1907011ind History

Harvard is one of the most well known institutions in the country but not many people know its ties to South County, which date back to Samuel Sewell, above, and the 1600s.

I guess the only New England accent that is poked fun at more than the shared colloquialism of New Hampshire Yankees and South County Swampers is the high-fallutin’ sound of the Boston Brahmin. No one who has been around here in New England for any length of time can say “Park the car in Harvard yard” without at least showing a bit of a grin.

Few know it, but South County and Harvard are connected. For more than 130 years, Harvard owned a 440-acre parcel of land that straddled the North Kingstown/Exeter border out near the turf farms of Slocum and the scenic Chipuxet River.

The tale actually begins in the 1660s with the signing of the Pettaquamscutt Purchase on Pettaquamscutt Rock, overlooking the beauty of the Narrow River. This controversial land deal involved seven men, including Richard Smith senior and junior, and a group of investors associated with the colonies of Connecticut and Massachusetts. The land parcel involved was more than 12 square miles in size and included most of what is now Narragansett, along with portions of South Kingstown, North Kingstown and Exeter.

One of the principal players in this arrangement made with the Sachems of the Narragansett tribe was John Hull of Boston, the mint master and treasurer of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hull was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in all of the colonies, at the time. One longstanding anecdote involving Hull and the marriage of his daughter, Hannah, to Judge Samuel Sewall posits that Hull offered up as a dowry to Sewall his daughter’s weight in silver. Supposedly, there was even a special ceremony during which Hannah Hull sat upon one balance pan of a great scale and silver was piled upon the other side until an equal weight was reached.

Whatever the truth behind this legend, Hannah Hull did marry Judge Samuel Sewall and indeed bore him 14 children. When her father died, Hannah Sewall inherited all of John Hull’s vast Pettaquamscutt landholdings, and the good magistrate Samuel Sewall, as her husband, obtained control of this valuable real estate.

All you history buffs out there are probably scratching your head saying to yourself, “Why does that name Samuel Sewall ring a bell to me?” Indeed, Samuel Sewall is an important figure in the history of Massachusetts, most often remembered as the assistant magistrate involved in the infamous Salem witch trials. He was the only one of the many magistrates involved to regret his role publicly in those sad proceedings, and also bravely wrote and published a controversial treatise in 1700 titled “The Selling of Joseph,” in which he strongly opposed the institution of slavery.

In 1717, Sewall was appointed the chief justice for Massachusetts, a position he held for many years. A pious and honorable man, Sewall, in 1696, had deeded great portions of his and his wife’s Pettaquamscutt landholdings to worthy causes, including a church in Peace Dale and a 440-acre parcel to his old alma mater, Harvard College, from which he had graduated in 1671.

Harvard College did very little with this generous gift, beyond collecting yearly lease payments from a number of families who farmed portions of the property. That was until 1827, when the sitting president of the college, John Thorton Kirkland, had the parcel surveyed and subdivided it into 20 parcels for eventual sale.

Kirkland, who was also a Harvard graduate and former pastor of the new South Church in Boston, had ascended to the presidency of America’s first institute of higher learning in 1810. He reigned over Harvard during one of its most productive periods. He oversaw a vast expansion of both Harvard’s physical facilities and its national reputation, and was in part responsible for setting it on a pathway that would end up with the college becoming a prominent university. To accomplish all this, Kirkland needed funding and, although he was a well-connected and successful fundraiser in his own right, he decided to sell off unnecessary assets to finance this aggressive expansion. The “Harvard Estate,” near “Yawgook” in North Kingstown and Exeter, was one of those assets.

The 20 parcels created by Kirkland and his surveyor, Robert Noyes, sold in short order and were all acquired within a year of the land offering. They were purchased by members of the Cottrell, Greene, Champlin and Smith families, among others, some of whom were already actively working the land through longstanding lease arrangements with Harvard. Time passed, generations came and went, and the Harvard connection to North Kingstown and Exeter was all but forgotten. Until now, that is.

So if you should happen to be in Boston some fine summer day, strolling near or through the grounds of venerable Harvard University, keep in mind that some of those ivy-covered buildings were constructed in part through the proceeds of the sale of some scenic farmlands in our fair town. Park the car in Harvard yard, indeed!

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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