On Fridays, I try to get a post out examining the flags of each city and town in Rhode Island. Sadly, this project has fallen behind by quite a lot. However, I’m still plugging away at it, and this week, I give you Scituate!
Prior the arrival of the English, the land that became Scituate, Rhode Island was part of a frontier region of Nipmuc, Narragansett, and Wampanoag lands. A recent segment from the Our Town series on RI PBS also has a member of the Hope Historical Society claim that a group called the “Tonkee” are the namesakes of Tunk Hill in Scituate, but I could find no references to this group anywhere else, and the one source on the name origin I did found suggested it just means “wood” or is possibly not of Algonquin origin.
Regardless, when the newly-arrived English finally set their sights on the lands that became Scituate, they were dealing with the notable Narragansett diplomat Awashaw (possibly Anglicized as “Awashouse”) and his associate Newcom(e). In 1659, Rhode Island’s General Assembly authorized the Providence Proprietors to “buy out and clear off” Indians living to the west of the Seven Mile Line, the western border of Providence (today, it’s the western border of Cranston, Johnston, Smithfield, and North Smithfield). In three purchases of that year, Providence acquired the rights land east of the creatively named “Twenty Mile Line” which is now Rhode Island’s western border. The entirety of the lands became called “the Outlands” or the “Providence Woods” in contrast with “the Inlands” east of the Seven Mile Line.
However, in 1662, three men (William Vaughn of Newport, Zachariah Rhodes of Pawtuxet, and Robert Westcott of Warwick) purchased the land south of the Ponaganset River from the two Narragansetts in what’s known as the Westconnaug Purchase (it’s possible Awashaw and Newcom only sold to the Westconnaug Company, and that Providence purchased from someone else).
With two sets of English owners, a slight hitch in resolving the dispute was that no Englishman settled in the area for the next forty years (in part due to the genocidal war that waged in the 1670s). Providence organized a supervisory committee for the Outlands in the early 1690s, but no one did any surveying until the 1705. The Westconnaug Company (now bolstered by Rhode Island politicians) didn’t hire a surveyor until 1707. In 1708, an agreement was reached to divide the area up, along the route of what is today Central Pike and Central Ave, with Wesconnaug managing the southern part and Providence managing the northern part (minus some land swaps). Now, under threat of Connecticuter settlement, the two groups raced to layout and settle people in the area.
By 1731, the lands of Providence had grown populous enough that those in the rural areas were finding it onerous to travel to Providence to do administrative business, and so, on February 20, 1731, Providence was divided into four parts: Providence, Smithfield, Glocester, and Scituate. Scituate held its first town meeting at Captain Thomas Angell’s tavern, and there future Governor of RI, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and paper money advocate Stephen Hopkins was elected town moderator at the age of 23.
Scituate derives its names from Scituate, Massachusetts (where early settlers of Scituate, RI were from). Reportedly, “Scituate” is a corruption of the Wampanoag word “satuit” meaning “cold brook”. Early settlements included the villages of Richmond and North Scituate. In 1781, Scituate didn’t like the apportionment it was receiving in the General Assembly (new towns only received two deputies, about half to a third of the number given to the founding four settlements of Rhode Island). After failing to change how apportionment occurred there, Scituate instead sought to be divided, effectively doubling the area’s representation. The stated reasons for the division were more mundane. In August of 1781, Scituate bid adieu to its western half, which became Foster.
Scituate’s development is similar to a lot of western towns, except for one massive event that utterly transformed it, and left a deep impact on both the physical area of the town and its psyche. In the early part of its development, Scituate was an agricultural community. After the Industrial Revolution occurred, Scituate’s riverine landscape became dotted with mill communities and buildings, often making cotton products (the fruits of slavery extended everywhere in RI).
