Rhode Island history books have surrounded me for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Warwick, I remember reading battered copies of such classics as Trumpets in Jericho, The High Road to Zion, and, of course, volumes of The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island. As I finished high school and entered Rhode Island College, I became exposed to many more as I took classes with such professors as J. Stanley Lemons and discovered the libraries in Providence and the used and new bookshops there. For over half my life, I have collected Rhode Island history books (my collection is now about 500 volumes), which have proved valuable in my own history writings. After moving to Vermont in 2011, my collection has become even more important, as my primary source of information. I do, however, during my occasional trips to Rhode Island each year, usually visit an archive, library, or bookshop to glean more information about my native state’s rich past.
Set forth here is my list of the top ten early Rhode Island history books.I have spent most of my time researching the state’s military history, particularly the Civil War. However, while focusing on the military background, I am also interested in social conditions in Rhode Island. As a historian of Rhode Island for the period of 1840-1866, my list of the top ten early Rhode Island history books (in no particular order) will focus on those published before or around 1900. This selection represents a cornerstone for any serious study of pre-1900 Rhode Island history. These books have stood the test of time as the best in their class and provide a detailed view into the early history of the smallest state.
- While there have been many thick volumes of Rhode Island history over the years, published by the likes of Carroll, Field, and Bicknell, this first one is still the best. In 1859, lawyer, historian, and future Rhode Island lieutenant governor and U.S. Senator Samuel Greene Arnold wrote and published History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. This book was the first attempt at an objective, scholarly study of Rhode Island history. Volume I covers Rhode Island’s founding as a colony and the dramatic effects on the colony of King Phillip’s War. Volume II contends with Rhode Island’s role in the American Revolution and the adoption of the Federal Constitution. The book is footnoted and remains one of the most important works on early Rhode Island history.
- John Russell Bartlett led an adventurous life as a merchant, explorer, and Rhode Island’s longest serving secretary of state. In the 1850s, he performed the valuable service of mandating all city and town clerks to begin reporting vital records such as births, marriages, and deaths to state officials. Bartlett was also a dedicated bibliophile and the architect behind the founding of the John Carter Brown Library. A great collector of Rhode Island works, his ten-volume set, published in the 1850s and 1860s, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, is the bedrock upon which any study of early Rhode Island history is to be made. In addition to setting forth all the laws enacted by the General Assembly from 1636 to 1794, the work is filled with scores of important documents ranging from the founding of Rhode Island to the close of the Revolutionary era.
- It is often said that without Roger Williams, who founded the “lively experiment” that became Rhode Island, there would be no Rhode Island. Although he wrote a number of important religious texts, the most important of Williams’s writings is his A Key into the Language of America, published in 1643. This book is based on his daily observations and interactions with the Narragansetts in southern Rhode Island, presenting anthropological observations of the tribe, and, most important, a phonetic spelling dictionary of its language. This book showed the tribe at the height of its culture, shortly before the terrible consequences of King Phillip’s War and continues to be used not only by historians and linguists but also by modern-day descendants of the Narragansett, Niantic, Pequot, and Wampanoag, as they continue to regain their culture through their native language that was recorded in this book.
- The Narragansett plantations and slavery in South County present one of the most interesting and dark chapters in Rhode Island history. Although the plantation society existed for only fifty years before the American Revolution, it became one of the most successful agricultural communities in colonial New England, relying primarily on slave labor to work the dairy farms. Many of the wealthy white slave holders built their lives around their membership in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wickford (moved to in the early 1800s, and still standing, on Church Lane in the village). Outside of South Kingstown’s and North Kingstown’s official town records, most of what is known about this unique New England subculture can be gained from two books that share an equal spot on this list. James MacSparran is one of the most fascinating figures in early Rhode Island history. An Irishman, he originally came to the colonies to preach in Bristol, but, after charges of sexual misconduct forced him to return to England, he became an Episcopal priest as a member of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and was sent as a missionary to St. Paul’s Church, which then served what is now South County. Here he married into the Gardiners, a prominent local family, and preached for nearly forty years. In addition, he ran a small farm using slave labor and practiced as a doctor. In many cases, the small fragment of MacSparran’s journal that remains (the original manuscript is at the University of Rhode Island Special Collections Library) provides the only contemporary daily glimpse into plantation life in “Old South County.” MacSparran’s journal was printed in 1899 under the title of A Letter Book and Abstract of Out Services.
- Equally important is Wilkins Updike’s History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, which is a history not only of the Episcopal Church, but also the plantation culture and a genealogy of many local families. Originally published in 1847, the book was significantly revised and expanded and republished in 1907 by Daniel Berkley Updike of the Merrymount Press in a three-volume set. Wilkins Updike, the scion of the Updike family that resided at what is now Smith’s Castle outside Wickford, suffered financial reverses that forced him to sell the property and move to Kingston, where he became a successful attorney and state politician.
