Jamestown Historical Society

Revolutionary War took toll on town’s ‘rural character’

Share this Page

A decade ago, residents declared the overarching goal of their community plan should be to “protect Jamestown’s rural character.”

It sought to “remember its past” and preserve what is unique to Conanicut Island, which is “a town infused with a rural feeling, an insular spirit and a village identity.”

Local tax assessments in the 18th century offer an authentic testament to this “rural character.” They highlight the pinnacle of agricultural success in 1757 when Jamestown boasted a wealth of livestock. Sheep and cattle, each worth about 20,000 pounds sterling, generated abundant wool and cheese. Ironically, proprietors amassed even greater wealth from the 150 slaves that worked the farms, assessed at 33,700 pounds sterling. In 1767, livestock dwindled, but the population increased.

Sixteen years later, however, the Revolutionary War cast a pall on the rural character. Two-thirds of African-Americans, the backbone of the Colonial economy, had left, many as freemen.

Gershom Remington inhabited Watson Farm. His tax assessment in 1783 listed “a dwelling house very much out of repair,” an “old poor corn crib” and 50 acres of pasture for nine cows, a horse and four swine.

Revolutionary War Farm
“Sheep in an Orchard on Conanicut” by John Austin Sands Monk. More sheep roamed Jamestown before the Revolutionary War than after it. Gershom Remington, for example, had 28 sheep in 1773. By 1783, they were all gone.

Only a decade earlier, four slaves raised his 28 sheep. Now, there were no sheep and no slaves. Property records reveal he sold his last slave, Orman Remington, to himself two years earlier for “100 Spanish silver milled dollars … paid by my Negro man slave named Ormond.” The Spanish dollars were gone as well.

Farther up North Road lived John Eldred, famous for his “one-gun battery” that harassed passing British ships during the war. In August 1783, in penmanship and grammar unusually refined for a yeoman, he listed a 100-year-old house, a small house 20 years old, a barn and a corn crib. In the recession, his wealth exceeded most others. He grew 60 bushels of corn, tended orchards, and his 136 acres of pasture fed six oxen, 16 cattle, five horses, 32 sheep, and four hogs.

Eldred owned six slaves in 1774, but now listed only one “man slave,” followed by a crossed-out entry of two “servant girls.” This simple elision embodied a stroke of freedom for the girls. He sold 8-year-old Genne, 3-year-old Accabe (even 3-year-olds were “servants”), their mother and her 9-month-old infant to Orman Remington, the father of the family who was now free. It seems Eldred compiled his inventory while the girls still were his property, later revising it after their sale.

North of the Eldred estate was the Underwood farm on East Shore Road. Joseph Underwood chronicled the postwar farm:

A large house tore well to pieces, no other building, made no cider these 10 years, half my orchard cut down.

- Joseph Underwood

Remington’s niece, Bethsheba Martin, complained her home was “an old soldiers’ barrack … I am indebted more than my stock is worth.”

Not all were destitute in 1783. On Fort Getty Road, the Hazard Knowles farm boasted the largest sheep flock in town with 200, two-fifths of the island’s total. At Point Farm in the north, Job Watson produced 500 bushels of corn, raising 32 cows, eight oxen and 10 hogs with the labor of two enslaved women. His fortune would later allow him to purchase Watson Farm.

In the following decades, crops and herds expanded, but enslaved labor dwindled. Perhaps scarcity of this labor for drudgery like hand grinding hastened the creation of the most beloved icon to its rural character, the Jamestown Windmill.

Jamestown farms produced 13,000 bushels of corn, enough for 7 pounds per person per day, which was far more than residents could consume. Ground meal brought better prices at the growing Newport market. In 1787, the town loaned a miller $100 to build and operate the mill, which boosted commerce. The town councilors were both the largest farmers and the greatest beneficiaries of the new service.

After independence, the population did not grow. Many young men, unable to inherit farmland, moved west or sought their fortune at sea. Many African Americans found few prospects in town and left for urban communities or a seafaring life.

Even Orman Remington abandoned rural Jamestown for Newport in 1816. He told the town council he was “born on the coast of Africa and brought into this country” by a Newport slave trader, laboring his whole life on Jamestown farms. But now he “came to Newport to live with two daughters and five grandchildren.” He left rural life on Watson Farm behind and joined the two daughters he freed from slavery three decades earlier.

Related Articles