Every Friday, I take a look at the flag of a municipality in Rhode Island. Today, we go to Narragansett, the second-youngest town in Rhode Island.
Set on the western edge of Narragansett Bay, where the Bay meets Block Island Sound, Narragansett is divided between two peninsulas: Point Judith Neck in the south and Boston Neck in the north.
Like most of Rhode Island, Narragansett’s early history is a confused set of competing land claims between the Narragansett nation and the English colonies established the Rhode Island. The Pequot War established the Narragansett as the dominant nation in the region, with an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 inhabitants around the conclusion of that war (to put this in perspective, all of New England is estimated to have had 68,000 English inhabitants five years after the end of the genocide of King Philip’s War which broke the Native nations as a political force).
In 1658, Narragansett sachems Ouassaquanch, Kachanaquant, and Quassaquack sold land (or perhaps the use of the land) to settlers from Portsmouth, RI and a man from Boston known as the “Pettaquamscutt Purchase”. A year later, Kachanaquant (now acting as chief sachem of the Narragansett) sold the Atherton Purchase to Connecticut settlers. By the 1660s, all four English colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut) in southern New England claimed “the Narragansett Country” for themselves. Royal commissioners in 1665 solved the dispute by declaring the area under royal jurisdiction, but giving it over to the Rhode Islanders to administer as “King’s Province” (late Kings County).
The claims of the actual inhabitants of the area, the Narragansett, were eliminated after they took in Wampanoag refugees during King Philip’s War in 1675. Despite their neutrality and past alliances with the English colonies, a joint taskforce of the United Colonies (Connecticut, Plymouth, and Massachusetts), along with Pequot and Mohegan allies, violated Rhode Island and Narragansett territory, and fought and massacred the Narragansett at their primary settlement in the Great Swamp.
Following the war, the area of Narragansett became the home a landed class known as the Narragansett Planters. The peninsulas had good, flat soil, and the conquest of the Natives meant that slaves were available to work the land. Thus, Rhode Island’s slave plantations were established. A further factor which reinforced this cruel economic system was the Glorious Revolution in the UK. In 1688, the overthrow of the Stuart monarchy and the restoration of parliamentary supremacy eliminated the Crown’s monopoly on the African slave trade, and Rhode Island moved quickly to exploit this change in circumstances, becoming the primary nexus of the slave trade in North America. Native slaves were supplemented and replaced by African slaves. In 1748, South Kingstown (which Narragansett was part of) had the largest number of slaves in the colony.
This foul slave economy allowed the plantation owners to produce sheep, corn, and develop a popular but now-extinct breed of horse known as the Narragansett Pacer.
The plantation economy was eliminated by a few factors: first, successive inheritances divided the large plantations and allowed them to be sold off in portions; second, English curtailment of the slave trade made it harder to import slaves (creating a source of conflict between Rhode Island and the home country best exemplified in the burning of the HMS Gaspee); and third, currency fluctuations made the economics difficult.
In the Revolution, Narragansett was raided by the British for sheep and cattle. The General Assembly also confiscated Loyalist property, some of it was later sold to William West, the leader of the anti-federalist Country Party.
Following the war, Narragansett Pier (or the North Pier) was constructed near where the Towers are today, and a little further south, the creatively-named South Pier was constructed. The area around the piers (today, the village of Narragansett Pier) was basically the primary center of economic activity outside of agriculture in Narragansett. While mills were developed in Narragansett, they weren’t the stream-powered mills of the rest of western Rhode Island. Instead, by the 1850s, Narragansett was becoming a resort community for the rest of the state; similar to other Bay communities I’ve previous discussed.
This fueled hotel construction, and also the construction of prominent homes for wealthy elites in the state, the most notable of which was one built for former Governor William Sprague, IV. Sprague was the son of the murdered Amasa Sprague of Cranston. Sprague’s estate (named “Canonchet” after the sachem of the Narragansetts executed during King Philip’s War) was the last property in his family’s holdings after their printing empire collapsed during the Panic of 1873. A court-appointed trustee named Zechariah Chafee sold the estate, but according to legend, Sprague chased off the sheriffs sent to evict him with a shotgun. Years later, Governor Lincoln Chafee pardoned the man (unjustly) executed for killing Amasa. The estate burned to the ground in 1909.
While a US Senator during the Civil War, Sprague was implicated in a scheme to smuggle guns to Texas in exchange for cotton, but his father-in-law, Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, interceded to suppress the evidence. Sprague repaid this kindness by repeatedly cheating on his wife, Chase’s daughter, Kate. Kate, in turn, had an affair with Sen. Roscoe Conkling, the leader of the Republican Party’s pro-corruption faction. Their marriage ended in divorce.
Meanwhile, the Hazard family constructed a railroad between their mills in Wakefield and Peacedale and the South Pier. Similarly, the Narragansett Casino was built near the North Pier, and along with it, the iconic Towers.
In 1888, the development of Narragansett had proceeded at such a pace that the General Assembly granted the peninsulas status as a “District” – a legal apparatus that allowed the district to collect taxes; but Narragansett’s went further, creating a government, but without General Assembly representation. Just a scant three years later, Narragansett became the thirty-eighth municipality in RI, with former Governor Sprague as its first Town Council president.
A year before, a fire broke out and destroyed hotels, part of the business district, and the Casino, leaving only the Towers standing. This resulted in a pretty extraordinary collapse of population: between 1900 and 1920, Narragansett lost just under 35% of its population.
These fortunes were reversed by a few developments: first, the increase in automobile ownership made areas distant from Rhode Island’s centers of economic activity more suitable. Second, the creation of a harbor at Point Judith fostered growth of the villages of Jerusalem and Galilee, and the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression transformed Galilee into the center of Rhode Island’s fishing industry. That era also established military installations in the town, the most notable of which is Camp Varnum.
