Each week, I examine the flag, associated symbols, and history of a city or town in Rhode Island, and then offer sample redesigns. This week, we return to Washington County for the County seat of South Kingstown.
About South Kingstown
What was to become South Kingstown has seen human habitation for over 7500 years before English colonists were to make their first purchases of the land. At the time of their arrival, the area had overlapping claims between the Eastern Niantic and Narragansett nations. But it was undoubtedly the latter that were the supreme hegemonic power in New England. With a population of 30,000 to 35,000, the Narragansetts were probably the strongest single nation, Native or English, in the region. Spared the epidemics of the late 1610s that so reduced their neighbors, the Narragansetts consolidated their position prior to English arrival by seizing the islands in Narragansett Bay from the Wampanoag. Shortly after English arrival, they used the newcomers as allies to eliminate their close rivals in the Pequot as a threat. It’s not for nothing that virtually all of Rhode Island’s pre-1675 land purchases were from Narragansett leaders.
The land containing South Kingstown was first sold or leased to the English by Cojonoquant and his associates. Cojonoquant was a brother of the executed Narragansett sachem Miantonomo (the latter was executed by Mohegans with English acquiescence in the 1640s) and brother as well to Pessicus who succeeded Miantonomo. Allegedly, Cojonoquant was a notorious alcoholic, which made him a prime target for eager English settlers (Rhode Islanders claimed Connecticuters had keep him continuously drunk for several days in order to coerce his signature). There were two purchases Cojonoquant was involved that concern South Kingston; the Pettaquamscutt Purchase in 1658 (a Rhode Island-Massachusetts venture) and the Atherton Purchase in 1659 (a Connecticut venture). These claims, and lingering issues from the Pequot War, would ensure that no less than four English colonies claimed the area. It was only in 1665 that a royal commission deemed the land a royal province (King’s Province) but gave it to Rhode Island to administer.
In 1674, Kings Towne was established by the English, the initial formation of the polity that was to form South Kingstown.
In 1675, King Philip’s War broke out. The Narragansett were neutral, and in fact, leaders had signed peace treaties; notably Canonchet, the son of Miantonomo, but Quanopen (Cojonoquant’s son) was also involved at a diplomatic meeting at Worden Pond in present-day South Kingstown. Regardless, individual Narragansetts joined the Wampanoag and Nipmuc belligerents as volunteers. They also took in Wampanoag refugees, which Canonchet refused to hand over to the English (who were almost certain to execute or enslave them). Fearing that the Narragansett would break their neutrality in the spring of 1676, the leaders of the United Colonies (Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Plymouth) decided to strike first. With winter coming on, 1000 English soldiers with 150 Pequot and Mohegan auxiliaries violated Narragansett territory and began burning Narragansett villages. The Narragansetts retreated to a fort in the Great Swamp.
On December 15, Narragansett troops attacked a blockhouse in the Tower Hill area, killing 18, after receiving word it was where the English would gather. Word of this reached English troops at Wickford the next day, who had indeed been intending to rendezvous there. They picked a new spot, and then marched inland to assault the fort on December 19.
The Great Swamp Fight, as it’s called, was fairly even in terms of the combatants killed. However, it was a major strategic defeat for the Narragansetts, resulting in the loss of a strong fortification, and resulted in somewhere to 300 to 1000 noncombatant women and children (many died in the swamp). While Narragansett commanders Canonchet and Quanopen managed to escape, they would not be so fortunate in 1676. Canonchet was captured and turned over to rival Native nations for execution on April 3rd for violating English neutrality. Quanopen was likewise executed on August 25th in Newport for the assistance he had provided to Metacom. The war ended Narragansett hegemony, and resulted in a great number of Narragansetts enslaved.
With Native claims to the land no longer enforceable as a result of conquest and genocide, the English could turn to settlement. And settle they did. The southern part of Kings Towne was primarily settled by the “Narragansett” Planters, a set of landowners who established the largest slave plantations in New England, with enslaved Natives and imported enslaved Africans (I should perhaps. The town grew so rapidly, that in 1722, the Rhode Island General Assembly split it in half, forming North Kingstown and South Kingstown. Early settlements in South Kingstown were Tower Hill, Little Rest (modern Kingston) and Usquepaug.
The border instructions between the towns seem humorous upon reading; including landmarks like “a corner of a hedge” and “a marked tree” and “a heap of stones”. It was decided that South Kingstown would be the younger of the two towns. And so, in 1723, South Kingstown was formally established.
By 1730, a quarter of all of Rhode Island’s slaves were in South Kingstown and over a third of the town’s population were enslaved; three-fifths were Africans and two-fifths were Natives. In 1748 South Kingstown had the most slaves of any town in Rhode Island. This crime against humanity was primarily used to produce three things: the Narragansett Pacer (a breed of horse), cattle and dairy products, and sheep and woolen products.
