Each Friday, I look at the flags and associated symbols of cities and towns in Rhode Island. This week, we look at our first island community, Jamestown.
Jamestown encompasses three islands in western Narragansett Bay; Conanicut, Dutch, and Gould islands. Of these, only Conanicut remains inhabited today. Conanicut is connected to the mainland by the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge and to nearby Aquidneck Island by the Claiborne Pell Bridge.
I have seen Jamestowners claim they are the the oldest (European) settlement of Rhode Island, and the answer to that is… maybe? The claim, as I understand it, rests on the Dutch having set up a trading post in 1636 (although possibly it was 1637) on Dutch Island (the Dutch had the better sounding name of “Quentenis” for the island). But, of course, that means Cumberland, East Providence, and Providence are all on par with Jamestowners’ claims.
Anyhow there’s no doubt that the settlement of the area Jamestown is now is quite ancient, dating back something like at least 5,000 years ago (possibly even twice or thrice that long ago). The Narragansett sachem Pressicus said that the Narragansetts had lived there since “time out of mind.”
English settlers have a much more certain date though, and that’s 1657 when they claimed to have purchased the deed to Conanicut and Dutch Islands from Narragansett sachem Cashasaquont. Two Narragansett sachems, Scuttop and Quequaquenuit, disputed this. They claimed that the English had only been given rights to use the islands, not own the islands. This is the only known instance of Rhode Islanders claiming to own something they may not have actually owned.
As in a great many early colonial issues between settlers and Indians, this dispute was resolved when the Narragansetts were eliminated as a sovereign power in the 1670s during King Philip’s War. However, before then, the Narragansetts taught the Jamestown settlers how to grow native crops.
By 1678, though only numbering 150 inhabitants, Jamestown became a town. They named themselves after Prince James Stewart (later King James II, and later overthrown). They chose as their symbol a sheep upon a green field, in honor of the sheep they had been grazing on the island since the 1630s. A notable aspect of Jamestown was that a quarter of its population was black in its pre-abolition days, almost all slaves. There were likely a number of Indian slaves as well.
For a large part of its history, Jamestown was a simple agricultural community. The economic staples were sheep and cattles, and their associated products. In 1775, the town was burned by the British (and later occupied). By 1790, the island mostly recovered, and apparently had famous cheese.
Jamestown, like some western communities, lacks any strong water source to power mills, and so the only mill it ever had is its sole windmill.
However, in 1873, a steam ferry, the Jamestown, began service between Newport and Jamestown, beginning what the Jamestown Historical Society calls the “Resort Era”. This utterly transformed Jamestown from a declining agricultural community to a place for summer homes and recreation.
In 1940 the first Jamestown Bridge was constructed, opening the island up to automobile traffic, which allowed its transformation into a suburban community. In 1969, the opening of the then-Newport Bridge ended the ferry service.
What has Jamestown got now?
Jamestown adopted its symbol way back in 1678, which means the Tercentenary Commission didn’t mess with them.
The Commission emblazons the arms like this:
Vert a sheep argent. A silver sheep on a green shield. This device appears on the seal of Jamestown, which dates from early colonial period. The device was chosen because of the importance of the sheep raising industry in early days.
Jamestown’s seal currently is depicted in two forms, both of which I managed to pull from town PDFs.
My best guess on these is that it’s an alteration of an earlier image. The Jamestown Historical Society has an image of a mug bearing the seal with a more detailed helmet and sheep.
I was unable to find a flag source. I did find videos of Town Council meetings, but they’re taken at such a distance that it’s impossible to tell if a particular flag was the Rhode Island flag or a Jamestown flag. My hunch is that Jamestown flies a white flag with its seal in blue on it, but I don’t know for certain.
Digitizing Existing Designs
Let’s start with the coat of arms.
At left is my attempt at doing a sheep (I did very badly) and at right is WappenWiki’s very determined, somewhat angry sheep.
The seal already looks like a vector image to me, but it’s possible that one doesn’t exist. Anyhow, I needed one for the flag, so I created one.
As a seal, I think it’s fine. It hits that nice balance between looking modern and also looking like a rubber stamp image. One thing thought: typically, in heraldry (and flag design) if you have a device with an animal on it, you place the animal so they look left. That way, they always appear to move forward with the bearer of the device.
If this was to appear on a flag, this is how it might look:
Again, this genre of flag design is considered a failure of flag design. There’s no real meaning to any element here besides the sheep. At distance, this flag is not distinguishable from any other similar seal-on-a-bedsheet. If this is Jamestown’s flag, or if their flag is not too dissimilar from this, they should consider changing it.
Redesigning Jamestown’s Flag
The basic adaptation of Jamestown’s arms are simple: slap a sheep on a green field. If you don’t like this particular drawing of a sheep, that’s fine, find another. But the design, a sheep on a green field, is actually quite solid, and has historical meaning for the town. Plus, it does have a sort of timelessness to it, you can imagine it on oil paintings.
We can bring in some acknowledgement of the island nature of Jamestown by adding some heraldic waves.
This flag uses the now-demolished Jamestown Bridge to represent the most recent change to Jamestown, the physical connection to the mainland and islands which has made it feasible for so many to live on Jamestown.
This flag is just supposed to represent Jamestown’s three islands, with the Narragansett Bay surrounding them.
The Jamestown Windmill is a great landmark, and this flag enshrines it as a symbol of the town (today, it’s used by the Jamestown Historical Society). The only problem is that Middletown uses a windmill as its symbol, and so we’ll likely see a return of something like this when we get to Middletown in four weeks, so I’ve made Jamestown’s flag a bit different than a plain field of green by adding the in some blue.
I’m absolutely certain I have not done Jamestown justice. If you’re a Jamestowner/Jamestonian/Jamestonite, let me know what I missed and what I should’ve done, I would greatly appreciate it.
As always vote in the poll.