Friday Flagging: Woonsocket

Today is the 39th and final redesign entry for a municipality in Rhode Island. To close out the series, we end with Woonsocket, the last of the cities in Rhode Island (alphabetically).

About Woonsocket

In some ways, Woonsocket is the northern counterweight to Pawtucket. If Pawtucket is a community stitched together from villages at the mouth of the Blackstone, Woonsocket is a community stitched together from villages at where it flows into RI. As I’ve said before, rivers make quick borders, the reality of human settlement is that we tend to live on both sides of them.

But Woonsocket the town (and shortly after, the city) wouldn’t exist until the 1870s. Long before that, Woonsocket sat the frontier of Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Nipmuc territories. Evidence of Native peoples living in the area dates back to a period between 2000 BCE and 300 CE, though it’s very possible they’ve been here even longer. By the time the English arrived, though, the three previously mentioned confederations and their bands and tributaries were the dominant groups in the area.

These competing claims to the area of what became Northern RI led to competing claims among the ever-fractious English settlers. The proprietors of Providence used claims granted (or maybe favorably interpreted by the English) by the Narragansett to stake their claims to the area, and Massachusetts and Plymouth used Wampanoag-granted claims to say they were the rightful owners of the area.

Even after the English broke the Native nations as political forces in the 1670s, the disputes remained. Providence claimed the whole area including past its Narragansett-granted claims thanks to a charter from the Crown. Massachusetts took over Plymouth’s claims when it absorbed that colony, and also established Mendon to help reinforce their claim. In the 1680s, the Mendonites actually kidnapped two Providentines, which resulted in retaliation from Providence. Adding to this was a dispute over where RI’s northern border was supposed to be, as the original surveyors Massachusetts sent out actually drew the line further south than they were supposed to be. Providence didn’t conduct a survey of the border until a hundred years later. It took a few centuries to solve; in 1746 a royal commission granted Cumberland to Rhode Island and then in the 1860s the U.S. Supreme Court ended dispute over the northern border by basically saying “it’s been this long, you can live with it” to RI.

Woonsocket, at least, the place we know today as “Woonsocket,” wasn’t begun to be settled by the English until the 1660s, when a member of the Arnold clan built a sawmill at the falls. At the time however, it wasn’t even Woonsocket Falls, as the future village would come to be known. See, “Woonsocket” first referred to Woonsocket Hill which sits in modern-day North Smithfield. The earliest version of the name in English shows up in a 1660 letter from Roger Williams, who writes it as “Nisowosaket.” It was over 70 years later before the falls took the name “Woonsocket” (probably rendering the common belief that “Woonsocket” means “thunder mist” in an Algonquin language apocryphal), and a further hundred years before the whole region of northern villages along the Blackstone were referred to by the name. And there wouldn’t be a discrete polity called Woonsocket for another forty years after that!

The Arnolds were the primary architects of early Woonsocket, but they were soon joined by other prominent names like the Aldrichs and Gaskills. More interestingly for where the city would go, Huguenot (Protestant French refugees) families like the Ballous and Tourtellots also showed up by the end of the 1600s. Most of the early English settlers were Quakers, though, and much of early Woonsocket was centered around mills and smithies for agricultural work, which is fairly typical for Rhode Island. Turning the old “Indian trails” into English roads was also of major import, and Mendon Road is a remnant of roads first blazed by Natives.

The Quakers are notably pacifistic, and so Woonsocket didn’t really partake in the American Revolution; there’s only one known gravesite for a Revolutionary soldier within its borders, for a man named Joseph Capron. That said, Peleg Arnold, who ran a tavern at the western edge of modern Woonsocket, did recruit soldiers for the war from there (as well as coordinate revolutionary activity), and the recruits would’ve been partially drawn from areas that would become Woonsocket.

After the American Revolution came the Industrial Revolution, and this is what transformed Woonsocket from merely some villages along a river to an industrial city on a river. Like West Warwick or Central Falls, this set Woonsocket apart from the towns it was a part of. Like Pawtucket, it also meant there was a political community being constructed here that reached across borders (albeit, town borders).

In this case, the towns were initially Smithfield and Cumberland, both of which had been created in the mid 1700s. What happened in Woonsocket was that villages developed around mills, typical development for Rhode Island. Starting in 1810 with Social Manufacturing Company (thus, Social Village) companies built villages to house their workers; in addition there were Jenckesville, Hamlet, Globe, and Bernon. Woonsocket Falls, though, was different. Instead of one mill, it had multiple mills owned by different companies; its location meant that a lot of traffic flowed through it from the other villages and met in Market Square. And so these six villages, growing separately from one another, formed a sort of political confederation, with Woonsocket Falls, Social, and Jenckesville on the north bank of the Blackstone in Cumberland, and Globe, Bernon and Hamlet on the south bank in Smithfield.

Bernon is fairly interesting, because it was originally Danville (for co-founder Dan Daniels; the other co-founder was early American diplomat Jonathan Russell). But in 1830s, Daniels’ and Russell’s manufacturing company (named after Russell) was bought by Sullivan Dorr and his brother-in-law Crawford Allen. Sullivan Dorr was the father of Thomas Wilson Dorr, the insurrectionary governor of Rhode Island (Sullivan opposed his son’s politics). Under Dorr and Allen’s company, Danville was renamed Bernon (I’m unsure why, but their first mill was also called Bernon), and they offered fairly generous housing to their workers; they could own their home if they agreed not to consume alcohol on the premises (Dorr and Allen were temperance advocates).

A notable community in Woonsocket Falls is Cato Hill, which is named after Black Rhode Islander Cato Willard, whose wife Lydia Brayton Willard inherited the property through her descendance from Prince Aldrich, one of two slaves owned by Samuel Aldrich of Smithfield. Prince Aldrich had purchased the property after gaining his freedom. Cato laid out the plats on the eponymous Cato Street, and then Lydia laid out further plats on Church street after Cato’s death in the 1830s. It’s a wonderful example of the oft-overlooked impact that Black Rhode Islanders have had on Rhode Island. Cato Hill would go on to be inhabited by Irish, French Canadian, and Ukrainian mill workers.

Despite Sullivan Dorr’s influence, Woonsocket was prime territory for the demands of the Dorr Rebellion; and men from Woonsocket joined the rebellion. Arms for the abortive attack on the Providence Arsenal were delivered by the Woonsocket Infantry, and Thomas Dorr himself fled to Woonsocket after the attack before leaving the state for New York to rouse support for the rebellion from Tammany Hall. A Woonsocket contingent went to Acote’s Hill for the last “battle” of the rebellion, but they fled before the Freeholder forces could arrive. In the aftermath, Woonsocket was occupied by Freeholder militia, placed under martial law, rebels arrested for treason, and the armory was built to ensure that no rebellion could easily rise up again.

The 1840s saw a massive, rapid boom in immigration to the Woonsocket villages; in 1842, just 8% of the population were immigrants. In 1846, 27% of those villages were immigrants, with about an eighth of the population being Irish and a sixteenth French Canadian. The bonds of the mill villages to the still agricultural towns of Cumberland and Smithfield with their fairly distant town centers were beginning to fray as Catholic immigrant populations clashed with the Protestant Yankees of old Rhode Island.

However, it was from that old Yankee stock that Woonsocket would get its foremost advocate (perhaps because there were few paths forward at this point for those not of the old elite), Edward Harris. Harris was a wool industrialist, and now is as good a time as any to mention that Woonsocket was less reliant on slave-produced cotton than the mills in the rest of Rhode Island. A leading abolitionist in Rhode Island, Harris was an early Republican, and a candidate for governor four times (he was beaten by the nativist publisher of the Providence Journal Henry B. Anthony, and Democrats Philip Allen and Francis Dimond). Harris’ fortunes (along with with the rest of Woonsocket) were boosted when the Providence & Worcester Railroad was constructed, superseding the poorly-thought out Blackstone Canal and heading off turnpike construction that almost certainly would’ve been an economic failure.

He used this wealth to support Woonsocket’s population, constructing the Harris Institute, which was a mixed-use facility. On the bottom floor were shops, on the second floor was a free school for mill workers to learn reading and writing on Sundays, and the third floor hosted a lecture hall (Harris was able to lure Abraham Lincoln to speak there during the 1860 campaign). Today, it’s City Hall.

The election of Lincoln of course touched off the Civil War, and demand for textiles exploded as the nation went to war and men were drained from the factories. Thus, immigrant labor was needed. Where between the 1820s and 1860s, the primary donor of such labor had been Ireland, in the 1860s it rapidly shifted to Francophone Canada. By 1875, nearly half of Woonsocket’s population were immigrants, and three quarters had at least one immigrant parent. By the end of the 19th Century, Irish and French Canadians were joined by Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, Swedes, Lithuanians, Italians, Romanians, Syrians and Lebanese.

Right after the Civil War, the three northern villages were united, forming the Town of Woonsocket. In 1871, as part of the partition of Smithfield, the three southern villages were granted to Woonsocket as well (to the chagrin of Smithfield residents who wanted to keep the tax revenue). Unexpectedly, the first police chief of the new town was a former lieutenant of Thomas Dorr.

During the Panic of 1873, the Sprague concern collapsed, taking with it a quarter of Rhode Island’s economy, and damaging much of the state’s cotton economy. Woonsocket was already fairly big on the wool industry, and they also diversified by developing rubber manufacturing and machinery.

What new factories need for their workers is housing, but the factories in Woonsocket were relatively massive affairs, and you couldn’t just cram one family into a single-family lot like in smaller mill villages. So Woonsocket tends to have a lot of multi-family units. The most famous is the triple-decker, but Woonsocket also has buildings that housed four or six or eight families.

In 1888, Woonsocket was incorporated as a city. This suited a lot of people just fine, as the Bourn Amendment was just passed. What the Bourn Amendment did was reform the voting system of Rhode Island. At that time, Rhode Island was split on the question of voting; Democrats wanted to expand voting rights and Republicans wanted to keep voting restricted. The big sticking point was that you needed to either own $134 worth of real estate or else pay a dollar to vote. Democrats wanted to get rid of the property requirement. Republicans thought it was working just fine.

What Gov. Bourn proposed was a compromise: every man could vote, regardless of whether they were native-born or immigrant, but only if they paid taxes on $134 worth of property (not just real estate). If they didn’t, they were barred from voting on financial matters or in city council elections.

The Amendment passed at a referendum by about 2:1. In the same year, Woonsocket became a city. Thus, a lot of poor immigrants without $134 in taxable property were excluded from voting.

That said, after Harris, the next big figure in the history of Woonsocket was Aram Pothier, a French Canadian immigrant who became Mayor of Woonsocket in 1894. Pothier had spent time in Paris, and he used his European connections and his shared native tongue to entice French and Belgian businessmen to invest in Woonsocket. In 1909, he became Governor of Rhode Island, served six years, left, and then came back to serve from 1925 to his death in office.

By then, however, Woonsocket was kind of in trouble. Part of what had allowed industry to flourish in the city was the exemption of factories from paying taxes, and this coupled with major spending on public buildings left the city with massive municipal debt. At the same time, the 1920s had seen the collapse of the northern textile industry and massive strikes. And Pothier’s Woonsocket Republican Party was also riven by fights over the response to illegal gambling and saloons selling hard liquor in violation of Prohibition. This allowed Democrats to step into the gap and bring disaffected residents over to their party. While Democrats were split by the progressive mayor (and second generation American) Felix Toupin, they managed to supplant the Republicans as the dominant political force in the city.

