Each week on Friday Flagging, I examine the flags of the cities and towns of Rhode Island, look at their history and associated symbolism. This week, we close out the East Bay and the former Massachusetts towns with Warren.
Human habitation in what is today Warren predates English settlement by thousands of years. The most prominent people to ever inhabit the area are the Pokanoket Wampanoag, best known as the tribe encountered by the Pilgrims. At the time of English arrival, the Pokanoket were the leading nation in the Wampanoag Confederation, and their sachem, Ousameequan (“8sâmeeqan” in Wôpanâak), was the Massasoit (a word semi-analogous to “high king”) of the entire Confederation.
Warren is usually reckoned to be the site where Ousameequan made his home (and thus the federation capital), but it’s not very clear that English writers and cartographers had a good idea of where exactly it was. Most sources I have refer to it as “Sowams” but that might’ve just been a general region (edit: Dave Weed writes to inform me that “Sowams included land in Bristol, Barrington, East Providence, Rehoboth, Seekonk, Swansea and the eastern side of Providence (east of the Mosshassuck River)”.) Given that Ousameequan is generally remembered by his title rather than his name, we should be suspicious of English sources. However, it is where the Pokanoket recognize Sowams to have been and where Ousameequan and many Pokanoket are buried, so we should have confidence that Sowams was in what is today Warren, and not in Bristol or Barrington or Swansea, MA.
Regardless, Ousameequan saw in the English a potential ally to help the Wampanoag Confederation overcome its neighbors: the Narragansett. Weakened by pandemic while the Narragansett were largely spared, the Wampanoag would lose control of the islands in Narragansett Bay soon after the arrival of the English. Ousameequan led the Wampanoag into treaty of peace with the English; which the English saw as establishing their overlordship over the Wampanoag. Reportedly, Ousameequan struck up a friendship with English diplomat Edward Winslow. An English trading post arrived in 1632. Ousameequan also allowed a purchase of lands including parts of Barrington and Warren to settlers from Plymouth Colony in 1653 (the Sowams Purchase). They reserved a section of the land for the Pokanoket (central Warren and Bristol), until the Pokanoket “should remove therefrom” – so English plans did not envision a Pokanoket future.
Ousameequan died in 1661, and his son Wamsutta took over as Massasoit. In 1662, Wamsutta was arrested by Plymouth on charges of plotting to rise up against the English. After being released, he died a few days later. The result was that his brother Metacom came to power deeply suspicious of the English. However, in 1669 he sold more land in Swansea to the English, and these English then sold some land in Kickemuit to others, and so in 1670, the first English settlement occurred in modern-day Warren.
I have covered the events of the mid-1670s in some detail in other posts, but suffice it to say, that Metacom had good reason to be suspicious of the English, and neither English (now led by Josiah Winslow, Edward Winslow’s son) nor Wampanoag leaders appear to have had the temperament (or perhaps the popular will) to back down from a genocidal war that was utterly devastating to both sides, but did break the political power of Native peoples in New England for centuries to come, and left the English colonies in a position of dominance over the area.
This, of course, doesn’t mean the story of the Pokanoket ended in 1676. The Pokanoket still exist today, though their existence is tied up with the legacy of colonization, settlement, and genocidal policy conducted by both the British and American governments. There are also wide-ranging debates about sovereignty, federal recognition, and ancestry and culture that necessarily accompany much of American Indian policy.
Following 1676, English settlers returned, and many of the old Pokanoket roads became the streets of the town (still in use today). Like most Rhode Island towns, Warren wasn’t laid out with the traditional English village green (which dominates in Massachusetts). The area of Warren was included when Plymouth was incorporated into Massachusetts following the Glorious Revolution, and then in 1746, it was transferred to Rhode Island when a royal commission decided in that colony’s favor about the disputed border. While Barrington technically predates Warren, that town was folded into the new town established by royal decree following the transfer to Rhode Island (it regained independence in 1770). Warren was named after Admiral Peter Warren, who captured the Fortress of Louisbourg in modern Cape Breton Island in 1745.
