On Fridays, barring unforeseen circumstances or outside workload, I look at a flag of a city or town in Rhode Island, examine related symbols, and also talk about the town’s history. This week we finish Washington County with Westerly (because I don’t think spaces should count in alphabetical order, despite what my computer says. So sorry, West Greenwich and West Warwick).
Westerly is the westernmost town in Rhode Island, and the southernmost mainland town, if you’re the kind of person who seeks extremely qualified superlatives about towns (which we all know Rhode Islanders very much are). It likely derives its name from the former quality, but another guess is that it was named for Westerleigh, England where an early settler was from.
Westerly is settled in way that most of the population lives along either the Pawcatuck River or along the coast, with its interior given over to woodland management areas or golf courses. This makes sense if you think about Anglo-American settlement patterns: first as a fishing and port area, then as a mill area along a the rivers, and then resort settlement along the beach. We’ve seen this sort of pattern before.
Of course, the English were not the first to settle in the area. By the time the English arrived, Westerly existed in a sort of overlapping set of territorial uses, at the nexus of where Pequot, Mohegan, Eastern Niantic, and Narragansett domains met. Primarily though, it was the contested frontier between the Pequots and their allies and the Narragansetts and their allies. This conflict was won by the Narragansetts. The Pequots had a fort at Weekapaug, and after their defeat in 1637 by the English, Pequots (now legally barred from using the name “Pequot”) were handed over to either the Narragansett or the Niantic and settled along Mastuxet Brook (other survivors were handed over to the Mohegans, and others were sold into slavery).
That conflict between the Narragansett and Pequot confederations is vital to English settlement. In 1660, the area of what is today Westerly, Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton were sold to a company of English men from Newport, in what’s known as the Misquamicut Purchase. The sachem who sold the land was Sosoa (or maybe “Sassawwaw”) of the Pawcatuck band of Indians who lived in the Westerly area (whether they were a Pequot or a Narragansett group is unclear). Sosoa was born a Pequot, but he’d defected to the Narragansetts. During the long period of rivalry between the Narragansetts and Pequots, the Narragansetts had separated the Pawcatucks from the Pequot confederation, and set Sosoa up as sachem (whether the Pawcatucks were happy about this is also unclear). By the time he sold the land (whether he actually “sold” the land is probably disputable), he’d been in power for maybe thirty to twenty-five years. It also seems that this sale was later disputed, because a year later Wawaloam, the widow of the executed Narragansett sachem Miantonomo, had to provide a deposition that Sosoa had been given the land and was able to sell it. This may have been because Connecticut and Massachusetts also claimed the area.
By 1661 English settlement in modern Westerly was begun, and in 1669 the town was officially incorporated under Rhode Island’s jurisdiction, despite only thirty families living in the area. In 1675, King Phillip’s War broke out, and terminated the enforceability of Native claims in English and American eyes for about the next three hundred years. The question of which English colony got to control the area was settled in 1703, when Connecticut finally relinquished its claims to the area.
Westerly’s early industry was primarily focused on two industries: shipbuilding and fishing. Some accounts say there was a subspecies of salmon that lived in the Pawcatuck called “Westerly salmon” but this is disputed, and it’s more plausible they were just salter brook trout. Regardless of what they were fishing, it was a profitable industry for the townspeople.
However, maritime trade brought risks. By 1690, the town had a group of men who were supposed to protect against attacks by French pirates (likely as a result of King William’s War, the name for the North American theatre of operations for the Nine Years’ War – in French it’s the slightly less boring-sounding First Intercolonial War). Similarly, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (which is one the best war names), a watch tower was constructed on a hill in the town. Today, that’s Watch Hill. Soldiers from Westerly participated in both that war and the major war preceding it, Queen Anne’s War (they fought in Canada). All of these wars were fought as part of major European conflagrations, and you can see the impact that it had.
Maritime trade also had further benefits. Shipwrecks were a great stimulus to the community, and the right to recover wreckage from shipwrecks is an ancient right that was protected by Rhode Island’s Royal Charter (remnants of that right exist in the current state constitution).
By 1738, the eastern portion of town was sick of having to go all the way to the banks of the Pawcatuck to do things like participate in town meetings and register deeds (despite all the roads that had been laid out), so they petitioned the General Assembly and got to form their own town, Charlestown (its northern half later became Richmond). In 1757, the half of Westerly that was north of the Pawcatuck also decided it wanted to be its own town, and it became Hopkinton, after Governor Stephen Hopkins. Interestingly enough, Hopkins’ major political rival was to become Samuel Ward, who was a freshman Deputy representing Westerly in the General Assembly at the time.
Thus Westerly was reduced to the borders it has today. Ward would go on to become governor on two nonconsecutive occasions, and later was a delegate to the Constitutional Congress (along with Hopkins). He died of smallpox in Philadelphia three months before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The history of Westerly I have also claims that the Town published a “Bill of Rights” in February of 1774, and that its wording is almost exactly that of the 1776 Declaration of Independence (but this seems preposterous; it’s possible it was just a preemption of the little-remembered 1774 Petition to the King or it’s someone telling tales).
Westerly’s first school was built in 1792 in the main Westerly village, and it also double as the place where town meetings were held. The turn of the century saw the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, establishing mill villages along the Pawcatuck. In 1837, the Providence & Stonington Railroad connected Westerly with the capital, and helped develop Westerly in the area of Bradford in its east. Bradford was temporarily named Dorrville for Thomas Dorr at one point, but was ultimately named Bradford after the Bradford Dyers Association of England, who purchased the village in 1911 (then called Niantic after the previous dyeworks), who built a new dye factory and tenement housing.
