Friday Flagging: Bristol

This week the municipality of Rhode Island I’m looking at is Bristol, Rhode Island. As a quick design brief, we have a town of somewhere over 22,000 inhabitants at the end of a peninsula bordered on the east by Mount Hope Bay and Narragansett Bay on the east, with the town of Warren to the North. First settled by Europeans in 1680 as part of Plymouth Colony, annexed to Massachusetts after the end of the Dominion of New England in 1692, and then transferred to Rhode Island by the British Crown in 1747. Between 1816 and 1854, as one of the county seats of Rhode Island, Bristol was one of five de facto capitals as the General Assembly of Rhode Island would meet there.

Bristol is also the place where Wampanoag sachem Metacom (a.k.a. Philip) was shot and killed by the praying Indian John Alderman (also a Wampanoag) at the conclusion of King Philip’s War (though Little Compton’s Benjamin Church is often credited). Metacom’s corpse was subsequently mutilated and his wife and child were sold into slavery (rather representative of the fate of many of those who opposed the English in the war). In other less positive history, Bristol is where the the DeWolf family hails from, major figures in Rhode Island’s sizable contribution to the slave trade.

Today, Bristol is home to the longest-running Fourth of July Parade, Roger Williams University, the America’s Cup of Hall of Fame at the Herreshoff Marine Museum (the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company built a number of America’s Cup defenders), and Colt State Park (along with other things).

So that’s a pretty promising set of history and historic symbols. We have a lot of options here.

What has Bristol got now?

A few years ago, I contacted Bristol’s town clerk to check that the flag on CRW Flags of the World was correct. His response was “the flag you have is about the best I will do and I do not have a coat of arms file.” He reiterated the Tercentenary Commission origin of the arms and directed me to the Rhode Island Historical Society for potential further leads.

So here’s that flag:

Image by Eugene Ipavec, 2009

This is what’s known in vexillological (“vexillology” being “the study of the flags”) terms as an “SOB” or a “Seal On a Bedsheet”. Perry Dane, in the 2008 Raven article “Flags in Context: A Discussion of Design, Genre, and Aesthetics” called the SOB “a disaster in flag design” because all of the elements of a seal translate poorly onto a flag. Seals are for close inspection, flags are for quick identification. SOBs also have another big drawback: cost. Flags of the World says the town clerk (the same one I emailed with) said fewer colors than above are used on their printed flags, because that’s expensive.

Why do SOBs persist though? Because they’re simple to do. Changing a flag can be a time-consuming, politically harmful process. Especially if you’re going to seek public input and a vote, it can be a lot of pain for something that, at the end of the day, is just a piece of cloth on a stick. Slapping a seal on a clean white or blue background is an expedient way of using an already existing symbol to avoid political controversy.

Anyhow, that’s what Bristol says it has as a flag. Bristol also has a seal, which apparently was updated at some point after 2009.

Bristol Town Seal

I pulled this from the Town’s Facebook page. You can also see this seal accompanying a news release on the Town website and hanging out on an easel behind Town Administrator Steven Contente on episodes of “The Administrator’s Table”.

Set the escutcheon (shield) aside for a moment. The symbolism of this seal is pretty much all copied from the full achievement of arms of the City of Bristol in the UK.

Bristol UK Arms
From the Heraldry Wiki

The crest and motto (Latin for “Virtue and Industry”) are taken directly from Bristol, England. Meanwhile, the layout of the images behind the escutcheon on the Town of Bristol seal are Americanized adaptations of the escutcheon of the City of Bristol, England: a ship sailing on the left-hand side, and a, presumably Wampanoag, Indian settlement on the right-hand side. You can tell it’s an Indian, because of… the… tipis…

Look, I didn’t bring up the genocide of the Wampanoags earlier for nothing.

Let’s move away from the seal to the arms. Bristol’s arms are described in the Tercentenary Commission Report as this:

Barry undy azure and argent a chief of the second a mount vert. Shield divided horizontally. Upper third silver with a green hill, lower two thirds wavy blue and silver horizontal stripes. The green mount represents Mount Hope, and the wavy blue and white bars represent water; that is Mount Hope bay.

And here’s the colored illustration from the Report:

Bristol Arms
Illustration by Harold Bowditch, printed by Roger Williams Press, colored by Marlowe de Christoper, obtained from the Providence Archives, and from Sam Howard’s collection.

Now, if you notice something with that, the upper third is conspicuously not white (in heraldry “silver” = “white”). Marlowe de Christopher made many such choices, and I can’t say I understand why. In future parts of this series, we’ll see a few more mistakes from him.

Now, we once again have a plethora of contradicting sources for the town’s arms. The Tercentenary Commission, the flag (which features a brown mount on a white background over blue water with some greenery on the right), and the town seal (a black mount on a white background, over black and blue wavy lines).

Looking at that, looking at the currently used symbols, considering the history of the town, I think Bristol could use some new civic design.

