The holiday season is a time for people to ponder the bounty in their lives, and in Jamestown’s past, all wealth flowed from the land.
Rhode Island founder Roger Williams was welcomed by the Narragansett people into a land of plenty, a cornucopia. In a 1643 letter to his “deare and welbeloved friends and countrymen, in old and new England,” Williams wrote, “From the South west came their Corne, and Beanes out of their great God Cautantowwits field. Deer, which he said were “generall and wonderfull plenteous”, provided venison and clothing, and quahog and fish were abundant.
Europeans arrived in 1636 and forever altered this bounty. Vast estates of foreign hogs, sheep and flax replaced the deer and small plots of maize. Private land and private labor replaced communal land and cooperative labor. Shared subsistence was replaced by private accumulation.
Gov. William Brenton, a wealthy landholder, purchased the land from downtown to Kettle Bottom, and also today’s Watson Farm. Upon his death in 1674, he measured his private bounty in 1,613 sheep on farms across Rhode Island where deer once grazed. He accumulated a princely sum of 10,768 pounds sterling. Only three decades after its founding, the colony had 200,000 sheep. Newport shipped mutton and pork to the West Indies and wool across the Atlantic. The new scions of sheepherding even shaped the Jamestown seal in the image of their new wealth, sheep.
Jamestown Town Seal includes a sheep (JHS photo)
One English traveler wrote in 1697, “One farme have shorne upwards of 1000 sheep and sold every pound of wool for 10 shillings per for ready money (hard silver), it being much wanted by all people, as excelling any that is showne on the Continent.” Local dairies “equal, if not exceed, the best yeomen’s farmes in England.” French Duke Rochefoucault observed that “the cheese of Rhode Island is famous throughout all America; but the only cheese for exportation is from the isles of Connanicut and Block.”
Gov. Caleb Carr, of Jamestown, owned what is today’s Dutra Farm. He expanded this bounty with slave labor. For 12 bushels of corn, he purchased a captive from King Philip’s War who he called “Indian boy Tom,” and also acquired “my neagro woman Hannah.” By the time of his death in 1693, he accumulated 40 pounds sterling, gold rings, a silver pot, two silver spoons, “one milch cow,” 60 sheep, horses, and hundreds of acres of farmland.
Tenant farmer John Martin measured his wealth in livestock. A Boston newspaper announced his 3-year-old hog weighed in at 739 pounds, measuring 7 feet, 10 inches. “The Produce of this Colony,” wrote Martin’s friend, Anglican minister James MacSparran, “is principally Butter and Cheese, fat Cattle, Wool and fine Horses, that are exported to all parts of the English America.”
To accumulate certain of nature’s gifts, Colonists eliminated others. Roger Williams wrote the “Kaukont-tuock” (crows) eat maize, “yet scarce will one Native amongst an hundred will kill them, because they have a tradition, that the Crow brought them at first an Indian Graine of Corne in one Eare and an Indian or French Beane in another, from the Great God Kautantouwits field in the Southwest.” Conversely, Jamestown colonists put bounties on crows starting in 1750, paying “six pence per head for every crow that is killed.” Crow and mink bounties continued through the early 20th century.
Conanicut’s rolling meadows also produced flax by the wagonload. Flaxseed often found its way to Ireland on ships of Newport merchant Christopher Champlin. Both hemp and flax bast, which is the stalk of the plant, were spun for fiber. Hemp was used for rigging ships, and flax was used for twine, linen cloth and canvas. Flax was so highly valued that the state loaned money to farmers for five-year terms, requiring interest payments made in flax or hemp. Village spinning bees allayed the shortage of cloth and supplanted British imports. In 1769, newspapers reported “at the house of Josias Arnold in Jamestown, 33 ladies spun 150 skeins” of “good linen.”
After independence, agriculture in Rhode Island lost its advantage. A small state with small farms could hardly compete with vast new estates of the Ohio Valley, such as George Washington’s 38,000 acres and slave products of the South. Short northern seasons produced ever less profit. The land, once 95 percent forested in Roger Williams’ day, was 70 percent cleared for farming by 1776.
By 1950, however, it was two-thirds forested again. Capital investment moved from land into industrial production and changed the world forever. The bounty of the land today arrives on tables from unknown places around the world, but crows, deer, and mink have quietly returned to the new forests.
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Williams, Roger, A Key Into the Language of America. London: Gregory Dexter, 1643, n17.