Cawcawmqussick and Nahigonsick Countrey
Cocumscussoc. Its meaning and its spelling vary, it is tricky to pronounce and impossible to recall, but it designated an area that was destined to become one of the most significant spots in the history of Rhode Island.
The word is Narragansett, the language and name of the preeminent Native American tribe of early 17th-century New England. Scattered in villages on the west side of the bay bearing their name, they were hunters, fishermen, and great farmers.
Roger Williams came to Cocumscussoc around 1637. He learned the Narragansett customs and language and established a trading post on land bought from his friend Canonicus, great sachem of the tribe. This transaction affirmed his belief in fair compensation for Native American land. Williams' other liberal ideas of religious tolerance and separation of church and state were to be key contributions to American political thought.
Also around 1637, Richard Smith, an original settler of Taunton in Plymouth Colony, established a trading post at Cocumscussoc and, according to Williams, "Put up...the first English house...in Nahigonsik Countrey." It is thought to have been a grand house that was, possibly, fortified: thus the name Smith's Castle.
Richard Smith purchased Williams' trading post in 1651. Smith continued to increase his holdings, and Cocumscussoc soon became a center of social, political, and religious activities. Smith died in 1666 leaving Cocumscussoc to his son, Richard Smith, Jr.
In 1675, King Philip, sachem of the Wampanoags, led a coalition of Native Americans in a bloody conflict with the colonists over control of land. The Narragansetts, whose winter home was in the Great Swamp only 12 miles from Cocumscussoc, had pledged neutrality. Suspecting that the Narragansetts were harboring Wampanoag warriors, 1,000 colonial troops from Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Plymouth colonies massed at the Castle and attacked the Great Swamp village in December 1675. Both sides suffered great losses. Forty colonial soldiers were interred in a mass grave near the Castle. In retaliation for the attack, the Castle was burned in 1676.
By 1678, Smith, Jr. had built a new home with front rooms flanking a large stone fireplace, a kitchen lean-to at the back, and a massive two-story, gabled porch on the front.
The Narragansett Planters
During the 18th century, large plantations dotted the Narragansett shoreline from Wickford south to Point Judith and west to Connecticut. Richard Smith, Jr. was one of the first of the so-called Narragansett Planters.
When he died childless in 1692, he bequeathed Cocumscussoc to his nephew Captain Lodowick Updike and Lodowick's wife Abigail Newton Updike. Lodowick and Abigail were first cousins and grandchildren of the elder Richard Smith.
The Updike family developed Cocumscussoc into one of the great plantations of 18th-century New England. At its height, it encompassed more than 3,000 acres, and was divided into five farms worked by tenant farmers, indentured servants, and slaves. The Updikes were primarily stock and dairy farmers producing cheese, a breed of horse known as the Narragansett Pacer, as well as some agricultural crops.
Commerce developed with the entire Atlantic community, including England, the Portuguese islands, Africa, South America, the West Indies, and the other mainland British colonies.
Around 1740, Lodowick's son Daniel extensively remodeled the 1678 structure. He removed the facade gables and projecting front porch, installed an elegant entry staircase, expanded the lean-to kitchen, paneled walls, and encased some beams. At this time, the house appeared much as it does today.
By the end of the 18th century, the era of the great Narragansett plantations had ended. Lodowick Updike, grandson of the first Lodowick Updike to own Cocumscussoc, died in 1804 and divided his plantation lands among six sons.
Homestead Farm, the centerpiece of the holdings, was bequeathed to son Wilkins. His inheritance included Smith's Castle and 300 acres of land. Out of necessity in 1812, Wilkins Updike sold Cocumscussoc to Benjamin Congdon. Congdon and his heirs continued to sell off property until the house and remaining farm acreage were purchased in 1870 by the first in a series of successive short-term owners.
During the late 1800's the exterior of the Castle was substantially renovated in a fashionable, Victorian style. A veranda wrapped around the front and side of the house, the gable ends were clipped, and several new buildings were added.
Modern Dairy Farming
In 1919 the Fox family transformed the former plantation into a modern dairy farm. They developed a purebred milk-producing cow registered as the Cocumcussoc [sic] Ayrshire and operated a Wickford retail milk route and an ice cream and milk bar.
After Mr. Fox's death in 1937, the herd was dispersed and three hundred years of Cocumscussoc agricultural enterprise came to a close.
The historic home soon fell into neglect and suffered vandalism. Its remaining lands were subdivided and development loomed. The Castle was threatened with demolition.
In 1948, a group of concerned citizens established the , which purchased the property in order to preserve and assure its use for public education. Because of their foresight, Smith's Castle remains today a Rhode Island and American treasure.
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