A notable resident of early Republican Era Scituate was William West. West was a general during the Revolutionary War and later a leading anti-federalist in RI, strongly opposed to the ratification of the adoption of the Constitution. He famously led a band of 1,000 men into Providence to break up an Independence Day celebration of the Constitution in 1788. West often served as town moderator. Like Hopkins, he was also a proponent of paper money, which led to him attempting to pay off his mortgage in paper money, which was then disputed by the mortgage holder, leading to the first case tried before the United States Supreme Court, West v. Barnes, which West lost on a procedural issue. He died impoverished.
About the time of West’s death in the mid-1810s, Scituate was undergoing the turnpike boom, which occurred throughout most of western and northern Rhode Island. The turnpikes were private roads that connected farming communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut with ports in Rhode Island to sell their goods. They could be accessed by tolls, but were often poorly maintained by the companies that ran them. Scituate had four turnpikes: Plainfield Pike, Hartford Pike, Danielson Pike, and Central Pike. Central Pike was the first to become a public way, but it wasn’t until 1870 that all the pikes were toll-free.
At its 19th Century height, Scituate had sixteen villages, centered around mills, with its town center at the village of Richmond. Unfortunately, it was to lose that center.
In 1913, the City of Providence found that its existing reservoir was both polluted from industry upstream and at a poor height to deliver water efficiently to the growing city. Searching for a new source of water, they arrived at the meeting of the Ponagaset and North Branch of the Pawtuxet. There, they found suitably clean water at a sufficient height. In 1915, the General Assembly granted Providence Water the right to take, by eminent domain, 14,800 acres of land to build the reservoir, equal to about 38% of Scituate’s land area.
Scituate’s population, which had dwindled from its pre-Civil War high point, was hugely impacted by the drowning or condemnation of seven villages and the partial drowning of two others. The town clerk’s office in Richmond was lost as that village was drowned. Between the two censuses that bookmark the inception and completion of the Scituate Reservoir, the town lost over a third of its population, often in bitter (and occasionally armed) resistance to the Providence Water men who came to buy their homes (often far below what the owners believed to them to be worth). Among the things other things lost: the electric railroad that ran from Danielson, CT to Providence, which became insolvent as the reservoir flooded a portion of its tracks and “1,195 buildings, including 375 dwellings, 6 cotton mills, 6 churches, 7 schools, and 179 cemeteries.” 1,485 graves had to be relocated out of the flood zone. Other graves became fenced off. Today, the reservoir provides water to about 60% of Rhode Island’s population (but not Scituate, which relies mostly on wells).
This was the effective end of Scituate as an industrial mill town. However, it now became the beneficiary of a new pattern of work: the commute. In the decades after the completion of the reservoir, suburbanization took hold, and Scituate experienced the most population growth since the Industrial Revolution. Today, it is likely at its highest population ever with close to 11,000 residents.
While other Rhode Island communities can tell much of the same story of turnpikes, mill industry, and later suburbanization, no other has taken such a body blow as Scituate has. Though, to be fair, the vast majority of the town’s population arrived long after the reservoir was completed.
What has Scituate got now?
Scituate has a coat of arms from the Tercentenary Commission.
Per fess in chief or a plow sable, in base gules a fountain. Shield divided horizontally. Upper part a black plow on gold, lower part an heraldic fountain (See North Providence) on red. The heraldic fountain a ball with wavy horizontal lines of blue and white is used to represent springs, wells and water supply in general.
The above illustration has the problem of the inconsistent colorization from the plate I got this from (the plow should be on a gold or yellow background). But it is largely what it should look like.
My guess is that the fountain here represents the Reservoir, and that the plow represents the agricultural history of the town. Not sure why the colors were chosen, though.
Scituate also has a seal, but it appears to have two of them, or perhaps one has replaced the other:
Neither of these is amazing, but if I was forced to pick between the two, I think the first one, despite its gradients making it look like it’s from 1998-2003, is the superior of the two. The latter is just kind of dull (that’s Arial for the font) and the faded colors give it a sort of sad look.
