Jamestown Historical Society

Ferrying Across Bay Once A Dangerous Duty

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Dinah Battey, of Jamestown, 20, married her husband in 1711. Six days after her wedding, on the sailing ferry home from Newport, the boat capsized, and she tragically drowned. Little was more dangerous in colonial Rhode Island than crossing the bay in ferries.

Family tragedy did not deter Battey’s brother, William, from becoming “a ferryman of Jamestown,” as was his father before him. William’s son built the Battey House, still standing on North Road. The Batteys paid 20 shillings for a license “to sell Drink” to travelers and townsfolk.

Unpredictable squalls, high seas and shifting cargo and livestock were often a recipe for disaster. In 1768, the North Ferry left Narragansett, captained by Benoni Shearman, with three passengers and 14 sheep in moderate wind. Halfway to Conanicut, the boat suddenly vanished. Reportedly, “a Negro man in a canoe” nearby searched frantically but found nothing. Of the four lost men, three had families, with “18 children among them, chiefly young.”

This painting by Newport’s Charles Hammet depicts a wooden sail ferry at East Ferry, circa 1845.
The ferry house is shown at the right.

Ferrying horses was even more precarious. During high winds in 1748, a ferryboat left carrying four horses and four men. Searchers found the hull on Goat Island in Newport. One Black man drowned with his feet tangled in the tackle. Four others were never recovered, including the ferry owner and passengers, two white and one Black. The only survivor of the tragedy was one horse that swam ashore, emerging from the sea, as a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Ferries reflected the property relations and social control of the time. Only the wealthy received ferry licenses, often governors. Gov. Caleb Carr received exclusive rights to the first ferries in Jamestown in 1695. Ironically, he drowned in his own ferry that same year.

Ferries reflected the property relations and social control of the time. Only the wealthy received ferry licenses, often governors.

- Peter Fay

In 1715, the General Assembly, to prevent runaway slaves, forbade ferrymen to “carry, convey or transport, any slave over any ferry without a certificate” from their master, on penalty of 20 shillings and costs of retrieval of the runaway. Conanicut had the highest percentage of enslaved residents in New England. Paradoxically, enslaved Jamestown men worked the ferries, even as the ferry owners enforced the pass system.

Although ferries were often barriers to escape, they could also become gateways to freedom. In 1732, newspapers reported the Point ferryboat from Newport to Jamestown stolen. The “Surinam Indian man servant who went away some months past” was discovered sailing near the Bahamas with only “some raw fish and a keg of rainwater,” apparently on his way back to Surinam in the ferryboat.

1840 Painting of Samuel Carr’s Ferrryboat, Captained by Timothy Peckham
(from “A History of Rhode Island Ferries” by Anna and Charles Chapin).

The Franklin family owned the ferries on the island’s west side for three generations. Mary Franklin owned the ferry service to South Kingstown. She had inherited the business and enslaved ferrymen from her deceased husband, George Franklin. His will ordered “all my Negroes & all my stock … be sold for the payment of my debts.” His widow was able to retain one of their slaves to run the ferry.

Mary Franklin also operated a “house of entertainment” at West Ferry with stores of 24 barrels of fermented cider and 30 gallons of rum. While the drink was plentiful, the hospitality was meager. One traveler recounted, “We took the boat at the Point and landed upon the Island of Conanicut … we crossed this Island to the next ferry. But it blew so hard we could not get over. So, I was obliged to dine with an ill-natured Scold at the ferry house who gave us potatoes & tautog with an intolerable dirty cloth.”

The War of Independence arrived in 1775. Franklin ferried scores of militiamen under captain James Albro to Jamestown and billeted them for some time, earning 22 pounds. However, the rebels requisitioned her boat and her enslaved ferryman for their own use. She was sued for $40 to pay her slave’s expenses.

Gen. George Washington crossed the Jamestown ferries on the way to Newport in March 1781, likely taking the Franklin’s ferry from South Kingstown. It was owned at the time by Franklin’s brother-in-law, John Franklin. Some of his seven slaves likely helped ferry the general to Franklin’s wharf at West Ferry.

In 1813, newspapers noted the passing of one of the last sailing ferrymen of Jamestown. Bristol Carr, a Black man, “attended the ferry” from Jamestown to Newport for 50 years. His life spanned almost a century of slavery, war and finally freedom. Carr served as a ferryman, then joined Col. Archibald Crary’s racially integrated regiment during the Revolutionary War. He continued carrying passengers safely across the bay until his death at 80.

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