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South West View of Seat of Henry Merchant

Large farms called plantations made up the area of what is now known as South County. The planters used enslaved labor to raise sheep, cattle, and horses, grow grain, and work in dairies to produce butter and cheese. About one-third of the enslaved population of Rhode Island lived in this region.

Rhode Island Slavery and South County Plantations

Essay by Yilin (Elaine) Huang, Master’s Candidate in Public Humanities, Brown University
With additions and updates by Geralyn Ducady, Rhode Island Historical Society

South Kingstown, the largest and wealthiest town in Narragansett Country, was well known for its plantation-based society and large-scale use of enslaved labor in the 1600s and 1700s. With the development of commercial farms and the planter class between 1660 and 1730, South Kingstown plantations reached their peak between 1730 to 1774.[1] North Kingstown, Charlestown, and Westerly had economic growth and the development of a planter class during this period. Local enslaved labor played a critical role in the growth of the economy in Rhode Island. Despite the brutality of slavery, the enslaved people expressed their personal agency and rights in different ways.

In the 1600s, Newport merchants found a rising demand for livestock to trade with colonies in the West Indies and southern North America. Farmers began to search for land to raise cattle, sheep, and horses so that they could profit by selling the livestock and dairy products to Newport merchants. In addition, the economically successful introduction of sugar cultivation in the West Indies in the mid-17th century led Caribbean planters – many of whom also maintained residences fueled by slave labor in Rhode Island – to devote land, labor, and resources to the growth of sugar. In order to nourish this booming market for sugar and the enslaved laborers who cultivated the crop, Caribbean planters relied on Rhode Islanders for food, horses, rope, spermaceti candles, and other manufactured goods. In other words, because land in the Caribbean was devoted to cash crops such as sugar and not to food or other necessities, food and necessities were traded from other colonies which were able to produce them in surplus, such as Rhode Island. Newport merchants would ship the goods to the Caribbean and southern North American colonies. Farmers found the area now known as South County, Rhode Island to be an ideal place to develop a commercial farm economy to create goods that could be shipped to Caribbean plantations. From 1660 to 1700, Rhode Island and Connecticut disputed the ownership of land in Narragansett Country, territory along the coast originally inhabited by the Narragansett people. The long-term territorial dispute over this land prevented a widespread migration of colonists into the area. The Pettaquamscutt Purchasers and the Narragansett Proprietors were two companies which purchased land from the Narragansett people who had become destitute after the ravages of King Phillip’s War and other conflicts. From the 1690s to 1730s farmers purchased large tracts of land from the land companies on credit. They then sold off the tracts in smaller parcels at higher prices, increasing their wealth. The farmers used the money to buy more land, livestock, and enslaved Africans.[2]

This map of the State of Rhode Island presents the territorial bounds from 1703 to 1750. The Narragansett Country consists of South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Wickford, Wakefield, Peace Dale, Exeter, and Charlestown. South Kingstown was separated from North Kingstown in 1723. The town of Narragansett was separated from South Kingstown in 1888, and incorporated as a town in 1901. Prepared by the State Planning Board John H. Cady (Consultant), 1936. Rhode Island Historical Society Collections, RHiX3857

The farming economy boomed as merchants in Newport and other coastal towns engaged the trans-Atlantic networks of exchange (rum, enslaved people, finished goods, etc., explained in the main essay), which, in turn, stimulated demand for South County farmers’ lands and market goods. As the farmers became richer, their desire to imitate the English gentry class became stronger. They wanted not only wealth, but also social distinction and political influence. As a result, a planter class formed in in this region by 1730. In 1700, the population of Black people (both enslaved and free) was comparatively small, accounting for merely 1 percent of the total residents of New England.[3] As Rhode Island became more heavily involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and as the commercial farming economy in Narragansett Country developed, the number of enslaved people grew exponentially.  From 1730 to 1774, the Black population in South Kingstown, almost all of them enslaved, made up 16 to 25 percent of the town’s total population — the highest concentration of Black enslaved people in New England at that time. By the American Revolution, Rhode Island had the largest population of enslaved people in the New England colonies.[4]

African enslaved laborers were not the only laborers on the South County plantations. White and Indigenous free laborers and indentured servants also worked the farms. The indentured servants of South Kingstown were non-white and mostly local Narragansett Indians, according to the town inventories.[5] Other Native Americans from outside of Rhode Island were also traded into the colony and enslaved. And still others of mixed heritage (Black and Indian) would be identified in records of sale as “Negro” so as to justify enslavement rather than indenture.[6] Black enslaved people were regarded as a cheap, dependent, and permanent workforce. They were treated as private property and faced strict laws regulating their behavior.[7]

The economic development of South Kingstown reached its peak in the 1740s and 1750s. From 1760 to 1774, South Kingstown experienced an economic decline due to worsening economic conditions and the loss of enslaved labor during the Revolutionary War and the call for equality by abolitionists.[8] Among the abolitionists, the Quakers were the first European-descended Christians in the Americas to publicly reject enslaving and began manumitting enslaved people in Rhode Island in 1773. Between 1773 and 1803, Rhode Island Quakers freed 49 enslaved people in the state.[9] However, not all Quakers in Rhode Island freed their slaves. Governor Stephen Hopkins, for example, refused to emancipate an enslaved woman named Fibbo. For this reason, he and other like-minded Quakers were asked to leave the Society of Friends.[10] The Revolutionary War also contributed to the decline of slaveholding among the South Kingstown planters. During the War, many of the enslaved took advantage of the upheaval and ran away, and enslaved men who enlisted in the War on the patriot side were granted their freedom.[11] The British occupation of Newport during the War disrupted the market and sale of commercial goods from South County since Newport acted as its main commercial center. All of these factors led to the decline of economic success among the region’s plantations.

