181129ind History

Rome Point has a long and storied history going back to Colonial days. Its namesake George Rome came to Newport in 1761 and spent his summers on his North Kingstown farm where he entertained ladies and gentlemen of Boston, Newport and Narragansett.

The area from the present day location of Smith’s Castle south, through Wickford and down to Rome Point has been important to the Narragansett People for centuries. It is thought that permanent shoreline settlements such as these were extant as far back as 3,000 years ago. Known to the native peoples as Namcook, it is thought to be the traditional summering area for the tribe and the location from which Canonicus, the Narragansett Chieftain during the time of the King Philips War, ruled his people. The area just north of Rome Point has special significance in that it is known to have been the Homogansett or dance grounds where powerful tribes on both sides of the Narragansetts, met in council and annual festivities. It is also thought that Roger Williams’s original “Sachem’s Deed” to the lands of the Providence Plantations was executed here as well. Only one serious archaeological excavation has been undertaken on the Rome Point property. It was done during an approximately 15-year period extending from the late 1960s through the early 1980s by Narragansett Archaeological Society members Paul St. Pierre and Harry Chase. The artifact collection from that excavation, numbering more than 6,000 pieces, is now in possession of the Anthropology Department of Rhode Island College under the care of Professors Carol Barnes and Pierre Morenon.

The collection has been organized and the important artifacts, including nearly complete pottery pieces, has been stabilized, but little research has been done on this important and nearly complete record of a “Late Woodlands Period (1100-1600 A.D.)” settlement.

Control of the property by the native people was lost with the signing of the Atherton Purchase by Chief Sachem Coginaquond of the Narragansetts in July of 1659.

The inter-related Hutchinson and Cole families were bound by both marriage and common business interests in the turbulent times between the Atherton Purchase and King Philip’s War at the close of the 17th century. Captain Edward Hutchinson was one of the Atherton principles, which also included: Major Humphrey Atherton of the Massachusetts Bay colony, Richard Smith Sr. & Jr. of Cocumscussoc (Wickford), Gov. John Winthrop of Connecticut, William Hudson, Amos Richardson, and John Tinker all of Boston. The purchase’s legality was embroiled in controversy for decades as all of the principles were from a “foreign government,” i.e. Connecticut and Massachusetts (the Smith’s allegiances were strongly with the Connecticut Colony) and the Rhode Island colonial charter forbade such purchases from the Native Americans. This controversy was not completely settled until 1726 when Colonial Governor Samuel Cranston finally ironed out a boundary agreement with the Connecticut government. The northernmost portion of the Boston Neck or Namcook Purchase consisting approximately 660 acres was parceled out to Hutchinson. The land now known as Rome Point was a part of this parcel. The story of the Hutchinson family is truly a testament to the times they lived in. Edward’s parents William and Anne Hutchinson had been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 for Anne’s heresy towards Puritan principles. Anne not only was an outspoken woman of conviction in a world decidedly dominated by men, she also defied Puritan beliefs by preaching that God’s grace was resident in every human soul and was therefore not acquired by the very Puritan principle of “moral striving.” She is considered, along with Roger Williams, as being one of the founders of the Colony of Rhode Island, a place founded on the principles of religious toleration. When her husband died in 1642, Anne left the wilds of Rhode Island for Long Island, NY leaving her adult children behind, but nonetheless taking 10 children with her. Sadly Anne and her family, with the exception of her youngest daughter Susannah, were all killed by a party of Lenape Indians in 1643. Susannah was traded to, and raised by the Swanzey Indians until the age of 14 when she was ransomed back to her original family by future husband John Cole. Edward himself died in August of 1675 at the hands of a Wampanoag Indian during the height of King Philip’s War. He had transferred ownership of the “Rome Point” land to his son Elisha a few years prior to that in 1671. Elisha eventually sold the land to his cousin Elisha Cole who handed it down to his son, the same John and Susannah (Hutchinson) Cole previously mentioned. The location of the original Hutchinson and Cole Homesteads are uncertain. Descriptions of the location of the Hutchinson home, point most probably to a location at the northern boundary of his property somewhere near the present Hamilton Web Mill Complex. An ancient burial ground nearby, at the end of Salisbury Avenue may well be the Hutchinsons’ final resting place. A nearby Cole family burial ground just west of the Rome Point property, but on the other side of Boston Neck Road may contain John and Susannah Cole and may be adjacent to the site of the homestead.

Henry Collins purchased the property from John Cole on Nov. 18, 1748 for 14,000 pounds in bills of public credit. Collins, at the time, was a wealthy and distinguished merchant in Newport. His level of involvement in and usage of the farm property cannot be determined at this time. He was the half brother of colonial governor Richard Ward and the son of Arnold Collins a well-known Newport silversmith who had designed and engraved the original seal for the Colony of Rhode Island. His firm, Collins & Flagg, a partnership with fellow Newporter Ebenezer Flagg, was engaged in the manufacture of cordage. During the early 1760s, due primarily to its financial involvement in the risky and speculative venture of privateering (state-sanctioned piracy), Collins and his firm declared bankruptcy. He sold his holdings, including the Narragansett country farm, in 1762. Collins’s Newport home, as well as most of the farm property was purchased by George Rome, a fellow wealthy Newporter who also happened to be the colonial business agent for many of Collins’s London creditors. Collins, who will be primarily remembered as the benefactor of the famed Newport Redwood Library, died in April of 1765.

George Rome (pronounced Roome) came to Newport in 1761 as a business agent for a number of London merchants to collect debts owed them. While in Newport he privately became engaged in a number of other ventures, including whaling, which made him quite wealthy. After purchasing Collins’s Newport home, located on present-day Washington Street, and the majority of the Narragansett country estate, Rome enlarged his holdings by acquiring the portions Collins sold to New York real estate speculator William Bayard and Co. and the White family. He also bought from Nicholas Northup, a portion sold to that family by Elisha Hutchinson many decades earlier. With these acquisitions, Rome owned nearly the entire parcel deeded to Edward Hutchinson some 100 years earlier. Rome is the historic figure most associated with the property and rightly so. The following description of his “little country villa” is excerpted from the writings of a local historian, Edith M. Dawson and is largely accurate as far as can be ascertained.

“Mr. Rome lived in Newport during winter months and . . . . spent his summers on his North Kingstown farm. Here in his mansion house which he called both “my little country villa” and “Bachelor’s Hall” he entertained lavishly, giving large parties at which ladies and gentlemen of Boston, Newport, and Narragansett were present.

His home must have been elaborate. According to traditions, beds were concealed in walls and “a servant would just give a touch to a spring and the visitors’ bed, by means of a self-adjusting process, would protrude itself, as if by magic, ready prepared for the reception of its tenant.”

Nothing now remains of the house. When its ruins were examined about 1867 no traces were seen of the unusual sleeping arrangements. “The vast kitchen fireplace was high enough for a man to walk into without removing his hat and broad enough for the burning of cordwood without interfering with the door of a brick oven upon the back side, or the chimney corner seat inside the opening. Upon one side of the kitchen and in the rear was a number of small plastered bedrooms said to have been formerly occupied by the slaves. ”The Rome house “was approached by what must have been a stately avenue of buttonwood trees. The gardens contained the rarest native and exotic varieties.” There were fish ponds and boxwood trees.” One of the boxwoods mentioned in Dawson’s description survived well into the 20th century on the grounds of the John Brown house on the corner of Power and Benefit Streets in Providence. It was relocated to there in 1905 by Providence businessman Marsden Perry as a part of a re-landscaping of the grounds designed by Frederick Olmstead. The tree was presumably cut down in the 1940s by the RI Historical Society when it acquired the property. As the American Revolution approached, Rome’s ardent Tory leanings eventually caused his downfall. A 1772 letter of his to an associate, Dr. Moffatt of London, in which he severely and sarcastically criticized the colonial administration of Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts, fell into the hands of Ambassador Benjamin Franklin, who transmitted it back to the appropriate authorities in the New World in 1773. A single passage from the letter particularly enraged the colonists.

“After keeping my head out of a halter which I had previously had the honor to grace, my constituents, from a moderate calculation, cannot lose less than 50,000 pounds sterling by the baleful constitution of this Colony, and the corruption of their courts of judiciary. We have had vessels made over to us for the satisfaction of debts, and after bills of sale were executed, carried off, in open violence or force, by Captain “Snip-snap”, of Mr. “Nobody’s” appointment; and when we sue for damages we recovered a louse.” The letter also advised annulment of the Colonial Charter and the creation of a new government more sympathetic to the Crown.

This letter was then published in newspapers throughout the colony and Rome was summarily denounced by all in authority. Rome was brought before the General Assembly at a meeting in South Kingstown in October of 1774 for questioning. His answers were deemed evasive and contemptuous and he was jailed in Kingston. By November of 1775 he was in confinement in Providence. Eventually he was released and fled the Colonies on the British man-o-war “Rose” then at anchor off Newport. His property, like that of many Tories, was sold at auction by the colonial government as a way to raise funds for the war effort. It was purchased speculatively by prominent Providence businessman John Carter Brown, who quickly resold it to Superior Court Judge Ezekial Gardiner in 1780.It is also worthwhile to note that Rome had on his farm a large contingent of slaves. These individuals, along with the slaves of the surrounding plantations, formed the nucleus for the small, but long-standing African American community that existed in the area in and around Wickford during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A number of individuals with presumed direct connections to the Rome farm slave group (i.e. Cato Roome) show up in the historic record. Only the wonderful and plentiful stone walls that crisscross the property (the wall which graces the southern border being a prime example) stand as a testament to their existence.

Judge Ezekial Gardiner Jr. was born in 1738 at his family’s farm, which was located just adjacent to what is now Pendar Road. The Gardiners were dairy farmers and by the time Judge Ezekial was the scion of the family their operation was of an enormous scale for the time. One existent bill of sale from 1779, just prior to folding the Rome Farm land into their vast holdings, refers to a single sale of 5,639 pounds of cheese to George Irish of Newport and guarantees its manufacture in the Gardiner dairy. With the addition of the Rome Farm, Ezekial Gardiner’s dairy empire, including six distinct farms all run by himself and his many children, totaled well over 1,000 acres in either dairy cow service or cultivated for food or feed. Like the George Rome Farm before him, the scale of Ezekial Gardiner’s operation required the usage of a fairly large pool of slave labor. As a matter of fact, it would appear that Gardiner was among a handful of the largest slave owners in all of the Narragansett country. As with the prior Rome Farm slave group, a number of individuals with presumed connections to this group of slaves show up in the historic record throughout the early and middle 19th century. Soon after purchasing the Rome property from the Browns, Gardiner moved into the Rome Manor House and left his ancestral homestead farm in the hands of Ezekial III. It is thought that the Gardiner family was the last to inhabit the Rome’s “Little Country Villa” as by the middle 1800s it is spoken of in the historic record as being “in ruins.” Ezekial Gardiner Jr. died in 1820 and is buried in a Gardiner family plot on the west side of what is now Gilbert Stuart Road, but what at that time was just a farm road passing through the vast Gardiner land holdings. His will (included in the attachments) was one of the largest, most valuable, exacting documents probated in North Kingstown at that time.

Sadly, the family that owned the Rome Point property for one of the longest periods of time, nearly 100 years, has left the lightest footprint on the historic record. Little is recorded about Reynolds Greene and his descendants other than the bare details of the various real estate transactions. It would appear that he purchased the land from three of the sons of Ezekial Gardiner; Palmer, Jesse, and the heirs of Jeffery at some time during the late 1820s. At some unknown time after that he transferred title of the land to a relation, David Greene, but re-purchased it from him in 1853 for the sum of $11,000 for the 550-acre parcel. Reynolds Greene’s will of 1864 included a number of codicils; this fact, combined with a large group of legitimate heirs, caused much confusion over land ownership and property lines in the years following his death. One important event that occurred during the “Greene Era” was the purchase of a right-of-way by the Seaview Electric Railroad from the family through the property. Eventually trolleys ran through Rome Point on their way to and from Narragansett, Wickford, and East Greenwich and ultimately, by way of a connection at “The Bleachery Hill” station in East Greenwich, on to Providence. As an added benefit to local farmers, the Seaview also added a freight run which was used primarily by produce and dairy farmers in the region to transport their wares up to the farmer’s market in Providence. It is quite probable that the Greenes utilized this service. Reynolds Greene also constructed a new farmhouse to replace the abandoned Rome manor house. This home was later occupied by the family of John Menzies and was ultimately demolished by Narragansett Electric, along with a large barn which may have pre-dated the home, in the middle 1970s. By the time the 1920s rolled around, ownership of the property was a complex issue complicated even more by the apparent fractious nature of Greene family relationships.

In 1922, after nearly two years of negotiations with the seven eventual legitimate Greene descendants, John and Rachel Menzies of Providence reunited the Rome Point property under one owner. This particular parcel of land was not Dr. John Menzies first choice however; he preferred the parcel of land that was to become Bonnet Shores, but Mrs. Menzies was concerned about that peninsula’s penchant towards fogginess and the Menzies settled on Rome Point. John Menzies was a well-known and beloved Providence physician who operated his own private hospital in the city and desired a large parcel of oceanfront property for a number of reasons. First, he wanted a place for his family to escape the city during the summer months. Second, as a physician, he was convinced that the fresh sea air would be extremely beneficial to many of his city-bound patients particularly a number of children under his care. And finally Menzies was an avid “hobby farmer” who desired the sprawling acreage with its long tradition of farming to pursue this interest. With these interests in mind, Menzies made some changes to the property. First he remodeled and expanded the existing Greene family farmhouse to suit the needs of his family and the numerous patients he eventually brought down from the city to his home. He also established a small dairy farm in the existing barns and fields that evolved to support a local “milk route”. With this action Menzies unknowingly continued a tradition of “gentleman farming” which had begun some 200 years earlier with Henry Collins. In time, Menzies also planted much of the flat land down near the shoreline with potatoes which he sold at the farmers market in Providence. Finally, Menzies also allowed a number of his long-term patient families to construct small summer cottages on and around the actual Rome Point peninsula. These were all eventually swept away by the 1938 hurricane, but were rebuilt after the storm. The Menzies family itself maintained one small cottage furthermost out on the very tip of Rome Point that they utilized into the late 1960s.

Menzies’ family tradition indicates that it was always the doctor’s intent to expand his Providence hospital to include a more formal permanent presence at the Rome Point location. For whatever reason this never occurred. Then in 1953 representatives of the Narragansett Electric Company approached the Menzies family as they wished to purchase the waterside portion of the property for the eventual siteing of an electrical power generation plant. The first 92 acres were obtained during that year, with the remaining 120 +/- acres purchased, minus a two-acre embedded parcel retained by Grace (Menzies) Dickens, in 1969. With this transaction the entire property was now under the control of the electric company.

Narragansett Electric Company’s original intent for the property involved the construction and operation of an oil or coal fired electrical generation plant and the requisite deep-water dock for the off-loading of the chosen fuel source material. The site with its easy access to abundant supplies of both fresh and salt water and its proximity to the fairly deep West Bay Passage made it an ideal site for such an operation. In 1953 local public support for this project was fairly strong, but the company did not move forward in an expedient manner and as time passed and the 1960’s, with the advent of it’s ever increasing “earth friendly” mindset, approached, public opposition towards the project increased. Towards the end of that decade the company shifted the focus of the project from a conventional plant to one fired by a nuclear reactor. Fueled by memories of a recent “nuclear incident” in nearby Charlestown, RI, local opposition swelled with this announcement. The Three Mile Island incident and its resultant backlash against all nuclear generation projects sealed the fate of the Rome Point Power Plant. All plans were dropped and the land sat idle; other than an unmanned weather collection data site monitored by the University of Rhode Island.

As mentioned previously, it was during this same time frame that the Greene/Menzies farmhouse and barn were demolished as well as the surviving peninsula beach cottages. All of these structures had become magnets for trespassing and vandalism and represented a significant safety hazard and liability problem. Menzies family consent for this action was sought and obtained prior to demolition.

Throughout the time frame of the property’s ownership by the electric company, it has also been an irresistible magnet for those who appreciate nature and the scenic vistas that this particular piece of property affords. The company has always posted the property with “No Trespassing” signs but has focused its enforcement efforts towards keeping vehicles, not pedestrians, off the land. With the recent return of harbor seals to the Narragansett Bay and the popularity of “The Clumps”, a rocky outcrop off of the point, as a pullout site for the seals, foot traffic to Rome Point has been on a steady increase. This may have played a part in the company’s decision to turn over the property to RIDEM Parks & Recreation in April of 2001.

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

(1) comment

Mark Thompson

Delightful! Walked these grounds a couple of years ago during a trip back home...

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