Thursday, June 30, 2022

A Course in Rhode Island History #2: 1.1 RI Geography. Geology and Geographic Regions

Maybe it's the geography teacher in me, having taught it for five years back in the day. But knowing the answer to "where," so students understand the setting for the historical events, is to me as natural a starting place for survey course like this one as scenery and backdrop is to a theater's stage manager. 

This unit, while I think is interesting as all hell because of all the science, should only take a day or two at the beginning of the course. 

However, this is a foundational unit. The activities that will be associated with it, especially student-labeled maps of the state, are resources that students will return to over and over in the units that follow. 

Geology and Geographic Regions
Rhode Island's bedrock includes metamorphic, igneous and sedimentary rocks formed between the Precambrian to the Cretaceous period; in other words from before the time of the trilobites through the age of the dinosaurs. The state lies entirely on top of basement rock from the primeval microcontinent of Avalonia, which was created by an arc of volcanos along a subduction zone of the supercontinent Gondwana between .8 and .5 billion years ago. Avalonia includes coastal New England and Canada, southern Ireland and Britain and a sliver of northern Europe from France to Poland. Rhode Island today is also nearly at the exact geographic middle of the mountains that extend from southern Alabama to Newfoundland. The chunk of the Avalonia that contained Rhode Island became landlocked during the formation of the supercontinent of Pangaea and its rocks folded and deformed during the collisions that formed the Allegheny Mountains. This is also when the depression that became Narragansett Bay was formed. Once Pangaea broke apart Rhode Island was once again alongside a marine environment.

The terranes of Avalonia with modern borders for orientation: 1 Laurentia; 2 Baltica; 3 Proto-Tethys Ocean; 4 Western Avalonia; 5 Eastern Avalonia. US: United States; CT: Connecticut; MA: Massachusetts; NH: New Hampshire; ME: Maine; RI: Rhode-Island CA: Canada; NB: New Brunswick; NFL: Newfoundland; NS: Nova-Scotia; PE: Prince Edward Island Europe: IE: Ireland; UK: United Kingdom; FR: France; BE: Belgium; NL: Netherlands; DE: Germany; PL: Poland

The next major event to affect Rhode Island's topography was the Ice Age, when the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered much of North America. Rhode Island was covered by ice several times beginning 75,000 years BP (Before Present) with the ice finally retreating for the last time about 14,000 BP. Block Island was formed when as the glacier retreated and left a great pile of debris known as terminal moraine, at the furthest point the glacier reached. The south coastal regions of Westerly, Charlestown and Narragansett are referred to by geologists as the Charlestown moraine, from the same pile of glacial debris which includes Long Island and Fishers Island. Route One in South Kingstown and Charlestown follows the contours of this line of debris, as the highway was built just to the south of the moraine. The Charlestown moraine is most visible driving along Route One South from Wakefield to Haversham Corner in Westerly -- the steep hillsides to the right are the moraine.

Another feature -- glacial ponds known as kettle ponds -- were formed a
s the glacier melted. Chunks of ice embedded in the mud and till melted, some chunks more slowly than others. These slow meting pieces of glacier forming depressions known as kettles. Today these kettle ponds dot the landscape of Rhode Island, especially in South County. Watchaug Pond, one such kettle pond, is located just north of the Charlestown moraine, and it has a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Visitor Center and hiking trails replete with rocks left behind by the glacier.

Rhode Island largely consists of two geographic regions today. Southern and eastern Rhode Island consists of the coastal lowland, a continuation of the Atlantic Coastal Plain that extends from Florida to Cape Cod, and the Eastern New England Upland or "hill country," the western third of the state along the border with Connecticut. The lowlands were formed by glacial outwash and about 10% is windblown loess. Loess is extremely fine soil for agriculture. The soil in hill country in the western part of the state is glacial till (i.e., sediment deposited by a glacier), and is extremely rocky. These differences in soil resources will be important later in explaining the economic activities of both the Narragansetts and the English before the Industrial Revolution. 