The 1950s brought suburbanization, and the 1970s urban renewal. Today, the Port of Galilee is the largest squid fishery in the country. Narragansett experienced most of its population growth between 1960 and 1980, current Census Bureau estimates place it at 15,349 residents, a slight decrease in population over the last twenty years.
What has Narragansett got now?
Narragansett has a coat of arms:
The Tercentenary Commission Report describes these arms this way:
Per fess in chief argent a mount vert a lighthouse sable, in base azure a native fishing boat of the first. Shield divided horizontally. In the upper part a black lighthouse on a green point on a silver field. In lower part a silver boat on a blue field.
These arms have been more or less transformed into a seal for the town, as seen here:
As seals go, I like it. It keeps the basic idea of the arms, but makes it far more complicated, and does it what needs to do as a seal.
Interestingly, though, Narragansett has a recently-designed flag with a named designer. According to the transcript of a 2006 Journal by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger (that reporter is now publisher of the New York Times) article at CRW Flags of the World, the town lost the original flag and local designer Amy Hoxsie-Quinn worked with the Chamber of Commerce to develop some designs, ultimately arriving at a design that maybe was a seal-on-bedsheet, or at least an adaptation of the seal to the flag’s field.
This was apparently the culmination of a six-year long effort by Hoxsie-Quinn’s grandfather Ted Wright to get a better design adopted. Wright and Hoxsie-Quinn submitted a design described as a “blue and gold design includ[ing] two feathers– to represent the area’s Indian heritage, thirteen stars — one for each of the original colonies, a seashell — a symbol of seashore spirit and the unmistakable profile of the Towers.” Wright is quoted as having preferred that one, saying the SOB design “it’s nice, but not much imagination.”
As best I can tell, in the intervening 14 years, the design has changed a bit. Here’s the image of the flag the Town posted on their Facebook page in April to promote face coverings:
As best I can tell while socially distanced, the Chamber of Commerce now flies a blue flag bearing its logo in white.
Digitizing Existing Designs
The arms are relatively straightforward to adapt. It may not surprise you that modern lighthouses are not a common heraldic device, so I improvised one use flames and tower with WappenWiki assets, which is one way they were portrayed. For my own design (on the left), I did a relatively straightforward adaptation of the Bowditch drawing.
I see no need to digitize the seal, it looks like the Town already has a fine vector version, though I see some artifacts on the social media versions.
The flag is relatively tricky though. There’s certainly the version currently used, which roughly looks like this:
Then there’s the Sulzberger description of Hoxsie-Quinn’s 2006 design, which may look something like this:
Or, it could be something more adapted to the space of the flag, perhaps something like this:
There’s also the matter of the circa 2000 design by Hoxsie-Quinn, which Sulzberger describes as using a mix of symbols. Based on his description, this is what I came up with, but this is really a game of telephone:
Now, look, I’m not sure I love the feathers for Natives, as it strikes me as pretty messed up, given the area’s history with the Narragansetts, to represent them on the flag. As I hope I’ve made clear from past posts, only do this with consultation and permission from Natives! Otherwise, the elements of the shell (I used a quahog) and the Towers are strong elements that should be on a flag. I’m not wild about 13 stars for the 13 Colonies on municipal flags, as I just don’t see what it has to do with a town like Narragansett, established 100 years after the Revolution.
So, while Narragansett probably has a pretty decent design somewhere in someone’s archives, let’s see if we can improve the existing design somewhat.
Redesigning Narragansett’s Flag
Designs 1a & 1b
The problem with a straightforward adaptation of the arms is that the arms give equal weight to both the chief and the lower half. If a flag tries to maintain this balance, as in Design 1b, it runs into the problem of looking like two unconnected images sewn together. 1a reduces this dissonance by making the chief to a quarter of the flag, but it doesn’t fundamentally solve the issue. What works fairly well on arms sometimes just doesn’t work on flags, where the overall design needs to appear somewhat unified.
Design 2 uses the Point Judith Lighthouse in a sort of tricolor, to produce a flag according to a standard layout, but modified to represent a local landmark. I can’t quite work out the color symbolism, so it’s rather one-note.
Design 3 uses another tricolor design, but this one representing the setting sun over the ocean, with the outline of the Towers and their arch transposed across it.
Designs 4a, 4b & 4c
These designs, which I affectionately think of as the “Squid and Psi” designs, is a tribute to squid’s place in Galilee, and also uses a stylized psi to represent Narrangansett’s place as the penultimate town incorporated in RI (psi being the second to last character in the Greek alphabet, the last character omega is often used to represent the last of something). It also helps that the character is essentially a trident, representing fishing, but also the ocean, as a symbol of the Greek god Poseidon. Design 4a uses a chief to hold the psi, but 4b places it on the squid. As an added bonus, the squid’s eyes have the characters “N” and “G” for “Narragansett”.
4c uses the squid, but adds 10 quahogs for the ten villages that make up Narragansett. They form an arch, representing the archway of the Towers.
I had a fair amount of fun with the squid designs, as I think that animal lends itself to emblems. And I probably leaned a little too heavily on the stereotypical symbolism of Narragansett, but sometimes the obvious choice is best. As always, I’m not from Narragansett, and I value the feedback of town residents, so please let me know.
Narragansett represents the halfway point of this project, so I’m very glad to have gotten here. If you would like to help with the completion of this project, please fill out the Flag Project Survey, and tell me about your favorite Rhode Island town.
As always, please vote in the poll.