Portrait of the wealthy Potter family with an enslaved servant. Collection of the Newport Historical Society, 53.3.

The lives of enslaved people were not wholly defined by slavery, and they resisted being identified as property by striving to build meaningful lives. Annual Election Day, which can be dated back to the late 1600s and usually took place in the spring, became a festival and event became a festival and event where the enslaved could temporarily gather and socialize.[12] It was remarked by cultural historian Shane White as “one of the most important and revealing cultural phenomena in the history of the Black experience in America.”[13] During these festivities, enslaved communities would elect a “governor,” and would gather to feast, drink, enjoy music, dance, and play games. These activities played a crucial role in celebrating, preserving, and passing on their culture, because dance and music were closely connected with African culture and were “the most important forms of self-expression available to ordinary Black men and women.”[14] It also was a time when family members and friends, separated by enslavement, were allowed to visit with each other. Late in the 1800s and into the 20th century, African Americans in Rhode Island celebrated the liberation of Black enslaved people by meeting at Crescent Park in East Providence on Emancipation Day, which was celebrated annually on August 1st.[15] Enslaved people also asserted autonomy by assembling in Black churches. Though Christianity was introduced by the enslavers, Black churches were established that mingled Christianity with spiritual traditions and customs practiced in many African countries. By the 1840s, two all-Black churches were established in Narragansett Country, providing Black people not only a physical space to gather and have formal meetings, but also the spiritual strength to fight for equality.[16]

In Feburary 1784, the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery declared that any African heritage person born after March 1, 1784, was to be considered a free person, however, they were required to remain in service of the town of their birth as a type of indentured servant or apprentice until 18 years old for women and 21 years old for men.[17] The law was not enforced, and it technically consigned those born before March 1, 1784, to slavery for life. Breaking down slavery was a lengthy process and it wasn’t officially outlawed in the state until 1843.[18]

As early as 1975, Rhode Islanders had voiced concerns over the word “Plantations” in the official state name, the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The name originates from the idea of establishing a new settlement, or “planting” a colony in a new land, and Roger Williams gave the name to Providence and surrounding areas before the South County Plantations written about in this essay were firmly established. Despite this, for some people, the word “Plantations” can bring to mind images of enslaved people toiling in fields and facing harsh punishments. In that sense, some people find that its use in the official name implies a glorification of one of the major images of slavery in popular culture.[19]

Voters decided to keep the name when appeared on the ballot in 2010. At that time, 78% of people who voted decided to keep “Providence Plantations” as a part of the state name. However, when it came up for a vote again in 2020, 53% of those who voted chose to remove “Providence Plantations,” and the official state name is now “Rhode Island.”[20] What do you think? If you were old enough to vote, how would you have cast your ballot, and why?



Commercial farm: the farming activities generated for the purpose of selling, not necessarily local consumption

Livestock: farm animals regarded as property

Spermaceti Candles: candles made with a waxy substance found in the head cavity of a sperm whale. These candles burned “cleaner” with less smoke and less smell than candles made from tallow (animal fat).

Destitute: without basic necessities and living in extreme poverty

Gentry class: a group of people of good social class, usually referring to the upper class who were landowners

Indentured: a person bound by a signed or forced contract (indenture) to work without pay for the owner of the indenture for a period of time. However, it did not mean that they were enslaved

Abolitionists: those that oppose the institution of slavery and the slave trade

Manumission: release from slavery

Emancipate: to set free from legal restrictions. In this case, from enslavement



In what other ways did the business of slavery start to decline in Rhode Island aside from the movement of abolitionists?

What were some of the ways enslaved Africans tried to maintain personal freedom?

Why do you think the South Kingstown planters wanted to mimic the English gentry class? What would that mean for them? What would that mean for others? Enslaved people? Poor whites? Narragansetts?

Despite all of the terrible circumstances that were faced by enslaved people, why do you think they made time to celebration on occasions like Annual Election Day and then later Emancipation Day celebrations? What impact do you think those celebrations had? Why do they matter?

Would you have supported or rejected changing the official name of Rhode Island and why?