Another issue was the Sentinellist Controversy. During the 1920s, the General Assembly passed a law mandating English-only schooling, even in private schools. This angered many of Woonsocket’s French-speaking population, rallied by the French-language newspaper La Sentinelle. What they really didn’t want to do was pay money to the Irish Catholic-dominated Diocese of Providence to build this new Mount St. Charles high school, where their kids were certain to be educated in English. Like a few other Rhode Island controversies, it took the deaths of the principal actors to finally put an end to the controversy.

Then the Great Depression hit. Unlike cotton shocks, this was not something wool, rubber, and machining could weather, and somewhere around half of Woonsocket was unemployed. This led to the 1934 Textile Strike, which halted textile production throughout the country. A riot broke out on September 12th, and Governor Green called in the National Guard. Unable to support the strikers, and with National Guard units deployed to break it throughout the country, the United Textile Workers abandoned the strike on September 22nd.

World War II provided temporary relief, as wartime production demands brought the wool factories back to life and pulled men out of the workforce. The WPA did a little bit too, building new housing and sidewalks. However, after the war, the whole state sank into depression. The last French language newspaper folded in 1942; the Sentinellists defeated by the passage of time and assimilation.

At its peak, Woonsocket had just over 50,200 residents. Every decade since, it’s lost population, today down to somewhere north of 80% of that population. Like other urban areas in Rhode Island, suburbanization offered a route for white descendants of immigrants to leave the city. As a result, Woonsocket has a relatively newer Black community, many of whom arrived after World War II (although, Cato Hill speaks to the long history of Black residents within the city). The migration of Latin Americans into New England also occurred, building a new Hispanic communities. And in the 1970s, the US campaigns in Southeast Asia led to a number of Southeast Asian groups to come to the city, most prominently Lao and Hmong. The re-urbanization of Americans during the 2010s also seems to have effected the city; this may be the first time in 70 years its population has actually grown.

What has Woonsocket got now?

Woonsocket has a coat of arms.

The Tercentenary Commission blazons it as such:

Per pale dexter argent a hill vert, sinister azure three pallets undy argent (representing a water fall), on a chief gules a shuttle argent. Shield divided vertically. The right side a green hill on silver, the left the the vertical wavy stripes on blue, with a red stripe across the top of the shield on which is a silver shuttle. The shuttle is of course symbolic of the textile industry.

So, let’s talk about that shuttle, because the falls and the hill are pretty self-explanatory. What that specifically seems to be is a flying shuttle (though you can find hand versions used in weaving all around the world). Here’s a good explanation by the actor who played the Weasley father in the Harry Potter films. The flying shuttle revolutionized weaving, and combined with a number of advancements, made textile manufacturing the foundation for the Industrial Revolution. That’s why Woonsocket uses these arms.

Now, I don’t think these are used very much. You’re far more likely to see the city seal, shown in two versions below:

The seal basically shows some factories and houses overlooking the falls with some clouds or overcast sky. It’s not a ground-breaking seal, by any means, but I think it accomplishes its job by being relatively difficult to recreate (as you can see, there are a couple of versions, too).

The City also uses its seal on its flag:

So, you can see above that though it’s slapped a seal on its flag, it’s not just an SOB (seal-on-a-bedsheet). This is a seal-on-a-triband. The problem is it’s hard to figure out what from the images I have what the proportions of the center stripe are, and whether that anchor in the flag’s top fly corner is always present.

Anyhow, I have looked at nearly all of the municipal flags in Rhode Island, and I have to say, kudos to Woonsocket for do something a little different.

Digitizing existing designs

So, the hard part of the arms is the flying shuttle which I think it relatively hard to represent and be legible (given that very few people are going to recognize it even if you accurately depict it – in the 1930s when these arms were designed, much of Rhode Island would know exactly what it was). WappenWiki certainly doesn’t have it, as it’s way past the age most heraldry is done. That said, I did the best with what was available to me. Luckily, the other parts are easy to do, since I already had them from Bristol and Central Falls.

