LITTLE COMPTON—Rhode Island. Yes, it’s real, and not a conspiracy by Delaware to avoid being labeled the smallest state in the US! The images for this post were captured in late August.
This is just my second time visiting Little Compton, but the first time visiting with a keen eye for architecture and landscaping. Also, the first time was November and the weather was absolutely miserable. I’m pleased with how the images have turned out, and it also turned my interest in getting to understanding a bit about how the area came to be what it is now. At the surface, a deep admiration for colonialist tradition was evident. The British-style stone walls and rolling green fields look like an attempted carbon copy of the British countryside. So, I do that. Join along for a little dig into the origins of Little Compton.
Rhode Island, as a colony, has always been small compared to its neighbors. It is the smallest state in the Union, it is the first colony to have renounced British allegiance in May of 1776, and it is also the last of the 13 colonies to ratify the US constitution. It did so in 1790 after being threatened with trade embargoes by the US Government (source). The main reasons are thorny, the colony despised a national tax, expansion of the national government, and the federal monetary policies (source). They favored inflation, printing loads of money despite devastating consequences to the value and faith in currency. Rhode Island representatives claimed they were protecting their economy and culture (ibid). Others said they were being contrarians, a “rogue island.” This fight secured Rhode Island’s legacy is the United States as active and engaged in politics in order to defend the Rhode Island way of life. But this history goes back even further, as far back as the late 1600’s in a town now called Little Compton.
The town as it exists formed in 1682, when the British colonialists took the land from the Sakonnet tribe, and renamed it after Cullompton, in England. The area officially became part of the colony of Rhode Island in 1747. The racial makeup of Little Compton is about 98.75% white and 0.19% Native American. The State is also in a stable economic position, with median annual income ranked 16th in the country at nearly $64,000.
When the British colonizers came down from Plymouth County in the 1670s, the area was controlled by the Sakonnet tribe and ruled by chief Ashawonks. As one can expect, the land-hungry colonizers were not liked by some Native Americans. The Wampanoags, Nipmucks, Podunks, Narragansetts, and Nashaway tribes took the reasonable stance of protecting their territory from the British. This escalated into a full-blown war, in which the Sakonnet tribe helped the British.
The First Indian War lasted from 1675 to 1678. While throughout the war roughly 3,500 people fought on each side, the Native Americans suffers far greater loss of 3,000, compared to 1,000 British lost. That war is credited as the deadliest war in American Colonial History. And of course being friends with the British was not a healthy relationship back then. The colonizers acquired the land from Chief Awashonks and her tribe. Early literature describe this as a purchase, though one can struggle to believe the chief had much of a choice about the matter after witnessing what the British could do the Indian dissent during the war.
The Little Compton website describes this event surprisingly well, saying, “after first attempting negotiations with Awashonks, they [Englishmen from Plymouth Colony who sought to expand their land holdings] petitioned the Plymouth Colony, which granted them their charter.” This started in 1674, before the First Indian War, and ended in the early 1680s.
Between 1700 and 1803, the tribe’s population dwindled from somewhere around 400 to a dozen people. Much of the legacy of the people are lost to history, and their presence is not visible in the landscape of Little Compton, which now resembles the English countryside more than anything else.
The neighborhood has been filled with summer homes for the elite from every generation. In a 1975 article from the New York Times, titled, “Why Little Compton Has Lasted So Long,” reporter Terry H. Schwadron finds some enlightening approaches to understanding just what is happening with the small town.
Little Compton is not really all that different today from what it was three centuries ago. Sure, the horses gave way to cars, but you can tell in the talk around the stove at the general store that things have not changed much since the days of Col. Benjamin Church back in 1675.
The article also touches on the topic of the colonialists who got the land from the Native Americans following the First Indian War. A local historian, Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, pokes a hole in the narrative around official narratives that the land was purchased and not out-right conquered. The article goes on to say,
Although Little Compton people have prided themselves on the fact that their forebears purchased land from the Indians rather than conquering it, there is evidence in all the records of a high‐handed and scornful attitude toward Indian ownership. There is also a ‘barely concealed desire to put the Indian tribes in debt or in other situations where they must give up their land.
The final sentiment I wish to leave with comes, again, from the New York Times article. I picked it because it speaks to the sentiment of nostalgia, and I hope the sum of my research might bring you to reading it from a new perspective. Considering the bloody war waged on the land I stood on, and the way how British dominance was core to the colonizer’s mandate to own the land, I think this quote from the NYT article can help to put these landscapes in a new perspective. While it is speaking specifically about the triangle commons, it relates to the broader historicism of the area.
Take time to look them over, because there's strength in that simple architecture. Straight, sturdy buildings, white and brown, of clapboard and weathered shingle; perhaps the clearest sign that 300 years from now the commons might still look the same.