Jamestown Historical Society

A Perilous Passage: The Ferrymen of Narragansett Bay

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Feb 08 2023
7:00 PM - 9:00 PM

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Sign up for this FREE presentation by Jamestown’s own public historian, Peter Fay, by clicking below:


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A ferryboat washed up on the beach at Goat Island in Newport in 1748. Tangled in the tackle was a Black man, a passenger on the ferry from Jamestown to Newport. The ferryman and three others also drowned. The only survivor of the tragedy was a horse that walked out of the sea, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

For two hundred years, ferrymen and their passengers risked all crossing Narragansett Bay in small sailing ferries. They faced sudden squalls, leaky hulls, and high seas without life jackets. Drowning was routine in mishaps, as few could swim. Ferrymen sandwiched their unhappy passengers between cattle, hogs, barrels of rum, and farm produce. They traversed the southern bay, unloading at Jamestown’s “Ferry Road” and reloading across town to resume their journey. The great port of Newport, with 70 wharves, was the hub to the spokes of ferry commerce.

Without these essential ferrymen, all commerce and normal life in Rhode Island would have come to a halt. Their ferries were an unavoidable risk in a hazardous world. These intrepid men were the lifeblood of early Rhode Island.

About Peter Fay – For 20 years, Peter Fay has researched Rhode Island history across dozens of archives, authoring public art and historical projects as a public historian and graphic artist at universities, libraries, and public forums across New England. He publishes original research in the Jamestown Press, Providence Journal, and elsewhere. Mr. Fay lectures on colonial history, slavery, race, and social class from a Marxist perspective. His research uncovered never-before-known histories of Black Revolutionary War veterans in Jamestown, early mariners, and the first Black farm which became Cedar Cemetery.

Ferryboat (with white streak) at Jamestown Ferry Dock, circa 1845. Painted by Chas D. Hammet of Newport. The ferry at this time belonged to Thomas Rose Congdon. (Jamestown Historical Society, P1981.009)