210408ind history

While Rabbit Island has gone by many names over the years, its origins as a gift to Roger Williams by the wife of Canonicus, the Chief Sachem of the Narragansett in the early 17th century, remain firmly etched in time. It is pictured here as it looks today, in front of Smith’s Castle in North Kingstown.

Spring has finally sprung, and in Wickford, one of the things which that means is kayaking. With that in mind I thought it might make sense to look at Wickford Harbor’s two major islands and the stories tied to them. Like so much of South County, the opening chapters of these islands begin with the inter-relationships between Richard Smith and his descendants, Roger Williams, and the Narragansett People.  Indeed, the word the English settlers chose for much of the area they settled here in what would become North Kingstown was, Quidnessett; an anglicized version of a Narragansett word that means “place by the small island”.  And that small island — we now call it Rabbit Island, may have been one of New England’s first gifts. A present of sorts, given to Roger William’s himself by the wife of Canonicus, the Chief Sachem of the Narragansett people during the first part of the 17th century.

It was Canonicus, who gave Williams shelter here in the “Narragansett Lands” after his banishment from Massachusetts.  It was only by the grace of Canonicus, that Williams was allowed to live and thrive here, to restore himself to vigor and educate himself in their ways. The Narragansett people too, wished to learn from Williams, to examine the innovative technologies the English possessed, to find out for themselves why they were here and what they wanted.  They marveled at some of William’s possessions and desired to establish trading posts in order to acquire them.  

One thing Williams had though, confounded them, befuddled them; they didn’t quite know what to do with them— his goats. Now anyone who, like me has had some “up close and personal time” with goats knows that they are, although extremely adorable and endearing, single-minded in their pursuit of leafy green luncheon items.

Goats are determined, goats are patient, and sooner or later, somehow or another they will find a way to eat everything they can reach.  With this in mind, way back in the 1630’s, the wife of Canonicus, a noble woman whose name is sadly lost to history, gave Roger Williams the little island we now call Rabbit Island with the caveat that he must keep his goats there so they might give up their relentless pursuit of her gardens.  

As the English knew her as the Queen Sachem it was called Queen’s Island for many years, after a time it was known as Goat Island. In 1651, it was sold, along with his trading post, by Roger Williams to Richard Smith. Williams used the monies realized from this sale to finance a voyage to England to secure the Charter for his “Lively Experiment”, the Colony of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations. So in a small way, the Queen Sachem’s gift helped finance our State’s very future.

In the last century and a half or so, this little bit of real estate was called Babbitt’s Island, after a family that later owned the Smith Castle properties. Babbitt became Rabbit and time passed and everyone forgot the story of the island, the gift, and the goats — until now that is.

Now, Cornelius Island, an island that once was not, with a name still shrouded in mystery, has a different story to tell. It like the Queen Sachem’s Island was once part of the great plantation lands of Richard Smith and his kin. But at the time of Canonicus, Williams, and Smith, it did not even exist — as an island that is.  

You see, the Fones Record of 1660, a survey of sorts of all the lands in this area, make no mention of any island beyond the eight acre Queen’s Island.  Cornelius Island, a nineteen acre swatch of green now surrounded by the blue waters of the harbor, is not noted because it did not exist at that time, it was then the tip of a peninsula of land known as the Calf’s Pasture; grazing land for the Smith, then Updike, herds of dairy cows.

Sometime after 1660, but before 1802 when the next full land survey was accomplished, a channel was dug, perhaps by nature, or perhaps initially by man and then enlarged by nature, that created what was then called Cornelius’s Island.  Centuries later we have no idea exactly when this happened, or precisely why (although as with Williams goats, it’s pretty easy to keep track of cows when they are confined to an island.) nor do we know the identity of the mysterious Cornelius.

Although it’s safe to say that he was not, as the legends go, a Dutch trader, as the Island did not exist during that timeframe.  Cornelius Island stayed a part of the Smith/Updike landholdings until 1813 when Wilkins Updike sold it to his cousin Capt. Edmond Cooper.  

A few years later in 1817, Cooper sold it to Wickford banker and land baron Benjamin Fowler. The Island changed hands a few more times until the 1860’s when it entered a stage of time during which it gained quite the air of notoriety. At that time it was purchased by a company called “The Wilson Bros. of Fall River” who proceeded to start a new business venture there called Wickford Oil & Guano Company.  They purchased menhaden and junk fish caught by local fishermen and ran them through a fish press to extract fish oil. The remaining fish residue was then incorporated with guano (fish droppings to the uninitiated) and seaweed and sold to local farmers as fertilizer.

Both products of this odiferous enterprise were in high demand in the 1800’s. Fish Oil was used in the manufacture of soap and as a base product for paint. It was also known as “poor man’s whale oil” and lit many a home in those pre-electricity days. Wickford fish oil was also casked up and exported to Germany where it was used for the tempering of fine steel. The fish mash/guano/seaweed fertilizer, a recipe that harkens back to the days of Squanto and the pilgrims, was in high demand as well. So much so that a road from what is now Camp Avenue to the island, passable at low tide, was constantly full of farmer’s wagons hauling the noxious blend from Cornelius through each of the many small village’s of our fair town.  As you can imagine this operation was not a pleasant one to reside next to and the complaints were both numerous and loud.  

Finally, in 1873, the taxpayers of North Kingstown had enough. At that year’s annual town meeting, they came and voted in force, declaring it a public nuisance and the owners of this, the smelliest business in the history of North Kingstown were forced to close.  

The last vestige of that operation, known as the stone house, was rented out by the Wilson Brothers soon after this to Benjamin & Delia Northup. Now Ben Northup was a fisherman, and he and Delia represent the most-fertile couple ever to reside in North Kingstown, that’s for sure. You see Delia Northup bore Benjamin 21 children, most of which lived to adulthood and all of which were born and raised on Cornelius. Perhaps it had something to do with the fertilizer factory.  

In 1897, the Island was purchased by Capt. Rollin Mason and used in conjunction with first, his menhaden fishing enterprise and then his oyster farming partnership with Capt. H. Irving Reynolds. During this time a boatyard of sorts sprung up on Cornelius, nets were dried and repaired here. It was during this timeframe that the America’s Cup defender, the yacht Pocahontas, became associated with Cornelius as well. I should say failed defender, as she was found slower than her training partner “Mischief” and subsequently stripped of her “defender” moniker.

The Mischief went on to fame and fortune when she successfully defended the Cup in 1881 and the Pocahontas faded quickly from the limelight and was purchased by Rollin Mason at a bargain price and used as an anchored guard boat out in his oyster beds. After a time, the fine wooden racing machine was even unsuitable for this purpose and she ended her days beached on the windward side of Cornelius; a racing sloop breakwater of sorts. And she lay there decade after decade, until all that remained of the once proud Cup defender was her sun-bleached wind-beaten ribs jutting out of the sands of Cornelius.  

While those old yacht’s bones were bleaching in the sun, Cornelius Island “birthed up” a new enterprise when she became the first home of the Wickford Yacht Club in 1935. The local yachtsmen took up residence in the old stone house that had once housed the enormous brood of Ben & Delia Northup. In 1938, the Great Hurricane not only erased the remains of the Pocahontas from sight, it also drove the Yacht Club to the shore forever.  

Since then Cornelius Island, still owned by the descendants of Capt. Rollin Mason, and Rabbit Island, forever linked to Smith’s Castle, sit quietly waiting for the next turn down their long road through history.

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

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