Wickford, Rhode Island
Wickford Historic District
Wickford from the air, looking east.
|Location||North Kingstown, Rhode Island|
|Architectural style||Greek Revival, Late Victorian, Federal|
|NRHP Reference #||74000013|
|Added to NRHP||December 31, 1974|
Wickford is a small village in the town of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, United States, which is named after Wickford in Essex, England. Wickford is located on the west side of Narragansett Bay, just about a 20 minute drive across two bridges from Newport, Rhode Island. The village is built around one of the most well-protected natural harbors on the eastern seaboard, and features one of the largest collections of 18th century dwellings to be found anywhere in the northeast. Today the majority of the village's historic homes and buildings (most in private hands) remain largely intact upon their original foundations.
Wickford is generally said to have been settled around 1637, when religious dissident and Rhode Island state founder Roger Williams bought a parcel of land from the sachem Canonicus and established a trading post there. Prior to European contact, the lands in and around Wickford had long served as dwelling, fishing, and hunting grounds to the Narragansett people, who were New England's most powerful and prominent tribe at the time when Williams found his way to their shores.
At about the same time as Williams' purchase, Richard Smith, a religious dissident from Gloucester, England who had originally settled in the Plymouth Colony's town of Taunton, established a trading post on Narragansett Bay near the mouth of Cocumscussoc Brook. In 1637, Smith built what appears to have been a rather grand, gabled house on the site, which Williams in his letters described as the first English house in the area. This house was also heavily fortified, and thus became known as Smith's Castle.
During 1651 Smith purchased Roger Williams' trading post, and continued expanding his holdings over the years—building what came to be called the Cocumscussoc Plantation. Smith's plantation became a center of social, religious, and political life in the area. During the conflict known as King Phillip's War, the only incident of an individual being hanged, drawn and quartered for treason on American soil took place at Smith's Castle in 1676. Joshua Tefft, an English colonist accused of having fought on the side of the Narragansett during the Great Swamp Fight, was executed by this method.
During King Phillip's War, many of the homes that were built during this brief period of expansion were destroyed. One of the homes that went was Smith's Castle, which burned to the ground in 1676. Two years later, Richard Smith Jr. built a new home on the old foundation. Retaining the name "Smith's Castle," this structure remains standing today and is one of the area's most visited historic sites.
Following King Philip's War, Wickford grew steadily as a port and shipbuilding center. To this day, the waterfront remains very active. Captain Lodowick Updike developed much of the early village between 1709-1715 after inheriting the land in 1692 from his uncle, Richard Smith, owner of Smith's Castle and the surrounding lands. The village was often interchangeably called "Updike's New Town" or "Wickford" in honor of English hometown of the wife of Governor John Winthrop of Connecticut. In 1707, the Old Narragansett Church was founded in downtown Wickford and survives as the oldest Episcopal church building in the northeastern United States. The British military attempted to raid Wickford during the American Revolution in 1776, but the "Wickford gun," a single cannon commissioned by the General Assembly for the town to defend itself, was used to thwart the invading British expedition. Later the gun was taken to Point Judith, despite local Tories attempts to disarm the weapon. There it was used to force a British ship to surrender its crew. The prisoners were removed to Providence.
In 1755, painter Gilbert Stuart was born at Saunderstown, on the southern outskirts of Wickford, in a snuff-mill that still stands and is open to the public in season. Other famous residents have included novelist Owen Wister, who for decades summered in a home just to the south of the village. Wickford was also home to Paule Stetson Loring, artist for Yachting magazine and other publications, and longtime editorial page cartoonist for The Providence Journal. A popular urban legend maintains that novelist John Updike hailed originally from Wickford—but this is not the case. Updike was born and raised in Pennsylvania. Updike did, however, use Wickford as the model for the fictional village of Eastwick in his novel, The Witches of Eastwick (Knopf: 1984). (Nevertheless, a branch of the Updike, or Op Den Dyck, family was among the first settling families of Wickford; the original village was at one time called Updike's Newtown. The descendants of Richard Smith and Lodowick Updike intermarried and the Updikes were residents of Smith's Castle in the colonial era.)
Wickford Art Festival
The Wickford Art Festival—held in July of every year since 1962 and hosted by the Wickford Art Association—is one of the leading such events on the eastern seaboard, attracting hundreds of prominent artists and thousands of spectators from across the country and around the world.
Old Narragansett Church, built in 1707, is the oldest Episcopal Church in the Northeast.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23.
- A history of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island: including a history of other Episcopal churches in the state, Volume 1 (D.B. Updike, 1907) pg. 329 
- G. Timothy Cranston, The View From Swamptown, Volumes I and II April 1999 to March 2001 (PDF)