With the political season upon us, and elections at the national, state and local levels up for grabs, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back in time. You know what they say, “All politics are local,” and frankly things that happen at that “local” level generally have the greatest impact upon regular folks like you and me. So what was going on at the local level back at the beginnings of our fair town? Who was in charge and what were the vital issues of the day?
The very earliest Town Council meetings that we have records of occurred back in 1696 and 1697. These were indeed tumultuous times, and the “powers that be” were up against some intriguing challenges. Before we take a look at politics and decision-making in the late 1600s, let’s refresh our memories on what our hometown was like. Back then this community was called simply “Kingstowne” and it consisted of the present-day communities of North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Exeter, and Narragansett. It was enormous and sparsely settled and there were no central villages to speak of, no Wickford, no Kingston, no Wakefield, and no Saunderstown; just farms and woodlands as far as the eye could see. The distance from one home to another, in much of this region, was a mile or more. Our earliest Council records, which show that meetings were held on a quarterly basis unless a crisis was at hand, date back to June 1696. The town officials at that time were elected yearly by the freemen of the community. For this purpose a freeman was defined as a man (no woman was ever allowed a vote) who was neither a slave nor indentured, and who owned land in the community. If you were a renter or did not have clear title to a parcel of land, you were denied a vote in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The Council in June 1696 consisted of Moderator Captain Jeffrey Champlin, Treasurer John Eldred, and Council members Andrew Willett, who also served as Town Clerk; Thomas Eldred; Thomas Mumford and Joseph Case. The minutes of these meetings, all in the hand of clerk Andrew Willett, detail the important issues of the day. First and foremost, these men were tasked with updating the voters list. As it were, they were tasked with finding out exactly who were the freemen of Kingstowne? Who could prove that they indeed were “bound to no man” and owned land free and clear in the town of Kingstowne? That list, compiled again by Andrew Willett, son of the first mayor of New York City, is shown here and gives you an idea of just how sparsely populated this region was at that time. Other issues at hand included the question of what the town should be called. During an earlier period, when the Rhode Island Colonial charter had been temporarily voided, the town had been renamed Rochester; eventually the charter was reaffirmed and the Council officially decided that the old name, Kingstowne, was the one for them. Records from the next meeting still extant are dated December 1696. A recent election saw Captain John Fones as Moderator, John Eldred returned as Treasurer and Daniel Eldred, Samuel Albro, and Andrew Willett joining them as councilmen. Council meetings during this year, as they were the previous year, were held in the home of John Eldred, which was located near the present-day site of the soon-to-be-built Reynolds Farm development. These elected officials were busy dealing with their northern neighbor, the town of Greenwich, which was trying to establish a permanent town line between these communities once and for all. This was a contentious issue to be sure. A year later, in 1697, the next council, consisting of John Fones – moderator, John Eldred – treasurer, and council members Lodowick Updike, Daniel Eldred, Andrew Willett (again serving also as Town Clerk), and Henry Gardner, were in the same kind of contentious negotiations with their southern neighbor, the Town of Westerly, over that border. They also had to appoint delegates to the Colonial Assembly held at that juncture in time in Warwick. After a bit of haggling, it was decided that Captains John Fones and Daniel Eldred ought to represent Kingstowne’s interests. The records of all of these early meetings can be found, in the careful hand of Andrew Willett and burned around the edges, in the Town Hall of North Kingstown.
So, it’s easy to see that much of those early political years were spent trying to define Kingstowne. What were its boundaries? Who had a say in how it was to be run? What kind of community was it going to be? Seems to me that 324 years later, those questions are still being asked. The upcoming election, at the Federal, State, and Local levels, is all about defining exactly who we as a nation, state, and community truly want to be. Every one of us ought to think about just that as we step up to the voting booth.