Students should be able to infer from topographic maps that the best farmland is along the Bay and south coast, while Western RI might be better for hunting and gathering or harvesting lumber. They should also be able to draw on prior knowledge and/or personal experience that the landscape is crossed by numerous rivers, and they as well as the bay served as key transportation routes for both the Narragansett and the English. These alongside numerous Indian trails, where later roads and turnpikes were built over the trails, provided both the Narragansett and colonial-era English with the means to get from point A to point B. But when water power to drive textile mills became an important economic activity, the rugged hills in the north and west, with their rapidly flowing waters, will help drive the destiny of the state.

Reflecting on this part of Unit I, it will by design incorporate elements of the discipline known as Big History. Here is the Wikipedia intro blurb about it:

Big History is an academic discipline which examines history from the Big Bang to the present. Big History resists specialization, and searches for universal patterns or trends. It examines long time frames using a multidisciplinary approach based on combining numerous disciplines from science and the humanities, and explores human existence in the context of this bigger picture. It integrates studies of the cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity using empirical evidence to explore cause-and-effect relations, and is taught at universities and primary and secondary schools often using web-based interactive presentations.

While this course is not starting Rhode Island's history with the Big Bang, students should gain some sense of "deep time" from this unit, and understand that Rhode Island's landscape has not always been at all like it is now; Rhode Island has not occupied the same latitude or even been on the same continent. To imagine a kilometer of ice where we are living right now only a few thousand years ago, or what this place looked like as the first Paleoindians made their way into a world in transition. And that the landscape we know so well today is as ephemeral as that of the last dinosaur or first human to walk across this land we call Rhode Island.


Image Credits:
Map 1. Rhode Island Topography Wall Map:
Map 2. By File:AVALONIA.jpg, Public Domain,
Map 3, Rhode Island Topographic Map:

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

A Course in Rhode Island History #1: Background and Rationale

In 2019, the RI General Assembly adopted new regulations for History and Social Studies standards, requiring that they “be designed to instill respect for the cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity of this state, and for the contributions made by diverse cultural, ethnic, and racial groups to the life of this state.” This resulted in the formation of the Rhode Island History and Social Studies Advisory Committee (RIHSSAC), which from 2020 to 2022 wrote a new set of standards that will be much shorter and more succinct than the current GSEs while including Culturally Responsive and Susteaining Education standards. These are presently in the final stages of approval -- I would say more about these but they are still in "draft" mode and are "confidential." Hopefully the final version will be coming out...soon?

Then in 2021, the RI Legislature codified this and further required that these new “standards shall include, but not be limited to, the history of the state of Rhode Island, representative government, the rights and duties of actively engaged citizenship, and the principles of democracy.” Also in 2021, the state passed legislation requiring that all "middle and high school students attending public schools, or any other schools managed and controlled by the state, shall demonstrate proficiency, as defined by the local school district, in civics education that shall also satisfy half credit or course requirement in history and social studies."

To that end, I am putting together a proposed one-semester course in Rhode Island History that will both meet the CRSE requirements of the new standards and teach civics through the lens of Rhode Island History. After running this idea past my department head and consulting with educators of RI History at the RIHS and URI, I began drafting a proposasl for the course. At first the proposal was just a brainstormy list of topics that kept getting longer and dept. chair suggested that I reorganize the list into subtopics that could become units of study, and I also decided each unit should have a set of guiding questions to also frame the investigation of each subtopic. My dept. chair liked this a lot better and after we went over each one he became increasingly enthused about the course. Then the two of us ran a one-unit breakdown of the propoasl by the assistant principal to see if she thought the course was viable and whether the organization was on the right track. She gave me a simialrly enthusiatic go-ahead to develop a full course proposal that could go through the approval process in the fall. I am heartened by the reception to the course I gotten so far, and my goal is to have the proposal fleshed out before the end of July.