As befitting its place on a peninsula, Warren was heavily maritime focused. That meant three things: providing sailors, building ships, and running ferries. The major maritime industries were slavery and whaling. Unfortunately, a maritime economy is uniquely vulnerable to blockades, which meant that the Revolutionary War was devastating to Warren. The town lost about a quarter of its population. Warren was raided by the British in 1778, which destroyed a lot of property, and led to 60 residents captured and imprisoned on a notorious British prison ship, the HMS Jersey.
After the war, Warrenites returned to work in the slave trade, shipping, and associated industries. According to the Town of Warren website, over the 20 years of illegal slave trading starting in 1789, 30 voyages with Warren-based ships transported 2,800 people to death or enslavement. Just between 1803 and 1807, Warren ships transported about 600 slaves from West African ports to Charleston, S.C.
Another major maritime industry in Warren was ropewalking, which is the physical process of spinning short fibers into a long rope. Modern day Warren Avenue was originally used for this process, for a distance of 600 to 800 feet. Ropewalks were the way rope was made for thousands of years, but today, they are almost all gone.
Beginning in 1821, Warren became the primary whaling port in Rhode Island. Between in 1840 and 1860, about 60% of whalers registered in Rhode Island ports were registered in Warren.
All this made Warren pretty wealthy, enough to raise their own artillery company to help put down the Dorr Rebellion, and also to open the third public high school in the state. Warren was also part of the Providence and Bristol Railroad, connecting it with the economic center of the state, and later with Fall River as well.
After the Civil War, Warren shifted from maritime industries to textile manufacturing, thanks in part to its port facilities that allowed it to easily import coal to power steam engines. Warren quickly became the fourth-densest town in Rhode Island. The result was an increase in mills and housing constructed by the mill owners. Warren grew by a third between 1870 and 1880, and half of the new residents were Irish immigrants and another quarter were French-Canadian immigrants, establishing the town’s Catholic community. The result was also poor pay and child labor, often hand-in-hand. Children under the age of 15 earned took home an average daily pay of 33.3 cents for girls and 37.5 cents for boys in the town’s cotton mills.
The wealth generated by these and other mills and their oppressive working conditions funded the construction of town buildings, such as the George Hail Free Library and Warren Town Hall. However, the manufacturing concerns were not as fabulously wealthy as others in the state, and as a result, there are fewer mansions than you find in other wealthy seaside communities. Despite not resulting in mansions, the back half of the 19th Century and early 20th Century were positively boom times for Warren, with the town more than doubling in population from 1870 to 1920.
Around 1900, the railroad was electrified, which resulted in hourly trains connecting Warren with Providence, and a trolley line was established. The textile industry began to fall apart, as textile manufacturing shifted out of the North and into the South. Most notably, the town was struck by the Hurricane of 1938, which damaged the tower on Town Hall enough that they changed from an open parapet to a shorter domed structure. The Hurricane also ended service on the Providence-Bristol railroad and hastened the replacement of the trolley line with buses.
After WW2, the town entered a depression, and, perhaps due to its position on the East Bay, Warren doesn’t seem to have benefitted as much as other Rhode Island towns or even its neighbors from suburbanization. Today, it remains the smallest of the three towns on the Upper East Bay. Starting in 1987, the old Providence-Bristol Railroad was converted into the East Bay Bike Path which has familiarized countless Rhode Islanders with Warren.
In May of 2017, the Wampanoag Confederacy reinterred the remains of Ousameequan in the Sowams burying ground in Warren, after his grave had been robbed and his relics displayed in museums around the United States and Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Geographically, Warren is located at the base of Bristol Neck, on the border with Massachusetts. It’s bounded on west by the Warren River and the east by Mount Hope Bay. The Kickemuit River splits the geographic area in half, though the river has been dammed to form the Warren Reservoir before it empties into Mount Hope Bay. The major through-way is Route 114, which starts at Warren Bridge (connecting the town to Barrington) and follows Main Street to Bristol. Most of the population lives in the western portion of the town. Its recorded population zenith was reached in 1990 at 11,385 residents, and today, the Census Bureau estimates it’s lost about 800 people.
What Has Warren Got Now?
Warren has got a coat of arms.
This is emblazoned by the RI Tercentenary Commission:
Checky or and azure on a bend argent an Indian arrowhead sable. A black arrowhead on a diagonal silver stripe on a field of gold and blue checks.