Tower Hill was the initial town center, with a court and jail established there in 1729 following the creation of King County, making South Kingstown the county seat. The General Assembly rotated between the county courts, and first met there in 1732. In 1752, the courthouse had fallen into such disrepair that people from Little Rest were able to convince the Assembly to build a new courthouse there. The Little Resters promised that they would build three taverns to keep Assembly attendees entertained. That courthouse (later one of five statehouses) is the modern Kingston Free Library.
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. Also, so many Pacers were exported that they literally depleted the breeding stock, and so it went extinct.
The final nail was the Revolution, which broke the slave trade in Rhode Island, as the principal slave port of Newport was occupied. Slaves took advantage of the war to flee with the British or escape to other ports in the colonies where they could find employment. Rhode Island banned the importation of slaves in 1774, and then enacted gradual manumission in 1784 (children could no longer be born enslaved, and children currently enslaved had to be taken care of until 21 for men and 18 for women).
Unfortunately, once freed, slaves had no wealth or immediate means of taking care of themselves, which meant that the towns were required to take care of them. This duty to take care of the poor fell particularly hard on South Kingstown (thanks to their deep participation in the abominable slave trade), which (in true Rhode Island fashion) decided that it was cheaper to not follow the law than pay for the destitute. As Christian McBurney has written “the Town Council made a value judgment that the freedom of Black persons held in bondage was worth less than the mere possibility of adding to the town’s tax burden.” Being destitute was also a good way for someone to fall afoul of towns’ ability to “warn out” or eject residents who they considered undesirable, and Rhode Island towns often used that power to remove their now unwanted freedmen, though I don’t have specific examples from South Kingstown.
South Kingstown turned to industrial development to replace the plantation economy, but it really only took off after the 1840s. Little Rest (which became Kingston at some point, but for reasons that are unclear to me) continued to usurp Tower Hill’s importance as the civic center of the town (the Congregational church moved there in 1820). In Peace Dale, the Hazard family pioneered a consolidated factory system for wool, capable of taking raw wool and turning it into woven cloth, and the small community that grew up around this factory was named for the Hazard matriarch, Mary Peace.
Wakefield appeared, though it really relied on two economic sectors: a stagecoach stop and another wool factory (though not the whole process like at Peace Dale). Usquepaug’s grist mill was built, and smaller settlements were established around mills at places like Biscuit City, Rocky Brook, Barber’s Mill (later Glen Rock) and Mooresfield. Tower Hill notably constructed boats.
The town experienced a small boom from its industrialization, but its population didn’t change much between 1860 and 1930. What did happen is that the village of West Kingston began to usurp Kingston’s place, as the Washington County courthouse moved for a third time to the former village. West Kingston also got a railroad built to the village of Narragansett Pier in Narragansett. However, Wakefield was to get the town hall, which was built in 1877 (likely in part because that’s where the town’s aristocracy liked to build their homes). Kingston was to become the home of a famous Rhode Island institution of education: the College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts; established in 1892.
Like Narragansett (which would split off 1901), South Kingston shifted from farming to being a summer resort community. This notably shifted the use of the shore. Prior the late 19th Century, the shore was used a resource for two things: seaweed for farms’ fertilizer and driftwood and debris for firewood (largely from shipwrecks). In fact, getting these were constitutional rights confirmed in the 1842 RI Constitution. But beaches now turned to recreation. The most popular beach was Matunuck, though one newspaper complained that summer at Matunuck was “dull and stupid” next to what was offered at Narragansett Pier.
Like a lot of Rhode Island communities, the real boom for the town came with the automobile and roads. No longer restricted to living so near Providence, people could start to move out of the towns (though, it wouldn’t be until after World War II and government support that the could take place for the masses). The town got a hospital, the College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts became the College of Rhode Island, and surprisingly, people were actually investing in and modernizing the wool factories.
Sadly, those wool factories were to reach their peak production during World War II, and then most of them perished by 1948 as the industry rapidly declined following the war (1,500 people had been employed during the war). But despite the collapse of its primary industry, South Kingston saw a boom during the 1940s, driven by suburbanization, but also the importance of higher education. By 1951, the College of Rhode Island had rapidly expanded and started offering doctorates. The General Assembly bestowed the title “University” on it, and it’s still known by that name today.
South Kingstown was rapidly growing up until the 2010s. The housing bubble and the subsequent housing crisis seems to have halted its growth, the US Census bureau estimates that the town has actually lost residents, the first time in over 130 years that’s happened.
What Has South Kingstown Got Now?
So what about symbols? Well, South Kingstown has a coat of arms.
The Tercentenary Commission describes the arms as such:
Gules, an Indian arrowhead argent. A silver arrowhead on red.
South Kingstown also has a seal (I pulled it from the town Facebook page) which mostly incorporates this design:
Obviously, they went with a blue arrowhead on a white background. It’s unclear to me if the cragginess of the arrowhead is a result of the Bowditch illustration above, which also used a very craggy arrowhead. I’ll talk about arrowheads later.
South Kingstown also has a flag, which appears to at least be used in official purposes, you can see it in this group photo of the town council:
(Fun fact: South Kingstown Town Council president Abel G. Collins – pictured center – and I, Samuel G. Howard, share the same middle name: “Gifford” with the same family story that the original Gifford got kicked out of a town in Connecticut — or, at least, my family version says kicked out of his local Quaker meeting.)
The version on the flag appears to be missing the teeth around the border.
Digitizing Existing Designs
The emblazoning of the arms is pretty specific: a white Indian arrowhead on red:
Now, I’ve decided to dispense with the chiseled details on the Bowditch illustration and on the town seal, I wanted something simpler and easier to recognize. WappenWiki, which mainly draws from European heraldry, doesn’t have Native American arrowheads, so instead we have this more European, stylized one.
Frankly, I’m not sure Native arrowheads are a great choice for Anglo settler heraldry. South Kingstown is the site of Rhode Island’s worst act of genocide, a preemptive strike that led to the destruction of the most prominent Native nation in New England during one of the most devastating wars in American history. There’s a tendency for white people to set Natives in the past; and while South Kingstown has done some level of work to recognize its past, I am not sure the Town has had the hard conversations it needs to to carry such a symbol. Generally, I always suggest abandoning such symbolism if the Town is unable or unwilling to do the work.
The problem is that I’m not quite sure what to replace it with. One could go with a simple star, as above, or we could go back to my ideas for Narragansett and pull the clamshell out to represent the beach (I’ve also split this shield to represent the splitting of Kings Towne, and to symbolize both the ocean and the town’s industrial past).
I’ll take a look at other symbols when we get to the redesigns.
I wasn’t going to try to recreate the town seal, so here’s a sloppily-vectorized version of the town flag that made use of a vector software’s trace function:
Is this a strong flag? Well, not really. As I’ve discussed before this is an “SOB” – a seal-on-a-bedsheet; which are a genre of flag design generally thought to mostly be a failure. South Kingstown goes a step farther than most other town SOBs, however, and joins Richmond and Central Falls as having its flags as being one color (blue) seals on a white bedsheet. That means, at distance, if you put these flags next to each other, you’d have a bit of difficulty distinguishing them. So, South Kingstown’s flag is not great, and it’s made less functional by the fact that two other flags look a lot like it.
So let’s think about how South Kingstown could have a new one.
Redesigning South Kingstown’s Flag
Design 1a, 1b and 1c
The typical way I’ve replaced arrow heads is with stars. Unfortunately, if you replace a white arrowhead on a red background with a white star, you get one of the most generic-looking flags I’ve ever seen (Design 1a). We can improve this by counter-charging the star and field, creating a division that is intended to symbolize the 1722 division of Kings Towne (Design 1b). Finally, if we add four stars to that design (combining with the large star to symbolize South Kingstown’s position as one of the old capitals of Rhode Island and the technical county seat of Washington County) we can have something that looks quite unique using very simple symbols.
Designs 2a & 2b
Alternatively, we can move away from American symbolism and think about the “king” in “Kingstown” and use the division of the town to create a line that symbolize a crown. Each of those little crosses represents a village within the town, with both the white row and the colored row adding up to 11, which is about the number of villages in the town (this can obviously be modified if I’m incorrect). The half-crosses on either side of the bottom row represent other recognized settlements. I’ve colored Design 2a red for the English king, in recognition of the role that the English Crown played in creating King’s Province/County and Kings Towne (and it also draws a color connection with North Kingstown), but 2b uses South Kingstown’s blue (from the seal) in case they’d prefer to represent the water.
We can take a lot of these elements and combine them to arrive at another design. This uses the same crosses as a crown, with 11 for the villages. On the inside is five stars, representing the old capital (but I’ve used the six-pointed star from South Kingstown’s seal, which I think is just visually more distinct than the five-pointed one, but they could easily be switched to five-points). At the top are two further stripes, that represent the division of Kings Towne, and also the division of South Kingstown with the loss of Narragansett. The white stripe represents wool, a major product of the town, while the green represents farmlands and woods, and the blue represents the water around the town.
Designs 4a & 4b
I already basically described the symbolism of this above, but it checks a lot of the boxes of the other flags, while also referencing the shore, and connecting with a few designs I had for the Town of Narragansett. 4a is just a straight bicolor referencing the split of Kings Towne with a shell as a central symbol, whereas 4b brings back the five stars.
South Kingstown has a lot of history. I don’t think I adequately represented that history on the flag. I’m certain I also missed quite a lot of what’s important for South Kingstown, so I look forward to hearing feedback from anyone interested.
As always, please vote in the poll.