Scituate also has a flag, but I’m unable to find a public image for it, or one that displays the full flag. You can see it in these 2016 and 2018 stories behind the former Town Council President. From what I can tell, it’s basically the arms with the slogan “Town of Scituate” over it on a blue scroll; but it’s unclear whether the incorporation date appears below, or if it includes “RI” in the text.
Digitizing Existing Designs
I was almost certain I would be unable to do a version of this using WappenWiki assets (on the right). “A plow is a peasant’s tool, no noble is going to put one on their arms,” I thought. But luckily, WappenWiki has done a version of the arms of New Jersey, which use three plows, so I managed to get a version. Mine is traced from the Tercentenary illustration by Howard Chapin.
For the seals, I wanted to try to get them as close as possible, while jettisoning the parts that just aren’t worthwhile (i.e., gradients). It was fairly easy to do with the new arms (they are not complex), the font choice on the older-looking arms was hard to identify. I tried to approximate it, but it gave me that computer-y looking zero.
Something to note about these seals is that instead of a curved fountain, someone did a much simpler spikey one, which on the apparently updated arms, got translated into thin dark zig-zags rather than blue ones. I suspect that there will be further transformation as future administrations adapt the arms.
For the flag, I really can only guess from the images I was able to find. So this is a rough approximation. It’s probable that the slogan “Incorporated Feb. 20, 1731” is there, but without an image of the full flag, I can’t really be sure (and, it’s not really an exceptional date, since it’s one of three towns with that same incorporation date).
We’ve seen similar layouts on a number of RI town flags already, and we already know that it can be done better. One shouldn’t need to put the town name on the flag, and the arms can be adapted to the whole flag, you don’t need to impale them on a plain field.
Redesigning Scituate’s Flag
In my opinion, this should already be Scituate’s flag. People who take Good Flag, Bad Flag far too seriously will tell you this has too many colors, but frankly, I don’t think that matters much (you could always swap the blue and black to a dark blue if you’re looking to save on printing costs). This works, and there’s even resonant meaning in the town split down the middle, just as the town was originally split between Providence and the Westconnaug Company.
Typically, I’d do a horizontal version of this, with the plow on the hoist side and fountain on the fly, but that looks too much like two flags sewn together.
Any flag of Scituate will likely feature some reference to the reservoir, as it’s a climactic moment in the town history. This design references the sixteen villages of the town, including the seven drowned/condemned ones (those below the blue stripe), and the two part-drowned/condemned villages (those counter charged along the horizontal center), and the seven villages that survived relatively unscathed.
This design does a lot of what the design above does so I won’t explain all the symbolism again, but I wanted a setting sun as a play on “West” for William West. The sun’s rays act as the stars do in Design 2. I also wanted a holding device for the fountain, which I feel is just a strong, underused symbol.
This last design affixes the heraldic fountain along a dividing line, representing the division of the town in 1781. The flag is in a triband configuration, representing that it’s one of three towns formed in 1731 as a result of the division of Providence. The divisions also represent the way the town was divided by the Providence Proprietors and the Westconnaug Company to the various residents.
Designs 5a & 5b
One last design before we go. The Scituate Art Festival has been held for over 50 years (sadly, it had to be canceled this year due to the pandemic). In acknowledgement of this town institution, I present this flag, in two variants. The red frame represents the Festival, the gold field represents the wealth of the town, and the black triangle (or, in heraldic terms, a pile) represents both it being one of the trio of towns formed on February 20, 1731, but also a rough approximation of the area lost below the reservoir. One version does it in blue to represent the reservoir, the other in black to represent the loss.
Scituate was an interesting town to write up. I think the arms give the best path forward, but I hope I at least gave you some pause by offering some different directions to go in. I’m sure residents of Scituate could provide more novel directions to go in. I’m unsure if the reservoir should take such a prominent place on its flag designs, but given that much of the Our Town: Scituate episode was given over to the reservoir and its effects on the town, I don’t think it’s particularly outlandish.
As always, feel free to vote in the poll: