An Island of Two Names
I got to spend a little time on Rhode Island, in the State of Rhode Island, on Friday and Saturday. It wasn’t a long stay, but with my son living in Portsmouth and working in Newport, it was a worthwhile one. There are three towns on the island; these two and the appropriately named Middletown between them. There are three bridges connecting the island to the rest of the state.
The Narraganset called this island Aquidnet, and this evolved into the English calling it Aquidneck Island. But like so many places where one population gave way to another, this island has that other name too – Rhode Island. So the smallest state in the nation shares its name with its biggest island. In fact its the origin of the name for the state. Newport and Portsmouth were the original settlements and things just grew around them. But why have two names when you can just call the island Aquidneck and the state Rhode Island? Because that’s the way Rhode Islanders like it.
A close-up of that 1677 John Foster “Mapp of New England” shows the name as Rhode Island. Newport is noted, and Portsmouth is shown as a town though not named. Mount Hope is just across the water and Providence is further inland. The map is oriented with West up and North to the right, and things are out of scale but you can clearly see Rhode Island as they knew it.
Portsmouth was settled by a group of “Christian Disidents” seeking religious freedom. The most famous of whom was Anne Hutchinson. They noted their intent in the Portsmouth Compact on March 7th, 1638: They noted their intent in the Portsmouth Compact on March 7th, 1638. This, according to Wikipedia, was the first document in American history that severed both political and religious ties with England:
The 7th Day of the First Month, 1638.
We whose names are underwritten do hereby solemnly in the presence of Jehovah incorporate ourselves into a Bodie Politick and as He shall help, will submit our persons, lives and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of His given in His Holy Word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby.
The most famous of the three towns was and is Newport of course. It was founded after Portsmouth by some of the settlers who moved from that town down the island. Newport’s fame came when it became the playground of the wealthy who tried to outdo each other with their summer homes, the Newport Mansions. That wealth brought in sports that the wealthy pursued; It was home of the America’s Cup for years, and home of the Tennis Hall of Fame, complete with grass court. Newport has a certain upper crust vibe to it, much like Nantucket. Middletown and Portsmouth are more working class, but with equally beautiful waterfront views. The main route through all of them has evolved to be strip mall heavy, but as with many places, once you get off the retail strip things improve greatly.
This island was occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War, and held by them for three years. As with Manhattan and Philadelphia it was an excellent port that worked to the strengths of the British Navy, allowing them to stage troop movement against the Americans. The American Army tried to displace the British once in that time in the Battle of Rhode Island with the support of French ships blockading the British. This was the first engagement of the combined American and French forces against the British. It didn’t go as planned as the French weren’t particularly aggressive in the naval engagements and the Americans were driven away when British reinforcements were able to land. British naval might may have gotten into the heads of the French, who had the tactical advantage at the time. One other notable first from the battle was the very first mixed-race regiment, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, had their first action of the war on the island.
I’ve got a few connections to this island, but it remains a place I haven’t spent enough time in. The last couple of years has changed that, and perhaps I’ll explore the island even more over the next few. But as is my nature, I’ll most likely do it in the off-season when the crowds die down a bit. There’s a history worth exploring on Aquidneck Island, er, Rhode Island… or whatever you want to call it.