Digitizing existing designs

There are a few existing flags I will not take the time to digitize, and this is one of them. I’ll say this again when we get to Charlestown, and I’ll reexamine the use of Indians and Indian-related symbolism multiple times throughout the series (Providence, Warren, Glocester, Little Compton, and the Kingstowns all have issues with this): don’t put Indians on your civic symbols unless you’re either A) an Indian nation, (e.g., the Chickasaw Nation) or B) have spent a lot of time grappling with your polity’s history of dealing with Indians, have engaged seriously with the relevant nations, and gotten their sign-off on using any representation of them. If neither of those apply to you and you have already adopted symbols that represent Indians, change your symbols.

It is deeply wrong for a town that is an estimated 94% white alone and is the site of an important moment in a genocide to use an Indian on its civic symbols. And then to use tipis! Tipis aren’t Wampanoag! Do not use tipis as symbols for all Indians!

So, I’m going to focus my design efforts on digitizing just the arms, which are thankfully geographical (albeit, a geography that has a lot of deep historical significance).

Bristol Arms Correct BorderBristol - WappenWikiBristol Arms Seal BorderFrom top to bottom: my version of the Tercentenary arms, one using WappenWiki assets, and another of my version of the arms on the town seal. I’m not going to say these are great arms. Bristol doesn’t have the weakest of the town arms, but it’s definitely not the pinnacle of heraldic achievement here.

Redesigning Bristol’s Flag

While a straight adaptation of the arms is possible, there are other routes we can go. Bristol has a lot of symbols lying around that can easily be adapted into a flag.

Designs 1a & 1b

Flag of Bristol Design based on Correct Arms

Flag of Bristol Design based on Correct Arms Variant 1

These are fairly straightforward adaptations of the arms. Following the examples of Dutch municipal flag designs like Albrandswaard, Haaren, and Weert, I’ve moved the whole of the chief to the hoist third of the flag, as though I’d rotated the arms 90 degrees left (I did a similar thing last week for Barrington’s Design 1). With the remaining two-thirds of the flag, we then can make one of two choices.

In Design 1a, I’ve reoriented the barry wavy to read vertically, which creates a nice five-striped flag with some decent symbolism (if the white represents Poppasquash and Bristol Necks, then the blue represents the waters (Mount Hope Bay, Bristol Harbor, and Narragansett Bay) around Bristol.

In Design 1b, I’ve simply kept the layout of the arms as though they had been rotated horizontally, and extended the barry all the way to the fly. While it’s not as symbolically meaningful, it is somewhat unique.

Design 1c

Flag of Bristol Design Star

Essentially the same as Design 1a, but with a star to recognize Bristol’s history as a historical capital of Rhode Island. The added benefit is the shortening of Mount Hope, which looks a lot better when not stretched to nearly the full height of the flag.

Design 2

Flag of Bristol Wave 300px

Design 2 plays on the arms, used the barry wavy design, while also using the iconic red, white, and blue that are used for the center lines of Bristol’s Hope St. While relatively simple as a design, it’s not at all common to see wavy lines like this in flag design, which would make Bristol stand out in any collection of American municipal flags.

Design 3

Flag of Bristol RWB Waves 3-5 300px

Like the previous design, Design 3 also used the arms as its starting point. But in this case, it uses the five stars to represent the five former capitals of Rhode Island, with Bristol (the center blue star) among them. They are arrange in a curve, intentionally reminiscent of the way Mount Hope rises on the arms.

The muted blue and red are RGB approximations of the “official” colors of the American flag, and you could more or less vibrant as desired.

Personally, I think this is the sort of flag that would look great displayed during Bristol’s Fourth of July celebrations. It’s specific enough locals could appreciate it, while so generically patriotic it could easily be used as a decorative element.

Design 4

Flag of Bristol Triband new waves 300px

A little bit of obscure history, but here’s a flag featuring America’s Cup winner the Reliance, which is also featured on Rhode Island’s state quarter. This both nods to that specific history, and Bristol’s maritime history. Once again, the five stars recognize Bristol’s position as a former capital of Rhode Island. And the blue wavy divisions representing the water on either side of the peninsula.

Design 5a

Bull Flag

The last designs use on their central symbol something a lot of Rhode Islanders would be familiar with: the entrance to Colt State Park. There’s something nice and strong about a bull with its head lowered, while still hearkening back to the Fourth of July stripes.

Designs 5b & 5c

Bull Flag Design 3

Bull Flag Design 3 variant A

These designs use the waves from the arms again, while also incorporating the star for the capital. 5b uses a regular five-pointed star, while 5c uses the six-pointed star from those found on Bristol’s town seal.

Wrap Up

Again, I’m not from Bristol, so I have an outsider’s perspective about what symbolism from the town is appealing. If you’re a Bristolian with an opinion or want to inquire about vexillology, reach out through the Contact Us page.

It has also been suggested that I include a poll in these posts, so use the poll below to cast your vote for your favorite flag of the ones above.


  1. Definitely 5c since Andrew Augustus is from Bristol and he’s full of bull, lol. I had to Andrew, it was too easy, brother. You can get me back when he does Charlestown, or my hometown of Providence.

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