That kind of company-owned village development is fairly typical of western Rhode Island, and it certainly held true for Westerly, as mills built villages to house their workers. Mill industry ranged from the aforementioned dyeing, to tanning, to basic grist and sawmills, to “the largest concern in the world specializing in elastic webbing for women’s wear.”
A notable exception to this pattern is the village of Avondale south of Westerly center, which was originally called Lottery Village. In 1749, Joseph Pendleton lost a ship and its cargo of rum and molasses (by now, hearing “rum and molasses” in relation to pre-Revolution Rhode Islanders should set alarm bells in your head; these are the products of Rhode Island’s participation in the slave trade). To raise money, he ran a lottery and sold his land along the Pawcatuck off in 124 smaller lots, giving the village its original name. It was renamed “Avondale” when it got a post office in 1893, though why that particular name is unclear.
A major industry that Westerly became relatively famous for was its granite quarrying. Between 1834 and maybe 1969, a multitude of granite companies operated out of Westerly, supplying granite for things like the Connecticut State House, the base of the monument for the statue of Roger Williams in Roger Williams Park, a statue at Antietam, a Gettysburg monument, and the Town Hall and the Courthouse of Westerly itself.
Finally, Westerly also became a seaside resort community. The first entertainment facility was actually established by a lighthouse keeper on Watch Hill in the 1830s, and hotels and summer cottages soon followed. The arrival of the automobile and later suburbanization made the summer colonies viable as year-round residences.
Westerly’s exposed position in Rhode Island makes it fairly vulnerable to hurricanes, and the town has been heavily damaged multiple times, such as in the Hurricane of 1938 or Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The town is surrounded on three sides by water; Block Island Sound to the south, and the Pawcatuck River on the north and west, where it empties into Little Narragansett Bay. I’m not entirely sure, but it also seems like the town contains the only island in RI that’s split with another state: Sandy Point Island.
What has Westerly got now?
Like all Rhode Island towns, Westerly has a coat of arms:
The Tercentenary Commission Report blazons the arms as such:
Or three salmon gules. The[sic] red salmon on a gold shield. The Indian name for Westerly was Misquanicutt, which meant red fish or salmon.
Westerly also has a seal, as you can see in these two versions of it:
So, already, we can see from these images some changes. Notably, Westerly appears to have added a blue net (in heraldic terms, this might be described as “azure fretty argent, three fish gules” rendered in layman’s terms as “a blue field with a white net with three red fish.”
Now, are these salmon? Probably not, according to this post from See Westerly, which suggests we don’t have the environmental nor archaeological evidence to say that there were ever salmon in Westerly, much less a particular breed of salmon.
With that out of the way, the best photos I could find seem to suggest that Westerly’s flag is just this seal on a plain blue field. Yes, we have the old SOB, the seal-on-a-bedsheet.
Digitizing Existing Designs
So, Westerly’s arms are pretty straightforward.
Because they’re fish, we have some leeway. You can see my old fish that I’ve used for ages at left, and you can see the angry fish from WappenWiki in the center. While, according to the Tercentenary Commission their arms are red fish on yellow, on its seal, Westerly places a white net on blue behind the fish, so I’ve made a version that does that as well.
That seal is… alright, it’s probably the first one I’ve seen that’s oblong instead of circular or simply just the escutcheon with the town name somewhere. I don’t think I quite managed to get the shield correct, but otherwise, this is fairly faithful. I believe I even correctly identified the seal font, which is Garamond.
As for that flag, it’s just that seal but on blue and without the outside border:
Which isn’t that good. It’s a seal-on-a-bedsheet, and this is a problem, because the seal says “official seal” on it. But once it’s on a flag, it’s not a seal, it’s a flag. There’s no reason to write “official seal” on this flag. Just as there’s no reason to write the name of the town, or the incorporation date. Westerly could have a fine flag, but this ain’t it.
Redesigning Westerly’s Flag
Designs 1a, 1b & 1c
So, let’s start with the basic armorial flags. Frankly, I think these are rather plain, with not a lot of room for interesting stuff. Of the two red on yellow designs, I personally think Design 1b is stronger, with the fish in a vertical line. Design 1c brings in the fretty from the Westerly seal, but the problem is that the strong color contrast between the white netting and the blue field is broken up by the red fish, which makes it displeasing to look at.
Design 2 solves this somewhat. It shifts the fish into their own discreet panel towards the hoist, while leaving the net to follow for the rest of the flag. In this case, there are twelve full net holes displayed, representing the twelve villages of Westerly (according to one count). The problem with this flag is that it’s relatively poorly integrated as a design (the fish and net are distinct parts), and at four colors, may be a little more expensive to print than if the fish were on white.
Designs 3a & 3b
These are schools of fish designs, which I think isn’t a bad image for a town; the idea of the many working together for the benefit of them all. In this case, the twelve fish represent the twelve villages. In Design 3b, I’ve added a partial border of blue to represent the three sides of the town bounded by water (the Pawcatuck, the Little Narragansett Bay and Block Island Sound).
Designs 4a & 4b
These two designs start from a simple place: essentially, it’s a W turned on its side, representing Westerly. But wait, the W points towards the hoist of the flag, representing the west, and Westerly’s place as the most westerly town in Rhode Island. But wait, there’s more: it also represents the beam of light from the Watch Hill lighthouse. But there’s still more: the negative space looks like a fish, representing the town’s heraldic symbol. Design 4b goes a little further by adding in the color pink (or maybe that’s salmon). In this way, it represents the kinds of granite that Westerly is famous for: it’s blue-white granite and its pink granite.
I unfortunately didn’t have as much detailed information as I often do for this post, and other demands on my time made it a little harder to get this out than I’d like. It’s now been over a year since I started this series, and I only have three out of 39 towns to go.
As always, please vote in the poll.