Warren was named for Admiral Sir Peter Warren, and these arms are those of Warren, differenced by a bend bearing the Indian arrowhead, significant of the fact that the town was the home of Indians.
“Checky” (more usually written “chequy”) just means a checkerboard pattern. These are indeed the arms of Sir Peter Warren, or, well, virtually his arms. The Warren family is quite old (it’s originally “de Warenne”, a Norman family present in England since the Norman Conquest), and subsequent Warrens who might not be directly descended from that line are issued arms that are different from the original grant of arms. The best sources I could find suggested that Peter Warren’s arms are the gold and blue checker pattern, but they have a white canton with a blue saltire.
Warren has a seal:
It’s just the arms mounted behind a ring bearing the town name, two stars, and the incorporation date. This version exists, but the town’s digital presence uses another version that renders the arms in burgundy.
Finally, the town has a flag. I wasn’t able to find an official image from the town, but I found a couple of images from police parades, where the Warren Police honor guard bears it. You can see examples here and here. Still it’s enough, based on the seal and the two views I’ve got to figure out the rest.
Digitizing Existing Designs
First, let’s go to the arms.
At left you have my version, and at right, one using WappenWiki assets. My version is trying to ape something the town arms do, which is to offset the chequy from the edge of the shield. I’ve also used my own arrowhead asset. The WappenWiki version uses a modification of their arrowhead asset. They don’t have one that represents Native American arrowheads, so instead we have this one.
I’ve got two more versions as well. At left is one I made to more closely mimic what the town officially uses, which is this rather stretched and oblong arrowhead. It also uses black lines to separate the pattern (something that WappenWiki does as well). At right are Peter Warren’s arms, created using WappenWiki assets to give you an idea of what they look like.
The seal doesn’t need to be vectorized, so we can just skip it. I also have to make a close version of it to make the current flag, so, in my view, that’s close enough.
And there’s that flag. There are couple things here. First, this is basically a seal-on-a-bedsheet. It would make more sense to just do the arms as a full flag. Second is the arrowhead. Now, I’ve made clear my view that symbols to represent Native Americans shouldn’t appear on American flags unless there’s been consultation and approval from the relevant tribes and nations. I can appreciate that Warren has historical roots that greatly shaped North American history. But we need to ask whether this is the most appropriate way to do this. There’s also the issue is that it’s not really a well-executed arrowhead, and can cause some confusion.
Redesigning Warren’s Flag
Typically, I try to do straight 1:1 adaptations of arms for the first flag, but given my stated opposition to the arrowhead on the Warren arms, I wanted to replace it with something else. So instead of an arrowhead, I went with a whaling harpoon, which was also a pretty abominable thing Warren was involved in. It is, perhaps, a good reminder that we should try to do better than what has been done before.
This is a relatively simple three stripes flag, recognizing trios in Warren’s history (the three colonial governments it has been under: Plymouth, Massachusetts, Rhode Island; the three great methods of transit of its history: maritime, railroad, and bike path; its place among the three towns north of Aquidneck; and perhaps the three abominables in Warren’s history: Native genocide, slave trading, and whaling). It also is supposed to represent the rope walk (I tried in vain to do a suitably rope-y pattern, but it’s a bit beyond my skills).
Designs 3a, 3b & 3c
A nice thing to do in flag design is to visually relate your flag to others your polity you might share a relation of some sort with. Warren was split from Swansea, MA, which has this three-sided gold border on a blue field as its flag. These three designs emulate that, using the Warren arms in either a circle or escutcheon. In Design 3a, the circle represents that Warren ships have travelled the globe. Design 3b places the two stars from the town seal on either side of the circle from 3a, and represents Warren’s history in both RI and Mass.
Design 4 uses the arms of Peter Warren as its basis, while using two crossed harpoons to represent Warren’s maritime history, its history astride two states, its historical sins, and also vaguely looks like a fish.
I apologize for the length of time between these posts, the winter holidays greatly destroyed my productivity. I am not just five towns away from finishing, meaning I am over 87% of the way to the finish line. Hopefully, I’ll see you next week for Warwick.
As always please vote in the poll: