220818ind history

The Perryville Bible Church is among the landmarks in the South Kingstown village of Perryville, which is perhaps best known in local history for the two U.S. Naval heroes it was named after: Oliver Hazard Perry and Calbraith Perry.

The sleepy hamlet of Perryville, one of the many villages that make up South Kingstown, is a place that time has seemingly forgotten. That’s a shame really, because the stories of the two most prominent members of the clan for whom this place is named, US Naval heroes, brave explorers, and brothers, Oliver Hazard Perry and Matthew Calbraith Perry, ought to rank in the history books of our nation alongside folks like John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere.

Elder brother Oliver was born in Perryville in August of 1785. After completing his education, he followed the career path of his father Captain Christopher Perry, and rose rapidly through the ranks of the fledgling US Navy from a midshipman on his father’s command, the warship “General Green” in 1801, to his own command, the US Navy schooner “Revenge,” in 1807. By the outbreak of the War of 1812, then Commodore Oliver H. Perry was in charge of the defense of Lake Erie commanding a small fleet of scarcely seaworthy vessels. Immediately realizing he was vastly outgunned by the well-manned large British war fleet under the able command of Commodore Barclay, Perry switched hats as it were, and went from naval commander to master ship-builder. At breakneck speed, he had his men and the local carpenters and craftsmen construct a fleet of vessels more adequate to the task at hand. Perry’s brilliant strategic victory in September of 1813 over the vastly superior forces commanded by Barclay was not only a regional turning point in the war, it demoralized the British forces to such a degree that the repercussions caused a general panic back in jolly old England. Perry would from henceforth be known as the Hero of Lake Erie. After the war Perry was sent on an expedition up the Orinoco River in the Venezuelan Republic. In command of the ship “John Adams,” Perry contracted yellow fever while there. He died there in 1819 and was buried in Port Spain. In 1826 the US sloop of war “Lexington” was sent to retrieve the remains of the “Gallant Hero of Lake Erie” and he was subsequently reinterred with honors back in Newport.

Most certainly his younger brother Matthew was at that mentioned service. He, too, had followed in their father’s footsteps and was a career Navy man. With no wars to fight, Captain Matthew Perry busied himself battling pirates and protecting American shipping in the West Indies and the Mediterranean. In 1852 then Commodore Perry was given the assignment that would forever define him. The United States government had long desired to establish formal relations with the cloistered nation of Japan. Time and time again efforts to do just that were rebuffed and Perry was appointed to try once again. Perry examined the previous failed attempts, and after interviewing whaling captains and sailors who had been castaways on the island nation, it was his opinion that the crux of the problem revolved around the vast cultural differences that existed between the two nations and the caste system extant in Japan. To make himself sound important enough to actually speak to a high ranking Japanese official Perry created his own caste system among his officers and staff conferring upon himself the title of “Lord of the Forbidden Interior.” To make a very long story short, after much back and forth diplomacy between various lower ranking Japanese officials, the “Lord of the Forbidden Interior” was finally allowed to meet with the First Counsellor of the Empire Prince Toda of Idsu. These meetings ultimately culminated with the signing of a trade agreement between the two nations on March 31st of 1854.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the “Lord of the Forbidden Interior” is now buried in Newport alongside his older brother Commodore Oliver H. Perry, the “Gallant Hero of Lake Erie.” Their roots, though, extend back to and being in a gambrel-roofed farmhouse in a sleepy little South Kingstown hamlet.

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

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