Fact, fancy & folklore as it was written circa 1980
Because of the Old Stone Mill in Newport, many Rhode Islanders were convinced the Vikings came here. This 26-foot high stone tower was most likely built by Benedict Arnold (grandfather of the traitor), who left it to his wife in a will dated 1677. In 1828 a Copenhagen professor, Carl C. Rafn, claimed that the tower was built by Eric, bishop of Greenland, as a place of worship. This captured the imagination of many who accepted Rafn’s claim as fact. For many years, Newport has featured the “mill” as a tourist attraction. In 1949 the American Archeological Society destroyed the Rafn theory when they excavated under and around the tower and found English coins and other evidence that places the tower in the Colonial Period.
Another “Viking” theory that skeletal remains dressed in armor, which were found in Fall River, were that of a Viking was disproved by Prof. Edmund B. Delabarre. The skeleton was definitely that of an Indian.
Recent scholarship has also cast grave doubts upon the belief that Miguel Corte-Real, a Portuguese navigator, was the first European to visit Narragansett Bay. This concept was based upon inscriptions found on Dighton Rock in Taunton, Mass. Some scholars had believed that these undecipherable marks on the rocks could be indications that the Portuguese explorer had been here and was once “king of the Indians.” Other scholars have pursued the idea that these markings were made by Vikings, while still others insist that they were made by Indians.
What is most widely accepted is that Giovanni Verrazzano, an Italian explorer and I pirate known under the alias of “Jacques Florentin,” sailed into these waters in 1121. Prior to this, Verrazzano had been hired by the French monarch, Francis I, top prey upon Spanish ships. Verrazzano had captured two Spanish ships sailing from Mexico to Spain. One of these vessels contained gifts from the conquistador, Hernando Cortez, and included the armor and jewels of the Aztec chieftain, Montezuma. When Francis I saw the treasure form America, he decided to have Verrazzano stake a claim for France in North America.
The claim to Rhode Island is based upon a remarkable letter of the explorer describing what he saw in great detail. Verrazzano, in his ship “Delfina,” sailed north from the Carolinas. In 1524 he and his crew of 50 entered Narragansett Bay. He gives the latitude as being “about the same as Rome.” Rome’s latitude is 42 degrees and the mouth of the bay is 41 degrees and 20 minutes. Verrazzano also described the East and West Channels of the bay and the islands with great accuracy. He stayed in the bay for 15 days and traded with friendly natives. His description of the Indians, their dwellings, stone tools, canoes and farming methods all agree with what we know of the inhabitants of this area. All of this gives us a good basis for concluding that Verrazzano was here in 1524 and perhaps should be considered as the one who “discovered” Rhode Island.
In 1614 a Dutchman, Adrian Block, left Manhattan Island and sailed into Narragansett Bay. He stopped at the triangular-shaped island that Verrazzano had named “Louisa” and went ashore. Today, this island, officially named New Shoreham, is known as Block Island. The Dutch established a trading post there and on the Pawcatuck River near present-day Westerly. Later, they traded with the large Narragansett Village of Cocumscussoc (Wickford).
These early explorations had very little effect on the Indians or the development of Rhode Island. It was not until the Englishmen William Blackstone and Roger Williams came in 1635 and 1636 that we had permanent colonization and development of the colony.