- The Dorr Rebellion of 1842 was the culmination of an attempt by working-class Rhode Islanders to alter the form of state government that had been in place since the charter of 1663, which heavily favored representation in the General Assembly by the original, agricultural towns of the state, rather than the expanding mill towns. While countless studies have been written about the events of the Dorr Rebellion, the best is still Arthur May Mowry’s The Dorr War, or the Constitutional Struggle in Rhode Island, which was published in 1901. Heavily illustrated and footnoted, the book is a thick, detailed account of the events leading up to and after the rebellion with the passage of a new state constitution in 1843. Also covered in detail are the military events of the period, including the infamous “Battle of Chepachet.” Rare in the original, reprints are still being made.
- With the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861, over 23,000 Rhode Islanders travelled to the South to fight in the “wicked rebellion”; over 2,000 never returned. Beginning in 1890, the Rhode Island General Assembly began appropriating money to allow each Rhode Island regiment and battery that had served in the war to publish a regimental history chronicling the unit’s deeds for posterity; most did. As such, Rhode Island has one of the richest published records of the Civil War of any state. While most battery and regimental histories were written after the 1890 law was put into effect, all of these later books owe a debt to a small volume published in 1862. Augustus Woodbury was a minister in Providence who was among the first Rhode Islanders to enlist in April 1861. He became the chaplain of the First Rhode Island Detached Militia and served at Bull Run. Returning to Providence in 1862, he began compiling his journals and letters written during the First Rhode Island’s three-month service, interviewed other members of the regiment, and organized a roster of the men in the unit. He gave several lectures around the state on the subject in the early winter of 1862, and soon after published A Narrative of the Campaign of the First Rode Island Regiment in the Spring and Summer of 1861. This book was the first published regimental history of a Civil War unit in the country. Woodbury’s approach and style became a model for hundreds of other postwar regimental histories. In addition, after the war, Woodbury wrote a massive history of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers and became active in veterans’ affairs.
- James Newell Arnold was a Rhode Island historian extraordinaire. He spent his life traveling throughout the state recording vital records and visiting every graveyard in the state, painstakingly transcribing each early headstone he found. Much of this work was recorded in his vital multivolume series of books, Vital Records of Rhode Island: 1636-1850, which continue to be used and respected by genealogists. Unfortunately, many of Arnold’s papers are now in a terrible state of disorganization at the Knight Library in Providence, owing to a lifelong feud he had with the Rhode Island Historical Society. In the 1880s, Arnold was the editor of The Narragansett Historical Register, a historical magazine that was published quarterly and was eventually consolidated and republished in nine volumes. The Register deals with the entire history of Rhode Island, not just South County. Each issue is filled with registers of births, marriages, and deaths, historical accounts regarding the Dorr Rebellion and Civil War (among others), the development of Rhode Island, King Phillip’s War, and much more. The Register is a treasure trove of Rhode Island history and provides me, far away from my Rhode Island roots, with a substantial amount of historical material.
- First-person accounts of everyday life in early Rhode Island can be fascinating because of their subject matter and detail. Unfortunately many accounts of early Rhode Island are in manuscript form and not available to the casual reader. One of the most readily available and useful accounts of early Rhode Island is a massive book published in 1930 and edited by Caroline Hazard. Although a long title, it is pretty much self-explanatory: Nailer Tom’s Diary; Otherwise, the Journal of Thomas B. Hazard of Kingstown, Rhode Island, 1778 to 1840, Which Includes Observations on the Weather, Records of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Transactions by Barter and Money of Varying Value, Preaching Friends and Neighborhood Gossip. Recorded by a blacksmith and Quaker from South Kingstown, this missive is a vital record of life in South County from the American Revolution through almost to the beginning of the Dorr Rebellion. Because there were more than a dozen men named Thomas Hazard in South Kingstown at the time, each earned a particular nickname, and as this Thomas Hazard was a blacksmith, he became known as “Nailer Tom.” His journal was so reliable that it became accepted in court trials; opposing attorneys knew they were in trouble when they saw Nailer Tom strolling to the court house with manuscript in hand.
- “First in War, Last in Peace,” is a phrase many Rhode Islanders are used to hearing. Rhode Islanders are proud to quip that the state would not join the Union until the Bill of Rights was enacted. The story is actually much more complicated than that. Rhode Islanders feared joining a federal government where it would be overwhelmed by larger states, but neither did they want to be treated as a foreign country by the new United States. In Theodore Foster’s Minutes of the Convention Held at South Kingstown, Rhode Island, in March, 1790: Which Failed to Adopt the Constitution of the United States, published in 1929 by the Rhode Island Historical Society, Foster presents the most descriptive view of the events leading to Rhode Island’s adoption of the U.S. Constitution. This book presents a detailed view into the politics on Federal and state levels, and the events that transpired that eventually forced Rhode Island into becoming the thirteenth state.
(Banner image: Russell J. DeSimone Collection)