Wikipedia has a vectorized version of the seal, but it’s frankly a mess, and so I did a wee bit of trace function work using a very large image version I found and created a new version that’s a little less messy:

It didn’t quite get all the lines right, but it did a lot of what needed to be done. I also needed to do this for flag.

These are my best renditions of what the flag could be. I’m unsure of what it might say under the anchor, but I figured it was worth making a version (I pulled the Wikimedia version, which is basically only used there). There’s also a subtle color shift here, as I’m unsure of the exact shade of burgundy or Tyrian purple used.

Overall, I think the basic design of the flag works pretty well. I think the seal is unhelpful, and if it does bear an anchor with a scroll, then that’s pretty useless as well. It’s also a good lesson in why you usually put those things in the canton: it’s hard to know if things on the fly end are part of the flag when it’s at rest.

Let’s redesign this flag.

Redesigning Woonsocket’s Flag

Design 1

Okay, normally arms redesigns are fairly decent, but Woonsocket’s arms as a flag just feel tacked together, as though it was cobbled out of Bristol and Central Falls’ and then the designer was like “wait, I gotta throw something else on there!” I don’t think a flying shuttle is a great symbol and even at the tail end of the dominance of the textile industry in Rhode Island it wasn’t uniquely Woonsocket-y (textile mills were everywhere, and Woonsocket was one of the few municipalities not completely reliant on textiles).

Designs 2a, 2b & 2c

While I think the arms don’t make a great flag, the basic layout does. I wanted to bring in that French Canadian-ness somehow, and it makes more sense to put a fleur de lis on Woonsocket’s flag than on Lincoln’s. Each version expands the symbolism, with Design 1 just being the fleur de lis taking the place of the shuttle, the hill removed, and the falls centered to balance the flag. Design 2 expands the whole thing to take up the full height of the flag (while now having six white stripes for the six villages). And Design 3 combines the fleur de lis with a globe in a sort of Woonsocket version of the globus cruciger.

Design 3a & 3b

Keeping on our French Canadian theme, we can draw the visual connection between Woonsocket and Canada simply by doing what the Canadian flag does and adopt the Canadian pale: a square of color that’s equal to in length to the combined lengths of the stripes on either side of it. This was specifically invented for Canada’s flag, and it gives a central emblem room to breathe. We can adapt the Woonsocket flag to create a central emblem. I made something rather generic in the first flag (six pieces for the villages with a central seventh piece to represent the City as a whole), however the second design uses a W-shaped line to both represent Woonsocket while also representing the flow of the Blackstone (it almost literally forms a W in Woonsocket before dipping back south).

Designs 4a & 4b

Finally, we can just use that line of the river to do a very simple flag that represents the geography of the City of Woonsocket, is a big “W” that incorporates a classic heraldic design (a bend sinister). I made 4a before deciding it was a bit too Charlie Brown-ish, and so 4b goes with a color combination which I think is stronger.

Wrapping Up

That’s it. That’s the end of my project of redesigning Rhode Island’s municipal flags. Thank you for sticking with it, or if you’re just joining me, sorry you came in at the end. I’m sorry it took me so much longer than 39 weeks (it took me slightly over 13 months), but, well, 2020 kinda happened.

If you want to look through all the redesigns entries: they’re here. I’m hoping to have a lessons learned, missed opportunities, follow-up posts, etc., but I can’t promise they’ll be frequent.

As always, please vote in the poll. Thank you to my wife, who encouraged me to do this when we got back from our honeymoon!


  1. Such rich history- my next visit to Providence will be richer because of this / of course I will have to review your posts!

  2. Graphically, I really like 4b the best, but it looks more like a commercial logo than a government symbol. Kinda like the Providence “P”.

    I like the existing flag, except for the fact that the center circle is a seal. You solve that in 3a with the water wheel3, a much more more legible symbol of industry than the shuttle (except maybe to people like your Scottish and Portuguese ancestors who knew from shuttles). But I do like the Hope anchor on the original. It adds a bit of asymmetry and interest without disrupting the balance. Also, I like the idea that a municipal flag reflects the state identity.

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