A Brief History of Jamestown and Newport, Rhode Island

From Pre-history to 1700

Geological Origins of the Land - Glaciation -
First Inhabitants - Narragansetts - European Colonization

In the Beginning, Before Humans Arrived, there was the Land and the Water

Origin of the Land

A very long time in the past, more than 565 million years ago, the land beneath Jamestown, like all of Rhode Island, formed as part of a volcanic arc, off of what is now the west coast of Africa.

Parts of this Avalonian Volcanic Arc drifted slowly under the influence of tectonic forces and, about 450 million years ago, collided with the mainland of what is now North America.  That collision resulted in creation of most of what is now known as both New England and the Northern Appalachians. Avalonia and the seabed that was pushed ahead of it onto the North American continent comprise the bedrock under almost all of the land that makes up the New England states.


The most visible geological characteristics of Jamestown and the Narragansett Bay region are the results of much more recent events - two great glaciations that reached Rhode Island within the past 75,000 years.

The last and most severe glacial advance reached its peak about 18,000 years ago.

At that time, glaciers extended south of New York City and tens of miles beyond the present coast of Rhode Island - to the very edge of the continental shelf.


As these glaciers pushed southward, their slowly flowing ice stripped away soil, crushed layers of rocks, ground the surface and carved channels into the earth. Two of the glacial cuts have become the East and West Passages; which now separate Conanicut Island from the western mainland and from Aquidneck Island (Newport).

A sustained warming trend began about 18,000 years ago, causing the glaciers to retreat fairly rapidly. Approximately 15,000 years ago Rhode Island became free of glaciers. As the ice masses melted, the retreating glaciers left moraines (deposits of rocks and other material that had been carried southward as the glacier advanced) and other, more-randomly located deposits of soil and rocks from northern New England. Where large isolated blocks of ice remained for some time after most of the ice had melted, depressions were formed, creating small lakes.

Because Rhode Island glaciers melted before those located further north, a significant amount of the world’s water was still frozen when the area became ice-free. Sea level was about 150 feet lower than today.

For some time, the Long Island and Block Island Sounds were fresh water lakes, bounded by the glacial moraines, and the Jamestown/ Newport area was many miles from the ocean. For several thousand years, the glacial cuts that we know as the East and West Passages were inland valleys with streams and rivers.

Arrival of Native Americans

The first humans probably arrived in the area about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. They undoubtedly spent most of their time in the valleys near ancient streams and rivers.

As melting of more northern ice sheets continued, the sea level rose; covering low-lying areas and eventually entering and filling what we know as Narragansett Bay. The rising sea changed the landscape and  forced both people and animals to move to higher elevations, in the process, submerging most traces of the earliest inhabitants. The oldest human artifacts found on Conanicut Island date from around 3000 BC.

By 1300 BC Jamestown was home (at least a seasonal basis) to many Native Americans. The largest Indian cemetery in New England is located on the island; and artifacts spanning a three-thousand year period have been recovered from a site near the elementary school.

Arrival of Europeans

In 1524, the Italian navigator Giovani Verrazzano and his crew became the first Europeans conclusively known to visit Narragansett Bay. He did not stay in the area for long, as he was on a journey of exploration, not settlement.

Early European explorers and settlers reported several thousand Wampanoag and Narragansett Indians living in the Narragansett Bay area.

The 1600's - Permanent Settlements are Established

In 1636 or 1637, Dutch fur traders paid to use the island of Quentenis as a base for their activities. This island, located just west of Conanicut, is now known as Dutch Island and is part of Jamestown.

In 1638 the English made arrangements to use Conanicut Island for grazing sheep. One of the Narragansett sachems who gave consent was Canonicus. (As a result of these events, the name "Conanicut" was given to the island and the figure of a sheep is in a central position in the Jamestown seal.)

In 1657 a consortium of about one hundred buyers purchased Conanicut, Dutch and Gould Islands. They divided Conanicut Island into roughly one dozen large plots and reserved Dutch Island and parts of Conanicut Island for common use. Benedict Arnold, one of the purchasers, became governor of the colony of Rhode Island the same year. He returned to the office - in 1662, 1663, 1669 and 1677.

The Native Americans and newly arrived colonists lived side-by-side in relative peace for almost four decades. Unfortunately, conflicts eventually occured in a number of places in southern New England, leading to what is known as King Philip's War. Although Conanicut Island remained a haven for many Native Americans, after 1676, life in the region was dominated by the colonists.

Ferries were operating between Conanicut Island and Newport by 1675.

In 1678, Conanicut Island was incorporated as the town of Jamestown; honoring Prince James, later King James II. There were  about 150 residents.

By 1700, the agriculturally-prosperous town had about 200 residents.

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Click the following link for the next installment of this narrative

The Eighteenth Century

Growth as a Colony - The War for Independence - After Independence

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