Over the next month I will be exploring the various topics to be included in this course proposal. Below is the list of units and subtopics. In the days to come I will discuss the content, guiding questions and source materials for each unit. I am not married to the wording of any of these, and some of them will likely change as I continue to think and rethink about them.

I. Intro: Rhode Island Geography and Narragansett Bay

    Geology and Physical Geography
    Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic
    Political Borders

II. The Founding of Colonial RI and Roger Williams

    Roger WIlliams c. 1603 - 1636
    Roger Williams and Rhode Island’s Four First Towns
    Roger Williams and Freedom of Religion
    First Amendment: Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause

III. The Narragansett People

    First People: Archaeology and Algonquin Oral Histories, 12,000 BP to c. 1500 CE
    Effects of First Contact and European Interaction on Algonquin Lifeways, to 1636
    The Narragansett Before and After King Philip's War
    The Narragansett in Jim Crow Era Rhode Island
    Narragansett Tribal Recognition: 1975 to Present

IV. Slavery, Emancipation and Civil Rights for BIPOC Rhode Islanders

    The Colonial Slave Trade, Slavery, and Rhode Island’s Plantation System
    Gradual Emancipation and Black Rhode Islanders in the Antebellum Period
    African Americans and Asians in Jim Crow Era Rhode Island
    The Civil Rights Movement in Rhode Island
    Post-1960s Demographics and Immigration

V. Rhode Island’s Economy

    Intro (Colonial RI): The Land, The Bay, and the Atlantic Market, 1636-1790
    Rhode Island and the Industrial Revolution, 1790 - 1860
    Post-Civil War Industrialization: Peak and Decline of Rhode Island Manufacturing
    Rhode Island in the Cold War: the US Navy, Electric Boat, The Interstate, and the Rise of the Suburbs
    Rhode Island in the 21st Century

VI. Rhode Island Democracy: Demographics and Politics

  • Colonial era

    1. Rhode Island in the 17th Century: Patents and Charters, Boundaries and Wars
      Rhode Island in the 18th Century: New Towns and the Providence/Newport Rivalry
      Discontent and Revolution: The War for Independence in RI

  • Antebellum Era

    1. Anti-Federalism, The Country Party, and the US Constitution
      The Dorr Rebellion
      Rhode Islanders in the Civil War

  • Post Civil War

    1. Gilded Age Rhode Island: Wealth, Immigration and Urbanization
      Political Machines and the Limits of Progressivism in Rhode Island
      The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Rhode Island

  • Twentieth Century

    1. Republicans vs Democrats and the Fight for the State House
      Rhode Islanders in WWII
      Reynolds v. Sims and redistricting (1964), the 1986 Constitutional Convention, and Separation of Powers (2004)

  • The Present Day

    1. Rhode Island in the 21st Century

    Tuesday, June 28, 2022

    A History Garden (Slight Return)

    I knew it'd been some time since I had last posted anything here, but if you asked how long exactly I couldn't have guessed. I knew It Must Have Been Years, and I was only slightly surprised that it was well over FOUR. It really could have been more than that years, or less than that years. You can really lose track of time as time goes by. At any rate I deliberately took a years-long break from some activities to focus on other ones, so as not to lose the time going by while I had it. Writing and researching history is very time consuming, so I made a concious choice to put my time, effort, and energy into areas of my life that had a finite time-span and only return to this blog once I had time to do it again.

    Priority One was to reformat my life after my last significant relationship ended. First and foremost I decided to spend as much time as possible with my daughter before she hit her teen years (she had just turned 6 when the split happened -- see image right). I can say that was the best decision I made; my daughter is now 14 (see image below) and she is fully engaged with devloping non dad-related teenage autonomy. But those years of us being thick-as-thieves established the bedrock that our current relationship firmly rests on. And I will never regret not having spent more time with her because I was busy blogging...