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1. Christian M. McBurney. The Rise and Decline of the South Kingstown Planters, 1660 – 1783. BA honors thesis, Brown University, 1981
2. Christian M. McBurney. The Rise and Decline of the South Kingstown Planters, 1660 – 1783. BA honors thesis, Brown University, 1981; McBurney, Christian. “The South Kingstown Planters: Country Gentry in Colonial Rhode Island.” Rhode Island History 45:3 (August 1986); Clark-Pujara, Christy. “Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island.” New York: NYU Press, 2016. p168 note 60
3. Lorenzo Greene. The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. Port Washington, N.Y., 1966. p.73
4. Christian M. McBurney, The Rise and Decline of the South Kingstown Planters, 1660 – 1783. BA honors thesis, Brown University, 1981; Christian McBurney, “The South Kingstown Planters: Country Gentry in Colonial Rhode Island.” Rhode Island History 45:3 (August 1986), pages 81-93; and Robert K. Fitts, Inventing New England’s Slave Paradise: Master/Slave Relations in Eighteenth-Century Narragansett, Rhode Island. (New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998)
5. Town of South Kingstown: Probate and Council Records, Wakefield Town Hall, II (1723-1735); III (1735-1743); IV (1743-1754)
6. Irving H. Bartlett. From Slave to Citizen: the Story of the Negro in Rhode Island. Providence: Urban League of Greater Providence. 1972; Rachel Chernos-Lin, “The Rhode Island Slave Traders: Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick-Makers.” Slavery & Abolition 23, no. 3 (December 2002): 21-38; Virginia Bever Platt, “’And Don’t Forget the Guinea Voyage’: The Slave Trade of Aaron Lopez of Newport,” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 1975), p.601-618; Cynthia Mestad Johnson, “James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade.” History Press. 2014; Christy Clark-Pujara. Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. New York. New York University Press, 2016; and Jay Coughtry. Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade 1700-1807. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981; Margaret Ellen Newell, “The Changing Nature of Indian Slavery in New England, 1670–1720,” in Reinterpreting New England Indians and the Colonial Experience, edited by Collin Calloway and Neal Salisbury. Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts. 2003. pp. 126-136. ((For more information about the social constructs of racial hierarchy, see the National Museum of African American History & Culture’s Talking About Race site
7. See main essay, Rhode Island, Slavery, and the Slave Trade for more details about such laws
8. Christian M. McBurney. The Rise and Decline of the South Kingstown Planters, 1660 – 1783. BA honors thesis, Brown University, 1981
9. Christy Clark-Pujara. Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. New York: NYU Press. 2016
10. John Wood Sweet, “More Than Tears: The Ordeal of Abolition in Revolutionary New England,” Explorations in Early American Culture Vol. 5 (2001), p.118-172; John Wood Sweet. Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003; Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1998; and Cherry Fletcher Bamberg and Donald R. Hopkins, “The Slaves of Gov. Stephen Hopkins,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register 33 (January 20122): 11–27
11. See our essay “The First Rhode Island Regiment”
12. Christy Clark-Pujara. Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. New York: NYU Press, 2016
13. Shane White. Somewhat More Independent: the End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1991; Melvin Wade, “’Shining in Borrowed Plumage’: Affirmation of Community in the Black Coronation Festivals of New England (c. 1750-c. 1850).” Western Folklore 40:3 (July 1981): 211-231.; Joseph P. Reidy, “Negro Election Day’ & Black Community Life in New England, 1750-1860.” Marxist Perspectives 8:3 [Fall, 1978] p. 102-117; Shane White, “It Was a Proud Day’: African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741-1834.” Journal of American History 81:1 (June 1994): pp. 13-50
14. Shane White. “It Was a Proud Day: African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741-1834.” The Journal of American History 81, No. 1 (1994): 46
15. Janette Thomas Greenwood. First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and Their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900. University of North Carolina Press. 2010
16. Robert Glenn Sherer, Jr. “Negro Churches in Rhode Island before 1860,” Rhode Island History 25, No.9, January 1966
17. John Russell Bartlett. Records of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England. Vol. 10, 1784-1792. New York: AMS Press, 1968
18. The 1842 Constitution of Rhode Island not just granted an extension of the vote to all native-born adult males, including the African American males, as long as they met the property holding and residency requirements, but also abolished slavery in Rhode Island – “Slavery shall not be permitted in this state” (Article I, Section 4). This new Constitution of Rhode Island took effect in May 1843
19. “Rhode Island Name Change Amendment, Question 1 (2010).” Ballotpedia.,_Question_1_(2010) ; R, J. Heim. “New petition seeks to remove Providence Plantations from Rhode Island’s full name.” NBC News 10. June 10, 2020. Accessed October 8, 2020; Tom Mooney. “The state is changing. Will its name follow? The details of a 20-year debate over ‘and Providence Plantations.” Providence Journal. August 3, 2020. Accessed October 8, 2020; Catherine Streich. “Op/Ed: The State of Rhode Island and Problematic Plantations.” East Greenwich News. June 18, 2020.
20. R, J. Heim. “New petition seeks to remove Providence Plantations from Rhode Island’s full name.” NBC News 10. June 10, 2020. Accessed October 8, 2020; Tom Mooney. “The state is changing. Will its name follow? The details of a 20-year debate over ‘and Providence Plantations.” Providence Journal. August 3, 2020. Accessed October 8, 2020; Catherine Streich. “Op/Ed: The State of Rhode Island and Problematic Plantations.” East Greenwich News. June 18, 2020. Accessed October 8, 2020
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