of General George Washington’s most trusted officers. Without Greene, some argue there would be no United States, as we know it.
Greene presided for a time over the 1st Rhode Island Regiment – the first American regiment that allowed African American slaves to enlist and fight for the country. The Rhode Island Assembly would then make history by voting in 1778 that any individuals who did so would be “immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free.”
Educationally, the University of Rhode Island celebrates its 125th birthday this year as well. Ranked number 83 in public higher education by US News, URI continues to churn out notable alumni. The URI campus is a historic relic in and of itself, with beautiful stone buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century still in use today.
No matter where you wind up in Rhode Island, there is a certainty that you are walking in the footsteps of our country’s ancestors. Roger Williams and his followers were the pioneers that fled the colonies of Massachusetts for being too religiously zealous. Rhode Island was the first colony to renounce its allegiance to British authority. It was the last colony to ratify the Constitution, and only after a Bill of Rights was included.
Not all of the history is pleasant, of course. Rhode Island had an unfortunately prominent role in the slave trade due to its large number of ports and the opportunistic players in the shipping industry. However Rhode Island was also the first Union state to send troops to support President Lincoln in the outbreak of the Civil War.
Whether good or bad, the historic significance of Rhode Island is inarguable, and it contributes to an approximately $5.2 billion tourism industry vital to the state economy. Whether you tour a historic mansion, stroll a colonial park or even live in a house built before the Revolution, you are a part of that ever-growing history.
Make sure to reach out to the tireless volunteers who operate your local historical societies and commissions. They would be more than delighted to share their knowledge and passion for Rhode Island’s past, and help you escape – if only temporarily – from the present.