    See that path in the blog header with the planters and paving stones and black and red mulch? It was the garden path leading to the front door of my house, which I still co-owned with my ex after we split up. The mortgage had been upside-down since '08 and it was unsellable when things ended, unless I wanted to foreclose and go bankrupt. The bank had made clear a short sale was not in the cards. It took years, but between the housing market slowly coming back from the subprime mortgage crash and budgeting my finances to pay down the mortgage, I was eventually able to sell the house and break even. Quick plug for my realtor Debbie Chennisi. If not for her relentless hard work, I never could have sold that hot mess without a foreclosure that would have bankrupted me.

    From a distance it didn't look like a hot mess though. It is in a great location, a quiet cul-de-sac only 5 minutes from RT 95 one way and the Centre of New England shopping center the other. It's got Lake Tiogue in the back, a garden, chickens and a chicken coop and this nicely-mulched stone pathway leading to the front door... But because my priority had entirely been to pay down the mortgage the place had a LOT of deferred maintenance. It needed a new roof. New gutters. Trees that needed to be taken down before they fell on someone's house. And there were several other issues that structural engineers had signed off on. For instance, in 1965 the entire nieghborhood was built on a miles-wide sand deposit left by the last ice age. So that crack in the foundation? Most of the houses on my street had the same cracked foundation our house had, and it had stoppped settling long before we moved in in 2005. All the stuff wrong with the place was in the disclosure and home inspection. Still, I never thought it was going to sell at the break-even price. But the housing market went ballistic once the pandemic hit, so even with all these problems and going under contract with three different buyers, eventually it sold as-is for the price I was asking!

    There was an immense sense of freedom and relief when I drove away from there for the last time...

    Meanwhile as all this was happening I was also still teaching full-time, coordinating Model Legislature statewide, and was handed the keys to the RI Social Studies Association (which I took only with great reluctance -- more on that in a future post). Around the same time retired archivist Peter Bennett joined WRICHS, so I gladly handed the responsibility for the WRICHS Archive to him and took over the vacant position of WRICHS Historian. There was an opportunity there to kill two birds with one stone, and I began wrting articles for The Hinterlander about mill villages in the south-western corner of RI that I am also using as core drafts for chapters in my "Lost Mill Towns of South County" book project. In the winter of 2019 I also put together a related mill-preservation presentaion for HistoryCamp Boston for March 2020. Then as luck would have it, HistoryCamp 2020 was scheduled to take place the same weekend that the pandemic shut down the entire country. So much pandemic hiatus stuff... But now that things are opening back up, I'll be giving that postponed presentation for HistoryCamp 2022 this August.

    So skip to the end, I have kept a small number of public history and service projects going while I mostly spent quality time with my daughter, paid down the mortgage and sold my house. Other irons in the fire, I either quit entirely or set them on hiatus. But now I have the time, so I am picking up my pen and keyboard and starting to blog again.

    Shortly after I first started A History Garden I asked an online friend of mine, who has a very awesome blog to take a look at it for some feedback. This is what she said:

    "I can unreservedly say that I love your blog. I love the Rhode Islandiness of it, the strong individual voice and sense of humor, your original photographs and the mixture of longer essay form with shorter entries and reviews. The only thing you have to do, as far as I'm concerned, is post more" [emphasis mine].
    I have thought much about these words of advice and encouragement fron Liv since she wrote them to me so many years ago. The number of views some of my articles have gotten, on a blog that has been for all intents and purposes moribund for years, surpasses the number of students I've had in over thirty years of teaching. This is really such an amazing medium as a public historian for reaching an audience. Therefore my goal, if I am really restarting my blog, is to post something every day. Even if all it is is very short or a quote from so-and-so, or something I wrote for some other purpose. My goal is to share ideas and history with whoever is interested. The pathway in the header is no longer my front yard, but my path forward here is clear nonetheless.

    Gonna post more, Liv.

    And in case all this wasn't enough for your slight return pleasure, here's another...